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`ASHURA’. The tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, `Ashura’ had been considered by early Muslims to be a very auspicious and joyous day, as many important and happy events, such as the landing of Noah’s ark, took place on it. This perception was changed forever on `Ashura’ in the year 680 when Husayn, the beloved grandson of the prophet Muhammad and third imam of the Shi’is, brutally perished in the Battle of Karbala. The tragic death of Husayn on `Ashura’ is viewed by the ShNs as the greatest suffering and redemptive act in history. In fact, to the Shi`is it has transcended history to become metahistory, having acquired cosmic proportions. This places the `Ashura’ passion of the imam Husayn at a time that is “no time” and in a space that is “no space.” In any ShM community that regards itself as deprived, humiliated, and abused, what happened thirteen hundred years ago is looked on as if it were taking place now.

The timeless quality of this tragedy allows ShM communities to measure themselves against the paradigm of Husayn in the fight against any injustice, tyranny, or oppression of the day. By doing so, they hope to be considered worthy of the sacrifice of the Prince of Martyrs (Husayn). That is why one of the main slogans during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, chanted by the crowds or scribbled in graffiti on town and village walls, was “Every day is `Ashura’; every place is Karbala; every month is Muharram.” This same slogan was intoned on radio and television broadcasts, as well as being graphically depicted on posters and even postage stamps, during Iran’s long, bloody defensive war against Iraq (1980-1988).

The commemoration of the imam Husayn’s passion and martyrdom is charged with unusual emotions throughout the world’s Shi’i communities. Even the Sunnis and the members of other religions that live among the Shi`is are greatly affected by these commemorative rituals. The belief that participation in the annual observance of Husayn’s suffering and death is an aid to salvation on the Day of judgment is an additional incentive to engage in the many mourning rituals. In the words of Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, the suffering of Husayn on `Ashura’ and its commemoration “becomes the very core of the Shi-`i faith, . . .” which is “a religion of lament more concentrated and more extreme than any to be found elsewhere. . . . No faith has ever laid greater emphasis on lament. It is the highest religious duty, and many times more meritorious than any other good work” (1978, pp. 146, 153).

Elaborate `Ashura’ observances were being carried out in Baghdad during the reign of Mu`izz al-Dawlah of the Shi’i Buyid dynasty (932-1055)-bazaars closed and men circumambulated the city weeping, wailing, and striking their heads while dressed in torn black clothing; women appeared disheveled as well (Ibn Kathir, Al-biddyah wa-al-nihayah, Cairo, 1977, vol. 11, p. 243). Many `Ashura’ rituals are still developing in various Shi-i communities, and although they might differ in form, the passionate participation within them is universal. These rituals can be divided into two categories, ambulatory and stationary, and they are primarily performed during the first ten days of Muharram; the greatest discharge of emotion and the greatest number of rituals occur on the day of `Ashura’. As a result of Shi`i Islam becoming Iran’s state religion in the sixteenth century and the subsequent spread of Shiism and its popular beliefs throughout the country, Iran has come to be the sine qua non of `Ashura’ observances.

Among the ambulatory `Ashura’ rituals of Iran one finds processions as well as floats with live tableaux representing the scenes from the Karbala tragedy. The procession participants are divided into different groups of self-mortifiers: sindhzan, those that beat their chests with the palms of their hands; zanjiman, those who beat their backs with chains; and shamshirzan, those who wound their foreheads with swords or knives. Some also mortify themselves with stones. Others carry the `alam, which signifies the standard of Husayn at Karbala. In some processions, nakhl (date palm) is carried, because according to tradition, Husayn’s beheaded corpse was carried on a stretcher made of date-palm branches. Some nakhl are so large that they require more than 150 people to carry them. Processions are accompanied by bands of martial and mournful music. The grandest procession takes place on `Ashura’ itself. The processions join in a succession unique to each district of a town or city and end in a specific locality.

To the stationary rituals belong rawzah khvani, a recitation and singing of the story of Husayn, his family, and followers at the bloody Battle of Karbala. The storyteller of the ShN martyrology (rawzah khvdn) sits above the assembled crowd on a minbar in a black tent, under an awning, or in a special edifice called husayniyah or takiyah and brings the audience to a state of frenzy with recitation, chanting, crying, sobbing, and body language. Pardah-dari is another one-man show of visual and verbal narrative in which a storyteller carries a huge rolled-up canvas oil painting depicting scenes of the Battle of Karbala in a cartoon-strip-like series. As the storyteller travels from one locality to the next, he hangs up the painting, sings, and recites the story using a pointer to elucidate the scenes. The most famous stationary ritual of Iran, however, is the ta`ziyah, the only serious drama ever developed in the Islamic world, in which the martyrdom of Husayn is performed on `Ashfira’. [See Rawzah Khvani; Husayniyah; Ta’ziyah.]

In India and Pakistan, the `Ashura’ rituals follow the Iranian patterns with some exclusions and additions. The ta’ziyah as a dramatic theatrical form is not known there. The Shi`i painting recitation is not performed. What is interesting, however, is the fact that Sunnis and even Hindus actively participate in many `Ashfira’ rituals. The Sunnis even have separate rituals. The most characteristic features of `Ashura’ commemoration on the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent are the huge artistic interpretations of Husayn’s mausoleum carried or wheeled in the `Ashura’ procession. At the end of `Ashura’, these structures, called ta`ziyah (sic), are either buried at the local cemetery, called “Karbala,” or immersed in water. The rawzah khvdni type of commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom, called majlis or majalis in India, is carried either in the open or in special buildings called imdmbdrah or `ashurkhdnah. Many of the Indian `Ashura’ rituals were introduced by Indian Muslims to the Caribbean basin in the first half of the nineteenth century. The ‘Ashuira’ observance is, after Carnival, the most important event in Trinidad today. The `Ashfira’ observance there is called Hosay and goes on for three nights and one day. The final night of `Ashura’ is the most spectacular; colorful replicas of Husayn’s tomb called tajas, which stand up to fifteen and a half feet high, are paraded to the accompaniment of tassah and bass drums. In southern Iraq, the procession and the majlis are common features of the first ten days of Muharram, coming to a peak on `Ashfira’ itself. The `Ashura’ observances seem more elaborate in those countries located at a greater distance from Karbala: this pattern of observances at the periphery being more spectacular than those at the center is a familiar one in many religions.

The `Ashura’ processions also served as prototypes for the massive demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities during the 1978-1979 revolutionary upheavals. The mixing of ‘Ashuira’ mourning slogans with political ones is an old Muharram tradition. The Iranian Revolution utilized the Husayn/`Ashura’ paradigm and was carried out in accordance with the Shi’i calendar. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution started the afternoon of `Ashura’, 5 June 1963, when he delivered a speech at the Fayziyah Madrasah in Qom in which he criticized the internal and external policies of the shah and his government. In the book Islamic Government, written in exile in Najaf, Khomeini states: “Make Islam known to the people, then . . . create something akin to `Ashura’ and create out of it a wave of protest against the state of the government” (1981, p. 131). A week before Muharram on 23 November 1978, in order to accelerate the revolution, Khomeini issued from Neauphle-le-Chateau, France, the declaration called “Muharram: The Triumph of Blood over the Sword,” which was taped and distributed in Iran through its network of mosques. The opening paragraph of the declaration states:

With the approach of Muharram, we are about to begin the month of epic heroism and self sacrifice-the month in which blood triumphed over the sword, the month in which truth condemned falsehood for all eternity and branded the mark of disgrace upon the forehead of all oppressors and satanic governments; the month that has taught successive generations throughout history the path of victory over the bayonet. (1981, p. 242)

Less than two months later, the shah left Iran, enabling Khomeini to return from fourteen years of exile. When Iran was invaded by Iraq in the fall of 198o, the Husayn/`Ashura’ paradigm was again used. Many of the Iranian combatants on the front lines in the war with Iraq had the following inscriptions written on their helmets and headbands or combat fatigues: “The epic makers of ‘Ashuira’ ” or ” `Ashura’ is the epic of faith, the epic of blood.”


Alserat 12 (Spring-Autumn 1986). Proceedings of the Imam Husayn Conference held July 1984, London, which contain a wealth of information on `Ashura’.

Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ‘Ashuira’ in Twelver Shi ism. The Hague, 1978. The most important study of `Ashura’.

Canetti, Elias. “The Muharram Festival of the Shi’ites.” In his Crowds and Power. New York, 1978. Masterpiece of psychological interpretation of ‘Ashuira’ crowds.

Chelkowski, Peter. Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution. Translated and annotated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1981. Contains writings and declarations of Imam Khomeini.

Von Grunebaum, G. E. Muhammadan Festivals. London, 1958.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ashura/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
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