More than 1,300 years after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the messenger of Islam Prophet Mohammad, Shiites all around the world are still mourning the sorrowful and historic day each year on the 10th of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar with commemorations and rituals.
The commemorations, however, are not restricted to this day but rather take place on the first 10 days of Muharram culminating on the Day of Ashura. Rituals are also carried out till the 40th day when it is customary for millions of Shiite Muslims to converge on the holy city of Karbala to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein.
Commemorations and rituals around the world
With much sorrow and great passion, Shiite Muslims have been commemorating the incident of Ashura with many rituals.
According to Ignac Goldziher, a Hungarian Muslim scholar "Ever since the black day of Karbala, the history of this family … has been a continuous series of sufferings and persecutions. These are narrated in poetry and prose, in a richly cultivated literature of martyrologies …".
For example, people congregate in mosques or Hussayniahs to listen to Majlis, which is the narration and retelling of the tragedy of Imam Hussein as one aspect of public rites of remembrance. Tears are shed as the calamity is recited and sermons about martyrdom, the persona of Imam Hussein and his deeds, are delivered. Mourners also lament to the harmony of beating drums, beating their chests in unison to express remorse. Chants of "Ya Hussein" and "Labbayka Ya Hussein" among others are repeated in public processions as a display of grief. Most Shiites are seen clad in black attire, the symbol of grief.
"Primarily, the reason for upholding the commemoration is based on the recommendations of our holy Imams(as). We have received news through Hadith that it was their custom to mourn the tragedy of Hussein(as) for the first 10 nights of Muharram and the 10th day would be a day of calamity for them, recalling the massacre and stances of their grandfather and they would command poets to recite poetry and eulogies regarding the occasion," Moutaz Al-Wahwah, a Lebanese Hawza Student, explains Alwaght correspondent about the origin of these rituals.
The shrine of Imam Hussein has become the Kaaba for Shiites as during Muharram and Safar millions converge on the holy city of Karbala..
Plays are also performed to reenact the Battle of Karbala and relive the pain of the household of the Seal of Prophets, Muhammad (PBUH). Mosques and volunteers also hand out free meals and sweets which are considered blessed with the name of Hussein.
Although customs and rituals may differ from one country to another as a result of varying cultural backgrounds, the essence of the remembrance of Imam Hussein is one and the same.
Author Kamran Scot Aghaie has expressed that "The symbols and rituals of Ashura have evolved over time and have meant different things to different people. However, at the core of the symbolism of Ashura is the moral dichotomy between worldly injustice and corruption on the one hand and God-centered justice, piety, sacrifice and perseverance on the other."
The Controversy of Self-flagellation
On many occasions, some Shiites observe mourning through self-flagellation, an act they claim will preserve the revolution of Imam Hussein.
The use of swords, bladed chains, or knives to make cuts in the mourners body, however, has been banned by several Muslim leaders such as Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Irans Supreme Leader, as an act of self-harm.
The fatwa states: "Any practice that causes bodily harm, or leads to defaming the faith, is haram (religiously forbidden). Accordingly, the believers have to steer clear of it. There is no doubt that many of these practices besmirch the image of Ahlul Bayt’s (a.s.) school of thought which is the worst damage and loss."
To confront this dangerous phenomenon Shiite communities around the world have been organizing blood donation events as a non-violent alternative.
"This act has become a trend more than the cause of actual grief. Even if grief was the motive, Imam Hussein was a preacher of patience and therefore we must abide by that. Another thing is that all that blood that is lost couldve been donated instead," said Zeinab Alawi, a Lebanese-American Shiite Muslim to Alwaght.
Another Shiite, Hadi Safa, also dismissed self-flagellation as unrepresentative of the school of Karbala, saying "It is clear that this practice by some Shiites causes people from other sects and religions to completely turn away from and even castigate Shiite Islam. The heavenly school of Ashura, the epic of Imam Hussein, could be explained with one word, as Lady Zeinab had described it: beauty. As for self-flagellation, on the other hand, it is anything but beauty".
Immortality in tears
The memory of Imam Hussein is immortal. It lives in the minds and hearts of his followers and those who call his name.
It is believed among the Shiites that a single tear shed for Imam Hussein can wash away a hundred sins. And so they shed their tears when Muharram casts its black veil over time.
"The month of Muharram is a reminder of supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussein (a.s). Its a time for us to weep and appreciate this great sacrifice. The tears we cry cleanse our souls, and create a yearning within us to strive toward Allah, in the same way Imam Hussein (a.s) did," believes Fatima Mallah, a Lebanese-Canadian follower of the Shiite sect.
Many Shiites maintain that the battle of Karbala is the reason Islam survived under the pressure of time and the corruptness of leaders and dynasties that only spoke in the name of Islam but did not act on its principles.
"The pure blood of these martyrs watered the tree of Islam so that it may be preserved, at a time when Islam was on the verge of being uprooted. Commemorating Ashura means commemorating humanity itself, as the eternal spirit of Imam Hussein represents all excellent human values and qualities," Hadi Safa said.
To summarize the glory and significance of Imam Hussein, Hawza student Moutaz Al Wahwah compared Imam Husseins stance in Karbala to the miracles of prophets.
"Hussein(as) in Karbala was the embodiment of David vs. Goliath, the near sacrifice of Ishmael, the Patience of Job, Moses story of Salvation, the revolutionary spirit of Jesus and the Universal reform of Muhammad (peace be upon them all)."
To this day, millions of Shiite Muslims from all walks of life commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammads grandson in a show of solidarity with the oppressed giving rise to the saying that described the Battle of Karbala as "the victory of blood over the sword."