EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – Western Azadari Hybrid

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SHAFAQNA – Sohail Chohan is a British based Architect and professional Nawhakhwan. He hosts his own regular television show featuring internationally recognized  recitors of Azadari poetry, naat, manqabaat and marsiya’s. He is also currently training young Muslims in Britain to learn the art of traditional recitation for Imam al Husayn (as) across the hundreds of Hussainiya’s in Europe and the USA in particular.

Western Azadari Hybrid

In the West the expanding establishment of Azadari (the lamentation for Imam Al Husayn (as), martyred grandson of the Prophet Mohammad- pbuh) is beginning to take on its own hybrid cultural expression, whilst maintaining its Eastern roots. How is this evolution taking place? What are the threats and challenges faced by the Azadari movement in the West and can the Muslim communities navigate them successfully as Islam continues to be spot lighted negatively.

Sohail Chohan is a British based recitor of classical South Asian manqabaat and a Nauhakhwan of some repute; appearing on regular television shows and Hussaini Majaalis appearances. Having performed his first recital as a young boy he recalls his earliest memory of it and how a model of “ Imam Hussain’s shrine (taaziya) placed beside him had a great visual impact” upon him even as he performed his tribute to the Holy Imam. It is this accessibility of visual symbolism, which has he says, over the centuries has played a big part in helping to engage vast audiences to the passion of the tragedy of Karbala.

Sohail argues that these creative aspects of the Muslim traditions of Azadari have contributed equally as powerfully to maintaining the memory of the Shuhuda e Karbala as those of the  intellectual and textual contributions of muhaditthun (hadith scholars) , poets and jurisprudents. This tradition, in its Western hybrid form, is now also manifesting through the British-born Shia, as spoken-word poetry, theatrical performance, contemporary story-telling and art.

For the traditional recitor “poetic verse still lies at the heart of the recitals that form the backdrop to the seenah zani (rhythmic beating of the chest) and arouses the emotional intensity felt by the azadar’s. They also give voice to the anguish felt by attendees and manifest the memories of the tragedy being evoked by the story and history- telling delivered by the Ulama.This usually still precedes the ‘seena zani” according to Sohail.He argues that it is important to maintain the excellence of traditional poetic verse and now trains emerging young nauha performers. “There is an adhab and respect for Azadari  which traditional recitors and poets like Mir Anees  and Shaheed Sibte Jafar possessed and whatever the new cultural expressions are they must retain this excellence in adhab and etiquette” says the veteran recitor.

Imam Zain al Abedin (as), the only surviving son of Imam al Husayn (as) is said to have encouraged this poetic remembrance of the martyrs of Karbala whilst Imam Hussain’s beloved sister, Bibi Zaynab (sa) gave revolutionary voice against the injustice through her brilliant and impassioned public lectures – giving rise to the tradition for the Azadari Majaalis of today. These majaalis are,in the West, now being increasingly delivered in English too, and there are increasing calls to reduce their length based on research that highlights reduced attention spans among the youth said to be induced increasingly by the Youtube Facebook and other ‘fast information’ social media habits. A few Khoja community run Shia Hussainiya’s are even dropping the traditional Azadari formats and replacing them with academic lectures, story-telling drama’s. Others are are also accommodating scholars of  Ahle Tassanun for their versions of the tragedy but there is no centre that really caters for non Muslim audiences exclusively and indeed very few mainstream British citizens attend these events at present.

According to some traditionalist critics certain innovative developments within expressions of Azadari in the West are, however, not appropriate. They say Azadari is being defiled by some Zakareen (history-tellers) and recitors – drawing attention to some over-animated and often over-dramatically enacted recitals which they feel are actually distracting listeners from the gravity of the message of the poems and Azadari. Allegations of historical inaccuracies in the content of some poets and recitors also see them accused of apostasy by  Salafi takfirists, among others. The politically driven terrorists are only too glad to use any excuse to vilify Shia Muslims. In the East, at its worst, Azadari practices have been used as the pretext for terrorists in making Shias the primary objects of their targeted killings. In the West,thus far, this hatred has not manifested itself beyond online narratives, however, with the prospect of more returning British takfirists from the Syrian war zone – there is a very real potential flashpoint for the future .

In Britain there have also been occasional intra Shia collisions over the traditional practice of ‘qamar zani’(self flagellation with blades), as many centres try to discourage the acts of tatbir, based on health and safety grounds and amid fears that these actions could also make Britain’s Shia communities the targets of the British establishments ongoing often Islamophobic drive against violent extremism and radicalization.

There is a fear among some Shia analysts that attempts to contain these acts of self flagellation, which do often cause personal injury, may be a point which Western anti Muslim forces could use to create divisions among the Shia. Indeed a growing movement exists which uses these and other cultural ritual practices as a religio-political tool to distance themselves from those Fuqaha who oppose the practice. However this friction is currently restricted to a small minority in the West.

Sohail Chohan is proud, however, that Azadari in the West has thus far retained the traditional South Asian Shia symbolism. These symbols include the ‘Zuljinah’ (Imam Al Husayn’s steed), ‘Zareehs’ , ‘Jhoola’ (six month old martyr Hazrat Ali Asghar (as) cradle), Mehndi (henna representing Hazrat Ali Akbar’(as) tragically short lived wedding), and of  course the ‘Alum’ (the standard with the hand of the Holy five on top depicting Hazrat Abbas’ (as) and his valiant exploits. Western expressions of this symbolism are beginning to emerge on social media, but within the Hussaini Majalis circuit they remain in their traditional Eastern expression.

The potential of traditional and hybrid western Azadari to act as an educational platform for Shia Muslim youth is undoubtedly there. Perhaps in the future for it to become a space for Shia-led interfaith and intercultural community dialogue and cohesion in the West; it is the emerging Shia creative thinkers, artists, poets, story tellers and theatre performers  who will play the most significant role in developing a hybrid Azadari culture and perhaps taking the  message of Imam al Husain (as) beyond the Shia community into mainstream western society. For this the investment of Shia philanthropists will be vital.

By Seyed Mohsen Abbas for Shafaqna

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