Philosophy of Muharram
In the hot and crowded hall, muffled laments are released like sullen doves and tears roll amidst sobs like dew on the petals of trembling roses. All are focused on Hossein. All are thinking about the Master of the Martyrs. There is no past, there is no present, there is only now; there is no you, no I, only Hossein; there is no fear of death, there is no desire for this world, their is only liberation, freedom and love of truth, for this is the majlis of Imam Hossein (as). From the youngest of ages, we learn about the tragedy of Karbala, and wherever there are Shia, one can find people lamenting and participating in dirges for him. Some people have questioned the "true" Islamic nature of these acts. Some claim that it is an innovation grave sin in Islam. Others consider this noble event to be "backwards", and others, still, believe that its purpose is just to make simple, emotional people cry.
In this article, InshaAllah, we will examine the historical roots of these observances, as well as the philosophy behind it.
The main element of the commemoration of Karbala is the remembrance (dhikr) of the suffering of the holy personages of that tragedy. From at least the time of Imam Jafar al-Sadeq (as), this was done through a poetic account of the events. The first majils, however, was held by Imam Hosseinss sister, Seyyeda Zainab (as) and his son, the fourth Imam, Zainul Abideen (as). It took place on the fourtieth day after the massacre at the very sight that it occurred. During their time and for many years thereafter, the political and social conditions did not allow for public recitation. Hence, the devout Shia held private ceremonies.
Public majlis has its origins in the year 963 AD/352 AH, nearly three hundred years after the tragedy of Karbala. It was instigated by Sultan Muizz al-Dowla, a Shia ruler who wanted to publicly protest his objections to the corrupt leadership of the Abbassid dynasty. He used the incident at Karbala as a metaphor for the corruption and deviation present in the umma in his day. The majlis of Imam Hossien (as) became a rallying point for the Shia in addressing the injustices of the past as well as for demanding greater self-determination. In the sixteen century AD (ninth Islamic century), the Shiite Saffavid dynasty was established in Iran and Shiism was declared the state religion. This created a more conducive political and social condition for elaborate commemorations. In the city of Isfehan, which became the capitol of this dynasty, various groups competed with each other for the most elaborate and emotional presentations. (Perhaps it is in this situation that such acts as chest-beating, forehead-cutting (ghameh) and self-flagellation came about, despite the reservation of the scholars regarding these activities.)
But what is the philosophy behind majlis? Is it really just a folk tradition carried too far? Should we, living in the West, abandon it all together? If one examines the basis of majlis, one learns that it is actually at the heart of Islam and is one of its greatest and most sincere manifestations of love and piety for Allah, the Prophet (saw) and his pure progeny. The philosophy of the majlis of Imam Hossein (as) is based on the concept of free will, one of the issues which distinguishes the noble Shiite school of thought from the other schools of thought in Islam.
This issue of pre-destination versus free will was itself magnified due to the tragedy of Karbala because of the questions which it raised in the minds of the umma. Do not forget that the people who committed the atrocities against Imam Hossein (as) were themselves Muslims who believed in towhid and maaad and said their prayers and made their fasts. How could they behead the person whom their own Prophet would place on his lap and kiss as a child, and not feel guilt? How could they justify having stripped naked and trampled with horses the body of the man called the "Chief of the Youths of Heaven"? After realising what they had done, how could they have not revolted against Yazid?
The answer which appealed to the ruling elite was the idea that all things are predestined by Allah. This served to maintain the status quo. Because all is pre-destined, if the outcome of it is good, the action was good and if it were bad, then the action was bad. If Allah does not want something to happen, it wont, and if it did, that means that He approves of it. People cannot rebel against the authorities because Allah has predestined for them to be in authority and to rebel against them would be to rebel against the will of Allah.
A little thought will quickly reveal the false nature of this argument. Allah has stated "And if We had pleased, We would have given to every soul its guidance, but the word from Me was just. I will certainly fill hell with the jinn and men together." (45:13). Allah decreed neither guidance nor misguidance to people. Rather, He has given us faculties of thought and sensation, prophets, Imams and divine books to all to guide us. This is how He distinguishes between the faithful and the unfaithful. If all actions were predestined, then no one could be held accountable for their deeds, because they did not choose to do them. Yet, Allah has stated that some will go to hell because of their misguidance. If He made some people misguided by design and destined them to go to hell out of no choice of their own, then He would be punishing them not only for something they did not chose to do, but for something that He made them do. This would imply that Allah would be an unjust God (Allah forbid), but that is an impossibility, for it is against the refined and glorious nature of Allah. As He has stated, "Surely Allah does not do injustice to the weight of an atom. . ." (4:40), and, "Surely Allah does not do any injustice to men, surely man does injustice to himself" (10:44)
The justice of Allah has always been one of the pillars of belief in Shiite Islam. Allah is just and no injustice can be attributed to him. From the time of Seyyeda Zainab and Imam Zainul Abideen (as), the whole purpose of dhikr was to recall the injustice done to not only to Imam Hossein (as), but the suffering endured by all the holy personages of the Ahl al-Bayt (as). Majlis became a vehicle for expressing this vital and important concept of free will. As we had mentioned earlier, public majlis originated in the efforts of Shiites to assert their political rights and draw a connection between the tyranny and oppression suffered by Imam Hossein (as) and that suffered by themselves. Having a similar situation requires acting in a similar manner. So, out of the majlis movement arouse a theatrical representation of the events at Karbala, called taziyeh. This has been one of the greatest weapons of the Shia throughout the years for inspiring resistance against the oppressors and renewing our bonds of faith and faithfulness to Islam. The opinion of many of our great Islamic scholars has likewise supported the taziyeh performances. Fazel Qommi, the great 19th century theologian stated about it, ". . .there is a time when it is among the greatest of religious works. And this which is merely to please Allah is a great jihad and Allah is such that if a person humbles himself in His cause, He does not exclude him from His blessing."
The principles of taziyeh are imitation (tamaththul) and resemblance (tashabboh). This is based on a well known hadith by the Prophet Mohammad (saw) which states, "Whoever makes himself resemble a group is in the category of that group." By imitating Imam Hossein in the performance and by crying for him through sympathy and comprehension of his situation, one takes on the character of that pure and radiant personality. So much so, that to remember him and his companions is like having stood in their ranks and having sacrificed for Islam as they did.
Many people have asked what the purpose of crying for people who lived and died 1200 years ago is, suggesting we forget all about it and move on. To do this would be to forget about Islam. In fact, crying for Imam Hossein (as) is so desirable, that it equated with the rewards of worship of Allah. Imam al-Sadeq (as) states, "The sigh of the sorrowful for the wrong done us is an act of worship", and, "Anyone who remembers us, or, if we are mentioned in his presence, and a tear as small as the wing of a gnat falls from his eye, God would forgive all his sins. . ." Imam Hossein (as), has himself said, "I am the martyr of tears, no man of faith remembers me but that he weeps."
Why do the Imams (as) assign such great merits to these acts that they become a mark of faith and an act of worship? You cannot truly weep for them unless you understand their generosity, courage, piety and sacrifice for Truth. To do this, you must study their words and actions, which by its very truth will instill a desire to put them into practice. Then, when you sigh for them, you will be remembering Allah and His promise of the just Kingdom to be established by Imam al-Mahdi (as), thus increasing your faith and sabr during hardship. When you recall that Allah in His mercy sent those guides and proofs of His religion to save us from deviation and the hell fire, then you shall shed tears for their monumental task and sacrifice for the guidance of all mankind. Recall how the Prophet (saw) has said that one hour or contemplation is better than seventy years of worship and Allah (swt) has stated, "Therefore remember the benefits of Allah that you may be successful" (7:69) Thus, it is not difficult to see how a sigh for those purified and wise personalities is like an act of worship, for it is actually an act of contemplation of and remembrance of Allah, "and certainly the remembrance of Allah is the greatest." (29:45)
What about the promise of sins being forgiven? How is it possible that crying for the Ahlul Bayt would be rewarded with the forgiveness of sins and a palace in paradise when the same is not promissed for other lesser acts (fariya)? My dear friends, know that you do not have to die on the battlefield to be a shahid. You do not need to hold a sword in your hand to be a mujahid in the path of Allah. A shahid is literally someone who witnesses something, in this case, truth and towhid. A person who witnesses to truth and calls people to it and struggles to understand the truth, apply the truth, live the truth and spread the truth, is a mujahid and shahid while he is alive and will die the death of a martyr, even if he passes away in his sleep in his bed. As we have mentioned above, to cry for the infallible leaders of the ark of salvation requires a total change in paradigm and a dedication to living and dieing for truth and love. Perhaps that is why all the sins are forgiven when one cries for Imam Hossein (as), because one has become of shahid of his struggle and sacrifice for Muhammadan (saw) Islam over Yazidi Islam. And perhaps that is why the eighth Imam, al-Reza (as), has stated, "If it would please you to have the reward of those who were martyred with Hossein, say whenever you remember him, Oh how I wish I were with them that I may have achieved great victory. "
Another benefit of the the majlis of Imam Hossein (as) also creates a continuity of experience between the Muslims and their leaders, making each generation feel as if they were with the Imams (AS) and the Prophet Mohammad (saw). Consider how when you remember a deceased loved one it is as if they are alive and in your presence. By remembering the lives of those infallible ones, repeating their hadith and living their sunna, we enliven the spirit of connection between us and them. It gives us hope, it counsels us in times of difficulty, and provides a path of bravery, wisdom, generosity and patience on which to base our lives.
Imam Hossein (as) made a decision to confront injustice and tyranny rather than be complacent to it. The victory of Karbala was not decided in the battlefield but in the hearts of the truth-seekers and lovers of Allah. The real battle was not over power but over justice and obedience to Allah and His Prophet. That is also why those who have properly understood the message of Karbala and emulated Imam Hossein (as) have succeeded against the greatest odds. Look at how in the last twenty years, under the guidance of Imam Khomeini (ra) the people of Iran were able to topple the CIA-backed Shah, armed only with the love of Hossein (as) and a desire for truth or martyrdom! It was this same message of Karbala which inspired the Islamic resistance in occupied south Lebanon. One teenager sent the mighty US Marines running out of Beirut and a few thousand men have been an inexhaustible thorn in the eye of the Israeli military machine.
In closing, I quote the faqih, Seyyed Ali Yazdi who once wrote about Imam Hossein (as), "Is it not sufficient to cause tears [to flow] that the Imams of the Shia faith are related to him, and he recognizes them as his own? Is not the saying of the great one [Imam Hossein], I am killed so that they will weep enough to provoke the Shia? Are not the words of Imam Jafar sufficient who said, Brother, don't you want to accompany Fatimeh in weeping for Hossein? Are you content that you not show your agreement and sympathy with the Prophet of Allah and Ali and Fatimeh and Hassan and the other guiding leaders who are beloved of Allah, and show that you resemble and follow the Umayyads [by not crying for them]?"