Musings on Muharram at a Shia Madrasa

By   /  8 September 2018   

On 7 September, along with 18 graduate students of Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad, I visited the Houzatul Mahdi al-Ilmiah,  a well-known Shia Muslim madrasa in Hyderabad’s Old City for an interaction. The Principal of the institution, Maulana Raza Abbas, and our friend Muhammad Naqvi Sahib welcomed us. The madrasa has around 50 students on its rolls.

Although Maulana Raza Abbas was busy as the month of Muharram was around the corner, he happily received us and spent close to 90 minutes in conversation. Obviously, he related to us the event of Karbala, which took place in the month of Muharram and which is at the heart of Shia Muslim religious practices.

As I carefully listened to Maulana Raza Abbas, I was reminded of the same account presented in the work of S. H.  M. Jafri (Origins and Early Development of Shia Islam, published in 1979) which I have read a couple of times. Jafri interprets the events of Karbala as momentous efforts to bring about a complete revolution in the religious consciousness of the Muslims.

Jafri affirms that Imam Husain was aware that victory brought about by military power would temporary, whereas victory achieved through suffering and sacrifice would be everlasting. He says that Imam Husain chose the path of suffering and sacrifice to challenge Yazid, who was infamous for his heartless actions against the family of Muhammad.  He writes: “he (Imam Husain) realised that mere force of arms would not have saved Islamic action and consciousness. To him it needed a shaking and jolting of hearts and feelings. This,  he decided,  could only be achieved through sacrifice and suffering.  This should not be difficult to understand, especially for those who fully appreciate heroic deeds and sacrifices of … above all, the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of mankind”.

Listening to Maulana Raza Abbas was a devotional exercise, for Jafri’s writings had already made a deep impression on me. There are several theological themes, in addition to the sacrifice of Jesus and of Imam Husain, on which Catholics theologians and Shia scholars could have fruitful joint theological reflections.

Christian scholars like Michael L. Fitzgerald (“Mediation in Islam,” Studia Missionalia 21, 1972: 185-206), Christopher Clohessy (“Weeping Mothers : Tears and Power in Fatima and Mary,” Islamochristiana 36,  2010: 101-115), and Kenneth Cragg  (Tragic in Islam, Chapter 5, “A Muslim Martryology, 113-130) have studied themes like ‘mediation’, ‘suffering’, and ‘martyrdom’ in Shia Islam and have compared it to similar themes in the Christian traditions.

Besides martyrdom, one theme that struck me about the Shia tradition was the theme of redemption. It is said that the idea of redemption is not absent altogether in Islamic religious thought, especially in dealing with and accepting suffering. Personal suffering could be meaningful for the society and religious life (Q.2:156).

Maulana Raza Abbas explained that the martyrdom of Husain was necessary for fulfilling his role as Imam in the Shia tradition. Without his martyrdom, Husain could neither become the paradigm of selfless sacrifice nor the intercessor on the Day of Judgement.

How is Husain’s martyrdom believed to be redemptive? In our conversation we were told that the suffering of Husain becomes a source of salvation/redemption for Shia believers primarily through their interiorisation and emulation of that suffering, and secondarily, through Husain’s intercession. Husain’s status as intercessor is awarded as a divine gift due to his martyrdom. Shia believers understand the redemption of the community of believers in the context of the intercession of Husain. Shia scholars opine that all the Imams of the Shias share in the suffering of Husain and thus participate in the divine gift of intercession. Shias believe that all those who stand with the suffering of Husain through their interiorsation and emulation of it are saved.  On the other hand, all those stand with Yazid, the symbol of oppression and injustice, will be judged.

A Christian would understand the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt as redemption (Ex. 6.6;  15.13). An individual could also sometimes the object of God’s redemption, as in the case of Job (Job 19.25). In the Jewish scriptures the immense power of God in deliverance of people is emphasised (cf. Duet. 9.26). The idea of ransom, which the ancient people of Israel were familiar with, is not completely absent from the Jewish scriptures.

In the New Testament too, at some places the word ‘redemption’ refers to divine intervention on behalf of people without any specific ransom (Lk.  2.38; 24.21). However, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ life and Ministry come to conclude in an act of self-sacrifice which would serve as a ransom for sin-stained human beings (Mk. 10.45). St. Paul develops the theme further and affirms the forgiveness of the sins based on the ransom price of the blood that Christ shed on the Cross (Eph. 1.7). Redemption is thus an important word in  the life of a Christian as it reminds him or her that the he/she is delivered from the power of sin by the passion, death and Resurrection of the Lord.

Obviously, there are differences in understanding the idea of redemption in the Shia and Christian faiths. However, it is also true that our differences enrich our understanding of the mystery of suffering in the lives of all men and women and help us to reach out to the other to listen to their accounts with respect and love. In meeting Maulana Raza Abbas and his friends at the madrasa, we felt we were meeting fellow believers and co-pilgrims.

Dr. Fr. Victor Edwin SJ is Lecturer on “Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations”, Vidyajyoti College of Theology, New Delhi. Director of the Vidyajyoti Institute of Islamic Studies (VIDIS), he serves as Secretary of the Islamic Studies Association (ISA) and edits ISA quarterly “Salaam”.

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