Updated: August 31, 2020 2:22:59 am
Mahatma Gandhi, points out historian Rana Safvi, had said about Imam Hussain: “I learned from Hussain how to be wronged and be a winner, I learnt from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed.”
The most visible marker of Muharram for non-observers is the Tazia procession – a replica of Imam Hussain’s tomb being carried by mourners, some at times flagellating themselves. But Muharram is observed for a 10-day period, each day having its own rituals and customs, with the Tazia procession on the tenth and final day.
What are the traditions associated with Muharram? What is their significance? What does Muharram mean to those observing it? What is it about the Karbala martyrs that still makes Shias mourn them passionately, bitterly?
Why Muharram matters
Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar – the first day of the month marks the Islamic New Year.
Muharram has always been considered a holy month in Islam, and before that, in Judaism, for several reasons. Asif Ullah Khan, a 73-year-old Prayagraj resident, says: “It is believed that Abraham was saved from Nimrod’s fire during this month, and Noah’s Ark too came to rest at Mount Judi during this time. Adam and Eve were created on the tenth of Muharram, and, after they sinned, forgiven on this day. Prophet Mohammad made up his mind to journey from Mecca to Medina (hizr) in the month of Muharram.”
For these reasons, while Jews fast on the 10th day of the month, Sunni Muslims fast on the ninth and 10th, or 10th and 11th day.
Battle of Karbala
The Battle of Karbala took place in Karbala in the 61st year of the Islamic calendar (AH 61), or 680 AD.
The battle was fought on the 10th day of Muharram between the forces of the Umayyad caliph, Yazīd, and Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, whom many considered the rightful Caliph.
When Imam Hussain was living in Mecca, he received letters from some Muslims of Kufa, to come and deliver them from the rule of Yazid.
ALSO READ | Citing Covid, SC says no to Muharram processions
Imam Hussain proceeded to Kufa, but was waylaid by Yazid’s commanders, and forced to move to the desert of Karbala. Here, the Imam and his followers, consisting of 71 fighting-fit men, along with women and children, were held for 10 days, with many cruelties and injustices meted out to them.
On the seventh day, their access to water from the river Euphrates was cut off. Imam Hussain tried for talks and peace, but finally, on the tenth day, fighting broke out. All of Imam Hussain’s followers, including his teenaged nephews and his six-month-old son, Ali Asghar, were martyred, and even denied a proper burial.
The women and children were taken prisoner and transported to Damascus, where, after a year, they were eventually released under public pressure.
Why it is considered more than a war of succession
Scholars say Imam Hussain’s mission was clear – his was not a fight for political power alone. He wished to free people from an unjust rule and guide them back to the true path of Islam. Some scholars have pointed out that the very fact that he chose to journey with women and children on his way to Kufa shows his intent was not to wage war.
Professor Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Chairman of the Department of History at Aligarh Muslim University, says: “Even when staring certain death in the face – not just his, but his whole family’s – Imam Hussain refused to bow to what he considered tyranny. He stood steadfast because he knew he was right. His choices show us that to challenge oppression, you need courage of conviction more than armies.”
Why Shias mourn the martyrdom to this day
Every year, Shias remember the sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his followers, and try to inculcate his message.
“Imam Hussain’s family never got to mourn for him, bury his body, conduct the rituals. We mourn because they weren’t allowed to,” says Safvi.
How the 10 days are observed
While how the period is observed differs in various parts of India, broadly, it is characterised by daily maajlis (plural for majlis), and the tazia processions.
ALSO READ | Mumbai: Shias observe a muted Muharram at home
Sumaira Rizvi, a 27-year-old journalist from Prayagraj, says: “The first majlis about Karbala was held by Hussain’s sister, Zainab, who stayed in Syria for three days after the battle. During this time, she established a majlis in which she described the brutal killings of the martyrs, who had been thirsty for three days.”
“A majlis usually comprises three parts — soz, hadees and nauha. Soz, or an elegiac poem, gives details of the atrocities faced by Imam Hussain and his companions, or the imprisoned members after the battle,” Rizvi adds. “Hadees is further divided into two parts — fazael (virtues) and masaeb. During fazael, details from the life of Prophet and his family are given. Many orators choose to talk about contemporary family issues as well, taking inspirations from the life of the Prophet. During masaeb, description of the battle is given.”
Singing nauha is the last part of a majlis, accompanied or followed by maatam (chest beating), where the sufferings of the martyrs are enumerated.
“While all 72 martyrs [some accounts can mention different figures] were killed on the 10th day, they are remembered on different days of the 10-day period. The first to fourth day is reserved for the followers of Imam Hussain, from the fifth, his family members are mourned. The ninth day is for Imam Hussain and his six-month-old baby. On the last day, his Tazia is carried to the local Karbala, or designated burial ground, and buried there around 5 pm, the time Imam Hussain is supposed to have been killed,” says AMU professor Rezavi.
“Some Shia households have an Imambada, or at least an azakhana (alcove) where imitations of alam (flag of Imam Hussain) and other religious symbols are kept. Maajlis take place in Imambadas or local mosques. Generally, we visit each other’s house for majlis, but this year, due to the coronavirus, people are praying at home,” adds Rizvi.
While the Allahabad High Court has refused permission for a tazia procession this year owing to the pandemic, the Bombay High Court has allowed a very small gathering.
Rezavi details other traditions, such as the nazar on the sixth day, where an offering is made to the Imam, and Kalawas, or consecrated threads, are tied on people’s wrists. “This is supposed to protect you from harm, much like the Hindus tie the red-and-yellow kalawa. At times, people also go house-to-house to beg in the name of Hussain, as an exercise in humility. In fact, the Raja of Mahmudabad would go begging to his subjects’ home during Muharram.”
At some places, people wear kadas around their wrists or a tauqaround their neck, to symbolise the chains and manacles put around the prisoners of Karbala.
Safvi talks about how, when battle was certain on the 10th day, Imam Hussain asked for one night of reprieve. This ninth night was spent in prayers. He then dimmed the lights of the camp, and told his followers that as death was unavoidable, they could walk away if they wished, under cover of the dark. No one left, in fact, Hurr, an enemy commander, came and joined them. “On the ninth night, most Imambadas are brightly lit. As a girl in Lucknow, I remember going to several Imambadas and lighting incense. These lights are then put away in the morning,” says Safvi.
Rushaud Ali, an MA history student of Delhi University who hails from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, says in their area, food considered rich and ‘celebratory’ is not eaten during Muharram. “Every area has its own traditions, In Bihar, people don’t eat poori during this period. In some places, people wear black clothes. Bright colours are generally avoided,” says Ali.
Rezavi says the Tazia procession is uniquely Indian. “In Iran, for example, Tazia means the enactment of scenes from Karbala. Both the versions of the word are derived from ‘Taziyat’, which means condolence,” the professor adds.
In some places, Sunnis too participate in the rituals. Fazil Khan, a 23-year-old media professional, says in his village in western UP, “The Taziya would be placed in front of our mosque in the morning and it remained there till the evening prayer (Maghreb). People would congregate (non-Muslims included) in front of the mosque/Taziya and pray for loved ones. It was a belief that if you passed right under the base of the ‘Taziya’ and wished for something, it would be fulfilled. Other customs included the enactment of the battle of Karbala with wooden swords. This ‘Akhara’ always attracted a large crowd.”
What is Muharram’s message
Rushaud Ali says to him, Iman Hussain’s message is that one must stand up against injustice, “even if you are alone, and especially if people are looking up at you.” Sumaira Rizvi says to her, “it is apparent that Imam Hussain won a battle that he lost on the field. Even after 1,400 years of the battle, there are people who remember and respect him. He stood for what he believed in, and came out victorious by achieving martyrdom.”
Historian Safvi says: “There are many lessons to be learnt from Karbala. A few are: how to treat your enemy with mercy and justice (Imam Hussain offering water from his limited stock to Hurr’s army); sabr and tawakkul (patience and faith in God); avoidance of confrontation and at every step trying for peace. However, the biggest lesson from Karbala is the power of right, and to stand steadfast in the battle of right and not bow to a tyrannical ruler, even if martyrdom is the end.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.