Battle of Karbala


Muharram is observed on the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husain(RA), Prophet Muhammad’s(PBUH) grandson, in the battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680 AD. The processions with beautifully decorated taziyas that you see on the roads give the impression that Muharram is a celebration, but it’s actually an expression of grief. The taziyas are replicas of the tombs of Imam Husain(RA) and his comrades who fell fighting in the battle.
The story goes back 1,400 years. According to Muslim cleric Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, there are different versions of this event. He cites well-known historian Al-Tabari who says that the people of Kufa had pledged allegiance to Imam Husain(RA) instead of the then Umayyad Caliph, Yazid. The genesis of this conflict lay in the struggle for succession that followed Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) death. One faction wanted the Prophet’s paternal cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali(RA), to succeed him so that succession remained in the Prophet’s(PBUH) family, while another wanted the issue to be decided through consensus among the community elders. In the end, Hazrat Abu Bakr(RA), a senior and trusted ally of the Prophet(PBUH) was chosen as the caliph. He was followed by Hazrat Umar(RA), and Hazrat Usman(RA). After them, Hazrat Ali(RA) was chosen as the fourth caliph, but was soon assassinated and the caliphate passed on to the Umayyads. Hazrat Ali’s(RA) son, Imam Husain(RA) opposed Yazid, the Umayyad caliph, because he felt that Yazid was not following the righteous path. The conflict accelerated and Imam Husain(RA) was killed brutally in the Battle of Karbala. Imam Husain’s(RA) martyrdom divided the Muslims into two: Sunnis and Shias. The Shias consider Hazrat Ali(RA) and his descendants as the rightful successors and look upon others as usurpers, something the Sunnis disagree with.
While all sections of Muslims observe the 10th day of the month of Muharram as a solemn occasion marked by fast, prayer and charity, for the Shias, Muharram is a 10-day period of intense mourning — from the first to the 10th of the month. During this period, coinciding with the Battle of Karbala, the Shias don’t wear bright colours, and women avoid wearing jewellery and make-up.It’s mourning time, so there are no marriages during this period and people avoid going to the movies, watching TV, shopping, and any other form of entertainment. The evenings are spent at the majlis or community mourning. The majlis starts with recitations of verses from the Holy Quran, and is followed by stories of the valour and martyrdom of Imam Husain(RA) and his companions. The listeners are moved to tears; women can be heard wailing and sobbing. At the end of the majlis, tabaruk or blessed food is distributed. On the 10th day called Ashura (Arabic word for tenth), large processions of mourners parade the streets with taziyas. In some places even non-Muslims participate along with Shias and Sunnis. Some of the mourners express their grief by inflicting wounds on their bodies with small knives tied to chains with which they flog themselves to relive the sufferings of the martyrs. Others walk along, beating their breasts, chanting “Ya Husain”. The idea is to identify with the pain and grief of Imam Husain’s(RA) kin who were taken prisoner by Yazid and denied even the chance to grieve, say Shia religious leaders. The procession terminates at the Imambara, a special building for the purpose. The taziyas are either buried here or immersed. The mourners then break their fast, usually with khichra or haleem — a porridge of rice, wheat, pulses and meat, probably as a reminder of the hotchpotch meal Imam Husain(RA) and his men had to make do with in the battle. On Muharram, devout Muslims feed the poor and distribute sherbet. It is a symbolic gesture of feeding the hungry and the thirsty — Imam Husain(RA) and his men had had their supplies cut off by Yazid; many of them died of hunger and thirst on the battlefield. Muzammil Siddiqui, president of the Fiqh Council, states: “There are many lessons in this story. We ought to learn the lessons of courage, patience and perseverance from the Battle of Karbala.”