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The Festival of Muharram & Martyrdom of Hussein

Muharam Festival (Imam Husein)After Ali’s death, Muawiya became the uncontested leader. Ali’s elder 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 and died suspiciously. Shiites believe Muawiya who appointed his son Yazid as his successor poisoned him. Husayn, Ali’s second son and the third Shiite 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 Shiites. These people believe in the imam as the true leader of the faithful and the authentic interpreter of Quran. Imams are leaders and saints at the same time. 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. Shiites 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 born from his first wife, Fatima, prophets’ 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 leaders of the community as far as the Shiites are concerned.
Yazid, Ali’s contestant sent assassins to disturb Husayn and the pilgrims at the hajj, the most important rite of obligation for Muslims. Meanwhile Imam Husayn was negotiating with a rebel group in Kufa (in Southern Iraq) who promised support if he accepted their leadership. To avoid bloodshed during the hajj, Imam 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 feet), he went toward Kufa. At the same time Yazid managed to form a new alliance with the rebels in Kufa and they subsequently withdrew their support from him. As he approached Kufa, 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 was joined in which all but two of the males in his party were slain. Imam Husayn’s body was desecrated, and the women were taken prisoner. The seventhly two are known as haftad o du tan, meaning 72 and are referred as such during the mourning practices.
Their death enriched the Shiite 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. Shiite Saints are martyred to guarantee rule by descent from Prophet’s bloodline. The month of Muharram it self is significant because this is the month wars are prohibited and Muslims are not supposed to shed blood. The fact that the people so closely related to the prophet were massacred makes symbolism of Muharram even more important.
Believing in the embodiment of a divine substance in Prophet’s family resembles Zoroastrians’ notion of the divine light/substance Khavarnah embodying in 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 through out the country. Self-mutilation, beating oneself with chains and the sword is to remind the pious Shiites of the pain and the horrors the martyrs went through. His death is mourned with Passion plays, poetry and prose resounding with grieve about the tragic fate of the Prophet’s beloved grandson. Lively and beautiful story telling heightens real incidents of the heroes’ lives. Gaps are filled 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 Quran. Zaynab, his sister is also dragged uncovered and unveiled by Yazid to Damascus, a huge insult to the family of prophet. However Zaynab’s heroic speech and her subsequent leadership of the movement put him to shame. There are heartrending stories about the marriage on the battlefield of Qasim, the son of the second imam to his cousin and his immediate shedding of his earthly body. The attempts by Abbas, half brother to Husayn to fetch water are expressed in exaggerated manners. He carried the waterskin 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 forms 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 to the waist for beatings.
In Ashura a common tragedy unites all (rites of intensification). The martyr’s fidelity to God could 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) even though 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 and survives, 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 Prophets’ descendents. Fatima, Ali and the twelve imams are known as the fourteen innocents (Chahardah Massoum). Shiites have incorporated such believes with Quranic revelations such as the verse of purification (Sura33:33).
This doctrine is extended, elaborated and is applied to the Prophet and the rest of his family by the Shiites 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.
Stories are told on how in the beginning, Muhammad, Adam, and all the prophets (124000 all together) and imams were created from a ray of divine light. These divine sparks were breathed into human form when needed and resulted in miraculous birth. There are influences from the Christian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and Anahita’s story of bathing in a river and getting pregnant. Believers are told how Fatima went bathing one day and when she emerged from water she was pregnant with Husayn. Fatima’s pregnancy lasted only for six months. At the end her womb glowed with shining light. Just before the birth the angles came to her. When Husayn was born Muhammad took him in his arms and placed his tongue in the baby’s mouth, whereupon Husayn began to suck. Other stories talk about how Husayn’s martyrdom was
revealed to Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, Solomon and Jesus long before he was even born. The stories are expanded to include history, fiction, cosmology and life’s problems all at the same time.
Most Muslims who are Sunni reject Shiites version of what happened after Prophet’s death and dispute Ali’s claims and his family’s right to caliphate as believed by the Shiites. For this reason the Sunni population of Iran amounting to around seven million do not practice Muharram as Shiite majority do.
The evolution of Shi ‘ism into a definite set of ideas and doctrines gradually took place from the eight century. The sixth imam, Jaffar al-Sadiq (765AD) is the first widely recognized leader of Shi ‘ism in Iran and the source of many authoritative traditions.
In the ninth century a Shiite sect called Zaydi became dominant and their principalities in Northern provinces strengthened Shiism. By the tenth and eleventh centuries Buyid dynasty ruled most of Iran and the Fertile Crescent.
They promoted the doctrine of Twelve Shiite, the official religion of the country at the present. In 936, Mu ‘izz al-Dawla, the Buyid king who captured Baghdad, instituted the first public ceremony on record commemorating Husayn’s death. In 1501 Shiism was made the state religion of the country by the Safavid kings. It was at this time that an organized religious hierarchy came into being.
Safavid originally had been a Sunni mystical sect but gradually had assimilated into a messianic version of Shiism. Their leaders claimed descent from the seventh imam and some like Shah Tahmasp treated themselves as divinities. They became vicars of the twelfth imam and reigned as "God’s Shadow on earth". Their messianic character of mobilizing masses into hysteria and forming political groups has remained till present time. The first leaders like Shah Ismail knew very little about the orthodox traditions they were promoting and had very few resources. They imported many symbols and books from Anatolia, Lebanon, Iraq and created their own doctrine. They copied some of their ceremonies like beating with chains from Christian sects including Catholics. Passion plays started in the seventeenth century and became increasingly more popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the Pahlavi period restrictions were imposed on performances and since the Islamic revolution they are booming again.
Safavid invited Shiite religious figures from Lebanon and Southern Iraq and theological colleges were endowed for them. A hierarchy was created, and religious personnel were appointed to foresee the implementation of religious law and supervise many aspects of every day life including education. As a result of such policies the Shiite clergy of Iran was born. Though Safavid fell in 1772 their religious establishments, traditions and hierarchy have remained effective even today and are practiced widely.
During Muharram like most other religious ceremonies in the country there are communal gatherings at the mosques or private homes. Nazri food is always prepared and distributed amongst the poor and the needy. Rich people normally finance the processions by giving money and lunch to the participants. Usually a rice dish or a thick stew called ash-I-Imam Husayn is served. Practicing Muslims will dress in black the traditional color for mourning. Tazia or passion plays are usually performed during the first ten days of the month, while processions and self-beatings are carried out on the day of Ashura itself. Evenings are spent at the mosques praying and mourning. The Buyids introduced the popular and communal forms of mourning in the tenth century. These are accompanied with marthiya or mourning and funeral hymns accompanied with poetry expressing extreme sorrow and affection which appears to be older. Children are encouraged to participate in an event called Shaam e Ghariban (the night of the deserted) re-enacting the tragedy as the orphaned kids abandoned in Karbala experienced it. Children are divided into two groups they recite poetry and sing songs related to the events and answer each other back and forth. All expressions of emotions are exaggerated and kids are encouraged to beat themselves lightly, cry, shout and even scream. In some smaller cities and major religious centers the mourning may continue for a few days after Ashura but in most places it ends on this day.
The ritual drama of Ashura has also influenced the Shiite calendar of events, which differs from the Sunni calendar in many respects. Many events are given meaning in terms of Karbala related stories. This is evident in the month of Ramadan, a month of celebration for Sunni while Shiite mourn for Ali. The month before Ramadan is Shaban and again there are different interpretations by the two sects.
Sunni believe the fifteenth of this month is when the name of the living are written on the leaves of the tree of life, and the leaves that fall represents the ones that will die in the coming year. For Shiites the same day is the birthday of the twelfth Imam. This is a very important occasion for Shiites and no consideration for Sunni. Such difference have created different customs and traditions in the areas populated by the Sunni based on their belief system and to what extent it varies from the dominant Shiite ideology. The differences become even more pronounced when ethnic identities are taken into consideration as well.


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