For a tourist visiting Iran during the first ten days of the month of Muharram, these days might feel like an immersive cultural experience.
Streets around the entire country are decorated with banners and flags; people set up stands around the city and give away food and drinks, chanting of elegies and chest-beating happen at night as tears run down the grief-stricken faces of mourners from all walks of life.
But what looks like a unique mourning service has a deeper meaning for those keeping the ritual alive.
The historical ceremonies which have become entrenched in the hearts and minds of millions of people revolve around the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (PBUH), the grandson of the prophet of Islam. More than 4,000 Umayyad soldiers marched at Imam Hussein and his 72 companions in the plain of Karbala in response to their demand for justice. More than 13 centuries later, the movement of Imam Hussein has only become more and more legendary for those seeking justice and freedom in the world.
“Imam Hussein can be a role model for people of any culture and race”, said Mustafa, who was giving away cold drinks to mourners passing by. When asked why he was standing in the 40-degree heat to express his respect towards Imam Hussein, he said, “This is what gives meaning to my life. I come here every year to remember what life is about…to remember that no matter what happens, I must always stay true to my moral standards and carry out my duties in the best way possible”.
Many people attending the Muharram events feel the same way. They see Muharram as a lesson and a source of guidance. The sorrowful tale of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom has created a flow of life that will last forever in the minds of his mourners.
“The past events of any society carry valuable experiences and lessons that have been obtained at a high cost; some of these events can still resonate with people after centuries,” said Ali Ansari, who is an Islamic scholar that’s devoted his life to understanding the history of Islam better. “Some events will always get preserved and reviewed. An event like Karbala can forever inspire those who do not want to cave in under pressure from oppressors. Whether they defeat or die fighting tyrants, people seeking justice will always emerge victorious”.
Hence, Imam Hussein’s movement can be seen as a lesson that will teach generations how to fight against tyranny and injustice. Imam Hussein won the battle against the despotic rulers of his time once his blood touched the sword of his enemies.
Muharram is also a month that unites people from different sects, religions and backgrounds. Mary, who is a member of Iran’s Christian minority, says she mourns during this time like her Muslim compatriots all because of Lady Zeinab, the sister of Imam Hussein. “Lady Zeinab is a perfect example of a god-loving woman,” said Mary, adding, “She had as big of an impact as the men that fought on the battlefield. She showed everyone at a time when women were largely disregarded that she and her fellow female peers could have deeper insight than most people”.
Suppose you join a mourning session in any Iranian city on the day of Ashura. In that case, you can witness through your own eyes the glory of the legacy of Imam Hussein. This man has left a never-dying mark on human history, which only seems more noticeable as time passes.
( Note: This article was first published in the Tehran Times, July 25, 2023 )