September 10, 2020

Politicisation of Azadari (Muharram) In Kashmir

Kashmir has been witnessing an unfortunate politicization of Ashura processions for last few years, wherein a somber and introspective occasion of commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) in the battle of Karbala is being misused for furthering political ideologies by vested interests, who are trying to use the emotionally charged occasion to push their own ideological agenda. Ashura processions, which are under government ban in most parts of Kashmir valley since 1990 due to security concerns are only allowed restricted movement in certain Shia dominated enclaves of Srinagar and Budgam. These processions, which are purely of religious nature have unfortunately turned political and the same is being widely criticized by the growing number of Shia intelligentsia. To begin with, it is important to know about the history of Azadari and its evolution. Syed Zafar Mehdi, a well-known Kashmiri journalist in his article in Tehran times has beautifully given a well-informed history of Azadari. According to Syed Zafar Mehdi, the history of Azadari is as old as the tragedy of Karbala, when Sayyeda Zainab, sister of Imam Hussain (AS) began mourning for the fallen members of her family in the battle. The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala was in fact composed and recited by Sayyeda Umme Kulsum, another sister of Imam Hussain (AS). But it was Imam Zainul Abideen (AS), son of Imam Hussain (AS), who as an eyewitness of Karbala, played a significant role in the institutionalization of Azadari and conveying the message of the martyrs of Karbala through sermons and speeches, all over the middle east. The Imams after him not only kept the tradition of Azadari alive but also invited prominent poets to write and recite elegiac poetry in honor of the martyrs of Karbala. For example, Imam Jafar ibn Muhammad as-Sadiq (AS), invited the famous poet Jafar Affan to recite marsiyas for the martyrs of Karbala. Another Imam Musa ibn Jafar al-Kadhim (AS) further encouraged poets of the time to write in their own respective language as per their own linguistic and cultural traditions to spread the message of Karbala far and wide. The first official Muharram procession was taken out in Baghdad by then Abbasid ruler Mu’tazz Daulah in 352 hijri and nearly 11 years later, on the occasion of Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura), a historic procession was taken out from Baghdad to Karbala. In India, Awadh region has been the historic seat of Shia culture and the first Muharram processions were taken out in Awadh (present day Lucknow), almost 200 years ago, under the patronship of the Nawabs of Awadh. Such was the fame of Moharram processions of Awadh that Mirza Abul Qasim, a legendary marsiya nigaar of Kashmir, had travelled all the way to Awadh on the invitation of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Similarly in Hyderabad, south of India, during the reign of Nizams, people would participate in Muharram processions famously called – “Bibi ka Alam” that among other things would carry a relic – a wooden plank on which Syeda Fatimah (SA) was given her final ablution by her husband before her burial during the Moharram procession. In Kashmir, Azadari in Muharram was popularized by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (RA), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir valley from Iran. Then came Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (RA), also from Iran. During his time, the practice of azadari became widespread in Kashmir. In modern times, two processions used to be taken out in Srinagar city, when in 1950s at the request of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, it was decided to take out a joint procession, in which Shias, Sunnis and Kashmiri Pundits – all participated. In recent times, it has been observed that Ashura processions are tuning into political forums, where ideological issues are being pushed forward by vested interests. This has been happening both in Kashmir valley as well as the Islamic republic of Iran. But at the same time, there have been increasing voices emanating as well that are criticizing the trend of converting these processions into venues for broad casting political agenda.
Muharram ceremonies are occasions that enable the faithful to reflect upon the legacy of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his descendants, and be exposed to useful narratives about ethics and human virtues but abusing the observances of Muharram to score political points, slander individuals or promote exclusionary ideologies goes against the spirit of Ashura and martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) in the battle of Karbala.
Unlike many other Shia dominated regions, where traditional Muharram observances still follow acts of flagellation and self-injury, in Iran, after the advent of Islamic Revolution, such customs were banned by the ruling clergy as part of religious reforms. And instead, religious conventions were encouraged, where during the first 10 days of Muharram, huge crowds of faithful would gather at mosques and Islamic centers to listen to sermons by clerics and eulogy recitations by religious singers, who recount the ballads of the battle of Karbala in elaborate detail. It has been observed that in the recent years that Iranian clerics, eulogists, religious singers and preachers, who mostly favor the ultraconservative and hardline lobby are increasingly thrusting political overtones in their sermons and public lamentations, and exploiting the massive turnout at Muharram ceremonies to circulate divisive messages among gullible Iranian masses by talking about such non-religious issues such as Iranian government’s foreign policy, Iranian nuclear issue, abusing certain foreign leaders and regimes and belittling Iran’s own moderate and pro-reform leaders. Some of the prominent Iranian journalists writing for reputed English language foreign journals like Kourosh Ziabari have pointed towards this phenomenon. In a recent article in Asia Times, Ziabari talked about Mansour Arzi, a prominent eulogist and a follower of former conservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been spewing venom and running a malicious campaign in several of these Muharram ceremonies by targeting pro-reform Iranian leaders including those like Mirhossein Mouavi and Mehdi Karroubi of the “Green Movement”, who are in house arrest for 9 years. Muharram ceremonies are occasions that enable the faithful to reflect upon the legacy of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his descendants, and be exposed to useful narratives about ethics and human virtues but abusing the observances of Muharram to score political points, slander individuals or promote exclusionary ideologies goes against the spirit of Ashura and martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) in the battle of Karbala.
(The author an aspiring politician has previously worked as PRO to Omar Abdullah the formr Chief Minister of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state. Views are his own)

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