[Reader-list] The Everydays of Eternity: A Study of Muhurrum processions among the Shias

Shireen Mirza shireen_mirza at hotmail.com
Tue Jan 27 16:38:39 IST 2004

The Everydays of Eternity: A Study of Muhurrum processions among the Shias

The History
Karbala is the cornerstone of institutionalized devotion and mourning 
(azadari). Its tale is recounted in vivid details in the commemorative 
gatherings (majalis) during the first two months of the Islamic calendar, 
Muhurrum and Safar, and throughout the year in various other contexts, such 
as when personal losses are mourned. For Shias, the event of Karbala is 
inextricably bound to the issue of succession to the Prophet Mohammed, the 
issue that caused the first major split in the larger Muslim community: The 
Prophet had clearly designated his successor in the form of his cousin and 
son-in-law, Ali b. Abi Talib, after whom the spiritual leadership of the 
Muslim community would be the sole providence of Ali’s chosen descendants 
(the Alids). However, after the Prophet’s death, the position of Ali and his 
descendants was usurped by Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and then the Umayyad 
family. The Alid resistance to this usurpation manifested itself in Karbala 
when Ali’s son, Hussain, refused to pay allegiance to the Umayyad ruler 

The Procession
During the two months when mourning is observed, the entire community wears 
black clothes and recalls the tragedy through speeches delivered by the 
mullahs and through songs sung to the rhythm of beating chests (matham). The 
first ten days of Muhurrum are recalled as the family of Imam Hussain 
suffers without food and water (a fact much mourned and exaggerated) and the 
suffering culminates in death on the tenth day. On the tenth of every 
Muhurrum, after the afternoon prayers, the Shia men and children gather to 
form the army that was led to death…with horses, flags and alms; while the 
women look on, silently beating their chests and the tragic tale is sung as 
the men bleed their bodies with blades, knives and chains; signifying the 
battle fought to save the community and thereby immortalized in time as an 
act of martyrdom.


This is a topic that has a million resonances with me. I am looking at 
Muhurrum procession, more popularly called Taziya which is not a mere 
remembering the holy tragedy of Karbala (680 A.D) but a re-enactment of the 
war by the entire community every year on the tenth of Muhurrum (4th March 
this year). The martyrdom of Hussain and his family during the battle of 
Karbala is singularly the most important historical/religious event around 
which the notion of a ‘Shia’ community is built.

Muhurrum has always always evoked a sense of bewilderment in me, mostly 
because I couldn’t understand the pain everybody around me felt and because 
I couldn’t understand why an armed group of men would beat themselves (as 
opposed to hurting another). And my study intends to do just this…

But before I ask the obvious questions, I feel the need to understand basic 
categories that I might be assuming before looking at Muhurrum and what it 
means to the Shias. I feel the need to grapple with the term ‘religion’. 
What is religion? Why do certain experiences get clubbed as religious? And 
what is it about the nature of ‘religious’ experience that make it transcend 
spatial, temporal boundaries…where does the sense of eternity come from?

>From time to time, moral sentiments are fanned into strong emotions by 
ceremonies of intense social interaction, times of religious effervescence, 
when the moral authority of society is easily assimilated into the idea of 
God. If most categories of thought can be held in the mind because of the 
possibility of pointing to the physical object of reference, do not 
religious categories have a special difficulty in remaining stable since 
they have no physical reference but refer to society itself, an abstract 
idea in the minds of those who live together? How do religious concepts get 
defined and practiced?

My project aims at understanding the filtering residue from the 680 AD 
battle of Karbala, that the Shia community carries with it till today. What 
ghosts needs to be kept alive, how is it being kept alive and most 
importantly why is it being kept alive?

It isn’t easy to circumscribe experience, religious experience being doubly 
difficult. S.N.    Balagangadhara explains religion as a continuum of human 
responses to the revelation of the Divine. Religion itself has a history, 
and as such, it is a part of human history. The history of religion evolves, 
and this history is the history of the evolving human responses to the 
revelation of the divine (1994). Balagangadhara proposes a concept of 
religion, which presupposes the existence of God, of a divine revelation 
(that would include the presence of a holy book, a messenger of God, a time 
of revelation). Religion then becomes a historical/epistemological category 
that is premised on the idea of a single, universal truth.

I would like to look at Muhurrum—remembering Karbala as the node at which 
two divergent ways in which we understand and experience religion intersect. 
An instance where the demarcations between tradition and religion, practice 
and proposition, truth and multiple perspectives, blur and something more 
complicated is operating. I’m making two distinctions here in my conceptual 
understanding: one between religion and tradition…as a distinction between a 
single, universal truth and between multi dimensions of truth; of one 
between propagation and proposition. The other distinction I am making is 
between the concept religion and an individual’s experience of a religious 
practice. Karbala cannot be remembered without the belief in Hussain, the 
family of the prophet, his sacrifice to protect the ideals of Islam and 
broadly as a religious activity. But then how does it translate itself at an 
individual level? What are its driving factors?

This project will document responses from within and without the Shia 
community…of what the martyrdom/the procession means to them. I intend 
covering a range of people…from the religious instructors (who make their 
money during the two months), to the ‘progressive’ individuals, the 
spectators, the children (who also participate in the processions). I want 
to look at the social dynamics of this event, as an occasion for the people 
to meet, a time to catch up on the gossip and a time when most marriages are 
arranged. A considerable amount of money is spent to organize the event in 
terms of infrastructure and mostly on distributing a meal after every 
majlis, so much so that among the poorer households the occasion is seen as 
a time to feast.

In Raichur, for instance entire villages and communities (including the 
Christians and Dalits) participate during the procession. It is accompanied 
with alcohol, merry making and singing the tragic tale of Karbala. How do we 
understand the different traditions coming together?

I would like to capture the pain felt during the procession through pictures 
and photographs, and understand this pain. Why do the Shias believe in 
suffering and pain, why is there a sense of sacrificing oneself? I would 
also be looking at what the Sufi tradition has borrowed from the martyrdom 
of Hussain, its own poetry and its concept of love. My study will be based 
in Durul Shifa in Hyderabad old city, where the procession begins at Sur 
Towk ka Alawa and moves through the city to Moosa naddi and maybe also look 
at processions in interior districts of Raichur. Please write to me if you 
have anything you’d like to say or add, and any advice will be most helpful— 
shireen_mirza at hotmail.com

* ‘Iqbal and Karbala’ Syed Akbar Hyder in Cultural Dynamics (3) 2001

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