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THE ORDEAL OF MOHARRAM Rod Cardoza Every year, India's Shiites reexperience the tragic death ofHusain, Muhammad 's grandson.
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Flagellating themselves with knife-tipped chains, a group of Shiite Muslim men express their devotion to the grandson ofthe Prophet Muhammad, Imam Husain, who perished in A.D . 680. Their actions demonstrate that they would have willingly died alongside Husain when he and his companions were hopelessly outnumbered by their enemies. RodC.rOOzl
The Ordeal of Moharram Shiites in India mourn their Savior
by Rod Cardoza On the tenth of Moharram on the Islamic lunar calendar, more than 150,000 chanting spectators push through the streets of Ahmadabad, a city in India about 300 miles north of Bombay, to catch a glimpse of an annual mourning procession. They honor the memory of Imam Husain, who was the son of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and her husband, Ali, whom Shiite Muslims consider to have been the Prophet's spiritual successor. Within the procession, Jahan and a dozen other men remove their shirts under the hot sun and grasp woodhandled whips of knife-tipped chains. An orator recites an elegy decrying Husain's death on this date in A.D. 680: And the tyrants became the enemy of Husain. They made uneasy the heart of Fatima, The infidel people massacred the grandson of the Prophet of God. Reminded of the injustice committed against Husain, the weeping and wailing crowd becomes enraged and shouts, "Husain! Husain! Husain!" In the midst of the frenzy, Jahan and his group begin to flagellate themselves with the razor-sharp whips. Within moments their backs are open, bloody, and raw, the asphalt red with blood. Their eyes roll back as their souls "link" with Husain, who keeps them from feeling any pain. They demonstrate through their ordeal that had they been with Husain at the time of his martyrdom, they would have readily defended him with their lives. The spectators rhythmically strike their heads with their hands, chanting the name of Husain louder and louder. Several men struggle to gain control of a dagger that Jahan and two others have already used to slice into their heads. Blood drips down Jahan's face; he staggers to a nearby makeshift first-aid center, where attendants wash his lacerated back and head with water. After his wounds are cleansed and bandaged, Jahan turns to me and describes his experience: When I flog my back or cut into my head, I feel no pain. I feel nothing but peace. It doesn't feel like I a m cutting myself at all. It is very smooth because I have a link wit h
Husain; he is in my mind. I feel a closeness and nearness to him. If the time comes, I'll die for Husain.
Jahan, twenty-six years old, lives in a crowded, middle-class Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Ahmadabad, in the state of Gujarat. Out of the city's population of 3 million, about 440,000 are Muslims, of which 66,000 belong to the Shiite minority. The 1,600 who live in Jahan's community call themselves Momins, from the Arabic word meaning "the faithful." I first came to know of the ordeals of Moharram in 1985, during my university studies in a primarily Hindu village just outside Ahmadabad. Having heard a steady drumbeat for several days, I inquired after its purpose. Several Hindus told me it was a time when Muslims mutilated themselves. Intrigued, that night I followed the sound of the drums to a glowing fire pit, where seven men stood in trance. Holding auspicious bouquets of peacock feathers, they swayed back and forth as trumpetlike horns blared and clouds of incense filled the air. Each then descended into the fire pit barefooted. They grabbed handfuls of hot embers and hurled them out of the pit, as spectators quickly moved to avoid being hit. The following day I returned to find not only Muslims but also Hindus going into trance to be filled with Husain's spirit. They danced frenetically with skewers through their tongues and cheeks, staring stony-eyed at a twelve-foot-high model of Husain's tomb (the original, a great Taj Mahal-like structure, is at Karbala, Iraq, the site of Husain's martyrdom). Impressed by what I had seen, I returned again in 1987 to document more fully the events of Moharram. Spread primarily in a band from Morocco to Indonesia, Islam is the world's fastest growing and (after Christianity) second largest religion, with some one billion adherents. About one in ten, like Jahan, are Shiites, widely represented in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, India, and Pakistan. Two primary theological distinctions set Shiites apart from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunnis. The first is the Shiite doctrine of the Imamate. While Sunnis commonly use 51
the term imam to describe any leader of prayer, the most prominent Shiite group reserves the title for twelve descendants of Muhammad, beginning with Ali, cousin of Muhammad and husband of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima (his only child to survive infancy), and ending with alMahdi, who they say never died but became hidden from the eyes of ordinary men in 939. Imams are bearers of the Muhammadan Light and therefore are considered to be sinless and to possess perfect knowledge of every order. All blessing and all knowledge of God comes through the Imams; they are God's representatives on earth to guide humanity and carry out God's will. Without the Imams, the Shiites believe, the world would simply perish, for it would be without God's presence. All the Imams are esteemed for 52
NAT URAL HISTORY
their great wisdom and righteousness, but only Husain-the third Imam-so dramatically evokes the religious fervor of Shiites around the world. The second distinction foreign to Sunni Islam is the Shiite concept of passion, or vicarious suffering, which transformed Husain's slaughter in 680 from a noble stand for truth into a sacrifical martyrdom for the salvation of humanity. This deeply ingrained concept of redemptive suffering has made the mournings of Moharram the central rite of the Shiite world. Perhaps no other martyr in history has had more tears shed on his behalf than Husain. Throughout the year, mourning observances for Husain link all aspects of Indian Shiite life to Husain's martyrdom. At funerals, religious leaders recount the sufferings of Husain and his companions.
Little time is devoted to eulogizing the deceased, since the focus is on the superior death of Husain. Even weddings are visited by a brief mourning observance for Husain. Commemorations of the other Imams' martyrdom days help fill the ritual calendar, but Moharram. the month of Husain's martyrdom, is the holiest month for Indian Shiites. Jahan lives a fast-paced life most of the year as a salesman of business supplies. But when the new moon of Moharram is sighted, Jahan exchanges his colorful clothing and jewelry for black garments; he gives up the comforts of his bed to sleep on the stone floor; he sets aside games, music, radio, and television to devote himself to the recital of the moving poetry that recounts the death of Husain; he abstains from laughter to weep and wail while ser-
Young women look on, left, as men in the street below them prepare to display their courage. After the ordeal, Jahan, below, sips tea as his wounds are bandaged. Both photographs by Rod Cardoza
mons about the ruthless slaughter of Husain and his companions are preached. On the first night of Moharram (this year, in late July), the Momin community, like Shiite groups elsewhere in Ahmadabad, gathers at a sanctuary reserved for mourning the martyrs of Karbala. Within it is an eighteen-foot-high model of Husain's tomb, made of wood overlaid with intricately stamped tin and silver. While women remain outside listening to the public address system, men begin the evening by reciting prayers within the sanctuary. The leader of the mourning observance then takes his seat to preach upon Islamic philosophy and theology, which frequently includes the doctrine of redemptive suffering. He then recounts the history behind Husain's martyrdom, as it is viewed by Shiites.
Great emotion is stirred as the speaker tells how Muawiya, the governor of Syria, promoted violent treachery in 660 against Hasan, the second Imam and the older brother of Husain. Hasan had just been appointed caliph of the Islamic kingdom, following the murder of his father, Ali. The caliph, from the capital at Mecca, in Arabia, exercised direct political, military, judicial, and economic control over the entire Muslim empire. Conquered territories were ruled from provincial capitals by governors, who were usually military commanders. One of these, Muawiya (son of the Prophet's old opponent Abu Sufyan), had consolidated his power as governor of Syria and even extended his rule to Egypt. According to the Shiites, Muawiya immediately denounced Hasan's caliphate
and used bribery and a network of espionage to plot a revolt against Hasan. To avoid great bloodshed, Hasan yielded the caliphate to Muawiya, provided he follow the precepts of the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad and forfeit any right to nominate his own successor. But Muawiya, who took up rule as caliph from Damascus, schemed to secure the succession for his son Yazid. He bribed one of Hasan's wives to poison Hasan in 669 and continued to safeguard the calipha te for Yazid by maintaining strong military control, bribing influential officials, and executing possible opponents. An influential minority of four righteous men, however, remained vehemently opposed to Yazid's accession- Husain being chief among them. After Muawiya's death in 680, Yazid knew he had to secure these four men's oaths of allegiance. Because Husain saw Yazid as a man of poor moral character who as caliph would shame the name of Islam, he refused to submit. Husain then accepted invitations to rule in Kufa, Iraq, where Yazid's caliphate was also not accepted. Well aware of the inherent danger, Husain and his companions began the long journey from Mecca to Kufa. When Yazid discovered Husain's plan, he not only sent 20,000 soldiers to intercept Husain's band, consisting of about 53
seventy men with their women and children, but also sent thousands of soldiers and a new governor to Kufa to turn public support away from Husain. Those who refused to cooperate with the new governor were publicly executed. Messengers from Kufa warned Husain that the hearts of the Kufans were with him but their swords were with Yazid. Still Husain and his companions pressed on. The speaker finishes his sermon with a dramatic narration of the gruesome events at Karbala, a desert area south of Bagdad, near the Euphrates River. This part of the mourning observance causes even the roughest of men to break down and pour forth tears for the martyr of humanity. The speaker recounts how one by one Husain's outnumbered sons, friends, and soldiers fell by the sword after valiantly killing many of their foes. The most popular of heart-rending events concerns the great thirst of Ali Asghar, Husain's sixmonth-old son. Because Yazid's forces had cut off the water supply and guarded the river heavily, Ali Asghar had been without water for three days. Husain asked his fearless brother Abbas to fetch wa ter for the infant's parched lips. After scattering the army with his spear, Abbas made his way to the river. But because he had to protect the water bag from arrows on his way back, he was overcome. When his a rms were cut off, he dropped the flag he bore and carried the water bag in his teeth. But after the leather bag was pierced and the water spilled upon the sand, Abbas lost heart. As he turned his horse around, hundreds of soldiers surrounded him and he was beheaded. Husain had brought a pair of pigeons with him; these flew to the river and filled their beaks with water for Ali Asghar. They sat perched on his swinging cradle and tried to drop the water into his mouth. But because the infant realized he was the son of an Imam, he could not quench his thirst while all others suffered. He tightened his lips, and the water ran down the side of his face. Holding Ali Asghar up to heaven, Husain prayed for God's grace to grant water for his innocent son. Husain then laid him on the burning sand before 54
Yazid's army saying, "Think not that I will drink any water given to my son. I place him here before you and step away that you might quench his terrible thirst" After they gave no response, Husain lifted up his dying infant and said, "You are the son of an Imam; you must give them a sign to show them you are from God." Ali Asghar then drew out his dry tongue and slowly licked his parched lips. Yazid's army was so moved by the infant's gesture that the commander, Ibn Sa'ad, fearing his men would lose morale, ordered his expert archer to shoot the fatal arrow that stitched the neck of Ali Asghar to Husain's arm. After Husain carried his blood-soaked son back to the tents and placed him in the hands of the boy's mother, Husain's young daughter Sakina-unaware of her brother's deathasked why Ali Asghar could drink while she remained thirsty. People say that before he died Husain had so many feathered arrows in his body that his ill son Zain al-Abidin, the only adult male survivor of Karbala, actually thought his father was a large bird, until he heard his voice. Because of the many
arrows, Husain's body never touched the ground when his horse knelt down to cushion his fall. At that moment the sky of Karbala turned red and rained large drops of blood. Split by a great earthquake, the ground bubbled forth the crimson blood of the martyrs. After the sermon ends in an emotional climax, women listening in the shadows of porches and balconies draw their handkerchiefs to wipe their tear-soaked faces. Some remain seated, stunned by the tragedies recounted. Others gather in groups to fill the air with rhythmic beatings upon their chests. Inside the sanctuary, men rise to stand in rows or circles and beat their chests to the moving recital of elegies lamenting the martyrs of Karbala. The mourning observance ends after more prayers and the distribution of snacks, offered first to Husain at the foot of the model tomb. This pattern is repeated each evening on the second through sixth days of Moharram. On the afternoon of the seventh day, another mourning observance is held, this time followed by men tearing into their backs with whips and slicing into
Through a cloud ofincense, left, women bear offerings offruit to Husain. A blood-stained cradle, below, recalls Husain's infant son, said to have died when an arrow stitched him to his father's arm. Both photographs by ROd CardOza
their heads with daggers. This display of devotion is merely preparation for a procession of a small model of the tomb, intricately made of solid silver, preceded by banners symbolizing the flags of Husain's army. Before the sacred banners are taken out of the sanctuary, they are enveloped in a cloud of incense. During the procession, some banners are taken into homes previously purified with water and readied by lighting candles and offering food to Husain. Men who carry the banners wave generous amounts of incense inside each home to please Husain, who will grant it protection from evil spirits. Meanwhile, the model tomb continues its processsion through the neighborhood. The two bearers pause frequently along their route, allowing parents to carry children beneath the model tomb for healing. Others reach to put money into it so Husain might grant their requests. The spirit of Husain, they believe, dwells inside the model tomb during the first ten days of Moharram; this draws multitudes who push forward and touch it for its benevolent effects. The seventh evening is set aside for
women in memory of Kubra, whose thirteen-year-old husband, Qasim, was martyred at Karbala on the day of their marriage. The sanctuary is filled with fruits of all kinds. Not only do Shiite women attend, but women from mostly Sunni neighborhoods pack the sanctuary to receive small bags of fruit. Because the fruit is first offered to Husain at the model tomb, it is believed to bestow the blessing of Husain's favor. Women cover or close their eyes as they randomly choose one fruit. After eating it they vow not to taste that fruit for a whole year and to return a sum of money the following year if their prayer is granted. Women commonly request the ability to have sons or a healthy and prosperous family. The eighth evening is also filled with vow taking over fruits at the sanctuary. Because it is done in memory of Husain's brave brother Abbas, men are also allowed to participate. The ninth afternoon is devoted to the memory of the infant Ali Asghar, Husain's valiant horse Duldul, and the women and children of Karbala, who were captured by Yazid's forces. A white, blood-stained horse leads a procession of young girls chained together as prisoners, reenacting the great journeyfatal for some- that the survivors made from Karbala to Damascus. Carrying empty water pots on their heads, they cry
out for their thirst to be quenched. Two men carry a blood-stained cradle symbolizing Ali Asghar. Grains of food and rose petals within the cradle, as well as fruits upon the spiked saddle of the horse, attract more vows and requests. During the ninth evening, the large model tomb from the sanctuary joins others in a procession through the streets, preceded by men flogging themselves and others beating their chests to the elegiac poetry of lamentation. Even some Sunnis fast to show their respect for Husain. While Sunnis regard Yazid's caliphate to have been legitimate, in general they agree that the man was a tyrant and that the events at Karbala constituted a barbaric episode. Most Sunnis, however, believe it is against Islam for people to harm themselves the way the Shiite mourners do. Many treat the procession like a carnival, selling sweets, dressing in colorful garments, playing brassy music, or performing fire-breathing and pole-balancing acts. The ritual cycle climaxes on the tenth day of Moharram, when all the models of the tomb in Ahmadabad (more than 200) are brought out for a lengthy procession. Some models are so large that telephone and power lines must be lifted or removed. Then at two the following morning, the model tombs are taken to the Sabarmati River, where their floral veils are buried in
Performing afire-breathing act, Sunni Muslims, below, who do not approve of the Shiites' intense mourning practices, add a festive accent to the commemoration of Husain's martyrdom. Opposite: Models of Husain's great tomb at Karbala, Iraq, where he was killed, are carried in procession through Ahmadabad, India. Oarrin Hatakeda
graves representing Husain and the seventy-one other martyrs. Although climaxing on the tenth day, mourning for Husain continues for an additional fifty-eight days, ending with the anniversary of the death of Ibn Sa'ad, the commander of Yazid's forces at Karbala. Forty days after the tenth of Moharram, more than 20,000 Shiites from all over the state of Gujarat, and even some from Bombay and South India, gather around the glowing coals of a twenty-foot fire lane in the village of Kanodar, about 120 miles north of Ahmadabad. As the crowd invokes Husain's presence by chanting his name, those truly focused on the Imam walk over the fire calmly and are not burned. But those concentrating more on the intense heat of the coals run and stumble over the fire, then hobble away in pain. Some men walk over the fire to fulfill vows made to Husain the previous year. Their requests have ranged from the birth of a child to the healing of a family member or even the passing of a university exam. Others walk over the fire simply to show their love for, and trust in, Husain. One Shiite from Bangalore, in southern India, explains why he and his twenty friends took a five-day train journey to participate in the mourning observances: We came to remove our sin. It's not that all our previous mourning was not enough, but we want to express our deep appreciation for Husain. It is our duty to walk the fire for Husain, since he died for us when he died for Islam and humanity. We do it to show that when we go in his name, we are not harmed. Several hundred men cross the fire, and then the crowd's vigorous shouting of Husain's name becomes a roar as large drums of water are poured over the coals. The men pound their chests with a surge of religious fervor, while smoke from the extinguished fire rises into the darkness. Eyes fix upon the haze as if it were Husain himself ascending into the heavens. Some Shiite religious leaders say that each tear shed for Husain removes one sin, since Fatima collects them and turns them into pearls. Others say that for each step taken to a mourning observance for Husain, the walker receives a castle in para56
dise. Shiites cite Muhammad as saying that the purpose of multiplied affiiction is multiplied rewards. Similarly, according to Shiite tradition, Muhammad taught that the degree of affiiction that visits a person is a measure of the strength and durability of that person's faith. The mournings of Moharram provide a mechanism to cope with the instability of life in Ahmadabad. Many Muslims of India see themselves as an oppressed minority in a Hindu land. They cite settings where discrimination commonly occurs: school admissions, government jobs, and obtaining a business license. The greatest personal tragedies, however, result from the mob violence that erupts periodically between Muslims and Hindus. In 1969, Ahmadabad saw more than I ,000 people, mostly Muslims, massacred in just four days. In 1985, a wave of violence lasted for four months until the state guard was brought in to restore order. When Muslims view the injustices that occur during such times- homes and businesses looted and destroyed, people burned alive and hacked with swords- they remember Husain, who offers hope for ultimate justice while today's Yazids slaughter the innocent. Husain himself said, "For I see death as a state of bliss, and life with wrongdoers as a heavy burden." But to regard Shiite rituals of self-muti-
lation as a calculated means to heavenly reward or justice would be to miss the deeper implications of Husain's martyrdom. To Shiites, Husain's martyrdom was not merely a political power play to protest the rule of Yazid; it was a sacrifice for the sanctity of Islam and the salvation of humanity. While the Prophet was the giver of Islam and his son-in-law, Ali, was the protector of Islam, Husain was the savior of Islam. The Shiite belief in the power of Husain's blood shed at Karbala is comparable to the Christian belief in the power of Christ's blood shed on the Cross; both mean redemption for humanity. Many Shiites wish they could have attained martyrdom with Husain during his heroic stand. For them, he is the mediator between God and humanity: on Judgment Day, Husain will defend those who, pure in heart and motive, mourned and suffered for him. Jahan and others believe that when they are called to account, Husain will say, This man suffered greatly for me during the mournings of Moharram. He laid aside his colorful garments to put on black in remembrance of me. He pounded his chest until it was deep purple as he sang elegies for me and my martyred companions. He shed the blood of his back and head and walked over embers of fire for me. So my God and my Lord, show mercy to him and allow him to enter Thy blessed paradise. D
Every year, India's Shiites reexperience the tragic martyrdom of Imam Husain, Muhammad's grandson.
Published on Jan 10, 2014
Every year, India's Shiites reexperience the tragic martyrdom of Imam Husain, Muhammad's grandson.