From a Nizam’s Ashurkhana
These alams are very large
The commemorations of Muharram and the Karbala battle reach a peak during the 9th and 10th days of Muharram. Spending these days with my Shi’i guide, Maliheh, and her family have been truly extraordinary. On the 9th of Muharram we first went to a ladies’ majlis in the morning, and we spent the afternoon paying a visit to some of Hyderabad’s most important ashurkhanas. These included ashurkhanas that were built hundreds of years ago by the Nizams, the name of the Muslim rulers of Hyderabad when it was the capital of a separate, predominately Muslim kingdom.
Some of the alams I saw in these ashurkhanas were over two hundred years old. Many of them were adorned with the finest jewelry and gold; some of them were larger than lifesize. Alams that are shaped like a hand represent the protective hand (panjeh) and also signify five important figures in Shi’a cosmology. During the showing of alams it is customary to touch them (if you have bathed that day) for good luck and respect to the Karbala martyrs. At one of the most important ashurkhanas, called Bibi ka Alwam, the rush to touch the alams was a crowd that i had never experiencedbefore: a throng of perhaps two hundred people pushing and squeezing to make it to the alams. Maliheh insisted that we push our way through, and I’m telling you I have never been so squeezed in my life. Eventually it took us 45 minutes to go 20 feet!
The night before the 10th of Muharram is very busy for Shi’as. Maliheh took me to several ladies’ majlis, and afterwards we were served a simple dinner. During the poetry recitation in the majlis, all of the lights were turned off and the only light was from a few lit candles. During a majlis the ladies gather in a circle around the main poetry speaker (marziyeh khan) and in front of the home’s ashurkhana. The poetry that is spoken recounts the events of the battle when the Imam Husayn and his family were massacred, and each day during Muharram the events around one person who was killed in the battle are commemorated.
On this night, the death of one of Imam Husayn’s children is recounted; these events are particularly anguishing for these women, many of whom are parents themselves. As the ceremony progresses the narrator’s voice becomes more and most urgent ; at the same time the women present weep louder and harder. After the sermon is finished, the women all stand and perform sineh-zani (chest hitting) as a symbolic gesture of lamentation for Imam Husayn and his family. As a gesture of respect, I join the women in doing sineh-zani at the majalis that I attend.
After sleeping little on the night of the 9th, the 10th day (called Ashura) began very early with a majlis in Maliheh’s house at 6 am. Following that, we attended several neighborhood majalis and visited a few ashurkhanas. On Ashura, perhaps the most prominent event for Hyderabad is the Bibi ka Alam procession, which is a parade that runs through Hyderabad’s Old City. The alams that are housed in the Bibi ka Alam are believed to contain a sacred relic, and because of this importance they are the only alams that are shown on Ashura. In this procession, the alams of Bibi ka Alam are held by several men who sit upon an elephant, and the parade watchers give offerings to the alams, such as rupees, gold, and flowers.
Another feature of the procession are the matam guilds. In hyderabad the Shi’a men often join a Shi’a group, or guild, and during the parade these guilds march together and perform matam (self-flagellation) in a public show of mourning. In Hyderabad there are hundreds of guilds, yet only about twenty will march in the parade. Young men and boys are the primary public performers of matam; I have heard that sometimes a woman will cut her forehead in public as well, however I have not yet seen this.
For many who are unfamiliar with the tenets of Shi’ism and the events of Muharram and Ashura, these acts of self-mortification may seem incomprehensible. And indeed to the many Shi’as I have met so far I have posed questions that try to understand the reasons why someone would do such a thing to themselves over a battle that happened 1,400 years ago. Of all of the answers I received one stands out among the rest. To answer my question, a young man, Shabaz, said to me the following: “You have to understand, this is our family. And what would you do if something so unjust and so tragic happened to your family? You would cry to God and you would hit yourself in order to express your pain. Imam Husayn and his family are important because they are our connection to God—they are our intercessors. We have to protect and show respect to them. Therefore, we do matam. Nobody forces us to do it, we want to do it, to show our love and respect.”
There is much more for me to share; yet I think this entry is long enough! I hope all is well and I will write more soon.
The Bibi ka Alams Upclose
On the night before Ashura
Spied on the Procession Route
The Hyderabad City Committee
The Procession Crowd
Just a small snapshot
The Procession Crowd (2)
People were even on the rooftops
First in the Procession
Some alams held by men riding camels
Another Camel Picture
The Elephant Carrying the Bibi ka Alams
Another Elephant Picture
Some younger men performing matam
Lessons that we can learn from Imam Hussain (a.s.) and Kerbala
Among so many lessons mentioned that we can learn, we’ve choosen only 14 for today, in the name of 14 infallibles a.s.
1. DON’T ACCEPT HUMILIATION : In one of his speeches, Imam Hussein a.s. said that the authorities in Kufa had given him only two options – humiliation or death. He carried on to say, ‘And we do not accept humiliation’. A tradition reported by Imam Sadiq a.s records that, other than not accepting humiliation, Allah Almighty has given to believers a choice in all matters.
2. BROAD-MINDNESS : This means thinking independently and being just in one’s judgements. Not simply following others blindly and keeping one’s eyes closed. On the Day of Ashura Imam Hussein a.s. addressed Yazid’s troops: “O followers of Abu Sufyan, if you are not following the teachings of Islam then as freemen, be independent of judgement. On what basis do you fight me now?”
3. A WIDER UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH : Few people desire death. The Holy Qur’an challenges the Jews for not welcoming death in view of their alleged special relationship with Allah s.w.t. Imam Hussein a.s. extended our comprehension of death by drawing attention to the three points below:
a) Death is written for everyone and no soul may escape it. He said: “Death is an adornment of life as a necklace is an adornment of a beautiful woman.”
b) Death with dignity is preferable to a life lived in humiliation.
c) Dying for the cause of Islam is martyrdom and a great honour. In his farewell to relatives in Madina, Imam Hussein a.s. said: “Whoever joins us will be martyred, those who remain behind will miss the victory.”
4. AWARENESS : Desertion is discouraged via military courts martial and firing squads. A commander has never given troops permission to evade the battlefield before or after Imam Hussein a.s. The Imam himself would like them all to be aware of the consequences of the impending action before any accepted the challenge.
5. SUPPORT THE TRUTH : Imam Hussein a.s. announced: “Don’t y see that Truth has been replaced by falsehood. We must be prepared to sacrifice everything that is precious in support of Truth!” Truth is the ‘essence’ of Islam and fortifies the values emphasized in the Holy Qur’an. Hazrat Ali Akbar asked his father Imam Hussein a.s.:”Are we not supporting the Truth?”. Imam a.s. replied in the affirmative Hazrat Ali Akbar said: “then, it makes no difference if death comes to us or if we approach death.”
6. IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO REPENT : Hur Riahi, the first commander to surround Imam Hussein’s troops and prevent their access to the water of Euphrates, provides an excellent illustration of repentance. Regretting his action, he asked Imam Hussein a.s. if his repentance would be accepted. Imam Hussein a.s. told him that it is never too late to repent. Hur joined Imam Hussein’s camp and was honoured by being one of the first martyrs (Peace be upon Him).
7. FIDELITY AND LOYALTY : Fidelity is a characteristic admired by all. If friends meet in times of comfort and wealth but leave when hardship and difficulty strike, it is clear that their friendship is not true. On the day of Ashura, Imam Hussein a.s. told John, a servant of the renowned companion Hazrat Abu Dhar: “You have accompanied us all the way but now you may go.” John replied: “It is not fair that I benefit from your company and hospitality but abondon you in your hardship?” His attitude exemplifies fidelity, loyalty and true friendship.
8. LADIES PARTICIPATE : Without Lady Zainab’s participation in Karbala, the mission of Imam Hussein a.s. could not have been fulfilled.
9. TO PLEASE ALLAH : The objective of all believers should be the pleasure of Allah Almighty. Imam Hussein a.s. said in one of his speeches that the only objective of the Prophet’s household is to please Allah. Whenever he saw family members martyred he would utter “It’s bearable only because Allah is its witness.”
10. GIVING PREFERENCE TO THE NEEDS OF OTHERS : In Islamic terminology, giving preference to the needs of others is referred to as “Ithaar”. On the Day of Ashura, the actions of Hazrat Abbas, brother of Imam Hussein a.s. exemplify “Ithaar”! Hazrat Abbas a.s. battled bravely to gain access to the water of Euphrates. Although he gave no consideration to his own thirst but strove instead to bring water to the tents for the women and children.
11. PATIENCE IN ADVERSITY : Allah tells us in the Holy Qur’an that only those who remain patient will receive reward without measure. Imam Hussein a.s. brought up to understand the Quran that is why he was happy to ‘remain patient’ in hardship and endurance and to await his Lords reward. His patience wasn’t out of weakness or helplessness but a demonstration of his steadfastness and bravery. Those who saw Imam Hussein a.s. on the Day of Ashura reported. ”We have never seen a man remaining as composed as Imam Hussein a.s. whereas his relatives and children were slaughtered before his eyes.”
12. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AMR BIL MAROUF : Imam Hussein a.s. declared in a speech that the only objective of seeking this reform is to emphasis the significance of ‘Amr bil Marouf and Nahy anil Munkar’. (Enjoining good and forbidding evil).
13. THE USE OF LAWFUL MEANS : Imam Hussein a.s. tried to stop Umar ibn Sa’d from pursuing his evil objectives. He said to him: “You are promised government over ‘Ray’(Tehran today) yet you will never eat the wheat of that area.” Ibn Sa’d responded: “Its barley will suffice!!” Realizing that he couldn’t change Ibn Sa’d’s mind, Imam Hussein a.s. said: “Those who use unlawful means to achieve their objectives never attain them.”
14. CHASTITY AND HIJAB: After the tragedy of Ashura, women and children became prisoners of war and were taken first from Karbala to Kufa and then to Damascus. They were tortured on route and forced to walk behind the soldiers who carried the heads of Imam Hussein a.s. and his companions mounted on their spears. When they arrived at Yazid’s headquarter in Damascus, Imam Sajjad a.s. asked that the ‘heads’ be removed from the proximity of the women and children in order to protect them from spectators.
“Glory be to your Lord, the Lord of Honour, beyond what they describe. And peace be upon the Apostles. And all praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.”