Muharram Rituals – Have We Lost It?
Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar, is immensely significant, especially to me, as a Shia Muslim. It is the month in which the grandson of my Prophet (s) and his family and companions were surrounded, traumatized, inhumanely denied water in scorching heat, and the men butchered. The remaining women were then paraded through Iraq and Syrian bazaars in a disrespectful and humiliating manner. The people who committed these heinous crimes were the very ones who professed the sanctity of their Prophet (s) and thus his family.
These are historical facts no sane person can deny. Why did this happen? Were there political reasons for it? Was there a rivalry between Imam Hussein (a) and Yazeed and his thugs that made them commit these beastly actions? I frankly do not give an ant’s ass for the reasons. For me, these aggrieved 72 were the dear and loved ones of my Prophet (s) and many from his holy bloodline. This fact is enough to make Muharram’s yearly memorial commemorating my Imam’s (s) sacrifices something to look forward to. Not only as respect to the blessed blood that was spilled and the very many sacrifices of the Imam’s remaining womenfolk that endured the tribulations with absolute dignity but also as an opportunity for an annual revival for reform within me. As a Shia Muslim, the martyrdom, and tribulations of the Prophet’s family are a gem of a gift not granted to others. For me to attend lectures, be inspired, realize my potential as a believer, and relearn about the events and the individuals involved. More importantly, it is an excellent opportunity for personal reform, to correct my acts and/or misaligned tracts, to be a better human, and to return to Allah by following in their footsteps as exemplary humans.
At the Dar es Salaam Khoja masjid, it is pure joy to listen to S. Iadarus Alawy’s Friday Jooma khutbah, delivered in Kiswahili. The guy nails the core of Imam Hussein’s (a) sacrifice – that of justice, dignity, and self-righteousness. That death is more readily acceptable than a life of humiliation. How it is crucial for me to embrace the month of Muharram with this core message and to exit the mourning period having reformed myself for the better. What a refreshing change from regular zakirs lecturing in drab Urdu, most of it I do not recall by the time I leave the masjid.
The preparations for the programs for the holy month at the Khoja center are in full swing, albeit with a sense of disorder and commotion. I wrongly assume erecting the banners and awnings for the programs would have been completed much earlier. I realize it is easy to criticize from the sidelines and there may be reasons for the delay, but Khojas are known for timeliness and efficiency, sio?
Three lecturers will grace the Khoja community of Dar es Salaam during these initial days of Muharram, in addition to a female Urdu lecturer. Lecturers in Gujarati, Urdu, and English. Aree wah! Gujarati is my ancestral tongue, spoken mostly by the remaining relics in the community. There are a substantial number of Kutchi-speaking Khojas in this 8,000-plus community but they seem not important to warrant a speaker of their own. The Urdu speaker is here because we have historically had them. So, just like saff maatam from the days of yore, we must have a lecture in Urdu. And the English lectures are to accommodate the young ones who do not care for Gujarati or Urdu. Kiswahili, the national language, that everyone understands, or should have a working knowledge of, is left out. Our African brothers are not important enough to warrant a lecturer, they have their own centers they can attend. But not at a Khoja Center, for sure. That would be dreadful, sacrilegious to a Khoja mindset.
I want to pay my respects to my Imam (a), so I attend the Gujarati lecture on the first day, only because it is at the most convenient time for me. What a disaster. A jamaat official comes on the podium to tell us, in very halting and confusing Gujrati, what the agenda and expected dictum from the public for the programs will be. I don’t think he is convinced about what he is saying either. He is more interested in emphasizing that saff maatam will begin tomorrow. Thankfully it’s not a long speech and the main speaker starts his lecture. Once again, the Gujarati he lectures in is halting and incohesive; here, there, and everywhere. He mixes the lecture with Urdu poetry and ends it with the tragic events of Karbala recited totally in Urdu; I feel I am back in Tanga 50 years ago with a Mullah reading out the events in terrible Urdu, reciting from a book written in the Gujarati script. Confusing, frustrating.
So, I try my luck with the Urdu lecture the next day. The guy does not scream, a norm with reciters from the Indian subcontinent, which is a refreshing change. Nor is he defensive about the wilayat of Imam Ali (a), another welcome change. But it’s the same old, same old. No new ideas for inspiration – none. I try the English lecture on the third day. The reciter is barely a baby. He tries hard and I’ll give him a 7 for that. The Khoja center has daftly scheduled the Urdu and English lectures simultaneously, so the echoes from the mics clash, making it difficult, at times, to focus on what lecture to listen to.
The atmosphere outside the center resembles a festive air after the lectures. Loud thumping lamentations from a muaqib pulsate the air. Nobody listens, it’s become background music of sorts. There is free chai and other spicy snack handouts, the sexes mix for the treats, and cigarette smoke fill the air. Tanzania, wisely, has done away with plastic bags. So, we have takeaway niyaz in reusable colorful bags distributed at the end of the programs. Laudable, except these end up with the beggars and homeless in and around the center when the treat is meatless. I guarantee the poor in the immediate vicinity of the center sleep with full, albeit spiced stomachs these 12 days. Unintended, but a good outcome. I find an old homeless filthy beggar opposite my apartment licking rice and daal curry concoction off his fingers and cussing the spices in them at the same time.
The juloos, or march, on the day before Ashura is yet another example of how we’ve totally lost the message of our Imam (a). A wide section of downtown Dar es Salaam is cordoned off to vehicular traffic. Thank Allah for the tolerant and relative secular nature of the Tanzanian government (and deep Khoja pockets) that allow and make these religious events possible, else we’d have riots. While we parade through the juloos route bearing raised flags and lament poetry in Urdu, English, and some Kiswahili blaring from loudspeakers, non-Muslims, and non-Shias stare at us in patient resignation. Those that are unluckily trapped in their vehicles for the nearly two hours it takes to clear the streets must seethe in ire; I can see hatred in their eyes. I know I would have my chuddies in a twist if the roles were reversed.
Critics will argue that I am the problem. That my imaan is or has diluted as I have aged? Perhaps. This is entirely possible. But my intellect and facts say otherwise, however. Had this country been a Shia majority, these events would certainly be understandable, even though I would still question the alien and corrupted rituals we’ve allowed to take over the core message and supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussein (a).
Another opportunity at reform down the drain.
Non-Muslim, non-Shia readers of this write-up may not completely understand the underlying issues I am Blogging about. My sincere apologies.