Here’s something I think about fairly often: Given that the events of Karbala are so moving and the message so powerful and the results so important, why is it that most of the world doesn’t know a thing about it, and why is it that the yearly observance of Muharram does not shatter the worldly paradigms and result in a true change of the human condition?
Throughout history, the lovers of Ahlulbayt (as) have survived despite heavy oppression. At times, that oppression meant that they observed their faith privately while having to be very careful what they presented in the public arena. For many Shias today, however, there exists the opportunity to be free in living their faith publicly and privately. Today we see processions in Muharram all over the world, and we see people donating blood and giving out water on Ashura. Shias come to the Muharram observances in number, many feeling increased love and connection to Ahlulbayt (as) and renewed faith as a result. I thank God to see these happenings. But I am not satisfied.
I was not raised as a Shia, so I did not grow up with Muharram observances. When I first became a Shia and went through my first Muharram, it wasn’t all that I hoped. For one, the fact that all of the moving things people recited for matam were in a language I couldn’t understand, I didn’t know what was going on and felt isolated. I had trouble concentrating on the message of Karbala and instead found myself just questioning if I belonged there while I tried to figure out all the rituals – what were they doing and why? I certainly understood why things were not in English and tried to appreciate and absorb as much as I could. But I felt alienated, and I felt selfish for feeling alienated, because I was focusing on my own needs and experiences rather than on Imam Husain (as). Aside from taking in what I could, knowing I was missing the majority of it, I didn’t know what to do to fulfill my desires to approach a similar connection those around me seemed to be achieving. I decided to go home and read books about Imam Husain (as). I found a few good ones, but it wasn’t long before I felt I was just reading the same things over again in slightly different words, while I wanted to move forward rather than just repeating. How could I make what was available work for me?
Truthfully, I haven’t found the answer to that question. I just keep trying to engage in the experience with everyone else and cultivate true response to the call of Imam Husain (as) in my heart. Over time as I become more accustomed to the traditions that have developed for observing Muharram, I can get more out of them. I can be satisfied with that. But I am dissatisfied that the world doesn’t stop with the Shia heart on Ashura. My non-Muslim co-workers and students go about their lives like it was any other day, because to them it is. I have at times wanted to do at least something small about this within my own family, but there is an unspoken rule with them since I converted that anything to do with religion is not open for discussion. And even if I did tell them the story of Husain (as), I don’t think they would feel it the way I want the whole world to feel it.
When I went for hajj in 1999, alhumdooleluh, one of the hardest things about it was coming back. I came back to a home in which no one lived that I could share anything about the life-changing things I had experienced. They had no way of understanding that walking around a small stone building could be a transcendent experience. To them, it was all just alien ritual that would sound silly when described. And if I were to get them to join a Muharram observance or tell them about it, again, if I had so much trouble getting it when I desperately wanted to, I know they wouldn’t get it. Sometimes I have wanted to maybe take a family member or a friend to a majlis or something similar, but for many of them, I don’t think it would help to bridge the gap between us. I fear it might increase it, because it would just be too alien for them. I have met a few wonderful people over the years that could be an exception, but for the average folk in my life I feel compelled to keep much of my religion in a compartment away from them. And I know this isn’t right. How can I bring my Muslim and non-Muslim worlds together?
In some ways I am a cynical person. If I pass by a booth where an organization has a message to share, I think their intentions are at least partially self-serving. Maybe the message is a good one and would benefit me, but I suspect that they are seeking to benefit themselves by getting their message out – to gain more acceptance, more followers, more money, more something. And honestly, were I not a Shia, I would look at a Muharram procession, giving out water on Ashura, donating blood on Ashura and all such similar things the same way. I think these are good things and they should keep on happening, but I am not satisfied.
I don’t see the world quaking on Ashura, I don’t see real inroads being made to spread the message, and I don’t see Shias really changing that much in answer to the call. I feel we’re just going in circles, repeating the same things year after year. Am I alone in feeling this? Is it just that I am missing the picture that much compared to everyone else? Stepping into a Muharram majlis is like stepping into another world – it is, for the most part, cut off from the rest of the people who have no idea and no understanding of what is taking place there, nor any sturdy bridge to approach. The effects of it, while potentially great, often stick within those walls, or at least within the walls of the hearts of those attending. But shouldn’t the effects shatter all walls?
So I ask myself, what would satisfy me? How could the gaps be bridged and the world finally respond in unison on Ashura the way it should? What would it truly mean to answer that call? One thing that comes to my mind is that Shias need to be more like Ahlulbayt (as), more like the martyrs. We need to be extraordinary, not ordinary. We need to truly expend ourselves in the way of Allah swt in ways that we feel it and the rest of the world feels it, too. And if I were to pick one aspect for focus, I would focus on altruism. I would make Shias known the world over for being the leaders in doing good deeds and charity without seeking anything in return, for the sake of God, because that is something that speaks to everyone across all linguistic and cultural barriers. Not on Ashura, not on Eid, but every day. Not just the youth, or a few adults, but all Shias.
Hopefully all do not judge this a sacrilegious idea, but while I love the spiritual feeling I get from a good religious lecture and by no means imply the lectures and matam go away, I would forego it, for a change, to see and be part of an entire Shia community gathering to help the homeless, sick, cold, and hungry neighbors where they live, Muslim or non-Muslim, in the same numbers as showing up for a Muharram speech, for all twelve nights, and throughout the year. For one year, no fan clubs of Muharram speakers and reciters, just selfless giving in the name of Ahlulbayt(as), and a lot of it - mending clothes, giving blankets and coats, filling food bank shelves, reading to children, repairing someone’s car or home, cleaning parks, finding someone a job. Would the message reach beyond the usual walls? Would we make progress? Would we answer the call?