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I was born in a Sunni Hanafi family from Pakistan. We were taught to observe the pillars of Islam but with no compulsion. My childhood memories of Muharram are those of my mother and grandmother listening to majalis on the radio (this was the fifties & sixties and yes we only had radios then) and weeping quietly. We were kids – we didn’t ask questions. In school while studying Islam, we were given no historical background about Karbala but at home we did not wear bright colours or buy new things during the first ten days of Muharram. And that was it. Nothing more, nothing less.
As I ventured into college, most of the very little I knew had faded into the background. I had a few friends from Shia backgrounds and we heard chatter but nothing definitive. However I recall attending some majalis and being totally unaware of what was going on. I just knew they cried. But there was no hate between the Shias and Sunnis we knew – it was all accepted and our highlight of Muharram was to go and eat “kichra” on Ashura at a friend’s house.
Then came the 70’s – enter Zia ul Haq bringing plane loads of money from Saudi Arabia along with the Wahhabi/Salafi ideology. Suddenly there was a flurry of criticism and hate being spouted about Shias. Since I had no idea of our own history anyway (which in hindsight is appalling), there was some shock but it was not my problem.
Until I fell in love with a Shia and married him. We had talked about differences but I had no idea what the major differences were. My first experience with a Muharram majlis in Karachi was a disaster. The Maulana was loud and emotional and the loud speaker was so stringent that I couldn’t even hear anything. I went because I wanted to respect my other half. All round me people wept loudly and with abandon. I couldn’t bring a tear to my eye and at one point when everyone was weeping I did begin to feel sad, but that soon disappeared as the Maulana launched into some verbal attacks on Sunnis. So I decided this was not for me.
In the late 80’s we came to Canada. I was still a bit hesitant to attend Majlis because of my earlier experience. We came into contact with the East African Muslim community who ran an Islamic school in Brampton, where my kids went for Sunday school and we went and stayed there the entire time. One day the principal asked me if I would help out in the administration, and I defensively said “I’m not Shia”. He just smiled and went off. A while later he returned with a copy of the Quran in his hand and asked me if I could identify where the difference is in the Quran between Shia and Sunni. I was stumped, ashamed and also intrigued. I started helping out and in the process, learning myself. Both my husband and I would sit through classes and then come home to read, research and argue. Our home became a sort of a underground cafe where we would invite young people and scholars like Dr. Liakat Takim (who has also been instrumental in our growth) to have major discussions which would sometimes last all night.
Most importantly, we were learning and thinking for ourselves and both of us were re-thinking what we had been taught as dogma.
When I went to the majalis organized by this group, I was amazed at how different this was from what I had seen and heard in Pakistan. The speakers were educated Aalims. Even for my boys it was attractive because the lectures were in English, short and sweet. The initial gatherings were in a rented warehouse space from where they progressed to their own space. But I was still cautious and not fully tuned in to the story of Karbala and Imam Hussein.
In 1994 I heard my first lecture by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina (http://religious.gmu.edu/people/asachedi) and I would call it a life-changing experience. Dr. Sachedina is a wise, visionary and eloquent person who is so knowledgeable that even today I could sit and listen to him all day. Dr. Sachedina’s Muharram lectures were different and dynamic. He spoke of issues that no one had addressed before – he spoke of the humanity of Hussein, he spoke of Karbala being a lesson for humankind and most importantly he told stories. When Dr. Sachedina gently and softly recited the story of Karbala, he would never incite the audience to weep – rather he wept himself. And for the first time since I had started learning about Karbala, I wept for the Shaheed-ane-Karbala. It was cleansing and therapeutic. It was also a wake-up call to learn more. If my sons have fond memories of Muharram lectures, they are all related to Dr. Sachedina for whom they went enthusiastically because his lectures always left us thinking and discussing issues all the way home, hungry for more.
Inspired by my mentors, I wrote about Muharram so that others could better understand what it means https://raheelraza.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/the-muslim-new-year-a-time-for-reflection-by-raheel-raza/
By this time Dr. Sachedina had set up The Organization of Islamic Learning (OIL) and we became members. I was so enthused by what I was learning (and dismayed at what I had not known) that sometimes I would be the one who would insist that we can’t miss any lectures by Dr. Sachedina. The OIL community had also moved ahead with times and now we were no longer sitting on the floor, there were chairs. The curtain dividing men and women has also disappeared so everyone sits in the same hall and there is Q & A after each lecture. Although we are not socially involved with the people who come there, this has become our default “community”.
Inspired and impressed by this scholar, I interviewed Dr. Sachedina for The Toronto Star (http://www.raheelraza.com/scholar.htm). The day his interview was published in a full page article, it mentioned that there would be a lecture by him at The Japanese Cultural Centre. That evening a whole group of non-Muslim Canadians turned up for his lecture having read the article. This was very exciting. But it came time for prayers and the non-Muslims said they wished to pray with us. And so it was. Dr. Sachedina led a group of Canadians in prayer in one of the most poignant evenings of my life.
All this is to say that today, forty years from the time I was first introduced to Muharram, I can definitively say that I have learned more about Islam, Muslims and humanity from Muharram lectures than I ever could through any school or institution. It’s liberating to discover that Karbala is not only for Shias who have ritualized it; nor only for Sunnis who ignore and criticise it but for ALL Muslims and non-Muslims. As Mahatma Gandhi said “I have learnt from Hussein to gain victory while being oppressed.”
The persona of Hazrat Ali (who in my childhood has just been mentioned in passing as the last of the four Caliphs) took on a whole new dimension. I yearned to learn more. I read the English translation of Nahaj-ul- Balaga opening a new world of inspirational thought. It was the connection between Prophet Muhammad pbuh, his daughter Fatima Zehra, son-in-law Ali Ibn Abu Talib and the Prophet’s grandsons Hasan and Hussein that I savoured during Muharram lectures. Whatever Imam Hussein and Imam Hassan knew was because they had learned it from Ali and whatever Ali knew, he learned from his beloved teacher and Prophet of Islam – Muhammad pbuh.
I am amazed to note that Hazrat Ali is quoted in The United Nations:
The United Nations has advised Arab countries to take Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (AS) as an example in establishing a regime based on justice and democracy and encouraging knowledge.The UNDP in its 2002 Arab Human Development Report, distributed around the world, listed six sayings of Imam Ali (AS) about ideal governance.
They include consultation between the ruler and the ruled, speaking out against corruption and other wrong doings, ensuring justice to all, and achieving domestic development.
If I could sum up what I have learned on my journeys through Karbala, it would be as follows:
• Karbala is about all of humanity. It’s about truth and justice and good over evil
• Karbala is about relationships – brother & sister, father and son, master and servant, leader and follower
• Karbala is about standing up against oppression
• Karbala is about women – had it not been for the strength, courage, patience and oratory skills of Zainab, we would never know about what happened
• Karbala is about forgiveness and utmost faith in Allah
• Karbala is about the importance of Namaz – no matter what the odds. As Hazrat Ali has said “Certainly, prayer removes sins like autumn strips leaves off from trees, and it liberates you from the rope (of sins) tied around your neck. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) likened it to a refreshing stream at one’s door in which one takes a purifying bath five times in a day and night. Will after so much cleansing any dirt remain on him?”
I humbly pray for all Muslims to take a lesson from this important chapter of history instead of ignoring it, to bring about the revolution inside all of us that will help us distinguish between right and wrong, justice and injustice, humanity and depravity.