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Muharram & Martyrdom of Imam Husayn

October 2009-09-09

Muharram Muharram is the most important Shi’a mourning ceremony and commemorates the death of Imam Husayn. Following the Prophet Mohammad’s death, upheavals and rivalries divided the Muslim community. After the assassination of Ali, prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Muawiya became the uncontested leader. Ali’s eldest son, Hassan did not have enough support to effectively oppose the new caliph. He made peace and received a handsome pension and lived in Medina where he died under suspicious circumstances. The Shi’ites believe Muawiya who appointed his son Yazid as his successor poisoned him.

Husayn, Ali’s second son and the third Shi’ite imam, refused to swear allegiance to Yazid. He was killed in the battle of Karbala and his martyrdom on the 10th of Muharram in 680 AD has become the most important communal ritual and mourning rite for the Shi’ites. These people believe in the imam as the true leader of the faithful and the authentic interpreter of the Quran. Imams are both leaders and saints. They carry a luminous divine substance. They foresee the future and know about their martyrdom and accept their faith with dignity and courage. Ali himself was the supreme hero who defeated enemies of Islam with his miraculous double-edged sword, dhu’l-fiqar. Shi’ites believe that he was ordained and initiated into the esoteric aspects and the mysteries of the faith by the Prophet. These qualities are carried through his two sons, Hassan and Husayn, both born from his first wife Fatima, the prophet’s daughter. None of his children from his other wives possessed such qualities. Only the descendents from Fatima’s line carry such powers and they are the only true imams and the leaders of the community as far as the Shi’ites are concerned.

According to the Shi’ites, Ali’s rival Yazid sent assassins to disturb Husayn and the pilgrims during the Hajj, the most important rite of obligation for the Muslims. Meanwhile Imam Husayn was negotiating with a rebel group in Kufa (in Southern Iraq) who promised to give support if he accepted their leadership. To avoid bloodshed during the Hajj, Imam Husayn terminated his pilgrimage and left for Kufa. Foreseeing his martyrdom, he released his followers from any obligation to join him. With his family, wives and children, altogether seventy-two people (thirty-two on horse and forty on foot), he left for Kufa. At the same time Yazid managed to form a new alliance with the rebels in Kufa and they subsequently withdrew their support from Imam Husayn. As he approached Kufa, the forces of Yazid under the command of Hurr intercepted him. He was forced to camp on the desert of Karbala. Negotiations to grant him safety failed and he refused to submit to Yazid’s leadership. They were denied access to water and on the tenth of Muharram (10th is Ashura in Arabic), a bloody battle began in which all but two of the males in his party were slain. Imam Husayn’s body was desecrated and the women were taken prisoners. The seventy-two are known as haftad o du tan, which means 72, and are referred to as such during the mourning practices.

Their death enriched the Shi’ite world with the notion of martyrdom (shahadat). The passion motif was introduced and has become an integral part of the mourning rituals. This perception of martyrdom is unique. Christian martyrdom is based on the notion of redemption. Christ and the saints were martyred to redeem human sin. Shi’ite Saints are martyred to guarantee rule by descent from the Prophet’s bloodline. The month of Muharram is significant because this is the month when wars are prohibited and Muslims are not supposed to shed blood. The fact that the people so closely related to the Prophet were massacred reinforces the symbolism of the event.

Believing in the embodiment of a divine substance in the Prophet’s family resembles the Zoroastrian notion of the divine light/substance Khavarnah embodying the royalty and protecting them. Like the ancient kings, the imams are the only true leaders of the community.

The martyrs are heroes who discredit the enemies of the faith with their lives. To mourn and weep for them is considered highly meritorious; as a matter of fact it is the key to Paradise. Imam Husayn’s death in particular forms the core of the rituals. Communal mourning takes place throughout the country. Self-mutilation, beating oneself with chains and the sword are to remind the pious Shi’ites of the pain and the horrors that the martyrs went through. His death is mourned with Passion plays, poetry and prose resounding with grief about the tragic fate of the Prophet’s beloved grandson. Lively and beautiful storytelling heightens real incidents of the heroes’ lives. Gaps are filled in with details that may or may not seem probable. The mourners are told how the Husayn’s body was trampled in the mud and his head was taken to Damascus, where Yazid is said to have beaten it with a stick to keep it from reciting the Quran. His sister Zaynab was also dragged uncovered and unveiled by Yazid to Damascus, a huge insult to the family of the Prophet. However, Zaynab’s heroic speech and her subsequent leadership of the resistance put the enemy to shame. There are heartrending stories about the marriage on the battlefield of Qasim, the son of the second imam, to his cousin and the immediate shedding of his earthly body. The attempts by Abbas, the half brother to Husayn, to fetch water are expressed in exaggerated manners. He carried the water-skin with his teeth after loosing both his hands. The cruelty of Yazid’s commanders Shimr and Ibn Sa ‘d and how they shed blood in Muharram is retold. During the first 10 days of Muharram, shabih or ta ‘zia plays are performed re-creating the events of the battle. They vary from one place to another but the theme is the same.

The 10th of the month known as Ashura is the emotional highpoint of the ritual year. There are processions with floats representing the events, with black-shirted young men chanting and rhythmically flagellating their backs with two-pound chains or beating their chests with both open palms (seeneh-zani).  The flagellants represent the Kufans repenting their abandonment of Imam Husayn and the processions are called dasta (group). Candles are lit at the mosques and shrines, and religious preachments (rawza) in stylized form frames the subject of the preachment to Karbala. Women are not barred but are discouraged from watching the processions since the men may strip themselves naked to the waist for beatings.

In Ashura a common tragedy unites all rites of intensification. The martyr’s fidelity to God can never be questioned and they triumph in death. Small tablets and prayer beads made from the clay of Karbala and other items symbolizing the tragic incidents are passed around and carried by the believers to convey blessings. Fatima herself assumes the role of the distressing mother (mater dolorosa) although she had passed away nearly fifty years before her son’s death. The physical bodies of the martyrs become accidental. Death becomes a vehicle through which the ‘true faith’ is not only revealed but also triumphs. Through the rituals, the spirits of the martyrs are embodied and the bodies of the participants are spiritualized. The Karbala paradigm is very much based on the doctrines of purity, sinlessness and perfect knowledge of the divine instructions by the Prophet’s descendents.  Fatima, Ali and the twelve imams are known as the fourteen innocents (chahardah massoum). Shi’ites have incorporated such believes with Quranic revelations, such as the verse of purification (Sura 33:33).

This doctrine is extended, elaborated and is applied to the Prophet and the rest of his family by the Shi’ites and is given a new twist by incorporating the Zoroastrian notion of light—the purest element symbolizing divinity. The culture of mourning for heroes itself has a very long history in Persian culture, going back to the pre-Islamic mourning for the hero Siavash.


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