This is the fourth in a series of personal reflections during the blessed and holy nights of Muharram. Read part five.
Sitting on the balcony of my room, I was holding a fallen autumn leaf and had started to contemplate the beauty of its colors. After a while I tried to look around the street in order to perhaps recognize the tree on which this fallen leave had taken its last breath, a task that happened to be quite daunting as I was holding a maple leaf and the entire street I live on is filled with maple trees.
On the porch of my building was lying a violet, albeit, a dying one. I grabbed one of its petals and came back to the balcony in order to drink from the remaining coffee I had left. I thought about the miracle of life and the almost inconceivable and mystifying lessons one can learn from the beauty of its cycle. I had in one of my hands, the petal of a beautiful dying violet, and on the other, a maple leaf blessed with one of the truest venetian red color whose beauty would have put any blossoming flower to shame. When I thought about both of them having reached the last stages of their existence on earth, I tried to ponder over the life they must have lived.
How fascinating it is that strongest of the trees in the planet, whether living a solitary desert life or in a thriving forest, were all in their most primitive forms, a mere seed, that could be blown away by the slightest mood swings of an autumn breeze. How bewildering is the fact that the most beautiful flowers on earth, were also in their early days, in the form of a flimsy seed whose outer appearance said nothing about their future beauty.
While pondering over how marvelous the leaf and the petal I was holding would have been at the peak of their respective springs, I tried to contemplate on the seed of love for Aba Abdillah (as) planted in my heart and started to draw a comparison of its evolution with the life cycles of the leaf and petal I was holding.
In the first three entries of this series of reflections for Muharram, I ended each piece with the following conclusions: the seed of love for Imam a-husayn had been planted in my heart by my mother’s devotion for the household of the Prophet (sawa). Once the seed was planted, it needed water, and as astonishing as it might seem, the only thing that could quench its thirst, was the thirst of Aba Abdillah (as) himself. Like any other evolving flower, the seed of love was growing and it had to face its first winter. Last night, I came to the conclusion that it was through the resilience and the resistance of Imam al-Husayn (as) that my love gathered enough energy to stand up and face the harshness of this seemingly lifeless season. Every time the growing flower would lose a petal; a voice deep within its stem would whisper words of patience along with an ayah from the Qu’ran:
“Indeed, with hardship comes ease.” (94:5)
And indeed after winter, came spring. I would like to continue the discussion started on the first night of Muharram where I have tried to answer the following question: what does Husayn (as) mean to me? And what did his love do to me? In today’s entry, I will try to recognize the one aspect of the mourning of Aba Abdillah (as) which came as blessing in my life. That blessing was the one rain that my soul needed in order to heal scars that its first winter had left on its petals. That blessing came with the earliest rays of the sun uncovering its face behind dissipating clouds, announcing the first days of spring. That blessing was called azadari, or the rituals of mourning.
Light upon light, may this light never fade
Fire upon fire, may this fire never wane
Flames upon flames, may his love always spread
From my chest to yours, may the beating never stop
From my tears to yours, may ours eyes always shed
From my lips to yours, may his name always rise
From my pen to yours, may this ink always flow
From my blood to yours, may our hearts always bleed
Azadari or the rituals of mourning Imam al-Husayn (as), has a pluralistic meaning as it expresses itself in various ways amongst the different cultures of Shia islam. Since I grew up in a Pakistani household, I would like to primarily define azadari as the eulogy recited for Imam al-Husayn (as) in the forms of nohas (lyrical prose) and marthiyas (poetry).
My love for azadari in its poetic form came so naturally that I didn’t even realize it had become an essential part of my existence until the day I was deprived from it. From an early age, I was introduced to Urdu poetry by my mother. Because we spoke urdu at home, I was at ease with the language and became a de facto reciter of nohas in our mosque during Muharram.
I think we all have an emotional relationship with azadari. One of the reasons why I think we do is because azadari in its more ritualistic form is one of the first aspects of the mourning of Imam al-Husayn (as) that everyone, and especially kids, can emulate without necessarily understanding the depth of its meaning.
I have already stated that as kid, there were some aspects of the mourning of Imam al-Husayn (as) that were so deep and difficult to grasp even for some adults that it was unreasonable to expect from a child to understand them. Besides the thirst of Imam al-Husayn (as), there wasn’t a lot I could really relate to while attending majalis (gatherings). I could see my father and other adults nod their heads when the alim (scholar) would reveal deep insights on the message of Aba Abdillah (as), but as much as I tried to understand them, that form of remembering the Kings of Martyrs, Imam al-Husayn (as), was just not suitable for my love to grow.
But as soon as the lights would turn off, and the poetry would start, dozens of kids would join the lines alongside the adults as their hands would come down on their chest in synchrony, uniting fathers and sons in the mourning their beloved. Azadari had this power that erased differences of understanding, of knowledge, and age. The scholar was reciting the same poem as I was, my father’s hand came down when mine would, and the only thing I wished for at that time, was for azadari to never stop.
I am obviously conscious of the fact that my love for the eulogies of Imam al-Husayn have evolved just like it must have for everyone else. As a kid, I used to wait eagerly for Muharram and ask my uncles in Pakistan to send the latest cassettes of Nadeem Sarwar. I would memorize them as soon as I would get a hand on them and recite them at the center. I am sure it comes as no surprise to some readers, especially young males who grew up in Indo-Pakistani family, when I go forward and say that at this age, a lot of kids recognize themselves in matam (beating of the chest) and often, the harder they beat themselves, the greater the sense of belonging was with for their Imam (as). As much as this relationship between the physical pain perceived during azadari and the intensity of one’s love for Imam (as) might seem questionable, I find that there is some fundamental truth in it, especially considering the innocence of a child.
The perception of pain is a complex subject and when it comes to applying its science to the mourning of Aba Abdillah (as) whose essence itself is beyond our understanding, it becomes difficult to understand the various ways in which azadari can be related to. From my understanding, the reason why as a child, I used to feel I had to beat my chest harder and harder to feel the love of Imam al-Husayn (as) was because that was the only pain I knew existed. It is much later in time, when I became an adult that I realized that other forms of pain existed besides the one felt physically.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure to visit the center of my Iraqi brothers, a center where majalis and azadari are both held in Arabic, and it precisely because I couldn’t understand the language that I came to a significant realization of what azadari meant to me today.
I was seated during the majlis and was listening to sheikh (scholar) mentioning the name of Muslim ibn Aqeel again and again. As I could sense the trembling in his voice, my own started to fade and a distinct discomfort took over my throat as breathing became harder. At the end of his lecture, lights were turned off and the scholar started chanting the tragedy of Muslim ibn Aqeel. His words were spoken in Arabic, but when they resonated in my mind, they resonated in Urdu. They struck the deepest chords within me and I couldn’t hold my tears in any longer.
Finally the time I was eagerly waiting for came. I naturally stood up and joined the ranks of my brothers and the beating of the chest began. As I was trying to get accustomed to the rhythm used in Iraqi eulogies, I found myself taken away by the emotions of the poems recited. I didn’t understand most of them, but each one of them that I understood came as an arrow on my chest piercing my heart allowing the fragrance of my love for Imam al-Husayn (as) to melt with the fragrances of what Imam al-Husayn (as) meant to other mourners present in the gathering.
A few minutes after the beating had started, I left the congregation and sat lamenting on the ground for I had come to a fundamental realization. My love for Imam al-Husayn (as) and his azadari was such that it no longer relied on physical pain. I could even caress my chest thinking of al-Husayn (as) and still cry out of pain for the arrows that pierced the throat of Ali Asghar. My devotion for Imam al-Husayn (as) didn’t rely on a language anymore, just the thought of his name was enough to unleash the oceans of love his personality had filled my heart with.
The reason why I feel the name of Imam al-Husayn (as) and the eulogies that have been recited on his name have been the spring that made my love for him to blossom, is because they are the pinnacle of the spiritual journey that leads one towards the highest levels of mysticism. There is no coincidence in the fact that the greatest philosophers and mystics of our time be it Sayyad Bahrul uloom, Mullah Sadra, Allamah Tabatabai, Shaheed Mutahhari, Imam Khomeini, Ayatullah Baqir al Sadr or Ayatullah Bahjat were all known for their love for Imam al-Husayn (as) and were often seen performing azadari in public. Allameh Tabatabai and Imam Khomeini have even written poetry on their love for Imam al-Husayn (as).
One cannot attain a certain level of irfan (mysticism) and spiritual wayfaring without surrendering completely to the divine in absolute selflessness. The reason why Imam al-Husayn (as) has become the one personality that helped mystics attain the level they have reached is because his stand was undoubtedly the most perfect definition of what it means to surrender and submit to the will of the Almighty.
I would like to dedicate this piece to all mourners of Imam al-Husayn (as) who continue to face immense tragedies in order to safeguard and propagate this azadari. I would like to dedicate this piece to the mothers who continue to send their kids to public gatherings where mourning rituals are performed despite knowing that their sons and daughters might never return. Finally, I would like to dedicate this piece the greatest of Imam al-Husayn’s mourners, Imam al-Hujjah (aj), whose utmost solitude is a tragedy reminds me the solitude of Aba Abdillah (as) himself–may Allah (swt) hasten the reappearance of the awaited savior and make us amongst his loyal companions.