The 10th day of Muharram, the first month on Islamic year, is the most important day on the calendar for the Shia Muslims across the world. Ashura, the Arabic word is translated as “tenth“, is an occasion of mourning, remembrance, paying tribute and refreshing bonds. It is distinctively Shia practice and has no parallel in Sunnism. In areas where Shia and Sunnis live side by side, Ashura underscores Shia distinctiveness and often draws Sunni opprobrium. Ashura is the day when Shia define who they are – often going to great extremes to do so, sometimes in the face of naked terrorism and exploding bombs. Shia Muslims show a distinctive face of Islam, one that sees spirituality in passion and rituals rather than in law and the familiar practices that puncture Muslim lives.
On this day, open spaces and narrow alleys in cities, towns and villages take over from mosque and seminaries as Shias individually and collectively make a show of their piety and identity. None will fail to see the uniqueness of Shia Islam or the values and spirituality that define it. The sights and sounds of Ashura are gripping. This is a ritual filled with symbolism, imagery and passion which is one reason it attracts Sunni disapproval as these are frown upon in Sunni Islam. Its deeply spiritual and communal. It defines Shias and renews their bond to their faith and community. It reminds believers that the essence of their religion is faith, love and justice.
Backdrop of Ashura: Shia / Sunni attitudes and Shia history
To understand what does Azadari and rituals of Ashura mean for the Shia and why so much difference in Sunni and Shia attitude on this and other issues, we need a brief study of Shia history and belief.
To put it briefly, what separates Shiism from Sunnism is not so much divergence in practice as the spirit in which Islam is interpreted. First, whereas, Sunnism took shape around belief in the writ of the majority and legitimating power of communal consensus, Shias do not put much stock in majority opinion in matters of religion. Truth is vested not in community of believers but the virtuous leadership of the Prophet and Imams. Another difference is explained by this saying that the Sunnis revere the Prophet because he relayed the Quran to Muslims, whereas Shias revere the Quran because the Prophet relayed it. The Shia rely on a metaphoric and allegoric interpretation of the Quran, as the case with Sufis, while the Sunnis rely on literal interpretation and consensus. The Shia place a special importance to the Prophet and the Imams claiming they possess a special knowledge and ability to understand the hidden and esoteric meaning of the Quranic message which could not be understood in literal terms.
If Sunnism is about law and the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” of Islam, Shiism is about rituals, passion and drama. Before there was Shia law, there was Shia piety, which defines believers above and beyond the law. Where the famous saying “Better sixty years of tyranny than a single day of civil strife” captures the spirit of Sunni position, the Shia position stands opposite which believes in resisting illegitimate authority. The Sunni conception of authority has centred on a preoccupation with order. Religion does not depend on the quality of political authority but only on its ability to help faith survive and grow. This is the reason Sunnis provided legitimacy to Sultans and caliphs through history including Ummayds, Abbasids and Ottomans. According to Shia position, resisting to illegitimate authority is a defining element of faith.
Throughout history, Sunni caliphs worried about the Shia less as a theological deviation than as a political threat. The notion of Prophet’s blood kin asserting their right to rule and standing up against monarchs always had the potential to capture popular imagination. This fear resulted in persecution of the Imams and their followers at the hands of Sunni caliphs or monarchs. The first Shia Imam, Ali Ibn Abe Talib was killed by a Khwarij; the third Shia Imam, Hussain Ibn Ali at Karbala by the forces of Yazid (the 5th Sunni caliph), while nine other Imams were poisoned by Sunnis monarchs. Over the centuries, Shia bore the brunt of the popular frustrations with the failures of Sunni rulers. Treated as an enemy within, they were the first to come under suspicion when there was an external threat to the ruling Sunni establishment. In the tenth century, anti-Shia violence captured Baghdad and its environs – mosques and Ashura processions were attacked, and Shia were killed or burnt alive. Similarly, when Roman forces attacked Abbasid domain in 971 CE, the first response of the caliphs forces and angry and terrified Sunnis was to blame the Shias. Shia houses in Al-Karkh (Iraq) were torched as the attacked as they chanted, “You Shia are the cause of all evil“. By the middle of eleventh century, persecution of Shia of Al-Karkh had become a custom; every Saturday, Sunni mobs would show up at Shia mosques and shrines before looting the town, saying, “You blasphemers! Convert to Islam!” After the Mongol sack of Baghdad, the attacks on Shia grew even sharper. During the Mughal rule of the Indian subcontinent, the Sunni monarch, Aurangzeb Alamgir commissioned the Fatwa-e-Alamgiri a massive collection of fatwas against the Shia declaring them infidels and worthy of being killed. To this date, the same collection is used in Indian subcontinent by radical Sunni extremists to oppress and persecute the Shias.
Enforced authority of the Sunni caliphs, denying the rights to the Imams and Prophet’s family and these early sufferings of the Shia shaped their approach to religion. The murders of one after another Imam and persecution of the Shia community deepened the Shia rejection of Sunni authority and extended the emotional ties to the Imams in the form of attachment to the shrines that grew above their tombs, as well to the Shia rituals and traditions of Azadari – which are an annual commitment to the unflinching love for the Prophets family, to reject tyranny and oppose authority. The shrines, Imambargahs and processions provide Shia with a sense of community that goes beyond merely local. It also connects them to their past and provides them a sense of empowerment through a community based collective event where they share their sorrow, suffering and express their identity and strength.
The Shia historical experience is akin to those of Jews and Christians in that it is a millennium long tale of martyrdom, persecution and suffering. Sunnis, by contrast, are imbued with a sense that immediate worldly success should be theirs. Given their history, Shia would never associate their faith’s validity with worldly success. These attitudes had also been canonized by Hanbali jurists, who condemned Shias as rafidis, or rejecters of Truth. They said that Shia should not lead prayers or marry Sunnis, and that any meant slaughtered by Shia was not halal.
It is under this backdrop, that the Shia come out on the streets across the world, the tenth of Muharram every year protesting authority, expressing their faith and showcasing their identity and distinctiveness. To sum it up, every Ashura, the Shias symbolically join Hussain in his last stand at Karbala.
The rituals of Azadari
Setting the Shia apart from the Sunni most emphatically, however, is the great feast of mourning, remembrance, and atonement that is Ashura. From its earliest days, Shiism has been defined by the witness that it bears to moral principles of Islam – a witness whose greatest public expression takes place in and through the rituals that remind the community of the special status of the Imams. No ritual observance is more important in his regard that that associated with Hussains death – the shaping event par excellence of Shiism. While there are indeed Shia approaches to Islamic theology and Islamic law, they developed alongside rituals.
Ashura is a time of commemoration and penance for the vices and errors of humanity. The first Ashura observance appears to have taken place in 684 CE, four years after Hussain’s death, when a group of penitents gathered at Karbala with blackened faces and torn garments. Every year since, the Shia have shown that they continue to share in the day’s sorrow. Ashura has traditionally been about collective atonement, not about inflicting pain on the individual. Overtime, Shia communities such as those of the Turkic Azeris or the Arabs in Lebanon and Iraq have gone beyond atoning for Hussains death to joining him symbolically in his last stand in Karbala. To taste his martyrdom in some small way, some indulge not only in scalp-cutting but also in self-flagellation. This practice can also be observed in the Indian sub-continent. Shia religious authorities do not condone such painful practices – most have infact forbidden them – though they have become staples of many Ashura processions; and as Shiism is not defined by jurisprudence or authority, but by passion and love – it has become an expression of Shia identity and commitment to Karbala.
Ashura is also a time of drama, when in Iran and the Arab world passion plays (ta’ziyah) act out scenes from the battle of Karbala, providing a dramatic visual backdrop to the commemorations. The highly decorated alams carried at the head of the each procession add to the spectacle. In larger towns and cities, various neighbourhoods or guilds may each have their own processions, with unique chants and particular ways of performing familiar rituals of the day. In South Asia every neighbourhood has its own alam, and some families are entrusted with the custodianship of them, which becomes a badge of honour.
In some parts of the world including the Indian subcontinent, rituals of Azadari include carrying out large taboot (replicas of coffins) to recall the scenes of death of Imams. The blood stained horse of Hussain, Zuljenah, is also taken out on streets to replay the scenes of Karbala. Street theatre and passion plays form a core component of Azadari in Iran, Lebanon and Trinidad and Tobago.
For Shias, passion of Hussain carries a large symbolic significance that is somewhat reminiscent of the meaning that Christ’s passion has for Christians. In both cases, believers sadly commemorate the brutal slaying of an innocent and courageous spiritual figure, whose self-conscious sacrifice rises above the common run of events. This sacrifice reveals itself to the eyes of faith as an eternal decision that forms the conscience of and gives spiritual life to a sacred community that transcends space and time. For Sunnis, Karbala is history, albeit a dark chapter. For Shias, it is the beginning, the motif around which faith has been shaped. Karbala defines Shiism’s ideals: dedication to the Imams as an article of faith and commitment to pursuing justice in the face of tyranny.
Over the centuries, Shia identity and spirituality have grown up in the shadow of the Karbala narrative. Shia theologians argue that Hussains martyrdom was the triumph of moral principles over brute force. It was the supreme act of sacrifice by Hussain to seek martyrdom when he knew that pushing onto Kufa would lead to a confrontation that he could not militarily win. Yet Hussain was after a grand victory, a moral and spiritual one. The caliph’s triumph was hollow, for it only served to rouse Muslim consciousness to the sovereign claims of the truth represented by the Shia leaders, the descendants of Ali.
For Shias, Hussains martyrdom is both a particular historical event, a historical turning point and a metaphorical manifestation of the truth. Even before there was Islam or Hussain, Shia theologians say, the spiritual essence of Hussains great deed existed as a timeless expression of divine grace. The Shia would in later years claim that Karbala and its significance had been known to all the prophets, as well as to Ali, who preceded Hussain. Karbala is thus not merely one more massacre in the blood-stained annals of human wickedness, but a divine intervention meant to provide Muslims with a true spiritual signpost. Hussain willingly accepted oppression from the hand of a tyrant and embraced martyrdom as a divine favour, thereby transforming his suffering into a higher meaning and purpose. It is for this reason that commemorating Karbala defines the Shias.
It is also for this reason that the Shias place such strong emphasis on their Imams and the rituals associated with their deaths and are not content to limit themselves to the kind of law-governed and dutiful religious observances that form the backbone of Sunni religiosity. Shia believe that spirituality is to be found in the urgent drama of Hussains martyrdom rather than in strict observance of pious duties or laws. The Shia seek redemption and forgiveness in the grace and forgiveness of God and the blessing that flows from a renewal of their spiritual ties with Hussain and his progeny during Ashura or at the resting places of their saints.
The case for banning Shia processions
It comes as no surprise that some (Takfiri Deobandi) radical extremist groups like Sipah Sahaba (now ASWJ) have been demanding a ban on Shia processions for long. Considering what these processions mean for the Shia, this is no surprising a demand from these groups. It is a clever and cunning demand. Azadari and Ashura processions are at the core of Shiism. It is not a part of Shiism, it is Shiisim, it defines what it means to be a Shia. An end to the tradition of Azadari and rituals of Ashura will be a dent in Shiism and what it stands for. What is surprising though is the fact that some progressives and liberals have also joined these fascists in this demand.
Any secular state should guarantee the right of all religious groups to express their identity and practice their faith, not to curb it. The excuse of security, used to ban these processions is bogus. In Pakistan, the GHQ, the naval based, countless schools, colleges and universities have been attacked by terrorists. Have we shut down educational institutes and security institutors for this threat? They have not even spared barber shops, juice shops, markets, tailor shops and mosques. Do we have to shut down mosques and change the ways we live because a bunch of terrorists threaten us? Or should be fight them? The Shia processions cannot be restricted indoors – that beats the purpose of these processions. Further, which secular state has done this? The largest Shia procession in Europe is held every year in London on Arbaeen (40 days after Ashura) as the Shia march from Marble Arch through Edgware Road, Bayswater and other parts of Central London. The state provides protection and ensures logistic support. No citizen complains or asks for a ban. It is responsibility of the state to ensure alternative civic arrangements like routes etc. Throughout history, Shia have marched on the streets on the day of Ashura in all parts of the world. In the Muslim heartland from Pakistan to Lebanon, in India, in Africa, in American islands and all parts of Europe, Australia and Americas the Shia have commemorated Ashura in their traditional way with no issues raised either the by the state of the citizens. The only complaints or attacks on Ashura are in Muslim majority countries or those where state has had a radical Wahabi/Salafi influence or an infiltration of terrorist groups of these faiths; especially Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Indonesia, Malaysia and some parts of the Arab world. Even Saudi Arabia has not banned Ashura processions.
These processions and the tradition of Azadari are an expression of a rich cultural activity which is a core component of any society that is pluralist. A ban on these processions or any similar rituals or traditions will not only make the society monolithic and hollow, lacking colour and expression of culture, but will be a practical surrender to the terrorists. When the Shia come out on streets on Ashura defying threats, they are challenging the extremists. It is a march of freedom.
The solution lies not in changing our ways of life and curbing expression of faith and identity, but to eliminate the radical extremist elements Sipah Sahaba ASWJ, Taliban, Lashkar e Jhangvi who threaten our way of life.
Note: Includes parts adapted from Vali Nasr, Hossein Nasr and Hamid Dabashis works.