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Shi’ite Muslims: Conceived In Martyrdom

Each year, the Muslim sect of Shi’ia relives the suffering of the grandson of Muhammad.

A procession moves slowly through a crowded street. On either side, people become more and more agitated by the passing tableaux, which depict the agony and death of a man revered by his followers as their redeemer. Women weep, men groan and shout, and some follow the procession flagellating themselves with chains. They pray for the man’s intercession, they bless his self-sacrifice, they relive his anguish.

This scene might have taken place in a devoutly Catholic country where the faithful still reenact the Passion and death of Christ during the final days of Holy Week. Instead, it occurs in Islamic lands each year in the month of Muharram, when Shi’ite Muslims remember Husayn, grandson of Muhammad and a martyr for his faith.

Though the nearly 800 million Muslims who span the globe from North Africa to the Philippines all regard themselves as members of a single religion, various sects exist within the faith of Islam. One of the major divisions is that between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. The Sunnites represent about 85% of the Muslim community, while the Shi’ites make up most of the remaining 15%. Though they are much smaller in number, the Shi’ites have had considerable visibility during the past two years, particularly in Iran where Shi’a Islam is the official state religion.

Scholars still disagree about the reasons for the split between the two sects. At the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., all Muslims worshipped one God, Allah, and lived by the Koran, which they accepted as the word of God transmitted to man through His Prophet. Soon after Muhammad died, however, two factions appeared. Their disagreements and dissensions led to a schism that persists to the present day.

The early pagan Arab converts to Islam were mostly tribal peoples with tribal ways. Their leaders were elders of the tribe, and the leadership was passed down to those perceived as the wisest and best-qualified to govern. Thus when Muhammad died he was succeeded by Abu Bakr, who was chosen from a group of the Prophet’s closest companions and advisors.

Some of Muhammad’s followers were displeased with the selection of Abu Bakr. Their devotion to Muhammad was so strong that they believed his successor should be a member of his family, a true “heir” of the Prophet. They supported Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, as the obvious choice for the position of Caliph, or Successor.

Although the Muslim community continued under Abu Bakr as one body, the two sides were clearly drawn. The Sunnites (in Arabic the word “sunni” means “custom”) believed in the tribal tradition of choosing their leader from among the elders. The Shi’at Ali (“partisans of Ali”) believed in a hereditary, charismatic and religious succession.

Ali finally became Caliph almost 25 years later, but his accession to the leadership of Islam did not heal the division between the two factions. In 661 he was assassinated, and his followers turned to his son Hasan, asking him to become their religious leader, or Imam. Hasan accepted, but difficulties soon forced him to abdicate. Eventually he too was murdered by his enemies.

The Caliph then arranged to have his own son appointed his successor. This was an unprecedented move, and on his accession the son, Yazid, proved to be thoroughly unpopular because of his dissolute ways. But trouble was already brewing, for many Muslims felt the community had become too secularized and no longer observed the teachings of the Koran.

At this time the Shi’ites, again seeking a religious leader, appealed to Hasan’s younger brother Husayn:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate; to al-Husayn son of Ali, from his Shi’a, the faithful Muslims: Further make haste, for the people are awaiting you, as they have no Imam other than you! So haste, and again haste! Peace.

Husayn heard their plea. Leading a small army of followers, he rode northeastward from Mecca toward Kufa, in Iraq, where the people who had pledged their support were awaiting him. What he did not know was that his plans had been discovered, and he would be marching into a trap. The Caliph Yazid saw Husayn as a dangerously popular competitor, and he set out to destroy him.

Yazid sent the regional governor, a trusted henchman, to Kufa. He arrived with his face covered, accompanied by a guard of honor, and the townspeople mistakenly believed him to be Husayn. They greeted him with pledges of loyalty, whereupon the disguised governor strode to the mosque, climbed the pulpit, uncovered his face and gave a thundering sermon on the infamy of the Kufans. He threatened dire punishment for those who followed Husayn and splendid rewards for those who remained faithful to Yazid.

With this, the Kufans’ promises of help vanished like smoke. Husayn was left without support among the very people who had begged him to come and lead them. As Husayn traveled across the desert with his army of 50 men and a few women and children, the entrances to Kufa were closed and the Caliph’s troops were placed on guard.

When Husayn and his followers reached the plain of Karbala, in Iraq, they pitched their tents. On October 9, 680, seeing the Caliph’s advancing army, Husayn sent his half-brother Abbas to ask the reason for the attack. The reply was that the governor had ordered Husayn and his men destroyed. After winning one day’s reprieve, Husayn gathered his people around him and urged them to flee to safety. But most of his supporters refused to leave him or to live on without him and, after constructing some modest defenses, they spent the rest of the night in prayer.

On October 10 the pitiful army, consisting of 40 foot soldiers and 32 horsemen ranging in age from 14 to 70, drew itself up in preparation for its first and final battle. Husayn himself wore the cloak of Muhammad, his grandfather, and rode on horseback with the Koran held high in his hand. Reluctant to be the one to start the battle, he appealed to the enemy forces with prayers and quotations from the Koran. They refused to listen.

When the fighting ended just before sunset, Husayn and Abbas were the only two men left alive. Together they rushed into the fray. Abbas was killed first; Husayn, wounded and bloody, lay face down on the ground while the enemy soldiers hesitated to kill the grandson of the Prophet. Finally they carried out the governor’s orders. As the weeping women and children of his family looked on, Husayn was beheaded and his body was trampled by ten mounted horsemen. His head was impaled on a lance and taken to Kufa, along with the heads of 72 male followers, and the captive women and children and the booty removed from their camp.

This dreary army of the dead was ultimately sent to the Caliph Yazid in Damascus, where the women and children were released. Thus did Husayn’s life end, not 50 years after the death of his grandfather, Muhammad.

Ironically, Yazid is remembered today primarily as the opponent and killer of Husayn, while Husayn and his army are buried in splendid tombs, venerated as saints and martyrs, and remembered each year by Shi’ite Muslims in dramatic reenactments of the events at Karbala.

What began as a simple procession commemorating Husayn’s martyrdom has evolved through the centuries into a veritable “passion play.” Each year, costumed actors present scenes which graphically recall the events that led to Husayn’s death. Participation in these ceremonies – as actor or audience – is believed to lead to salvation through the intercession of Husayn, the Redeemer. The passion plays take place in all countries with significant Shi’ite populations, including Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and India.

Karbala, located about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad on the Euphrates River, is a place of pilgrimage for Shi’ites that is second in importance only to Mecca. Here stands the mosque which houses the tomb of Husayn. Not normally accessible to non-Muslims, the mosque is surmounted by a dome covered in gilded copper, a sign of its particular importance.

Under the dome, beyond the beautifully decorated silver doors of the sanctuary, lies the shrine of Husayn. It is a six-foot by 12-foot sarcophagus enclosed in a silver “cage” to which the faithful have attached strips of green silk, and even silver padlocks, as votive offerings, in much the same way that Christians light candles before a shrine.

The dim interior is lighted by lamps and chandeliers, whose flickering rays are reflected in the thousands of crystal facets that cover the walls and ceilings. Here the faithful gather to pray and to walk around the shrine, stopping occasionally to cling for a moment to the silver grillwork as their lips move silently. Though the shrine is crowded, each pilgrim seems isolated from the others, deeply immersed in prayer, alone in communion with God through the intercession of the martyr Husayn.

Mary B. Peters is a foundation administrator who has traveled widely in the Near East, particularly in Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and has participated in archeological digs.

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