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Events Relived

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On the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, the past intrudes into the present all over the world. Most readers will likely understand this statement intuitively to mean that the day is a yearly commemoration of an event situated somewhere in the past. But the metaphorical wording deserves closer attention because of the way it wrongly personifies the past into an agent that acts upon the world. Doing this, the statement has the effect of occluding human agency in creating time. A commemoration is an act undertaken in a present that refers to the past as imagined from that present. A more accurate way to describe the day would then be to say that people (re-)create the past on the tenth of Muharram every year.

The change is important conceptually because of the way it makes the past fixed or changeable. If the past asserts itself, then it must have some measure of definite content that compels human action. But if living people are the agents, the power resides in their choices, which may well be to try to repeat what they believe to have happened in the past. The change also legitimizes even radical difference in visions of the past held by people with varying investments.

My point here is not to falsify events from the past or to claim that those who commemorate events are in some way mistaken. Rather, it is to highlight that temporal markers that repeat cyclically, every year or by another measure, are major components of Islamic time. Variability pertaining to a single important date, such as the tenth of Muharram, helps us to understand Islamic history as a web.

Buka Luwur

The tenth of Muharram is an important day in Kudus because of it is the death anniversary of the man known as Sunan Kudus or Sayyid Ja’far Sadiq. Every year, the town hosts a ceremony named Buka Luwur (Change of Covering) in which the layered textile cover atop the saint’s sarcophagus is renewed, together with several other accompanying events.

Events at Buka Luwur, commemoration of the death anniversary of Sunan Kudus (2018).

The commemoration begins on the first day of the month, when the old covering is removed together with graveside recitation of prayers. An heirloom kris, a Southeast Asian ceremonial dagger, that is kept in a compartment near the grave and is believed to have belonged to the saint is then brought out and cleaned ritually. As the tenth of the month approaches, a new cloth covering is manufactured in town at the same time as the city is host to gatherings where religious songs are sung, sermons on religious matters are given, and there is formal recitation of the Quran and celebrated odes in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Special effort is made to distribute alms to orphaned children.

On the day itself, animals are sacrificed to make a dish of meat and rice in huge quantities that is then distributed to all those attending as religiously sanctified food. Together with this, a porridge-like dessert called bubur asyura is shared among all those present. In recent years, over twenty thousand packets of food have been given out, providing a sense for the scale of the event. The commemoration culminates in a ceremony where dignitaries carry the new cloth covering to the gravesite and cover the sarcophagus accompanied by prayers. The symbolism of the commemoration combines death and rebirth: the focus on the saint’s grave refers to the distant past, whereas the new covering and the sharing of food and discourse bring the community together in the present with an eye to the future.

Mourning at ‘Ashura

Away from Kudus—but reflected in the name of the sweet shared during the commemoration of Sunan Kudus’s death anniversary—the tenth of Muharram is known as the day of ‘Ashura in Muslim societies around the world. For many centuries, the day has predominantly been the marker of the violent death of Muhammad’s grandson Husayn, the third Shi’i Imam, in 680 CE at Karbala, Iraq.

In its most dramatic form, the event is remembered through putting one’s own body in pain to make the pain of those long dead real, both personally and socially. The commemoration starts at the beginning of the month, intensifying each day as the Imam is traced through his various acts leading to the point of death on the tenth. Events held during the time include detailed recounting of what Husayn and his companions suffered at the hands of their enemies, dramatic reenactments, and processions bearing elaborately constructed miniature mausolea that make their way through city streets.

Elegies recalling the suffering of Husayn and his companions and survivors continue to be written in many languages to this day. An especially prominent case for this is Urdu, a transregional South Asian literary language whose canon includes poets such a Mir Anis (d. 1874) and Mirza Dabir (d. 1875), famous for their laments (marsiya) on the tragedy of Karbala. The following translation of an elegy (nawha) by the contemporary Indian poet Asif Jalal Bijnori, performed by the group Hashim Sisters, captures the mood through which Urdu poetic practice makes the death of Husayn an inflected past available in the present:

The Night of ‘Ashur
Urdu poem “The Night of ‘Ashur” sung by the group Hashim Sisters (2017).

Mothers of the night of ‘Ashur were saying out aloud:

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

We will sacrifice all our joys for the sake of your happiness.

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

Do not grieve, tomorrow morning your desire will be fulfilled.

Gladly, we will give you our children’s blood.

We will pray that you remain verdant until Resurrection.

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

But it is true that we will ask you this, again and again:

What mistake did we make, what was our fault?

Why this tribulation came on those helpless like us?

Tonight, see our devotion to acts of worship:

See the children’s passion for martyrdom,

Dressing up to sacrifice for the leader’s aim.

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

Our infants will put their lives on the line,

But they will not ask the oppressor for water.

How sure are their brave hearts ready to die.

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

We will bathe in blood head to foot,

But we cannot bend our heads in front of oppression.

We are teachers to daredevils ready to die,

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

The hands of Qasim, Muhammad, or ‘Ali Asghar,

The hand of [‘Ali] Akbar—none would undertake the oath.

This much we do trust our milk, by God.

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

Arrows, swords, and axes cannot frighten us.

Daggers, swords, and maces cannot make us bend.

The decision we had to make we have done.

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

On the mothers of Karbala, may your life be sacrificed, Asif.

By God, none among those mothers was a coward, Hashim.

Every moment they were fulfilling their duty saying:

Desert of Karbala, we will make you flourish.

Among a huge variety of available elegies on Husayn, I have picked this one as an illustration because the imagery contains a complex play on time. The first point of note is the personalization of both time and space: the speakers are identified as the mothers of a moment in time (the night of ‘Ashura), and the addressee is a space (the dessert of Karbala). In the speech, custodians of a critical moment in time indicate that this space desire’s sacrificial blood that will turn it from a barren dessert to a verdant landscape. While protesting unfairness, the mothers say that they will fulfill space’s desire through the sacrifice their beloved children are ready to undertake for the cause of justice.

Human beings who appear in the narrative—the mothers, their named and unnamed children, Husayn as the leader, oppressive enemies who wield weapons—create meaningful time and space through their actions. What they choose to do, acting righteously or oppressively, is the measure of time as well as space. ‘Ashura is a special time because of what some people did on the day years ago. The spilling of blood from their bodies on the ground made an empty desert flourish, the material flow imprinting the moment on the ground and rendering it a place marked into the future.

The poem ends by shifting the scene from the fateful night in the year 680 CE to the names of the poet and the performers (Asif [Bijnori] and Hashim Sisters). These signatures are a generic feature in many forms of Urdu poetry. Here they create the effect of making the present speakers a part of the story. To remain potent, the time of ‘Ashura and the space of Karbala require proclamation, commemoration, and reenactment, as happens every year in Muharram throughout the world.

‘Ashura Around the World

In the bland calendrical sense, ‘Ashura is a day that comes around every year. The day acquires its characteristics through actions undertaken by people in specific times and places. The commemorative practices we can observe on the day today have developed varyingly among communities based on exigencies of local circumstances. The Urdu poetry I have translated above has its roots in the development of a Shi’i idiom particular to India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

While sharing a common sensibility of reenacting a deep mourning, practices pertaining to the day change continually. For example, in the nineteenth century, a distinctively North Indian style of the commemoration was carried from India to the Caribbean when indentured laborers were brought there to make up for the loss of slave labor after the abolition of slavery in 1833. Developing since then, the commemoration is known in Trinidad as Hosay and involves all residents, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, of Indian origin or otherwise.

The practice of making elaborate miniature mausolea (tadjah, from the Arabic word ta’ziya) has become woven into the island’s social fabric, distributed across various cities and neighborhoods in a collaborative competition in which the participants regard themselves as custodians of a past that is constitutive of the community. While Husayn’s death remains the anchor for marking the day, Hosay is equally a commemoration of forced migration, exile, and the construction of a diverse social order in a colonial and postcolonial society. The circumstances of indenture and the underlying conditions precipitated by the British empire that joined India to the Caribbean get mapped to the pains suffered by Husayn and his companions centuries ago in Karbala.

Paralleling movements in individual countries such as Lebanon and the United Kingdom, an international organization named the Imam Hussain Blood Donation Campaign encourages transforming ritual mourning (which can sometimes involve spilling one’s own blood) into an act that benefits others. The organization’s reasoning runs as follows: “One of the lessons we learn from Hussain is to be selfless and give from ourselves for the benefit of humanity. We want you to be inspired by Hussain’s legacy too and give blood for the sake of the wider community in 21st century. With each donation potentially saving the lives of up to three adults or seven children, this campaign sets out to encourage as many people as possible to come forth and become regular blood donors.” (

As seen here, Husayn’s acts on the day of ‘Ashura become relevant beyond commemoration undertaken on a particular day. The marked time is meant to propel actions in the context of an overall ethos pertaining to both self and society. Blood donation itself may be a new practice made possible by modern technology. But the logic on display here matches long-standing practices of mourning on ‘Ashura as well as charitable activities undertaken during Buka Luwur in Kudus on the tenth of Muharram.

‘Ashura commemorates a day that pitted some Muslims against others. Yazid b. Mu’awiya (d. 683), the Umayyad caliph seen as the ultimate oppressor in the recounting of tragedy, was ruler over a vast empire controlled by Muslims. Over the centuries, the day has continued to signify internal Muslim differentiation rooted in the interpretation of the past. In situations where Shi’is have been a minority, the right to undertake public mourning has not always been guaranteed. In contexts where Shi’is have been politically dominant, such as Iran since the sixteenth century, enactments of mourning have included severe vilification of not just Yazid and his companions but also Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, the three companions of Muhammad who succeeded the Prophet as the community’s leaders before ‘Ali and are greatly revered by Sunni Muslims.

Because the day is intended to be “relived” every year, Husayn’s story is refracted through local circumstances continually. Just as this may include acts of charity such as blood donation, it can be the moment of further conflict. In modern countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan that have substantial Shi’i populations and have experienced highly contested political circumstances in recent times, enactments of ‘Ashura have required stringent security measures and lapses resulting in mourners being victimized. From a tragic story in the past to medical aid and recurring violence, the flow of blood for many different reasons marks ‘Ashura as a node in the web of Islamic history.

 As I mentioned when discussing Buka Luwur, the communal meal distributed in Kudus on the tenth of Muharram includes a sweet porridge called bubur asyura. The tradition to share such food has a long history across Muslim communities, with or without direct reference to the tragedy associated with Husayn. Islamic sources that claim to report on the actions of the Prophet Muhammad contain discussions of ‘Ashura as a day of fasting, with possible connections to pre-Islamic Arab practices as well as Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that occurs on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar.

The day is sometimes associated with the moment when the biblical figure Noah landed his ark after the great flood and fasted together with all the animals as an act of thanksgiving. In Turkey, sharing the pudding known as aşure is said to commemorate this event. Reports on the symbolism, purpose, and advisability or obligation of fasting on ‘Ashura vary vastly. These are sometimes joined with the mourning for Husayn in Shi’i perspectives. Alternatively, attributing any meaning to the day other than as a commemoration of the great tragedy is taken as symbolic usurpation.

Considering all the available materials, many pasts—and not the past—intrude on the present on the tenth of Muharram every year. As nodes in Islamic history, ‘Ashura and other similar points of time subject to reliving offer pictures of irreducible complexity. They point to an entangled web of lines leading to pasts and futures to be seen in materials pertaining to Islam.

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