WARRIORS + POETS

Category: Prose

my life will only rise as high as the people i choose to live it with.

i must not choose to spend my days, wandering valleys.

i must choose mountains.
i must choose air.

i must choose the taste of flight.

reminder to self: seek the company of friends who help you manifest your most authentic self. as for the rest, wish them well on their journeys as you part ways – your heart lightened by letting go with grace and with love.

karbala, of the Divine

gentle reminders to myself before anyone else this Muharram:

One:

the message of Imam Hussain (a) is the message of Allah (swt). the stand he took, the sacrifice he and his companions made – was all for Allah. he was able to enact the revolution that he did, to live for what he did, to die for what he did – because of his unwavering faith in Allah. without a doubt, he is a hero by all universal standards, but he is first, and foremost, the Imam chosen by God, and a servant of God. when conveying the message of Imam Hussain, we would do well to be cautious of the trend to narrate a secular story of Karbala…for a Karbala without the Divine, is not Karbala at all.

as one of my respected teachers once told me:

“if in any of the stories [of Karbala] it would be easy to switch out the character that has been presented with someone who was, say loyal, or against oppression, or wanting to defend his family, but not a Muslim who is among the highest ranks of believers, then the story needs to be looked at again…the entire sacrifice of Imam Hussain, his family, and his companions was an act of servitude to Allah, and done as obedience to His command (ubudiyyah). the shuhadaa of Karbala were able to actualize such high morals because of their utter servitude to Allah. they were, or became, mirrors of the perfection of Allah. they were examples of devout Shi’a who understood what it means to accept the wilayah of the Imam of their time, and because of their taqwa were given the insight to make the right choices, even if they went against the majority and their own personal interests.

one of the corruptions of the events of Karbala that has been taking place in recent years is to turn Imam Hussain into a humanitarian who had a secular struggle for the sake of humanity, as opposed to portraying him as the Imam of the time and a devout servant to Allah. part of this has taken place out of a desire to make Imam Hussain appealing to non-Muslims. but this is out of ignorance, because non-Muslims don’t need another secular humanitarian figure. if they understood the real Imam Hussain, his Rabb, and his religion, they would surely love him and want to take him as an Imam.”

Two:

any alteration in the facts, or distortion in the retelling of the story, whether out of creative fervor or the desire to make an audience weep, shows a lack in our understanding of the true message of Imam Hussain. without the utmost precision and most accurate research of which we are capable, we do not do Karbala a service, but a disservice.

in a series of lectures on Ashura, Misrepresentations and Distortions (Part 1, Part 2) Ayatullah Mutahhari says:

“What does tahrif mean? The Arabic word tahrif is derived from harrafa meaning, to slant, incline, alter, distort, misconstrue which means to make something depart from its original or proper course and position.

“[…] There are personalities whose words and deeds represent a sacred authority for the people and whose character and conduct is a model for mankind. For instance, if someone were to ascribe to Imam ‘Ali a statement that he did not make or something that he had not meant to say, that is very dangerous. The same is true if a characteristic or trait is ascribed to the Prophet or one of the Imams when in fact they had some other qualities, or when tahrif occurs in a great historic event which serves as a moral and religious authority and as a momentous document from the viewpoint of society’s norms and is a criterion in matters of morality and education. It is a matter of incalculable importance and entails a crucial danger when tahrif – whether in respect of words or meaning – occurs in subjects which are not of the ordinary kind.

“[…] the misrepresentations that have been carried out by us have all been in the direction of degrading and distorting the event and making it ineffective and inert in our lives. […Hajji Mirza Husayn Nuri writes]: ‘Today too we must mourn Husayn, but there are tragedies which have befallen Husayn in our era which did not occur in the past, and they are all these falsehoods that are said regarding the event of Karbala’ and which no one opposes! One must shed tears for the sufferings of Husayn ibn ‘Ali, not for the sake of the swords and spears that struck his noble body on that day, but on account of these falsehoods.’

“[…] The people should get this expectation out of their heads and refrain from encouraging the kind of fictitious narratives which kill the soul of Karbala but work up the mourners into a frenzy. The people should hear the true narrative so that their understanding and level of thinking is elevated.

[…] What is more painful is that, incidentally, there are few events in history that are as rich as the event of Karbala’ from the viewpoint of reliable sources. […] the developments relating to Karbala’ are quite clear and all of them are throughout a matter of great honor and pride. But we have disfigured this shining historic event to such an extent and have committed such a monstrous treachery towards Imam Husayn that if he were to come and see, he would say, ‘You have changed the entire face of the event. I am not the Imam Husayn that you have sketched out in your own imagination. The Qasim ibn Hassan that you have painted in your fancy is not my nephew. The ‘Ali Akbar that you have faked in your imagination is not my aware and intelligent son. The companions that you have carved out are not my companions.”

“[…] Imam Husayn had certain goals and motives for staging his uprising and we have ascribed to him some other motives and goals. […] We have divested this event of its ideological character. When it is shorn of its ideological character, it is no more capable of being followed, and when it cannot be followed, one cannot make any use of Imam Husayn’s teachings and draw any lesson from the event of Karbala’. […] Could there be a worse kind of treachery?

“[…] The Imams have exhorted us to keep alive the tradition of mourning over Husayn ibn Ali because his goal was a sacred goal. Husayn ibn ‘Ali established a school, and they wanted his school to remain alive and flourish. You will not find a practical school of thought in the whole world that may be likened to that of Husayn ibn ‘Ali. […] If you can find another example of that which was manifested in Husayn ibn ‘Ali during the event of ‘Ashura’, in those ordeals and taxing conditions, of the meaning of tawhid, of faith, of the knowledge of God, of perfection, convinced faith in the other world, of resignation and submission, of fortitude and manliness, of self-contentment, of steadiness and steadfastness, of honor and dignity, of the love and quest for freedom, of concern for mankind, of the passion to serve humanity – if you can find a single example in the whole world, then you may question the need to refresh his memory every year. But he is unique and without a parallel.

“Keeping alive the memory of his name and his movement is for the purpose that our spirits may be illuminated by the light of the spirit of Husayn ibn ‘Ali. If a tear that we shed for him should signify a harmony between our souls and his spirit, it represents a brief flight that our spirit makes along with Husayn’s spirit. Should it create within us a little glow of his valor, a particle of his free nature, a particle of his faith, a particle of his piety, and a small spark of his tawhid, such a tear has an infinite value.

“They have said that it has the worth of an entire world even if it is so small as the ‘wing of a gnat.’ Believe it! But that is not a tear shed for a pointless death, but a tear for the greatness of Husayn and his great spirit, a tear that signifies harmony with Husayn ibn ‘Ali and of movement in his steps.

“[…] If a man has faith in God, in tawhid, if he has a link with God and faith in the other world, single-handedly he can inflict a moral defeat on a host of twenty and thirty thousand. Is this not a lesson for us? Where can you find another example of it? Who else can you find in the whole world who could utter two sentences of that sermon in conditions in which Husayn ibn ‘All spoke, or, for that matter, two sentences like the sermon of Zaynab (‘a) at the city gates of Kufa? If our Imams have told us to revive this mourning every year and to keep it alive forever, it is for the purpose that we may understand these points, that we may realize the greatness of Husayn – so that if we shed tears for him it is out of understanding.

“[…] the danger of tahrif is extraordinarily great. Tahrif is an indirect blow which is more effective than a direct one. If a book is corrupted (whether in respect of its wording, or its meaning and content) and it is a book of guidance, it is transformed into a book that is misleading.

“[…] the common people have two weak points in relation to the mourning ceremonies held for Imam Husayn. One of them is that […] usually those who arrange and organize the mourning gatherings […] want the majalis to draw good attendance. […] This is a weak point. These sessions are not held to draw crowds. Our purpose is not to hold a parade or a march past. The purpose is to become acquainted with the truth and to fight against distortions.

“[…] Another weak point present in the mourning gatherings […] is that profuse and loud weeping is regarded as the criterion of their success. […] I do not say that the majlis should not be rocked with mourning; what I say is that this must not be the objective. If tears are shed as a result of listening to facts and the majlis is rocked with mourning by descriptions of real history without false and fabricated narratives, without distortion, without conjuring companions for Imam Husayn that did not exist in history and who are unknown to Imam Husayn himself (as they were nonexistent), without attributing such children to Imam Husayn as did not exist, without carving out enemies for Imam Husayn that basically had not existed – that is very good indeed. But when reality and truth are absent, should we go on making war against Imam Husayn by fabricating falsehoods and lies?

“[…] We beseech God, the Blessed and the Exalted, to lead our hearts towards the truth, to forgive us the sins which we have committed through tahrif and otherwise, to grant us the ability to carry out successfully the duty and mission that we have in this field.”

***

“Among the books featuring the details of the Ashura saga (maqtal), the Maqtal of Abu Mikhnaf is noteworthy. This maqtal is the source for many of the recitals and eulogies (that we see). Abu Mikhnaf was a student of Imam Sadiq (a). In Tarikh Tabari [1], the section for the history of Karbala is from this maqtal. As maqtal [pl. Maqaatil] go, Nafas Al-Mahmum of Shaykh Abbas Qummi is also a good book.

To learn about the states of Imam Husayn’s (a) companions, Iisaar Al-‘Ayn Fi Ahwal Ansaar Al-Husayn (A) authored by Shaykh Muhammad Samaawi is a good book. He was a thorough researcher and very accurate.

Similarly, the book Fidaa-Kaari Haftad Wa Do Tan Wa Yek Tan (The Sacrifice of Seventy-Two Persons and One Person’) or Unsuri Shujaa’at (The Element of Courageousness) written by the late Haaj Mirza Khalili Kumrahai is a good book.

The maqtal Lahuf or Malhuf [2] is also a good book. However, Haaji Nuri [3] did not accept all of it, and was of the belief that Sayyid b. Taawus wrote this maqtal while he was young and not as scholarly refined. Aqaa Ustadi [4], in his critique on [the book] Shahid Javidan (The Eternal Martyr)[5], whilst addressing a point, defends the maqtal of Sayyid b. Taawus. He writes that Sayyid himself, in (his) book Iqbaal (Al-A’maal), which is among his latter and important works, speaks highly of Malhuf and verifies its contents.”

—Ayatullah Sayyid Musa Shubayri Zanjani, translated by Hadi Rizvi

[1] An important work on Islamic History.
[2] Both referring to the same book. The exact original title is unclear.
[3] Mirza Husayn Nuri, famously known as Mirza Nuri. The author of Mustadrak Al-Wasaa’il and other important and notable works.
[4] A researcher and teacher in the Islamic seminary of Qum, holding various religious, institutional and governmental roles (presently or in the past).
[5] A book on the topic of Imam Husayn and his movement which sparked controversy in Iran and drew much criticism from the scholarly circles.

tell me,

tell me, o heart: in distance – can you ever be at ease again?
tell me, o soul, can anything else ever taste as sweet again?

tell me, o wings of destiny,
when will i smell the fragrance of heaven again?

when will i see my Hussain again?

letters to our daughters

10:01 PM. New York City | Stand clear of the closing doors please. With a leap, I slip through the subway car doors just before they close, grabbing on to the nearest pole for balance. Probably not the smartest idea, but then again, as a student with exams on my mind, the unforgiving bite of the subway doors is the least of my concerns. I fumble with my bags, pulling out my flashcards to study, the endless barrage of information quickly becoming a blur before my eyes. As I go through them, I glance up and catch a man staring in my direction. At my gaze, he looks away, but as I return to my flashcards, I watch as he continues to stare in my peripheral vision.

On the subway, strange glances and occasional stares tend to be a usual occurrence. What with the horrors taking place in the world (every night, it seems, another headline), villains masquerading as ‘Muslims’ (a statement which couldn’t be further from the truth), climates of fear fueled by media furnaces churning out specifically constructed hateful rhetoric…as a Muslim woman who observes Hijaab, such moments have, unfortunately, come to be expected. Such stares are neither justified nor warranted, but they happen…and quite frankly, after years of being on the receiving end, the only thing they really are is getting old.

When I was younger, the reactions of others to my presence used to preoccupy me. I had only been wearing Hijaab for a year when 9/11 happened, and, at a young age, it was difficult for me to understand what it was that made people sneer or mumble under their breath as I walked by. As I got older and the stares become more pronounced, not having the naivety of childhood to protect me, I would be lying if I said they didn’t affect me in some way. There were moments when I stood, staring at my reflection in the mirror, wondering if it would just be easier to let go of it all – if it would be easier dress the way my friends dressed, do my hair the way they did, walk down the street or stroll around the mall without catching a double-take;

…if it would be easier to be like everyone else.

***

It was in the same years when I struggled with observing Hijaab due to the opinions of non-Muslims that I also began to struggle due to the opinions of some Muslims as well. During those teenage years when all is thrown to the wayside beyond one’s physical appearance, it was difficult to navigate the ropes of what I knew Islam taught versus what I would hear some Muslims say. Already grappling with how I was perceived by others at school, I hoped to find refuge within my own community, but unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.

Instead of watching many elders teach us girls to do and be better than what society expected of us, I watched as they, too, minimized us into the smallness of our physical appearances. At everywhere from weddings to community events, by explicit word or implicit action, we would hear – I’m looking for a girl for my son, but he wants someone who is fairer; Haven’t seen you in a while! Have you put on weight?; You know, you should wear a bit more makeup if you want boys to notice you; Don’t you think you’re taking the whole Hijaab thing a bit to the extreme?

I distinctly remember the first time I was faced with such statements – and it was like a blow to the stomach.

Comments from people unfamiliar with Islam I could handle. Their statements either stemmed from ignorance or pre-planned agendas, and either could be easily dismantled by the proper use of knowledge and intellect. But comments from Muslims themselves? People I had grown up with? Who sat next to me in the Masjid? How could I answer them? How could I dismantle this?

I did not know then, and I pray that Allah guides us all to learn how to address this exceptionally important issue now. But as a young girl, I remember biting my tongue, fighting waves of frustration, tears choking at my throat – thinking one thing: I feel so lost. Sayyida Fatima, I wish you were here.

***

Many years later, I would like to hope that Sayyida Fatima heard my cry, because now, all praise belongs to Allah, my Hijaab is still with me. And not just as a cloth or an obligation to be upheld, but as the dearest piece of my identity; the very life force that breathes within me. Getting here has, by no means, been an easy road, and I am still far from my destination; I am still far from understanding its true worth and perfecting it in the manner of Sayyida Fatima and her daughters.

But now, learning how to carry this flag is no longer a struggle; it is the greatest honor.

Despite this fact, I still wish that when I had been struggling, when I had been looking into bloodshot eyes reflected back at me in the still hours of night questioning this integral aspect of my identity…I wish someone had told me what I wish to share with my sisters now.

I wish someone had said: my daughter, there is a great secret to your inner dimension. Seek it. Do not fall prey to ideas of what this world wants you to become. Look to your role models – to women like Sayyida Fatima – to know who you were created to be.

My daughter, do not define yourself by your level of external desirability. Do not consent to this public consumption of your soul. The journey of being a woman in this society – Muslim or otherwise – is one that requires extreme perseverance. And the obstacles designed against you have been structured specifically so that you are kept from discovering the divine destiny you have been created for. Do not let them keep you from discovering yourself.

My daughter, do not abandon the revolution that is stirring in your soul – the one that this society will attempt to quiet by degrading you into nothing more than an object to be whistled at by passersby. By taking you, beautiful from the moment you are born, and spending every moment afterward trying to strip you of your beauty. Telling you: your words are not enough, your mind is not enough; that to be given an ounce of respect, to be allowed to carry the mantle of “liberation,” you must consent to being dissected by the scalpel of corporate desire. Forcing you to seek their approval on how to dress or talk or laugh; trying to meet their impossible demands to be all at once the nerdy girl sporty girl curvy girl skinny girl funny girl cool girl beauty-queen-girl-next-door girl – the everything girl as long as its anything but your true self. Do not accept this grave injustice to your soul.

My daughter, after bearing so many years of misogyny, do not do what the system would wish you to do and internalize the inferiority that has been forced upon you. Do not let it be that now, instead of others oppressing you, you learn to do it yourself – cutting other women down, so that even you – as a woman – take doing things ‘like a girl’ as an insult.

My daughter, do not accept the oppression of culture and tradition that says women are inferior to men – but at the same time, do not run into the arms of a more modern oppression that wants you to compete with men either. Your standard has never been men, but always your own soul – because Allah (swt) has never defined your value in relation to a man, but only in relation to Himself.

My daughter, the greatest woman that ever lived showed us that we must resist when our societies try to bury us alive. She showed us that a daughter is not a burden, but the greatest honor. A wife is not a servant, but a partner to spiritual ascension. A mother is not separate from society, but the very shaper of society. And this womb, this vehicle of creation, is not a hindrance to a woman’s potential, but the very source of her power – so that when a woman’s hand reaches out to rock the cradle of her child, she is in essence rocking the very cradle of humanity.

My daughter, there is so much to being a woman. This journey requires an immense amount of struggle, but if you allow it to, it can become a thing of beauty. Whatever stage you are on, keep with it; no one is perfect at first. Begin where you are comfortable and work your way from there. If you stumble or fall or get lost on the way, know that God’s forgiveness is greater than we can imagine – He forgives, so do not bind yourself to your mistakes. Learn to forgive yourself. Keep moving forward. It does not matter whether you run, walk, or crawl – all that matters is that you keep moving.

My daughter, allow your strength to stem from your modesty, both in dress and demeanor. But remember, this strength will not be strength if you use it to push others to the ground. The worst thing you can do for your soul is use your modesty as a means of looking down upon others. If you have embraced the physical covering, do not push away those who are not there yet. Do not walk the earth with an arrogant heart. Do not judge the modesty that you can see on another woman, because the modesty that is less visible – the one of her words, actions, thoughts – may far exceed yours. The woman who today does not observe Hijaab completely may one day observe it more deeply than you. But even if she never does, that does not give you the right to consider yourself better than her. Each woman is on her own spiritual journey – and your place is not to judge or outcast, but to uplift and help your fellow sister.

My daughter, this cloth is more than a covering – it is, in its essence, a stronghold. Protect yourself and others through its understanding. When the stares of strangers and the comments of friends become too much to bear, call on your Leader, Sayyida Fatima, and take strength from her name. Do not let them make you believe that if you walk in her light, you will be less beautiful. Do not let them prevent you from entering – or scare you into abandoning – this fortress.

Raise your voice with her strength and declare:

“The demand of society from a woman, the demand of a woman from herself, and the demand of a man from a woman all revolve around physical beauty. But the real beauty lies in the moment the society, man, and woman herself should demand from woman the beauty of the soul and the spirit and human qualities and talents…Islam does not demand beauty from a woman. It does not ask for an illusive appearance. In society, it does not demand physical, sensual, feminine features. No! No! Rather…Islam demands from you your existential value, and not sensual value…”

Because in the early days of your wearing this Hijaab –

“You may have accepted it without being aware of the responsibility of wearing this vitalizing dress, without having endeavored to realize the aims and message of this dress, without ever having tried to refine and reform yourself in order to deserve this dress, this attire. In all such circumstances, your Hijaab can never be Islam personified…It shall never be a revolutionary stronghold…except when you should have learnt Islam as a deen (a system of life), a comprehensive ideology, recognized it as such, and linked it truly and boldly with all your existence, your being, your life, your traits of character, your aims and objects, as well as your ambitions.”

But now that you are beginning to understand:

“Rise and revolt…with the help of your Hijaab, the depth of which you have now fully realized, which has bestowed upon you the infinite capacity of being human.”

Rise and declare:

“…I am free. I am released…With my Hijaab, with the heavy social responsibility of the commands to do what is good and forbid what is wrong…I enter the stage of society and conquer all its planes…The type of woman who you had yourself forged, had yourself trained, had yourself taught ideals – the way of talking, laughing, wishing, longing…you have now lost such a woman, such a stronghold…this stronghold shall never fall into your hands.”

Beauty of Concealment and Concealment of Beauty

***

To my dear sisters who are struggling. To those constantly being made to feel like they don’t belong. To those living under the constant threat of harm because of the religion they most publicly represent. To those standing, like the young girl I once knew many years ago, looking into the mirror, wondering if it would be easier to let it all go and be like everyone else…

Yes. It would be easier – to look like, speak like, talk like, everyone else.

For a while.

But believe me when I say that though it might seem easy at first, the most difficult thing in the world is spending the years to come watching your identity be chipped into pieces; standing there as you are sculpted and moulded by the hands of others, losing the very core of your self – and looking the other way.

It might seem difficult now. In fact, it most definitely is. But you are not alone. Your fellow travelers on this journey stand behind you; Allah (swt) is close by your side.

And if you want to know if it gets better? If it gets easier learning how to live life as your authentic and truest self?

It does. And it will.

“Verily, with every hardship, there is relief.” (94:6)

Relief will come. But in the meantime, we must master this hardship, reminding ourselves and the generations of our daughters –

You are beautiful because you were made beautiful. Not because another person says, ‘You are beautiful.’ You have the universe inside you, so a) do not wait for another to look into your eyes and tell you they see cosmos dancing there for you to believe it, or b) allow another to say that they see nothing there so much that you stop believing as well.

Do not insult your existence by seeking its validation from others. Your worth is not scribbled in pencil, a second-hand appraisal of an outer form. It is written in gold by the First Hand who sang the love song of your inner existence.

Your life is one—count it: one. Do not allow another to live two lives by means of subjugating yours. Your mind is your homeland. Do not allow it to be colonized into thinking that beautiful is ‘everyone else’s beautiful’ and not your own beautiful.

You—your journey—has never been about them: what they think of how you dress/talk/sit/stand/walk/laugh. Your journey has always been, and will forever be, only about you.

You are a bird that was created to sing in the freedom of the skies; not to trill in the cage of the opinions of others. The majority of birds sit with wings clipped—and, missing the taste of flight, would do anything to keep you, too, on the ground.

But you have wings, my daughter.

You have wings . . . fly.

beloved of Ali

when i stood near the grave of Imam ‘Ali,
i felt something in the atmosphere change—
not when i cried, “Haydar,”
but when i whispered:

“Zahra…”

هُمْ فَاطِمَةُ وَ أَبُوهَا وَ بَعْلُهَا وَ بَنُوهَا
“they [those who are under the cloak during the revelation of 33:33]
are Fatima
her father, her husband, and her sons.”

kindred spirits

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it is a warm summer’s night in qom.

i sit on the floor in masjid-e-jamkaran and look up at the ceiling, admiring the beauty of the architecture, the interlacing weaving of the arabic calligraphy – composed with such precision, but in its composition, somehow still as wild and free-flowing as foam rising on waves of eastern seas.

i follow the meditated pattern of their sweeping lines, marveling at their intricacy – musing on the intricacy of the path of my life that has been unfolding: a thousand hidden alleys, a thousand secret moments, a thousand twists of twine, a maze interwoven with the stars – all, to bring me… here.

i think about how, in the span of a few weeks, the course of my entire life has been changed. the sights i have seen, the knowledge i have faced, the people – the guides, the mentors, the strangers, the friends – i have come across. as each of their faces comes to mind, i send towards heaven a prayer; pausing as i come to one, the keeper of my heart’s most weary secrets, the conversation, from the depths of nights to the mist of cloudy dawns.

this friend in particular, who isn’t here, but has gone to the harram of Sayyida Masooma (sa) to bid her final farewell – her flight leaves tonight, departing this once-strange-land, now-called-home to return to a now-strange land, once-called-home. not knowing when she’ll be back and wishing we had more time to spend together, i pray for her happiness, and suddenly, feel someone sit down beside me.

“Aqeela.”

without even turning, i recognize her voice. and it is all i can do not to laugh.

“…Khadija.”

and as we sit side by side in silence i begin to smile – wondering at the seeming coincidences in life that have never really been coincidences at all, but all part of His greater, beautiful plan. and with an exhale and a heart strengthened by the shoulder that now rests next to mine, i whisper into warm summer winds: thank you Allah, thank you, thank you for the kindred spirits of friends…

“the steps of Imam Hussain (a)”

it is the day of Ashura.

after performing morning amaal with the Muharram in Manhattan community at NYU, i board a bus to New Jersey – to Bait-Wali-ul-Asr: the Islamic center of my childhood and the community closest to my heart, with whom over two decades of my Ashuras have been spent.

as i journey, i go through old text messages with my sisters, pausing as i come across one in particular: “the Karbala exhibition is amazing. you need to see it Appa.”

throughout the first nine days of Muharram, i have heard much about the towering replica of Baynol Harramain (“Between the Two Harrams”) being constructed on the grassy lawn beneath the branches of the center’s aged trees. i have been messaged pictures of the historically accurate miniature depiction of the tents as they stood in Karbala over a thousand years ago. i have been told about the heartbreakingly beautiful reconstruction of the burnt tent of the Ahlulbayt – the replica standing, a weeping shadow, in the far corner of the exhibit.

for many days, i have heard much about this unique experience put together by a tireless, dedicated, and sincere team of volunteers and creative thinkers – but it was not until i actually stood before it that i truly understood its magnitude.

it was not until i had not just heard of it, but had seen it with my own eyes, that i felt the ground give way beneath my feet.

***

shortly after arriving at Bait-Wali-ul-Asr, i am taken outside by one of the main artists behind the project. as i follow her towards the reconstruction of Baynol Harramain, my heart – sensing something my body is not yet able to grasp – begins to beat rapidly. and when we finally stop, i realize why.

staring up at the giant reconstructions of the fronts of the holy harrams (sanctuaries/graves/burial places) of the sons of Imam Ali – Hadhrat Abbas on one side, and Imam Hussain on the other… all breath leaves me.

i look at her, finding myself at a loss for words. tears fill my eyes. chills shoot up my spine. my hands begin to shake.

the sun is hot on my face in New Jersey, but i am standing in Baynol Harramain.

with trembling hands, i remove my shoes and step onto the plastic mat that lays between the two towering walls – and when i close my eyes, i am no longer on the lawn of a center in a small town in America, but am standing on hot marble, oceans away – breathing in the scent of Karbala.

as is custom for many who visit Karbala, i turn first toward the replica of the harram of Hadhrat Abbas – the flagbearer, the lion, the warrior, the prince; Saqqa, the carrier of the water. in the center of the wall, beneath an arch and a banner emblazoned with, “Ya Abal Fadhlil Abbas,” is a magnificent, enlarged poster of the dharih (encasing) that surrounds his grave.

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i watch as a young child steps before me, climbing towards the photograph – gently, tenderly touching the image of the dharih and leaning forward to kiss it.

and in that moment, the photograph is not a photograph anymore. it is reality.

the dharih seems to enlarge from where it sits, dignified, silent in the picture – until it unfolds itself in all its magnificence before my eyes. as i reach my hand out into the empty wind, i can feel against my fingertips the coolness of its touch… and suddenly, my knees give way.

as i kneel on the floor, my heart begins to bleed inside my chest, and i am no longer in front of a picture, but journeying with the spirit’s wings to the grave of Abu Fadhil himself. if i listen closely, i can hear the chants called out beneath his dome, ya Abbas, ya Abbas! and if i close my eyes, i can smell his fragrance.

as i sit, the afternoon slips away. the time of the murder of Imam Hussain replays itself, over and over and over inside my head. my heart screams, oh lion who sleeps by the riverbank, awake from your slumber! ya Saqqa! oh my beloved, my Abbas! where are you, my warrior? do you not hear the wails of your sister Zaynab? will you not come to her aid as she screams? today, they are cutting the neck, they are wounding with spears, they are murdering your brother Hussain…

***

what seems like centuries pass in silence on the lawn. i let the grief wrack my body until it feels like at any moment, my soul might leave this world.

i let the waves of Ashura consume me.

for a long time, i remain where i am, because i know where it is i must journey to next – and i don’t know if my heart can handle it. i know that when i stand and turn across the walkway, i will see…

oh, my Mawla, Hussain.

as those who have been blessed to perform ziyara in Karbala know – (may those who have visited be invited to return soon, and may those who have not yet gone be called to this blessing in the nearest future, inshaAllah) – Baynol Harramain stretches as a long walkway of white marble between the graves of Hadhrat Abbas and Imam Hussain. after you convey your salaams at the grave of Hadhrat Abbas, asking his permission to meet his brother, your footsteps on this walkway towards Aba Abdillah begin.

footsteps: both exultant and heartbroken, excited and hesitant; the urge to run, the need to move slowly, absorbing every moment – one foot in front of the other in front of the other, until you finally stand face to face with the grave, the presence of the soul, the discerned figure standing before you,

the scent of heaven, beneath the dome of Imam Hussain.

similar to the replica of the harram of Hadhrat Abbas, the replica of Imam Hussain’s stands tall, majestic, noble. between beautifully constructed arches lies an even more beautiful poster, the dharih of Aba Abdillah al-Hussain.

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as i move slowly towards it, my soul is shorn to pieces. ya Hussain! i do not know whether i should rejoice at this opportunity to somehow feel like i am next to your grave again, or whether i should fall to the ground in agonizing pain, keeled over, gasping for breath, crying out to the skies – not yet, please! please, it is still too soon! still too soon to embrace your broken body. please, not yet, don’t leave me…

as i look up from where i sit, it as if the dharih moves close towards me. as i grasp onto its metal and kiss the encasing of his grave, i see before my eyes this heartbreaking apparition:

10th Muharram. the final moments. Imam Hussain bids farewell to his sister. hugs for the last time his daughter. mounts his horse to ride away from the tents, never again to return. 

the battle. the most glorious lion, charging into a battlefield of sheep. he moves left, the enemy scatters right; he moves right, the enemy scatters left. hundreds fall at the strike of his sword. the enemy panics. more archers are signaled forward. more swordsmen are prepared. arrows are released, darkening the skies like angry clouds, a savage storm falls upon my Imam…

wounds upon wounds kiss his skin. his blood falls in streams. a wailing arises from the depths of the desert sands. wolves begin to circle, teeth bared, snarling grins splayed across their faces. a lance is thrust forward, and al-Hussain falls towards the ground…

the tears choke in grief! the eyes shed blood! the heart’s sinews rupture and the arms clutch the chest in tatters. ya Allah! let the wailers wail! let the screamers scream! let no tear be left unshed as before history’s eyes a sword strikes and the earth quakes; as severed is the head, as is lifted high on a spear, as is covered in blood the beautiful face of Sayyid ush-Shuhada…

***

the evening begins to dim over the lawn. dusk begins to settle.

the battle is over. the dust of karbala is still. bodies lay unburied upon the ground. rivers of blood seep into the sands. the clamor that once filled the air is gone.

all that remains is silence.

the day of Ashura has come to an end, but the night of grief, Shaam-e-Gharibaan, is just beginning.

gone is Hadhrat Abbas. gone is Imam Hussain. but Imam al-Sajjad and Sayyida Zaynab remain.

the whispering entrance of a white tent beckons, and as you enter, the hollow stillness of the night pierces you. in the darkness, there is a red glow from lights and candles. inescapable, surrounding you – the atmosphere of grief. the scent of ash and flame.

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in the corner of the exhibition stands a lonely tent, burnt holes all along its sides. as you enter, you see the musalla of the ailing son of Imam Hussain, the sign of Allah on the earth, Imam Zaynul Abideen. the soul catches in pain at the sight of his green imamah… for just a few inches away lie metal chains, and when you see them, you cannot shake from your mind the image of the family of the Prophet being dragged as prisoners through the streets of Damascus.

just a few paces away lies the cradle of Ali Asghar, the infant son of Imam Hussain, murdered that morning. his haunting ghost rises before you: the sight of his small hands, his innocent tongue running over the parched brokenness of his lips…

as you feel the weight of Ashura’s aftermath settle heavy in your chest, you leave the tent, steadying yourself to stand – but your eyes catch on a movie projection depicting the final moments of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom – and as you watch him, a silhouette of arrows falling to the ground, you fall to your knees as well.

the scene replays before your eyes and you struggle for breath between your tears. a small crowd of the lovers of Imam Hussain enters the tent, candles flickering in their hands. they surround the miniature replica of the Battle of Karbala where small figurines are arranged as they must have stood on that day – the enemy camps, the tens of thousands of Yazeed’s soldiers, the blocked river Euphrates; the surrounded, glowing tents of Imam Hussain…

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a devotee amongst them begins to recite the mournful melody of lamentation poetry in Urdu, and another takes a candle and begins to set the tents of Aba Abdillah on fire. as they begin to burn and the ash begins to rise, the children sitting nearby cry out, “my eyes are burning from the smoke!”

and with these words, none who stand witness can contain their weeping. for this child, pain rising from the heat of a single candle’s flame… but what of your children, O Hussain? at this very moment, what ash must be leaping from your tents? what flames striking from those torches? what heat burning from that blaze? what heartwrenching screams of your children? from your young daughter, wa Hussaina! Oh Baba, where are you! please, save me…

***

the last time i felt like my heart could no longer be contained inside my chest, like it would explode, like it would shatter from such intense and unbearable longing, i was standing in front of Imam Hussain in Karbala.

i send infinite duaas to those who have so artfully recreated even an ounce of that feeling of ziyara, that connection to the Ahlulbayt, from thousands of miles away. through this beautiful exhibit: The Steps of Imam Hussain, so many have been allowed to have their hearts, rendered so tender by the grief of Imam Hussain, be broken utterly and completely. in a single moment, they have felt themselves not just speaking to Imam Hussain from afar, but standing before him – walking by his side, living in a new light the day of Ashura, seeing with a new sight the night of the aftermath, coming together to mourn the greatest tragedy in history – when Imam Hussain, the divine representative of God and the reflection of His attributes on earth, sacrificed everything – everything – in the way of Allah, without a moment’s hesitation.

if you have not yet had a chance to visit this exhibition, please make the effort to go. it will be open for two more nights this year before closing (inshaAllah to return next year and for many years to come). bring your friends, your families, your children – and allow yourself to be immersed in this transformative experience.

allow yourself to feel the arms of Imam Hussain reaching through the tapestries of time to embrace you.

let yourself feel his grief anew, and in feeling it so viscerally, allow yourself carry it with you as the torch to light the way even when caught in the depths of darkness.

break your heart open, and through this brokenness, make your spirit unbreakable. for a few hours, walk in The Steps of Imam Hussain; and for the remainder of your lifetime, carry the beauty of those steps with you.

may every volunteer and visitor who has participated in this project be granted the intercession of Aba Abdillah on that final day. may we remember him, pledge our allegiance to him, and pledge allegiance to his descendant, the Imam of our own time. may we live a life with soft hearts but strong convictions, being blessed enough to choose the Ahlulbayt in every moment of this life – inshaAllah becoming worthy of their embrace when we finally meet them in the next.

from every mountain top

“He (Imam Hussain) sees those who come to his shrine and he knows them by their names, their father’s names and their ranks in the eyes of Allah, the Glorious, better than you know your own children.”

-Imam Sadiq (a)-

to think – of my name, on your tongue…when the sins that weigh on my back, the shadows that whisper in my heart make me unworthy of even speaking yours. of ever claiming you as mine.

but to think, when i whispered, ‘my mawla Hussain, i am here,‘ standing next to your body… to think, that you responded to me? knowing every curve of every letter of my name?

my heart stops.

it still baffles my mind that to this lost traveler, so far gone from the path, wandering in a thickening fog, you still extended your hand. you still invited to stand by your side.

how can i ever thank you for saving me? how can i ever thank my Lord for attaching my heart to you – allowing me to attach myself to Him through you?

Mawla, i am so unworthy of loving you…
but you, are so worthy of being loved.

ya Allah,

allow me to be consumed by the love of your truest servants,
utterly and completely.
so that nothing remains of me myself and i,
and all that remains is You, Your pleasure, and Your beloveds.

make no speech of mine speech, nor action of mine action,
unless it is climbing, from every mountain top to sing,

‘i am in love with the one You loved and the one who loved You –
i am in love with the one named Hussain…’

never leave me, Abal Fazl

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the grave of Hazrat Abbas at sunrise. july 14 2015.

– يا ابوالفضل

thank you, for believing in me. for allowing me to be near you. for lifting me when i did not deserve it. for seeing the best in me when i could not see it in myself…

like the shadow by my side, like the whisper in my ear, like the secret shade from the sun – please, by the sake of your Lord and mine, never leave me on my own again.

| writings. baynol haramain. karbala, iraq.

.

سَلاَمُ اللَّهِ وَ سَلاَمُ مَلاَئِكَتِهِ الْمُقَرَّبِينَ
وَ أَنْبِيَائِهِ الْمُرْسَلِينَ وَ عِبَادِهِ الصَّالِحِينَ
وَ جَمِيعِ الشُّهَدَاءِ وَ الصِّدِّيقِينَ
وَ الزَّاكِيَاتُ الطَّيِّبَاتُ فِيمَا تَغْتَدِي
وَ تَرُوحُ عَلَيْكَ يَا ابْنَ أَمِيرِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

your love, from the streets, openly

for Shi’as in too many parts of the world, any type of public gathering is a risk. whether in mourning or in happiness, the constant threat of murder is employed in an effort to silence the remembrance of Prophet Muhammad and his family.

in an effort to erase the most beautiful piece of human history.

tactics of terror are put in place in the hopes that those who know and love these individuals will not only shy away from spreading stories of their message or speaking about their legacy… but will also hesitate, even when naming their children – knowing that a name that would reveal the depth of their love and affinity for the Prophet’s family might one day result in the stopping of a bus, a random ID check, and – for the namesakes of the Ahlulbayt – death before a firing squad.

manipulation and fear are utilized in the desperate hope that others might be kept from learning about the true representatives of the Divine on earth, mirrors of the Source of all perfection, figures who remind humanity of its unfathomable, yet strategically kept dormant, potential.

men and women: so kind, so gentle, so gracious in their regard for the sick, the needy, the widows, the orphans – and so bold, so daring, so courageous in their stands taken against tyrants and oppressors; so firm in their faith in One God and so unshakeable in their convictions in His message… that Muslim or not, religious or not, none who truly came to know them could help but to wonder at them.

such that in their lifetimes and after their deaths, there did not exist a single friend who did not love them, nor a single enemy who did not, at the very least, respect them.

how hard have the gravediggers of history toiled for these names to be forgotten? how long have the artisans of this grand façade plotted their schemes so the masses might remain distracted? might be kept from realizing exactly what greatness they have the capacity to be?

but as the centuries stand witness: has it ever been that torture, imprisonment, poison, beheadings, bombings, the very cutting of the tongues – was ever enough to prevent these lovers from continuing to sing out their praise?

has it ever been that killing us was ever enough?

has it ever been, that filling the streets with our blood was ever enough?

for from the lapping rivers of red,
did they not continue to hear,
crying out this refrain:

none but Muhammad, none but Ali,
none but Fatima, Hassan, Hussain…

oh my beloved,
beloved,
ahlulbayt

cowards,
would have us 
only admit to
your love
secretly—

warriors,
we will
shout it
from the streets
openly.