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The Public Rites of Remembrance for Imam Husayn (a.s.)

by : Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din

The revolution of al-Husayn was a tremendous event which sent a convulsion through the whole of Islamic society, breaking down the false calmness and the silence which had wrapped itself around it. It made Islamic society think again about its view of many of its political conventions and it gave rise to a movement of self- criticism which was awakened in men's consciences. The soldiers returned to their towns and their tribes with the news of the horror, which they had seen and helped to commit, and of the terrible end that came to revolutionaries.

Along the roads from Karbala' to Kufa, Syria and Medina, the people saw the column of prisoners and the heads of the martyrs. They were affected emotionally by the spontaneous rites of remembrance and those of the family which took place at different places. The spontaneous effect of the revolution, together with the profound grief and extreme distress which it aroused, must have given the people, who knew about what happened, an excuse for gathering together, a subject of conversation, and an incentive to re-examine their attitudes and opinions and to review their position with regard to the whole system.

What had happened was on such a great scale and of such importance that it was impossible to ignore it. What had happened was an Islamic revolution, in which many of the men, who led it and were martyred in it, were at the very peak of Islamic society, the foremost of them being Imam al-Husayn. The gatherings of people, which the emotional effect of the tragedy and the effect of the rites of remembrance, whether of the family or spontaneous, brought about, are, in our view, the core from which the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn as an institution began and developed during the course of history.

The remembrance rites for al-Husayn began immediately after the end of the revolution and news of it had spread in Islamic society. They began, however, in a spontaneous and simple way. Small groups of indignant Muslims, both followers of the Holy Family and others, used to hold meetings in a house of one of them, in a mosque, in a street, or in an open square. They would speak about al-Husayn, his followers and his family and what had happened to them; they would criticise the authorities who had attacked him and their legal extension as represented by the governor in the area; they would renounce them; and sometimes they would recite some poetry of lament which had been composed about the revolution, its hero and its dead.

Through the ages, these rites of remembrance developed and passed through various stages until they reached the present form in which they are held today. We will examine these stages later. For the present, we want to explain the factors which led to these spontaneous gatherings being transformed into a cultural and sociological institution which has incomparable influence, namely the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn. In our opinion, the Imams of the Holy Family are the ones who induced these spontaneous gatherings to go in this direction and change into an institution with customs and traditional practices.

The earliest sources, which we believe prompted these groupings to become the cultural institution of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn, refer to a very early period after the revolution, I mean after the month of Muharram in the year 61. These texts have been reported from Imam 'Ali ibn al-Husayn Zayn al-'Abidin (38-95). He had been present in the revolution with his father, Imam al-Husayn, from its beginning until its terrible end and he had tasted the bitterness of being taken prisoner with his aunts and sisters and the other women of the Holy Family. In these texts Imam Zayn al-'Abidin explains the reward to be gained by anyone who wept for the tragic fate of al-Husayn. One such text is the following:

Whatever believers eyes shed tears for the death of al-Husayn until they flow over his cheeks, will be provided by God, as a consequence, with rooms in Paradise which he will inhabit for a long time. Whatever believers eyes shed tears until they flow over his cheeks because of the grievous harm inflicted upon us by our enemies in this world, will be provided by God, as a consequence, with a true abode in Paradise. [6]

We consider that this explanation, and others like it, gave a specific direction to these spontaneous gatherings which were being held after the end of the revolution. This direction was based on the following idea: A constant reason for these gatherings would be easily achieved when there was a special meeting to discuss and study a tragedy which was overflowing with reasons for weeping. [7]

In the time of Imam Abu Ja'far Muhammad al-Baqir, the son of Imam Zayn al-'Abidin (57-114 or 117), who was present at Karbala' with his father when he was four years old, he issued a directive which gave a definite form to keeping the memory of al-Husayn alive at an appointed time each year, 10th Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

This form consisted of two practices :

(a) The pilgrimage (ziyara) should be made to al-Husayn on the day of 'Ashura' for those whose houses were near the grave of al-Husayn; otherwise pilgrimage rites should be held at home for those who lived 'so far away that they could not make the journey there on that day.'

(b) People should gather together and weep. Imam al-Baqir said in connection with the man who is too far away to make the pilgrimage: Then let him mourn and weep for al-Husayn. Let him order those in his house to weep for him. Let him celebrate the tragedy in his house by showing anguish for him. Let people meet together to weep in their houses for al-Husayn. Let them console each other for what befell al-Husayn ibn 'Ali. Malik al-Juhm asked him, 'How should they console each other?' He answered: Let them say: May god increase our rewards as a result of what has befallen us through al-Husayns sufferings. May God make both you and us men who seek vengeance for him together with His great saint (wali), the Imam, the Mahdi from the family of Muhammad. [8]

We are here faced with a clear directive for a gathering which was aimed at a defined objective, namely to keep the memory of al-Husayn alive. It has also been given a personal dimension with the words ... 'May God increase our rewards.' Thus the tragedy of al-Husayn is not just the special concern of his family. It is something of general concern which is connected with everyone who loves the Holy Family. Here, we should draw attention to the directive made about what the man who is far away from Karbala ' on the Day of 'Ashura ' should do. It indicates he should provide himself with a substitute ritual for what was taking place at the grave of al-Husayn on the Day of 'Ashura'. In the time of Imam al-Baqir, the great rites of remembrance were held at the grave of al-Husayn in the way which has been recorded in the directive.

Those who were unable to come to Karbala' held their own rites of remembrance in their houses and in their quarters. Since this directive was specially concerned with what the Shi'ite should do on the Day of 'Ashura', there is also another report which has come from Imam al-Baqir in which there is a general directive about gathering and remembering the situation of the Holy Family, which is not limited to a specific time: May God have mercy on a man who meets with another in order to remember our situation.

There will be a third person with them who will be an angel who will seek forgiveness for them. Two people shall never meet to remember us without God making them sincerely proud through the presence of an angel. If you gather together and occupy yourselves in remembering us, then our memory will be kept alive in your meetings and in your remembrances. The best of people after us are those who remember our situation and urge others to remember us. This test illustrates that the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn in the time of Imam al-Baqir had begun to take on the form of an institution with a purpose, whose activity was not subject to any specific limitation concerned with time. Rather, it was spreading both in time and place and developing, through being performed, its own customs and techniques.

From the sources, it appears that by the time of Imam Ja'far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (80 or 83-148), the gatherings devoted to the memory of the Holy Family and their tragedies, and the foremost of them, the tragedy of Imam al-Husayn, had become well-known in Shi'ite circles. It is reported that Imam al-Sadiq said to al-Fudayl ibn Yasar, 'Al-Fudayl, do you sit together and talk?'

'Yes,' replied al-Fudayl.' The Imam then commented, 'Al-Fudayl, I love these gatherings. Keep the memory of our situation alive. God will have mercy on a man who keeps the memory of our situation alive.' [9] We have already seen many texts which have been reported from Imam al-Sadiq urging the composition of poetry about al-Husayn and explaining the great reward that will come to anyone who makes fifty or ten or five ... people weep through his recitation of such poetry. Such texts contributed greatly to the motivation of people gathering for this purpose. This kind of recitation required people to gather. Whenever the gatherings increased in size, the impulses to weep increased.

It seems that the recitation of poetry of lamentation for al-Husayn had developed during this period and a special style arose in it which was rather like wailing, or was even wailing itself. It was not merely the chanting or recitation of poetry. Elements of voice-production had begun to be introduced which increased its emotional and psychological effect. The words of Imam al-Sadiq to Abu Harun al-Makfuf, when the latter recited him one of the poems of lament for al-Husayn, illustrate this point. Abu Harun reported: Imam al-Sadiq said to me, 'Abu Harun, recite to me about al-Husayn.' I recited and he wept. Then he said, 'Recite as you were reciting.' He meant with emotion. So I recited: Pass the grave of al-Husayn and speak of his great purity. He wept ... [10]

Furthermore, it seems that in this period the development of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn had acquired another character- istic, that is, it made men and women devote themselves to composing poetry of lament for al-Husayn and they made the style of wailing a special feature of this kind of poetry. Such a person was Abu Harun whom we have just mentioned. Another of them was Abu ' Umara, the reciter. [11]

Alongside the reciters of poetry, who used to use the special form of wailing, we find another group of men who participated in the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn at this period. They are the story-tellers. Story-tellers had existed since the time of ' Uthman ibn 'Affan. It appears that their function was in the gatherings in the mosque after the salat. There they would tell stories about the wars of conquest, the life of the Prophet and the virtues of the Companions of the Prophet and they would give sermons of encouragement and warning. Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan employed this group to spread his propaganda among the ordinary people. [12]

After becoming a growing institution which attracted increasing numbers of people, the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn seemed to have come within the interest of the story-tellers, or they created special story-tellers of their own. An indication of this comes in an account reported from Imam al-Sadiq which describes the state of the people at the grave of al-Husayn during the night of 15th Sha'ban. It shows that by this period there had developed story-tellers who were introducing the life of al-Husayn into their stories, or even limited their stories to it. Imam al-Sadiq says: 'I have learnt that people are going to the tomb of al-Husayn from the regions around Kufa as well as other people and women who mourn for him. This is on 15th Sha'ban. Among them are reciters who recite, story-tellers who tell his story, mourners who mourn ....' [13]

These reciters, mourners and story-tellers seem to be the early predecessors of the preachers from the pulpit of al-Husayn who have made their vocation preaching on the occasions of rites of remembrance for al-Husayn throughout the year. We will return to the discussion of this subject later in this chapter when we deal with the stages of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn.

During the time of Ja'far al-Sadiq, the Shi'a derived some benefit from the fall of the Umayyad regime and the founding of the 'Abbasid state insofar as the Umayyads were occupied in fighting the wars which the 'Abbasids and their propagandists instigated against them. The 'Abbasids, in turn, had taken control of the government using the slogan that they were members of the Prophet's family (ahl al-bayt). Therefore it would not have been regarded as natural by the people for them to harrass Imam al-Sadiq, the most illustrious member of the Prophet's family (ahl al-bayt) in the eyes of the Muslims. In addition to this, the 'Abbasids were distracted from close observations of Imam al-Sadiq and the Shi'a of the Holy Family by trying to set up their state, on the one hand, and by fighting the Umayyads and destroying their bases, on the other hand. Imam al-Sadiq and the Shi'a enjoyed a great deal of freedom during this period.

There were numerous directives and instructions issued by the Imam so that he would complete the structure of Shi' ism. There were also many gatherings of the Shi'a, and they developed their cultural institutions, in particular the institu- tions of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn and the pilgrimage (ziyara). However, Abu Ja'far Mansur brought this activity to an end when he pursued the Shi'a and the members of the 'Alid family with death and banishment. This was one of the reasons which compelled them to restrict their activities and keep them secret. The Imams of the Holy Family contined their concern for the institution of the rites of remembrance which they showed concern for by support and directives. They personally used to meet the poets and reciters and used to hold special gatherings to listen to their poetry and recitations. Their womenfolk and their special followers would attend these gatherings.

The Imams had showed their great concern for these meetings with the poets at an early period, the time of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, and then after that at the time of his son, Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. Among the outstanding people at these meetings was al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi (60-120). He had gone to see Imam al-Baqir and meet him in Medina. He recited to him an ode about his love for the Hashimites. Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq met the poet Ja'far ibn 'Affan al-Ta'i and asked him to recite a poem of lamentation for al-Husayn. Al-Sayyid al-Himyari, Isma'il ibn Muhammad ( 105-173 or 178), was another poet who met Imam al-Sadiq and recited him his ode which begins: Pass the grave of al-Husayn and speak of his great purity [14].

Di'bil ibn 'Ali al-Khuza'i was a poet whom Imam 'Ali ibn Musa al-Rida met in Khurasan. He recited one of his odes to the Imam: Schools of verses of the Qur'an are without recitation and the place of revelation is like courtyards empty of people. [15] There were many others besides these. Alongside this direct activity of meeting poets and performing the rites of remembrance in their houses, the Imams of the Holy Family persevered in their efforts to direct the Shi'a to hold gatherings and meetings in order to keep alive the memory of the Holy Family and especially of al-Husayn. However, the Shi'a did not enjoy for long the relative freedom which had been afforded to them during the period of Imam al-Sadiq, as we alluded to earlier.

The period of his son, the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim, was a much blacker period for the Shi'a. During it they were treated dreadfully by the 'Abbasid authorities as their organsations strove to combat the activities of the Shi'a and to suppress violently their cultural movements, among which, naturally, were the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn. So violent was the terrorisation which the Shi'a faced from the authorites and their organisations in this period that the Shi'a were compelled to use taqiyya (precautionary dissimulation) on a wide scale in their public lives, in some circumstances even in their private lives, in order to preserve their physical safety. Imam Musa spent a long period of his life in 'Abbasid prisons, and he died a martyr in one of the prisons of Baghdad in the year 183, during the reign of Harun al-Rashid.

However, the Shi'a regained some freedom of movement during the periods of the eighth and ninth Imams, Imam 'Ali ibn Musa al-Rida (148 or 153-203) and his son, Imam Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-Jawad (195-220). The reign of the 'Abbasid Caliph, al-Ma'mun, was characterised by the relative moderation in the treatment of the Shi'a. The atmosphere of tolerance continued in the reign of his successor, al-Muttasim. Imam al-Rida became heir apparent to al-Ma'mun in 201 and his son-in-law through marrying al-Ma'mun's daughter, Umm Habiba. Similarly Imam al-Jawad became al-Ma'mun's son-in-law by marrying his daughter, Umm al-Fadl.

Among the directives of al-Rida concerning the performance of the rites of remembrance is the following: Whoever remembers our sufferings and weeps for the crimes which have been committed against us, will be within our rank on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever remembers our suffering and weeps and makes others weep, his eyes will not weep on the Day when many eyes will weep. Whoever attends gatherings where our situation is kept alive, his heart will not die on the day when many hearts will die.

During the periods of the next three Imams, 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Hadi (b. Medina, 212, d. Samarra ', 254), al-Hasan ibn 'Ali al-'Askari (b. Medina 231 or 232, d. Samarra' 260) and the twelfth Imam, the awaited Mahdi (b. Samarra ' 255), the attitude of the authorities changed. The reign of the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil and those who came after him were times of harshness and tyranny in the treatment of the Shi'a and the Imams of the Holy Family.

The stage saw only some slight relaxations which had little value for the course of events until the Buwayhids gained control over the government in Baghdad in the first half of the fourth century of the hijra. However the harshness of the rulers like the fanaticism of the general populace which we will examine later could not impede the growth of the institution of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn and its continuation in men's consciousness. The rites of remembrance for al-Husayn were held secretly during the periods of harshness and persecution. The danger did not affect the enthusiasm of the Shi'a to hold these rites constantly, and especially on the Day of'Ashura'. We consider that the correct explanation for the attitude of the Imams of the Holy Family to the problem of keeping alive the memory of al-Husayn through poetry and gatherings of remembrance and urging the people to do that, is found in the fact that keeping alive this memory constantly shows the people the policy which the Imams of the Holy Family laid down to safeguard and defend Islam.

It shows the umma the great sacrifices which they have made for the sake of that. Similarly it reveals the nature, enmity and distance from Islam of the forces which confronted and combatted them. It explains the essence of the struggle between them and their opponents. It is not personal nor self-interested; it only goes back, in one respect, to the concern of the Imams of the Holy Family to make every ruler adhere to trust and truth through the application of the principles of Islam in his policies; and, in another respect, it goes back to the contradiction of the personal and family interests of the rulers with the aims of the Imams of the Holy Family in defence of Islam from exploitation and in defence of the Islamic way of life (shari'a) from distortion.

Keeping the memory of the revolution of al-Husayn alive, recalling the incidents involved in it, reviewing its slogans and the slogans of its opponents and examining their behaviour in their lives and their policies towards the umma ... all of this ensures that the corrupt government which exists in any period and in any time will be found guilty because it is the illegal continuation of the government whose distorted conduct led to the revolution and death of al-Husayn. Family wanted to realise through the creation of this institution. This, in our view, is the real content of the call by the Imams of the Holy Family to keep alive this memory in the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn and others. As for the emotional content of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn, we shall deal with that in another chapter devoted to the discussion of the phenomenon of weeping.

The Imams of the Holy Family, thus, created the institution of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn. During the earliest Islamic eras, this institution began its activity in a limited form. Some contributory factors strengthened its existence, and these factors gave it additional causes for growth. Its subject matter was enriched with new contents, all of which helped to serve the basic aim of its creation. In the same way, new techniques of expression and practice were introduced. We will mention, in what follows, three matters which we consider to be among the contributory factors for rooting the institution of the rite of remembrance for al-Husayn firmly in popular consciousness, for enriching it and for giving variety to its content.

1. There were the revolutions which broke out against the existing govenment as a result of the revival of the spirit of struggle which the revolution of al-Husayn kept alive. These revolutions raised the slogans of vengeance for al-Husayn in order to arouse and mobilise the people to support them. They made the revolution of al-Husayn a beacon and a slogan. This was an important factor in providing the revolution of al-Husayn with new reasons to live in the hearts and minds of men. This factor was not just limited to the Umayyad period. It also occurred in the 'Abbasid period in the revolutions of the descendants of al-Hasan and others. It used to appear to the people that it was as if the spirit of Karbala' was the thing which was motivating the revolutionaries.

2. By virtue of its power to arouse the emotions, by virtue of its ensuring and publicly declaring the guiltiness of the corrupt government, and by virtue of its direction by the Imams of the Holy Family along this course, the memory of al-Husayn became in many periods one of the means of secret opposition to the existing government. Under the yoke of a corrupt government, the Shi'ite used to suffer in two ways: (i) He was persecuted and hunted because of his beliefs and his historical attitude. (ii) He learnt from the progrAmine of the Imams of the Holy Family that Islam was an integrated belief and way of life. For this reason he would never accept any falsification of its truths. The situation in which the Shi'ite lived and his intellectual policy put him at the centre of opposition. Therefore he needed to express himself and his attitude as an opponent with the caution necessary to provide a minimum of security for himself and his economic interests. The memory of al-Husayn provided him with the opportunity of carrying out his opposition to the existing government in secret within a relatively safe compass. It also attained for him a psychological ease which grew out of the ideals of the Holy Family. These shining ideals were guaranteed by the memory of al-Husayn.

3. These were the reactions against the attitude of the tyrannical rulers towards the memory and rites of al-Husayn. From the Umayyad period until the present, tyrannical rulers have realised the implictions involved in the holding of gatherings to remember al-Husayn in terms of the condemnation of their excesses and injustice. Therefore they have attempted to stop them and suppress them. We find this in the Umayyad period, and we find it in the 'Abbasid period. We find it in the political dynasties which followed the 'Abbasids, where the Shi'a lived. In previous studies we have given much evidence for government suppression of the Shi'a when they practise, in any way, the rites to keep alive the memory of al-Husayn. Further evidence will be given in future studies.

The memory of al-Husayn, in the pilgrimage and the rites of remembrance, has faced, in most political periods, suppression prohibition and persecution for those who tried to practise them. In the periods of some rulers there have been feeble relaxations in which the Shi'a enjoyed only a limited amount of freedom. Soon a new period or a new ruler plundered this from them, sometimes preventing them from holding the rites or at other times restricting the rites to keep his memory alive with numerous heavy restrictions. This was done in order to try to empty them of any content critical of the existing regime. Yet all these acts of repression failed to wipe out the rituals associated with this remembrance. The rites of remembrance and other ceremonies were held secretly on their appropriate occasions even in the most harsh and unjust periods.

One of the things which may be of great evidence in this connection is the fact that stopping rites of remembrance, preventing them from being held or putting restrictions on the freedom to carry them out in terms of them representing opposition to the government is a policy which even Shi'ite rulers as well as others have followed. In Iraq, Iran and other Islamic countries, when the chief responsibility in the state came into the hands of a Shi'ite ruler, it used to happen that, on some occasions, he would follow the policy of prohibition or restriction. In this way the situation does not differ from what pertains when the person in chief responsibility in the state is a non-Shi'ite. This confirms that the memory of al-Husayn is essentially non-sectarian.

This attitude by the authorities against the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn has remained constant and still generates a reaction which prompts the Shi'ite to hold on to them and care for them. The feelings of the Shi'ite with regard to this may have been that the authorities wanted to deprive him of the only refuge, in which he could relieve his emotions of fear and anger and his psychological repression, and during which he could express his views of the government's attitude and behaviour.

These, in our view, are the contributory factors which helped to strengthen the position of the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn in popular consciousness and gave it the power to remain firm and contine despite the hostile attitude towards it throughout the centuries. They, also, provided it with the possibilities of develop- ment and renewal generation after generation. These were in addition to the basic reason for its existence and growth, namely the fact that the Imams of the Holy Family had directed their Shi'a to develop this great cultural institution.

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