Ashura; a unifying force for humanity

Author: Syed Ishrat Husain

The day of Ashura is marked by Muslims as a whole, but for Shia Muslims it is a major religious commemoration of the martyrdom at Karbala of Hussein Ibn e Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad pbuh. The Karbala tragedy became the event, as a symbol of the victory of the oppressive majority over the righteous few.Three days after the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain Ibn Ali was buried by his son. His infant was placed on his chest and his elder son at his feet. Bani Asad, a tribe who lived on the outskirts, assisted with burying the martyrs, and a tree was planted to indicate the grave of Imam Hussain. Until today, its old location is indicated by a door to the shrine called ‘Baab Al-Sidrah’ (gate of the tree).

The origins of the name Karbala are contested. In its etymology, Karbala most likely originates from Kar Bel, or Kur Babel, meaning a group of Babylonian villages, that included Ninawa, Al-Nawawees, Al-Hira, among others. Some narrations mention that the Prophet Muhammad pbuh himself during his lifetime mentioned the definition, implying that the word was a combination of Karb (land that causes agonies) and Balaa’ (afflictions). It is said that the land once included an ancient graveyard for Christians and was famous in pre-Islamic times, as part of the cities of the historic Tusuh An-Nahrain, situated on the shore of the old Euphrates River. At the time of the battle of Karbala, the land was uninhabited, though it was rich with water and had fertile soil.

Shia Muslims across the world mark the days leading up to Ashura each year starting from Muharram 1.While Sunni Muslims acknowledge the events of Karbala, and observe a voluntary day of fasting which commemorates the day Noah left the Ark, and the day that Moses was saved from the Egyptians by God.

Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi’i was one of the four Sunni Imams, whose legacy on juridical matters and teaching eventually led to the Shafi’i school of fiqh. He was the most prominent student of Imam Malik ibn Anas, the eponymous founder of the Maliki School of thought. Imam Shafi’i pays tribute to Imam Hussain ibn e Ali:

O who shall be the bearer of a message from me to Hussain?

Slaughtered, though without sin himself,

His shirt as if dyed through with crimson.

Now the sword itself wails, and the spear shrieks,

And the horse which once only whinnied, laments.

The world quaked for the sake of the Family of Muhammad;

For their sake, the solid mountains might have melted away.

Heavenly bodies sunk, the stars trembled,

Oh veils were torn, and breasts were rent!

He who asks blessing for the one sent from the Tribe of Hashim,

But attacks his sons; truly, that is strange!

And if my sin is love of the Family of Muhammad:

Then that is a sin from which I do not repent

Let the people observe Ashura the way they like to observe it. Let us not judge each other, let Hussain Ibn Ali unite us under the flag of Humanity

Mourning for the incident of Karbala began almost immediately after the battle. The first assembly of the Commemoration of Imam Hussain ibn Ali is said to have been held by Zainab Bint Ali in prison.Popular elegies were written by poets to commemorate the Battle of Karbala during the Umayyad and Abbasid era, and the earliest public mourning rituals occurred in 963 CE during the Buyid dynasty.

Processions are taken out across the continents on the day of Ashura. Shias across the world express their mourning in various ways.The Tazia, for the uninitiated, is a replica of the shrine of Imam Hussain is a key feature of the Muharram processions throughout Pakistan. Tazias tend to cross sectarian and even religious boundaries, with Hindus and Sikhs. Taziadari is a mixture of all the cultures, beliefs and faiths of the subcontinent and can be said a great religious unifying factor.Historians trace the tradition of the Tazia to the invasion of northern India by Tamerlane in the 14th Century.

The Tazia of the Ustad in the city of Saints Multan leads the procession with the Tazia of the Shagird at the back, symbolizing the student’s respect for his teacher.Ustad Pir Bakhsh designed the five storeys Tazia. The Tazia is a 27-foot structure with seven storeys, made completely out of teak wood which appeared early in the morning of Ashura whereas the five storey Tazia of Shagird appear by noon on the day of Ashura.The Ustadwala Tazia is more than200 years old while Shagirdwala Tazia is more than 70 years old.

On the other hand Chiniot is home to the oldest and finest Tazias in Indo-Pak subcontinent. Chiniot, in the Jhang district of the Punjab, is famed for its woodwork and the Tazia benefits from this local expertise. The craftsmen of Chiniot, who are engaged in making furniture for most of the year, consider it a point of PRESTIGE and a mark of their exalted status among their peers, in terms of expertise as well as spirituality, to be associated with Tazia making.

In a region that has become known for its religious and sectarian conflict, Tazias or representations of the tombs of the imams, which form part of Muharram processions, are a reminder of a more harmonious time. Lovingly constructed with great devotion and attention to detail, Tazias are often built by Barelvi Sunni Muslims in Chiniot no one can differentiate between Shiite or Sunni devotees during the performances of the Muharram rituals. In fact, with a few exceptions, almost all Tazia artisans belong to the Sunni sect.

Shah Jamal Wala Tazia, one of the oldest Tazias of Jhang, has the same form as the Lal Nath temple in Jhang city. The form of the Tazia closely resembles that of a Hindu temple. The Tazia of Shadi Malang in Chiniot is similar in form to the Hindu temples of Orissa. This is the true legacy of the multi-religious subcontinent where Muslim culture took root amidst the rich cultural landscape of ancient India. Diversities and differences were honoured, and aesthetics as well as human values were cherished to this purpose. Those who carry the Tazia are almost all Sunni and in pre-Partition India were of the Hindu faith.

The respect for and sharing of religious space is also evident in Hyderabad, Sindh, another important centre of Tazia-making. Here the Hindu community is still deeply involved in the Muharram traditions and some members are known to set up Sabeels so that no one is denied water even as they recall the thirst of the martyrs of Karbala. Again, all the Tazia-makers in Hyderabad are Sunni, and they see the craft as a distinguishing feature that keeps alive their identity as immigrants.

(Tazias of Chiniot by Ghulam Abbas)

Let the people observe Ashura the way they like to observe it. Let us not judge each other, let Hussain Ibn Ali unite us under the flag of Humanity.

The writer is a traveller and freelance writer based in UK

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