Practices during the Observation of Muharram

Muharram, or the “sacred month”, marks the beginning of the Muslim year. From the advent of Islam a number of important events have been commemorated on the tenth of this month. One of these was the deliverance of Moses and the Israelites from the tyranny of Pharaoh. The month is now primarily associated with the period of mourning the Shias observe in commemoration of the martyrdom of ‘Ali’s son and Muhammad’s grandson Husain. (‘Ali and his elder son Hasan are also remembered during this period as having suffered and died for the cause of righ-teousness.)

The Observances:
“Among the Shi’as in India the following ceremonies are common, although considerable differences in detail may be observed according to regions. As soon as the new moon appears, people assemble in the imam bara (lit, enclosure of imam), a permanent meeting place built in stone or, as mostly in southern India, they assemble in the ‘ashur khanah (lit, ten-day house), a temporary structure. There they recite thefatihah over some sherbat (sweetened, cool drink), rice or sugar in Husain’s name. The cool drink is meant to remind the faithful of the terrible thirst Husain and his family and retinue had to suffer. Food and drink are later distributed to the public, especially to the poor. In some places a pit is dug in which a fire is lighted every evening of the festival, and young and old people fence across it with sticks or swords. Or they run around it calling out: Ya’Ali! Ya’Ali! Shah Hasan! Shah Husain! Dulha! Hae Dost! Rahiyo! Oh ‘Ali! (Noble Hasan! Noble Husain! Bride-groom! Friend! Stay! Stay!)

"The’ashur khanah is usually draped with black cloth on which texts of the Quran are written. The imam bara, too, will be decorated. Inside are placed the ta ‘zian-s or tabuts, wooden structures covered with silver paper, coloured paper and tinsel fringes. They are made with imagination and artistic sense and are meant to represent Husain’s mausoleum, erected on the plains of Karbala, or else the Prophet’s tomb at Medina or even the Taj Mahal of Agra. Nearby are placed imitations of articles which Husain is supposed to have used at Karbala, e.g., a turban of gold, a sword, a shield, a bow and arrow. There are also’alam-s or standards of different shapes, each one having its own special name and history. Often the ‘a lam has the form of a human hand (panjab) fixed on top of the pole. This is the popular emblem representing the five members of the prophet’s family: Muhammad, Fatima, ‘Au, Hasan and Husain.”

Remembering Karbala
“Every evening people hold gatherings (maflis, p1. majalis) in the ashur-khanah-s, imam-bara-s or in private homes. These majalis remember step by step the events from the time Husain received the invitation from the Kufans to the time of his martyrdom. Dhakir-s give lectures on these themes, marsiya-go-s recite elegiac poems (marsiya-s) re-counting the events of Karbala. Following elaborate artis-tic traditions, they narrate the heartless way in which Yazid’s men killed Husain and his family and retinue. These recitals which include the nanha h-s (poems of agony) sung by the soz-khwan, stir up the emotions of the listeners and move them to wailing and weeping. Repeatedly the assembled faithful rise from their places and with real or feigned grief beat their breasts (sinah-bazi) crying out: Ya Hasan! Ya Husain! At the same time Yazid, the caliph responsible for Husain’s death, is cursed.”

Processions and Other Ceremonies
“From the seventh to the tenth of Muharram processions are held to commemorate the martyrdom of Hasan’s son, Qasim, who was slain shortly after his wedding, as well as the martyrdom of Husain. Along with the procession goes a white horse (duldul or dhu’l-janah) which represents the horse on which Husain rode, or it refers to the bridal horse of Qasim, who was married to Husain’s favourite daughter Fatimat-us-sughra (as distinguished from Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad), just before the battle of Karbala. With this in mind the people shout at intervals: Bride-groom! Bridegroom! On the eighth day a lance or spear is carried to represent Husain’s head, which was carried on the point of a javelin by order of Yazid. In addition to these representations ta ‘ziya h-s or tabut-s and standards of Hasan, Husain and Qasim are carried. All the time people beat their breasts, saying: Hasan, Husain! Sometimes the pro-cession halts, and then a group of men and boys, naked from the waist, beat themselves with a bundle of sharp blades so that the blood streams down their backs or, forming a large group, they beat their breasts in a uniform rhythm crying all together: Ya Hasan! Ya Husain!

The tenth day is ‘ashara ‘ashurah . On this day the tabut-s or ta ‘ziah-s are either stripped and thrown into the water, or they are taken to a ground set apart for this purpose (called Karbala) and literally buried in specially dug graves.

On the evening of the twelfth day people sit up all night, reading the Quran and reciting marsiyah-s and verses in honour of Husain. On the thirtieth day a quantity of food is cooked and, after saying the fatihah over it, it is given to the poor. With this act of charity the Muharram celebra-tions end.”

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