Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Using Ashoora as a bridge

Ashoora is a time of deep spiritual significance for Muslim, especially Shi’a, people. The purpose of this document is to help you meaningfully discuss Ashoora with your Shi’a friend, so you may both grow in appreciation of each other’s faith. The method is to outline some of the similarities between the Shi’a view of Ashoora and the Christian view of Easter.

Ask your Shi’a friend if you can go to an Ashoora event with him. It is quite a powerful experience and you will have much to discuss.


1) The circumstances of Ashoora
Ashoora commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 AH (AD 680). This day is of particular significance to Shi’a Muslims, who consider Husayn the third Imam and a rightful successor of Muhammad.
The details of Husayn’s life and the circumstances of his death can be found on the internet.
Each year in the month of Muharram Shi’a meet in special congregation halls known as “ma’tam” (مأتم) to hear stories of Husayn’s martyrdom and death. They express their sorrow by thumping their chests and crying. Some Shi’a also observe traditional flagellation ritual called ‘zanjeer zani’ or ‘zanjeer matam’, involving the use of a zanjeer (a chain with a set of curved knives at the end). This practice is officially discouraged.

2) Jesus and Husayn
Many Shi’a themselves see a parallel between the death of Husayn and the death of Jesus Christ. Sayyed Farqat Al Qizwini, Director of Religious Studies at Hilla University in Southern Iraq, says that “Imam Hussein sacrificed himself for human beings, justice, freedom, and peace on Earth -- just like Jesus Christ did for the same reasons.”

3) Preparation for martyrdom
Both Muslims and Christians believe that ancient prophecies predicted the deaths of their respective leaders:

a) Prophecies of Jesus’ death
“The Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” Revelation 13:8

“After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.” Daniel 9:24-26

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied ; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:9-12

"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” Zechariah 12:10

"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!" declares the LORD Almighty. "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” Zechariah 13:7
b) Prophecies of Husayn’s death
Islamic sources contain several prophecies of Husayn. Examples include:
Noah (PBOH)
It is told that when Noah was aboard his ark, he traveled all over the earth. When he passed over Karbala the ground shook, and Noah feared he would drown, so he called on to God: “God I passed all over the earth and I have not felt terror such as what I felt as when I passed over this land.” Gabriel descended (PBUH) and said “O Noah, at this place Al-Hussian (PBUH) will be slain, the Grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, the Seal of the Prophets and the son of the last of the guardians of the faith. Noah asked “Who is the killer O Gabriel?” Gabriel said “He is the damned of the seven skies and the seven earths.” Noah cursed him four times and his ship sailed peacefully until it reached Mount Djoudi with stable ground beneath him.

Jesus (PBUH)
It is told that Jesus (PBUH) was traveling in the deserts and among him were his companions. When they passed Karbala, they were faced with an enraged but silent lion which blocked their path. Jesus (PBUH) approached the lion and asked him: “Why have you sat in our path and not let us pass? “ The lion answered in a perfect speech, “I will not let you pass until you curse Yaziid, the killer of Al-Hussain (PBUH)” Jesus (PBUH) asked “Who is Al-Hussain? The lion said he is the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) the illiterate, and the son of Ali the guardian. “And who is his Killer? The lion answered. “He is the damned among the beasts and especially in the days of Ashoora” So Jesus (PBUH) raised his hands and cursed Yaziid and the companions pledged the same. The lion moved from his place and allowed them to go their way.

Muhammad himself also predicted the death of Husayn. According to one Shi’a scholar in Bahrain:

“The Prophet had so many prophecies that it fills books and it makes it difficult for me to choose from them, because of the sheer number. When the Prophet came to learn of the eventual fate and manner of the death of Al-Hussain he started to weep. He wept when Al-Hussain was still in his mother’s womb, he wept on the day he was born, and his tears were renewed on the first and second anniversary of his birth. Upon learning Al-Hussian’s tragic fate, the Prophet’s companions also wept. The Prophet also recited the date and manner in which Al-Hussain would be killed and martyred. Even the size of the army he would be facing was known to him and God’s displeasure at his killer. It is said that Gabriel entrusted a handful of soil on which Al-Hussain would be killed to the Prophet. He smelt the soil and said this soil smells of sadness, calamity and tragedy. He gave the soil to one of his wives and said when the soil turns into blood; you will know that my grandson has actually been martyred. The Prophet also recalled his grandson’s fate on a visit to the site of the grave of the much revered one to God. He also informed Al-Hussain’s father, Ali and brother, Al-Hassan on the details of his death.”
4) The manner of martyrdom – how did he die?

a) Jesus
i) Took our sin upon himself
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
Jesus actually ‘became sin.’ That implies he was not previously a sinner, i.e. he was morally perfect.

ii) Died under in shame under the curse of God
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews, 12:2

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Galatians 3:13
The quote within Galatians is from Deuteronomy, but also refers back to original curse in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:16-19

iii) Abandoned by all, including God
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 10:34
When Jesus ‘became sin for us’ the Father had no option but to leave him.

iv) Like a lamb to the slaughter
Jesus offered no resistance to those who sought to kill him.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:7

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. From Mark 14 & 15
b) Husayn
Husayn’s death was more violent and prolonged than Jesus’. Husayn struggled against his death. Though hopelessly outnumbered, his group fought to the bitter end. The confrontation with the army of Yaziid lasted several days, during which the party of Husayn were under seige. Husayn watched his own family weaken of hunger and thirst, then be killed. Husayn himself was one of the last to die. Husayn died along with his companions and family members. Only a few women were left alive by the army of Yaziid. After death Husayn’s body was dishonoured by those who killed him.

5) Theological significance of martyrdom – what did his death accomplish?
What does the martyrdom actually do? Why is it important to God?

a) Jesus
He was motivated by doing the Father’s will
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, O God.’ Hebrews 10:7
He died for his people
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:45
The Bible understands the death of Jesus as being ‘for our sins’
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5 (8th Century B.C.E.)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24
Jesus is also an example, but that is not his primary significance:
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:3
Jesus death fundamentally changed the relationship between God and humanity
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body… Hebrews 10:19-20
b) Husayn
When he set out for Kerbala Husayn left behind his will describing his purpose for the journey.
In the Name of God Most Compassionate and Most Merciful,

“I have not come out to stir emotions, to play with discontentment, to provoke dissension or to spread oppression. I wish to bring the ‘Umma [nation] back to the path of Amr-bil-Ma’arouf and Nahyi Unil Munker. I wish to bring them back to the path of my grandfather the Messenger of Allah and of my father Ali Ibn Abi Talib”.

“Whosoever accepts me by accepting justice must know God is the ultimate justice, and whosoever rejects me, I tell you wait until God judges me and the people with justice because he is the best judge.” And this is what I leave you my brother, Only God blesses me, with Him I place my trust and to Him I ally myself.”
Husayn saw his own purpose as reforming Islam.

To the Shi’a, Husayn’s death is primarily an example of devotion to righteousness. He is the greatest reformer the world has ever known. Without Husayn, Shi’a believe Islam would have fallen into the hands of corrupt individuals and would not have survived.
“Naturally the death of Al-Hussain affected many and their relationship with God. For anyone who desires and longs for justice, righteousness and the goodness of humanity, there is no doubt that they will be affected by the sacrifices of Imam Al-Hussain. We have recalled the death of Al-Hussain and his many sacrifices for the sake of God. We feel for the knowledge he carried and the sacrifices he made for the sake of this knowledge. These feeling are greater than self, and greater than life, and it is for this when we remember it strengthens our attachment to our faith and the faith of the greatest of martyrs desired. His death makes us realize that faith deserves sacrifice.”
Some Islamic scholars attribute a deeper salvific significance to Husayn’s martyrdom. Murtada Mutahhari, an influential Islamic cleric of the Iranian revolution, said in a 1969 speech, “Imam Husayn… has insured us against the consequences of sin in return for our tears. All that we have to do is to shed tears for him and in return he guarantees immunity to the sinners.” However this view appears to be in tension with the words of the Qur’an itself:
And no burdened soul can bear another's burden, and if one heavy laden crieth for (help with) his load, naught of it will be lifted even though he (unto whom he crieth) be of kin. Thou warnest only those who fear their Lord in secret, and have established worship. He who groweth (in goodness), groweth only for himself, (he cannot by his merit redeem others). Unto Allah is the journeying (Q 35:18).
6) Devotional significance of martyrdom – what does his death mean to us today?
What does the martyrdom of the person mean for the daily life of the believer?

a) Jesus
The martyrdom of Jesus makes possible a relationship with God

i) Old Testament
In the Old Testament ‘blood’ is a symbol of atonement
“Once a year Aaron shall make atonement … this annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering” Exodus 30:10 (From the writings of Moses, about 15th Century BC)
ii) New Testament
In the New Testament suffering is intrinsic to discipleship
Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
To serve Christ is to share in his sufferings
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Philippians 3:10
In one sense Christ still suffers because of the depth of his identification with believers who suffer:
“Now I (Paul) rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Colossians 1:24
As with Shi’a, Christians must discipline themselves:
“No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:27
However this self-discipline is generally interpreted as being moral than physical. Given that Paul was raised in an Orthodox Jewish tradition, it seems unlikely he practised self-flagellation like zanjeer.  

b) Husayn
Muslims have a variety of opinions about the death of Husayn. Husayn’s martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shi’a as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny, and oppression. A famous Shi’ite slogan says كل يوم عاشوراء,و كل أرض كربلاء (Every day is Ashoora and every place is Karbala). The injustice experienced at Karbala resonates with every instance of injustice and suffering in the world. The example of Husayn inspires all who suffer unjustly to stand up for what is right.

An excellent collection of contemporary quotes from UK Shi’a can be found here: http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/K/karbala/tod_meaning.html

Sunni Muslims have a variety of opinions about Husayn. Some are diametrically opposed to Shi’a beliefs: they believe Husayn to be the one who attempted to split Islam, and his killers to be the ones who preserved the true form of religion. Others are close to the Shi’a view: Husayn was a good man, and those who killed him were in the wrong. But however much the Sunni might appreciate Husayn, they fall far short of the Shi’a devotion to their leader.

7) Conclusion
Husayn & Jesus do have much in common. Both preached reform and righteousness. Both were well aware of their impending death. Both chose death rather than compromise.

There are also significant differences between Husayn & Jesus. Husayn fought against his death, Jesus did not. Shi’a believe Husayns’ death preserved the true Islamic faith and provided a powerful example. Christians believe Jesus’ death fundamentally changed the relationship between man and God.

Ashoora is a significant opportunity to discuss common themes such as: martyrdom, blood, betrayal, and sacrifice. We hope you will do so with your Shi’a friends.

Christians have many things to learn from the Shi’a about suffering and identification with the Lord. Ashoora challenges Christians to take up their cross and follow Christ. How many Western believers today could make the statements similar to Philippians 3:10 or Colossians 1:24? Ashoora confronts Christians with searching questions: Do we embrace the suffering of Christ? Do we welcome suffering for His sake? Would we be willing to choose death before compromise.

8) Some Ashoora vocabulary
Tatbir التطبير Hitting the forehead with the sword.
Zanjeer الزنجير Self flagellation to draw blood from the back.
Alam العلم Flag or standard carried during procession.
Kufan الكفن Shroud of Husayn
Maqtal المقتل Martyrdom

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