Muharram & Martyrdom of Imam Husayn
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.
Stories are told on how in the beginning Muhammad, Adam, and all the prophets (124,000 altogether) 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 the ancient Iranian goddess Anahita’s story of bathing in a mythical river and becoming pregnant. Believers are told how Fatima went bathing one day and when she emerged from the water she was pregnant with Husayn. Fatima’s pregnancy lasted only for six months. In 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 Shi’ites version of what happened after the Prophet’s death and dispute Ali’s claims and his family’s right to caliphate as believed by the Shi’ites. For this reason, the Sunni Iranians, totaling around seven million—do not practice Muharram as do the Shi’ite majority.
The evolution of Shi ‘ism into a definite set of ideas and doctrines gradually took place from the eight century onwards. 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 Shi’ite sect called Zaydi became dominant and their principalities in the northern provinces strengthened Shi’ism. By the tenth and the eleventh centuries the pro-Shi’ite Buyid dynasty ruled most of Iran and the Fertile Crescent.
They promoted the doctrine of “Twelver Shi’i”, currently the official religion of the country. 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 Shi’ism 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 Shi’ism. Their leaders claimed descent from the seventh imam and some, like Shah Tahmasp, claimed to be divinities themselves. 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 until present. 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 and Lebanon and created their own doctrine. They copied some of their ceremonies like beating with chains from Christian sects including the Catholics. Passion plays started in the seventeenth century and became increasingly 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.
The Safavid invited Shi’ite religious figures mostly from Jabal Amel in Lebanon and theological colleges were created for them. A hierarchy was created, and religious personnel were appointed to foresee the implementation of religious law and supervise many aspects of everyday life including education. As a result of such policies the Shi’ite clergy of Iran was born. Though the Safavid Empire fell in 1772, their religious establishments and hierarchy have remained effective even today and their traditions are practiced widely. During the reign of Nadir Shah Afshar in the 18th century he tried to curtail Shi’ism and as a result many clergymen sought refuge in Najaf and Karbala where major holy Shi’ite shrines are located. This group created another Shi’ite stronghold in Iraq that has survived and maintained closed ties with the Iranian Shi’i leaders.
During Muharram, like most other religious ceremonies in the country, there are communal gatherings at the mosques or private homes. Nazri food (free 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 colour for mourning. ta ‘zia 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 in origin.
Children are encouraged to participate in an event called Shaam e Ghariban (the night of the deserted) re-enacting the tragedy as the orphaned children abandoned in Karbala experienced it. Children are divided into two groups and 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 the Ashura, but in most places it ends on this day.
The ritual drama of Ashura has also influenced the Shi’ite 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 the Sunni while the Shi’ite 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 foretells of who will die in the coming year. For Shi’ites, the same day is the birthday of the twelfth Imam. This is a very important occasion for Shi’ites and of no consideration for the Sunni. Such differences 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 Shi’ite ideology. The differences become even more pronounced when ethnic identities are taken into consideration as well. For example, Kurds living in the remote areas of Kurdistan that are mainly Sunni have preserved many traits that go back to the Pre-Islamic period.
In recent years, the passion plays have become more commercialized and are played on television and major playhouses [theatres] in Iran. Some shows have been performed outside the country in major theatre festivals in Paris and New York, complete with horses and accompanied with some music that certainly is a deviation from the norm. They are still very popular in Iran and forcefully backed by the present government. The concept of martyrdom itself is used by some Shi’ites outside Iran to implement acts of violence. However, such actions have very little support in Iran. Following the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s, the Islamic government did use this notion extensively to encourage the Iranians to participate in military actions against the Iraqi troops.
In recent years the government is sponsoring major events related to the mourning where people gather at large stadiums or performing art centers and beat their chests while some popular singer sings mourning songs with modern contemporary lyrics. Some of these singers have become superstars in the country and their CDs are selling in thousands.