|Is it a city? No, its Najaf's cemetery Wadi as Salaam wherein 5 million bodies are buried.|
In January 2004, a year into the US invasion of Iraq, I visited Najaf and Karbala. It coincided with the Hijri month of Dhul Qa’dah 1424. We stayed at the White Palace hotel in Baghdad, its most luminously white or palace-like feature the foyer chandeliers through thick cigarette plumes. Over breakfast we discussed the large rats in the cupboards and how they darted across the carpets, the military jets overhead, and the fallen monument to Saddam we’d seen the day earlier. Our guileless breakfast banter was punctuated by the arrival and departure of silent, severe looking, chador-clad women. They wordlessly partook of the black tea, cheese and apples and were off. “Ziyareh” – “the visit” or “homage” I was to learn later that day and up to now, is a form of rotational knowledge. I make my own ziyareh to the memory of it, unpack and revisit angles, compare it to (non Arab) Shia Iran, and world current affairs regularly. As 10 Muharram 1436 H or Aashura approaches, Karbala and Najaf, the sites where Imam Ali, his son Hussain and brother Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them all) are allegedly buried, receive more media attention than usual.
Karbala is located about 100 km southwest of Baghdad. It houses the grave of Husayn ibn Ali (ra) the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) and the Abbas shrine, the burial place of the son of Ali (ra), and half-brother of Hussain (ra).
Najaf is about 160 km south of Baghdad. The walk to Najaf from Karbala is about 80km’s, often walked as a pilgrimage, a Camino de Santiago ala Safavid. The tomb of Ali (ra) is said to have been discovered at Najaf around 750 AD by a Dawood Bin Ali Al-Abbas. A shrine was built over the tomb by Azod Eddowleh in 977, but later burned down. It was rebuilt by the Seljuk Malek Shah in 1086, and rebuilt yet again by Ismail Shah, the Safavid, in the 1500’s.
At the time, I remember being more incensed with the USAID oil gallons littering the soil north of the Imam Ali Mosque than perturbed by self-flagellation, the procedural sarcophagus’ to the tomb and fire walking. There, outside Wadi as-Salam ("Wadi of Peace") a fascinatingly huge cemetery, the US rape of Iraq had already sprouted roots in the soil. The charity oil gallons were a further twisting of the knife. They were still to get to Fallujah in April and in November to use phosphor and depleted uranium ammunition.
Today’s blogpost addresses one method of moulding women and female behaviour via the symbolism of Karbala.
Shia sacred narratives assign prominent roles to two female figures, Fatima Zahra (daughter of Muhammad (sa) wife of Ali and mother of Hasan and Husayn (ra)) and Zaynab (ra) the daughter of Ali and Fatima (ra) who was present at Karbala. She was led with other women and children as a prisoner to Damascus where she reportedly confronted Yazid:
"O Yazid, You can never reach the level of our lofty position, nor can you destroy our remembrances, nor can you wipe out the ignominy you have earned for yourself by your abominable and vile performance. Your decisions are poor and your days are numbered. Your party will disperse the day when the Announcer will announce - Allah's curse be on tyrants and transgressors." Bibi Zainab binte Ali
"O you the son of freed slaves! Is this your justice that the ladies of your house remain veiled and we the Prophet's daughters should be paraded from place to place?" Bibi Zainab binte Ali
"O Yazid! Your misdeed has proved your rebellion against Allah. This action of yours comes as no surprise from a person whose ancestors chewed the liver of such saintly martyrs. The descendants of such enemies of Allah should naturally be the most deadly!" Bibi Zainab binte Ali
"O Yazid! You did what you wished, but remember that you have cut your own skin. In the near future you will be taken in the presence of the Holy Prophet. On that occasion you will be burdened with the sins of the misdeed committed by you shedding the blood of his progeny and dishonouring the sanctity of his family." Bibi Zainab binte Ali
"O Yazid! Practice any trick you can and do anything that you think would vanish Islam, but you should know that you cannot eradicate our message, path and memory. You should know that our memory will never die." Bibi Zainab binte Ali
As noted above by Shia texts, Zaynab bint Ali (ra) is a deemed a revolutionary figure for pious Shia women. She’s considered brave and outspoken. She is believed to be The Foundation of Mourning (Majales A'azaa) as she kept the sacrifices of Imam Hussein alive. Shia tell stories that after every Majlis, women would offer their condolences to Zainab (ra) and the men to Imam Zain-ul-Abedeen, making a stir in the cities - the sound of crying and beating of chests and heads affected the minds of the inhabitants, and making them sadder and wiser to the events of Karbala.
Interestingly enough, Ibn Kathir (ra) narrates the words of Hussain (ra) which concur with the teachings of the last Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saw) -
“Shortly before his demise, Hussain (ra) had advised his beloved sister Sayyidah Zainab (ra) not to mourn over his death in this manner.
He said, "My dear sister, I swear upon you that you, in case I die, shall not tear your clothes, nor scratch your face, nor curse anyone for me or pray for your death". (Al-Kamil, ibn Kathir vol. 4 pg. 24)” [Taken from Muharram - By Mufti Taqi Usmani (db).
A few years ago I came across a marriage book in a “Sunni” store replete with says of Imam Ali (ra). Among them:
Asbagh bin Nubatah quotes Imam 'Ali as follows: "Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; then He gave nine parts to women and one to men. And if the Almighty God had not given the women equal parts of shyness, then each man would have nine women related to him." (Wasa'il, vol. 14, p.40) -- In other words, Allah has given the women greater part of sexual desire but He has also neutralised it by giving equal parts of shyness to them.
The following ties with further discussion points on the moulding of women in Shia texts and to juxtapose with questions of the “progressive Shia” and the “ backward Sunni” discourses that are de rigueur in Islamic study circles especially when it comes to the rights and emancipation of women. Further, I’d like to hear more from those who believe Khomeini kept the reforms of Pehlavi’s White Revolution which granted female suffrage, increased literacy, reduced and willfully amended Shia jurisprudence to fit them, and thereby greatly affected the outlook and influence of Shia women in Western societies.