Tragedy of Karbala: A Defining Moment in the Construction of a Shi’a Identity

Introduction:

The martyrdom of Imam Al-Hussein at Karbala in 680 A.D was a defining moment for the creation of a distinct Shi’a identity. This tragedy had a greater impact on Shi’ism than any other event in Islamic history and has been described as a ‘root metaphor’ around which Shi’a religious beliefs and practices are grounded.[1] Although the controversial issue of the succession of Imam Ali led to the initiation of Shi’a partisanship, it was the Karbala tragedy that gave impetus to create a distinct Shi’a identity that could be distinguished from other mainstream outlooks in Islam. The way in which this clear distinction manifested itself after the events of Karbala can be assessed from the way sectarian identities became firmly demarcated in the Muslim community of Kufa, for example, after this event. The centrality and importance of Karbala, in the ideological and geographical context, was also affirmed by the traditions of the later Imams and it’s significance can be further assessed by the evolution of distinctly Shi’a rituals informed by it. The rituals that came to be associated with the Karbala tragedy played a defining role in the creation of a distinct Shi’a identity and a political sensibility by becoming a central ‘vehicle of expression’ for this identity. [2]

Segregation of Sacred Space in the Aftermath of the Tragedy of Karbala:

An overview of the earlier diversity of sacred space and its later segregation provides an instructive insight into the way the tragedy of Karbala had played a crucial impact on what came to characterized as a distinct Shi’a identity. Before the events of Karbala, there seemed to be porous demarcations of sectarian boundaries and identities in Islam. Various tribes had loose sectarian inclinations but most Muslims followed their clan’s tribal affiliations. However, such sectarian tribal affiliations did not lead to the classification of religious spaces as being Shi’a or Sunni.[3] Although sectarian affiliations existed, people from a range of sectarian inclinations prayed at the same venue in their own distinct ways in the 7th century Kufa, for example.[4] Given that this situation changed by the 8th century within two decades of the battle of Karbala, it is clearly probable that the tragedy of Karbala created new ‘religious geographies’ in its aftermath which delineated a clear distinction between ‘friendly/sacred’ and ‘hostile/accursed’ spaces. Although a transformation towards the consolidation of sectarian identity had started taking place in the mid 7th century when ritual practices began to eclipse tribal affiliations [5] it was in the post-Karbala milieu when ‘some mosques were renovated to celebrate the death of al-Hussein’ that some religious spaces became safe havens for the Shi’a while other became openly hostile.[6] In this way it was in the aftermath of this tragedy that by segregation of spaces a Shi’a identity seems to have been consolidated. Continue reading

The Language of Anti Shi’ism

Actual Published article can be accessed here.  

by Fanar Haddad

The recent wave of anti-Shiite rhetoric and sectarian polarization has caused profound concerns across the Middle East. Sectarian tensions are not new, of course, but the vocabulary of anti-Shiism in the Middle East has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Shiites who used to be accused of ethnic otherness are now being cast as outside the Muslim community itself. Exclusion on doctrinal grounds was a mostly Saudi exception in the framing of Shiism. It is now increasingly becoming the regional rule.

Prior to 2003, anti-Shiism in Iraq was perhaps best encapsulated in the term ajamAjam (singular ajmi) is an Arabic phrase meaning non-Arab; however, in the modern Middle Eastern vernacular, particularly in Iraq, “the ajam” is usually understood as “the Iranians.” Throughout the 20th century this term was used to discredit Shiite activists and political opponents by casting doubt on their national loyalty and Arab pedigree. Sectarian otherness was framed in distinctly national and ethnic terms with scant, if any, reference to sectarian dogma, doctrine, or beliefs. In other words, prior to 2003, Middle Eastern Sunni-Shiite dynamics were more often manifestations of nationalistic and ethnic rather than religious expression. Continue reading

Lashkar e Jhangvi’s Parasitic Sectarian Politics in Pakistan

In the light of the increasing onslaught of violence by LeJ it seems pertinent to question the raison d’etre behind it’s existence in Pakistan and ask why an organization, which has no meaningful popular support and upholds an overtly militant sectarian agenda, is allowed to publicly sustain itself in conventional politics through it’s parasitical relationship with mainstream political parties, the  military and Saudi  financing networks. Continue reading

Motherhood and a celebration of the ‘Lady of Light’

Two days ago, many in the Shi’i communities celebrated the birthday of Hazrat Fatima (S.A), daughter of the Holy Prophet who is also know as Zahra (Lady of Light) and Syedatun Nisa al Alamin (Leader of the Women of the Worlds). Many scholars have highlighted the ‘deep and revolutionary influence Fatima’s memory evokes in breadth of transformation in the Muslim societies’ .In this context one came across a vast array of conversations and narratives celebrating her life which invite introspection onto our own lives. But this year such an auspicious occasion has a special significance for me personally because it has coincided with my own mother’s birthday, unwittingly allowing me to celebrate the lives of two very special mothers.

Among one of the salient aspects of Hazrat Fatima’s life is the fact that she selflessly lived her life for others. All historical narratives of her life, which are few and far between, are agreed on the fact that inspite of her austere existence  no one was ever turned away from her door. A common lament that one thus keeps coming across is that we need Fatima as a role model today because such generosity and selflessness is rarely found in these times. Indeed this fact is largely true in today’s materialistic and greed driven world,  but I could not help but feel lucky to think that I had such a role model in the form of my other mother who similarly devoted her entire life to helping others. Living an almost nomadic existence in Pakistan, moving incessantly from one city to another and often living in far flung areas where qualified teachers were hard to come by, my mother volunteered to teach at every opportunity she had.   Helping teach at the government colleges and schools which were run by the Pakistan Air Force was her way of giving back to her country. She did all this probably at the cost of a bright academic career elsewhere, being an outstanding student, skilled debater  an ambitious science student (who by the age of sixteen had even exchanged letters with the likes of Neil Armstrong) and one of the handful of women who did their Masters in a hard science subject like Physics in the early 70’s. Inspite of her own academic success and potential future opportunities she never professed any sense of  entitlement or superiority over others and willingly gave it all up for her family and others.  I am sure others have similar stories to share and such stories about our mothers who are indeed the proverbial unsung heros, need to be shared and celebrated.   Continue reading

‘Phenomenology of the Islamic Prayer’

Image

Attended this wonderful lecture at Columbia recently.  Was able to attend only the morning sessions, always a pleasure to go back and listen to these wonderful scholars. The section that really stood out for me (mostly because it resonated with my own academic concerns) was the Second Panel with Dr. Charfi and Professor Dabashi which sought to differentiate between the ritual act of prayer and the spiritual experience of praying. While I have been familiar with such a notion which upholds all juridical theology as being a dialectical response to the sociology of religion being  an underlying theme in Professor Dabashi’s work , Dr Charfi’s work also underlined similar intellectual anxieties. Continue reading

Book Review – ‘Ali ibne Abi Talib on Leadership and Good Governance’

Alibookcover

–  Hassan Abbas and Benish Zahra Hassan. ‘Ali ibne Abi Talib on Leadership and Good Governance’ . Outskirts Press. 2012.

This book presents a comprehensive overview of the diverse and sagacious teachings of Ali Ibne Abi Talib. One of the most prominent figures in Islamic history,  Ali is the first Shia Imam and the fourth among the leaders who are revered as the Khalifa Rashidun in Islamic history. In the past, as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog,  the history of  Ali’s life has mostly come to be designated as Shia history and consequently the universal lessons that it affords for future generations have been constricted to a particular religious sphere. This book is also a contribution towards the increasing efforts to bring  such a discussion into mainstream intellectual conversation. In this sense it presents Ali’s teachings as being universally applicable in all socials, political or cultural contexts. Continue reading

Shia as the ‘Other’ in Pakistan

‘Hazara Shia’s refuse to Bury their Dead’. This was a morbid headline, one would have hoped to hear only once in a lifetime.  Coming to terms with such horrific tragedies is a near impossible task but having to reconcile with the same grotesque violence within less than a month of  is surely a travesty.  One  witnessed with silent tears and an aching numbness the painfully tragic  sight of another hundred Hazara families sitting on Alamdar road for days in February 2013.  Earlier on January 10th, 2013 two bomb blasts targeting the Hazara Shia community killed almost 120 people in a busy marketplace in Quetta.

While such violent incidents are not a novelty for Shias in Pakistan, what was novel was the way in which the protest against these incidents was registered. The Hazara Shias of Quetta who have been systematically and ruthlessly killed for almost a decade, refused to bury their dead and sat alongside with 86 bodies on the streets for three days and nights, through torrential rain and cold weather. Such a heart-wrenching protest, which drew an overwhelming  nationwide response of sympathy from not just from Shia communities but from mainstream civil society, sought to highlight the injustices faced by the community and the lack of state response which can be judged from the fact that none of the perpetrators have ever been arrested or prosecuted or even punished for the incendiary vitriol spewed by such militant groups.

protesthazara17

(Translation: ‘I will strengthen all hearts against the Shias to the extent that no Sunni will ever agree to even shake hands with them. They will die their own death, we will not need to kill them anymore.  We will make it difficult for the Shia to even breathe and they will think how can I stay in this city any longer’ Aurangzeb Farooqi, Leader Sipah-Sahaba Pakistan January 13, 2013). Continue reading

Shi’ism @ Columbia

Looking forward to this upcoming panel discussion at Columbia University. Will be moderated by my former professor Najam Haider…should be interesting. Those who are in New York and can take the time out should come, since good discussion on Shi’ism in the social context in South Asia is difficult to come by.

Image

Contemporary Karbala Narratives and the Changing Gender Dynamics within Shi’i Communities

The commemoration of the ‘Battle of Karbala’, which took place in 680 A.D, is the locus or the ‘root metaphor’ around which Shi’i rituals and devotional practices are located. The Karbala narratives that are derivative from this historic event, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn being seen as a key moment in Shi’i history, form the basis of the Ashura commemorations and are therefore a defining paradigm in Shi’ism. In the earlier Karbala narratives, women were largely seen as passive victims of the Karbala tragedy and known largely through the trials and tribulations they faced. In the past few decades however a gender-dynamic transformation has taken place with regards to the transmission of the Karbala narrative which has consequently bought about renewed attention to and a re-evaluation of the role of women in the aftermath of the Karbala battle. Continue reading