The aim of these processions is to carry on the public relations work which was started by Lady Zainab and the holy women in Karbala, and create awareness of Imam Hussain’s sacrifice and his message. Living in the West in the 21st century, it is necessary to understand that in addition to the unparalleled importance of mourning, processions for Imam Hussain should ring truer to the universal message of the Imam – namely, standing up for Islam and opposing oppression.
Processions (Juloos) in the holy months of Muharram and Safar have traditionally taken place in public by mourners of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) for centuries. The aim of such processions is to carry on the public relations work which was started by Lady Zainab and the holy women in Karbala, and create awareness of Imam Hussain’s sacrifice and his message.
Living in the West in the 21st century, it is necessary to understand that in addition to the unparalleled importance of mourning, processions for Imam Hussain should ring truer to the universal message of the Imam – namely, standing up for Islam and opposing oppression.
Of course, depending on the location, culture, and religion of the public in which the procession take place, it is necessary to cater for the public’s individual needs accordingly, and tactfully and attractively promote the relevance and significance of Karbala to every human’s life. It should be noted that processions are a unique aspect of Muharram and not just another “on-foot” remembrance of Imam Hussain.
The following are a few recommendations aimed towards the procession organizers and partakers that we hope will enhance the experience for Shias, non-Shias, and non-Muslims alike:
Donating blood in Muharram is a physical sacrifice we as mourners make to help the lives of others. According to the Red Cross, one blood donation can save up to three lives. It’s a good idea to hold a blood donation session before or after the procession, as the large crowd usually promises a decent amount of donors. Also consider contacting the local newspaper to publish an article about the significance of the group blood donation and Imam Hussain.
This one’s a no brainer. Reciting nohay/latmiyyahs/maqtals in a language foreign to the public doesn’t really help “spread” the message. It is necessary to familiarize people with certain Arabic terms such as Muharram, Ashura, Ya Hussain, etc., but huge four-person banners with messages in Arabic should at least be accompanied by English translations. Additionally, all speeches and even recitations of the tragedy of Imam Hussain, which have the potential to be heard by non-Shias and non-Muslims, should be in English.
Signs and Banners
“Die like Hussain? Saddam Hussain?!” That’s what one of the youth was asked by a non-Muslim while taking part in the procession. Furthermore, if a person has no idea about what a Muharram procession is, and while strolling down the footpath one is to suddenly come across a huge crowd of Muslims holding signs splattered with what appears to be blood, in addition to curiosity, it may very well just be the scariest moment of his/her life. Instead, signs should be attractive with clear, bold, and simple colors. Additionally, dressing babies in bandanas with fake blood and making children wear fake chains isn’t too appealing. While it’s aimed at creating a visual of what happened in Karbala, perhaps we should keep our cultural context in mind and reserve these traditions to the private mourning sessions only.
Etiquette of the Procession
It is one thing to be in the black uniform, but every attendee must also behave accordingly, as we are representing Islam. People holding banners and signs should be smiling encouragingly at the non-Muslims; however, the younger kids and youth should avoid joking around and laughing, as it may distract people’s attention from the purpose and message of the procession. Ideally, all participants (and especially women) should observe proper Islamic dress code, regardless of whether or not we observe Hijab in public otherwise. We should also be extra careful not to accidently litter.
Lamenting in Public
There is no doubt that grieving for Imam Hussain is rewarding, and it should be done in public too. However, it should be done in a careful manner and with proper decorum. Uncontrollably beating the chest should be avoided at all times, as the idea is to not to intimidate the public. Light matam is usually acceptable in public, but it too requires an adequate explanation. Brothers, please avoid removing your t-shirts and garments in public. In addition to people thinking “Muslim men strip in public”, it is also a Hijab issue for you.
Islamic Media and Pamphlets
Any materials to be distributed amongst the public should be properly revised, as this will probably be our first and last chance to get the message across. Ideally, pamphlets should be precise and to the point, with contact details of the local scholars and Islamic centers. Other forms of Islamic media, CDs, DVDs, and books should also be on hand. These will come in handy if we succeed in arousing someone’s curiosity and (s)he comes forward to ask more about the procession and Islam.
Sacred Terms on Freebies
Giving out water, food, and other freebies as Tabarruk always serves as a great incentive for people to come forward and ask what the fuss is all about and it also adds a generous touch to the procession. However, printing sacred terms such as Bismillah and Ya Hussain in Arabic on the freebies is a bad idea. The last thing we need is for thousands of water bottles and pamphlets with our Imam’s holy name thrown in the trash or trampled all over.
Remembering Allah and Prayers
With all the procession commotion, it is important to remember Allah at all times. It’s a good idea to have someone holding the Holy Qur’an and leading the procession. This is symbolic to the idea that Imam Hussain and Karbala was first and foremost about saving Islam and becoming better Muslims by pleasing Allah, and then everything else is secondary. Processions should also be held at a time where congregational prayers can be offered on time. As Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said, “Identify our true followers by their rushing towards prayer as soon as its time sets in.”
Famous Personalities’ Quotes about Imam Hussain
Banners and signs with sayings by well-known historical personalities regarding Imam Hussain adds a nice touch to processions, as more people will be able to relate to our cause. For example:
“I learned from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
“My faith is that the progress of Islam does not depend on the use of sword by its believers, but the result of the supreme sacrifice of Hussain, the great saint.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
“Imam Hussain’s sacrifice is for all groups and communities, an example of the path of righteousness.” ~Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
“If Hussain had fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sister, wife, and children accompanied him. It stands to reason, therefore, that he sacrificed purely for Islam.” ~Charles Dickens
A Universal Procession about Resisting Oppression
While mourning for Imam Hussain, we should also be protesting oppression in our processions. First and foremost, we are creating awareness for Imam Hussain’s cause and standing up for what he stood for. But what better way to promote the cause of Ya Hussain than to condemn the oppression happening today in Palestine, Nigeria, Yemen, and other places around the world? In addition to mourning, we will have a greater impact on the public and attract non-Shias and non-Muslims to the procession. For example, many a times we hear comparisons between the lives and sacrifices of Prophet Jesus and Imam Hussain. As such, it is a good idea to approach churches and explain how both individuals stood up for Truth and justice and resisted falsehood. Not only would this create greater inter-faith awareness, it will invite people from all walks of life, faiths, and nationalities under the banner of Imam Hussain. Once we have everyone’s attention and a significantly larger target crowd, we can use it as a propagation effort, narrate the tragedy of Karbala, and open up the doors of Islam to those who are unfamiliar.
At the end of the procession, it’s a good idea to have a table or stand where organizers, volunteers, and partakers can provide their feedback and suggestions. This is so areas of improvement can be identified, and next Muharram, everyone isn’t asked to think back a year ago. Non-Muslims should also be welcomed to provide their views and ideas. Alternatively, the feedback surveyors can be more proactive by being mobile and walking through the crowd.
The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) said, “Surely there exists in the hearts of the believers, with respect to the martyrdom of Hussain, a heat that never subsides.” (Mustadrak al-Wasail)