Even after my faith has faded, the markings of Ashura are still etched on my mindby Maan Al-Yasiri / September 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
When I was five years old and living in Damascus, I witnessed the massacre of a small rebellious army led by the Imam Hussein, a saint for Shia Muslims. My grandmother and I watched as men in bloodied white robes barely fight off the more numerous army of a corrupt and unjust ruler.
Thankfully, it was make-believe. The play soldiers were re-enacting the Battle of Karbala, a now holy city in Iraq. The battle, fought on the 10th October 680, is marked by Shia Muslims as Ashura, on the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram. Ashura is the sect’s foundational story. It’s the earliest story I can remember. There was a saintly hero who was brave, merciful and devout. He led his family and a small band of supporters to bring justice to the Ummah, the Islamic community. He fought with skill as often shown in films and cartoons.
I was captured by the story and its morals as a child. I don’t remember ever not knowing that he did, however, die and become a martyr. I imagine the first time I heard it, in my infancy, I heard its ending first. The Imam was a martyr because God rewarded him for his struggle for justice. It’s a story that, to me at least, extolls struggle as a prerequisite for reward. Ever since, Ashura’s lessons, chiseled by family, battle re-enactments, eulogies, films and cartoons, have remained in faded but still visible engravings in my mind.
This year, Ashura falls on the 10th of September. Shia men and women will gather in separate halls to cry and beat their chests in rhythm with a eulogy sung by a trained, and likely also crying, orator. The Shia cry and hurt themselves to feel closer to the suffering felt by the Imam Hussein and his family. It is said the family and their military supporters numbered around a hundred while their adversary, the corrupt Caliph Yazid, had an army in the thousands. There’s a variety of slightly different retellings of the story but the most charged typically include scenes of Yazid’s men burning tents of women and children and tearful descriptions of Yazid beheading the Imam and then parading his head along with the Imam’s captured but not cowered sister, Sayyida Zaynab ibn Ali, on the route to Damascus, Yazid’s imperial seat.
This basic summary of the story does not quite capture all the small details that bring millions of people to tears and, for many, to self-flagellation. Most of the Shia who do self-flagellate just beat their chest in unison. It creates a macabre sound when overlain with a eulogiser’s retelling of the misery and struggle. The graphic descriptions inspire others still to whip their bare shoulders with heavy steal chains, sometimes attached with small and sharp blades. A few go further still and take part in a ritual called tatbir that’s prohibited by most of the highest echelon of Shia clergy. The men who practice tatbir make incisions into their heads and then beat down the blunt edges of their swords onto the open wound, thereby staining their white robes with righteous blood.
When the Shia mourn Ashura in this way, they act out the moral of what we’re told happened in Karbala. The last time I beat my chest, I was physically accepting that pain and struggle brings eventual reward. The Grand Ayatollahs promised that feeling a modicum of the pain felt the Imam brought us closer to them and more likely to be rewarded in this life and the next. They no longer convinced me by the time I was fifteen and I stopped beating my chest. A few months later, I stopped praying. I stopped finding comfort in faith and the Imam. While I thought I had completely wiped out any faith or religious thoughts, in hindsight, I still felt that, as inspired by Ashura, nothing good can come without suffering.
Years later came another moment of profound suffering. I was seventeen and my uncle had kicked me out of my room in his house. It was the summer, so I had yet to start school. I had my phone and some money in my bank. I called my mother and grandmother, who live in Iraq. My mother cried and panicked without knowing what to say. My grandmother was more resolute. She reminded me of the story of Ashura, which, for a devout elderly lady like her, is often on her mind. She said that my temporary struggle would, with some prayer, grant me eventual success either in this life and the next, insha’allah, if God wills it. Our difficulties, she said, make us better people. I roamed central London for a day and night with new-found serenity. Nothing good, I remember telling myself, can happen to you without some suffering. I was seventeen and the “something good” I yearned for was a good university and some stability.
I ended up sleeping in a friend’s living room for forty days (I’m indebted to them). I then rented a room from an English family for a year before I started university. When I was briefly out on the street, my grandmother’s words calmed me down. She was the first to verbalise an idea that informed how I interpreted the world and one which, in retrospect, I held all along, whether devout or not.
However, a few months after I found a new home and was removed from the anxious episode, I began to question the idea. I berated myself for believing something so nakedly religious while claiming to be free of my religious upbringing. I turned to a more secular schema: things, whether good or bad, just happen, I told myself. This interpretation, which refuses meaning or place in narrative, replaced the perfect and coherent explanation of life within Ashura and Shia Islam more widely. It was my final lingering remnant from a religious childhood. Only then, somewhere in Richmond, did the engravings of Ashura finally begin to fade.