Shia Muslims hold mourning rituals on Day of Ashura in Tehran via Mehr News Agency

Unveiling The Islamic Tradition of Mourning

Often, Muslims debate against the theological basis of mourning within Islam, garnering titles that minimize the reaction or intensity of pain. It is important to note, however, that the mourning process has existed since the time of the Prophets.

Specifically, the admonishing nature of mourning comes up during the months of Muharram and Safar when Shia Muslims lament the loss of Imam Hussain (AS) during the battle of Karbala. As the last rope directly corresponds with the Prophet (PBUH), the loss is innumerable to many Muslims who gather to recognize his sacrifices.

Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffar, Ed.D. is the Associate Chaplain for Islamic theology, Research Scholar and Professor at NYU, among other roles, who spoke in detail with Muslim Girl on the matter.

Mourning, as mentioned in the Quran

There are many instances through both historical narrations and Quranic interpretations. Surah Yusuf, for example, comments on the pain and anguish that Yaqoob (AS) felt for his sons, particularly Prophet Yusuf (AS), before he rose to prophethood. The family experiences various issues and obstacles, but Yaqoob (AS) reminds his children that even though our plans and hopes may not follow according to plan, we must persist because Allah (SWT) has more significant outcomes planned.

…And Allah has full power and control over His Affairs, but most of men know not.

(Yusuf 12:21)

And even after the consistent trials of despair and anguish, Yaqoob (AS) remained relentless in his love and fidelity towards his Creator. It is important to note that in his many problems of maintaining patience, the concept of experiencing and going through pain was never admonished or minimized.

At one point, Yacoob’s (AS) sons come up to him and inquire why his father mourns the loss of Yusuf (AS) so openly. They worry about his health, and his eyes may become blind with how much he cries. Yacoob (AS) replies by stating, “I complain to Allah (SWT) alone for my sorrow and grief.” (Yusuf 12:86.)

He states that he is complaining through tears to Allah (SWT.) These tears are of grief and supplication to God.

In a broader concept, Surah Yusuf was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during 619 CE or the Year of Sorrow, in which he lost both his beloved wife, Khadijah (AS) and his uncle and protector, Abu Talib (AS.)

Narrations report that out of sheer despair from his loss and the treatment of the Quraysh, who threw insults and mockery at the Prophet (PBUH,) he quietly left the city and found an isolated place near a wall on the edge of town. There, he spoke to Allah (SWT) about his tribulations and feelings of weakness and helplessness.

Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer, on Mourning Imam Hussain (AS,) stated, “Introducing elements of patience, justice, mercy, and compassion, the Day of Ashura is therefore so heartbreaking because it is a manifestation of all of these elements- with the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.”

There is a threefold element in both explanations regarding why Muslims mourn the loss of Imam Hussain (AS.) On the first scale, as mentioned earlier, Imam Hussain (AS) was the last living link to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) from the Ahlul Bayt (AS.) The loss can be quantified in that realm as tragic because the Prophet’s (PBUH) younger grandson was brutally killed.

On the second scale, lamenting Imam Hussain (AS) goes beyond just his death and recognizes the tragic loss of all five of the Ahlul Bayt- Muhammad (PBUH), Ali (AS,) Fatima (SA,) Hasan (AS,) and Hussain (AS.) Each personality is interwoven with the other, and their demise or martyrdom contains a similar sense of despair and tragedy.

And each of these personalities combined created the most perfect of creations. Introducing elements of patience, justice, mercy, and compassion, the Day of Ashura is heartbreaking because it manifests all of these elements- with the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.

Faiyaz Jaffer and Transformational growth through the grief of Ashura

In recognizing the most pious of human qualities being tested and exhibited on Ashura, the process of mourning can lead to transformational growth. It reminds us to be more just in our affairs and compassionate in interacting with others.

“This type of grief commands us, pulls us… and is a sort of call to action [to exhibit these features], and grief has the power to do that,” he said.

The taboo culture of toxic masculinity is a direct antithesis to the values and exhibitions the men of Karbala showed.

The power of storytelling through majlis and masayabs (calamity) is the primary way Shias can live through tragedy vicariously. Year after year, Muslims gather in community centers to lament the loss of the Imam. Unlike a typical sermon or khutbah, majlises and masayabs are primarily held to commemorate grief through powerful recollection through speech.

He mentioned a moment when a non-Shia student had come up to him. He noted that she had never seen a group of grown Muslim men be able to sit and cry together and express themselves emotionally. The taboo culture of toxic masculinity is a direct antithesis to the values and exhibitions the men of Karbala showed.

“We are exposed to intimate conversations of the men of Imam Hussain (AS) offering words of consolation, support, and validation to one another,” he said in a recent post. “Everyone is building themselves up for their collective success.”

Therefore, the intense love and adoration for the Prophet’s (PBUH) family can bring people together and create a sense of solidarity among those who otherwise might not have much in common or know each other very well.

Because it is narrated in its storytelling format, it connects people from all walks of life.

“There is the young, the old, the male and female, the sinner who repented and died a martyr… it is the most epic anecdote… that makes up the most beautiful film if it was ever projected,” Sheikh Jaffer said. “It is incredibly moving.”

A man of faith is promised incidents of pain and difficulty throughout his life to test his tenacity.

Going beyond the anecdotal possibility that the Battle of Karbala presents, it is problematic to believe that mourning for the incident (and otherwise) is not a fundamental root within the religion. A man of faith is promised incidents of pain and difficulty throughout his life to test his tenacity. It is an expression of pain or frustration, which can often lead to increased prayer for sustenance, therefore, wrong? 

Sa’ad Abi Waqqas, one of the commanders of the Islamic army and later appointed by Umar ibn al-Khattab to temporarily rule Kufa, asked Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) the following question

“‘O Apostle of God, who among men are those afflicted with the greatest calamity?’ The Prophet replied:

The Prophets, then the pious, everyone according to the degree of his piety. A man is afflicted according to his faith: If his faith is durable, his affliction is accordingly increased, and if his faith is weak, his affliction is made lighter. Afflictions continue to oppress the worshipful servant until they leave him walking on the face of the earth without any sin cleaving to him.'” – Hadith qudsi

In a causational relationship, the evidence of pain can lead to an expression of pain. And when the pain is caused to one of the Creator’s most beloved, a grand expression of pain is justified and expected.