Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ritual and Reason - on the discussions of reform in Muharram observance in response to culture and audience

I open this writing with a few passages from other sources:

“They should know that if a sentence creates a tremor in one's souls and attunes it with the spirit of Husayn ibn 'Ali and, as a result, one small tear were to come out of one's eyes, it is really a precious station. But tears drawn by the scenes of mere butchery, even if a deluge, are worthless.” – Ayatollah Mutahari, in “’Ashura: Misrepresentations and Distortions”

Many of today’s Christians do not really care that the traditions are separated from their roots. If we allow means to be the ends then we head in the same direction of having traditions and rituals for their own sake, separated from true purpose.

Whenever that happens, this is among the greatest of all possible losses. We cannot be those who try to uphold Islam original if we do not keep that as our active intention and form every act for the achievement of that purpose. If the purpose of a procession or majlis or gathering is to let people learn about Imam Hussain (as) and true Islam and to reform ourselves, then how it is done should be designed for that accomplishment rather than for anything else – be it the performance of matam or whatever. That design may depend on the audience and circumstances and what works for one audience and circumstance may not be the best design for another. We should not become tied down to a few ways of doing things but should be adaptable within the bounds of Islam. We should observe the wajib acts and seek out the mustahab acts, but always associated with their purposes and not separated from them.

I heard someone asking why is the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as) and the tragedy of Karbala considered a sad event. Why aren’t we joyous that they achieved martyrdom and saved Islam? Why do we observe it with sadness at all?
Is the purpose of Muharram to get sad?

I think these are valid questions and worthy of thought and not quick dismissal because they are honest and sincere questions. I read that when the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as) approached, he acted as if he were invigorated and energized in battle knowing his time was near. It is reported that Qasim, upon hearing that the men would all be martyred, asked if he would as well, being a young teen. Imam Hussain (as) asked him how he felt about it and he replied that it was something he really wanted, to achieve martyrdom along with the adults. They all knew with confidence they were on the side of right and that martyrdom would be a good outcome for them. We also know through history that although they did die that they were the ultimate victors. They were the victors because they achieved their purpose. They never separated their acts from their active intentions. They never sought martyrdom as a merit in itself or an end in itself. If they had wanted martyrdom as an end in itself, they could have achieved it on many prior occasions. Rather, they understood that the worth of their martyrdom was in its purpose of standing against oppression and standing up for truth and upholding the true Islam for mankind even up to today. Yet we also read that Imam Sajjad (as) mourned greatly throughout his life over the tragedy. If we love someone sincerely, then we feel their loss and pain as our own. So the sadness is an outcome of the love, and the love is what we need - love for those close and dear to Allah swt and for Allah swt himself - whatever imperfect love we are blessed with in response to Allah swt's perfect love.

We should feel grateful that they made that sacrifice, and we should honor it through careful attention to real Islam in everything that we do to the best of our ability. But we should also feel pain at their sufferings that were very real. To make the sacrifices they made and to go through the trials they endured was very difficult. It is sad and shameful that it was necessary. It is sad and shameful that still the message is not heeded. If one imagines for a moment that a loved one has died to save another, would not one still feel sadness, loss, and sorrow? What people are more beloved to the true followers of Ahlulbayt (as) than the Ahlulbayt (as)? If one imagines a Muharram observance that takes joy as its means, would the message of reform remain? What is Muharram about if not reform?

Reform for its own sake is again something gone away from true Islam. Real reform is not a departure but a return. It returns our actions to the root of pure active intention of fulfilling our ultimate purpose in existence. Imam Hussain (as) showed us what reform is and how to live it and how to die in it. I feel that is what Muharram observance should be all about.

So whatever someone does that is permissible for observance of Muharram, be it of any type and any fervor, Allah swt bless him with an attentive heart. Love Allah swt, love Ahlulbayt (as), feel the love and then act on it not only in mourning or Muharram observance, but in self-reform in Allah swt's way.

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