Friday, December 24, 2010

The Tragedy of Karbala and Shia Symbolism

Upright Opinion
December 17, 2010
The Tragedy of Karbala and Shia Symbolism
By Saeed Qureshi

The troops of second Ummyad caliph Yazid son of Muawiyah waylaid and mercilessly massacred (Oct. 680 A. D.), Hazrat Hussain and 72 of his family members and devotees at Karbala, some 60 miles from Baghdad. Hazart Hussain was the younger grandson of the prophet of Islam Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh). The women and children who survived the massacre, were made prisoners and transported to Yazid's court in Damascus.
The Shia branch of Islam mourns this tragic episode every year, with the demonstration and expression of utmost grief and profound lamentation during the first ten days of Muharram: the first lunar month of the Muslims.

Some of the rituals of this sorrow-drenched legacy of mourning and bereavement are the self- beating of chests and the cutting of body with razors and bunch of small sharp knives. Besides, taking out mourning processions with elegy lyrics sung with deep pathos, overflowing passions and loud sobbing is part of the somber religious ceremonies.

Visibly, there is an overly display of symbols that are attributed to the noble martyrs, slain at the desert of Karbala. A profusely decorated horse is the symbol of the ride of Hazrat Imam Hussain. The casket (as if a dead boy is in it for burial) draped with flower petals and green and black sheets is taken out in a procession around which the mourners beat their chests.

Other symbols are the standard (flag) with images of the hand of one of the brothers of Hussain, Hazrat Abbas on top. His hands were cut off by the hostile troops when Hazrat Abbas tried to take water from the river Euphrates. The parchments with slogans, the cradle of infant Asghar, the youngest son of Hussain killed with a dart; the skin water carrier and similar symbols are exhibited. The devotees venerate these by either touching them or respectfully gesticulating and saluting at them in the air as if to draw divine benediction.

The miniature mausoleums, the tomb shrines of imam Hussain and other Karbala martyrs are carried in the crowded processions as mark of great devotion and spiritual cadence, engulfed in boundless grief. Similar other relics that relate to the Karbala tragedy are demonstrated during the mourning period.

The Shia sect of Islam is distinct from the Sunnis by virtue of certain divergent elements of faith. The paramount cleavage is on the legitimacy or otherwise of the four successors of Prophet Muhammad. The Shias discard the first thee caliphs as usurpers. They believe that the fourth caliph Hazrat Ali the son in law and cousin brother of the prophet was the rightful successor as caliph.

They contend that true Khilafat (Islamic chieftainship) which they term as Imamate comes through the blood descent of the prophet and thus Hazrat Ali was the only and legitimate successor of the prophet. They claim that Hazrat Ali was not only nominated by Prophet Muhammad as his successor but was also divinely protected from sins and was infallible. Shias also have an abiding faith that Hazrat Ali is the incarnate manifestation of God. According to Shia faith, Ali’s divinity is shared by his two sons Hasan and Hussain. This theological conflict over succession had its spillover in Iraq between Imam Hussain and his powerful adversary Yazid.

My main idea is not to recount or emphasize the unbridgeable schism in creed between the Shias and the other denominations of Islam. What I want to highlight is the aspect that in observing the ritual of mourning of the Karbala episode, the Shias believers use the symbols excessively and so vividly. Normally Islam is against the symbolism like idols and deifying the material objects as the Hindus do. Islam believes in monotheism, which means believe in a one God with all his powers and attributes. However, Islam does not allow making the image of God, of the prophets or of the holy figures. That is why when prophet of Islam entered Mecca after defeating the infidels, his first act was to clear the Khana Kaaba from the idols that the pagan Arabs used to worship.

When the second caliph of Islam Hazrat Omar kissed the black stone (Hajre-Aswad), he did so by exclaiming, “O black stone I know that you are nothing but a stone but I am kissing you because the prophet of Islam did so”.

Someone must tutor and rather provide me more knowledge over the profusion of symbolism that we can witness during the tradition of mourning by the Shia Muslims. Is it permissible by Islam to venerate a horse and touch it in order to draw blessing from the animal's body? Is it also within the precincts of Islam to show the images of hands, shrines and tombs by making their miniature designs that are also touched as a token of respect to get grace and pleasure of the holy people with whom these are related? Are the models of shrines that are taken out and displayed during the chest beating in highly charged processions conform to Islam?

Many other sects in Islam also have a plethora of symbols by which these are identified. One of the sects uses green turbans and loud hymns in religious congregations. They send their salutations and sermons of loyalty and devotion to the departed saints and mystics by literally addressing them in a chorus and sort of carols after prayers, as if they were alive and were listening to their invocations and supplications. Their dress, the use of excessive fragrance, the loud shrieks, the shrines, the graves of the deceased holy persons are revered by their devotees as symbols of divinity and mystic candor.

The tradition of soliciting help from shamans, mystics, priests, mediums, and religious elders is being practiced even in the modern age of rationalism and scientific discoveries. The gullible and the credulous go to the saints and soothsayers for redemption, for forgiveness of their sins, attainment of mundane pleasures, rescue from the jealous and evil eyes, for a progeny and security from real or perceived dangers and enemies. This too is a kind of symbolism of God in certain human beings who are believed to possess the divine powers. I am not aware as to how these practices fit into body of the Islamic teachings that negate help and succor from forces other than God almighty.

(The writer is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and a former diplomat writing mostly on International Affairs with specific focus on Pakistan and the United States)
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  1. Mr Quraishi

    Each faith tradition or denomination has its own sources and books, and the behaviors of that group are based on their own interpretations of their sources. The Hadith sources of Shias and Sunnis are not the same and therefore the understanding of Holy Quran is also different.

    You are using Sunni theological arguments to criticize Shia theology and practices. This kind of argument is not productive. Neither the Shias nor Sunnis can give up their own sources of Hadith and start using the other party's religious sources.

    THus you will not achieve anything except triggering an argument or debate based on different sources of Hadith.

    Your assessments are afterall based on your understanding of what is Halal and Haram in Islam and that is taken from either Sunni or Wahabi mindset which is in turn based on your books that explain the Quran for you. Your assessment is not valid for Shias. This sort of language is not the language of logic instead it is your way of imposing your theological perspective on others.

    Shamshad Haider


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  3. Shamashad Haider@ you had better come up with other point of view rather indulging in a bickering merely based upon allegations. Honey Qureishi though has expressed from others view point based upon their sources; you should express opposite source to justify all or correct if sth there is misquoted plz...