The first month of the Islamic New Year, Muharram, started early October. This month is especially important for Shia Muslims, as it is the month in which the grandson of the Prophet (SAW), Hussain, was killed along with his companions for standing up for injustice in the desert of Karbala, Iraq, on the tenth day of Muharram, known as Ashura.
The story is repeated year after year in remembrance. Shias will avoid parties or any sort of thing that brings them happiness. They will be shroud in black or dark colors and will spend the next two months in mourning. Around the world, programs at the mosque, in homes and on the streets will commemorate the tragedy of Karbala.
Common rituals include hearing an Imam speak about an aspect or concept of Islam, and then ending with a part of the tragedy where it is common to listen and cry. Mourners also recite poetry and do matam, or hit oneself to the beat of the poetry. Yearly, millions rush to Karbala, Iraq, to pay their respects. The tragedy stands for values such as resistance in the face of injustice, and truth versus falsehood.
There are lessons taught with the story of Karbala in mind, inspirations pulled from Imam Hussain (AS) and his companions on how to be a better Muslim.
The tragedy speaks to the oppression of those who loved the Prophet’s family — and unfortunately, that oppression is still evident in the world today.
This Muharram, like past Muharrams, came with caution. Shia are mindful, especially in Muslim countries where they are the minority. The unfortunate reality is that they have to be prepared for the worst. Killings, bombings, shootings.
On Oct. 5, Quetta, Pakistan: Four Hazara women were shot execution style on the bus while they were on their way home. The gunman identified the four women (out of nine total) as Hazara and targeted them. Hazara typically have distinctive features and are known for being Shia. They are often targets of attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On Oct. 8, Karachi, Pakistan: A father and son, Mansoor and Ammar Zaidi, were shot with multiple wounds on the doorstep of their home. Zaidi was a caretaker for his Imambargha, the mosque-like area dedicated for commemorating Muharram.
On Oct. 9, Baghdad, Iraq: Three bombs targeting Shia mourners killed 10 people and wounded 37. ISIL took responsibility.
On Oct. 11, Kabul, Afghanistan: Three gunmen entered a Shia mosque on the eve of Ashura, killing at least 14 and injuring more than 30 people. All three gunmen were killed and officials believe that they are affiliated with the Taliban.
On Oct. 12, Cairo, Egypt: Al-Hussein Mosque was temporarily closed on the important day of Ashura, as Shia Egyptians sat outside the mosque. This is the second year they have closed down the mosque. It was done for security reasons after Salafi threats. For those who are thinking, “What is the big deal?” — besides the very real threat that there could be an attack on that mosque thus being shut down for security reasons, the Shia have a very personal connection with Ashura — it is a part of their faith. So when the government you live under bans something connected to your faith, it feels like an oppression, especially with much anti-Shia sentiment spread throughout the country.
On Oct. 12, Funtua, Kaduna, Nigeria: During a procession commemorating Karbala, Shia mourners were shot at by the Nigerian Security Forces, at least 15 were killed and hundreds injured. Prominent Shia leader Ibrahim Zakzaky’s house was also set on fire. Zakzaky was arrested and tortured at the end of last year, members of his family and other Shia followers were also killed. He is still imprisoned.
Maybe you haven’t heard about these incidents, and perhaps they exist only within the realm of your Shia friends. Ignoring the problems won’t make them go away, so why is the Muslim world silent when it comes to intentional killing of Shias?
Over the past 13 years in Pakistan, there have been more than 446 attacks on Pakistani Shias, killing more than 2,550 women children and men. These attacks also include well-known Imams, poets and leaders. And that is just one country. An online protest and solidarity movement started in 2012 with the hashtag #ShiaGenocide.
The privilege of just calling yourself Muslim does not exist with Shia Muslims. Being called a kafir, or disbeliever, is a reality for a majority of Shias living in Muslim countries. This exists alongside Shias having to defend their faith against absurd rumors, being ignored on matters that are important to them, and calling out repeatedly to the Muslim world to notice the amount of targeted killings happening in the Shia world.
The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Know about the Shia beliefs and stand as allies against those who try to divide Muslims. The core beliefs of Shias is love for the Prophet’s family — and that shouldn’t be just a Shia thing, as Wajahat Ali, a Muslim-American activist and writer, posted on his Facebook:
“…I only mention this because I find it disappointing and tragic that so many Sunnis are divorced from a true love and understanding of Imam Husayn and his sacrifice due to poisonous sectarian politics. In order to “differentiate” from Shia, several Sunni religious authorities, imams and leaders have minimized or deliberately labeled the memory and mourning of Karbala as only a “Shia” thing.
However, both stories exist in my Sunni household in America. When my family remembers Husayn, many of them weep.
It is due to love — and pain.
The “Ahl al Bayt” (People of the House, referring to the family of the Prophet) belong to all Muslims.
I hope a new generation of leaders can reconcile the divide. They can start by sharing the story and martyrdom of Husayn…”