Hussein: A Shia Legacy

Most people do not realize that Islam is a rather diverse religion. Like Christianity, there are different sects of Islam. The two largest sects and most cited by American media, are Sunni and Shia. Although the two sects share similarities, they also have profound differences. The one difference I want to focus on is the death of Hussein at Karbala (located in present day Iraq), which is an extremely important event in Shia Islam. Hussein (grandson of Prophet Muhammad) was one of two competing leaders, the other being Yazid, for the Islamic dynasty. Long story short, Yazid with his large army won the battle at Karbala. Despite loosing the battle, Hussein became a martyr and example for his followers.

Today, the battle at Karbala is remembered by Shia Muslims all over the Islamic world. Each year Hussein’s martyrdom is commemorated by the Mourning of Muharram, which takes place in Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Right now we are in the midst of the month of Muharram, which this year goes from October 24 to November 23. On the tenth day of Muharram, know as Ashura, the climax of mourning is reached because Ashura is said to be the actual day Hussein was killed. In the video Karbala: City of Martyrs, the Mourning of Muharram in Iraq is documented. This film captures the mourning and rituals of the event. One ritual that at first shocked me was the practice of self-flagellation with steel knives on a chain. The men interviewed about this practice said it is their way of showing sorrow. They also said that the self-flagellation does not hurt. I found it interesting that they do not feel pain when hitting themselves with knives, I suppose their deep sorrow and love for Hussein overpowers the pain.


Aside form the religious importance of Ashura for Shia; pilgrimage to Hussein’s shrine in Karbala today has more importance than ever. This is because, as the article from The Guardian says, “With a relentless insurgency blazing throughout Iraq, killing an ever-increasing number of mainly Shia Iraqis, Ashura has transcended its ancient origins to become a here-and-now fight for existence”. Thus, Ashura today is a continuation of the battle Hussein fought. Like Hussein, the mourners during Ashura are devoted to what they believe in. The film clearly shows this devotion when only minutes after the bombings mourners resume the procession to the shrine of Hussein. I found it amazing that these mourners resumed there procession just moments after devastation. I know I would tremble in fear after such in event. I suppose Shia mourners in Iraq are accustomed to being resilient because of the instability their country faces, after years of war. Hopefully in the future Shia mourners will be able to safely commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom.

Girl in mourning



Picture sources:

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