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Study explains “Ashura in Bahrain” up to 2010

Ashura in Bahrain

SHAFAQNA | by Zahra Asadian- “Historically, Ashura has been the beginning point for some of the most important social revolts in the history of Bahrain, especially in the 1950s and 1990s,” Thomas Fibiger writes.

A study by Thomas Fibiger published in Social Analysis journal in winter 2010, explains “Ashura in Bahrain, Analyses of an Analytical Event”.

Ashura, an annual event in the Shia Muslim world, is allocated to commemorating the early Shia Leader Imam Hussain (AS) and his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala. Thus, it is a double event: an event in the past and an event in the present. This article will discuss its contemporary manifestation and significance in the Arab Persian Gulf state of Bahrain where Ashura still plays a major role—socially, religiously, and politically.

Muharram and Safar in Bahrain

During the two Islamic months of Muharram and Safar, the streets of Shia areas in Bahrain are adorned with black flags and banners, and most participants wear black during the event, displaying their sorrow over Imam Hussain’s death. The story of Karbala is recounted with deep emotion among the Shia, and Hussain is revered for his sacrifice in pursuit of a more just Islamic world outside the sect itself.

Vernacular analyses emphasize Ashura as a social or cultural happening instead of a religious or political one. In this view, Ashura is an annual festival that creates an opportunity to get out and see the processions as cultural performances, meet people, and feel an attachment to one’s community.

Bahrain is the only place in the Arab countries of Persian Gulf where public processions are allowed and  Ashura is designated as a national holiday, a practice initiated when Bahrain was under British administration during the first half of the twentieth century.

Different vernacular approaches show that today Bahrain is a heterogeneous society in many ways. Recently, the total population has reached one million that around half of it are Bahraini citizens. The majority of this group are Shia Muslims, although there are no official figures, and the numerical relationship between Sunni and Shia is much discussed. The Sunni, who control the government and administration, tend to say that it is almost 50/50  while Shia demonstrate that their majority is in the range of 70–85 percent.

Many Shia feel marginalized socially and economically and oppressed politically. They are generally not satisfied with the so-called democratic reforms initiated in 2002. They point to the limited powers of the new parliament and the apparent gerrymandering of constituencies, with votes in the 2006 elections giving only 17 of the lower house’s 40 seats to the Shia.

Elements of Ashura in Bahrain

The main public element of Ashura is the Mawkabs, or processions, in which men from the various matams walk together through the streets while rhythmically beating their chests, accompanied by the recitation of poetry about Imam Hussain and Islam. In virtually all Matams, the first two nights in the month of Muharram are devoted to a general narration of what happened in the battle and how Imam Hussain went from his home in Mecca to Karbala near the Euphrates River to rise up against Yazid.

The third night introduces the small army of 72 companions, all of whom fought for Imam Hussain (AS) in the battle and died at Karbala. After this night, the narration focuses on specific heroes in the course of events, rising in the order of importance until the tenth day, Ashura. This was the day of the actual battle and the death of the Imam.

Before then, on the fourth night, the shaykhs speak of Hurr, originally a leader in Yazid’s army who switched sides and was killed next to Hussain. The fifth night is dedicated to Habib Ibn Al-Madhahir, known for his great knowledge of the Quran and for being a senior adviser to the Imam, and the sixth is for Hussain’s (AS) cousin Muslim Ibn Al-Akeel (AS), who had traveled to the city of Kufa near Karbala to raise support for Imam Hussain there. When Imam Hussain reached Kufa, he became aware that his cousin had been killed and that he would get no support from the Kufans.

On the seventh night, the intensity rises as the losses move closer to Imam Hussain’s immediate family. His brother Abbas (AS) martyred after both of his hands were cut off, following an attempt to fetch water for Imam Hussain’s besieged camp. The next two nights are devoted to the young warriors Ghasem, son of Imam Hassan, and Ali al-Akbar, son of Imam Hussain (AS).

The speech on the night before the tenth day is about Hussain’s baby son Abdulla Radia. As the narrative goes, Hussain held his infant son in his arms and showed him to the opposing army to ask for water and relief for those besieged. In response, the baby boy was killed. This cruel act deepens the matam mourning prior to the day of Ashura, when the speech is finally about Imam Hussain (AS) himself. During the following nights, the guest speakers relate stories about the women and children who were taken prisoner; the famous speech of the prisoner Zaynab, Hussain’s sister, who told the world about the event; and finally the funerals that took place three days after the battle.

Ashura & social revolts in Bahrain

Historically, Ashura has been the beginning point for some of the most important social revolts in the history of Bahrain, especially in the 1950s and 1990s. The reason for this is clear: thousands of people came together, they are highly charged with emotions, and the story of Imam Hussain is often analyzed as a righteous struggle against oppression and an unjust regime. In the politico-religious climate of contemporary Bahrain, it is inevitable to draw analogies between the Shia situation at present and at the time of Imam Hussain.

The importance of an event analysis of Ashura is to reflect the significance of the event as it is carried out in contemporary society. Besides, event analysis reflects that a double event like Ashura, as a present commemoration of a past event, is not analytically fixed to the original happening. This asks for anthropological rather than historical analyses, but also for an understanding of contemporary Muslims instead of a look for some brand of ‘true’ or ‘original’ Islam.

This argument in favor of event analysis challenges essentialist interpretations, which are frequently represented by Muslims and non-Muslims in the same way. From the perspective of event analysis, Islam is what Muslims do and how contemporary Muslims analyze their own social situation.

Source: Ashura in Bahrain, Analyses of an Analytical Event, Thomas Fibiger, Social Analysis, Volume 54, Issue 3, Winter 2010, 29–46 © Berghahn Journals.

Note: Shafaqna do not endorse the views expressed in the article

read more from shafaqna:

“Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian memory”

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