Bahrain: For Every Day Is Ashura...
The story of Shi'ite Ashura is the story of Imam Hussein and Karbala, and tellings of this story form an important part of Ashura commemorations. I heard an excellent telling as part of a sermon at the Islamic Awareness Centre in Manama, which serves the twin purposes of providing Ashura activities for Bahrain's community of English-speaking Shi'ites, which seemed to be mainly converts and guest workers, and allowing curious visitors the chance to see firsthand what the holiday was all about. While listening to the rising and falling, quickening and slowing, tones of a speaker, one Mahdi Ali, I glanced at a small pamphlet of quotes by and about Imam Husayn which I had been given, and saw one from Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which said, "In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader." It is obviously not a happy story. On a short tour of Manama, I saw part of a play being performed by a local women's group about Hussein's sister Zainab receiving the news of his death. Most of the lines seemed to be weeping. On the tenth night of Ashura, people gather in groups segregated by gender to hear renditions of the story. The family of my former student Kamel Hubail kindly invited me into their ma'tam, a place for religious functions other than praying, perhaps somewhat analogous to the Christian church hall as opposed to sanctuary, where people from around the neighborhood also gathered. The proceedings had a delightful informality which reminded me of the way my own family marks Christmas Eve, with a designated reader flipping through a book looking up the relevant passages until about 7:30 p.m. asking if everyone was ready to start.
Shi'ites see generational parallelism in the rivalries of two clans, the B. Hashim of Muhammad and the B. Umayya. Abu Sufyan of the B. Umayya was an opponent of Muhammad in the Prophet's lifetime, and converted to Islam only when he felt no other choice to preserve his standing in the community. His son Mu'awiya was the opponent of Ali, the Prophet's nephew and son-in-law whom Shi'ites believe was supposed to lead the community as the first Imam, or living guide to the Qur'an's meaning. Mu'awiya then eliminated the early Muslim practice of consultation in determining leadership positions and forced everyone to accept his son Yazid as heir. Yazid, in the Shi'ite reckoning, and for that matter in most of the Sunni, is the tyrant extraordinaire who sought to destroy Islam and revive many of the pagan ways. Almost any vice you can think of, whether in terms of what we might today consider personal and public morality, is attirbuted to Yazid. Upon coming to power, Yazid sought to bolster his religious legitimacy by extracting an oath of loyalty from Hussein as Muhammad's grandson, an oath that would be to him personally rather than to his guardianship of the tenets of Islam. Those who refused were killed. Imam Hussein, rather than take such an oath, and left the vicinity of Mecca and Medina where he was based, leaving a letter with his brother which said, "I have not come out to stir emotions, to play with discontentment, to provoke dissension or to spread oppression. I wish to bring the Umma back to the path of Amr-bil-Ma'arouf and Nahyi Unil Munker. I wish to bring them back to the path of my grandfather the Messenger of Allah and of my father Ali b. Abi Talib."
The brief tour of Manama I referred to above was my first night, and organized by the Islamic Awareness Centre. There were only three or four of us that night, which was early during the commemorations. There were also some newspaper photographers, following us around, though I never got around to checking to see if we made the paper. In any case, Kamel, in explaining who I was, kept promoting me to a professor who had come to Bahrain to learn about Ashura, after which they began taking a special interest in me, photographing my every movement. We were also presented with many items, such as cardboard maquette of what I think is the shrine at Karbala. I was also presented with a giant poster of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. A running joke during my trip was that I would be able to run for public office in Bahrain; if that particular photo ever surfaces, Bahrain might be one of the few countries where I can =) In any case, the place where we stopped for the longest was at an art gallery where a group of mainly college-aged women were producing and displaying artistic interpretations of the Ashura events. Because I was apparently such a VIP, myself, Kamel, and an Indian guest worker associating with us were invited back into the studio section to ask questions of the artists as they prepared their works. I don't think I lived up to my billing, as I really had very few questions, though fortunately the Indian guy did. Sidling around the Bahraini paparazzi, I did talk to one girl who was painting Hussein's body being watched over by doves. The girl said that the dove was an Islamic symbol of peace, and they were with Hussein because he was a man of peace who fought only because he had to, ultimately in the service of peace against Yazid's tyranny.
When Hussein and his followers left Mecca, they headed toward Kufa, where a follower of Hussein named Muslim b. Aqil had gathered thousands of followers who claimed they would support him in an uprising against Yazid. Yazid therefore sent his governor of Basra, Ubaydallah b. Ziyad, to Kufa, with orders to bring the situation under control. Ubaydallah entered the city in disguise, and many hailed him, believing him to be Hussein. When he reached the citadel, however, he revealed himself and angrily swore to kill Muslim b. Aqil and any who remained with him. At this, many of Muslim's followers began melting away, until none were left for fear of Ubaydallah and Yazid. Ubaydallah then took Muslim, had him decapitated, and threw his head down from the citadel as a warning to the crowd. No one would be waiting for Imam Hussein in Kufa. Word of Muslim's death reached him through a detachment of Yazid's troops, who invited him to surrender. It may be that this is when he gave in reply these words before the multitudes: "This world has changed and its good has turned tail. Nothing has remained from it except a thing that is as scanty as the leftover of a cup and a mean life that is like a noxious grazing. Have you not noticed that the right is ignored and the evil is not forbidden? People are certainly the slaves of this world; religion is but a slaver on their tongues. They turn it wherever their livelihood demands. If they are tested by misfortunes, the truly religious ones will be but few." Being an imam, Hussein had known all along that there would be no military victory, and had discouraged many from following him. They did anyway, hoping for positions of prominence in the new regime. Like in the movies, Hussein now declared that anyone who wished could leave him. Unlike in the movies, all but a few dozen did.
Hussein's loyal companions each have their own story, and their names are remembered with honor by Shi'ites. One night we stopped at a small village in northern Bahrain, decorated much like Shi'ite neighborhoods in the city with black banners strung across the streets and large displays similar to nativity scenes showing scenes from Karbala. On the wall of a building along the main street was a list of all the companions, and someone directed my attention to one named Yahya (John), who was said to be a Christian, evidence that Hussein's call resonated across religious boundaries. Each night of Ashura, the first ten nights of the Islamic month of Muharram, are dedicated to an important companion. The ninth, for example, is for his nephew Qasim b. al-Hassan. Qasim was only 13, and Hussein kept insisting he was too young to accompany him on a suicide mission. Qasim, however, had a letter from his father, the late Imam Hassan, saying something along the lines that, "A day will come when my brother Hussein will be facing an enemy army of tens of thousands. That will be the day when Islam can only be saved by great sacrifice." That second sentence points to something important: Shi'ites believe that, even though he and all his followers were killed, Hussein won at Karbala, that the actions of Yazid and his followers shocked everyone out of their complacency and led them to recall truth and righteousness. One of the most common words describing Hussein's actions I saw on banners and in the newsletters and pamphlets I acquired is "thawra," or "revolution." Again, this was not only a revolution against Yazid, but in metaphysical terms the beginning of a revolution in human attitudes and behavior that continues to this very day. At the IAC, a young girl named Latifa was brought in to lead a prayer for the coming of the Mahdi, the Shi'ite messiah, and she was introduced as "a bright little soldier in Hussein's army." Children are often seen running around in green and black headbands and carrying banners with Ashura-related slogans.
Hussein and his followers continued until they reached a hot, desert spot along the Euphrates. The Imam asked its name, and when told the spot was called "Karbala," declared that this is where they should stop. There they were surrounded by Yazid's army, cut off from the water. More and more soldiers kept coming to the enemy ranks. Hussein and his followers were being tormented by Yazid's forces, mainly over the issue of food and water. Among the stories of this theme are that Hussein went to beg water for his six-month-old son Ali the Small, trapped with him in the camp. This was refused, and an enemy soldier, tired of the infant's cries, shot an arrow which pierced him in the neck, killing him. Another is that of Abu al-Fadl Abbas, Hussein's strongest warrior, who broke through the ranks enough to get some water, but refused to drink of it himself and tried to carry it back for the women and children. Naturally, it is said that Hussein's followers had been willing to share their supplies with Yazid's forces earlier.
One of the most important aspects of Bahraini Ashura commemorations in Bahrain is all the free food and drink. Many people set up stands where they offer a given food to anyone who wanders by, and every year the newspapers report on the vast sums of money spent for this purpose. It lends Ashura a strong community feel, as people feed not only their friends and neighbors, but people like the poor guest workers who head into the Shi'ite neighborhoods knowing they can get a good meal. When I wandered off the beaten path in Manama or stopped in a small village, I found people who thought it especially important to feed the foreigner, as well. The theory behind this is that all the food and drink is from Imam Hussein, though of course in practice you only learn that from the banners at a few of the feeding places or from little kids properly learning about their religion who give that reply when you thank them for handing you a cup of tea. I tried so many Bahraini dishes in this manner, but the one people seemed most impressed that I ate was Bacha, mainly small pieces of bread seasoned and spiced and served on a platter under some sheep part, with the head considered the most flavorful. The Hubails serve this every year, and this year acquired 220 sheep heads alone for the purpose. In addition to such "main dishes," there are people who specialize in snacks, such as felafel or somozas, the latter a popular import from the Indian guest workers now found throughout the islands.
The story of Karbala ends with the massacre of Hussein and all his companions on the 10th of Muharram, the actual day of Ashura. In some ways, however, that was only the beginning, as his sister Zainab was left alive, taken prisoner, and became a witness to all the lands of what had transpired. This is why Zainab is just as much a part of Ashura as Hussein. Among the cutest spectacles of the tenth night was two toddlers dressed up like Hussein and Zainab respectively. These were widely photographed standing next to each other by bystanders. She enjoyed the attention, but he was more interested in finding some food or maybe getting to ride one of the horses.
The most visible aspect of Ashura commemorations are, of course, the all-male 'azza processions which make their way through the streets mourning the death of Imam Hussein and his sacrifice for the world. The core elements are someone to recite the 'azza pronouncements and rows of men performing some form of rhythmic self-flagellation. Occasionally if the main reciter senses the procession's energy sagging, he'll get them involved in the chanting of key lines. Most people, such as those in the 'azza of Manama's Ras Rumman neighborhood that I was a part of, seem to just lightly hit their chest with an open palm. Others get more into it, though at the gritty intersection of religion and human nature you find plenty of young people who just want to show how tough they are. Others use a special kind of short chain struck over the shoulder. Officially there's some sort of schedule for all the 'azzas, but it never actually works out, and people wind up having to stop and wait for others to get out of their way at popular intersections. Once we were stuck forever, the occasion for the young man next to me to note that you always want to avoid being stuck behind the really long 'azzas. Then someone else had to wait on us; while they were shorter, they had a fancy banner and decorated coffin unlike our simple procession. The full variety of 'azzas started to become apparent one night when I just stood at a spot near the center of Manama and watched them all go by, featuring all manner of banners, sometimes horses with little kids riding on them, chants of all rhythms, and once even a marching band called "Lovers of Hussein" with white and black uniforms playing a mournful dirge. The longest, most elaborate 'azzas start after midnight and go until the wee hours of the morning; some of them seem almost professional based on the rhythms and patterns they achieve with their chanting and chains.
I've tried to keep a strict focus on religion and spirituality here, because so often people examining Islam start from a political perspective I thought it made sense to get grounded in the faith and culture before anything else. I do need to write a second post dealing with the political texture of events and Bahrain today. Some of this is straightforward religious politics, as there was a fight going on over control of the Ras Rumman ma'tam between followers of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i and another ayatollah named Sadiq al-Shirazi. I asked one middle-aged man what he thought about it, and he just grunted and said that this month was for Imam Hussein, not for ayatollahs. I tried to ask how many had his attitude, but it wasn't really a good question, as in truth everyone has a preferred religious stance and a limit to how far they'll go before they decide given practices or teachings are unacceptable and break with the community. What all Shi'ites can agree on, however, is the importance of Imam Hussein and Karbala. I did a bit of googling, and found lots of interesting quotes about him, particularly from India, which has a large Shi'ite population. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, once said that, "Imam Husayn's sacrifice is for all groups and communities an example of the path of righteousness." More decisively, Mahatma Gandhi claimed that, "I learnt from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed." This quote is well-known, seen on posters and banners around Bahrain, and through it, Shi'ites are willing to give Hussein grandfatherly credit for all those whom Gandhi himself inspired. Thus does the revolution continue.