My First Ashura a 24 year old Muslim convert

Saturday, February 11, 2006

My First Ashura

Name:Southern Masala
Location:Southeastern United States

I’m a 24 year old Muslim convert and 2nd year law student…

I have been a Shi’a Muslim for 2 years now. I have fasted for two Ramadans, but I had never experienced Ashura until now. The night of Muharram, that night I went to the majilis first and listened to the speaker. I felt my chest tighten and my throat close as he painfully described the murder of Imam Husayn’s tiny six month old son as he held him in his arms. Yet I did not cry, every night of Muharram I had felt this tightness, a shortness of breath that often precedes tears, but I could not cry. I could not weep like the other ladies who put their heads down and sobbed as the Maulana recounted each night the fateful moments of Karbala.

Leaving the Majilis, I returned home to study and think about what I had learned that night. Meanwhile, M had come and gone to the Urdu Majilis which started after the English session. He called me to say that he was going with some people to the Jaafari mosque, a somewhat bigger mosque closer to my house. I told him that he should just go and I would go tomorrow. It was already past midnight. At 1 am he called and told me to come downstairs, there were so many people there, close to a thousand, that he wanted me to see it, he was coming to pick me up. I went down stairs and we drove to the mosque.

Here, he said, take your phone and keep it close to you. If you get scared, call me and we will come out. He dropped me at the door and went off to find a parking spot. From a hundred yards away I could the grey-white smoke wafting from the doors. People were milling through the parking lot and standing in the doorways. I slowly made my way to the front, looking for any familiar face.

Entering the mosque the final plaintive strains of the Ziaraat were being recited. Assalaamu Alaikum, peace be upon you, Husayn, a final farewell. I joined the throng of women that pushed to fit behind the meager barriers. Women pushed me to move, move. Where was I going? I was so confused. I managed to squeeze into a space and to find a friendly face, a sister to help me, she pulled me closer to her. The smell of the incense was strong in the air. I watched in amazement as the men lifted an enormous replica of the tomb of Husayn onto their shoulders and carried it around the room, straining against the awkward weight. The flag bearers, carrying the Alam, followed them, balancing their precious banners precariously.

Then the nohays began. The rhythmic chanting filled the room, swelling, overriding all other sounds, an ocean of sound, a living pulse. It drew me in inexorably and the crowd began to carry me forward. Towards the tomb and the alams, my friend grabbed my hand reassuringly. Ya Husayn, Ya Husayn, we cried, beating our chests to the rhythm of the room.

The crowd brought me forward, leaning, desperate to touch the tomb, the alams, touching and kissing, wiping their faces. I reached out tentatively to touch the alam and then, as soon as I was there I was swept away again by the crowd.

I turned to face the crowd of men who stood there, mourning, beating their chests to the rhythm of the nohays. The smells of sweat and incense mingled in the air. On and on it continued, Ya Husayn Ya Husayn. We are here, we will not forget you. We will not forget what you did for us, you saved Islam for us and we will not forget your sacrifice. We will not let our children forget your sacrifice.

The pure physical connection to God was present in that room. In the rhythm and the smell, in the sweat and the tears, so far removed from the cold and sterile God of my previous Christianity. This was life, this was love, this was faith. Husayn’s sacrifice is life, it is love, it is faith. And now I was experiencing genuine connection between the spiritual and the physical for the first time in my life.

Finally I turned from the scene and met M in the parking lot to go home. What did you think, he asked. As I turned to him, the tears welled up in my eyes. Finally, I could cry. I could cry for Husayn, for his baby, for his brothers and sisters, and companions who laid down their lives that Islam may live. I could cry for every man who fought for his beliefs only to be slain by injustice and tyranny. I could cry for every baby who thirsted for water, only to be denied by cruelty. At the end of Ashura, as I stood there in that parking lot, I know that 2 years ago, I made the right decision- La ilaha il Allah.


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