On being a Shia

by Feisal Hussain Naqvi

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 20 08.50 Being a Shia means different things to different people. In my case, being a Shia means that if I am as professionally successful as I hope to be, someone will want to kill me. Or, to be less melodramatic, it means I can’t play golf on Ashura.

The fact that being a Shia means such wildly divergent and generally irrelevant things to me also indicates that I am not much of a Shia, which I confess to be true. The question then is, why do I feel compelled to identify myself as a Shia.

Before I try to answer, some background is in order. The roots of Shi’ism go deep into Islamic history, more specifically, into the issue of who was to succeed the Prophet as the leader of the Muslim community. Ali, the Prophet’s son in law, was favoured by one group while Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s closest companions was favoured by another. Ultimately, the group supporting Abu Bakr prevailed, so much so that Ali did not become Caliph until two other members of the community (Omar and Usman) had preceded him. When Ali did become Caliph, he faced a challenge led by Aisha, one of the Prophet’s wives (and also the daughter of Abu Bakr).

The schism worsened after the assassination of Ali in 661 AD. Ali was succeeded as Caliph by Muawiya, the governor of Syria under Ali. When Muawiya’s son, Yazid, took over as Caliph in 680 AD, the stage was set for another clash.

Shortly after Yazid’s accession to the caliphate, Ali’s son, Hussain, was called to Kufa (a city in present-day Iraq) by leaders of the community there. Hussain set off from Medina with his family and a small group of followers but he never made it to Kufa. Instead, at a place called Karbala, his family and he were surrounded by the armies of Yazid. For three days, Hussain and his family were not allowed access to water. On the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram (now called Ashura), Hussain, his family and his followers were slaughtered to a man. The only survivors of the battle were the women of Hussain’s family and his son Zain ul Abedin, who had been too ill to accompany his father into battle.

The Shias, then, are those people who mourn the tragedy of Karbala and who believe that Ali should have succeeded the Prophet. But that is only the simplest aspect of Shi’ism. What Shias also believe is that the Prophet, Ali and his descendants (the Imams) were intrinsically superior to other humans and that they were thus qualified to lead the Muslims in a way that no other Muslim could ever match.

There is, of course, much more to Shi’ism than what I have just outlined. The point I was trying to make though is that mourning the martyrdom of Hussain is essential to the concept of being a Shia. Each community of Shias is different in its mourning rituals, but every year, the first ten days of Muharram bring to a halt the lives of devout Shias.

My father’s family is not just devout in its Shia-ness but “kuttar”, a Punjabi word best translated as “hardcore.” My father’s parents lived in Jhang, then as now, a bucolic slum of no great import in the middle of the Punjab. They lived there because when they had fled the Partition of India in 1947, my grandfather had refused to get off the train at Lahore (he thought he was dying) and instead stayed on until the train came to its final stop (which was Jhang).

By the time I started going to Jhang, my grandfather had passed away and the house there was run by my grandmother. She was a strong-willed lady of extremely firm views whose life essentially revolved around Muharram. Every day during the first ten days of Muharram, there would be a majlis held in the house itself in which a learned female scholar would lecture the assembled mourners on the virtues of the Shia Imams and try to prove that the Shias were right (and that everybody else was wrong). After about an hour or so of heavy theological lifting, she would shift over to a description of the suffering of Hussain and his family during the events of Karbala. During those 15 minutes, the audience would dissolve not just into tears but into loud wails of anguish. The mourning did not stop once the sermon ended. Instead, the mourners would sing elegies to the martyrs and beat their chests with their hands.

As men, we obviously could not attend the majalis in my grandmother’s house. We would therefore leave every afternoon for the Imam Bargah (the Shia house of worship) where a cleric, this time male, would harangue us for an hour on the theological superiorities of Shia’ism followed again by 15 minutes of martyrdom narratives, ending in a chest-beating session. During those last 15 minutes, it was de rigueur for the men present not just to sob loudly but to howl with sorrow. My father, fortunately, was not much given to public displays of emotion and his preferred option was to stare at the floor with a hand over his eyes (an example which I greatly preferred to follow).

All of the majalis though were only a prelude to the events of the 10th of Muharram. On the morning of the 10th, we would troop off to the “Dubkaron ka mohallah”, a locality (mohallah) in the inner reaches of Jhang inhabited by a clan of Shias known for the ferocity of their beliefs (the Dubkars).[i] In contrast to the other Muharram sermons, the sermon on the morning of the 10th was always short; a 15-minute recitation of events in which Hussain says farewell to his family, ventures out alone to face an entire army and perishes heroically, followed by a description of the scene when his riderless horse returns to camp to be confronted by Hussain’s daughter Sakina who wants to know what has happened to her Baba.

By this time, the entire audience would be wailing; an audience, please note, composed not just of males but Punjabi males (a sub-species not normally known for its sensitivity). After a brief pause in which the men present would collect their emotions, the events of the day would truly begin.

The normal routine for Pakistani Shias on the 10th of Muharram is to walk in a procession. The procession is made up of mourners who walk slowly, stopping from time to time to beat themselves, as other mourners chant dirges. The more sedate group of mourners thump their chest with their hands, beating themselves so hard that their chests would become bruised. The less sedate mourners use knives. The knives are razor sharp and attached to chains which in turn attach to a small wooden handle. The mourner thus uses the handle to smack the knives against his back. Most men flail themselves with the knives going over the shoulder but some prefer to raise their hand and go around the side. Either way, there is a fair amount of blood involved.

Each procession or jaloos is accompanied by various symbols or tokens. The most common symbol is the alam or banner (in other words, a pole with a black flag on it). The alam represents Abbas, the standard bearer of Hussain’s army who died at Karbala trying to get water for Hussain’s family. Then there is the zuljinah, or the horse of Hussain (normally white, but any colour works in a pinch). The zuljinah sometimes bears a turban on its saddle to represent its rider but most often is draped in black harness with black cloths tied to its bridle and reins.

[The photo at the top of this article is of a jaloos on Park Avenue in NYC with a tazia at the front, taken by Abbas Raza, and included in a short article of his which also has more photos.]

In Jhang, the one addition to the normal jaloos procedure was the tazias. The tazias are large wooden models of the tomb of Hussain made out of wood, normally all painted in gold. The tazia of the Dubkar Mohallah was a particular beauty, rising about 30 feet high from a base about seven feet by seven feet. It was also extremely heavy and needed to be carried by a team of 10-12 men who would heave it onto their shoulders using the thick bamboo poles running along the bottom of the tazia.

The tazia was thus the focus of the mini procession which would emerge from the Dubkar mohallah. It would rise amidst a crescendo of wails and be carried down narrow alleyways in short bursts of a few hundred yards till, like a stream joining a river, it would merge with the main jaloos. All along the way, the mourners would beat themselves and the sides of the street would be packed with women and watchers.

By mid-afternoon, the jaloos would reach its destination, a large open field where the Dubkar Tazia would be joined by a number of other tazias. There, the assembled mourners would be addressed by another cleric. Tradition has it that the battle of Karbala reached its climax at the time of the zuhr prayer (early afternoon) and as the call to prayer would ring out across the open field of mourners, a fresh burst of crying would break out. At the end of the majlis, the different processions would break up and head back to their neighbourhoods, carrying their tazias along.

After one returned from the jaloos, the hours till evening were normally quiet. The last event of Ashura is a special majlis called Majlis-e-Shaam-e-Gharibaan held late at night. The phrase “Shaam e Gharibaan” means literally “the night of the destitute” and it marks the formal end of the mourning cycle. For some reason, we never attended the majlis in person but instead used to listen to the one on PTV.

In those days, PTV was the only television channel in Pakistan and so, appearing on it was quite a big deal. The Majlis-e-Shaam-Gharibaan was delivered every year before a studio audience by a cleric of formidable intellect – and even more formidable vocabulary – called Allama Naseer ul Ijtehadi. For most of the allotted hour, he would lead his listeners into ever more elaborate loops of logic and rhetoric. Then as the hour grew to a close, he would remove his turban and shift from high jurisprudential theory to the story of Hussain, concentrating not on the martyrdom of Hussain but on the small community of women and children left behind, beleaguered and helpless, soon to be paraded through the bazaars of Damascus by the forces of Yazid. The camera would then slowly fade to black over the cries of the audience and then focus on a spare set, all draped in black. In the middle of that set would be a man, Syed Nasir Jehan, who would sing two final dirges. The first one was called “Ghabraye gi Zainab” (meaning “Zainab will worry”)[ii] while the second is best translated as “The Last Salute.” And after that last mournful song, Muharram was over for us.[iii]

My parents left Pakistan when I was 11 and I spent the next three years in boarding school. There, Shias were treated very much as a breed apart. Every sunset, we would line up and troop off to say our prayers at the school mosque. The Sunnis would pray as part of a large congregation while the Shias and Ahmedis would line up separately at the back. During Muharram, the Shia boarders would get bused out to majalis where we would sit in the back row of a desultory audience and pick our noses while surreptitiously telling dirty jokes to each other.

When I was 15, I left Pakistan to join my parents overseas, first in London and Belgium and then in Singapore. From there, it was onwards to the US to attend college and law school. When I finally returned to Pakistan in 1996, more than a decade had passed.

The Pakistan I came back to was a different place. Shias had gone from being a minority to being a targeted minority. Prominent Shias now had to contend with the fact that the very fact of their success – professional, political or otherwise –meant that someone would be happy to kill them. Karachi was ground zero for the target killings – with Shia doctors and lawyers being particularly favoured – but the rest of the country was not far behind. Jhang, in particular, became a focal point of sectarianism. My first visit there after my return to Pakistan was to attend the funeral of a cousin and his father who had been machine-gunned outside their house.

I, too, had changed. The first majlis I attended after coming back was also my last. Where I had once been content to listen to the clerics blather on, I could now no longer stand bad arguments; at least, not without wanting to get my two cents in. I remember the cleric recounting a conversation between God and the Angel Gabriel about the merits of the Shia perspective and it was all I could to stop myself from shouting “Objection, hearsay!”

It wasn’t only that I had learned to construct arguments in the meantime. At college, I had majored in Islamic studies. My introduction to the subject was fortuitous, the product of a spur of the moment decision to study Persian. But the study of Persian led to a survey course in Islamic history. And that course led to a multitude of others.

What Islamic history teaches its students is the contingency of events. The four schools of Islamic law are today the only recognised schools of Sunni law. But there were once more, whose names are now remembered by very few. And even the four schools trace back their differences not just to theological issues but also to the fact that they were originally based in different cities and hence had different legal traditions to work with.

The Shi’ism that I had grown up with was the product of a closed environment. One listened to the clerics and one howled because that is one had always done. More importantly, that is all there was to do. In the Jhang of my childhood, there was nothing else to do besides mourn, nothing else to see and nothing else to do.

In the world that I live in now, I have 81 channels to choose from. On Ashura, PTV offers nothing but mourning as do all the other Pakistani channels. But, as I type this column on the evening of the 10th of Muharram, Star World is showing the final episode of America’s Next Top Model, another channel is showing a kung fu movie while Channel V is doing a special on Robbie Williams. And all this is besides the distractions that a broadband connection can offer!

I have therefore reached the point where Shi’ism doesn’t make any sense to me. To the extent the essence of my sect is the remembrance of a historical tragedy, I fail to see why this particular tragedy should be remembered above all else or why it should define my life. To the extent Shi’ism is a belief in charismatic legality, I don’t believe in it. This is not to say that I am irreligious: I just don’t believe that access to God is dependent upon the intercession of intermediaries.

At the same time, I cannot reject the faith of my fathers. To begin with, it defines me. Given my name, I could not be more identifiably Shia than if I had the word “Shia” tattooed on my forehead. More importantly, my name defines me as a Syed, a descendant of the Prophet, a designation which rightly or wrongly fetches me an enormous amount of respect from people who care about these things. Above all, there is the fact that my head does not control my heart. The mere fact that something does not make logical sense does not mean one stops feeling. For better or for worse, I cannot listen to “Ghabraye gi Zainab” without being emotionally overwhelmed.

What then is a Shia who cannot reconcile his head and his heart supposed to do? Like others in my position, I draw arbitrary distinctions. I play golf in Muharram but not on Ashura. I don’t go to majalis but I don’t party either. I don’t listen to vocal music but I figure Bach’s cello concertos are ok.

There is one last ritual though which I still observe religiously. Tonight, after the Majlis e Shaam e Gharibaan finishes on PTV, I will listen to the son of Nasir Jehan sing the songs his father made famous. I will get teary-eyed. But I will then pack up my Muharram dilemmas and put them away for another year.

[i] The Dubkars were famous for putting ash in their hair and for turning their beds upside down on the night of 9th of Muharram (which symbolised – and ensured – that they would not sleep that night but spend it in prayer).

[ii] Zainab was the sister of Hussain. After his martyrdom, she became the de facto leader of the Shia community.

[iii] My grandmother, of course, was not party to such wimpy behaviour. Her Muharram lasted not just the first ten days but till the 9th day of the Islamic month of Rabi ul Awwal (two months later). Till that day, she would not wear red and would remain very much in mourning.