SHAFAQNA- “The shift in the meaning of Ashura from the soteriological to the revolutionary suggests a parallel shift in notions of temporality. Traditional Ashura commemorations contain re-experiencing the battle of Karbala each year, as though one were there with the Imam (AS); in a sense, time is captured at this essential and essentializing moment in Shia history. In contrast, the emphasis of authenticated commemorations on the revolutionary indicates lineal temporal change, lessons to be learned from history but applied toward the future,” Lara Deeb writes.
A study by Lara Deeb published in Journal of “Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East” explains “Living Ashura in Lebanon: Mourning Transformed to Sacrifice”.
Ashura is the Shia Muslim commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS), grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the third Shia Imam. Hussain’s (AS) death at Karbala in 680 CE—along with all his companions except one sick son—marks a moment of increased fissure in the Muslim community that today Shia Muslims often point to it as the decisive root of their identity.
The acts associated with Ashura commemorate both a battle of righteousness against corruption and a key moment in Shia history—a moment so powerful that subsequent moments were characterized by an “overriding paradigm of persecution, exclusion, and suffering.” Indeed, both scholars and Shia Muslims themselves frequently understand Ashura to be an essential cultural paradigm for Shiism.
Transformation focused on mourning to one highlighting Islamic activism
In Lebanon, Ashura commemorations have subjected to a transformation in recent decades, from a ritual focused on mourning to one highlighting Islamic activism. This transformation accompanied the Lebanese Shia Islamic mobilization that began in the late 1960s.
This movement that was motivated to some extent by the marginalized position of many Shias in the Lebanese nation-state involved several strains and was constantly catalyzed through a series of events, most notably the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in May 2000. One key aspect of the movement was an emphasis on religious reform, much of which was focused around Ashura, and especially the explicit linking of the Ashura history to a contemporary activist discourse.
Zaynab, together with other women and children of Hussain’s (AS) family, had accompanied her brother to Karbala. After all the men were killed, the women and children were taken into captivity, and Zaynab was their leader until Hussain’s sole heir was able to take his place.
In the transformation of Ashura commemorations, Zaynab’s (SA) behavior has been reinterpreted to underline the activist elements in her role and character. As Ashura is applied to contemporary life, pious Shia women’s emulation of Zaynab as an activist rather than a passive mourner is particularly significant, because it is reflected in a major shift in the levels of women’s public participation in this particular community in Lebanon.
New Ashura discourse
The urban visibility of Ashura grew together with the rapid urbanization of the Shia population that took place in Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s. But it was not until the 1980s that strong opposition to traditional forms of Ashura appeared among Shia Muslims who were not religious scholars.
The first signs of this came in 1974, just after Musa Al-Sadr founded the “Movement of the Deprived,” planting the initial seeds of the Lebanese Shia Islamic movement. Augustus Richard Norton notes that “under Imam Musa’s considerable influence, religious commemorations became vehicles for building communal solidarity and political consciousness.”
Around that time, the Lebanese civil war (1975–90) coupled with three key factors catalyzed the then nascent Shia Islamic movement and prompted the formation of Hizbullah: the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon until May 2000; the 1978 disappearance of al-Sadr; and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Concurrent with these events, widespread opposition to traditional forms of commemorating Ashura began to emerge among pious Shia Muslims. This opposition reflected trends in Iran, where reformist and Islamic intellectuals had contributed to the emergence of a new Ashura discourse that linked it to an alternative and revolutionary Shiism, contrary to a politically quietist one.
Changes occurred in Ashura commemorative practices
The changes that occurred in Ashura are especially apparent in three areas: the Majalis (mourning gatherings), the Masirat (processions), and, most crucially, the meaning attributed to the events of Muharram. This is not to say that the importance of Ashura has changed; rather, the transformation involves the details of the commemorative practices and a reordering and reprioritization of the two primary emphasis of Ashura commemorative practices and meanings; with the soteriological that takes precedence in traditional commemorations sharing primary ground with the revolutionary in authenticated commemorations.
Those who have attended Majalis over the past three decades articulate the shift as well, contrasting the Majalis they now attend with those they attended in the past (which they labeled traditional). In their comparisons, today’s Majalis were often described as “more reasonable” and “more accepted by our minds.” In authenticated Majalis, representations that had depicted Zaynab as a sorrowful mourner were transformed into that accentuated her courage, strength, and resilience.
The energy and emotive power located in the commemorations were redirected and concentrated onto a shared set of goals. The stress on the importance of historical accuracy and evidence was vital for this process. When the myths were stripped away and just the authentic historical record remained, the freedom message of Ashura was highlighted. Authentic history indicated that the battle and martyrdom of the Imam took place in a context of revolution.
Shift in the meaning of Ashura from the soteriological to the revolutionary
As understood by pious Shia Muslims, the revolution of Imam Hussain was a moral revolution, one in which the fundamental lesson was that one must always stand up to one’s oppressor and freedom is possible only through resistance.
The shift in the meaning of Ashura from the soteriological to the revolutionary suggests a parallel shift in notions of temporality. Traditional Ashura commemorations contain re-experiencing the battle of Karbala each year, as though one were there with the Imam; in a sense, time is captured at this essential and essentializing moment in Shia history. In contrast, the emphasis of authenticated commemorations on the revolutionary indicates lineal temporal change, lessons to be learned from history but applied toward the future.
To apply these lessons, one must participate actively in the betterment of one’s community. The most obvious parallels between Ashura and currently lived experience for many pious Shia Muslims in Lebanon are with the Islamic Resistance. In fact, the history of the battle of Karbala is explicitly linked to contemporary instances of injustice and oppression in Lebanon, particularly the Israeli occupation.
Living authenticated Ashura has become a crucial aspect of piety in this community for both women and men by striving to embody the qualities and examples set by Zaynab and Hussain. Demonstrating one’s sense of social responsibility and solidarity and one’s understanding of the values represented in Ashura is critical before self, others, and God. From a ritual emphasizing passive mourning and community identity based on shared oppression, Ashura has been transformed into a commemoration inspiring active engagement in bringing about social, political, and religious change.
Source: Living Ashura in Lebanon: Mourning Transformed to Sacrifice, Lara Deeb, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 25, Number 1, 2005, pp.122-137 (Article), Published by Duke University Press.
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