Chronicles of Sorrow

Chronicle The First – 2008/2009 (1430 AH)

The Weeping Community

That’s what they call us in some parts of the world. Why? Because we are uniquely a community that begins its calendar with a Season of Mourning; because for almost two and half months at the start of every year, we live in constant grief over something that took place almost 14 centuries ago; because for us, crying over this incident is not only a practice we uphold proudly, but one we look forward to annually with great anticipation.

Yesterday was the first day of the Islamic calendar and this time we’re almost in sync with the Gregorian one. Which is why this year of all others, the difference in how we welcome a new year stands out. For the Shia Muslims in particular – and other Muslim sects in general – the new crescent of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar), is not a herald of celebration or parties. Instead it signals the beginning of a period in which we immerse ourselves in the sweet waters of sorrow. It is a sign for us to put away the fancy clothes, the jewellery, the finery of daily life, and to create a mood of bereavement in our homes. 

When I first sat down to write this article, I wanted to eulogize the Tragedy of Karbala. I wanted to pour out the love I feel for Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Prophet Muhammad and Chief of Martyrs and I wanted most of all to try to explain how all-consuming this emotion is. Knowing, this would be a biased view, I thought getting a few quotes from non-Muslims would help balance the piece. A quick search online brought up hundreds of links, but as I clicked one after another, I was stunned to come across page upon page of mockery, of insults, of pure mean-spirited spite against what happened on Ashura (the 10th of Muharram). The Shia were being called everything from backward to barbaric!

How was I to reconcile this view with what I know I have personally taken part in every year of my life thus far? I know the emotional, intellectual and – most important – spiritual revival that this season brings with it. I have sat through hundreds of philosophical, theological and historical sermons that are given almost every night of these months, each one shaping my character into what it is today.  I know the nobility of the message of Karbala. How is it possible that all this is being viewed in a such a negative light?

It took me hours of frustration and a lot of hurtful site-revisiting to realise that the majority of these comments arose from an lack of cultural understanding and were directed at how different societies commemorate this event. Very little – if anything – was mentioned about what happened on Ashura, its purpose and why we consider it worth remembering and keeping alive.

Many people think of the Tragedy of Karbala as a political battle or a family feud. And there is hardly a soul who can read the actual events and not be moved by the atrocities committed on that day – on a humane level, if nothing else. Yet, the sacrifice of Husayn was not for fame or glory, it was not for greed or to provoke pity. His sacrifice and that of his family was purely to save the true message of Islam: to uphold justice and virtues, and to stand up against oppression and vices.

You may think this is a huge claim to make, and that I’m being more than a little emotionally biased. That’s why I’ve decided to take a fresh look at Muharram this year. I’m hoping to do a series of pieces on the different aspects of Karbala and the message Husayn was willing to give everything up for to save. Maybe, through this, it will be easier to understand why Karbala doesn’t belong to the Shias or even to the Muslims, but to humanity as a whole.

Talk is cheap. And with the recent political climate – locally and globally – I believe many of us know precisely how cheap. Husayn ibn Ali didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, and it was a walk that stunned (and still does) the world.  By doing so he created a Recurring Spiritual Revolution. Every year, people around the world make New Year’s Resolutions. I have no idea when this tradition started, but for Muslims, it began with Karbala. Because at the start of every year, we gather together to re-assess our lives, to re-affirm our principles, to renew our pledge to protest against every form of injustice and oppression so that the sacrifices given in Karbala do not go in vain.

This Thursday, the 1st of January will coincide with the 4th of Muharram. It is the day the caravan of Husayn set up camp on the land of Karbala and the day on which the physical stage for what was to come was set in motion.

A majority of people will be spending the night getting ‘sloshed’ and counting down the seconds to the change of one digit. The world will forget the dead and the dying in the forgotten, forsaken corners of the world and instead celebrate the passing of yet another year. Another year of poverty and oppression, another year of sickness and famine, another year of tyranny and decadence, another year of injustice and war, another year of the gradual extinction of ideals and the profuse abundance of materialism.

But for certain groups of people around the world, partying will be the last thing on their mind. These people will have put all joys – birthdays, weddings, parties – on hold. These people will put on black clothes and sit in simple gatherings to remind themselves of how much was sacrificed centuries ago to infuse a new life into the values they hold dear today. They will shed tears and mourn and gladly allow sorrow to colour their world. And with those tears, they will revive the promise never to ignore or give in to what they know to be humanly and morally wrong, no matter how diluted a form it may appear in. This will be their united resolution for the next year.

I will be one of these people. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

bint Ali


What to expect from these Chronicles:
Islamic theology is based on 5 principles: Oneness of God, His Justice, Prophethood, Divine Leadership and The Return (or The Accounting), so I’m hoping to briefly address each of these. (Think of them as very basic primers.)  Human beings can never stop debating about Freedom of Will and Pre-destination, the responsibility to enjoin good and protest against evil, of the need for laws and Man’s relationship with God. There are plenty of misconceptions about the Islamic view on these topics, and many times the views of other faiths are assumed to be the ones of Muslims.

It seems fitting to explore them, because not only do they each connect to Karbala, but they also form the core of the message that was saved and preserved by the sacrifices of that day.


For Facebook readers:

> If I’ve tagged you in this note, I know you. Well enough for you to drop me a line and say you’d like off the list if you don’t have the time or inclination to receive the rest of these chronicles.

> Whether you stay on or off, I hope you do go and read more on Karbala simply because I cannot write everything in a note. I recommend starting from here.

> Once you’ve read the positive and negative opinions (there’s a multitude of both) – please ask. Come back here and question, or ask the people handling the sites you go to. But ask. Again and again until you find answers that satisfy you.

> The point here is dissemination of information, and my friend’s list is small ‘n cozy, so do me a favour and disseminate at your discretion!