Every Land is Karbala-Ashura in Toronto
By Sadia Uddin
For the past few years, the arrival of the Islamic month of Muharram has coincided with the beginning of Fall in Toronto. As the chilly weather sets in, I begin to embrace the shorter days that are accompanied by gloomy skies and barren trees. For some, Fall may be associated with a sense of transformation and loss but for me, the crisp autumn season represents a special air of warmth, love and belonging. I am a mourner of Hussain ibn e Ali (626-680 AD) and Muharram in Toronto marks a renewal of spirituality and faith because it is associated with Hussain and the martyrs of the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
Every Muharram, mourners like myself commemorate Ashura, the tenth day on which Hussain, the grandson of Islam’s Holy Prophet Muhammad, was martyred on the plains of Karbala along with his companions and family members. During the ten evenings leading up to Ashura, I attend majalis or congregational sermons at the Jaffari Community Centre (JCC) in Thornhill. Each evening after sunset, I pass through the Bab e Zahra (Zahra’s Gate) to enter into the women’s section of the Imam Bargah (mosque). Once inside, I join a swarm of attendees unified in memorializing the Battle of Karbala and, ultimately, the sacrifice and martyrdom of Hussain. As the Maulana (religious leader) takes to the pulpit, a collective salutation is offered to Prophet Muhammad and his progeny. The Maulana then begins narrating how Yazid, the ruler of the Umayyad caliphate, initiated the Battle following Hussain’s refusal to pledge allegiance to his despotic rule. Similar majalis are simultaneously taking place in Imam Bargahs all over the GTA. While Shi’a mourners from Thornhill, Mississauga and East York are currently separated by space, they are united in their love for Hussain, which will manifest in the coming days through a collective Ashura juloos (procession) in the heart of Downtown Toronto.
Muharram majalis encourage introspection by referencing everyday contemporary issues so that attendees may benefit from the moral lessons of Karbala. When attending these majalis, I envision myself in Hussain’s place on the hot plains of Karbala and relive those moments when his faith was repeatedly tested. I imagine myself being vastly outnumbered with merely 72 companions against hundreds of thousands of Umayyad forces and my own troubles seem miniscule. Hearing narrations of Hussain’s plight of losing companions and family members to thirst and brute force, I wonder whether I could emulate Hussain who did not yield to tyrannical forces despite suffering personal loss. Upon returning home from each majlis, I feel a sense of spiritual enrichment. My gratitude towards Hussain and the heroic figures of Karbala motivates me to write elegiac poetry to honour them and preserve the lessons they imparted in my own words. It also strengthens my resolve to attend Ashura juloos.
Prior to Hussain’s martyrdom on Ashura he called out, “Hal min nasir yansurna” (Is there anyone to help me?). This was Hussain’s invitation to the Umayyad forces to give up falsehood and join him in condemning Yazid. Instead, Hussain’s unanswered call led to his beheading and also contributed to the women and children from his household being captured, chained and paraded through the streets of Kufa. As apathetic bystanders failed to confront the atrocity, Hussain’s surviving family members were presented before Yazid’s court in Damascus and were eventually imprisoned. While Hussain may have been isolated in Karbala, today in Toronto, hundreds including myself will chant ‘Labbaik Ya Hussain’ (I am here, O Hussain) to announce our presence and by affirming that Hussain’s call has not been unheeded by Toronto’s Shi’ite community.
In the backdrop of Queen’s Park and surrounding landmarks, the streets of Toronto begin to resemble the streets of Kufa; but unlike the streets of Kufa, Toronto’s streets will honour Hussain, his family and companions. Toronto will reverberate with the chants of mourners who recognize the injustice that took place against Hussain’s household and they will echo Hussain’s message of justice far and wide.
Where the women and children of the Prophet’s household were once paraded mercilessly, hundreds of azadaars now stand guard. As we walk alongside tall red, black and gold-trimmed banners bearing Hussain’s name, we announce our allegiance to Hussain so that the world and all of humanity knows that injustice and oppression of any kind will not take place under our watch. Hussain lives on and standing under the shadow of Hussain’s presence, we will unwaveringly continue being on the right side of history to protect humanity. For as long as Muharram arrives each year, this pledge will continue to be renewed through the heartwarming synchrony of mourners, and Hussain will not be left barren like the trees in Fall.