Mystic Mantra: Ashura, the unique face of Shia Islam

Hussein was the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, a fact that played an important role in his life and contributed to his death.

On the tenth day of Islam’s new year — Muharram — the Shia Muslims observe Ashura, a day famous the world over for the bizarre mourning practices of this vast community. The re-enactment is the culmination of the commemoration of the death of their spiritual leader Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, at the hands of ruling caliph Yazid, who slaughtered him and cut off his head in a very macabre manner in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE in modern-day Iraq. Shias the world over perform passion plays, walk barefoot over coal and indulge in brutal self-flagellation in an effort to relive the tragedy and express their grief.

Hussein’s death was part of a dispute over who should succeed Prophet Mohammad, which eventually developed into a bitter schism between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Hussein was the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, a fact that played an important role in his life and contributed to his death. His supporters — the Shia — believed that he was the rightful leader of the Muslim community, or ummah, because of his matrilineal descent. Sunnis, by contrast, believe that the caliph — or leader of the community — ought to be selected from those who that capability of leadership. According to narrations, Hussein was embarking on a journey towards Kufa in modern-day Iraq after being urged by its people to rescue them from the tyranny of the ruling caliph when his convoy of family members and 72 companions was stopped by the 3,000 strong forces of the Yazid, the ruler in Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates river. A battle ensued on Ashura.

Hussein and his supporters were denied water for three days. After days of battling the opposing army of 30,000 men, Hussein was decapitated, his supporters were killed and the remaining women and children were captured as prisoners and paraded among the people. Hussein went knowingly to his death at the hands of Yazid’s forces in a bid to expose the corruption and irreligiosity of his rule. The day has been a source of Shia mourning ever since. Ashura — literally, “10th” in Arabic — is the day reserved for commemorating his martyrdom.

Over time, the mourning process has taken on different ritual manifestations, with Shia Muslims commonly practicing chest beating, known as the latyma, and self-flagellation and the cutting of their foreheads with chains and the blunt ends of sword called tatbir. This is supported with passion plays known as the ta’ziyeh or taziya. The tradition of blood-letting in the run up to Ashura is seen by some as a way of washing away their sins. Public requiems, processions dirges, hymnals, chants, wails and, sometimes, bloodletting are all employed to the same end. They are the rituals people use to generate communitarian bonds. Many of these Shia practices are slowly being discouraged as they do not reflect authentic beliefs and may have seeped into Islam from Christian Passion plays about the crucifixion or from indigenous mourning rite as also from folk practices.
Ashura remains one of the major fixtures of the Islamic calendar, and thousands of men perform the same brutal practice around the world in countries including Lebanon, Bangladesh, Iraq, Pakistan and Myanmar and even in Greece.

( Source : Columnist )
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