Imam Hussain (as)
By Zahir Janmohamed
Monday, February 5, 2007
Every year, I am asked as an American Shiite Muslim the same question by non-Muslims and Sunni Muslims: Why do you beat your chest to mourn for the death of the Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, in the Islamic month of Muharram?
I used to give the standard textbook answer that I was taught as a child: Husayn, the third in a line of religious leaders for Shiites, or Imams, died while resisting a Muslim despot, Yazid, in the plains of Karbala, Iraq, in the year 680. For this we grieve. But I never knew how to explain the emotive reasons for the yearly practice of mourning and, specifically, of chest beating. Until now.
Last year during Muharram (which runs roughly through February), I visited Pakistan to film a documentary about sectarian violence, a subject that hits home for me. In 2000, my paternal uncle, Dr. Sibtain Dossa, a prominent Shiite activist and physician, was assassinated at his medical clinic in Karachi, Pakistan. I spent three weeks interviewing religious leaders, journalists, government officials and activists about that country's lopsided violence against its religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians and, yes, Shiites.
It was also the first time that I had personally witnessed the blood-letting ritual of the sword beating of the chest, a gruesome sight that made me faint. The ritual prompted me to ask the question to Pakistani Shiites: Why mourn for Husayn in a manner that is off-putting to non-Muslims, Sunnis, and even Shiites themselves, not to mention dangerous?
Most of them pointed to the story of Husayn at Karbala for their answer. Just 50 years after the death of the Muhammad, the Muslim community had already reached a nadir where a despot like Yazid had assumed power. Husayn's sacrifice symbolized his effort to restore the principles of justice and humanity by standing up to the excesses of a ruler who cloaked his tyranny in the banner of Islam.
My cousins, some of whom do the chest beating with the swords, told me they could relate to the story because of their situation in Pakistan. "For us, Pakistan has become like Karbala, where we are killed for our beliefs," a cousin told me as he was dripping with blood. Another cousin told me that the extreme chest beating was a display of resilience. One cousin told me that it was his way of expressing his love, noting that for him there is a metaphysical connection between emotional and physical pain.
All my cousins knew that I was and am profoundly at odds with this practice. I find it only exacerbates a growing global view of Muslims being violent. But I have come to accept that grief and devotion translates in many languages and manifestations, some of which irk me.
For me, the lesson of Husayn has always been about standing up against injustice. Hearing recounted every year the story of the 's grandson being killed by fellow "Muslims" had a profound effect on my socialization: It ingrained in me the notion that the enemy within myself and in my community is far more corrosive, far more threatening than any external, non-Muslim threat. Karbala taught me that the Yazids of today are not non-Muslims but "Muslim" leaders such as Sudanese President Omar Basheer, who wears the cloak of Islam like Yazid but commits horrific atrocities in places like the region of Darfur.
My cousins and I disagree on how we mourn but we do agree on one essential point: that the parable of Karbala is as relevant today as it was in 680 .
Zahir Janmohamed is the co-founder of The Qunoot Foundation, a Washington, D.C ., organization that focuses on socio-political education among Muslim youth. He is also an associate editor at www.alt.muslim