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September 1, 2020

Mourning, Muharram and empathy

Opinion

September 1, 2020

I never understood the need to mourn so vehemently and obsessively when I was a child. I later grew up to fall in love and marry someone from the sect and I finally understood why my mother didn’t want me listening to Spice Girls during Muharram.

I understood why some people refused to drink cold water in the hot Karachi summers. And I understood why it is so necessary to immerse oneself in the loss of Hussain and his supporters. I have often heard the words “aapka Muharram” (your Muharram) and “inka Muharram” (their Muhurram) tossed around. I argue that Muharram should mean something to all of us.

We must learn to mourn, let pain into our hearts and allow it to keep our empathy and humanity alive. Also remember that not everyone at Karbala was Muslim. Not everyone who holds onto ideals of Hussain (a.s.) is Muslim. Did you know that factions of Hindus mourn Ashura alongside Muslims? Gham-e-Hussain cannot be limited to one religion, community or sect – it is the heaviest of burdens that all of humanity must bear.

I believe that the heart of Pakistan’s problems is our collective loss of empathy. This loss of empathy is what allows rich women and men to exploit their domestic help, bargain down prices of cucumbers from desperate sellers, fail to glance away from their phones when there is a human begging at their car window and so much more. This lack of empathy is being passed down to children who hurl rocks at stray animals and refuse to recognize that all living beings feel pain and have a right to exist in peace. It is this collective loss that has polarized Muharram and Ashura and distorted mourning, loss and basic respect. My mother tells me that my grandparents put up sabeels (refreshments) during Ashura and my nani made sure to cook Haleem herself. However, one generation later, I see something very different. I see celebrations, picnics and indifference.

This is not just about the sacrifice of Imam Hussain (a.s.) and his companions. This is about our inability to see the importance of mourning and remembrance. This is about our indifference to each other as human beings, to nature and other living beings. It is the callous behavior during Eidul Azha around sacrificial animals, the hesitation to increase staff salaries and the refusal to lower profits during a global pandemic.

If we allowed ourselves to be empathetic, to feel each other’s pain and to respect everyday efforts, we would be happier, kinder and more alive. We would start to get our priorities straight. We would recognize that there is immense sacrifice that goes into everything we consume, that our words have power and that humans are capable of immense cruelty so we must watch ourselves.

There are crucial lessons from Karbala that we must remind ourselves of – and we must remember that it is only through generations of remembrance and mourning that these lessons are still alive. When Hurr, the commander of Yazid’s army first came to intercept Imam Hussain (a.s.), his family and companions on the way to Kufa, he asked for water. At this point, Imam Hussain (a.s.) and his family had supplies and access to the riverbank – not only did Hurr get enough water for himself and his men, the Imam (a.s.) also made sure that the horses were fed.

Compassion is such an important part of Islam. It extends to all living beings, and all humans despite their imperfections and propensity for cruelty. Karbala also teaches us that there is a constant battle between good and evil within all of us, and no one is too far-gone. Despite his plan to force Imam Hussain (a.s.) to pledge allegiance or murder him along with all of his supporters, Hurr repented. On the 9th of Muharram, he came to Imam Hussain with his son. He said he wanted his mother to be able to face Fatima (a.s.) in life after death – so he begged for forgiveness. On the 10th of Muharram, he was martyred.

These are lessons of heartbreak, loyalty and levels of bravery that have not been matched since. Bibi Zainab (a.s.) stood as an emotional rock for her brothers and protected the women and children after the battle. She did not allow herself to cry or mourn in the presence of Yazid and his men. She did not break down until she was in her home and saw the empty beds of her sons. Hazrat Abbas (a.s.) did not allow himself one sip of water after reaching the riverbank after days of thirst ; he could not bear the thought of quenching his thirst until he could do the same for the children in Imam Hussain’s camp. Such was the courage of Imam Hussain (a.s.) and his supporters.

The events during and surrounding the battle of Karbala are not a chasm of the past. They hold relevance for us today and they will hold relevance for the generations that follow.

Allowing ourselves to remember, to mourn and even cry keeps us human and softens our hearts on an annual basis. It reminds us that empathy is a strength, and that we must not look away from misery, evil and unhappiness. Pain and sorrow is an essential part of empathy, and there is no pain and sorrow like Gham-e-Hussain.

The writer is a researcher based in Islamabad.