In the Footsteps of the Martyrs

A religious procession expresses more than historical frustrations.

Last spring, just weeks after coalition forces had secured Baghdad, the American public was horrified to see hundreds of thousands of liberated Iraqi Shiah marching through the streets of Karbala, drenched in blood, beating their breasts with their fists and whipping their backs with chains. This was the first time in decades that Iraq’s Shiite community had been allowed to celebrate the central ritual of their faith: the commemoration of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom at the hands of the tyrannical Sunni Caliph, Yazid I, in the seventh century. With the first anniversary of Iraqi liberation fast approaching, the stage is being set for another such celebration—one that is likely to reveal more about internal attitudes toward the American occupation than bombings and polls have hitherto told us.

In A.D. 680, a small band of Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn marched from the Arabian Peninsula to the city of Kufa in Iraq to raise an army against the Umayyad Caliphs, whom he believed had stripped his family of their rightful place as Islam’s spiritual and temporal leaders. The Umayyads had transformed the Muslim community established by Muhammad in Medina into a powerful, rapidly expanding Arab kingdom based in Damascus. Although Husayn recognized the sheer futility of trying to raise an army of Iraqi malcontents against the powerful caliph, he nonetheless felt it was his moral duty to rise up against tyranny and injustice even if it meant sacrificing his life. So, he rounded up his family and a small band of loyalists—totaling 70 or so followers—and marched confidently to Kufa. But the party never made it.

On the dry, flat plain of Karbala, in southern Iraq, Yazid’s massive army intercepted and brutally massacred Husayn and his entire entourage, including nearly every member of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. This momentous event not only cemented the Arab kingdom of the Umayyads, which would dominate the Middle East for another century, it also turned what had hitherto been a purely political movement with the aim of restoring the caliphate to Muhammad’s family into a wholly new religious sect. Shiism is founded on the ideal of the righteous martyr who, following in the footsteps of Husayn, sacrifices himself freely in the struggle for justice against tyranny.

For nearly 1,500 years, the Shiah have commemorated Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala by performing a series of elaborate mourning rituals that take place during a 10-day festival called Ashura, in the Islamic month of Muharram. During this time, celebrants remember the events of Karbala through public readings, tableaux vivants, passion plays that painstakingly re-enact Husayn’s martyrdom, and, most dramatically, funerary processions in which participants of all ages slash their foreheads with swords, beat their breasts in penance, and flagellate themselves with chains and whips until the streets are stained with their blood.

Until last year, Saddam Hussein had banned all Ashura celebrations in Iraq. Considering the fact that he was a Sunni despot ruthlessly oppressing a Shiite majority, this was probably a wise decision. For Saddam understood what the shocked American audience could not: This is more than a religious ritual.

Like the Christian passion plays performed during Easter ceremonies in many parts of Latin America, the Ashura festivities are meant to be metahistorical rites, meaning they stand outside of real time and allow participants to connect themselves physically and emotionally to Husayn through ritual acts of devotion. These rites signify a moral choice; they serve as a continuing self-assessment of the Shiite commitment to goodness and justice over evil and tyranny. As far as the Shiah are concerned, Husayn’s death was not just an act of martyrdom, it was a turning point in the history of humanity. Hence, the maxim heard on the lips of Ashura celebrants as they march through the streets: “Karbala is everywhere; Karbala is everything.”

Because of their metahistorical nature, the Ashura festivities have been continually reshaped and reinterpreted according to time and place so that historical characters and events merge freely with contemporary ones. For example, in 19th-century Iran, actors portraying Yazid’s reviled army in the annual passion plays wore either Russian or British military uniforms, depending on which colonial forces were in charge at the time. In the 1970s, Yazid’s forces became associated with the Iranian monarch’s dreaded “secret police force,” Savak, and the actors symbolizing the holy family of Husayn were culled from the young, democratic factions who were pushing for revolution. After Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in 1979, Yazid’s evil army was suddenly transformed into the American military. Then, just a few years later, at the height of the eight-year war with Iraq, Yazid became Saddam Hussein, and the caliph’s army, the secular Baathists. Interestingly, in present-day Iran, the backlash against the country’s religious authorities has, at least among college students, turned the annual passion plays from a religious ritual to a secular outlet for creativity and imagination, something Iran’s youth have little opportunity to express otherwise.

In Lebanon, where the Shiite community, led by Hezbollah, has been locked in a permanent state of conflict with Israel, it is not unusual to see young men dressed as suicide bombers walking with the penitents during the funerary processions of Ashura. In fact, Hezbollah, which invented the practice of suicide bombing, refers to its operatives as shaheed (literally, martyrs), specifically to connect them with the memory of Karbala. And in Iraq, Karbala became the battleground between the Shiah who, encouraged by the first President Bush, rose up against Saddam after the first Gulf War only to be massacred by Saddam’s army.

The symbolism of that massacre at the hands of the Sunni despot was not lost on Iraq’s Shiite community. So, last year, when Iraq’s Shiah once again flooded onto the arid plain of Karbala to observe Ashura, they held aloft pictures of their murdered or missing religious leaders and shouted angry slogans against the brutal dictator who, like the Caliph Yazid, was an icon of tyranny and oppression. During those ceremonies, no one mentioned the United States. At that time, most Shiah still viewed American and coalition forces as liberators, not occupiers. But that was last year.

The month of Muharram is fast approaching; the festivities are set to begin at the end of February and culminate with Ashura on March 2, 2004. With Iraq’s Shiite leaders increasingly flexing their political muscles, and debates continuing throughout the country over the organization of the new government and the nature of the new constitution, people are beginning to worry about how the changing sentiments of the Shiah will effect the American occupation. They will have to wait only about two more weeks to find out. For if the processions marching though the streets of Karbala, saturated in the blood of the martyrs, begin to merge their chants against the evil tyrant Yazid with the distant American president George W. Bush, then it will signal a far deeper, and perhaps irresolvable, animosity than the American public and its government have been aware of so far.