Imam Hussain, Love, and Social Justice

I know I mentioned to a few friends that I was taking a brief hiatus from blogging, but since it is the month of Muharram, I wanted to share a few thoughts about Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both), and how his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala still carries significance today.

Before I continue, it seems impossible to talk about the events of Karbala without also acknowledging the spiritual diversity within Islam. Unfortunately, Orientalist discourses, particularly on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, have produced many misconceptions and distortions about Islam. It is also disheartening when Muslims internalize these stereotypes and reproduce Orientalist narratives which create barriers towards intra-community dialogue, understanding, and respect.  For instance, whenever discussions arise about “different sects” in Islam, it is often code for anything that is not Sunni.  Sunni Islam, which represents the majority of Muslims worldwide, is not only the dominant and central focus of discourse, but also regarded as the “true” or “authentic” Islam. The implication, whether intended or unintended, becomes about casting non-Sunni Muslims as the groups that “deviated” and splintered off into “their own version” of Islam.

While I was raised Sunni, there was a point in my spiritual journey when my research on Sufism intersected with Shi’ism. For about 3-4 years now, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. I also believe in the infallibility of all God’s messengers and the Panjtan Paak (The Holy Five, or Ahl-ul-Bayt/People of the House), the latter being (1) Prophet Muhammad, (2) his daughter Fatima, (3) his cousin  and son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons (4) Hassan and (5) Hussain (peace and blessings upon them all).  As with Sufism, I didn’t see Shi’ism as a “separate religion,” but rather as an expansion of my knowledge of Islam. Sufism, for example, is a term I use to identify the deeper and mystical teachings in Islam, not something “outside” of Islam (Sufis can be either Sunni or Shia, though there tends to be a lot of overlapping with Shi’ism).

Differences in theology and practice does not stop me from seeing Sunni Muslims, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and others as my brothers and sisters in Islam.  I don’t look at issues confronting Sunni-majority communities or countries and think to myself, “Well, that’s a Sunni issue, I don’t have to worry about.”   I believe in real unity of Muslims. That is, unity based upon understanding, respect, and appreciation of spiritual diversity, not “unity” based on conformity to one monolithic school of thought.  I strongly believe that Faith is very personal, so rather than endlessly debate about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” I believe our communities should not only have discussions rooted in the Islamic teachings of compassion and brother/sisterhood, but also put those teachings of compassion into practice by respecting one another.  As Prophet Muhammad once said, “One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God)” (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari & Muslim).

Despite my not seeing Shi’ism separate from so-called “mainstream Islam,” I also have to understand my privileges because my community identity is still Sunni.  What I mean by this is that when I attend Sunni Mosques or social gatherings with my family, I don’t have to worry about being stigmatized in the same way a Shia family might. I have the privilege to avoid that stigma by not “outing” my Shia beliefs because people know my family is Sunni, therefore I, too, must be Sunni.  Orientalists perpetuate misconceptions about Sunnis and Shias by persistently discussing the “Sunni and Shia” divide within the context of “sectarian violence.”  It is equally important to have this critique while also not glossing over the way Twelver Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups are stigmatized and persecuted by Sunni-majority governments (many of which adopt or are influenced by Wahhabi ideology, not to mention being simultaneously backed and exploited by western imperialist powers). Furthermore, it is easy to say, “All Muslims should just call themselves ‘Muslim,'” when one has never had to deal with the struggles faced by non-Sunni Muslims.  Of course all Muslims self-identify as Muslim, but it is also important to not ignore the reality in which non-Sunni Muslims are treated differently due to their beliefs.  Rather than calling on Muslims to their erase their diverse identities for the sake of a problematic “melting pot” and assimilationist ideal, we should be appreciative and respectful of these differences.

There are a lot of great books and sources available to learn more about the spiritual diversity in Islam, so instead of delving into those rich and complex histories, I will focus on the events of Karbala and the lessons all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can learn from Imam Hussain’s stand against the tyrant Yazid.  Regardless of theological differences, all Muslims recognize that Imam Hussain and his 72 soldiers were brutally massacred by Yazid’s army of 5,000 (some sources report 30,000) on the tenth day of Muharram, known as “The Day of Ashura.” Differences surface in the way Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is commemorated or observed by various Muslim groups, but the stand against Yazid, a man who appointed himself as Caliph without council or election, is remembered as resistance against corruption and oppression.  Despite the insurmountable odds, Imam Hussain stood firmly in the face of tyranny for the sake of reviving the message of Islam and spiritual leadership for all Muslims. In a beautiful manqabat (Sufi devotional poem) written by Pakistani poet Hafeez Jalandhari and sung by the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imam Hussain’s defiance is expressed in vivid detail:

Libaas hai phata hua, ghubaar mein ata hua
Tamaam jism-e-nazneen, chida hua, kata hua
Yeh kon ziwiqaar hai, bala ka shahsawaar hai
Ke hai hazaar qaatilon ke samne data hua

Yeh bilyaqeen Hussain hai
Nabi ka noor-e-ain hai

(Translated from Urdu)

His dress is torn, with mud it is worn
His splendid, delicate body is cut, slashed, and torn
Who is this dignified, master horseman?
Who is standing his ground in front of an army of thousands?

Indeed it is Hussain, it is Hussain
The Light of the Prophet’s eyes, it is Hussain

The poem describes the violent wounds inflicted upon Imam Hussain’s body, yet emerging from all of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of Karbala is praise for the Prophet’s grandson and his unwavering spirit of resistance.  Even though Imam Hussain and his army of 72 were slaughtered, it is their stand against injustice that remains eternal and serves as a reminder for the oppression that exists in our present world.  As it is stated in the Qur’an: “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (3:169).  Indeed, the physical body dies, but it is the soul that lives on. The message of what those individuals stood for lives through the people who follow their example.  In fact, Imam Hussain’s famous quote on the day of Ashura powerfully captures the call for social justice: “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.”  The narration reminds Muslims that injustice is everywhere and that every day must be lived with consciousness of our responsibilities in the constant struggle to end all forms of oppression.  Values such as selflessness, serving humanity, aiding those in need, and trusting in a higher power should be implemented in each day of our lives.   Prior to the Battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain asked fellow Muslims for assistance, but many of them did not help or speak out.  We learn about the importance of being mindful of our privileges and not neglecting or being complicit in the oppression of others.

Since Prophet Muhammad is taught to be the role model for all Muslims, it is interesting to explore how poetic praise of Imam Hussain symbolizes the way he followed the example of the Prophet.  In the poem above, Jalandhari illuminates the intimate relationship between Hussain and his grandfather by referring to the former as the noor (light) of “the Prophet’s eyes.” This special praise for Imam Hussain is not uncommon in Sufi poetry, but there is often a perception that such expressions of Love are shirk (generally translated as idolatry or polytheism). To overcome such unfortunate misunderstandings, which tend to cause judgmental attitudes among Muslims, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that there are infinite ways to show Love and devotion for God.  Because someone glorifies the Prophet’s grandson does not mean they are worshiping Hussain, but rather commemorating and celebrating him. Imam Hussain stood up for the rights of all human beings by sacrificing himself, but is self-sacrifice or martyrdom the one and only way to express one’s commitment to justice?  Of course not.  It is the essence that matters.  So, while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation.  This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.

According to Syed Akbar Hyder, author of “Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory,” the following is probably the most recited Persian quatrain in South Asia, even by those who do not speak or understand the language:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, Deen panah ast Hussain
Sar dad na dad dast dar dast-e-Yazid,
Haqqa key bina-e la ilah ast Hussain

King is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain
Religion is Hussain, the refuge for religion is Hussain
(He) gave up his head, but did not give his hands in the hands of Yazid
The truth is that the foundation of la ilaha (negation of all gods except God) is Hussain

This poem, written by Indian Sufi master (khwaja/pir)  Muinuddin Chisti (d. 1236 C.E.), was also popularized in a Qawwali (South Asian Sufi devotional songs) by the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  As Hyder illustrates:

The truth, according to this thirteenth-century Sufi (Chisti), is that the very core of Islam, its essential creed of tawhid, or Divine Unity, ‘la ilaha illa lah Muhammadan rasul Allah,’ or ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger,’ is Hussain. Since Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, in spite of having to make innumerable sacrifices, he is projected as an embodiment of Islam’s creed that refuses to acknowledge any power other than that of God. (emphasis added)

Related is how philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) centered on Karbala’s religious symbolism in conjunction with the “political project to unite and mobilize Muslims, especially the Muslim minorities in the South Asian subcontinent.”  Iqbal not only connected his “evocations of Karbala and martyrdom” to the “subsequent discourses of anti-colonialism and nationalism,” but he also saw the spiritual and political message of the Qur’an in Imam Hussain himself.  As he passionately articulates in Persian:

Ramz-e-Qur’an az Hussain amukhtim
za-atish-e-ou shola ha andukhtim

I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain
In his fire, like a flame, I burn

Since the beginning of Muharram this year, I have been reflecting on these words, which I feel prompt the question: “Well, what is the lesson of the Qur’an?”  Much of what Imam Hussain’s martyrdom means for us to resist oppression has been written above, but I also think there needs to be a critical analysis of the way we discuss religion and religious symbolism, especially within the context of social justice.  For example, when we talk about Islamophobia, racism, and military occupation of Muslim-majority lands, we often think exclusively about male experiences.  An article on anti-Muslim violence against Muslim women was recently published on AltMuslimah and highlighted on this point of male-centrism, not to diminish or negate male experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but rather to address the way racist and violent attacks on Muslim women have been remarkably ignored by Muslim civil rights groups, mainstream western media, and American women’s rights organizations. When the Qur’an says, “There is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice” (42:42), it is not only relevant to struggles against racism, classism, and war, but also sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence because all of these forms of oppression intersect. Racism, classism, and war produce distinct forms of oppression against women, specifically women of color, as sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence are integral to the larger structures of white supremacist power, heteropatriarchal domination, and state violence.

When we talk about Imam Hussain’s commitment to justice, equality, and liberation – all of which mirrors the Qur’an – we must think of ending all forms of oppression, whether they be racism, sexism, classism, abliesm, homophobia, etc.  We must have this discussion because without centering intersectionality politics in social justice struggles and honestly examining the problems that exist in our own communities, we undermine the values we claim to be standing for.  We look very hypocritical when some of us are commemorating the memory of Imam Hussain, but then participate in rape culture by blaming rape victims. We perpetuate victim blaming logic when we, on the one hand, claim Islam is about brother/sisterhood, but then, on the other hand, accuse the Muslim men and women beaten by police officers at an American theme park of “victimizing themselves” or “being at fault.”  We demonstrate failure in understanding of our spiritual teachings when we exalt Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), but then deny women equal rights in Mosques, schools, workplaces, etc. Although it is crucial to fight Islamophobia and demand for our rights in non-Muslim majority countries like the United States, where is the compassion when anti-racist and anti-imperialist critiques of an administration that bombs, kills, and rapes Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani bodies in Muslim-majority nations are ridiculed, insulted, or ignored by Muslim representatives of civil rights groups?  Religious context or not, how do fully understand what interconnectedness of humanity means when some of us are only talking about unity, acceptance, and respect inside the United States?

As previously mentioned, sacrificing one’s self for justice is not the only expression of resistance or activism, even though bell hooks’ reminder about struggle comes to mind: “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Prophet Muhammad once said, “If you see a wrong, you should stop it with your hand; if you cannot, then you should speak out against it; if not that, then at least condemn it in your heart, that being the weakest form of faith” (Sahih Muslim). It is easy to see how Imam Hussain exemplified this Hadith in his life, but also worth examining is the internal struggle. That is, Imam Hussain spoke out against injustice, even if it was in his own community. In our present reality, Muslim communities, like all communities, are no exception to sexism and misogyny.  Muslim men obsessing over the way Muslim women dress, for example, comes from patriarchal entitlement and sense of male “ownership” of women’s bodies.   Denying women prayer space or refusing to engage in dialogue about gender segregation in Mosques (and this is mostly in the mainstream Sunni context since there are other Muslim groups who do not have gender segregation in Mosques) not only perpetuates sexism, but also seeks to marginalize and silence critiques of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an. Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,” asserts that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal. Misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, argues Barlas, do not stem from the teachings of the Qur’an, but rather from history of Muslim men who have interpreted the text to speak to their own realities while excluding or interpreting experiences of Muslim women.

Some of the poems I shared above can probably be read as patriarchal, but if we critique them with Asma Barlas’ thesis in mind, we can reinterpret them as expressions of Love for Imam Hussain rather than “evidence” that somehow only male figures in Islam carry such importance.  Shia scholars have written that one cannot mention Imam Ali without mentioning Hazrat Fatima (Prophet Muhammad’s daughter) because she was “his companion in life and suffering.”  They also contend that one cannot mention her children Hassan, Hussain, and Zainab without mentioning Hazrat Fatima because she was “the secret of their personalities throughout their lives.”  The Prophet Muhammad once said of Hazrat Fatima:

Fatima is part of me; whoever angers her, angers me and whoever harms her, harms me (Sahih al-Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmadhi, Musnad Ahmad: v.4, p. 328., Khasaes An-Nisaee: p.35)

Elsewhere, the Prophet said:

Surely, God is angered when you (Fatima) are angered, and is pleased when you are pleased. (Mustadrak al-Hakim: v.3, p.154., Tadhkirat al-Bast: p.175., Maqtal al-Khawarazmi: v.1, p.54., Kefayat At-Talib: p.219., Kanz al-Umal: v.7, p.111., Sawiq: p.105)

This link between Hazrat Fatima and Prophet Muhammad and God is quite remarkable when read within the context of patriarchal interpretations of Islam as well as western non-Muslim accusations that Islam is “inherently sexist.”  I remember when I first started reading Shia works about Hazrat Fatima, I was surprised to learn that she is a role model for both women and men.  As one scholar writes:

When we present Fatima as a role model, we are not talking about women only. We present her as a role model for both men and women because she is a constituent element of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole, not just of women.

Another scholar writes of Asma bint Omais, the wife of Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who asked the Prophet if any verses of the Qur’an were revealed in regard to women. She asked the Prophet if women were “caught with loss and detriment,”  to which the Prophet asked, “Why?”  Asma replied, “Because in Islam and the Qur’an no virtue has been announced in relation to them as there has been for men.”  The Prophet replied with this verse from the Qur’an:

Surely, the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, And the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their modesty and the women who guard, and the men who remember God much and the women who remember God much: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)

In respect to this verse, many male scholars agree that the Qur’an stresses on equal values for women and men.  Of course, this is not to gloss over how many of these scholars assert sexist attitudes towards women’s role in society, but it is interesting to read their own words against them!  Having said that, if women and men are equal, as the Qur’an teaches, then we must see violations against gender equality as injustice. Similarly, if Muhammad is to be the role model for all Muslims, then so should Fatima, whether one believes both of them to be infallible or not. Indeed, Fatima and her daughter Zainab endured hardship and challenges throughout their lives, and while some poetic praises from Muslim men honor these women, they tend to focus more on their sorrow than their immensely active political roles.  Hazrat Fatima constantly questioned authority up until her death, while Hazrat Zainab was taken prisoner by Yazid, but never submitted to his rule. On the contrary, she constantly condemned him, despite the risk of being executed herself.  Iqbal often writes of Hussain’s greatness because he is the son of Fatima, but Iqbal also goes further to say that had it not been for God’s laws of monotheism, he would have “gone round and round her (Fatima’s) grave-site” and “would have done sajdah (prostration) on her grave.”  Although Iqbal is known to challenge patriarchal Muslim jurists in regard to women’s rights, his conservative views on gender need to be critiqued.  It simply makes no sense for Muslim men to celebrate women like Khadijah, Fatima, and Zainab and yet persist with sexist attitudes and practices that aim to relegate women to the background.

Lastly, I think there needs to be a critique of Love and the way it is presented in relation to Islam and the Qur’an.  If Love is equality for all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., then Love is foundational to Islam.  Orientalists offer a very simplistic understanding of mourning in the Twelver Shia tradition and fail to highlight on the multiple ways people express their grief and sorrow during Muharram. What they also fail to emphasize is that Imam Hussain’s martyrdom was one of Love, i.e. Love of the Divine and Love for humanity. Sufism is not immune to Orientalist misrepresentations either, as we find many western New Age writers, poets, and musicians participate in spiritual appropriation.  For example, poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi are shamelessly mistranslated and distorted by Coleman Barks and others who do not speak Farsi and go as far as deliberately omitting Rumi’s Islamic references. When one reads these New Age “translations,” one might think of Sufi poetry as merely “universal” and “inspirational” quotes with an “exotic flare.”  Of course Sufi poems are inspiring, passionate, and breathtaking, but incredibly rich and complex cultural, religious, and literary themes are lost in western New Age romanticism and appropriation.  For instance, the way the poems I shared earlier shift so fluidly from the grief of Karbala to praise of Imam Hussain reflect the larger Sufi theme of joy and sorrow mirroring one another. This theme is rooted in the Qur’anic verses: “God will grant after hardship, ease” and “truly, with every hardship, there is ease/relief” (65:7, 94:5-6).

These verses are proven by the struggles of Muhammad, Khadijah, Ali, Fatima, Hussain, Hassan, and Zainab.  Further, we are reminded that Love is not without struggle or endurance through hardship.  Interestingly, I’ve noticed in some casual conversations that there is a general misinterpretation of the relationship between joy and sorrow.  Some say such poetry is “too depressing,” while others say it “idealizes” suffering.  On the contrary, poems that speak of struggle on the path of Love are deeper expressions of the human soul; it’s longings, desires, sorrows, joys, uncertainties, etc.  Zeb-un-Nisa (d. 1702 C.E.), who is reported to have participated in the mourning of Muharram, writes the following about Love:

Here is the path of Love—how dark and long
Its winding ways, with many snares beset!
Yet crowds of eager pilgrims onward throng
And fall like doves into the fowler’s net.

Despite the “winding ways” on the “path of Love,” she illustrates how the seekers/Lovers persist, even if the end result is doom.  Like many Sufi poets, Zeb-un-Nisa refers to Love in her poetry as Love for God, so there is a fitting analogy that can apply to Imam Hussain’s struggle in the way of God/Love.  One of my personal favorite verses from Zeb-un-Nisa beautifully captures God’s assurance of relief after hardship:

And see the thorny waste
Whereon your bruised feet their pathway traced,
This wilderness, touched by your blood that flows,
Blooms fragrant as the rose.

I don’t read poems like this as merely romanticizing pain or suffering, but rather as acknowledging that struggle exists in our lives.  Struggle manifests itself differently for everyone, which underlines the importance of being aware of our privileges and responsibilities.  As we reflect on Ashura, we can also use this time to bring our communities closer together.  If we believe the Qur’an’s message of peace, Love, respect, and liberation for all human beings  is represented in Imam Hussain’s stand against tyranny, we must recognize the Karbalas that exist in the present world – Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Native American land that we non-Natives occupy, everywhere.  Love within the context of social justice eliminates domination and establishes commitment to others, no matter where the oppressed are found, as Paulo Freire writes. bell hooks adds that Love is also about understanding that all of us, irrespective of race, class, gender, etc. have “acted in complicity with the existing oppressive system.”  Understanding our complicities serves as a reminder to keep ourselves in check and not recreate oppressive hierarchies in social justice movements.  Our commitment to interconnectedness with others, consciousness of our own responsibilities, and fighting all forms of oppression everywhere is, like the struggles of Muhammad, Fatima, Hussain, and Zainab, rooted in Love.

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

21 thoughts on “Imam Hussain, Love, and Social Justice

  1. JazzakAllah !!! beautiful article, very well written, extensive research, non biased approach. May Allah and Panjetan Pak A.S bless you with more knowledge and gives you best of best in this world and hereafter. Ameen

  2. A beautiful piece that I will definitely enjoy reading time and again. Sometimes, even as someone who was brought up within a Shi’a family, I find myself lost and confused because of the patriarchal binds that are practiced within the community. It frustrates me to no end because I see so many children in the community simply follow, engage in ritual without actively understanding what it is they are saying or doing, and particularly when it comes to girls, they end up entangled in the dictates of a people who forget that the message of Karbala was spread by Zainab (a.s.) and instead focus on whether or not women should be allowed to pursue higher education or work and what languages they should be allowed to speak *facepalm*

    Thank you. Thank you for these insights.

    • Thank you for your kind words! I know what you mean about people following rituals without understanding the meaning. Thank you for emphasizing on that point about Zainab (peace be upon her) and how she spread the message of Karbala. It’s a great injustice when patriarchal interpretations and norms violate the rights that Muslim women have in Islam.

  3. Salaam Jehanzeb, I pray this finds you well.

    I just read your brilliant piece on ‘Jesus the Palestinian’—APPLAUSE!!!!

    I would be most honored if you would come on my radio program to discuss this, and particularly during this Christmas season. I am a Lebanese American Christian but a friend to Islam and to Muslims.

    peace

    mg

  4. Admin Note: Your comment was deleted because it was judgmental and condescending. This blog post does not encourage Shia bashing or engaging in a religious/theological debate. Please read the post again and try to understand the point about unity through respect and appreciation for diversity. Peace.

    • I am sorry you feel that way. I worked for a shia human rights organisation and love my employers and have worked very hard for unity. I have stood outside the Islamic centre in London protecting the shia worshippers during their arbaeen. Nothing I said is shia bashing rather it was an attempt to engage with real differences that cause massive division. These divisions cannot be whitewashed. Unity must mean something to have purpose. The points that I have made were in response to yours, and rather than engage in a discussion or a dialogue you have chosen to delete my post. Most of my post was an extension of your comments to show an alternative narrative regarding loving the ahl bayt from a sunni perspective and women influence in Islam. If sharing information that doesn’t fit into this narrative is worthy of being deleted please know that it is this mentality alone that will maintain sectarianism no matter what the stated claims are.

      Peace

      • Why are you making this about yourself and the work that you do? Your comment is similar to how white people say something racist, but then say, “I didn’t say anything racist. I have black friends and worked in anti-racist groups.” It doesn’t change the fact that what you said was offensive.

        In your original comment, you created a dichotomy between Ahl-ul-Sunnah and Ahl-ul-Bayt. You essentially argued that Sunnis are more inclusive whereas Shias are “either/or.” Then you spoke about “normative Shia” beliefs with a judgmental tone. Then you criticized the Shia belief in infallibility – that is most obviously a theological conversation and I have made it clear that this blog post is not about a religious debate. Instead of trying to excuse yourself of your prejudices, why not own up to what you said and take responsibility for it?

        This post was written on Ashura and emphasizes on the message we learn from that event. We learn about standing up for justice and how Imam Hussain’s sacrifice (peace be upon him) still carries significance today. We must speak out against injustice wherever it is and no matter who says it. Differences in spiritual beliefs is not part of this conversation. It doesn’t make a difference to me if a Muslim brother or sister tells me that they pray with a torbah or not, or if they believe in the Prophet’s infallibility or not. These are personal things that should be left alone. What we need is to acknowledge these differences are always going to be there and that we should never impose our beliefs upon others. Instead, we can focus on building and strengthening our communities and continue to speak out against the injustices we and others face.

  5. I really appreciate this article. As someone who has been raised Shia, but found all mainstream religious communities (regardless of sect) to be stifling towards the personal values that I hold, I found your words a welcome articulation of the things which I’ve always felt but never really put into words in any cohesive manner. Often in debates or discussions about patriarchy or social justice in general, I’ve found the trials Kerbala and the experiences of Imam Hussein (A.S.) and Zainab (PBUH) to be instructive in the essence of the values that I believe Islam tries to teach us, and been frustrated when they are selectively adhered to or ignored outright by all groups (bone-headedness being quite the non-exclusive trait). Reading what you had written here was almost like having an out of body experience, and I’m glad to know there is someone who shares in the social values and religious beliefs (and is able to reconcile them so beautifully as well).

    Just as a final aside, I had been blessed enough to go to Hajj last year with a brief stopover in Medina. The experience at large was quite moving, though interactions during prayer time (where Shias can be singled out because they don’t fold their arms in front of themselves) and especially at Jannatul Baqi with the Saudi religious police were quite painful with regards to membership in the ‘ummah’ and in feeling welcome in what is the home/are the lands of the Prophet (PBUH). Reading your recognition of “Sunni privilege” as well as your conception of a ‘true’ unity within Islam is really quite moving. I can only pray that one day more people are able to recognize the false divisions within this religion and come together to have frank discussions about how we can make this a true community, because it can be quite alienating at times.

    Peace, and love.

    • Thank you for your beautiful comment, Raza! I apologize for the late reply. I agree with everything you said and I’m really glad you had such an experience while reading this.

      I pray that we can achieve unity through respect and appreciation as well. Thanks again! :)

  6. Beautiful and enlightening. I am not exposed to many Sufi poetry as you described above (have little appreciation for poetry, actually, hehehe), so, thank you.

    Personally, whether you identify as Sunni, Shiite or whatever, so long as you believe in Allah SWT and Muhammad as His Messenger, all is good. At the end of the day, only Allah SWT has the right to indicate who is kufr, shirk, etc because only He knows best. We can only strive and hope that He accepts us into Paradise, though we are unworthy.

    *grin*

  7. Jazak Allah! (Jay e Namaz, Farsh e Aza mai badal gayee/ Yaad a Gaya Hussain a.s. ka sajda namaz mai!)

    I would like to add , for my non-shia muslim brothers,that Imam Hussain A.S. not only saved religion in Karbala by giving such a great sacrifice, He also gave shelter to Sunnat too, which Yazid was playing with and following his own made islamic prinicpals , intending to take revenge of Badar and the powers and authority of bani hashim (Prophet’s S.A.W.W. tribe). Had this sacrifice not been presented by the Mazloom e Karbala, there would be no namaz , mosques, or Islam itself.

    Magar namaz say pucho k Karbala kia hai?
    Hussain aur tera rishta e wafa kia hai?
    Kaha Namaz ney “Sun lo meri baqa kia hai?
    Bas ik Sajda e Shabbir k siwa kia hai?
    Hussain ka he gharana bacha gaya mujuko.
    Wo khud ujar gaya lekin bacha gaya mujhko.”

    Sadly, these days there is an increasing trend in programs by (so-called) ulemas who , in order to save Yazid from all the curse he deserves, declare that the Karbala war was a political one . Giving reference of a Hadith of Prophet S.A.W.W. in which people who participated in a particular battle, were declared to be placed in heaven and Yazid was one of them. The fact is, that Yazid who participated in this particular battle, was uncle to this Yazid who was responsible for Karbala and Imam’s Shahadat. As if you study history, you will be aware that it was a trend of name repetition/ducplication in alternate generations, such as Imam Ali, Imam Hussain, Imam Ali (bin Hussain) , and on the other hand : Yazid (who participated in that battle) , His brother Moawiyah (ameer e Sham) , Yazid ( Qatil e Hussain A.S.), Muawiyah bin Yazeed.

    Depite the fact that Imam Ali A.S. was the rightful succesor, the conflicts and rifts b/w the muslim sects should not be based upon this doctrine . Karbala should only be the point of difference b/w Haq o Batil. Because as far as Shia Sunni thing goes, if there was any true Shia, it was Prophet S.A.W.W. himself for the love he had for Ali A.S., and if there was a true sunni ever, it was Ali A.s. and Ahlul Bait, for they know the Sunnat in its pure sense and loved Prophet S.A.W.W, the way He should be loved.(This means todays Shias are actually Sunni and Sunnis are Shia!!!) If Muslims have to move forward in this age of terrorism and biasedness against muslims, they have to forget Shia and Sunni . Today there are only two polls. One is either Hussaini or Yazidi. Let it become the light post to mark our way with towards new muslim prosperity.

  8. Very well written. You’ve done justice to both the Sunni’s and Shia’s while still managing to portray islam in its best light.I think that’s commendable.
    However,there are certain aspects of it which I don’t completely agree with.
    “…about 3-4 years now, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet.”
    Over here,the part that troubled me was after fully researching both aspects, how can you then be so sure that Iman Ali was the rightful successor after the Prophet? How is it possible for us humans to make that assumption in the first place? After all wasn’t Hazrat Abu Bakr the one who was mentioned as the closest companion to the prophet. How are we then one’s to make such judgements? After all,Allah is the one who is in complete control of all events be it in the past, present or future and no human has the ability to intercede or alter that course of events except by his will.

    I like the way you mentioned in the fourth paragraph about how you treat all Muslims equally irrespective of their sect or religious beliefs. I think if more of us were that way, focusing more on the very issues you mentioned above, instead of arguing over mindless issues,the world would be a better place to live in. If Muslims can’t respect each other then how can we expect other people to respect us and respect Islam.

    “…while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation. This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.”

    Over here I would like to mention that there are certain aspects of Sufism which do come under shirk. Certain Urdu poets in their poems use the word ‘illah’ or ‘daata’ which means God. This word can be used for no other except the creator which is Allah. I understand your point about how they may be expressing their love for God through the love of the creation, but no human is exalted enough to be taken to a level which belongs only to Allah. To give another human being that status then qualifies as shirk be it only a form of expression.

    The prophet (peace be upon him) said,“There was disagreement amongst Jews and they split into 72 groups. In exactly the same way, there will be disagreement and divisions in my Ummah. It will split into 73 groups. Except for one of these groups, all the remaining will be thrown into Hell.”
    When asked about which group will be on the right path, the Beloved Messenger of Allah replied, “The group on the right path, which will enter Paradise, will be the group which follows my Sunnah and this will be the largest group of Muslims.”
    [Tirmidhi; Imam Ahmad; Abu Dawud; Mishkat]

    At the end of the day the best we can do is to pray to Allah to guide us to the right way. Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone in anyway. To each his own.

    P.s- I’m still a fan! :)

    • Thanks for your comment! As I mentioned in this post, I’m not interested in preaching any form of religion to people. So, when it comes to theological arguments, I don’t feel like it is my duty or obligation to try to convince you about why I believe Imam Ali, peace be upon him, was the rightful successor. That is my personal belief and it doesn’t bother me what other Muslims believe. Allah knows what is in a person’s heart and I think that’s what matters the most. There are Shia scholars and Sunni scholars, for instance, who will always disagree on certain theological points, so why engage in religious debate in the first place?

      Since these differences will not go away, the solution is this: accept, respect, and appreciate the diversity within the ummah. My family has raised me in a manner that has taught me not to interfere with another person’s religion unless they are harming someone. If some people choose to pray with their hands at their side instead of having their hands folded – then so be it. I am no one to judge – the only one to judge is Allah. We cannot look into the hearts of others and judge their personal relationship with Allah – that is only known to Allah.

      Same thing goes for “shirk.” Allah knows the inward state of a person. Expression of Love for the Prophet (peace be upon him), his family, and others are often mistaken for “shirk.” I just believe my conduct as a Muslim should be pointing fingers at others and scrutinizing. Rather, Islam to me is to strengthen my own iman, focus on my good actions, and be mindful of Allah at all times.

      The point I agree with you on is showing respect and appreciation to all Muslims. And we need to show this respect non-superficial and in a non-condescending/non-patronizing manner. :)

      Glad you’re still a fan. Take care.

  9. No it’s not your duty to convince or explain your beliefs to me in any way. Neither should anyone feel the need to justify what they believe in to anyone apart from Allah. The reason I asked was because I’m actually genuinely interested in it. See I had quite a few university friends back in Pakistan who are Shia but they always avoided the topic whenever it was brought up.
    I then wondered whether they actually knew enough about it themselves or were just blindly following their parents. Maybe they were just hesitant and mindful about causing an argument.
    Despite that I never let religion interfere between us. We’re all Muslim’s at the end of the day,and that’s all that counts.

  10. Salam, Thank you for taking time to write this brother. Many of us (including myself) who were raised Sunni have followed a similar path of discovery about the importance of the Ahl Bayt, which by in large is muted in Sunni tradition.

    You may be interested to learn more about the Zaidi Madhab, which for me answered all my questions, in fact I believe many Sunnis and 12vr Shia are actually Zaidi without knowing it.

    In any event, may Allah bless you and all your readers to be connected with Allah, the Creator of the heavens and earth, His Messengers and those that love Him.

    Quick overview of Zaidi Madhab:
    http://zaydiya.blogspot.com/2009/10/zaidiya-zaidia-zaydiya-zaidism.html

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