Who is Teaching Whom?

So many times I open this blog and just sit here, stare at the screen and wonder how to say what it is that I have to say.  And then when I finally figure it out, I quietly close the empty window and sign out.  I’ve thought about it and the only reason that comes to mind is that once I have sorted out the words, more often than not, the whole issue seems trivial and not worth anybody’s attention.


But today is different.  Today was one of those days that started out one way and ended up another.


It’s the eve of the 25th of Muharram.  Exactly one fortnight after Ashura.  Only fourteen days.   And yet, if you look around, chances are life has gone back to normal for the majority of us Shias.  We go about our business – school, work, and home – like nothing happened. 


Like we didn’t just spend the first ten days of Muharram remembering Karbala, like we didn’t listen to the sermons and feel inspired to change, like we didn’t shed more tears in one day than we have for anyone we love in a lifetime, like mourning for Imam Husayn (a) wasn’t the sole emotion that occupied our hearts for the ashra*.


Our remembrance seems to reflect our understanding and appreciation of what happened in Karbala.  We say with our tongues that the sacrifice made that day was for all of humanity and that our tears are what water the seeds of change within our selves.  We speak of the fact that there are lessons to be learnt, mannerisms to be adopted and causes to be supported from this tragedy. 


But once the days of actual mourning are past, we forget the rest of the tragedy.  How are we to learn the message, if we walk out before the delivery is even finished?  Beginning with the 11th of Muharram, the day after Ashura, Karbala takes on a new meaning.  A meaning that passes us by completely.  How many of us read of the journey of Imam Zayn al-Abideen (a) with the women and children through the deserts, through the marketplaces and through the courts of tyrant kings? 


How many of us make an effort to find out what they said to the crowds and the content of their many sermons?  These women had watched their sons, brothers and husbands being butchered, their children had been orphaned and then they were taken as shackled prisoners through the cities of their enemies.  Where did they find the strength to speak up against the oppressors and uphold the truth?  What sincerity was their words that made people listen and inspired rebellions and uprisings five years after their delivery?


Muslims have a habit of speaking about how Islam respects women and the great status we have in the Islamic society.  But perhaps we don’t give the best examples to support these statements.  Rights to inheritance, education, work – all these are unique in Islam.  But I think the most unique of them all is what is reflected through Karbala.


Where else is the perfect partnership of male and female showcased?  Where else is the strength and special qualities of each gender used to present such a perfectly united front?  No one denies that without the women of Karbala, there would have been no Message, no Revolution, no Mission, no Victory.  Who would have known of the atrocities committed in one scorching afternoon on the plains of a barren, unknown desert, if the women had not carried the message into the streets of every city they were paraded through?


And yet one cannot help pondering on what was required by each side.  The men fought in thirst and hunger, but they fought in one day as free men and died on the battlefield as free men.  The women fought in equal thirst, but they fought after suffering grief and pain, after being tortured and enslaved – for one whole year.


It is no wonder then that even the great scholars of Islam, the men we all look up to as the learned amongst us- even such men consider themselves servants of these ladies.  Why then have we forgotten them?  Where is the reflection of this knowledge, of this strength and dignity in the Muslim women of today?


When we went to the mosque tonight, one of my students from three years ago called me aside and said that she just wanted to tell me that she remembered something I had said in one the classes at that time.  I had asked them to think about Muharram and told them that instead of seeing Ashura as the climactic end of it all, we needed to remember that Karbala and its aftermath stretches over two months and ten days. 


I had said that we needed to wake up every morning or pause every day and wonder what the caravan of our 4th Imam (a) and the women and children would have been suffering at that time thirteen centuries ago.  To remember that the journey was not made up of the one-hour recounts of history that we sit through, but that it was a suffering that they lived through second by second for days, weeks and months.


What would they have been going through at this very moment so that we would have the Islam we have today; so that the principles of truth, integrity and dignity we are so proud of would reach us intact?


At first, I was chuffed that she remembered after so long.  I thought to myself “This is one of those moments when teaching is worth every stressed minute of research, planning and putting up with attitude.”  But after she left, I wondered if it wasn’t actually a lesson for me. 


I haven’t done much remembering this year.  I haven’t stopped to think as often as I used to.  How could I expect the kids to do something and then not do it myself? 


The odd thing was that we decided to go to mosque at the very last minute tonight.  So going and then having her come up to me to say just that and nothing else, it seems like one of those ‘meant to be’ incidents.  Perhaps, God is trying to tell me that I shouldn’t forget to practice what I preach.


And perhaps that’s one of the quirks of teaching.  That sometimes, your students teach you the very lessons that you thought you were teaching them.



Bint Ali

*ashra: ten days


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