Monday, February 21, 2005

Every day is Ashura...

This is the second year in a row that the day of "Ashura" has brought about tragedy and murder in Iraq, perpetrated by the very individuals who claim to be defending Muslims from a predatory and anti-Islamic West. I find myself deeply absorbed by the irony of it all, especially given what Ashura represents to Muslims and to Islam and what it marks in the history of this faith.

The irony lies in the fact that the "mujahideen" who so callously sacrificed the lives of their fellow muslims did so on a day devoted to remembering and reaffirming the spirit of jihad. Ashura, taken from the Arabic asharah meaning "ten," marks the tenth day of the Islamic new year. It also marks the day on which Husain ibn Ali, the Prophet's grandson, was killed by an army sent by the tyrant Yazid, the khalifah (caliph) at that time of the Muslim empire. Confused yet?

Husain may simply have been a man who made a political miscalculation in answering the cries of the people of Qufa for help against Yazid's oppression. But given the overwhelming odds he faced (a force of 72 men against a much larger army) and given his refusal to surrender himself when given the opportunity, it seems apparent that Husain knew his place in history. Perhaps he felt that, given who he was, he had a sacred duty to uphold Islam even in the face of certain defeat.

The events took place in Karbala, a city in Iraq, and to this day define the relationships that exist between sunni and shia Muslims. It was said later by Jafar as-Sadiq, the grandson of Husain's grandson and a revered scholar in his own right, that "Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala." So why did the death of Husain ibn Ali come to be of such great significance, and why do we or should we care about it today?

For Muslims, there is a great significance in recognizing the example Husain made of himself. In arabic, the word for martyr is shahid, also translated as one who is present and one who bears witness. Martyrs are never lost to Muslim society, and their actions bear witness to "Islam," their sacrifice is a testament to righteousness. In a world where Muslims decry the oppression of themselves and their culture by tyrants and foreign powers, it is significant to recognize that a man revered by shia as "Lord of the Martyrs" died a humble death. He led his men against an overwhelming enemy to make the only statement that it was in his power to make: "We must not tolerate oppression." Unfortunately, the "martyrs" of the present day make a very different statement from that made by Husain: "We can only fight oppression with oppression." And so, we see Israeli civilians murdered and Iraqis slaughtered for daring to express their religious and political affiliations openly. A ceremony celebrating and revering Husain's brazenness and his willingness to risk his life for his cause ends in people dying the same way and for the same reason he did, on the same day and often in the same place. I wonder whether Marx would have called the internecine warfare between Muslims in Iraq a tragedy or a farce.

There is, however, another lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Karbala. This one is for those of us who, living in the West, cannot help but see Islam as a foreign entity that is not wholly within our realm of comprehension. From the very dawn of its history, Islam has been a religion in flux. Muslims have battled each other for the right to define "Islam" for future generations from the day they lost Muhammad, the only man who was ever able to unite them under one ideology and one purpose. By failing to recognize these not-so-subtleties of Islamic history and Muslim culture, Western powers cede a very important tool with which they might understand and politically engage the Islamic world.

This very failure scars to this day the U.S.' relationship with Iran -- in its refusal to recognize that many competing factions drove the Irani revolution of 1979, America lost an opportunity to support a group of liberal secularists who enjoyed a period of ascendancy before they eventually lost out to the very religious right who Americans now accuse of supporting terrorism and developing nuclear weapons.

Islam, as massive and as old as it is, is not and never has been a monolithic culture. Polemicists who try to define it as unchanging and unadaptable find allies in the very extremists who fight to destroy Western civilization; these polemicists legitimate and empower the very people who hate them the most. Karbala tells us all that protestantism and rejection of a morally bankrupt status quo can and does exist within Islam. It also tells us that even a majority does not have the right to speak for or define an entire religious tradition and the myriad cultures it has represented across time and space, whether that majority be a shia majority in Iraq or a sunni majority elsewhere. Especially because the ahead task of rebuilding Iraq requires cooperation and a measure of trust between different parties, Muslims and Americans both would do well to learn the lessons of Ashura.


Blogger ron said...

In the month of Muharram 61 AH (approx. 20 October 680 AD), an event took place in Iraq at a place known as Kerbala on the bank of the river Euphrates. It seemed in those days insignificant from the historical point of view. A large army which had been mobilised by the Umayyad regime besieged a group of persons numbering less than a hundred and put them under pressure to pay allegiance to the Caliph of the time and submit to his authority. The small group resisted and a severe battle took place in which they were all killed.

It appeared at that time that like hundreds of similar events, this battle would be recorded in history and forgotten in time. However, the events that occurred on the 10th day of Muharram in Kerbala were to become a beacon and an inspiration for future generations. In this article, we shall examine briefly the principal adversaries.

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