Free Speech vs. Anti-Shi’i Vitriol ?

Recently, a contentious article published in one of Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper by an academic based at the University of Vermont, created a public furore with its content based on some seemingly degradatory views and insinutations about the Shi’i faith and rituals. The story created an outrage and was removed from its website within twenty four hours, with an apology being issued by the editors.

The Professor’s opinions were termed as ‘outrageous’ and ‘insulting’ by many in the Shia and the non-Shia community in Pakistan. He describes the tragedy of Karbala as  ‘a historic event which has been distorted at the behest of culture to take on new heights of absurdity and masochism’ and can be characterized by ‘utter lunacy’.  In the aftermath of the uproar created by this article,  the Professor apologized publicly and published a modified version of the article where he removed an extremely volatile and contentious assertion saying, ‘Drunken horses being paraded through streets, with mobs of men, high on testosterone (and God knows what else), bleeding themselves unconsciousness, is an utterly embarrassing spectacle.’ Hereby making a over-reaching speculation that those participating in the rituals are motivated and propelled by some sort of primitive debauchary and frivolity rather than religious devotion. In the revised version of the article he  makes a new assertion about the rituals saying that ‘such customs are  a danger to public health and communion’.

The vitriolic tone of some of  the assertions in the article however takes away from the fact that the author had made some very pertinent observations regarding the influence of culture on religious practices, the need to question rituals and the necessity for Sunnis and Shias to  move beyond such ‘provocative displays of disfavour for each other’ , for ‘constructive confrontation as means of peace-building’ and the need for ‘a major pan-Islamic reconciliation process between sects’.

It is worthy to note that regardless of the fact whether the rituals in question are cultural perversion of religion or whether they are actually grounded in Shi’i theology, the fact remains that they are percieved and accepted by the Shi’i as a genuine form and expression of Ashura mourning. The irony is that whereas the author seeks to curb sectarian hate speech he himself indulges in the sort of language and discourse that can easliy be described as hate speech which seeks to restrict the right of self-expression of a community. He believes that change is being stifled by such ‘bullying about religious sensitivity exhibited in this episode’ when he himself can be seen as a ‘self-righeous bully’ who can be accused of being consdescending and presumptous with regards to a community that is already facing excessive persecution. What he sees as his ‘duty’ as a ‘socially conscious writer to push the envelope and challenge people to question their assumptions’ can also be subverted potentially to encourage distorted and caricatured representations in an already polarized society.

In the article he further deplores what he calls the ‘malaise that has struck Muharram (Ashura) processions’ and which in his opinion needs to be severly protested by the ‘educated elite’. Thus making a case based on the assumptions that those affirming such acts are neither educated nor a part of the elite of the country. These assertions can be soundly contested as can be garnered from the reaction of  a great majority of the educated elite to such views.  The Professor himself acknowledges this in another article that was a response to this controversy,  as ‘being surprised that educated people questioned my right tocriticize a cultural practice by referring to it as hate speech’ and calls it  ‘a surprising torrent against free speech even from highly educated writers’.

Here the controversy becomes entangled with the narrative of lack of free speech with the author becoming ‘deeply troubled about the state of journalistic independence inPakistan’ and suggesting that this episode highlighted ‘a larger issue of media freedom’. In his opinion this incident was ‘a test of free speech in Pakistan and it is clear that the country is still stuck in a time warp of religious hypersensitivity’. Such sentiments were also echoed by some people in the Pakistan media. It is interesting in this sense to see how this controversy has generated a debate that seeks to delineate the limits of personal opinions trespassing over public or religious rights. At the very least therefore this episode has initated a dialgoue which can possibly lead to self reflection in all sections of the Muslim community.

Ashura – A Unique face of Shi’ism

This is a very well put together visual documentary of Ashura celebrations around the world in 2011.

The Ashura is celebrated on the 10th of Muharram by Shi’i Muslims every year to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala. These Ashura celebrations are grounded in symbolism or ritual which is expressed in the  public sphere, and in many ways have become a distinct manifestation of the Shi’i identity. In this sense it is interesting to note the great extent to which the Ashura has come to represent the ‘face’ of the Shi’i faith. The theme of martyrdom and suffering is  predominant in the Shia narrative because it is seen as being embodied in the lives of the Shi’i Imams themselves and sums up what has been described unwittingly as the ‘Shia attitude’.  How this ‘attitude’ plays out in various different cultural and social setting can be assuaged from the diverse interpretations of the Ashura commemoration around the world, as the visuals presented in this photo-feature show.

It is also worth noting  the physical commemorations of the Ashura at times seems to overshadow the spiritual aspects of the message of the sacrifice of Karbala. Another thought provoking article written by Professor Hassan Abbas recently, juxtaposes the historical narrative of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom and the larger message of the Ashura in Shia Islam with the present context of the widespread persecution of Shia Muslims in the Muslim world such as the attack on Shi’a Muslims observing Ashura in Kabul on December 6, which killed 55 people.


Week 2: The Advent of Islam

Week 2 Prompt – Which was more important for the rise of Islam: when God sent His prophet, or where He sent him?

In spatio-temporal terms both the location and the time of  Islam’s advent in Arabia are of great importance. Needless to say the location of Arabia, as a ‘blank spot’ located at the ‘center’ of the world of the dominant empires at the time, was a significant factor in the evolution of Islam. However it seems that the geography was not almost as critical as the time that Islam was sent. Ofcourse Arabia will forever remain a point of reference for Islam but Islam’s message is undoubtedly universal and the sociological vision of an Islamic community has maintained a rejection of the distinction between any geography, class, race, caste, tribe or ethnicity. The fact that Islam expanded outside of the Arab demographic even within the Prophet’s lifetime is an affirmation of the fact that geographical boundaries are somewhat irrelevant to Islam. Infact the inherent conflation of Islam with Arabia and of Muslims as Arabs can be easily questioned in the present context given that Arabs today represent less than a fifth of the world’s one billion Muslims today. 

The timing of Islam’s revelation in a period that is described as ‘late antiquity’, an era that was to be the harbinger of early modernity, was crucial. Much scholarship has depicted  Islam as standing between the ancient and the modern world with the source of Muhammad’s revelation being grounded in the ancient world and it’s spirit belonging to the modern world. As we know from Donner’s work, at the time of Islam’s revelation the ancient classical cultures were undergoing cataclysmic transformations and were changing beyond recognition. Furthermore this time period was one of extreme socio-cultural degeneration and of moral and ethical depravity, being described as an era of the worst form of ‘jahiliya‘ or ignorance in history. The period in which Islam arrived was thus conducive to the new spiritual message that Islam bought. This was possibly so because although people were familiar with diverse religious ideas and Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity were well established religious traditions by the time Islam arrived, however one can learn from the history of the period that both the Byzantinian and Sassanian empires were floundering.  Had Islam been revealed at a time when these civilizations were at their peak or if the Abraham religions were not yet been fully actualized or become firmly grounded in the regional vicinity, it would have faced a totally different socio-political context and would possibly have followed a very different historical trajectory.

It is also significant that at this particular moment in history both the predominant Byzantinian and Sassanian civilizations were disintegrating from within and the underlying religious ideologies that was supposed to give coherence to these empires was actually dividing them. For instance the Byzantinian rule was facing immense difficulty in enforcing its official version of Christianity because of the diversity of theological thought that existed within the empire. Even within the Sassanian empire, while Christianity was predominant in the region aroundArabiait existed in variousdiverse manifestations. Such polarization and dissent within these empires could also possibly give us an insight into the peoples disenchantment with the structured religions of the time and underline a need that was felt for a change from existing religious paradigms. As Schimmel points out people were perhaps looking for a ‘purer’ and a ‘more satisfying faith’ than the ones being practiced at the time.

 In this sense, people were particularly receptive to Islam at this time in history because it gave them a new ‘frame’ to identify with, even as it did not reject the earlier Abrahamic religions and infact built a narrative based upon them. The Quran itself underlines this fact when it describes Muhammad as the seal of the Prophets. In Islamic traditions, for instance, the symbolic change in direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, can be seen therefore not only to signify the geographic significance of Arabia but also as an indication of further development and continuation which complements and consolidates the earlier Abrahamic traditions. It is possibly because of this fact that Islam has come to be seen as religion in which both tradition and innovation sustain each other, making it relevant for all times. Given this context Islam would not been able to evolve in the distinct way that it did if it had not come into existence at such a particular time period.