As everyone gets ready for the holidays, I’m on a slightly different schedule. Friday marked the end of the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, the month of Muharram.
The first 10 days of Muharram are particularly important and end in Ashura, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (peace be upon him), the favorite grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) and divinely appointed guide for the Muslim community. In 680, in Karbala, for ten days the Imam was denied water, as his small band was brutally attacked. Several years ago, I offered a reflection on this day. I desperately want to understand what would allow someone who called himself “Muslim” to kill, for sport, a member of the Prophet’s family.
However, this year, I got to thinking about ritual. There are sessions where the story of Karbala is told, either poetically or exegetically. A believer can cry. It is a participatory moment, where the listener is transported back centuries and suffers with the Imam. Like many rituals, it collapses time and place. The event forms one of the most pivotal moments in defining a justice theology.
And I thought about the ways in which ritual action is both aesthetic and radical. When done with conviction and belief and knowledge, it is transformative. The individual is moved to new levels of being and action, and the community is changed, perhaps cemented, or moved to a new commitment to engaging with social justice. But if that ritual does not result in any action, is it sufficient?
I think that in this instance, ritual participation is meant to be catalytic, in a way other rituals are not. As an annualized moment, it’s an extra-ordinary moment. The simple participation in any ritual should be recognized as a political and revolutionary act. I would argue that for those who recognize the loss of the Imam, it is a call to action, because if time and place are collapsed, then we are witnessing a role-model offer his life in action.
So then, the larger question is about finding a balance between faith and action. It would be easy to fall into the trap of arguing that (political) action defines faith, so we see faith through the lens of our desired political ends. It would also be easy to call the giving of money to charity an action informed by faith, but not think about the ways in which serves a greater public good (maslaha).
Because this is a blog post, rather than a treatise, I’m going to cop out and offer that it is up to the individual to judge. However, as I pondered this tension, I realized that in 680, in Karbala, the same debate was happening. Yazid, the murderer of the Prophet’s family, let his politics lead to an action that he defined as within his faith.
I find it fascinating that Mike Knight calls Pres. Obama Yazid, because of the resonance of the accusation. It’s not a comparison I would make. But the reality is that drone strikes need to stop. And so with this Ashura, do we recognize every land as Karbala, and every day as Ashura, that scream out for justice? And that we are agents of justice? Silence is also an action. We can stand with Yazid or with the Imam.
Hussein Rashid is an academic and activist. He received his PhD from Harvard University, and his broad research project involves the representation and self-representation of Muslims in America. He has published on Islamicate musics in America, and has delivered talks on the Muslim-American blogistan and Muslims in graphic novels. He has taught at Hofstra University, Fordham University, Harvard University, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Virginia Theological Seminary. He works in New York’s interfaith communities, teaching at Quest: A Center for Spiritual Inquiry. He has appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox News, CBS Evening News, and Russia Today. He is an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, and blogs at islamicate. He is known for his teaching, research, public communication skills, media engagement, and use of Web 2.0 technologies. You can find out more about him at http://www.husseinrashid.com/ Recently, he turned his consultancy into an L3C. islamicate L3C specializes in improving conversations around religion generally, and Islam specifically. We work in education, media, and policy.