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Spirituality In Muharram

by Sister Tahera Kassamali

The month of Muharram heralds a time of grief and mourning for the Shi’a community. The remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala and the suffering of the beloved holy family evokes much sadness in those who love them. People become whole heartedly involved in Azaa - lamentation and mourning rituals which keep the memory of the tragedy alive.

The Azaa of Muharram has historically been an important factor in the preservation of the Shia community and their religiosity. It was started immediately after the tragedy of Karbala Imam Husayn’s sisters Zaynab and Umm Kuthum, wife Umm Rabab and daughters Fatima and Sakina. History has preserved moving eulogies (marthiya) of these great ladies. Azaa was also practiced during the times of the Imams after Imam Husayn (a), each of whom grieved for the tragedy of Karbala and encouraged their Shi’ahs to do so too. Their poets recited moving poetry on the tragedy and the Imams invited people to listen and weep over the tragedy. During the ghaybat of the present Imam, scholars took upon themselves the duty to continue such gatherings. They introduced prose into the majlis of Azaa, expounding on certain islamic principles before moving on to the masaib or narration of the tragedy itself. Later, public demonstrations on the tragedy of Karbala began. Passion plays on the tragedy also became a part of Azaa in certain cultures.

Soon Azaa of Imam Husayn became an established institution with the followers of the Ahlul Bayt (a). The platform given to scholars and preachers became one of the most effective means of Amr bil Maruf and Nahi anil Munkar in the community. Huge crowds filled the Mosques and Imambarghas, Husayniyas, and Islamic Centers during Muharram and Safar. Azaa reminded the community of Islamic principles, tightened social and communal bonds between the members, and created an emotional outlet for the attendees.

There are many benefits of participating in Azaa correctly. Some of these include:

1) Closeness to Allah

Majlises of Azaa bring a renewed spirit of connectedness to Allah. Preachers remind people of the principles of worship and servanthood. They use verses of Quran, hadith, events and stories from the lives of the Ma’sumin and their disciples, etc. in the majlis before talking about Imam Husayn (a) and the tragedy of Karbala. The inspiration gained leads to a better realization of the human being’s responsibilities to Allah.

2) Dedication to the Principles of Imam Husayn (a)

Mourning for Imam Husayn (a) means upholding his principles both at an individual and a social level. Imam Husayn (a) taught the true principle of Tawhid - how to be dedicated only to God and seek always to attain His pleasure. He demonstrated through his words and actions that nothing else mattered and if personal comfort and pleasure had to be sacrificed for the sake of God’s mission than it was a matter of honor to do so. At a social level he taught the lessons of rising against oppression, taking a stand and not being afraid to speak out.

3) A Renewed Commitment

The inspiration that Azaa gives is a boost to faith and determination. It breathes new spirit into the lives of believers and helps them in their challenges. Through the lessons of sacrifice, strength, bravery, . . . gained from Karbala a fresh commitment is made to submit to and obey Allah in all aspects of life.

It is important to that to remind ourselves that Azaa should not become just a ritual remembrance, with much attention given to tabarruk (food) and black clothes. That diminishes its spiritual impact. Every majlis must reflect the noble goals of Azaa. An effective majlis can differ from the norm and could include (some different) recitations such as a small passage of the Quran with English translation to start the majlis, poetry in English so the audience can feel the emotional effect, a short clip on Karbala . . . etc. Creativity in Azaa within Islamic principles breaks the monotony of ritualism. Those who hold majlises must also refrain from being part of a competition in how such gatherings are held, what type of food is served, how many people attend, etc. This is very far from the goals of the institution, especially from the great unprecedented sacrifice of Imam Husayn, his family and his devoted companions.


Sister Tahera Kassamali - Originally from Kenya, Tahera Kassamali works as the Outreach coordinator and Instructor at the Academy for Learning Islam. She has a B.A. with honors in English literature from the University of Alberta and a B.Ed from the University of British Columbia. She has also studied in the hawzas of the Middle East. Sr. Tahera brings many years of experience as a female lecturer in the community and teacher at Islamic schools.

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