I was planning to write another article on Ashura and the great Karbala tragedy in a few days. But I could not wait any longer after hearing the appalling account of the significance of Ashura during the Friday sermon today at a local Sunni Muslim mosque that I frequently attend.
As an interfaith and Intra-faith worker, this is of great concern to me. It makes our work that much more meaningful and reminds us our work is much needed.
I will not quote the Imam at the mosque but ‘Ashura and its significance’ was the focus of the sermon. He went on to describe why this day is so special. I listened intently and was very eager to hear what he had to say. It went something like this:
Ashura is upon us. It is a sacred day. This is the day when Prophet Muhammad inquired as to why the Jews were fasting when he migrated to Medina. After hearing from his companions the reason why, he declared he would fast too because Muslims are closer to Moses than the Jews, and encouraged his followers to do the same.
I am well aware of this oft-repeated narrative and this is narrated by multiple sources, including none other than by Muawiya Ibne Abu Safyan!
So we are fasting on Ashura to commemorate the Passover. Really?
Can you tell me ANY other example of our religious practices (Salat, fasting, Hajj , Umrah etc) modeled after the practice of the Jews (or Christians) of Medina? Can you tell me ANY other example of our Prophet “borrowing” the custom or religious rituals from the Jews of Medina?
And why on Ashura? Why not some other traditions at some other time?
However this is not what prompted me to write this post. The real shocker came when the Imam at the mosque went on to further make his case to de-emphasize Imam Hussain’s sacrifice.
The Shia Muslims mourn the sacrifice of Syedna Hussain on Ashura but let me tell you the “Asl”- (real) significance of Ashura. Contrary to what you may have been told, It is NOT about Hussain RA. Instead it is about fasting on this day and to be nice to your family and spend on your family.
I am not kidding.
It is one thing to mention the tradition of Prophet Muhammad related to fasting on Ashura. It is another to completely de-emphasize and practically ignore the Karbala tragedy ON Ashura! He went on to give an example of how his friend’s son jokes about making a list of things he wants from his father because he would not say ‘no’, and would “spend” on family on the day of Ashura.
So we should follow the Sunnah to fast on Ashura to commemorate the Israelites ‘ release from the Pharaoh’ (a good thing indeed but…really? ). What other Jewish traditions do we commemorate as “Islamic tradition”?
How about commemorating the sacrifice of the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad? How about commemorating how much Prophet Muhammad loved his grandson Hussain and asked his followers to do the same. How about paying our tribute to Imam Hussain and his courageous sister Zainub, without whose leadership and bravery Karbala might have indeed never been known to anyone else. How about commemorating their accepting death over undignified life to save Islam from corruption?
Imam Hussain gave up his life, the lives of his children and other family members and friends, knowing that the women and children will be captured and paraded and humiliated in the streets of Iraq and Syria after they were brutally killed and their bodies trampled by horses.
Our response is that we will give a cursory mention to the tragedy, if that, on Ashura?
And “spend on our family”, while ignoring the immense calamity experienced by the family of Prophet Muhammad on this day?
Personally speaking, I don’t think the imam at the mosque is a “Shiaphobe” or anti-Imam Hussain. He indeed does offer salutations to the family of Prophet Muhammad including Imam Hussain, as is the custom during the Friday sermons. But he is also not alone in ignoring/distracting from the tragedy of Karbala, whether its intentional or unintentional. There are these websites about the ‘significance of Ashura. I visited one of these sites recently. It goes on to list all the important historical events from Adam to Jacob, to Yunus (Jonah) , Ayyub and Prophet Muhammad. The whole article of close to 1000 words had ONE FULL sentence containing a whopping 17 words about Imam Hussain in Karbala!
Let’s be clear, Yazid’s main objective was to humiliate and wipe out the family of Prophet Muhammad from memory. His army and supporters did all they could to ensure that. They would do anything- from bribing to threatening people to prevent from talking about, and distracting people from the sacrifice Karbala.
If we think a little deeper, de-emphasizing the great sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his family and creating distractions is like supporting the efforts of Yazid. This ‘ hey, look at the birdie’ trick has not worked for 1380 years and counting, and it won’t work now.
Are we forgetting the Hadith and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad as they relate to his immense love for Imam Hussain? Here is a small sample.
• Hussein is from me and I am from Hussein.
• Hassan and Hussein are the leaders of the youngsters of paradise.
• Those who love him, love me, those who are his enemies are my enemies. (Narrated by Abu-Huraira) :
I heard Rasulullah (messenger of God) say ‘Verily my son [Hussain] will be killed in a land called Karbala, whoever amongst you is alive at that time must go and help him.” “One who fights Hussain, fights the Prophet.
And the Qur’an’s call to love the family of Prophet Muhammad:
…Say O Muhammad): I do not ask of you any reward for it but love for my near relatives. 42:23
Of course not every Sunni Muslim, Sunni Imam and every Sunni Muslim website/organization ignores the importance and contributions of the sacrifice of Imam Hussain. This particular author narrates many Hadiths foretelling the events at Karbala and Prophet’s sorrow. It concludes as follows.
Some Final Words: No doubt, loving Ahlul-Bayt [the family of the Prophet ] should be in the heart of every Muslim. Loving Ali, Fatima, al-Hassan, and al-Hussain (may Allah’s mercy be upon them all) is part of our faith. Therefore, the killing of al-Hussain along many members of his family was a great calamity that afflicted this Ummah. It should ache our hearts just like it ached the heart of our Prophet Muhammad when he was foretold as we saw in the narrations above.
One of my very close and respected friends, Professor Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a former NASA scientist and a preeminent Sunni Muslim scholar, author and historian. On his Islamic history website, he describes the events leading up to Karbala and highlights the lessons learned from this great sacrifice, not just for Shia Muslims, or Sunni Muslims but for all of humanity.
Karbala imparted a new meaning to the term struggle. Humankind must strive with patience and constancy in the face of extreme adversity. Comfort and safety are not to be impediments in the higher struggle for the rewards of the hereafter. Hussain did not give up his struggle even though he was abandoned by the multitudes that had offered him support.[in reference to the people in Kufa at the time] He did not surrender while facing insurmountable odds.
The question now is: by ignoring and/or de-emphasizing this great sacrifice, are we also not abandoning the grandson of Imam Hussain?
Imagine if we all had ignored the events at Karbala and gave a cursory mention of this great sacrifice over the centuries? The face of Islam would have been more like the lifestyle of Yazid if it wasn’t for his courageous stand against tyranny and corruption against Islamic values.
It is not surprising that after 1380 years, Imam Hussain’s name is still being remembered by his lovers. After all, this is a promise from God Almighty Himself.
Therefore remember Me, I will remember you. Give thanks to Me, and don’t deny Me. The Qur’an 2:152.
Another translation/interpretation of this verse I have seen says that if you raise my Dhikr, I will raise yours. Imam Hussain made the ultimate sacrifice to uphold God’s deen and protect it from corruption. I am convinced God will ensure that those who remembered Him are not only remembered by Him but by others as well.
How do we move forward?
How do we keep the memory of Karbala alive? How do we best pay tribute to him and his family, and small group of helpers? The best way is indeed to follow the path shown by him- to be steadfast in adversity, to stand up for the truth and justice and love and follow God Almighty and Prophet Muhammad. To love and remember Imam Hussain is loving Prophet Muhammad. But this love must translate into action.
As an interfaith and intra-faith activist, I see this as an opportunity, not a barrier to further dialogue. But there is a lot of work ahead of us to bring the various sides together.
I propose that Shia Muslims don’t limit the Muharram programs to Shias-only- which is the prevailing practice by the majority. There should be dialogue at the clerical level, as well as at the community level. This dialogue should include Shia scholars visiting Sunni mosques during Muharram to give speeches on the great sacrifice of Imam Hussain. Conversely, Sunni Muslims should be invited to Shia mosques to observe, and participate in the commemoration. The Shia Muslims need to tailor their programs to ensure their Sunni brethren are part of the commemoration.
After all, Imam Hussain himself stated several times at Karbala that his sacrifice is to ‘protect the religion of my grandfather’, Prophet Muhammad.
As followers and lovers of his grandfather, shouldn’t we honor the grandson together?