Monday, February 20, 2006

Silent No More

""I learnt from Husayn how to be wronged and be a winner."
~Mahatma Gandhi

I know it has been a while since I’ve blogged but I guess I kinda had a blogger’s block if you will. It has taken me a while to write this piece as I mulled over all the thoughts in my head. This year marked my 2nd Muharram experience in DC and it has been significantly different from last year. This year, I have many more Shia friends and actually was able to go the various mosques in the area. I have never been “mosque-hopping” before & it was definitely an interesting experience.

Since I have always been so strongly rooted in the Khoja community & most of our mosques function similarly (just like Wal-Mart!), it was weird not knowing my way around the mosque or what to expect. The two mosques I ended up going to were South Asian and it was the first time I was the minority within the broader Shia community: the traditions at Idara Jafaria in Maryland was pretty similar to what I am accustomed to but the Mohammadia Center in Virginia was just fascinating. Firstly, since this community is in the process of building a permanent center, the majalises were held at a “Chutney Banquet Hall” which I found pretty amusing. The one thing that was intriguing for me is how the members of this community would place a huge variety of South Asian sweets & desserts by the alams & replicas of the shrines and then pass it around for everyone to taste. And whenever I refused for the fear of gaining weight during the 12 days, the ladies would disapprove because it was seen as refusing “blessed food.”

This Muharram, I was surrounded by people whose last names were: Naqvi, Rizvi, Shirazi, which clearly indicated that their families have been Shias for centuries. Although my ancestors have not always been Muslim and converted to Shiasm a few centuries ago, it made me appreciate my Shia heritage even more and regard the legacy of Imam Husayn (AS) & Bibi Zainab (AS) as a gift to our community.

Although I did gain new information at the lectures in both mosques, I was disappointed by the content most of the time. Unfortunately, I have given up the hope of expecting to be inspired by speakers at any of the mosques I attend – it seems to me that most of them are completely disconnected from political or social reality and the issues affecting the community. What also bothers me is how the role of women in Kerbala is not emphasized enough. For instance, it irks me when lecturers stress that Bibi Zainab’s (AS) courage came from her father Imam Ali (AS) & her grandfather Prophet Muhammad (SAW) while ignoring the fact that her resilience was also due to her amazing mother Bibi Fatema (AS) & grandmother Bibi Khadija (AS).

This Muharram, my friends & I also discussed the role of traditional azadari (mourning) such as matam & zanjir in today’s society. We debated whether it was relevant & helped convey Imam Husayn’s message to the rest of the world. I grew up in a very traditional azadari-oriented community & it has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always wondered whether my non-Shia friends & colleagues would cringe at the red marks on my chest caused by my engagement in matam or self-flagellation – would they consider it “barbaric”? After all it is not a normal reaction to grief – it is a learned behavior that I cannot explain but is truly an expression of raw grief that I feel when I remember the tragedy in Karbala.

I’m not prepared to debate whether such expressions of grief should be abandoned but I do believe we need to create alternative forums for Shias & non-Shias to learn more about Imam Husayn and why his sacrifice is relevant today. After all, his message is not one that should be preserved in a time capsule or wrapped up in rituals - truly, every day is Karbala & every land is Ashura & it is incumbent on us to stand up to all forms of oppression in the world today.
Note: The Qunoot Foundation will be holding its second conference on April 1 entitled "Beyond Tears: Examining the Remembrance of Imam Husayn."