Tears and pain are part of Ashoura.
By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
February 18, 2005
As the silver cradle trimmed with white garland, tulle and pearls moved through the crowd of weeping women, the synchronized thud of hands against chests echoed through the room.
Cloaked in black from head to toe, women stretched out their arms to touch the cradle brimming with candy and dollar bills. Then, with the same hands that brushed the tiny shrine, they caressed the faces of nearby children and rubbed their own tear-stained cheeks, to bestow the blessings of Shiite Muslims’ youngest martyr.
On Saturday many Muslims will observe the holy day of Ashoura, the 10th day of the first month in the Islamic calendar. Following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, they will fast on that day to reflect on Moses’ successful flight from Egypt.
But the holiday is particularly significant for Shiite Muslims, who will commemorate a defining moment for their sect: the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet.
Abandoned by friends and supporters, Hussein and 71 others died defending his family’s succession to Muhammad as the head of the Muslim community. For nine nights leading up to Ashoura, Shiite Muslims commemorate the other descendants of the prophet who died for the sake of their faith, including Hussein’s 6-month-old son, Ali Asghar.
Culminating their mourning ritual on Saturday, members of the Chicago and suburban community will march from the Daley Center to Michigan Avenue and back. Pounding their chests to inflict pain and symbolize the way horses are said to have trampled the body of Hussein, they will chant “Ya Hussein!” Many will fast, recite poetry and pray until the hour they believe Hussein was killed.
Earlier this week, hundreds of faithful gathered at the Husaini Association of Greater Chicago in Glendale Heights to mourn the death of Imam Hussein and his youngest son, symbolized by the cradle.
About 200 women sat on the floor of the center’s basement to hear a sermon delivered in Urdu, a language of India and Pakistan. Embroidered black alams, or pendants, graced the walls, some topped with silver hands to represent Hussein’s closest relatives or adorned with silver canteens to illustrate their suffering in the desert more than a millennium ago.
Burying their faces in tissues and kerchiefs, the women sobbed as if they were at their own child’s wake.
“For a person that cries, it’s a display of faith,” whispered Nousheen Yousuf, 22, as women wailed around her. “You cry like they were your own.”
“It’s not just history right now,” added Uzma Shamsi, 19. “It’s reality.”
Men, too, were overcome by grief.
“You’re so saddened. You relate to the Imam. It’s almost like it’s happening to a family member,” said Imran Khan, 29, a pharmacist. “It’s very inhumane. How could they do this to a human? A 6-month-old baby? That would melt anybody. This is not just for Shia Muslims. It’s for humanity.”
The common guilt for failing to help Hussein defend Islam against corrupting forces traditionally evokes anguish on Ashoura. It also prompts many believers in parts of the world to inflict pain on themselves. In Iraq and Iran, believers whip themselves with chains or nick their heads with knives, so their faces and chests are streaked with blood. In Africa, worshipers slap their cheeks.
Yousuf and Khan said it is surprising how many people do not know the story behind Ashoura. The tale goes that Imam Hussein in 680 A.D. was asked by a self-proclaimed spiritual leader to pledge allegiance to a corrupt form of the faith. Instead, Imam Hussein chose to fight for his faith. The opposing ruler then assembled an army of thousands that surrounded Hussein’s camp in a patch of desert called Karbala in what is now Iraq.
For three days Hussein and his family, friends and supporters were cut off from food and water, followed by a bloody battle. One by one, 72 people died. A shrine built in their honor now serves as a Shiite pilgrimage site.
But even during this traditional time of mourning, there is cause for bittersweet joy. For years under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Shiites were unable to perform all the rituals to commemorate their fallen hero. To speak the name of Hussein in public was forbidden. To show emotion during prayer services was taboo.
Now no longer under a dictator’s regime, Shiites enjoy the freedom to travel and openly grieve in Karbala. A Shiite victory in the recent Iraqi elections signals even more promise.
Alamdar Bader, a dentist who worships at the Glendale Heights center, made a pilgrimage to Karbala last year. He recalls seeing pilgrims with blood oozing from the soles of their feet “just for the love of Imam Hussein.”
“Hussein is from me. I am from Hussein,” Bader said. “He is the one who stood against tyrants and saved Islam.”
It was precisely that example of heroism that caused Saddam Hussein to suppress the story and the rituals, said Mehboob Mehdi, the moulana or spiritual leader for the Glendale Heights mosque. (Among Shiites, the term “Imam” is generally reserved for Muhammad successors, including Hussein.)
“These tears have the power to make everybody stand up against a tyrant or oppressors, so oppressors are easily afraid of this kind of commemoration,” Mehdi said. “Today we are very glad that Iraq is free.”
He is also grateful that the Shiite slate supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious authority in Iraq, seems to have emerged victorious.
“Those who hear this story again, again, again, they learn tolerance,” Mehdi added. “They learn how to stand up for justice and freedom, but in a peaceful manner, just as Ayatollah Sistani did in Iraq. He followed the footsteps of Imam Hussein.”