Remembrance, Muharram, and the Hussaini Heart

Poppy Fields
Image credit: wazimu0

Here in Canada, if you venture outside in this increasingly chilly time of the year, you will see people’s jackets and coats adorned with poppies. November is the month of Remembrance for the Commonwealth countries, a way of honouring those who have given their lives in past and contemporary conflict.

This year, the day of Ashura (the tenth of Muharram on the Islamic calendar) and Remembrance Day were just three days apart from each other. In fact, on the day of Ashura (which this year coincided on November 13th), I chaired a Toastmasters meeting for which I had to say few words about the theme of our meeting: Remembrance.

The phrase that is adopted in observance of this month is “Lest We Forget.” It originates from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional.” Kipling wrote it on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee, which coincided with the height of the British empire in the early twentieth century.

As part of the opening remarks for the Toastmasters meeting, I found myself reciting a passage from the poem:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Here, Kipling’s invocation is that the empire must not lose themselves in their success. They must remember the sacrifice of, in Christian terms, their Original Saviour.

As I read the passage with the rest of the group, I was struck by how easily this prayer resonated with me. Remembrance of sacrifice and the plea to not lose oneself in frivolity were one of the things that drew me to the Shia frame of thought.

Fortunately, most of the Muslims I meet do not discriminate on the basis of sect. But we share a planet with those who are deeply threatened by Shia Muslims, to the point that they actively seek to obliterate their existence. Whether one chooses to call this “genocide” or not, one thing holds: this practice does not happen without historical trends, which include separation, stigmatization, and a treatment of such minority groups as “the other.”

As the inheritors of the sect that is often represented as the tell-all narrative of Islam, it is up to Sunni Muslims to nip such tendencies at the bud. Part of that effort is recognizing the humanity within ourselves—our Hussaini hearts. There is no shortage of efforts in combing the facts of history and explaining the political nuances behind the battle of Karbala. However, no amount of such analysis can begin to compete with what Hussain’s martyrdom has done for the Muslim imagination. For “red” Shias and mindful Sunnis, ritually mourning the grandson of the Prophet must not be an end in itself, but be a reminder that we all must stand up to oppression in all its forms. It is this red Shi’ism that makes me passionate about protecting and upholding the rights of the vulnerable, particularly animals, children, the elderly, and the disabled. And remembering that no matter where I reach, I must never forget the weak, the underprivileged.

Ya Allah, O, memory of Hussain, remain with us yet,

Lest we forget, lest we forget. 


This lady's intrafaith shop

Warning: dangerous levels of abstraction lie ahead, along with poorly-photographed drawings.  

Recently, I found myself needing to visualize the paths people take when it comes to their faith. So much so, that I took out a pen and paper.

Here is what the path of a single-tracked holy person may look like, whether they are Sufi shaykhs, rabbis, swamis, or shamans:

Figure I: The “monogamist” model of faith.

If you are a deeply religious person and/or know very devout people, you might have noticed that such individuals’ beliefs are hardly ever static. Their progression through their religious journey isn’t stagnant; they deepen. Muslim alims, for instance, may read the same verses in the Quran in dozens of different ways. Buddhist monks spend their entire lives in deep meditation. The further they go, the greater their realization of how infinite the universe is.

This monogamist path has the potential for union with the Divine through  increasing self-realization by means of a (mostly) established framework. It’s a model that most people are most familiar with and most religious people aspire to.

Now, here is the path of a very different scenario, one in which the traveller journeys through two or more different belief systems. Each point in the constellation represents a state of rest within a mode of faith, a point that, upon a closer look, may constitute some of the inward intensity I showed in Figure I. I see this model as the opposite the monogamist model and call it the polyamorous model of faith.

Figure II. The “serial monogamist”/”polyamorous” model of faith.

As the traveller goes from one belief system to another, perhaps they ultimately realize that they all lead to the same Truth.

Figure III. The polyamorous-and-yet-ultimately-monogamist model of faith.

And it is in this that they find bliss, mercy, release, nirvana. In doing this, they start out as “polyamorous” journeyers, but then, in a way, become monogamists in reference to the entire framework. (Aside: It is a possibility like this that puts me in awe of the manifestations tawhid can take. Things appear to exist separately, but are truly One.)

Now that I’ve presented those two models, here is what the visualization of my journey may looked like.

Figure IV. What my journey looked like during December 2012.

 When I first started as a devout (and Sunni) Muslim, I started on that inward spiral. Sometimes the path halted, when I found myself looking towards resources (primarily people) to inspire me and provide me fuel to continue. That point in the middle, where the black spiral ends—that is where I felt like I simply could not go any further. I went as far as I could, with my existing framework.

And then, about a year ago, I let go. It was only then that my path continued, in a way I could have never anticipated.

Figure V. My journey up to a couple of months ago.

It veered to the outside of the centre, but not completely. It deepened and darkened the outline of that centre, and then started tracing lines dow my earlier paths

This continuation, for me, was Shia Islam.

In worldly definitions, it is called a sect of Islam. For me, it was a saving grace that made me reaffirm my deen.

I tell this story much later. I have—for lack of a better way to put it—moved on from Shi’ism. Now my journey has veered away from the center. Like petals of a flower, I reach outward. And then, by force of that centre’s gravity, I get drawn back in.

Figure VI. Where I stand today.

At heart, I am a spiritual monogamist. (And in case you are wildly curious, I’m a monogamist when it comes to romantic relationships as well.) But to survive in these strange times, I have to have little tastes, explorations, of other beliefs in order to continue on my own.

Here is what I have come to realize:

  • That centre may not have had such a stronghold if it didn’t become strong by a different means. A system that was my own, but not quite.
  • True-blooded intrafaith and interfaith work happen as miracles, sometimes requiring no more than one person and a loving, brilliant God who says, “Okay, let’s throw something else at her.”

This Muharram, I think back to this journey and will share the intrafaith reflections I derived from it (from the Sunni vantage point). I do so out of the deep love and respect I have developed for the Shi’i tradition and the timeliness of this sacred month, a month that we all must observe as a time of sobriety and reflection on where we went wrong as an Ummah.

Perhaps this could be a month to think about our shared humanity not just with all other Muslims, but the rest of humankind. Our journeys in respect to belief may be very different. But if done in earnestness and and open heart, they can be equally glorious. Sharing and learning from each other, and seeing where the paths intersect, open miraculously infinite possibilities in mental models.

That is how I have realized that I have so much to live for. Even if I will never fully belong in any one community of faith.

Note: A big, loving thanks to my closest companion Sara Isis Mikaal for the amazing discussions that lead to this post. Our paths are extremely different, and yet they blissfully intersect, over and over, in ways that only the ultimate Artist can depict.