As we formally end the Ayyam Aza (days of mourning) for Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) with Eid Zahra this week, it is an apt moment for us to critically examine a growing debate in our communities on the issue of Azadari (mourning traditions). With the rise of religious awakening in the Western Shia community, it is quite satisfying to see believers who are intent on not just mourning the tragedy of Karbala, but also applying the message of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) on an individual and social level.
Unfortunately for many individuals, this emphasis on practical reform has often been accompanied by scorn and ridicule towards the traditional aspects of Azadari – dismissing them as “backwards”, “cultural”, and therefore, “un-Islamic” – and a call to “reform” Azadari to “contemporize” it and make it more “relevant” for the 21st century Western Shia.
In this issue, as in any other religious matter, we must turn for guidance towards our righteous scholars and Maraja Taqleed (Religious Authorities). As those who have visited Najaf in recent years will testify, whenever Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani has been asked for his opinion on the matter, he has urged believers time and again to transmit Azadari to their future generations in the exact same manner that they acquired it from their parents and ancestors (except for any forbidden practices). Indeed, he states on his website, “It is not appropriate of the mourners to violate the commemoration method received by the righteous predecessors (Salaf-e Saleh) in mourning the martyrdom of the Lord of Martyrs, Imam Hussain.”
Similarly, Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani, a leading scholar in the Islamic seminary of Qom, said in a recent lecture, “The smallest word spoken against the Hussaini rituals breaks the back of the Seal of the Prophets (peace be upon him and his progeny). These Azadari rituals, these chest-beating rituals, these chain-beating rituals have the highest need of being protected and preserved. Woe unto those people who wish to erase these Hussaini rituals!”
It goes without saying that we would be doing a great disservice to the Imam and insulting his memory by mourning his death without acting upon his message. And it is indeed frustrating to see those who will give their lives for Azadari but fail to pray on time, observe Hijab, pay Khums, or follow any of the obligations of our faith. Similarly, for reverts and second-generation immigrants, some of these Azadari rituals and traditions do not make much sense. For such individuals, it is of course necessary to perhaps develop new traditions (poetry slams, English Latmiyyas, etc.) that they find culturally relevant and relatable. But neither of these factors gives us the right to judge anyone’s intentions, nor does it give us the right to scorn Azadari and the traditional mourning rituals. Instead, what is incumbent upon us is to make an attempt to understand these rites, their history, symbolism, and significance, and why they mean so much to millions of Shias in the West and around the world.
Tone Down the Crying and the Matam
Apparently it makes some of us uncomfortable to see grown adults sobbing uncontrollably during the tragedy narration. Can’t we just do it silently? Similarly, we see the people who get extremely passionate and start beating their chests uncontrollably, sometimes without their shirts on, and we furrow our brows and sigh at how “ignorant” and “uncivilized” some of our brothers are.
It is narrated from Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq that Imam Zainul Abideen (peace be upon them) cried over Imam Hussain for over 20 years, and “never would any food be placed before him that he would begin to weep.” (Bihar al-Anwar)
Imam Sadiq has further said, “O Lord, have mercy upon those eyes which have shed tears in compassion for us, and upon those hearts which have been restless and blistered for us, and upon those loud shrieks which have been [uttered] for us.” (Ibid.)
The immense emotional outpour as a result of remembering this tragedy is therefore not an act of ignorance but rather a tradition and recommendation of the Ahlul Bayt and a sign of the believer!
On a historic note, it is recorded in Fawaid ar-Rijaliyah that once when Sayyid Mahdi Bahrul Uloom was walking through the streets of Karbala with some students, they came across some mourners who were passionately beating their chests for Imam Hussain. As the students looked at them with some scorn, suddenly Sayyid Mahdi Bahrul Uloom took off his turban, unbuttoned his shirt, and also began beating his chest vigorously. The astonished students attempted to control him, but to no avail. When he finally stopped, the horrified students asked him why he had started doing Matam in such an “undignified” way and lost control over himself, despite being the greatest Shia scholar of the time. Sayyid Mahdi Bahrul Uloom replied, “How could I not do what I saw my Imam doing?! When I went close to the group of mourners, I saw my Imam. His head was uncovered, and he was grieving on my grandfather (Imam Hussain) and doing Matam with the rest of them!”
A more recent example of such unbridled passion for mourning Imam Hussain is the famous video of Martyr Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim reciting the tragedy narration in Qom a few years ago on the Day of Ashura, when he neared the end and began crying and striking himself uncontrollably.
We Don’t Need Nauhas and Latmiyyas
I pray on time, I observe Hijab, I pay Khums, I organize all sorts of youth activities – so why should I waste my time listening to and reciting Nauhas? Instead, why don’t we cut out the Nauhas and just have a longer speech? Isn’t the learning part what’s more important?
Imam Sadiq is reported to have said, “There is no one who recites poetry about Hussain and weeps and makes others weep by means of it, except that Allah makes paradise incumbent upon him and forgives his sins.” (Rijal al-Shaikh al-Tusi)
Similarly, elaborating on the great rank of those who recite poetry for the Ahlul Bayt, the late Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Behjat stated, “The brethren who are busy lauding Ahlul Bayt, those who recount the virtues of the Imams and the tragedies that befell them, must know their station, what action they undertake and why. They must know that they are practically implementing the commandment of being ‘kind to the Prophet’s kindred’ to which the Holy Qur’an refers. Whether they recount the virtues of Ahlul Bayt or their tragedies, they thus repay the wage of conveying the Message and keep people firm on the path of the Qur’an. The Qur’an states the following: ‘Say: I do not ask you for a reward for it other than being kind to my kindred.'” (42:23)
Can’t We Spend this Money in Better Ways?
Every year the Shia world spends millions of dollars on Azadari, the Majalis, the speakers, the food, etc. If we saved all this money, just think how many schools, orphanages, and libraries we could build!
No one is downplaying the importance of libraries, schools, and homeless shelters. Indeed, we as a community have a great obligation towards those who are less unfortunate and in need of our financial assistance. But when it comes to these projects, why do we overlook our huge bank balances and are so quick to pounce on the funds that have been appropriated for the Azadari of Imam Hussain? If someone wishes to show his/her devotion by sponsoring dinner at the mosque one night, what gives us the right to dismiss the person’s sincerity and bemoan the “waste” of money that could be spent doing “so many better things”?
A deeper answer to such objections was given by the late Imam Khomeini. Following Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, thousands of refugees from western Iran were relocated to temporary housing within Tehran. As the month of Muharram approached, some people urged Imam Khomeini that instead of spending so much money on Azadari that year, the funds should be used to provide housing and shelter for the refugees. The Imam replied that the Azadari funds were not sufficient enough to provide housing for even half the refugees. The Azadari and mourning sessions for Imam Hussain should still go on, he insisted, and as a result of the blessings of this Azadari, we will receive enough from Allah that we will be able to house all these refugees!
These Replicas Are Hindu Traditions
The Imams never decorated the walls of their mosques with Alams or create miniature replicas of shrines or cradles or coffins or horses. In fact, aren’t these a bunch of Hindu traditions that have seeped into our Azadari and should therefore be eliminated?
In regards to the Alam, we must realize that it is a replica of the flag and the standard of Islam – the standard under which 313 believes defeated an army of over a thousand at Badr, the standard which was planted by Imam Ali (peace be upon him) on the fort of Khaybar, the standard that Abul Fadhl al-Abbas (peace be upon him) lost both arms trying to protect, and the standard under whose shadow the Awaited One (may Allah hasten his reappearance) will receive allegiance from his followers.
As far as creating replicas of the shrines is concerned, it is interesting to note that Allama Majlisi has narrated from Shaikh al-Mufid and Sayyid Ibn Taoos in the recommendations of 17th Rabi al-Awwal: “If you wish to do Ziyarat of the Holy Prophet at a place other than Medina, then after doing Ghusl, make a small replica of his grave in front of you, and write his name on it. And turn your heart towards him and recite…” (Zaad al-Ma’ad)
Furthermore, we must know the importance of imagery and symbolism when it comes to understanding and appreciating religious values, especially for ordinary people. The most obvious proof of this is in the fact that we turn and pray towards an empty black cuboid five times a day. Or, when we visit the shrines, we hold on to gold and silver cages and beg the Imams to grant our desires. It is not the bricks of the Ka’ba or the gold sarcophagus enclosures that we care about; it is those who symbolically reside within each of these physical constructs whom we venerate.
We keep replicas of the shrines for the same reason that we hang up posters of the Ka’ba or the Prophet’s Mosque – because they remind us of the holiness associated with these locations, and being unfortunate in that we cannot be there physically, the ability to at least touch and kiss these replicas provides somewhat of spiritual relief to a soul yearning nearness to its Masters buried in Karbala and Najaf. We honor the cradle because it represents not only the cradle of Ali al-Asghar (peace be upon him), but also because it symbolizes the purity and innocence of those who were massacred on Ashura. We shoulder the coffins (Taboot) as a sign of eternal defiance towards the oppressors who did not allow a funeral for the Prophet’s grandson and left his body on the hot plains of Karbala. And we kiss the Zuljana because it symbolizes to us that final companion of the Imam who demonstrated to us the true embodiment of loyalty and courage till the very end, the faithful stallion who refused to abandon its master amid a storm of arrows, spears, and stones.
It is true that many of these symbols and practices are cultural in their origins and were not venerated or recommended by the Infallibles. But if they serve as a means of attaining the nearness of the Infallibles, surely they deserve our full respect and reverence.
Why Do We Have to Sit on the Floor?
We live in the West now – why do we still have to take off our shoes and sit on the floor?
To answer this question, we must understand the sanctity and holiness of these gatherings. The Imams have taught us that angels and Allah’s mercy descend upon any gathering where the virtues and tragedies of the Ahlul Bayt are remembered. Traditions tell us that Lady Fatima Zahra and Imam Zainul Abideen (peace be upon them) are in attendance during every mourning session that is held for Imam Hussain.
We sit on the floor because it is the Sunnah of the Infallibles, and that is how they conducted their Majalis. And according to the Holy Qur’an, when Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) approached the burning bush, he was told, “O Musa: Surely I am your Lord; thus, take off your shoes, for surely you are in the sacred valley Tuwa.” (20:11-12) Therefore, taking off our shoes and sitting on the floor is the least we can do to express our respect and consideration for these sacred gatherings. Indeed, marching barefoot during the processions for Imam Hussain is a practice of many of our highly esteemed scholars and Maraja.
Living in a multicultural society and trying to attract the maximum number of non-Muslims towards Islam and the message of Imam Hussain, it is easy for us to dismiss the ritualistic elements of Azadari as “cultural”, intimidating towards reverts and non-Muslims, or even outright unnecessary. Similarly, when we see certain members of our communities going at length to commemorate the suffering of Imam Hussain without acting upon his message, it is tempting to question the very purpose of this Azadari.
It is perhaps necessary to develop new methods of Azadari to cater to the needs of reverts and second-generation immigrants, and it is indeed saddening to see some Shias giving more importance to Azadari than to implementing the message of Imam Hussain. But neither of these factors gives us the right to dismiss, scorn, or belittle Azadari and the rituals which have been developed over generations and which hold a very sacred spot in the hearts and minds of millions of believers, especially if they have been deemed permissible by our Maraja Taqleed. Indeed, to condemn Azadari because certain people take it to extreme levels or have introduced elements of Shirk into it is no different from the Wahabis who wish to destroy our holy shrines because some people exaggerate the status of the Ahlul Bayt, or the non-Muslims who condemn Islam because of the actions of a few extremists and terrorists.
In the words of Imam Khomeini, “I pray to Allah to grant us success to observe the Ashura rites as we did before and in traditional forms; let processions be as forceful as before, with people beating their chests and reading elegies. Be confident that your life is dependent on these ceremonies, elegies, congregations, and processions.”