What non-Muslims refer to as Muharram is actually the day of Ashura — that is observed on the 10th day of the month called Muharram, the first of the Islamic calendar. It commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was the third Imam of the Shia community.
History says that in 632 AD, after the death of Hazrat Mohammad, who had united several warring Arab tribes, the underlying tensions broke out. dispute arose on who would be the next leader and how to select him — by consensus or follow the blood lineage of the Prophet. After some difficult choices, an open confrontation broke out between those who would later be called Sunnis and Shias. Incidentally, both ‘bloodline’ and ‘consensus’ were tried out for the highest seat of Islam, called the. Khalifa.
Hazrat Abu Bakr was the first, and Hazrat Ali became the fourth Khalifa, after the two in between were assassinated. It was finally at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, that Imam Hussain and his followers valiantly stood against a tyrannical ruler, Yazid and sacrificed their lives for the principles of justice. The merciless tyrant encircled the group and slaughtered Imam Husain and his 72 followers, including women and infants
Shia Muslims consider this day as extremely holy and mark the ceremonial mourning on this day by recalling the pain of the last moments of those who fought and died for their principles. They mourn in processions on the day of Ashura in black clothes and many Muslims (not all) come out in processions, carrying tall decorated tazias, beating their chests to “Ya Hasan, Ya Husain”. Many practice very painful rites of self-flagellation. This ‘Ashura’ day marks the emotional peak — when Shias intensify their expression of suffering — with torture, blood, torture and sacrifice.
Several Sunnis also observe Ashura but they insist that the day is holy not only because of this event, but because the Prophet had observed this day. He honoured Prophet Moses or Musa Nabi, who miraculously parted the waters of the Red Sea on this day — to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt.
We get written records as early as the 17th century, from Europeans in India that there were large public gatherings on Ashura at the towns of Hyderabad, Bombay, Lucknow, Dacca, Patna, Murshidabad, Hooghly and Calcutta, where the event was observed with solemnity. They were aghast to see processionists whip-lash themselves till they bled and also injure each other through dangerous sword-plays — to feel the deep pain of Imams Hasan and Husain.
But then Shias are not alone in such rites of self-injury. These are a must during Charak or Gajan in Eastern India and the Tai-Pusa n in South India. Even Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival of Taoists or Buddhists in October in Thailand and the Passion of Christ rituals during Easter in the Philippines or in Latin American countries are full of self torture.
We must also note how this event helped Urdu poetry reach peaks of grandeur in epics called ‘Marsias’. Even music and popular dirges sung in choruses were deeply emotional and revealed a high degree of excellence.
In fact, Naushad borrowed his ‘choruses’ from the ‘nohas’ of Awadh. History and religion may stir emotions and enjoin rituals, but every festival of joy or sorrow provides an occasion for people to come together and to feel together. They also offer the creative an opportunity to express intensely sensitive experiences through poetry, song, music, dance and other art forms.
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