At present, the largest annual gathering together of people occurs in the city of Karbala, Iraq, for a festival known as Abra’een, which is a pilgrimage festival commemorating the death of Hussein in Ali after the battle of Karbala, after a ten or forty-day (sources differ) period of mourning that resembles Lent or the mourning for Tammuz that took place in ancient Babylon. The battle of Karbala, and its complicated aftermath, are what led to the division of Islam into the Shi’ites and the Sunni, and marked the end of the golden age of Islam where the early rulers, called the “rightly guided Caliphs” ruled a rapidly growing and tolerant state. According to estimates , close to 20 million Shi’ites make the dangerous journey into Iraq, where there are waystations for pilgrims along the road to provide free lodging, food, and medical services. The festival itself is marked by communal eating and volunteer service. While this sort of festival and its rituals may be unfamiliar to many, my own particular religious background makes it somewhat easier to understand this gathering as a festival not dissimilar in some respects to the Feast of Tabernacles, with the same focus on eating, community, and service, despite the many differences.
The Battle of Karbala itself helps give a clue as to the social and political implications of this particular gathering, which has come under threats from Sunni extremists, like the Islamic Caliphate (known popularly as ISIS), and paradoxically as a result of this threat has drawn ever more Shi’ites to brave the danger and demonstrate their religious identity and resulting political loyalties. In 680 AD, the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya I died. Rather than appointing as his successor one of the godly leaders of the Islamic community, he turned what had been an elective caliphate into a dynasty by choosing his son Yazid I as his successor. Many historians, in light of Yazid’s decadent and immoral conduct and the violence and strife that came over the Islamic world as a result of his brutality against his enemies, which included the brutal sack of the cities of Mecca and Medina during his short reign of three years before being killed by a runaway horse and ending up with an unmarked and unlamented grave, have little nice to say about the second Umayyad caliph. The battle itself came about because Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of Mohammed, was promised support by the people of Kufa, and had gone out to meet them with a party of about 100 people. Instead of supporting him, though, the people of that city joined forces with the army of Yazid I, which numbered in the thousands or ten thousands, depending on the estimate. The resulting battle, despite ferocious bravery on the part of Hussein and his fellow soldiers, was more like a massacre, and Hussein and his mixed party of soldiers and civilians mostly ended up being beheaded on the battlefield. Stronger in death than in life, though, Hussein’s cause was supported by others and became a permanent source of grievance within the community of Islam, leading to its divide into two hostile sects.
What are the politics of gathering together? In the United States, we are used to freedom of assembly as one of the foundational aspects of our civil rights recognized by the Bill of Rights, where it included alongside other fundamental inalienable rights like the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of petition. At various points in American history the large assembly of people in key places, like our nation’s capital, has been undertaken for purposes of political pressure to demonstrate the unpopularity of some aspect of government behavior or to signal the existence of an important group of people whose issues have not been heard. It is little wonder, in light of this context, that the large gathering of Shi’ites together was forbidden during the reign of Saddam Hussein, as the majority Arab Shia population was particularly oppressed during this regime. It is also little wonder, in light of this context, that the immense gathering of Shi’ites in a place where they can network and develop supranational ties based on their shared religious beliefs would be threatening to a regime that is supported by their longtime enemies among the radical Sunni whose cruelty is similar to that of Yazid I from all those years ago. Sometimes the past continues to live on and serve as a template for contemporary behavior.
This appears to be the case with the festival of Arba’deen. The willingness of Shi’ites to court martyrdom in the knowledge that it brings moral revulsion and desires for retributive justice against tyrants and oppressors is a disruptive force in politics, and the fact that Shi’ite populations around the world have a protector and patron in the form of Iran also turns even an ostensibly peaceful religious assembly into one with heavy risk. Regardless of how one feels about the unsettling and ecstatic form of worship conducted by the Shi’ites, which include self-flagellation, the fact that the yearly pilgrimage feast to a site of betrayal and massacre and injustice remains a place of contention along the border between Sunni and Shi’ite dominance means this festival will be a continued source of and response to tension. What can or should be done about it? To continually meditate on past wrongs in light of present tensions and conflict is unwise, but a tendency many of us, myself included, understand all too well. So long as one is not a tyrant or oppressive, and so long as the people gathering are not doing so out of hostility and aggression, it appears safer to watch from a distance, and to gather what insight can be gleaned from seeing how assembling together to worship appears from the outside, so that we are better able to present our own gathering and assembling to others in turn.
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