US researcher Eric W Hensel writes about his Ashura experience
By: Ali Al-Qadumi
MANAMA, Bahrain: I was walking with Youssef Gaigi, a
friend of mine, past a Pakistani area in Dubai in late February 2005.
I saw some guys hitting their chests and chanting and I wondered what
was going on. I entered the area, and asked the security guard what
was going on. He told me this was the holy month of Muharram, where
Shi'a Muslims commemorate the death of the Prophet's family. I took a
very well hidden video and left. We continued walking home and I heard
a speech coming from the Iranian school. I entered the area, the only
white person in sight, and stood in the middle of thousands of people
watching ha large screen. Youssef, a Sunni, stayed back with great
fear. I heard just enough (sorry, I don't speak Farsi) to note that
the lecture was partly on America and the influence in the Islamic
world. I went back home that night and started asking around about
Muharram until a friend of mine, Ali Shirazee, told me much more about
it. He also told me that in Karachi it is even more intense, something
that I had to see. With haste I booked my ticket and applied for my
visa. With great distress, I didn't get the visa and didn't go out to
see any more activities that year...In 2006 I was accepted to start
AIESEC in Bahrain, a majority Shi'a country, and one of the first
things I said was, "I am going to see Muharram the right way this
time." Here is my very brief account, all from memory, all from the
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar (in Islam they use
the lunar calendar, and thus it doesn't correlate directly with any
Gregorian month). Ashoora is the 10th of Muharram, a commemoration of
the day when Imam Hussein (s.a.) and his family (grandson of the
Prophet Muhammed) were slaughtered brutally by the army of the Caliph
at the time (Yazid) in the year 681 AD (I believe).
This year the first of Muharram fell fairly close to the first of
February. Muharram is known to be spectacular in many cities, some in
Syria, Lebanon, Karballa (Iraq), Iran (although it is quieter there
from what I can gather), Karachi (Pakistan, Ali?), and perhaps the
most well known and largest open gathering, in Bahrain :).
These past eleven days have been something incredible, regardless of
whether you can appreciate it as a religious mourning, historical
commemoration, or cultural spectacle.
From a religious standpoint, it is considered by many Muslims to be
the time when the great Imam Hussein (s.a.) with 60 of his followers
met the evil Caliph Yazid's army of (some say) 30,000+ in Karbala.
More importantly at this point in time, Islam had been lost by the
greed of tyrants and the present Caliphate was not what had been
intended by the holy Qu'ran. Hussein (s.a.) had the choice to stand up
against Yazid and die to bring renew the true teachings of the Prophet
Muhammed, or run away and live. Naturally, his choice was the
difficult one of death and for this he is considered by many to be a
most important Martyr, and the only one capable of sustaining the true
As a historical commemoration, the first twelve days of Muharram
depict a great struggle between two powers of nowhere near relative
equality. The powerful capital of Syria had been taken over in a sort
of Monarchy against the decree of the past Caliphs of Islam. The
throne, the wealth, the power and reign over the region had been taken
by Mouaouia instead of the Prophet's family. So a second capital city
of the region, and of Islam, was created in Kufa (Iraq) with the
Prophet's family regaining power and respect of the followers of
Islam. The two powers, the vast ancient state of Syria rich in
material possessions (including land, an army, millions of people,
etc.) and the newly founded Kufa with spiritual guidance were at odds
with each other. More correctly said, Syria saw Kufa as a natural
threat and enemy and made a quick strike to wipe out the city, the
followers, and of course all bloodlines of the Prophet Mohammed (s.a.).
Hussein was in Medina (Saudi Arabia) and got word of the coming
invasion, and thus made a long trek with his small group of followers
back to Kufa. In Karballa Yazid's army blocked his camp in and killed
each and every member, lead all his horses over the slain Hussein (s.a.),
beheaded them, and marched with their heads on spears back to Syria.
They were received with content by Yazid, to see his only major threat
in the world wiped out in one quick fight (the 10th of Muharram,
As a cultural spectacle Muharram focuses on religion and history to
tell the story, and to feel the suffering and pain of that fateful day
some 1400 years ago. As my only definite example, Bahrain is nothing
short of wonderful during these days. Every night for 10 days there
are events ranging from information and historical lectures (Matam),
to readings from the Qu'ran, to plays and parades on the streets, to a
ceremonial march where all men firmly place their right hand on their
chest in unison (called Aza, it is a way of feeling for Hussein when
his chest was trampled by the horses from Yazid's army).
The first few nights were rather small, and offered the perfect chance
to learn. I had the chance to meet Dr. Sheikh Ali Musbah Yazdi from
Iran (studied at the University of McGill in Montreal, has a very
great worldview reflecting mostly on society related to religion) and
ask many questions on Islam and Muharram. His lectures were in English
each night of the first ten days of Muharram; his flyer is the photo
below. The parades, Aza, and the Matams were much smaller, people were
out on the streets, but not in such large numbers (in other words, I
could still walk as I pleased).
Each night the events get progressively bigger and more intense, not
to mention thousands of more people from all over the world enter this
tiny island. Somewhere around the 7th of Muharram the nights turned
from interesting and informative, to completely packed (meaning you
can't walk hardly anywhere downtown, naturally right next to my flat
:)). The marches on the street (Aza) and the lectures (Matam) filled
the city with noise and life from around 6 pm until as late as 1 am.
The last few days things began to change. This is when you really
start to sense the progression from preparing for something to the
event itself. The night before Ashoora is when everything picks up.
Parades on the street depicting the historical and religious events
start everywhere (especially in the villages of Bahrain), Matams
become more and more intense with more people and some even have
actors representing Hussein's followers and Yazid's armies.
The Aza's sometimes get so large and intense that with the chest
thumping, at times you can't hear the singing of the leader. Most of
the Pakistani groups raise their hands far up into the sky and bring
it down as fast as they can bear directly to their red chest making
such vigor it sounds like hundreds of bass drums being hit at once.
Admittedly most of the groups are more respectful of their bodies :).
Some of the Persian groups have precession that line multiple streets,
with thousands of people (and hundreds of children) all with a handful
sized small gauge chain they lightly tap to their chest, then back
Another very interesting aza I saw was of all the Bahraini Sheikhs. I
can only assume the knowledgeable leaders of Islam are the ones, if
any, who are commemorating the death of Hussein in the most
appropriate way. They had a very gentle, old man singing, "Aiwa
Husseina, Aiwa Husseina, Aiwa Husseina," while all Sheikhs gently,
noiselessly, touched their chest. The year before this procession
didn't happen due to a bomb threat. Needless to say I enjoyed this one
the most, but was very nervous of my surroundings :).
Of note, there was no violence, nor did I ever feel any threats of
danger during the entire week. I went out wearing all black (as
everyone does, imagine being in a funeral with hundreds of thousands,
perhaps millions of people that last for 10 days). I didn't take
advantage of the free food and drink. I asked questions and met
Bahraini's and Persians to show me around and guide me. I listened to
the Matams both in English and in Arabic, and most commonly the only
white person, or non Arab in the Matam or area. I even felt the pain
the crowd felt, and came very close at times to crying with them. Had
I understood Arabic (and thus the content), or was someone who was
actually capable or crying in public, I would have lost it without a
Political protests followed the Bahraini way, make your point, but no
violence. There were mentions during the Matams about America, the
invasion of western values, even about the terrible cartoons of the
Prophet Muhammed, but never was there anything more than just words.
There were US and Israeli flags painted on the ground so that people
can walk over them and over time the paint comes off. I am certain
this was the first time there were also Danish flags. Everywhere I
went, of course, I introduced myself as American, and never did I have
a bad reception. Often people were so glad to see someone not
listening to the Media and government and learning about Muharram
instead of being scared that they showed me around and nearly
force-fed me food and drink.
On Ashoora, just after noon (the time when Hussein (s.a.) was slain
and the armies left for Syria), I visited the village of Sanaabis.
There I saw Matam bin Khamis (http://www.binkhamis.org, they have live
and recorded videos, photos, information, etc., but only in Arabic so
far :(, http://www.binkhamis.org/live-video.php for the live video).
It was the most emotional lecture I heard this year, I don't think
there was a dry eye other than mine, and I guarantee that if someone
splashed water on my face you would swear I was crying too. Next there
was parade on the street of all the corpses, and Yazid's army with
dozens of heads on their spears. Again, people all around me were
swelling at the eyes.
Needless to say I had an amazing experience. For what I might have
lacked in spiritual connection, I made up with informational
gathering. I have made lists and lists of questions, met with Dr.
Sheikh Yazdi in person, made contacts in all sorts of societies, had
private tours of the Matams, and have at least 3 months worth of
readings to go over on Islam and Muharram. A few nights ago someone
asked me, "So Eric, what do you do?" Since my work in AIESEC is so
difficult to explain, I got smart and said, "I enjoy every minute of
life and take advantage of every experience I can, always learning as
much as possible." With no regrets, with no judgment or bias, I feel
very good about my life right now. My experience in Muharram and
openness to learn is yet another reason why in life you have to see
everything and not listen to forecasts and people's assumptions
(especially not those who are just sharing what they have heard from
others). Thanks for reading :).
Posted by Eric W Hensel @ 2/10/2006 03:59:00 PM
Courtesy: binkhamis hussainiyah, Bahrain
better than wealth because it protects you while you have to
guard wealth. it decreases if you keep on spending it but the
more you make use of knowledge ,the more it increases . what you
get through wealth disappears as soon as wealth disappears but
what you achieve through knowledge will remain even after you."MORE