The saga of the tragic martyrdom of Imam Husain (AS), the younger grandson and 3rd Infallible Heir of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA), continues to act like a catalyst in every age and era, because of the indelible impact of the life-inspiring mourning ceremonies for the immortal martyrs of Karbala.
As we said, Aza al-Husain or Majalis al-Husain (A.S.) means a gathering to mourn Imam Husain(A.S.). In this sense it was first formally used by Imam, Ja'far Sadeq (AS), great-grandson of the Martyr of Karbala, and the 6thInfallible Successor of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA).It is reported that once when his companion Fuzayl Ibn Yaser came to pay his respects to him, he asked him after the usual exchange of courtesies: Do you people ever organise gatherings to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husain (AS)? Fuzayl, with tears pouring down his eyes, replied: O son of the Prophet of Allah, indeed we do. The Imam said: May Allah bless you. I highly approve of such gatherings.
On another occasion, the poet Ja'far ibn Iffaan recited to the 6thImam an elegy on the tragedy of Karbala. The Imam began to weep uncontrollably, and then addressing the poet, said: Do not think that it is only those whom you can see here are listening to your poetry. In fact Allah's closest angels are present here at this Majlis and they are all listening to your recitation and they too lament and weep. May Allah bless you for what you have recited! He will reward you with paradise for your efforts on our behalf.
Aza al-Husain was a phenomenon which gripped Muslim conscience immediately after the heartrending tragedy of Karbala. Ten days after Ashura, a messenger from Yazid arrived in Medina. His name was Abdul-Malik ibn Abi'l Harres as-Sulami. He came to tell the Governor, Amr bin Sa'eed al-Aas that the Prophet's grandson has been martyred in Karbala. The Governor, conscious of the mood of the people, said he himself could not make the news public. The next day after the morning prayers, Abdul-Malik announced the news, which profoundly shocked the people. There was such intense weeping and wailing from the homes of the Prophet's clan, the Bani Hashem. It seemed that the very walls of the Prophet's Mosque and Holy Shrine began to tremble. The daughters of Aqeel ibn Abi Taleb, that is, the cousins of Imam Husain (AS) came out wailing, with the words: "What will you say when the Prophet (S.A.W.) asks you: 'What the Ummah has done with my offspring and my family after I left them? Some of them are prisoners and some of them lie killed, stained with blood. What sort of gratitude have you shown me the Prophet for enlightening you with Islam? Is this that you disobey me by oppressing my children?”
Marwan ibn Hakam, who a couple of years later was to seize the caliphate on the ignoble death of Yazid, reports that every afternoon men and women would gather at the Jannat al-Baqie Cemetery of Medina, and there would be elegies and commemoration of the tragedy of Karbala. The weeping and wailing could be heard miles away.
The Survivor of the Karbala Tragedy, Imam Zain al-Abedin (AS) and his son and successor, Imam Mohammad Baqer (AS), who as a 4-year old boy witnessed the heartrending scene of the brutal martyrdom of Imam Husain (AS), greatly encouraged Aza al-Husain. In their times such commemoration gatherings had to be performed in utmost secrecy as the Omayyad regime was opposed to any remembrance of Karbala. The poets who composed elegies and the devout people who attended the gatherings at which these elegies were recited did so at the risk of their lives. Nonetheless, the poets continued to pour out their emotions in their poetry. Gradually, the institution of Ziyarah or standard form of salutation to the Chosen of God came into being. People would visit the graves of the martyrs and there perform Aza and Ziyarah. One of these Ziyarahs which we continue to recite till this day is known as Ziyarat al-Wareth. When we examine it, we can see in its words and phrases not only a testimony of the greatness of Imam Husain (AS) and the moving sentiments describing his sacrifice for the cause of Allah, but also a solemn pledge and a commitment by the reciter. One of its phrases reads: “And I make Allah, His angels, His prophets, and His messengers, witnesses to the fact that I believe in Imam Husain and in my return to Allah. I also believe in the laws of Allah and in the consequences of human actions. I have subordinated the desires of my heart to his (Imam Husain's) heart and I sincerely submit to him and (promise to follow his commands)”
Clearly, this undertaking was never meant by our Imams to be an empty ritual. The recitation of Ziyarat al-Wareth is thus a reaffirmation of our commitment to the cause of Imam Husain (AS), made in the presence of Allah and the angels and the Prophets and the Messengers and in full awareness of the final accountability of human action. One must always reflect upon the seriousness and solemnity of this pledge.
It is worth noting that the Infallible Imams always encouraged Azadari, so that it could become an institution for the believers during the long and lengthy major occultation of the Prophet's 12th and Last Infallible Successor, Imam Mahdi (AS), who by the Will of God will appear in the end times to avenge the innocent blood of Imam Husain (AS) and to establish the global government of peace and justice. The Holy Imams (A.S.) saw in Azadari not only a demonstration of grief for Imam Husain (AS) and the martyrs of Karbala but also a renewal of one's commitment to Allah and His laws as expounded in the Holy Qur'an and the Holy Prophet's sayings. Thus, with the end of the minor occultation of the Imam of the Age and the start of the major occultation, from 329 AH onwards the ulema and jurisprudents took it upon themselves to perpetuate the message of Karbala.
Some four years later after 329 AH, with the peaceful takeover of Baghdad by the Iranian general Moiz od-Dowla Daylami, Ashura or the 10thof Moharram was for the first time in history declared a public holiday to commemorate the Tragedy of Karbala. In 351 AH on the 10thof Muharram, there was a huge procession in the streets of Baghdad with thousands of men, women and children beating their chests, reciting elegies and chanting “Ya Husain! Ya Husain!” Soon this public commemoration of the Tragedy of Karbala spread to other places in Iraq, to the Syrian city of Aleppo, to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to Egypt and North Africa, to the cities of Iran, to Central Asia, and to parts of the Subcontinent. A few decades later with the arrival of the Fatemids in Egypt and the building of Cairo, commemoration of the epic of Ashura became institutionalized in Egypt.
The celebrated Iranian scholar, Ibn Babawayh al-Qommi better known as Shaikh as-Sadouq who died in 381 AH was the first scholar to have introduced prose as medium of conveying the message of Imam Husain (AS). He would sit on a pulpit and speak extempore while many of his students sat by the side of the pulpit and recorded the speech. His speeches have been preserved and to this day are known as the Amaali (or dictations).
The Majlis al-Husain or Azadari evolved into an institution for the fundamental Islamic principles of Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil, as well as for renewing allegiance to the ideal of Imam Husain (AS). As Islam spread, different cultures adopted different modes of Azadari. The Turkish conqueror of Iran, India, and other lands, Amir Taimur, introduced the institution of Tabut (coffin) and Alam (standard) in India. As Islam spread southwards on the subcontinent, the form underwent changes to take into account local cultural influences so as to portray the message of Karbala in the medium best understood by the local people, both Muslims and non-Muslims. By the beginning of the 19thcentury, there was not a corner of the world, from Spain to Indo-China, which did not have some form of public commemoration of the Tragedy of Karbala. The form varied from country to country. In Iran and Iraq, in addition to the Majales-e Aza, the most popular form has been Ta'ziya, which word is derived from Aza and means mourning, but through enactment of the tragedy with actors transmitting the message of Karbala to the weeping audiences. In India, the Ashura processions became part of the Indian Muslim culture. Even the Hindus participated in these processions.