Sorry for the long absence- it’s been busy lately, with exams and general chaos.
Recently I was able to see the Shia holiday, Ashura, first hand.
(Disclaimer: Most Omanis are Ibadis, but there is a small Shia population. A tribe in Oman named Lowati, which originally came out of India, is the main source of Shias, at least in Muscat. I am lucky enough to be living in a half-Shia, half-Ibadi family. Such a marriage is very rare, and my host parents had difficulty convincing their parents for permission.)
Ashura is the period of mourning, during the month of Muharram, in which Shias commemorate the slaughter of Hussain (grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) and his family. Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, became the leader of the Ummayah (Muslim) Caliphate. However, after his death, the muslim population split. Those who believed that Ali’s son (Hasan) should be the leader became Shia. Those who did not followed Muawiya, are now known as Sunnis.
Ali’s son Hasan, entered into a peace agreement with Muawiya, even though Muawiya was believed to have been corrupting Islam, and disregarding Muhammad’s teaching. Hasan died shortly thereafter, and Ali’s other son, Husain, became the Shia leader.
One of the points of the peace treaty between Muawiya and Hasan was that Muawiya could not appoint a successor before his death, but that it would be up to the Ummaya to decide who would lead them. However, after Hasan died, Muawiya appointed his son Yazid, thus breaking the treaty.
Several years later, the people of Kufa under Yazid’s rule asked Husain to come lead them, because they told him that they had no Imam. Husain sent a relative to confirm, and indeed, the people were eager to have the descendant of Muhammad lead them. He sent more letters to other areas under Yazid’s rule, and although most recipients kept the letter secret, one turned it in to the government. Thus, Yazid discovered that Husain and his family were coming to Kufa. He plotted to kill them all. He succeeded.
Husain and his family, including women and children, were intercepted in their journey to Kufa, in a place called Karbala. Every male relative of Husain, save one, was murdered savagely. The women were taken to the majlis of Yazid without their faces covered (The female descendants of Muhammad were always completely covered, because of their pure lineage.)
Thus, this terrible day is remembered as Ashura, on the 10th day of Muharram.
I got to witness the mourning firsthand with my host family. Their are religious events for several days throughout the entire month of Muharram, culminating on Ashura.
I went twice to these gatherings. We went to Mattrah, the Lowati community, which by itself is spectacular. The streets are tiny, no more than 2 yards wide. We made our way through the winding, narrow passages. I got to see where my host mother grew up, which was really cool.
On these days, everyone wears black. I wore an abaya (as does every woman), and minimal makeup is worn. This is a major statement, as Arab women rarely leave the house without a full face of makeup. We entered the large majlis, and sat down on the carpeted floor. There was a tv located centrally on one of the walls, on which a man was giving a “sermon” in arabic. That lasted for about 45 minutes or so, and then the stories began. My family warned me beforehand that there would be a lot of crying, but I underestimated them. The man began singing (similar to the way Catholic priests sing throughout the service) as he told the story of Husain and his family’s slaughter at the Battle of Karbala. Slowly but surely, women (all religious gathering are separated by sex) began covering their faces with their lhaaf’s as their shoulders shook. Every once in a while, the man on the TV would break out into sobs. I was extremely confused to whole time, because no one told me before hand what he was saying. Nearly everyone cries because of the graphic description of his terrible death.
The whole event was rather sobering.
The second day was similar, but I saw some men doing a strange chest thumping chant in one of the streets. My host mom told me that it represents their sadness over his death. Originally, men would hit themselves with bladed chains. However, in the Lowati community they realized what a waste of blood it was, and decided to donate blood on that day instead.
However, I saw today on the news men whipping themselves with spiked chains in Afghanistan. (See here)
Read a commentary here on the Ashura attack in Afghanistan.
Not the happiest blog post ever, but it’s very interesting!
I’ve been learning a lot about Islamic history, and it’s fascinating.
Hope everyone had a great day!
From muscat with love,