Moharram, muffled in masks

There’s no doubt that swelling crowds, with hands over their hearts and nohas (elegies) on their lips, should lead their processions from under the feet of a pandemic that has already trampled many a state and society, economy and civilisation

Photo by Rahat Dar

The Hijrah year dawns with the new moon of Moharram, basking the Muslim world in the collective remembrance of a deep tragedy — the martyrdom of Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased) in the battle of Karbala. Thousands of Shi’a Muslims tethered in pain throng to the majaalis (assemblies) to be absorbed, elevated and extinguished in collective mourning and commemoration.

So, there’s no doubt that swelling crowds, with hands over their hearts and nohas (elegies) on their lips, should lead their processions from under the feet of a global pandemic that has already trampled many a state and society, economy and civilisation.

This year, the precarious circumstances and overbearing effects induced by the novel coronavirus have fundamentally altered normalcy and modality in all spheres of our socio-economic and political lives, imposing restrictions even on religious activities such as the Hajj. Regarding the Moharram processions and the majaalis, the government has recently issued an official notice laying down the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and necessary precautionary measures to be taken by the participants and attendants. These include a mandatory negative Covid-19 test result for the zakirs (sermonizers), hand sanitisation, wearing of masks, respiratory etiquette, social distancing, avoidance of physical contact, cleanliness and disinfection, self-protection and taking care of others.

Photo by Rahat Dar

Although most observances, activities and conducts have found a rearrangement to suit the circumstances, the Moharram processions and ceremonies derive their very meaning from the engagement of large groups in ritualistic behaviour that connects them with a culture that goes back hundreds of years. Pushing and pulling to kiss the Zuljinah, scrambling through crowds to get niaz (free food and drinks), connecting shoulder to shoulder under the tabut, mass-wailing amidst vapourising blood, sweat and tears is how the community melts into a group identity to be unified in a transcendent mourning.

With alams piercing the skies and backs bent under the weight of t a’zia, this year too men and women have poured into imam bargahs to relive and recreate a kind of City Dionysia, only this time with a handbook of dos and don’ts circumventing their flailing religious sentimentality.

Greeted with facemasks and showers of kewra, this time the disinfectant spray, a cohort of devotees trickles into a majlis that seems more like an amphitheatre of a Greek tragedy. Soz khwani and tahat khwani (the tuneful rendering of elegies) erupt like satyrs evoking a sentiment as a hundred shadows clad in black sway to the rhythm.

Photo by Rahat Dar

Next, the zakir, playing the part of the dithyrambic chorus, is given the task of infecting the mood of the audience with Dionysiac excitement to such a pitch that the crowd merges into a dark cloud thundering with grief.

Most of these congregations are held indoors, with limited open-air areas available just for men. On the other side, women spotting any inch of free space, slouch on the floor cross-legged, with their children let loose to play hopscotch in the labyrinth of touching knees. As attendance approaches seating capacity, the crowds start to spill out of the place onto the stairs, making entering or leaving, walking or exploring impossible.

Air is stagnant and ventilation inadequate, humidity starts to slip under the facemasks forcing those down. The masayeb and matam, provoking the same emotion as the dithyramb, stimulate the crowd which breaks into wails and weeps, chants and hails. There is not a mask in sight, not a sliver of space unoccupied. In a corner someone is throwing up, in another, groups are hugging and hymning.

Photo by Rahat Dar

Of course, it’s only human that in the grip of overwhelming feeling of unity, which leads men back to the heart of religion, everything else sinks in the background.

While such frenzied majaalis are commonplace, they are not reflective of the entire spectrum of Moharram commemorations. In urban middle class quarters there are more domesticated majaalis that have leaned into the demands of the circumstances to structure their emotional and religious sentiments into tamer forms of expression. These softer gatherings are scheduled in the day, in closed quarters, with restricted and first-come-first-serve entry.

Masks are worn, disinfectants sprayed, places marked six feet apart, surveillance staff assuring adherence to guidelines. Sobs are tender, lamentations not too fervent, solace sought not in vehement beating but silent murmuring. Here the mode of cohesive bonding transpires beyond one that requires physical touch but one that demands presence.

The ziarat and tabarruk are observed from a distance, with fences and guards in place to demarcate both behaviour and boundaries. It is here that sanctity and divinity are touched not through acting or speaking but knowing and feeling.

Photo by Rahat Dar

Yes, the pandemic is real, and the risk of infection, spread, disease and death obscures our expression, remembrance and commemoration in these turbulent times. But the scream for meaning in truth and insistence on justice is eternal. Karbala embodies both the internal and external battlefields where absolute, vibrant truth did not waver at the sight of crucifixion and sacrifice. It’s about human courage, valour, passion and devotion that reigned supreme in the time of carnage, misery and abandonment against worldliness and obstinacy.

Each year the days of Hussain’s (with whom Allah was pleased) hijrah bring us the prospect of our own hijrah. From sin to repentance, to a renewed faith, to choosing good and valour in the face of adversity. It is traditions like these that consolidate human strength and hope in uncertain times.

Fatima Bakhtawar is a student at Stanford University, currently doing research in experimental plasma physics at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. She can be reached at

Moaz Ahmed Bhangu is a digital media strategist and documentary filmmaker. He can be reached at

Moharram, muffled in masks