By Sajeda Momin
November 15, 2013
Children observe Muharram in Ahmedabad. (AFP)
Ever since social networking websites, SMS and Twitter have become the main modes of communication, a festival means the airwaves have to be clogged with “Happy”-prefixed greetings being sent out by people of different faiths wanting to celebrate and enjoy all the holidays that our plural, secular country has to offer.
In their zealousness to celebrate, in the last couple of years, I have also received text messages from friends and acquaintances wishing me on Muharram, not understanding what this holy day is all about.
Most festivals are easy to understand as they celebrate something or the other, but Muharram has unique rituals. The sound of drums beating loudly all day and night; young boys running through the streets carrying flag-like long green “Nishans” chanting “Ya Husain”; young men enacting battles or indulging in Lathi-play (Akharas); men and women dressed in black beating their chests to dirges lamenting the plight of Husain and his family and scores of Zarihs (replicas of Husain’s tomb) being taken out in processions from all over the city to a designated place called Karbala.
In actual fact Muharram, as it is known in India, is the saddest, most tragic day in Islamic history. It is a day of mourning, a day of prayer, a day of remembering and commemorating the sacrifices of Imam Husain Ibne-Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed — sacrifices he made to save Islam and to ensure the victory of good over evil.
Husain was the younger son of Fatima, Prophet Mohammed’s only child. Husain’s father was Imam Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s first cousin, loyal companion, brave disciple and successor who practiced and spread teachings of Islam. Prophet Mohammed used to call Fatima’s two boys, Hasan and Husain, “my sons” and he had told the “faithful” that his family would be the true practitioners of his religion and must be respected and followed.
But just 50 years after Prophet Mohammed’s death, his grandson Husain and all the male members of the holy household were tortured and killed on the desert plains of Karbala in Iraq.
The result of the battle of Karbala (680 AD) was predetermined. When Imam Husain set up camp on the banks of the Euphrates his “army” consisted of 73 males, including himself, his sons, his brothers, their children and some loyal friends and about 80-odd women made up of his daughters, sisters, mothers and wives of men accompanying him.
Facing them was an army of thousands sent by Yazid, governor of Sham — what is now Syria and Iraq. Yazid was a tyrannical dictator who wanted to spread his empire and continue his oppressive rule and Imam Husain was a thorn in his side as he refused to give his religious sanctity to Yazid’s unjust ambitions. Yazid’s subjects begged Husain to come and rescue them from the despot.
Muharram is the name of the first month of the Islamic calendar and it was on the first day of Muharram that Imam Husain and his kith and kin reached Karbala and set up camp. By the seventh day of Muharram, Yazid’s army had surrounded Imam Husain’s camp and cut off their food and water supplies.
The battle took place on the 10th day of Muharram, also known as Ashura, and while each of Imam Husain’s gallant band fought bravely, all the men bar one — Husain’s eldest son Zain ul-Abedin who was too unwell to fight — were killed.
The 72 martyrs consisted of young and old, men and boys, even Imam Husain’s youngest son Ali-Asghar who was only six-months-old was not spared, but had his throat pierced with an arrow when his father begged the enemy for a little water to quench the baby’s thirst.
The battle over, the camp was burnt and the women and girls were taken as prisoners of war. They were not allowed to mourn their dead, but instead were beaten and chained and made to march through the hot deserts from Karbala to Kufa and then to Damascus where they were paraded in the court of Yazid, along with the severed head of Imam Husain.
Yazid’s calculations had been that with Husain gone, he would wipe out the family of the Prophet and usurp his position as the spiritual leader of Islam and establish a dynastic rule that would have religious sanction.
While Husain may have lost the battle, he definitely won the war. Yazid today is remembered as a despotic tyrant and murderer, while Husain is ensconced in the hearts and minds of generations after him. He is still revered as the defender of the oppressed, leading the fight for justice and human rights.
Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence was inspired by Imam Husain and his sacrifices in Karbala so much so that he said “I learnt from Husain how to achieve victory while being oppressed”.
Imam Husain’s sacrifices made him a worthy revolutionary and the battle of Karbala is a major part of the Islamic history syllabus taught in colleges and universities around the world.
Today, even 13 centuries after his martyrdom, on the 10th day of Muharram, Imam Husain’s death is commemorated and mourned by retelling his story, enacting the battle, lamenting and crying over the misery that befell Prophet Mohammed’s family and taking out replicas of Imam Husain’s tomb (Zarihs) in processions so that his message lives on – and that is definitely worthy of commemoration.
Sajeda Momin is a former journalist with The Telegraph who now divides her time between London and Calcutta