The History and Philosophy of Aza’ al-Husayn – Part 1
Over one thousand three hundred and fifty years ago, on the 10th of Muharram, just before ‘asr, a man stood on a sand-dune at Karbala’. He was bleeding from several wounds on his body. He had lost everything. Since early morning he had carried several dead bodies into his camp. He had even buried his infant child.
He looked at the bodies of his loved ones. Tears flowed out of his eyes. He looked at the sky and seemed to draw some strength from an unseen source. Then, like a muezzin from a minaret, he raised a call: “Is there anyone who will come to assist us? Is there anyone who will respond to our call for aid?”
He turned direction and repeated the call. He did this four times.
Whom was he calling out to? Surely he was not expecting anyone to come to his aid. Those who wanted to help him had already crossed the lines and laid down their lives for the cause. He knew there was no one left. He knew that there was no other Hurr. And yet, meticulously and laboriously, he made sure that his call reverberated in all directions.
Of course that call was a call to Muslims of every generation in every land. It was a call to us where ever we may be. It was a call for help. Help against Yezeedism which in every age rears its ugly head to oppress justice, truth and morality. Our Imam was calling out to every Muslim of every age and time to combat Yezeedism, both within himself and as an external force.
This was his battle cry for jihad-ul-akbar. He had already demonstrated that his objective had always been to create a spiritual awakening through amr bil ma’ruf and nahyi anil munkar. Now he was calling out for the continuation of this jihad at the individual, social and political levels.
Evolution of Aza
Muslims, and more particularly the Shiahs, have answered this call with the unique institution of Aza’ al-Husayn. With every tear that we shed for him we pledge to resist the oppression of injustice, immorality, inequity and falsehood. Every time we raise our hand and bring it down on our chest in matam, we are saying: “Labbaik, Labbaik Ya Mawla!” to our Imam Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAWA).
For long the word Aza’ al-Husayn has been exclusively used in connection with the remembrance ceremonies for the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Aza’ al-Husayn includes mourning congregations, lamentations, matam and all such actions which express the emotions of grief, anger and, above all, repulsion against what Yazid stood for. These emotions, however, remain futile and hypocritical unless accompanied by a will to reform both at the individual level and the community level.
The term majlis has both a grammatical meaning and a meaning which relates to Aza’ al-Husayn. In its technical sense, a majlis is a meeting, a session or a gathering. In reference to Aza’ al-Husayn, it means a gathering to mourn Imam Husayn. In this sense it was first used by our sixth Imam, Ja’far Sadiq (A.S.) It is reported that his companion al-Fudhayl Ibn Yasaar came to pay his respects to the Holy Imam.
After the exchange of usual courtesies, Imam asked al-Fudhayl: “Do you people ever organise majaalis to recall the martyrdom of Imam Husayn?” Al-Fudhayl, with tears pouring down his eyes, replied: “Yabna Rasulillah, indeed we do.” The Imam said: “May Allah bless you. I highly approve of such majaalis.”
On another occasion, the poet Ja’far ibn Iffaan recited to our Imam al-Sadiq a poem on the tragedy of Karbala’. The Imam began to weep uncontrollably. He then addressed the poet in the following terms: “O Iffaan, do not think that it is only those whom you can see here are listening to your poetry. In fact Allah’s closest angels are present here at this majlis and they are all listening to your recitation and they too lament and weep. May Allah bless you for what you have recited. He will, inshallah, reward you with paradise for your efforts on our behalf.”
Aza’ al-Husayn was a phenomenon which gripped Muslim conscience immediately after the tragedy of Karbala’.
The first majlis al-Husayn was recited in the market-place of Kufa by a lady from whose head her veil had been ripped off, whose hopes and aspirations had been destroyed on the blood-drenched sands of Karbala’ but whose indomitable spirit stepped forward to free the Islamic values from the yoke of tyranny and oppression. She was the first one to answer the call of Imam Husayn. Standing on her unsaddled camel, she looked at the multitude rejoicing the victory of Yazid. As soon as people saw her, they were quiet.
They knew that a historic moment for Kufa had arrived. Looking straight at them, the daughter of Ali said: “Woe upon you O people of Kufa. Do you realise which piece of Muhammad’s heart you have severed! Which pledge you have broken! Whose blood you have shed! Whose honour you have desecrated! It is not just Imam Husayn whose headless body lies unburied on the sands of Karbala’. It is the heart of the Holy Prophet. It is the very soul of Islam!”
The first majlis touched and moved the people of Kufa so deeply as to give rise to both the Tawwabun movement and al-Mukhtar’s quest for vengeance.
Ten days after Ashura, a messenger from Yazid arrived in Madina. His name was Abd al-Malik ibn Abi al Harith al-Sulamee. He came to tell the Governor, Amr bin Said al-Aas that Husayn ibn Ali had been killed in Karbala’.
The Governor, more conscious of the mood of the people, said that he himself could not make the news public but Abd al-Malik, if he so wished, could make the public announcement. Abd al-Malik announced the news after the morning prayers.
There was such intense weeping and wailing from the homes of Banu Hashim that the very walls of masjidun-nabawi began to tremble. Zainab, Umme Luqman, the daughter of Aqeel ibn Abi Talib came out screaming: “What will you say when the Prophet asks you: “What have you, the last ummah, done with my offspring and my family after I left them? Some of them are prisoners and some of them lie killed, stained with blood. What sort of ajr al-risaalah is this that you disobey me by oppressing my children?”
Fatimah Bint Huzaam, also known as Ummul Baneen, carried her young grandson Ubaidullah ibn Abbas and prepared to go out. When asked where she was going, she said that she was taking the orphan of Abbas to offer condolences to the mother of Husayn.
Marwan ibn Hakam reports that every afternoon men and women would gather at Jannat-ul-Baqee and there would be remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala’ and the weeping and wailing could be heard miles away.
When the prisoners were finally freed by Yazid, they asked for an opportunity to have rites of remembrance in Damascus. A house was made available to them and Aza’ al-Husayn went on for over a week. Just as Hadhrat Musa Kalimullah had been raised in the palace of the enemy of Allah, Firaun, Bibi Zainab laid the foundation of Aza’ al-Husayn in the very capital of his murderer!
On their return to Madina, Bibi Zainab took over the leadership of Aza’ al-Husayn in the city of the Holy Prophet. This aroused such strong emotions in the people and such revulsion against the oppressor that Amr ibn Said ibn al-Aas wrote to Yazid to have Bibi Zainab exiled from Madina. This was done in the beginning of 62 A.H. Bibi Zainab died shortly afterwards.
Both the 4th and 5th Imams greatly encouraged Aza’ al-Husayn. In their times Aza’ al-Husayn had to be performed in utmost secrecy as the regime was opposed to any remembrance of Karbala’. The poets who composed elegies and the devout Shiahs who attended the gatherings at which these elegies were recited did so at the risk of their lives. Nonetheless, the poets continued to pour out their emotions in their poetry.
Some of these poetry are extant today and one can see the intensity of faith and sadness enshrined in the words of the poets.
Gradually, the institution of ziyarah came into being. People would visit the graves of the martyrs and there perform Aza’ al-Husayn. Our Imams wrote for them ziyarahs to be recited. One of these ziyarahs is recited today by us and is known as Ziyarat al-Warith.
When we examine Ziyarat al-Warith, we can see not only a testimony of the greatness of Imam Husayn and the moving sentiments describing his sacrifice for the cause of Allah, but also a solemn pledge and a commitment by the reciter: “And I make Allah, His angels, His prophets, and His messengers, witnesses to the fact that I believe in Imam Husayn and in my return to Allah. I also believe in the laws of Allah and in the consequences of human actions. I have subordinated the desires of my heart to his (Imam Husayn’s) heart and I sincerely submit to him and (promise to follow his commands)”
Clearly, this undertaking was never meant by our Imams to be an empty ritual. Recitation of Ziyarat al-Warith is a commitment to Imam Husayn’s cause made in the presence of Allah and the angels and the prophets and the messengers and in full awareness of the final accountability of human action. One must always reflect upon the seriousness and solemnity of this pledge.
Until the time of ghaibat al-kubra, we find that our Imams always encouraged Aza’ al-Husayn. They saw in Aza’ al-Husayn not only a demonstration of grief for Imam Husayn and the martyrs of Karbala’ but also a renewal of one’s commitment to Allah and His laws as expounded in the Holy Qur’an and the ahadeeth.
We have records of the sayings of the representatives (Naibs) during ghaibat al-Sughra explaining and encouraging Aza’ al-Husayn. From 329 AH onwards the fuqaha and the ‘ulemas took it upon themselves to perpetuate the message of Karbala’.
Shaykh Ibn Babawayh-al-Qummi better known as Shaykh as-Saduq who died in 381 AH was the first scholar to have introduced prose as medium of conveying the message of Imam Husayn. He would sit on a pulpit and speak extempore while many of his students sat by the side of the pulpit and recorded the speech. His speeches have been preserved and to this day are known as the Amali (dictations) of Shaykh Saduq.
Public demonstration of grief first occurred in 351 A.H. On the 10th of Muharram, there was a spontaneous procession in the street of Baghdad and thousands of men, women and children came out chanting “Ya Husayn! Ya Husayn!” beating their breast and reciting elegies. In the same year, a similar procession took place in Egypt. The regime tried its best to stem the tide of Aza’ al-Husayn but failed. Very soon Aza’ al-Husayn became an institution with deep roots in the hearts of Muslims. Majlis evolved into an institution for amr bil ma’ruf and nahya anal munkar as well as reminder of the tragic events.
As Islam spread, different cultures adopted different modes of Aza’ al-Husayn. Taimur Lang introduced the institution of tabut and alam in India. As Islam spread southwards on the sub-Continent, the form underwent changes to take into account local cultural influences so as to portray the message of Karbala’ in the medium best understood by the local people, both Muslims and non-Muslims.
By the beginning of the 19th Century, there was not a corner of the world, from Spain to Indo-China, which did not have some form of demonstration on the 10th of Muharram.
The form varied from country to country. In Iran, the most popular form has been passion plays as a medium transmit the message of Karbala’ in addition to the majaalis from the minabir.
In India, the Ashura processions became part of the Indian Muslim culture. Even the Hindus participated in these processions. The Maharajah of Gwalior was always seen walking behind the ‘alam of Hadhrat Abbas barefooted and without any insignia of his exalted office. Marthiyas and majaalis were such strong influences on the Muslim population that they helped strengthen not only their Islamic beliefs but also their political resolve.
History reports that even Gandhi on his famous salt march to protest against the oppression of the British Raj took 72 people with him in emulation of Imam Husayn protest against Yazid’s oppression.