By Rannie Amiri
Rarely has controversy over a film simultaneously encompassed the religious, social, and political spheres as has Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The primary focus of the discussion has been on whether it represents an accurate portrayal of Jesus’ last twelve hours, and if so, if it qualifies as anti-Semitic. The participants in this discourse, for the most part, have obviously been Christians and Jews. The secular public did learn that the word passion refers to Jesus' suffering during the crucifixion in the Christian account of events (incidentally from where the word excruciating is derived), but can equally apply to the suffering of any martyr.
Noticeably absent from the debate were Muslims, who were happy for once to remain on the sidelines. Not only do they not believe it was Jesus who was crucified, but they deliberately avoid depicting the images of their prophets in any context. Nearly coincident with the release of the film was the start of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
This is quite ironic, as will be discussed, since the first ten days of Muharram are for Shi'a Muslims the most important days of the year, commemorating what could be called The Passion of Hussain.
The tenth day of Muharram, known as Aashura, marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 680 A.D. on the plains of Karbala, Iraq. Briefly, Imam Hussain, his immediate family and devoted companions, journeyed from Mecca towards Iraq, to make a final stand against the tyrannical and corrupt ruler of the Umayyad caliphate at the time, Yazid ibn Muawiyah. Totaling no more than 72 in number, Imam Hussain and his supporters faced an army of thousands. Languishing in the desert, the tale of Imam Hussain's resistance to the army of Yazid, self-sacrifice in the face of adversity, and unyielding perseverance against overwhelming numerical odds ending in his brutal slaying, has been an inspiration to all Shi'a Muslims throughout the ages (Shi'a Muslim, literally "the partisans of Ali," so named for their support of Imam Ali - the father of Imam Hussain and cousin to the Prophet Muhammad – to succeed the Prophet after his death).
This tragedy has been described by the Arab historian Al-Fakhri as follows:
"This is a catastrophe whereof I care not to speak at length, deeming it alike too grievous and too horrible. For verily, it was a catastrophe than that which naught more shameful has happened in Islam...There happened therein such a foul slaughter as to cause man's flesh to creep with horror. And again I have dispersed with my long description because of its notoriety, for it is the most lamented of catastrophes."
The Passion of Hussain would thus be an appropriate designation for this saga. Each year, the first ten days of Muharram culminating in Aashura, are traditionally marked by Muslims of the Shi’a branch with processions, gatherings for recitations of the tragedy, self-flagellation as an _expression of mourning in some countries, and passion plays re-enacting the event.
For the first time in nearly 25 years, Shi'a Muslim pilgrims from many different countries participated in the Aashura activities in Iraq previously banned under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Quite erroneously described by the media as a "celebration", "feast", or "festival," nearly 2 million of them converged on the holy city of Karbala where the shrine of Imam Hussain is located, rivaling the number who perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca (which carries the now apparently dated designation as the largest single gathering of humanity).
As befitting the tragic day, death and destruction occurred on Aashura this year, which fell on March 2nd of the Gregorian calendar, as suicide bombers struck mourners in Karbala, Baghdad, and Pakistan. Upwards of 180 were killed and 500 wounded in Iraq and 43 killed in Quetta, Pakistan. Other attacks were fortunately pre-empted in Najaf and Basra, Iraq during this same period.
Speculation abounded as to who was behind these assaults, with most accusations directed at Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda affiliated mastermind allegedly hiding Iraq, belonging to Ansar al-Islam, Ansar as-Sunna, or whichever group claims him. It is improbable the bombings in Pakistan were directly linked to those in Iraq, but still likewise carried out by Sunni/Wahabi extremists, who bear historical enmity toward Shi'a Muslims.
Knowing that the attacks were likely orchestrated by Wahabis under the umbrella organization of al-Qaeda seeking to foment sectarian divisions in Iraq (as the purported letter by Zarqawi details as a strategy), Iraqis instead rioted against American troops. They were furious at the lack of security provided, and in a broader context, the lack of control over Iraq's borders, which has allowed foreign operatives to continue to infiltrate the country and carry out such assaults.
The United States can thank, and not for the first time, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader for the vast majority of Iraq's 15 million Shi'a and a voice of moderation in an otherwise chaotic political climate, for immediately calling for calm and unity among all Iraqis.
Hence, there were no revenge killings, reprisals, or rampages directed at Iraq's minority Sunni Arab population. Should this have occurred, it would have made Iraq's current situation appear placid.
The United States should learn the lessons of Muharram, Aashura, and the bombings of March 2nd: The Iraqi Arab Shi'a community and Ayatollah Sistani should not be taken for granted in their temporary support of the Coalition's occupation of post-war Iraq, nor their demands for free elections. The patience this community has shown the United States, who has tried to curb their influence in the Iraqi political landscape for the unsubstantiated fear of the emergence of a theocratic state, is rapidly coming to an end. If the United States continues to test these limits, it will only play into the agendas of al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda, and all those amongst the Arabs who dread the rise of a democratic, Shi'a led state, and ultimately seek its collapse.
Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, the Sixth Shi'ite Imam, in a well-known hadith or tradition, said:
"Every day is Aashura, and every land is Karbala."
The United States would do well to study the narrative of Imam Hussain's struggle and eventual martyrdom in resisting imposed injustice, lest this hadith should change from that of a spiritual metaphor to one borne out in reality.
Rannie Amiri is an independent observer, commentator, and exponent of issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds. He welcomes your comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org