Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ashura Recalls Injustice, Sacrifice
The explosions that ripped through the crowds commemorating the Shia religious festival of Ashura disrupted an event that is historically replete with memories of injustice, persecution, and martyrdom.
The hundreds of thousands of Shia marching in the streets of the holy city of Karbala, and near the shrine of al-Kadhamiya in Baghdad, were marking the anniversary of the death in 61 AH (680 AD) of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Pilgrims from Iran, India, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere joined Iraqi Shia to perform rituals that had been banned by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein since the 1970s.
Thousands of men in white smocks, their faces covered in blood, marched through the streets performing the tatbir.
Men slashed their scalps with swords in commemoration of the suffering and death of Hussein and his 72 companions at the hands of an army loyal to the Umayyad caliph Yazid.
"Hussein, Hussein," chanted marchers.
One spectator, moved to tears by the display, like many others in the crowd, said, "I looked at them and thought - all these people, wanting to help Hussein. I wished I could cross back in time to bring him victory."
For days before, hundreds of thousands of the faithful had converged on the holy city.
Some on foot waved banners and pounded their chests in grief, while others rode in minibuses blaring the latmiya, the chanted epic narrative of Hussein's rebellion and death.
According to the latmiya and other narratives, Hussein set out from Madinah with a small group of his companions and family at the invitation of Iraqis who were chafing under the tyranny of Yazid's regime.
When he arrived in Iraq, however, Hussein found that those who invited him did not come to defend him for fear of the Umayyads.
Though vastly outnumbered and cut off from the nearest source of water, the river Euphrates, Hussein rejected demands for surrender, "I will not give myself to you in docility, and I will not be subjugated to you as a slave."
The walls of Karbala's shrines are decorated with images of the battle that ensued.
They show Hussein's half-brother Abbas, who cut through the Umayyad ranks to the river, but refused to drink realising that his companions were still thirsty.
The walls also depict Hussein's infant son, pierced in the neck by an arrow, in his father's arms.
They also show Hussein's head, stuck on a pike by the victorious Umayyad army.
In addition to the tatbir, Shia commemorate the martyrdom by pounding their chests in public, reciting the latmiya, and performing episodes from the battle.
The tawareej - a 40 kilometre marathon normally held several days after the Ashura - commemorates the failed but valiant attempts of people from surrounding towns to rush to Hussein's aid.
Others show their devotion by attending to the needs of the pilgrims, erecting tents along the road to Karbala or by providing free food, water, and tea to the crowds.
But Hussein's is not the only suffering to be commemorated at Ashura.
This year, groups of the faithful carried small floats made of flowers and lamps on a metal frame - a posthumous wedding procession for Imam Qasim, who was murdered before he had a chance to marry.
It was the first time in decades that these rituals could be performed in public.
Under Saddam's regime, the tatbir and other manifestations of grief were banned, and Iraqis could only perform them in the privacy of their homes.
The Shia frequently apply the narrative of the past to more recent troubles, using the tragedy of Karbala and Hussein's betrayal to illustrate the need for Muslims to stand united against oppression, and to choose their leaders carefully.
A group of men from the radical Shia movement, the Army of the Mahdi, strongly opposed to both Saddam and the occupation, could be seen outside the city chanting, "The oppressors tore apart your land, my people. The envious ones sewed discord among you But do not charge in to the sound of drums Or you will be pushed to the wayside - Iraq, Iraq."
Abdul Amir Aljubury holds a doctorate in Islamic history from the Arab Institute of History in Baghdad. He is a former staff colonel in the Iraqi army, and an IWPR trainee.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.