Muharram and Ashura

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 Muharram and Ashura

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (as), the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (saw) and the third Imam and leader of the Shi'a. Imam Hussein's (as) martyrdom is a sad day for all Muslims especially the Shi'a, who mourn the massacre of their "Master of Martyrs" and his family in Karbala in 61AH/680CE.

The martyrdom of Imam Hussein ibn 'Ali (as) and his companions in Karbala' proved to be the beginning of the downfall of the Umayyad dynasty which had usurped the Shi'a caliphate by deceit, repression, and corruption of the Muslim community. Though the Imam (as) was martyred with his family and companions, and apparently his murderers seemed to emerge winners from the conflict, it was the martyr of Karbala' who was the real victor. The mourning ceremonies that have been held through the last fourteen hundred years to commemorate this most significant event in the history of Shi'a are generally known as Muharram ceremonies, as they are held during the month of Muharram in remembrance of the 'Ashura' movement. This incident has its background whose elaborate details have been given by Muslim historians and I need not cite them here.

Briefly, it may be said that Imam Hussein's revolt, staged against the tyranny, injustice, and repression of the regime and torture and execution of pious Muslims, which violated the Shi'a concept of a just Shi'a policy and society, was to uphold the ideals and values of Shi'a propounded in the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet (S), to rescue the higher human values, moral, social, political and spiritual, and to preserve the true spirit of Shi'a . It was basically aimed by the martyred Imam (as) to rescue Shi'a as the message of the last Prophet, a message that had to endure, not only in the hearts and spirits of saints but on the plane of society, and he achieved his purpose most completely. The episode of Karbala' became the everlasting stage on which, more than anything else, the great spirit of an Imam of the Ahl al-Bayt was put for eternal display, not in mere words or traditions recorded in books, but against the background of the greatest tragedy in human history and scenes of love and loyalty, bravery and sacrifice, nobility and high spirituality, blood and battle, and also those of treachery and betrayal, human abasement and wretchedness, perversity and depravity. Due to his refusal to compromise with godlessness and tyranny, the Imam has been remembered as the very embodiment of Tawhid, of La laha illallah, by all great Shi'a mystics, thinkers, writers and poets. In the words of the great Indian Sufi of Iranian origin, Khwajah Mu'in-al-Din Chishti: “He gave his life but wouldn't give his hand in the hand of Yazid (for allegiance, bay'ah). Verily Hussein is the foundation of La ilaha illallah (There is no God but Allah).”

The tragedy of Karbala', which was in the words of Imam Khomeini the symbol of blood's triumph-the blood of the martyrs-over the sword, transformed not only the history of Shi'a but also human history forever. Hussein (as) initiated a movement that proved to be an archetype representing an eternal struggle of truth against falsehood, justice against injustice and tyranny, human dignity against dehumanization, the revolt of the oppressed against oppressors, and overpowering of the strong by society's weak. The un-Islamic rule of the Umayyad’s was challenged after him by his followers and descendants, such as Zayd ibn 'Ali, Yahya ibn Zayd, and before them by Mukhtar al-Thaqafi and the Tawwabin, which created a ferment that finally resulted in the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and the coming to power of the Abbasids, who deceitfully claimed to avenge the martyrdom of Hussein (as) and to advocate his revolutionary mission.

The remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala' as a ritual did not remain confined to Iran and Iraq, and also influenced the socio-political and cultural life of Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. As a result of this, in India, particularly in Avadh, there developed a culture that was inspired by the spirit of 'Ashura' which was all-embracing. Other Muslim sects and even non- Muslims came under the cultural influence of this movement.

Authentic traditions record that Imam 'Ali ibn al-Hussein Zein al- 'Abidin (as) mourned his father and his companions throughout his life after Karbala. He was present at the site of the tragedy and witnessed all the sufferings of his father. Moreover, he had to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of the womenfolk and children of his family after 'Ashura' and he passed through the tribulations of the journey of the captive family of the Prophet (saw) from Karbala' to Kufa and from Kufa to Damascus, putting up with all the humiliation with exemplary equanimity, patience, and firmness of character. He is regarded by the Sufis as one of their early great masters, who also emphasized the value of God's fear and sorrow for the sake of purifying the heart and soul. His collection of supplications, known as al-Sahifat al-Sajjadiyyah or al-Sahifat al-kamilah, is a valuable source of ma'rifah and high spirituality.

The other great mourner of Karbala was Imam Hussein's sister, Lady Zainab, known as "Zainab-e Kubra" and "Thani-e Zahra" (i.e. the Second Fatimah). She bore the martyrdom of her two young sons, 'Awn and Muhammad, without shedding a tear, but was the first to mourn her brother. After the episode of Karbala, Imam Sajjad (as) and Lady Zainab made continuous efforts to create the institution of mourning for the martyred Imam as a vehicle for the revolutionary message of Shi'a against perverse socio-political conditions that negated the Shi'a ideal of a healthy society ruled by committed and competent leaders. The institution of mourning over Imam Hussein became a vehicle for the propagation of almost everything that Shi'a stood for. It was not the martyrdom of an ordinary moral, no matter however pious or saintly. It was the martyrdom of an Infallible Imam and the vicegerent of God and the God-appointed heir to the Prophet's authority and spirituality. To those who understood the sublime spiritual station of Hussein ibn 'Ali it was as if the Prophet himself had been martyred at Karbala'. And what greater calamity could be imagined? As the martyred Imam represented the highest embodiment of Shi’a, his martyrdom was the greatest crime that could be perpetrated against Shi'a and the household of the Prophet (saw).

Besides mourning for the martyrs, 'Ali ibn al-Hussein (as), Lady Zainab and her younger sister, Umm Kulthum, made very forceful orations describing the sufferings of 'Ashura' and its aftermath that moved the listeners to tears. These orations and elegies composed by Lady Zainab and 'Umm Kulthum (as) extempore exercised great influence on the Muslims and were instrumental in propagating the message of 'Ashura' and the message of Imam Hussein's sacrifice. These may be taken as the early foundations of the 'Ashura' movement and beginnings of the mourning ceremonies.

There are equally authentic traditions of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (as) and Imam 'Ali al-Rida (as) exhorting their followers regarding the observance of mourning in remembrance of Imam Hussein (as) and his companions as a means of redemption. In traditions ascribed to the Prophet (S), Fatimah (as) and the Imams (as) of the Prophet's family there is another significant aspect to be taken note of. A recurring theme that characterizes them is that not only the Prophets and the angles mourned the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (as) and his companions, but also the whole cosmos mourned this tragedy. Strong winds began to blow on that tenth of Muharram and when the Imam was beheaded after he fell in the field of battle, there arose tides in rivers and oceans as if they would flood the entire earth, the stars collided, the sun was eclipsed, mountains moved from their places and the seven heavens rained blood, as blood gushed forth from the ground. Such descriptions of the effect of Imam Hussein's martyrdom on the whole order of being persuade his devotees to participate in a mourning ritual that encompasses all the natural and supernatural realms. If not taken literally, these traditions may be treated as metaphorical expressions of a tragedy possessing cosmic dimensions. There is no doubt that these traditions served as the source of inspiration for the devotees and made them feel one with the whole universe and its purpose.

(Selected paragraphs from the article written by Sayyed Wahid Akhtar,    URL: