Night 5: Unity Through Your Fragrance

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Gazing through the window of my office room at university, I started to observe the behavior of pedestrians walking on the street on this rather warm day of fall. I saw teenagers chatting amongst themselves, some college students socializing on their phone, professionals carrying groceries home, elderly individuals walking towards the hospital, and some kids running towards the park with soccer balls in their hands.

The neighborhood I work and live in is probably one of the most diverse in the city. One gets to meet a variety of people from different ethnic backgrounds, speaking different languages, following different religions, and attending different universities. The diversity can become so overwhelming that sometimes, one might even think if it is even possible that such a model of society could coexist peacefully anywhere else on our planet.

There are several different species of trees planted along the street of my faculty building which meant that sidewalks were decorated by a tapestry of leaves of different shapes, sizes, colors and origins. I found it interesting that for once, man and nature didn’t seem to send conflicting messages. It seemed as if they were united in their diversity. Both conveyed a unified and synchronized expression of life by the thriving diversity emanating from a man made society, and the natural diversity that took place in the forms of fallen autumn leaves.

As I gazed again towards the sidewalks on which colorful fallen leaves had become the ultimate expression of the diversity that existed amongst various creations, I came to an interesting realization. Out of all seasons, fall was painting a picture of diversity through the different shades of colors varying from green to orange. When I thought about it a bit more, I realized that fall was probably the best season to appreciate diversity of fading lives. But if one wanted to appreciate the diversity of thriving, blossoming and forever blooming lives, one must breathe from the flavors of spring and appreciate the endless shades of pigments that Allah (swt) has blessed our earth with.

The expanded range of colors one could observe in spring was not the only reason why I came to this conclusion. Spring is also the hallmark of one the most marvelous expressions of floral beauty. Spring is the time when flowers blossom, finally revealing what lies in their heart when they unveil distinct and complex fragrances they had been keeping from themselves and from the world all along.

In the fourth piece of this series entitled ‘your name was my spring’, I came to the realization that azadari (rituals of mourning) was perhaps the most significant aspect of the legacy of Imam al-Husayn (as) I could relate to as a child and whose new understanding and meaning I discovered made the seed of Aba Abdillah’s (as) love to blossom in my heart. Now that the seed had evolved and bloomed, my love of Imam al-Husayn (as) was able to reveal its true colors and fragrances, which are both characteristics that define the very essence of a flower. The natural thing to do now was ponder over changes that accompanied the spring of azadari. If the flower had blossomed, what were its new colors? And if its petals had expanded their wings, what fragrances were now able to leave their nest and fly in the search of their beloved Husayn?

In this fifth piece, I will continue to answer the same question I have been trying to elucidate since the start of Muharram. The question is the following: What does Husayn mean to me? What did his love do to me? Because the seed of Imam al-Husayn’s (as) love had now reached maturity, the following pieces of reflection will solely tackle aspects of Imam al Husayn’s (as) love that define my love for him today. Amongst the many aspects of Sayyid as-Shuhada’s message I hold dear in my heart, the one aspect that perhaps impacted my personality the most was the humanitarian message of the Imam (as) and how it united people around him.

In the midst of time, believers had gathered
At the call of “Hal min nasir,” 72 had answered

Together in selflessness, their ego they had shattered
They attained “al-mutmaina,” and nothing else mattered

Nainawa became the land of an untold prophecy
Where freedom was defined for the entire humanity

They emptied their jealousy, their heresy, their rivalry
They brought about loyalty and wrote their own destiny

They rose above family, ethnicity, any kind of heredity
“I am a lover of Husayn,” only that was their identity
The overwhelming presence of information flowing on our tablets, phones, computers, and TVs has radically shifted our perception of Imam Husayn’s (as) identity in our lives. From a figure that our parents and grandparents kept in their hearts and places of worship, only letting their love to be outwardly expressed during annual Ashura (tenth of Muharram) processions, we have now entered an era in which Imam al-Husayn (as) has never been more universal and omnipresent, a statement which reminds of a very famous Urdu poem from Josh Malahabadi which translated reads “Let humanity awaken, and each tribe will claim Husayn as their own.” I cannot express how accurate Malahabadi’s words are when it comes to our era of time.  

I remember how as a kid growing up in France, a country known for its disapproval of public display of religion, Imam Husayn (as) in our lives was kept in our hearts and in our mosque. Most followers of the household of the Prophet (sawa) did not share the beauty of their role models to people they interacted with on a daily basis, hence anyone you would meet in the streets of Paris who was not a Muslim wouldn’t know anything about Ashura and the greatness of Imam Husayn’s (as) sacrifice, let alone the fact that he was the Prophet’s (s) grandson. Because of France’s history of colonization, most Muslims who lived on its soil were from North Africa. There were mostly Sunnis, and often had never been told about the tragedy of Ashura. So to be more accurate, the only ones who would be aware of the existence of a figure in history of the grandeur of Imam Husayn (as) were typically the followers of Imam Ali (as).

How contrasting is the scenery I just painted to the streets of most Western cities where campaigns such as, and Ansar Day are now held throughout the yearly calendar? As a matter of fact, I have seen recently pictures of Paris of young Shia members of the very mosque I used to visit distributing flowers to pedestrians and sharing with them the greatness of our Imam (as). Streets where I used to keep Imam al-Husayn’s (as) name in my heart and in the earphones of my Walkman, were now displaying banners with my beloved’s name and water bottles distributed commemorating the legacy of his stand.

I wonder what brought the change. How did this evolution happen? How did we decide to bring Imam al-Husayn (as) from the intimate layers of our spirituality and bring him out for people to come and unite under the banner of his love?  I tried to give this question a thought and every time a logic that would perhaps shed light on the processes that unfolded this new reality, all possible explanations brought me back to the day of Ashura and the land of Nainawa itself.

Karbala is a never-ending source of life lessons and wisdom. The only reason why its impact hasn’t always been meaningful in our lives is because we tend to observe events that occurred in Karbala through the lens of our own sensitivities and cultural background.  Often when I grew up, I listened to lectures in Urdu. The scholar would come from Pakistan or from the Muslim majority states of India. Because of the way they had listened to the majalis (gatherings) when they were young and because they lived in parts of the world that did not face the specific diversity of immigration that most Shias lived on a daily basis in the Western world, messages that were highlighted from the plains of Karbala were those of a sister’s devotion for her brother, an uncle’s love for his three-year-old niece, a son’s courageous adhan (call to prayer) and last fight, and the thirst of an innocent baby.

Although each of those events define in their own way what happenened in Karbala,  limiting our majalis with the only repetition of those historical events would be in my opinion an insult to the depth and grandeur of Imam Husayn’s (as) movement. I am a fierce believer in the fact it is precisely the emotional quotient, the gravity and beauty of those historical events that have made Karbala’s message to survive till today. But instead of limiting ourselves to the physical oppression that befell on Imam Husayn (as) and his family, we must start to take lessons on the message underlying the outer reality of those actions.

It is precisely after pondering a bit more about the events of Karbala that one will realize that each and every individual present alongside Imam al-Husayn (as) was a living definition of unity attained through humanity.

If we were to analyse the cultural, religious, and political allegiances that defined the ansar (supporters) of Imam al-Husayn (as) we would soon realize that it is an erroneous statement to say those who accompanied him were either his family or followers of Imam Ali (as). Amongst the most famous ansar of Imam al-Husayn (as) is Hurr, whose name is often heard when eulogies are recited  during the first ten nights of Muharram. We all know that Hurr was not a companion of Imam al-Husayn (as), on the contrary he was the one person who stopped our Imam (as) on his way to Kufa. Although we could surely extract the humanitarian and unifying fragrance of Imam al-Husayn (as) from his encounter with Hurr ar-Ryahi, I would like to recall the life of another ansar in this piece; Wahab al Kalbi.

Wahab al Kalbi was a Christian before he met Imam al-Husayn (as). He was in his teens, had just married and was returning to his family with his mother and bride. When his caravan met Imam Husayn’s (as), Wahab was overwhelmed by his sincerity, politeness and the truth of his stand, which led him to share his perception of this encounter with his mother. Here is an extract of what Wahab told his mother:

“In my opinion Husayn (as) is on the just path and it would be cowardly and against all traditions of Arab chivalry and gallantry to leave the side of a man so isolated and surrounded by blood-thirsty enemies.”

The mother said: “But that means definite death.” Wahab replied: “Yes I know, but my heart tells me that this is the right thing to do, in the circumstances.” The mother then said: “If that is how you feel then we will stay with Husayn.”

I would like to stop here for a while and think about this conversation. Imagine yourself, as a Christian, with your mother, and having just experienced one of the most important events of your life in the form of your wedding. We have to understand that a wedding is not only revered in the Islamic faith but holds an equally important place in all religions of the book. Therefore, we are here in a situation in which a non-Muslim man had encountered Imam al-Husayn, a man with which, religiously speaking, he had no affiliation whose words had such an impact on his life that he was ready to leave his newly married wife and mother, convert to Islam, and attain martyrdom, which to my knowledge is something that would demand a sheer amount of trust and love in the veracity of his stand, a love that perhaps most people who claimed to be Shias of Ali (as) didn’t even possess themselves.

Wahab is just one example of the impact of Imam al-Husayn’s (as) message on individuals that did not share his religious views. Zuhair is another example. According to Shaheed Mutahari in his book Spiritual Discourses, Zuhair was known as a dissident of Imam Ali (as) since he believed Imam Ali (as) had a role to play in the death of Uthman. How did it happen then, that after a conversation with Imam al-Husayn (as), a dissident of his father would decide to leave his life behind and join the ranks of the Prophet’s (s) grandson?

It is when you ponder over such events that you realize the name of Husayn (as) itself is the definition of humanity and therefore it is not surprising that his stand has become the flag under which people gather and unite. It is while re-discovering Karbala through the lives of the supporters that one comes to the realization that it is only natural for people of various faiths to be touched by the message of Karbala. It is only natural for campaigns in the name of Imam al-Husayn (as) to be held in the streets in every part of the world. It is only natural for Muslims to unite during Muharram and mourn as brothers. It is only natural that the name of Husayn (as) would inspire interfaith dialogues and conversations amongst spiritual leaders of different religions. It is actually the confinement of Imam al-Husayn (as) within the four walls of our hearts and mosques that contradicts the essence of his message. Imam Husayn’s (as) stand was a fragrance, not a caged bird. Let it waft in the universe for its blessings to shed its humanitarian message. The Imam (as) fought for freedom. So let us uncage our love so that it may fly towards others in order for them to experience the ultimate flavor of freedom through the name of Husayn.

I have said it numerous times in various pieces of this series; Imam Husayn’s (as) message and especially his mourning was the spring that made the flower of his love to blossom in my heart. There are millions of flowers on this world whose beauty remind us of our Creator’s majesty. Flowers that are different in shape, colors sizes and fragrances. Yet, all those flowers blossom only from the love of one season: spring. Husayn is a universal spring. You don’t need to be Shia, a Muslim, or a believer in God for his name to inspire you. What you need is a heart. Husayn’s love will do rest.     

I would like to dedicate this piece to the followers of Imam Husayn (as) who are continuously spreading the love of their beloved in the streets of their respective cities. I would like to dedicate this modest piece to those who are making people otherwise unaware of Imam al-Husayn of what his message was. I would like to dedicate this piece every human being that bloomed under the spring of Imam al-Husayn, sharing the fragrance of Karbala on every land they stepped on.

The caravan of Hussain, is forever waiting
Waiting for its ansar, al-Mahdi is aching
So let’s join it together, and awaken our consciousness
Let’s join our Master together, together in selflessness

Editor’s note: This is a part of a series of personal reflections during the blessed and holy nights of Muharram by guest contributor, Reza Abbas Farishta. Read more here.

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