Commemoration of Truth in Muharram
Commemoration of Truth in Muharram
Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Calendar, is one of the four sacred months mentioned in the Holy Qur'an in which fighting is prohibited.
The commemoration of the battle of Karbala on Ashura and the epic passion and courage of Imam Hossein (A.S) and his 72 loyal companions who were all martyred (in 680 C.E) is annually honored by Muslims around the world. A grandson of Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H), Imam Hussein (A.S) and his army of few followers battled with the large military detachment from the forces of Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph, whom Imam Hussein (A.S) had refused to recognize as caliph. The Imam was beheaded by Shimr and all his supporters were killed, including his six months old infant son and the women and children were taken as captives, while marched to Damascus and imprisoned there...
Customs Observed in Muharram and Safar
Muharram and Safar (which includes commemoration of the aftermath of Karbala) are a period of lamentation for Muslims. War and fighting are prohibited during Muharram and festivities like weddings and birthdays are usually postponed to more appropriate days. But the core meaning of Muharram is beyond such mere bereavement and commemoration of the past. Karbala was an actual and metaphorical venue where the truth confronted the lie, where justice spoke vibrant and audible in the face of prejudice and where courage, passion and devotion preceded attachment, worldliness and obstinacy. The saga is narrated to tell us that compared to the momentary victory of injustice, integrity and honesty will always stand the test of time as today the life of Imam Hossein is honored by millions across the world while the account of his enemies is nearly lost in oblivion.
No one could have said it more beautifully than Imam Hossein himself who was a preacher of peace and went to war only as the last resort; when on the day of Ashura he and his followers carved passion and courage forever in the depths of our shared memories, he said: "If you do not have any religion, then at least be noble and broad-minded in your own world."
Manifestations of Ashura in Iranian Culture
In Iran, Persian tea houses have murals that display the battle of Karbala, Imam Hossein army and his 72 companions against the large army of their enemy Yazid. Weeping women over corpses and thee Imam’s wounded horse, Zuljenah are the most common elements of these paintings.
Also many Iranian and Muslim poets have painted the event of Ashura with words. The most renowned of all is Mohtasham Kashani of the 16th century whose poetry is recited in mourning ceremonies to this day. Many contemporary poets and lyricists inspired by the accounts of Imam Hossein have produced popular works. Traditional mourning songs, however, known as Noheh have been recited and sung in commemoration of Ashura for centuries. Noheh (literally means giving account of a catastrophe, weeping in a sing-song and meaningful way). Singers who expertise only in Noheh and can inspire and touch the heart of the mourners with the extent of their sincerity, talent and voice are quite popular in Iran and their records sell in thousands.
Each neighborhood sets up its own establishment for the ceremonial processions of the month known as ‘Tekkiyeh’, which are venues for gathering of mourners known as ‘Heyat’ (literally meaning group or delegation) who honor the life of Imam Hossein. Tekkiyeh (stemming from the word eteka, meaning backup or reliable) was historically a staying place for visiting pilgrims and dervishes who relied on the goodness of the benefactors for daily sustenance. Today tekkiyehs, however, are specific locations for mourners who meet and participate in religious gathering after which they head out on the streets in groups known as Dasteh (literally meaning cluster) to parade a dramatic mourning. The Dasteh in each neighborhood has a specific route through which will proceed and people follow and move with the cluster of mourners as they chant mourning songs on the night and the day of Ashura. Resilient beat of drums and a few other instruments are heard as people weep to the hymns and men in black rhythmically flagellate their backs with two pairs of chains and beat their chests with open palms. This ritual is known as Sineh-Zani (beating the chest).
Usually an elderly person known as Rish Sefid (literally meaning, white beard) who is also a benefactor of the processions will raise and wave the green and black flags (traditional colors of Islam and mourning) ahead of the parade. Later people would take turns to hold the flag as the mourners move through the streets. A tall stand (sometimes as long as 12 meters) richly decorated with fabrics and feathers structure known as Nakhl (palm tree) is carried around. The Nakhl is a symbol of Imam Hussein's coffin as history narrates his beheaded corpse was carried on a stretcher made of palm leaves. For many people carrying the Nakhl throughout the ceremony is a form of bereavement and an instance of humbleness. Some nakhls are so heavily decorated that more than a 100 people are needed in order to carry them. While the band plays martial and doleful music, some people clad in costumes representing the army of Imam Hossein sit on horses and their suffering under the oppression of their enemy, Yazid is enacted by individuals who wear dark intense colors and have aggressive faces and large moustaches.
Generous Food Offers
Religious ceremonies more than often include food offerings, whether they are held at public venues like mosques or at private residences. These communal gatherings are also a kind of forum where friends, acquaintances and neighbors meet over food that is served after the ceremonies. During Muharram cities are abuzz with preparation for food offerings known as Nazri, the processions of which are usually sponsored by wealthy benefactors. Sheep, cows and other Halal animals are specifically and ritually sacrificed for this purpose.
Nazri (stemming from the Arabic word, Nazr) which literally means ‘offering’ is actually a form of a religious commitment that the benefactor has vowed to fulfill when his prayers are heard. People pledge (make a spiritual vow) to do acts of goodness, like feed the poor, visit holy shrines and give alms if their prayers and wishes come true. Also sometimes food offerings are distributed as Kheyrat (literally meaning, charity) in the memory of the deceased. It is believed that the prayers of the poor and needy who are fed by these offerings will benefit the souls of the departed.
During Muharram, particularly on Tassua (the 9th day of the month of Muharram) and Ashura days, each neighborhood in the city will set its food stalls and offer food to the mourners. Also private homes offer food to their neighbors by distributing parcels to houses or hosting the mourning ceremonies inside their homes and asking people to join by invitation.
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