A dear brother and friend of mine always says, “Imam Hussain (A.S), draws the line, and the rest of us follow!”. From the moment I came to know about the tragedy of Karbala, and shed my first tears for Imam Hussain (A.S), I realised how true this reflection really is. How blessed are the followers of Hussain (A.S), how great is his intercession, how life changing is his companionship, and how honoured are those who have achieved closeness to him (A.S).
The dream, or the aspiration of all followers is to perform ziyera of Imam Hussain (A.S), in order to turn their spiritual proximity in to a physical closeness, and, although I am the least deserving, shortly after my reversion to the path of Ahlulbayt (A.S) I performed ziyera. My first trip was to Shaam, to meet Saeeda Zeynab (A.S) and Saeeda Sakina (A.S), and to perform ziyera to the church where our Imam’s blessed head was held by a Christian priest over night, as he questioned the Imam (A.S) as to his identity etc. Blood still weeps from the stone where his blessed head was placed, and it is said of it that its ziyera is equivalent of performing ziyera to Karbala its self. I’m sure this is because of the difficulty reaching that place (the journey requires around 24 hours of wakefulness all in all), and is particularly crowded with faithful from a variety of religious communities (Muslim and Christian), thus giving it an air which is truly unique. Of course, my soul dua at that place was that my presence would act as a vehicle through which I would be able to travel to Karbala, and meet the Imam (A.S) myself. Little did I know then that the following year I would be travelling to Karbala, just as I had requested! The story of how I came to be there is a miracle in its own right, and I’ll one day write about it in more detail, but my point here is to reiterate the greatness of intercession: while we cry tears and mourn for our Imam (A.S), the only way to achieve closeness to him, in every sense, is to make his message, his love and his sacrifice a living, breathing and active reality through every aspect of our living, praying, working and dying. Performing ziyera is a beautiful manifestation of this relationship, and most definitely helps the servant to nurture a friendship and connection which is absolutely unique to him/her.
I arrived in Karbala with all kinds of expectations: I wanted so much to get close to my Imam (A.S), I wanted to understand Karbala in a new way, through a new light generated from virtue of my being present there. I had so many duas to make, both for myself and for others. More than that, I had a great many issues to resolve, I had personal suffering which I desired to put to rest, I wanted desperately to remarry, and needed the help and support of my Imam (A.S), to not only find the right person, but enable me to sustain and make a success of that relationship. All this I took with me, my heart was heavy but my soul was flying high, aching only for that moment when I could stand in front of the zari of my Imam, place my head upon it and weep tears of peace, pain and release that only my Imam will understand. All exhaustion, trial or tension from the journey vanished as we drove in to Karbala, a strange sense of coming home took over, combined with rich soothing tears for both the pain inflicted upon the Ahlulbayt (A.S) in that place, but also as shukr for the great honour we received for being chosen to place our sinful feet on this sacred pure soil. Unfortunately however, many of my expectations were to shatter before me a few moments later. There were a great many issues and difficulties with the group I travelled in. Despite their initial willingness to have me, as a visually impaired person travelling with them, they seemed incredibly reticent and frustrated by it when we finally arrived, and were faced with the practicalities of performing the ziyera its self! They refused to assist me to move inside the haram of the Imam (A.S), because of the crowds, and so I spent much of my time sitting in the yards around the haram in the baking son, absorbed in the indescribable scent which emanated from the blessed haram, listening to majliss being recited around me, and crying for my own hopelessness: I was so close to my imam, yet so incredibly far from him, in a land I did not know, and with people who really didn’t want to be bothered by me, and the worst part is, I was dependent upon them and had no means of relieving them from this burden which they so obviously did not want!
Finally, on seeing my despair, they arranged for one of the female security staff at the haram to take me to perform ziyerat. She spoke no English and grabbed hold of me lovingly, yet as though she were escorting a cumbersome package from one area of the building to the other! She was a fierce figure to be reckoned with as she bounded aggressively through the crowds of women, beating them with her feather duster and dragging me treacherously behind her! The lack of communication meant that I had no idea where I actually was, and only knew we had reached one of the shrines when she would throw me (literally!), upon it! I tried hopelessly to question her as to where we were, but no answer came! I scanned the crowd with my ears to locate an Urdu or an English speaker that I might ask, but none was to be found! I then tried to use my limited knowledge of the maktal: in terms of recollecting the location of one grave in relation to another, and vaguely made a mental map as to where we might be! I offered my tears and my duas at each shrine based on these estimations, but I felt so bizarrely wretched: here I was: in Karbala, making the pilgrimage I had wept for, prayed for and longed for, yet how empty were my hands, how helpless was my being, how little I had to offer to my Imam (A.S) to his family (A.S) and his companions (RA). I continued to be dragged by the security woman, who had by now begun to wield her feather duster in the vague direction of my wet eyes, telling me not to cry, which I thought was extremely odd! She dragged me to each of the graves before I had time to think, and became irritated with my continual stops to kiss the ground in each shrine, and fill my eyes with its blessed dust for shifa. On the way out, she gave me a broken piece of sajdagah/moher and bid me salaam as she pushed me in the direction of my unwilling group. I sat in the desperate heat of the afternoon, weeping uncontrollably over the emptiness of my offerings and the unprecedented situation I found myself in. As I lamented over it, I became increasingly aware of crying more for myself, for my logistics rather than for my Imam (A.S), which made me cry even more! For surely that wasn’t why I had come here: to end up being self assuming and absorbed! My group got tired of my tears and left me to it, ordering me not to move while they went gold shopping or performed the rest of their zyera without me. We were blessed to perform the rest of our ziyerats in Iraq (all be it in a rather haphazard way as far as mine were concerned), before returning safely to the UK! But I’ve had almost a year to reflect on why things developed in that way, why did my imam wish to place me in such an apparently useless, hostile and chaotic state of being. What did I have to gain from it, and what did I really give to my Imam (A.S). When I came back, people looked for news of my ziyera on the blog, but found little of it, friends asked me about the trip, and were shocked by my lucid mentions of it. People asked me how the group were: and I either avoided the topic, or simply smiled vacantly and said “well, there were a few issues!”. If I confided any thing in any one, it was to beg them to pray for the acceptance of my ziyera: I couldn’t believe that my imam would accept something so pathetic from me: when he had taken me there, provided for my stay and sustainence, yet I had offered so very little. I tried my utmost to cut the memories out of my mind, and ask only that I be given the honour to perform the ziyera over again, with those I love and who know me. I swore that if I was given the chance again, I’d do so much better the second time around (and I still stand by that!). Though the fact is, none of us can guarantee a second time ever coming (some never even get their first as far as ziyera goes), and the point remains: behind every thing there is wisdom, and I hadn’t found the wisdom behind my trip yet! I didn’t think about it again till I found myself in London, presenting the muherram shows for Ahlulbayt TV. Each day, after ‘women’s view went off air, I’d settle down on a leather sofa in Sayed Ammir’s office with a large cup of tea and a plate of biscuits to watch Rebecca Masterton’s live show from Karbala, direct from the shrine of Imam Hussain (A.S). I would close my eyes and listen, and was almost able to perceive the beauty of every sound, smell and vibration from the sacred land, just as I had done when I went there. Rebecca told her own stories, and her team brought a great many back with them. Their experiences tell of how the chaos is perhaps an inherent part of every ziyera: i.e., we might take our own expectations with us, and that is fine, but ultimately “the Imam draws the line”.
I realised something else too as I listened to them: that, while my ziyera was special, my journey really began when I reached home: my work situation worsened, and I had to turn to my imam to get me out of there and on to somewhere better. The work I am doing for Kitaba stepped up a gear, and I began to build strong, affective working relationships with people I never imagined I’d be able to work with. I started to take my Islamic studies much more seriously, attending hawza class and undertaking more rigorous self-study at home, and gaining from it. Then, during muherram, the time when I wanted to run away, hide myself away and surrender to my grief, I found myself in London, sharing the tragedy with millions through the platform of Ahlulbayt TV. Some of the above has been trying, but all of it has been an honour, and testament to the fact that nothing is in our hands. It also shows that there is a higher power directing the purpose, direction and content of each and every thing we do: (as the qur’an says, surely Allah is the best of planners!).
Allah (SWT), in his infinite wisdom has granted us an avenue through which we can draw closer to him, seek refuge from the world and the evil within it, and at the same time, elevate ourselves spiritually: (i.e., the intercession of Imam Hussain (A.S) and his Ahlulbayt (A.S). It is easy to look for the imam in his haram, to restrict the blessed Imam to the soil of Karbala, or even to these 2 months of mourning at the beginning of the year! But until we learn to implement the lessons learned from muherram in to every thing we do, and cultivate a personal relationship with our Imam (A.S), we cannot hope for that intercession, it will only remain something lofty and hard-to-reach, something written in philosophy books: too distant and esoteric for the likes of us! Many of us struggle with the infallibility of Imams, and in particular, we struggle with the idea of Imam Mahdi (ATF) being among us, yet in occultation. We don’t talk of these things openly, we don’t question and worst of all, we don’t study! Instead, we are happy to cry in muherram, go home and put our tears to bed for another year, only really remembering the Imam when a significant shahadat or tragedy comes along! Painful and deeply tragic though his death is, Imam Hussain (A.S) did not sacrifice his life so that we could cry! He did so in order to safeguard the message of Islam, to uphold goodness, justice and equality for all, to safeguard and preserve Islam in its most pristine, original and pure form for those people who open their eyes and truly see it! Today, while we might have wahabis and terrorists doing what they can to blot this message out, the truth remains, and shall remain for all time! But that truth lies dormant in our hearts if we don’t act upon it.
I’ve always found muherram to be my own personal power house for the year: whatever I stock up on in terms of deeds for the year: studying, fasting, crying and prayer: they are the things that shape the months and the year ahead of me, and what over shadows them all are those sincere duas I make through Imam Hussain (A.S). For in the quiet stillness of my home, in the depth of the night, or in the new tranquillity before fajar, my creator is near me, and my Imam listens to me. Don’t search for him in masjids and imambargahs, not in books, stories or poetry, not in history or empty ramblings like mine: these are mere foot paths to get you there: the only place you’ll truly find your Imam (A.S), is in your sajda, in the space between your forehead and the ground when you perform sajda on the cleansed earth of Karbala. You’ll find the Imam in the charity that you give, the time you take out for friends and the needy, you’ll find him in the duas you make during crisis, in your tears, the blood you shed for his sake. But above all, you’ll find the imam in your heart, the deepest recesses of your soul, where goodness stands defined and separate from evil, far from the lower self and ready to guide, support and direct us, if only we would open our hands, our hearts and our minds to letting that change come. Don’t let this period of mourning pass for you like any other: let it be the time that you lay the foundations to creating your own relationship with Imam Hussain (A.S). His sacrifice holds the key to closeness to Allah (SWT), and to the rest of the Imams (A.S), as well as directing your own rightful purpose, whatever that purpose may be. If you are going for ziyera, then how blessed you truly are (and please, do pray for us all!), but even if you are not, you can perform ziyera in your own home: and you can achieve the same reward too: simply by drawing closer to the Imam, and understanding/acting upon his sacrifice for what it really is.
‘Oh Allah, in these days of mourning, bless Hussain (A.S), the family of Hussain (A.S), the companions of Hussain (RA), and the followers of Hussain. Grant us wisdom to connect to you through our Imam, accept those duas which are good for us, and those duas which only grant us closeness to him (A.S), in this world, and in the next, aameen.