Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Raed you should have been here today, how could miss out Ashura? Well, you still have 5 more days to get your ass back to Iraq and in Karbala,

We are approaching a very important date in the Shia calendar; this is something that has not been publicly commemorated for the last 25 years. Today is the third day in Muharam, in 7 more days the Shia Imam (saint?) al-Hussain will be killed in a battle that almost wiped out all the prophet’s male descendants but one, Zain al-Abideen. And you ask who was going to wipe out Mohammed’s lineage? It was the Sunni Caliph Yazeed.

Go grab that beer, it is story time again. This is the second part of the [what’s up with those Shia and Sunni dudes?] story.
If you don’t feel like a story scroll down to the pictures.

So I assume you have been reading the blog and already know that the prophet announced before his death that whoever sees a leader in him should see a leader in his cousin Ali. Which the Shia took as a sign that the rule of the growing Muslim empire should be in the hands of the descendants of the prophet. Things didn’t happen like that.

The revolution that was led by an orphaned man to make all believers equal in the eyes of Allah wasn’t gaining much ground with the big rich families of Mecca. If you have read Salman Rushdie’s [Satanic Verses] you’ll see how he hinted at the disgruntlement of the big rich families, they were calling it a revolution of “water bearers and slaves”. This is not just fiction, in a book titled [the political left and right in Islam] – please excuse me for forgetting the name of the author - it is suggested that after all of Mecca became muslin, willingly or by force, the older tribes were not going to allow the rule of this growing institution go to the hands of an unknown, an orphan. This gap between the old and the new power, the author suggests, has always been at the heart of Sunni/Shia trouble in the early days of the Caliphate.

Four Caliphs down the line, as we get into the Ummayad period, things are getting more and more decadent and. When Yazeed comes to become Caliph in Damascus he wants to make sure that there will not be anyone from the Prophet’s family to contest his right to the throne. He sends someone to kill al-Hussain, the next in line of Imams.

In the mean time al-Hussain is getting messages from Kufa/Iraq telling him that they support his cause and wish he would come to Kufa and lead the believers there. Seeing that he has no choice al-Hussain moves to Iraq. He takes with him all his family, the prophet’s family and followers of al-Hussain i.e. Shia. It is a small entourage since he is expecting the help of the Iraqis in Kufa. 72 men with their women and children.
Before he arrives a messenger is sent to check things out in Kufa, the messenger is a family member. The first day he arrives all the city prays behind him, a sign of respect. The Sunni Caliph sends his envoy to warn the people of Kufa from following this man. When the messenger comes to pray the next day, no one from the city is in the mosque and when he is killed and hung from a minaret no one from Kufa rises to avenge his death or bring him down for burial. Bad sign for the Shia on their way but with no wireless internet the word doesn’t get to al-Hussain. He doesn’t know that those people who have pledged support are all hot air. He falls into a trap.
Surrounded for 10 days, his few followers try to protect him and die one after the other. Zain al-Abideen was too ill to fight and this saved him from death. The story of the battle has been told on the blog before, will dig into the archives and post a link and some of it.

After this event Islam was split into two for ever. And the Shia have lamented the death of al-Hussain since then. Every 10th of Muharam, the first Islamic month, is a day of deep mourning for Shia. He is seen as a symbol of Shia struggle and the story with all its gory details gets told and re-enacted every year. There is also a deep sense of regret for abandoning al-Hussain in his most difficult hours, hence the flagellation.

Why do they start 7 days before the actual day of the death? That is because so many of the Imams died on that day there is no chance to commemorate all their deaths in one day. The laments on each day tell the story of one of the Imams building up to the big day on the 10th of Muharam. The day of Ashura.

The scenes I saw today are things I have never seen before, my mother and uncles would tell me about them but the event was banned. I, my mother and cousin will be going to Karbala for a week. I hope I will be able to take pictures and blog from there. This is of such significance to Shia in Iraq this year it should not be missed. You said freedom of expression? Well, this event is going to test the boundaries of this freedom. You can bet your ass that the Sunnis will see this year’s Ashura as a provocation and you can bet your friend’s ass that the Shia will use it to provoke. Poking the hornets’ nest is a very close image. So we be there wearing black and a pious beard with a camera in hand.


About today’s pictures; they were taken in Baghdad, Kadhimiya district. The processions took place near the Imam Kadhim shrine. I had a video camera in my hand and although it is nifty and has a place for a memory stick to allow for still photos I forget to press that button. If you want to see the really interesting stuff you will have to wait for the film which will hopefully air on Newsnight, besides you need to hear the sound of the drums and those metal chains going down.


As always, click to see big.

Main street in Kadhimiya, leading to the shrine. It has two gold domes.

The child of al-Hussain was killed at that battle as well that is why there will always be a procession of kids.

the entrance of the Kadhim shrine.

these are called Hodej, they will be lighted up with candles at night.

mysterious blogger turned Reuters journalist. G doing what he does best: scrweing up my shot. He should get [young Iraqi journalist of the year] award, you should see his photography.

this thing is called a Zirengi, I have no idea what it symbolizes but every group of lamenters has one

sometimes they looked worried, sometimes they lookes bemused, but in general the american soldiers managed to keep a low profile at this event.