Last week, many Canadians saw for the first time TV images showing more than one million Iraqi Shi’ites congregating in the holy city of Karbala to participate in the famous “40th day remembrance” processions. This ritual re-enacts the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and the siege of Karbala before his death.
But these TV images told two stories — one about religion and another different, but closely related, story about politics.
Contrary to media reports, members of the Iraqi Shi’a community were always free to observe their religious rituals. Among the most important of these is Ashourah, occurring on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar (falling on March 13 in 2003). It marks the anniversary of the day, more than 14 centuries ago, when Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, was martyred. A significant related observance occurs on the 40th day after Hussein’s death (which fell on April 22nd this year).
Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi Shi’ites were denied the political aspects of both rituals; that is, to freely express their views on national and international issues, especially those related to justice, oppression, and how every Muslim must stand against tyranny and oppression.
Denying Shi’ites what they believe is their right to express their political views, chant songs, or narrate epics about ideals of justice is like emptying all holy meaning from their rituals.
Without any knowledge or intention on their part, the Americans may have unwittingly contributed to a historical moment last week, when both Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’as were united in asking peacefully for American and British forces to leave their country soon.
Although Sunni Iraqi spiritual leaders often criticize the self-flagellation enacted by the Shi’ia population, they did not voice it last week, preferring instead to extend a friendly gesture of unity. Some Iraqi Sunnis even joined the Shi’a rituals.
Iraq’s Shi’ites comprise more than 50 per cent of the population and their spiritual leaders have greater authority than their Sunni counterparts. Even the Saudi government has recently acknowledged that their Shi’ia citizens, who make up only about 6 percent of Saudi Arabia, have some legitimate grievances, which it will attempt to redress.
For centuries, Iraqi Shi’ites have been custodians of what are called “the sacred thresholds” — those southern Iraqi cities where Imam Hussein’s father, Imam Ali and his family, lived and were killed. The Iraqi city of Najaf, where Imam Ali is buried, is a major centre of Shi’a theology, competing even with the famed Iranian city of Qum.
The Shi’ite love for justice and freedom stems from the memory of Islam’s saddest tragedy, the martyrdom of the Prophet’s family nearly 14 centuries ago.
Mou’awiya was the first Umayyad Caliph. He had taken power after the death of Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who was the fourth caliph. From Damascus, Mou’awiya ruled over a flourishing Muslim commonwealth. He intended that his son Yazid would become the next caliph after him, so he cleared the way by poisoning Imam Hassan, Imam Ali’s oldest son.
When Mou’awiya died, Yazid sought bayi’ah, or approval, to become caliph from Imam Hussein, the younger brother of Imam Hassan and head of the Prophet’s family. Imam Hussein, however, refused because he believed Yazid was not fit to rule.
Yazid then ordered the governor of Medina to kill Imam Hussein, but the governor refused. Fearing more persecution, Imam Hussein and his family fled Medina for the Iraqi city of Kufa. When Hussein arrived in southern Iraq, where the city of Karbala stands today, the city was besieged by Kufa’s Umayyad governor. Imam Hussein was given the choice to grant bayi’ah to Yazid, or die.
Imam Hussein heroically chose death. He was killed, along with nearly 100 male members of the Prophet’s family. His severed head was then taken to Yazid in Damascus, along with the family’s women and children as hostages.
Millions of Shi’as world wide relive this historic event every year. For them, the tragic martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his family is a classic example that might can win the moment, but will not win over right forever, as long there are people like Imam Hussein who stand up against tyranny anytime and anywhere.