Ashoorah, and other Miscellania concerning Shiites

February 10, 2006 at 10:02 pm (Uncategorized)

The tenth day of Muharram (which is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar) is a day of significance for many Muslims. Many Sunnis Muslims will not mark it any way, but this is perhaps one of the most important days for Shiites. It is called “Ashoorah.” (This year, it fell on Friday, February 10, AD 2006.)

Shiites (mostly all except for Nizari Ismailis and Ibadi Shiites) commorate Ashoorah every year. On this day, Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib (the son of Ali ibn Abi Talim and Fatimah bint Muhammad: Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, Fatimah was Muhammad’s daughter) and family members and soldiers with him were slaughtered by the armies of Yazeed, the Caliph. (The line of the caliphate at this point is: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan (and with him the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty), Yazeed ibn Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan.) Hussein, unlike his brother Hassan, claimed the title of Caliph, Commander of the Faith (Ameer al-Mu’mineen), and Imam. The armies met at Karbala (in present-day Iraq) (although to call Hussein’s group an “army” would be very generous).

For Shiites, this is a very significant event. In addition to the facts of the day, which are related in very dramatic and exaggerated tales on Ashoorah, Shiites have added to the significant of this day the oppression and repression of Shiites throughout history. Shiites believe the attack on Hussein, and the slaughter of his party, represents, additionally, evil’s active plans against God’s people and Sunni Muslims’ unjust oppression of Shiites. Twelver Shiites believe that every imam was killed by order of the (Sunni) caliph (except for the last one, who went into hiding and remains in hiding).

Shiites add to this a personal dimension: if a Shiite were alive then, which side would he/she have chosen? Shiites hope they would have been on Hussein’s side, and interpret any hesitation to be highly sinful. Since disobeying Shiite tenets would be tantamount to deserting or not supporting Hussein, Shiites lament their disobedience and ask for forgiveness from God and the Imams (the plural of “imaam” in Arabic is “a’immah,” by the way).

In some areas, Shiites (particularly Twelver Shiites) perform processions which include a horse representing Hussein’s horse and a coffin or bier to represent Hussein’s coffin. Oftentimes, violent self-flagellation is included with knives, razors, or other such objects. These are acts of expiation (which may include a sense of communal expiation) for sins and is a way to lament Hussein’s slaughter. (According to Jonah Blank’s Mullahs on the Mainframe, Bohra Shiites (properly Da’oodi Tayyibi Ismaili Shiites) engage in maatam (chest-beating) on Ashoorah and throughout the year; violent acts are not permitted, even if they happen.)

Why is this Hussein’s slaughter considered to be such a significant event? After all, Ali, the first imam and much beloved by all Shiites, was assassinated. Every imam (according to Twelver Shiites) was assassinated. Why commemorate Hussein’s death?

Unlike in the deaths of the other imams, Sunni Muslims actually gathered and marched, as an army, against the Imam. Ali was assassinated by a Shiite partisan (a Kharijite). The other imams were usually poisoned. There was no battle fought or other organization/organized body seeking to kill the Imam. (Indeed, Hussein was the second and last Imam to engage in wars. Ali engaged in wars, Hassan didn’t, Hussein did, and after that Shiites became relatively quietist.) In addition, the caliph was not one of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” who are revered by Sunni Muslims. (These are Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib; only Ali’s caliphate is accepted by Shiites.) Mu’awiyah changed the traditional form of the caliphate, who was elected, into a dynasty. Even without this fact, Shiites viewed Mu’awiyah and Yazeed – indeed, the entire Umayya clan – to be enemies of Islam. Shiites claim the Umayyads used Islam to get into power. Thus, the army that came out against Hussein belonged to a corrupt, impious, illegitimate caliph, a non-Muslim, and an enemy of Islam. Indeed, to this day when Shiites say the name of this caliph (as with Mu’awiyah’s name), they add a curse (instead of a blessing like some Sunnis do, and which is customary after the names of prophets and angels (and members of Muhammad’s pure household, per Shiites)). This curse is simply “la’natu-llaah ‘alaihi,” “may the curse of God be upon him.” In a certain prayer often recited by Twelver Shiites, there is a considerable list of people who are cursed by name because of their action against Hussein.

Hussein is seen as the quintessential Muslim hero: fighting, despite obvious odds, against evil, to uphold and proclaim what is right and good, protecting what God entrusted to him, fulfilling his obligations as rightful caliph and imam, and never flinching away from the truth. In Hussein, Shiites see a paragon of righteousness, rectitude, piety, courage, bravery, compassion, love, fidelity, faithfulness, responsibility, dependability, charisma, faith, and a single-minded devotion to God. Of course any army that would come out against him would be considered to be a gathering of devils and demons out to destroy true Islam.

As one may have noticed, this concept of “true Islam” is significant amongst Muslims, and one that is not easily settled. Various groups, from Salafi Sunnis to Twelver Shiites, claim to represent, teach, and practice true Islam.

Shiites have used Ashoorah processions and commemorations to protest their recent grievances, whether it is a caliph who assassinates their imams or a tyrant who uses chemical weapons against them. In the Battle of Karbala’, Shiites see a pattern that has repeated numberless times and that will repeat into the future – until the world comes to an end. For this, al-Imaam al-Qaa’im (the ruling Imam), al-Imaam al-MaHdi (the guided Imam), al-Imaam al-MuntaZar (the awaited Imam) must reappear and lead the Muslim armies against Islam’s enemies (which includes Sunni authorities (and, according to some, even Sunni Muslims)) to utterly vanquish them. But not before then will the cycle of oppression against the Shiites end.

Of course, it seems that Ahmadinezhad, and Khomeyni before him, thought differently. Shiites will interpret opposition to Iran in the same way they have interpreted the oppression of Shiites: the armies of evil setting out to defeat the small army of righteousness. They believe the small army will prevail in the end, unlike Hussein’s army. The question arises: which small army will be the small army to conquer?

Religion always makes a mess when it becomes a part of politics. The theocratic regime tends to involve religion to whip the masses, whether to discipline them or organize them in support of the regime, and so it is important to understand such fundamental elements of Shiism.

Side note: Nizari Ismaili Shiites (also known as Ismailis or Aga Khanis) do not commemorate Ashoorah. Their Imam, unlike other Shiite groups’ Imams, is manifest and present (haaZir wa mawjood), he is not in hiding: he is Prince Karim Shah Husseini Aga Khan IV. In Nizari Ismailism, the imam bears with him the spiritual light (noor) of Ali (the first Imam), which is the light of the Imams. As such, according to them, Hussein is alive in their Imam, so there is no need to commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom when he is alive and present. The same can be said for all Imams: they are alive and present in the current Imam. (Partly because of this, these Ismailis believe that they must follow whatever the current Imam says, regardless of what previous Imams have said.) It should be noted that Ismaili Shiites follow a different line of Imams than the Twelver Shiites (and Nizaris and Tayyibis among the Ismailis have diverged as well). The split occurred after the death of Imam Ja’far as-Sadeeq ibn (Imam) Muhammad al-Baqir ibn (Imam) Ali Zain al-Abideen ibn (Imam) Hussein ibn (Imam) Ali ibn Abi Talib; the vast majority followed Musa al-Kazim, while a minority believed that Ja’far’s son Ismail should have been Imam: hence, they are called Ismailis. The Fatimid caliph-imams were Ismaili Imams: the only example of a Shiite imamate successful in establishing a stable polity, even if it did not last so very long. At some point, some Ismailis accused the caliph of assassinating his brother, Nizar (who would be the rightful Imam and rightful caliph): these followed Nizar’s descendents (and are called Nizaris) while the rest, the majority, followed the reigning caliph, Musta’li (known as Musta’lis, and who are more commonly called Tayyibis because the last Imam of this line – who went into hiding – was Tayyib).

Yes, the question of “who is the correct Imam?” is also significant for Shiites (Twelvers, Nizari Ismailis, Tayyibi Ismailis, Ibadites, Zaidis), and plays a role in the even more complex “who are the followers of true Islam?” question.

inna naHnu-l-a’lamoon.

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