Azadari is the jugular vein of Islam, it is the embodiment of the shared pain of all those who fight against injustice and campaign for justice, equality and dignity for humanity. Azadari, is a pure, physically and spiritually nurtured form of supreme worship, through tears comes joy, success, prosperity and spiritual elevation. Through sorrow comes peace, the ability to introspect and to attain pure perfection. Azadari is a kind of detox, particularly during muherram, it is a chance to meditate, to act and cry out all of the negative and once again, to return back to our fitra, to those defining elements that categorise us as ‘Hussaini, as Muslims, as human beings. Azadari is release from captivity, through tears comes release from the lower self, and the shackles of materialism, the poverty and injustice of our own minds, bodies and deeds. Through Azadari we open the doors of repentance in order that we may begin a fresh, renewed and rejuvenated to face the challenges that lay in wait for us.
Azadari, is the most talked about, the most debated, and in some respects, the most controversial form of Islamic worship. Little known by the wider world, Azadari is singled out by extreme groups of Suni Muslims (mainly wahabis), as being ‘biddat (blind following). At worst, they say azadari is stupid, innovation, and worse still, an act of kufr (one who disbelieves).
When I first became shia, I juggled the stereotypes I had been indoctrinated to believe regarding Azadari. I was told by my shia brothers and sisters, that Azadari mattered, but was optional; that I shouldn’t be pressured in to performing it if I did not wish to. They were also quick to point out that Azadari with the use of Zanjeer (chains and blades) was strictly forbidden and that the majority of the mujtahids ( Supreme law makers/religious scholars had publicly declared this impermissible).
Noting their warnings, I went to the majliss for the first time with a very open mind, I did not weep loudly or shed tears (not because I wasn’t moved, but because I’ve never been the type to cry in public!), but, when the time came to perform Azadari (matam), I was the first on my feet! Standing in a powerful congregation with men and women, all united by the same pain, the grief of Imam Hussain (A.S), his family and companions martyred at Karbala, seemed to shake my very insides. It made me sad, brought tears to sting my eyes and made goosebumps appear all over my skin shaking me to my core. It was more than that though; it stirred a passion like molten lava which stirred my heart in a way I’d never been moved before. I began to see the full enormity of the responsibilities I had taken on as a self proclaimed follower of the ahlulbayte (A.S). My mission, was not to come to majliss each week, shed tears, do matam, pray, munch niaz and sleep! Rather it was to hold fast to the passion I had just ignited. To use the flames of that new fire in my soul to propel me forward, to continue the equality work I was doing, to work on turning each and every action of mine (Big or small), in to a statement against injustice, and an invitation for humanity towards good. The majliss and azadari I would attend/perform each week, was much more than a ritualistic outing to a religious building, or my way of guaranteeing myself an Insurance policy to heaven, rather it was a light, a flame; a vehicle to keep the fire burning inside me, and to heighten my struggle, my patience, my ability to sacrifice, to tolerate, to educate and above all, to strive in the way of my creator, enjoin good, and forbid evil. One of Islam’s universal teachings and founding principals is unity, not just in a communal/social sense, but rather that the unity in question should begin with the individual; when there is unity in word, thought and deed, then there is true harmony, contentment and empowerment. For me, these 3 elements came together in the form of Azadari. Each week, the tears I began to shed (even in public!), and the azadari I offered to my Imam (A.S) took me higher and higher, becoming a more powerful force of air beneath my new found wings. I saw for the first time, that the real “jihad” (literally translated as struggle), was about striving for the truth, striving in the way of my lord and his blessed ahlulbayte (A.S), rather than converting people by fear and blowing up underground trains!
As my first muherram drew near, I began to see other forms of Azadari being performed around me. The Iranian community read long, slow, sorrowful eulogies to Imam Hussain (A.S), accompanied by equally slow, rhythmical matam, which, even if you do not understand linguistically, will bring you to tears because of the heart’s blood that the reciter seems to shed while reading it. The Iraqi community read loud, fast energetic ‘latmiet accompanied by matam faster than the fastest heartbeat, their cries of “ya Hussain” could be heard 2/3 streets away from our centre. Their recitations would make me tremble, and it was common to see the women in particular beating the face or the upper part of the head while reciting. This kind of face/head beating is documented in the bible; in particular, when Sara learnt that she was to become a mother to Prophet Abraham’s child. It is an expression of grief, but also a method of releasing pent up anger, pain and frustration. It is sometimes also performed by one person on another as a means of affirming an unacceptable reality (documented in ancient medical texts on treatment of those with depression/shock).
On the nights of the 7th, 8th, and 9th Muherram, tazias were also prepared, decorated and placed in the azadari congregation. Tazias are real sized models, effigies honouring and commemorating the martyrs of Karbala. The first Tazia to enter is a coffin like table, with large misshaped objects upon it, covered with cloth and streaked with red die. This tazia honours the martyrdom of Qasim (the son of Imam Hasan (A.S), and nephew of Imam Hussain (A.S).
Qasim was an orphan at the time of Karbala, and when he was eventually granted permission to fight in the battle by his uncle, his body was mutilated so brutally by the evil army of Yazeed, that his body parts littered the battlefield, and had to be gathered together in a cloth bundle for burial (as seen in the Tazia).
The second Tazia to be brought is an unrevealed figure which appears to be headless. This is the tazia of Ali Akbar, the young, hansom and most intelligent son of our Imam (A.S). It is said, that Ali Akbar most resembled the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) himself by his voice, his words and his actions. At the time of his martyrdom, he was beheaded and carelessly massacred by the cursed army. The next tazia is the alam of Abbas, perhaps the most prominent cymbal of shias across the world. The standard of Abbas is integrally linked with hope, justice, safety, protection and immense bravery in the face of the most extreme oppression. Abbas did not fight on the battlefields of Karbala, but his exquisitely soft heart could not bare the piercing arrow like cries of the children, begging for water. He set out to collect water from the Euphrates for the children of the camp, only to be ambushed on the way back by the enemy, they in turn severed each of his arms, till he struggled on horseback with the water container lodged between his teeth, his only motivation to bring water back to the parched and weak children. The next poisoned arrow was to strike the water container, sending the water spilling down on to the hot desert sands. As Abbas surrenders all hope of reaching the camp, he falls from his horse, taking the standard with him. The final, and by far the most heart rendering of them all, is the empty cradle of Ali Asger, the 6-month-old son of Hussain (A.S). The Imam brought his son and placed him on the burning sands of Karbala, requesting the army to do what they had to with the Imam, but to at least show their decency by granting some water to the dying child. In the worst act of cruelty, they shot the innocent, dehydrated child in the neck with a three-pointed arrow, the kind used to hunt and kill wild animals.
These tazias are taken out on the 10th of Muherram, along with a decorated horse (to represent Hussain’s brave steed), and a decorated coffin, an effigy displaying Hussain on his steed. These are paraded through the streets, accompanied by men performing Azadari, with valed women following behind them. The 10th of Muherram is a tragic day for the Muslims, but it is a chance to demonstrate to the world, the power that can be generated through unity and standing for the truth, rather than simply blowing aimlessly in the winds of unsatisfied desires.
Even if Azadari, as an ideology is new to you, the above will doubtless have moved your heart and the principals behind this act are perhaps already leading you to draw parallels with the outpouring of grief Catholics show at Easter, how the Spanish faithful re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus by nailing a young man to the cross. You might instead be thinking of the Muslim festival of eid, and how Muslims of all denominations sacrifice a sheep in honour of the great sacrifice of Prophet Abraham. Or maybe the Jewish festival of atonement is what rings in your head, as Jews morn their exit from their lands. Shias weep for the passing of muherram too, just as much as the sorrow it brings, but the recharging it gives us serves us through-out the year, and, if we observe our fard acts; prayer, fasting in Ramadhan, and observing the important anniversaries of the Ahlulbayte (A.S), we maintain the spiritual energy we need to sustain us (just as we eat to strengthen the body, worship is food for the soul).
Long as the above may have appeared, I felt it appropriate to outline just what/how azadari is implemented, its purpose and the benefits gained thus. Its expected that a non-shia or a non-Muslim may not be acquainted with the ins and outs of azadari, but, you can imagine my shock when I read a shia, and a sayed at that! (sayed being, those people directly descended from our holly prophet and his family), condemning azadari. His point was that, the money we invest in niaz (food given to the poor or shared among the faithful in honour of the imams and their generosity), the decorating of the tazias and the blessings we believe we gain from them, are all elaborate falsehoods, diseases which he felt required “eradication.” His justification for this statement, stems from a concept I wrote about at the beginning of this blog entry “biddat” or blind following. Biddat, literally translated, means innovation, and, in the case of Azadari, wahabis, (and apparently some shia!) protest against it, saying it is not something which was practised by our Prophet (PBUH) or his family (AS).
To examine this statement, we must first understand what biddat actually manifests as in practise, and in terms of how we use it as a yard stick towards adopting/discarding elements from our religion. The qur’an states that, the ‘deen’ (faith or lifestyle of Islam), should not be adulterated, the deen is complete, and that the deen should not be altered. Meaning therefore, that what the qur’an and the lifestyle of our Prophet (PBUH) and his family (A.S) is complete, and that we should live according to the boundaries they set, the lessons they taught and the practises they followed. Now! The issue comes when you measure this against the backdrop of modern capitalist civilisations, and how new Muslims practise their faith within them. If one studies Islamic history, we see that people got around on camels, they slept on the floor, did not have running water, they would grind corn with a hand grinder and often died of minor ailments which could easily be treated and made extinct from the environment around us. Does this then mean that we should give up our homes, insulation and scientific progression, for fear of breaking rules regarding biddat? (we have seen the consequence of this in regimes such as Afghanistan and Somalia). In modern day Islamic societies, we have mujtahids, (supreme law makers and scholars) who, by deducing laws from qur’an and hadaith can determine the most appropriate course of action, and, while some of them have condemned unnecessary expense during muherram commemorations, or Zanjeer zaani; not one has described azadari its self as being biddat!
Saeeda Zeynab (A.S) was the first to begin reciting majliss and observance of Azadari amongst women following her release from Shaam and return to Madeena. While there is not any evidence of her taking out tazia processions, the principals of Azadari are reflected in our practises today. The qur’an demands that we honour its teachings, that we give due rights to creation, and that we reflect its principals in all that we do. The hadaith of the Imams that followed Imam Hussain (A.S) all point towards the importance of honouring the martyrs of Karbala and performing Azadari. While the exact origins of Tazia processions is not known, my research has taught me that, for the most part, they were used in India as a means to educate the illiterate regarding the tragedy of karbala. This might have been narrated by the Muslims themselves, or possibly the first accounts would have come from the Hussaini Brahman (a little known cast of Hindus who honour Hussain in Muherram, take out tazias and tell proudly of how their forefathers were companions of the ahlulbayte at Karbala) (a statement which shows that, tawheed too as a concept, which underpins Azadari and all that came before it, is indeed a much wider concept than the extremists of today would like to admit!).
As a visually impaired person, I draw great comfort, closeness and bonding with the pain of Karbala through the tazias we take out. They draw looks of curiosity, sadness, sympathy or ridicule from those who pass by us, but their every look/comment (hostile or other wise) is a beautiful gift for us to enter in to dialogue regarding what/why we believe the things we do.
Many of those who cry biddat are often unacquainted with the false and fabricated hadaith their scholars make money out of propagating even today, and so I press them for Allah’s sake, (not to convert!), but to study, reflect, affirm and open their eyes for their own selves! And, to our shia brethren, perhaps it is time we looked within; we might cry biddat in order to justify our inaction, but if there is something lacking in our Azadari, it perhaps stems from the fact that we’ve forgotten the principals outlined in the above, and, like all the blind followers around us, we see muherram as a 10-day wonder, we come, we listen to majliss, we cry, do matam, and leave! (job done; for another year!). Biddat might seem like a justification for trying to insure our faith is not corrupted (your interpretation of ‘deen, might be different from mine, yet we may both be correct in different contexts!). That said, the principals of justice, equality and dignity, the values Karbala teaches, and which Azadari implements are for all people, forever and for all time. So, the next time you are about to cry Biddat as a tazia walks past, first close your eyes, let them wonder over the pieces of Qasim’s body, let them be coated in the red colouring, and let your nostrils absorbed the heavenly scent of oils and incense, symbolising the masoomiet (innocence) of those pure souls who were martyred, listen to the weeping, the Azadari around you, feel the salt tears stain your skin as they leek from beneath closed lashes, taste the salt and remember the blood that soaked the sands of Karbala, the blood that was shed for you. Open your eyes; you are still here, the tazia is still there and the jaloos is moving forward, only, you have changed, for a few minutes, the power of your senses; touch, smell, hearing and insight, transported you to the battlefield of Karbala, you said salaam to your Imam and his family (A.S) and returned, all through the channel of a simple tazia, something so infinitesimally insignificant, a material option, worth nothing, yet more valuable than all of creation.