Muharram: Tapestries of Harmony

By Ali Khan Mahmudabad
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The first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, often brings with it headlines of Shi’a-Sunni tensions in some parts of the Muslim world. Sadly, this year was no exception and there was news from Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia amongst other places that Shi’i gatherings and processions had been attacked. Indeed, these attacks have become so routine that the interior minister of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, publicly thanked the Taliban for not attacking Shi’as this year! When talking of Sunni or Shi’i Islam, people automatically think of the Arab Middle East and Iran. The conflation of the politics and religion of these two groups has meant that any real discussion about religion necessarily becomes diluted because of political exigencies. This in turn forces people to see the ‘other’ as a religious threat whereas in actual fact the ‘threat’ has more to do with geopolitics. However, there are some places where these tensions are virtually non-existent.

On the 6th of December last year, which was the 10th of Moharram, I went to Paintepur, a small village in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A crowd of nearly twenty five thousand people, mostly Sunni but also Hindu, had gathered there to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain, his family and his companions by carrying taziyas, papier-mâché replicas of the shrine of Hussain in Karbala (Iraq).

The battle of Karbala in the 61st year of the Islamic calendar between Imam Hussain and the Ummayad ruler of the time Yazid was a pivotal point in Islamic history and continues to be one of the defining aspects of Muslim and of course Shi’i consciousness. Uniquely, many Sunni Muslims in India also commemorate the battle and many Hindus also participate in the annual Muharram processions. In some parts of Northern India, Hindu women keep a vigil on the 9th night of Muharram. They sing mournful dirges that often speak of Krishna and Hussain in the same breath and walk barefoot all night, visiting each house in which there is a taziya. They believe participating in Muharram will bless them with a child. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the overwhelming participants are from the Dalit community, who in traditional Hindu hierarchy form the ‘lowest’ caste.  Despite constitutional guarantees and the fact that there is a Dalit Chief Minister in power in Uttar Pradesh, the socio-economic conditions of Dalits have not changed substantially and therefore they are still victims of deep social prejudice. This harmony is perhaps a unique and underappreciated aspect of Islam in South Asia particularly because in many Arab countries Muharram is often associated with sectarian bloodbaths.

In Paintepur, the crowd had gathered in a vast open ground, which is locally known as “Karbala” because every year people bring their papier-mâché replicas of the tomb of Imam Hussain and bury them in this field. This year, according to the police, taziyas had come from 36 villages. The multi-coloured taziyas had been lined up in a row at one end of the field. On the other side was a derelict building from the 19th century that served as a space where sermons were recited or eulogies sung. The crowd was surging from one end to the other, all eager to get a glimpse of the taziyas. The construction of these replicas is an art in itself because the entire edifice is built by hand and is also then hand-painted. However, lack of any sustained patronage and the increasing prices of raw materials has meant that this particular skill is dying out. In the middle of the field, a group was reciting dirges and eulogies in memory of the Imam. I asked a particularly venerable looking gentleman about why so many Sunnis had gathered to commemorate Karbala. He peered at me inquisitively through his thick glasses as if I had just said something outlandish and proclaimed: ‘Shaheed-e insaaniyat’ (martyr for humanity) before walking off. I then talked to some of the younger men about whether there were any Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the area. One of them replied: ‘Well, there are some ‘outsiders’ (in Urdu he said ‘baahar kay lowg) who are spreading divisive propaganda here but look, we live in a small area, we are neighbors and we interact everyday day. This hate you will find more in the cities. Here one knows what the other does and what they believe.’

Then he smiled, leant over and mischievously continued, ‘even when I was young I was told not to eat food in Shi’a houses and people said that Shias believe in Ali and not the Prophet but then I made some Shi’a friends. You know, I think that if some of the mullahs (clerics) didn’t encourage these divisions then they themselves would be the objects of our scrutiny. Now who would want that?’ He elbowed me in the ribs as he said this last bit and disappeared into the crowd.  

Today there are groups in nearly all major religions that are insistent that their particular interpretation is the only path to ‘salvation.’ However, in today’s increasingly fragmented and often violent world it is our collective responsibility to care for, and preserve such spaces, which seamlessly unite people from different backgrounds and communities.

The author is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and his fields of interest are the Middle East and South Asia.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2012 on page no. 11

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