Mourning Karbala and Remembering the Other’s Story

Yesterday was Ashura and that means, as a Sunni, it was an optional day of fasting. For Sunnis, the day has celebratory connotations. According to a hadith it is the day God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh. But to the Shi’a, Ashura is a time of mourning, remembering the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE/61 AH when Hussain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and Ali’s son, was brutally killed along with the men in his army who had stood up against the much larger army of Yazid (a distant cousin whose father, Mu’awiya, had taken the caliphate after the assassination of Ali).

When people asked me which kind of Muslim I am I used to answer “just Muslim.” Later on, especially in response to non-Muslims, I would add “but I’m more Sufi” (a Muslim way of saying “spiritual but not religious”). Failing to recognize my own Sunni-ness is similar to failing to recognize my whiteness: qualifying my identity with little thought as to what privileges are attached to that identification. It is easy for me to say “just Muslim” when I pray in Sunni-normative spaces. This is not as simple for Shi’a Muslim-Americans. The sacred spaces I frequent are the same spaces that mark a Shi’a as an outsider.

When I was involved in the Muslim Student Association, there was always that usual email that went out reminding us all to fast on Ashura. Then one year, a Shi’i member called us out. The email was sent out to everyone, a long response to MSA’s inconsiderate holiday greeting, in which he explained his frustration and pain. Ashura is a day of mourning, he reminded us. And it was not just the insensitivity he had issues with; he challenged the entire Sunni telling of that part of Islamic history. Sunnis thought it good enough to call it a great fitna that, even though it divided the ummah, was better left unremembered. After all, the disagreement was over the leadership of the Muslim community. And the “Islamic” form of non-hereditary and un-pope-like government prevailed.

What bothered the Shi’i MSA member was Sunni ignorance which resulted in disrespecting the Prophet’s family. What bothered me were the Sunni responses–also sent out to everyone on the list serve–which miserably failed in acknowledging the complaint.  Also what concerned me: the Shi’i who had called us out was a friend. And someone who had been friends of other Sunni MSA members. We had shared meals together. Prayed together. Fasted together. Watched movies together on Friday nights. We Sunnis should have known better.

The Sunni responses to my friend also failed to have any kind of honest reflection on the Sunni-normative narration. But if we, as Muslim-Americans, are to ever move forward in these intrafaith interactions, this reflection is absolutely necessary. Similar to interfaith meetings, it is not enough to talk about our similarities and tolerate our differences. Real encounter means we give more breathing room for our often competing stories to truly speak to one another.

The Shi’i narration of Karbala forces me to rethink the Sunni one. It opens up my eyes to the horrific crimes against the Ahl al-Bayt.  It challenges that Sunni sense of superiority because we apparently rejected hereditary leadership and the excessive-honoring/near-idolizing of the descendants of the Prophet. It feeds into modern Sunni claims that we are more democratic and more authentically monotheistic than Shi’a. But pre-Karbala there was already a hereditary caliphate: all the caliphs from Abu Bakr to the Umayyads were related to the Prophet either through marriage or bloodline. Also conveniently left out: that one Sunni opinion about the caliphate being limited to Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. Not to mention the honor descendants of the Prophet have in Sunni communities. Also not mentioned: the shared Sunni-Shi’i spaces commemorating the same religious figures (e.g. visitations to the tomb of Fatima or the head of Hussain in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which, by the way, is in the same mosque where the head of John the Baptist rests). Marking Shi’a as outsiders to authentic Islam contradicts the shared Sunni-Shi’i respect for the Ahl al-Bayt.

The time of the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” and those that followed was not discussed in detail in the predominantly Sunni masjids that I know. It is as if the title “rightly-guided” was good enough to leave out Islamic history after the Prophet’s death. The Salafi-ness of the Sunni mosques I have prayed in probably didn’t help: idolizing the Salaf conveniently pushes early Islamic history as irrelevant to contemporary Islamic piety.

There were a few words about power struggles and the unfortunate sectarian split. These few words on the most tumultuous time in early Islamic history was disconcerting–how could such a beautiful religion whose unity under the simple creed of monotheism and belief in the Prophet Muhammad have faced such near-destruction? And how could the followers of such a faith come close to wiping out the entire family of the Prophet?

Shi’i Muslims make remembering this traumatic time period–events that would have plunged me into doubts about the revealed nature of my faith–a part of their piety. What I have come to respect is the way Shi’a keep the memory of Karbala alive and how that remembrance nourishes their spirituality. Sunnis and Shi’a both have lost Hussain. But it is the Shi’a who incorporate that sadness into their piety. Rather than ignore it, they struggle with it. They sit with the pain and they tell a story about it. For Shi’a, it is a story about injustice and the oppressed. And the retelling of this story of oppression is sanctified with ritual, a “remember the Alamo” that becomes “everyday is Karbala” because the jihad against injustice, even if it means we are on the loosing side, is always the right side to be on.

To return to the Sunni importance of Ashura: God freeing the Israelites is not irredeemably contradictory. Both Karbala and Moses in Egypt are stories about oppression. It is important to look behind us at the parting sea at the injustices we have been delivered from. Even more important: to look ahead at what injustices continue.

Some Muslims do not think too highly of A’isha. I still don’t know what to do with this. But what I can say is this: if my sanctified image of A’isha prevents me from seeing the sanctity of another’s story then I’m willing to sacrifice that holiness for seeing the humanity of the other side.

This reminds me of the ways stories, told over the generations, are codified. Stories are used as signs for a community and, continually recited, renew that community’s sense of cohesion and identity. Encountering the near-other, e.g. a Sunni talking to a Shi’a, inevitably challenges these stories that are so integral to our communities. It makes us uncomfortable. In the case of these near-others who might share competing versions of the same events, we might misunderstand this encounter as discomforting because of varying truth claims. But this discomfort is actually about something bigger: the identity of our communities.

Rather than react negatively to the discomfort, we should allow the encounter to remind us about the imperfection of our own stories. If asks us to not take our stories for granted. After all, narration is a creative process. The stories we tell are a product of that. But they have frayed edges. Talking to the near-other reminds us of these imperfect and unraveling edges. It breaks the idolatry of our own stories. Returning to my thoughts on A’isha, the meeting of two different narrations has the possibility of doing two things: it might open myself up to the humanity of the other’s story and in turn reminds me of the humanity of A’isha.

And to be sure, encountering the near-other does not only mean calling us out on the frayed edges of our story-telling. It also means honoring the threads that still bind these same stories together. In the case of mourning Karbala, it opens up a theological discussion about what it means to remember pain, injustice, and oppression.

image taken after dhuhr/asr prayer at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, MI

image taken after dhuhr/asr prayer at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, MI

For further reading, check out this Sunni reflection on Karbala and the month of Muharram posted on the Muslim Vibe.

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