Arbaeen:The Great Walk – Interview with Reza John Vedadi

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SHAFAQNA – #ArbaeenWalk

DISCLAIMER – Questions to this interview have been designed to address those bias and prejudices we seldom face for, more often than not, criticism has been relegated to a silent passive aggressive exercise, rather than an educational tool.

Readers are advised that the challenges offered are in no way, shape,or form my own, but a compounding of the angst, Shia Islam has had to endure in regards to its traditions.

For those of you who have yet to familiarise themselves with Shia Islam wealth of tradition I will say this: to experience the pilgrimage of Arbaeen is to delve into the heart of a faith whose love for Imam Hussain has helped a people transcend their station and reach the divine.

A beacon of hope, Imam Hussain forever remains that rope that Allah commanded the faithful to fiercely hold on to, never to be disunited … And it is not so much his death millions commemorate every year, but rather love beyond allegiance, and all manners of reasoning.

Every year millions of pilgrims flock to the holy city of Karbala to mark the end of the mourning period for Imam Hussain ibn Ali – the Third Imam of Islam and grandson to the Prophet Muhammad.

In 2016 an estimated 20 million men, women and children gathered in Iraq to pay their respect, making the pilgrimage of Arbaeen – also known as The Great Walk, the largest in history.

It is to capture this pilgrimage that Reza John Vedadi, a British filmmaker decided to put together a documentary.

CATHERINE SHAKDAM – I will open the festivities with a series of maybe rather obvious questions, and yet I believe them to be necessary: Why this documentary, why now, and more importantly why should anyone outside the Shia community really pay attention?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – This documentary initially started with the intention of promoting the concept of the visitation to the city of Karbala in Iraq and especially the burial place of Imam Hussain. In my life I have had many ups and downs, many setbacks and personal difficulties, just like anyone else in life. In my hour of need I would look to a higher power than myself to give me comfort and I would seek positive energy from that higher power. As a Muslim, I would turn to God and speak to him of my worries and difficulties. I would find peace in the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his family. One of the great tragedies within Islamic history is the tragedy of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Hussain’s martyrdom allowed for Islam’s purest tradition to be renewed and sanctified at a time when Yazid ibn Muawiyyah ambitioned to destroy it. Yazid’s rule was a precursor to the modern day Taliban and ISIS extreme dictatorship.

CS – In your documentary Mohammad Abbas Karim says that Imam Hussain in the link in between God and the people, isn’t it exactly what Sunni Islam reproaches Shia Muslims … the insertion of barriers or links in between the divine and worshippers?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – Yes I agree if there was a barrier between Muslims and God, but there is a difference between barrier and link. One can build a strong link between themselves and God through acts of worship: prayer, giving charity and fasting. Even by living an honest and righteous life one can achieve a strong link with God.

However, all these acts must be learnt from somewhere, for example the Quran does not explain exactly how to perform the five daily ritual prayers. That is explained by the Prophet Muhammad himself. He also set many precedents on how one must strive towards the divine, and how best to conduct oneself.

One of his major advice to the Muslims, which is recorded both in Sunni and Shia books of tradition is the tradition of the two valuable things – also known as the Two Weighty Things.

One is the Quran and the second is the Prophet’s family [AhlulBayt] which includes Imam Hussain. The advice is that if you hold onto these two valuable things until the day of judgement you will never go astray and that they are a rope to God. What is a rope if it isn’t a direct link. Even verses of the Quran like chapter two ‘Baqarah’ verse 255 explains God giving permission to some selected few to act as intercession between the people and God. In many cases the Quranic verses are explained and understood via prophetic traditions and these two can not be seperated.

CS – Arbaeen is a bit of a sore subject for Muslims around the world due to its perceived sectarian connotation, and then beyond that for non-Muslims Arbaeen is mostly a religious oddity. One may even categorised Arbaeen as barbaric in light of certain practices: bloodletting for example. How do you reconcile the message of Imam Hussain, the mourning of his martyrdom and this idea that Tyranny must be opposed in all in its forms? Isn’t this a little hypocritical?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – The question raises some valuable and important subjects. But let’s go to the core of the story of Arbaeen. The fortieth day after the martyrdom of Hussain, a man whom has been described by men such as Gandhi as a great saint. If we look at the core message of Imam Hussain on the day of Ashura, which can be viewed as not succumbing to corruption and tyranny, then how can this message be sectarian? If some group of people choose to blood let, culturally speaking that is their choice, as it is the culture of some but not all Catholics from around the world to blood let during the Easter of Prophet Jesus.

Whether I agree or disagree with such practice is irrelevant. The message of Ashura remains eternal … on the tenth day of the month of Muharram [Islamic month] an important personality, some thousand and three hundred years ago on the desert plains of Karbala, a man called Hussain stood in front of an army of thirty thousand and said, No. I will not bend my knee to a tyrant and a dictator, I will not pledge allegiance to a man who takes away the right of others.

Isn’t this message similar to that of John the Baptist, Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, Charles de Gaulle, William Wallace, Nelson Mandela and many others who throughout history have fought for the rights of their fellow man to be free from tyranny, oppression and subjugation?

Why do we concentrate on the cultural rituals that have sprung up over the last few decades and centuries and forget that Hussain gave everything he had of value beginning with his six month old child, sons, brothers, family members and companions in the way of justice, righteousness and freedom?

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He performed this great sacrifice out of his love for humanity and devotion to God. As he stood in Karbala, that was the pure Islam which came to be embodied in the actions of a righteous man. He sacrificed so we would learn the meaning of dignity, and appreciate that when all thing fade, our humanity is what binds us together.

CS – What about media representation? Your documentary is largely putting an emphasis on Justice, Transcendance, Compassion for Humanity but this is not how Arbaeen is being portrayed in mainstream media is there? Why the dichotomy?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – It’s possible that many people even from the nearly two billion Muslims from around the world, have no idea who Imam Hussain was and what he stood for. They may have heard stories about this beautiful grandchild that was loved by the Prophet Muhammad a lot. But that is about it. They do not know of the great knowledge, wisdom and compassion this man possessed. How the Prophet Muhammed would hold Hassan and Hussain, his two grandchildren and proclaim that they are the leaders of the youth of paradise.

So how can we expect the media to know the truth about Imam Hussain and his stand, and at the same time portray it accurately? If we, as Muslims do not know our own history and do not put any effort to look at the past to draw lessons for the future, how do we expect others to do that?

That is why I decided to feature the story of Arbaeen, its timeless message and its transcendent values. I want people to grasp at the beauty of Islam through the martyrdom of Imam Hussain to better appreciate this faith’s profound love for humanity and justice.

I wanted to showcase this love that bounds Imam Hussain and his followers – might they be Muslim or not.

CS – Aren’t Shia Muslims somewhat trying to claim ownership over Imam Hussain’s revolution though, linking the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad to assert the validity of their theological stand?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – I don’t think anyone can take ownership of Islam or Imam Hussain’s stand. After Imam Hussain was martyred, a personality by the name of Mokhtar took revenge on many of the killers of Imam Hussain. But the story of Imam Hussain, his stand against overwhelming odds has inspired countless people. Nehru the first prime minister of India proclaimed Imam Hussain to be for all groups and communities, Nelson Mandela was inspired by Imam Hussain not to give in to his captors and stood firm for freedom and liberation.  I don’t think the issue is that Shias are trying to validate their theological stand using the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, but why have the Shia Muslims not taught the rest of the world of the great stand of Hussain and how the world could learn from it? The tragedy is that the whole world does not know about Imam Hussain and that’s what breaks the heart.

CS – Imam Hussain was martyred over 13 centuries ago … that’s a long time to mourn and hold grudges. Why should the world care about events long gone? And most importantly how is this relevant to our socio-political discourse?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – Once tyranny and oppression is removed and its ugly face has been wiped from our societies then we can say we do not need to mourn for Imam Hussain anymore. Remembering Imam Hussain’s story and stand is not some long term mourning ritual that is supposed to help Shias overcome their guilt. It is a heart-breaking reminder that if Muslims 1300 years ago were capable of killing the grandchild of their own Prophet, the world is very much capable of great oppression. We live in the most sophisticated and technologically advance period in human history. And yet, more people are suffering from malnutrition. Many communities have yet to be given access to clean water, or education. Racism, sectarianism, and overarching intolerance continues to this day to claim innocent lives and much of the world’s wealth remains in the hands of an elite few.

How can we not relate to Imam Hussain’s message? And more importantly can we afford not to?

Imam Hussain had companions with him who were African, Arab, Muslim, and Christian, rich and poor. His stand wasn’t just against Yazid the tyrant caliph of that time. Imam Hussain’s stand was a universal and internal stand against all manners of corruption and division.

CS – Hussain Makke speaks rather eloquently on the concept of Justice in Islam, and how Imam Hussain came to represent that very principle. Does it mean that Shia Islam has a monopoly on Justice?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – No religion has any monopoly on Justice, because Justice is a universal concept. How it is administered is regulated by the dynamics of each society and environment, but even the corrupt rulers believe in seeking justice when they are harmed. I believe the reason why Shia Muslims may feel a closer relationship with Imam Hussain would be because they have taken up his cause from the beginning. They were the first to remember the tragedy, and so they feel closer to him and infuse his message more directly into their daily life. But Justice has neither a race, religion or political affiliation. It’s relevant for all of humanity and it is a much needed concept in this era of human history.

CS – What does it mean today to be a follower of Imam Hussain and does one need to be Shia to be a follower of Imam Hussain? If I recall correctly men of various faith stood with him in Karbala against the army of Yazid.

REZA JOHN VEDADI – If we wish to limit Imam Hussain and his message, it is like asking if Nelson Mandela or Malcom X have only inspired African or American citizens. Imam Hussain was and will always be a universal symbol and magnet for anyone who wishes to be inspired to fight against injustice. A number of the Imam’s companions came from non-Muslim background, but they were drawn to the Imam’s message due to his great charisma and purity. There are people we know who are from different faiths in our circle of friends, and yet we hold them in high esteem. That is because they are people of high character and beautiful personality. Imam Hussain is such a personality that when you study his life and what he stood for, you are automatically drawn to his persona, without having to want to convert to Islam.

CS – Dr. Ammar Nakshawani says he welcomes the idea of martyrdom in Karbala. I must ask: how is such comment any different from the war cries let out by Daesh and other Wahhabi-type militants in reference to one religious duty? Does Islam requires the death of its believers for God’s Covenant to be fulfilled?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – First we have to establish that martyrdom has existed throughout history and great personalities like Socrates to John the Baptist have been martyred and become immortalised in history for their beliefs. To give one’s life for what one believes is one of the greatest acts of sacrifice one can perform. What Dr Nakshawani was referring to with regards to martyrdom was not to go and conquer a people, brutalise them and bring them suffering. He was referring to visiting the shrine of Imam Hussain, and if in the process one is killed by terrorists like ISIS , then what better way to leave this world than to be on the path to salvation towards what you believe in.

CS – Through your documentary you often go back to the idea of service to the Imams and in this particular case: Imam Hussain. What does this entail to be a servant of Imam Hussain?

IREZA JOHN VEDADI – think to be a servant or to be in the service of someone; one must believe in and follow the master. In many cases we think or presume we are servants of the great Islamic personalities like the Prophet or Imam Hussain, but in actual facts we are just pampering our egos and using religion to boost our sense of self-importance.

I personally think someone who follows the great example of Imam Hussain has to understand and implement strong elements of Imam Hussain’s teachings in his life — to be just and fair, to be honourable and brave, to stand on the side of righteousness.

So before I can claim to be a servant of Imam Hussain, I have to look in the mirror and see if I contain the characteristic of the person I have chosen to serve.

CS – One last question: what do you want your audience to take away from this documentary?

REZA JOHN VEDADI – I want my audience to gain from this documentary a sense of hope, and a better realisation that they can improve themselves, no matter what faith or race they are. No matter what stage of their lives they are at, they can improve who they are and what they do and they can go out and defend the weak, the oppressed and those who are in need of support.

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