Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Distinctly Caribbean Shiite festival:Dynamic Process of Global Exchange

The following essay brilliantly depicts the organic process of religious practices that adapt to foreign assimilation efforts that stave off cultural amnesia. During 1845-1917 several thousand East Indians immigrated to British colonies in the Caribbean. A practice of taziyahs, was brought over and evolved to contemporary times that reflects a Carribean flabor. Taziyahs, that is, miniature replicas of Imams shrines that are paraded in religious processions during the festival are termed Hosay. The author Asad Rizvi provides an overview of this fascinating example of an interracial and interreligious practice that every religious comunity takes place in.

Hosay: Caribbean Cultural Expression of a Shi’ite Heritage

By Asad Rizvi

Shi’ite Islam, like many religions, has taken on distinctly indigenous forms in the different lands that it has spread. The practices of “popular Shiism” are where the differences are most pronounced. These popular practices are often the most important agents in spreading a religion in lands where it is foreign and must be understood through a reconstructed native understanding. A very important example of this is found in Iranian history when Safavid rulers sent out Sufis across the vast regions of Iran to proselytize people in the doctrine of Twelver Shiism. Here, we see how the Gnostic inclination of Iranians was reconciled with the charisma of the Twelver Imami line. The Iranian practice of visiting Sufi shrines transformed itself into popular pilgrimages to the shrines of the Imams and their lineage.

Eventually, Iranians became so attached to their new faith that they created the first drama in the Middle Eastern world, the taziyeh. The taziyeh is a distinctly Iranian dramatic reenactment of the events at Karbala. Persia’s conversion to Shiism was so strong that later attempts to convert Iran back to Sunnism by Afghan rulers were unequivocal failures. With the example of Shiism in Iran, we can see how religion must be willing to adapt to indigenous ways of understanding the world if it wishes to survive in foreign territories.



We find a similar pattern in the nativization of Shiism in India. Here, Muslims were of course the minority. Furthermore, Shi’ites represented a minority within a minority. Thus, Shi’ites could not force their faith upon Hindu India without some cultural dialogue and exchange. Islam, itself, was spread in India via the charisma of Sufi saints, the subsequent orders they left, and the institutions of the shrines whose significance was wisely recognized by the political rulers of India who looked to their blessing for political legitimacy.

Shi’ites also adapted to native understandings of spirituality. This is most visibly seen in the large Muharram processions commemorating ‘Ashura and Arba’een seen in major Shi’ite centers of India like Lucknow and Hyderabad. These processions often took on a festive theme as people of all confessional backgrounds joined in the commemoration of the martyrs of Karbala. The employment of tassa (drums), the adoption of richly adorned elephants, and the creation of elaborate taziyahs (unlike Iran, this term refers to the manufactured miniature replicas of the Imams’ shrines that are paraded in these processions) were all part of the distinctly Indian contribution to popular Shiism. One of the most distinctly Indian aspects of the Muharram observations is the participation of Hindus and Sunnis. Many in these communities also participate in what many in their orthodoxies would consider taboo Shi’ite practices such as breast-beating <(matam). We shall see how some of these elements were greatly influential upon the legacy of Shiism in the Caribbean. Most notably, what we must recognize in the examples of the popular understandings of Shiism in Iran and India is the fact that Shiism has survived and remained a point of reference for many in these lands largely due to the willingness of the religion to be reconciled with indigenous customs.

During 1845-1917 several thousand Indians immigrated to British colonies in the Caribbean like Guiana and Trinidad to fill the labor shortage left by the emancipation of slaves in 1838 (Korom, 97). Many of these immigrants were from the North Indian regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where many of the subcontinent’s Shi’ites are concentrated (98). Naturally, these immigrants brought their religious traditions with them. Often, all they had was the memories of their homeland and the religious customs they practiced.

The separation from the religious institutions of the homeland explains why many Shi’ites and other Muslims became more secular in their new homes in the West Indies. However, the development of Hosay in the Caribbean was a self-conscious effort to reincarnate the Muharram processions of the subcontinent. Moreover, those genuine participants of Hosay do not see themselves as heretics but rather as faithfully continuing an old tradition directly inherited from the Indian motherland. Frank Korom writes that these immigrants faced a “cultural amnesia” because they were far removed from India and lost connections to their old communities (105). Korom writes about the East Indian Shi’ite “need for a reasonable amount of free play in interpretation to reconcile the incongruity between self-perceived notions of unchanging tradition and the growing need for innovation as a strategy for cultural adaptation” (106). Again, we see the importance of adaptation as a means of survival that was a continuation of the tradition which spread Shiism in Iran and India into the popular consciousness. However, it is undoubtable that Hosay took on a strong cultural symbolism that rivaled its significance as a religious tradition. This cultural marker was one of the few elements that distinguished a uniquely East Indian identity, which partly explains its popularity beyond the Shi’ite community.

However, the popularity of Hosay cannot be solely explained in either cultural or religious terms. There is also a social element which was important in solidifying Hosay as a popular festival. Both Vijay Prashad and Frank Korom argue that Hosay was utililized as a means of social and political protest. The tortuous conditions of indentured laborers in the plantations and by the exploited Chinese, Afro-Creole, and American Indian laborers created a point of solidarity in oppression which brought together the “subaltern classes” at the Hosay festival (Korom, 101). The work in the plantations was exploitative and geographically constricting. Hosay was one of the only occasions in the year when laborers could come converge and enjoy their time off (Prashad, 79). As the sugarcane industry went in decline during the late 19th century with the growth of beet and unrestricted free trade, the cash crop that the indentured servants and most of the West Indies depended upon lost value. This led plantation owners to work their servants twice as hard for a lesser amount of money (Korom, 113). Naturally, this brought upon several strikes during 1870-1900. This period also saw an increased regulation of the Hosay festival as colonial officials were threatened by the convergence of subaltern classes during these processions (114).

Colonial officials utilized several classic “divide and rule” tactics to weaken the solidarity of the oppressed classes. This was done by limiting the participation of Hosay in Trinidad to Muslims, fully aware that Muslims only composed one part of the hugely popular festival (114).

Another significant interventionist policy adopted by the colonists was restricting the movement of tajdahs (replicas of tombs; taziyahs in India) into the towns (115). Quite significantly, there was an attempt at polarizing Indian religious identities by encouraging the arrival of Muslim and Hindu religious missionaries to indoctrinate the respective communities back to the “real” faith (Prashad, 82). On the surface, these missionaries claimed to be fighting their Christian counterparts but in reality, they were encouraged by colonial officials to “create fissures across the landscape of the working class” (82). Brahman authorities like Sanathan Dharma Sabah and Arya Samaj tried to indoctrinate Hindus while Muslims were challenged by the Sunni orthodoxy of Anjuman Sunnat ul-Jamaat in their polycultural religious foundations (Prashad, 82; Korom, 117).

The tragic climax of this troubled period was the Hosay tragedy of October 30, 1884 in San Fernando, Trinidad which claimed 16 lives and 107 casualties after colonial authorities began shooting at the Hosay participants (Korom, 112). That particular year was a climatic point of protest against economic policies that were hurting plantation laborers and it fell exactly during the time of Muharram.

The channeling of political and social grievances through the religious processions of Muharram is a continuation of the tradition seen in Indian ‘Ashura protests against the British occupiers, in Iran in the lead up to the Islamic revolution, and in modern-day Iraq (Prashad, 81). Thus, Hosay’s popularity is due to the simultaneous functions it plays as a forger of “ethnic unity”, social protest, and specifically a cultural marker for displaced Indian indentured servants trying to reclaim their Indian origins (Korom, 106).

Hosay was also a platform for opposing groups to come and fight each other during the frenzy of the festival (106). Often this was the token reason cited by colonial officials to suppress the festival when in reality it wasn’t the major essence of the threat that the British feared, but rather a good excuse for an unjust policy. Korom argues that Hosay “provided a more flexible arena for interracial and interreligious participation” than Hindu festivals which also were imported into the West Indies (98). Every religious and racial community took a part in the Hosay festival. Afro-Creoles were often chosen as the drummers along with the Hindu leather-working caste of the chamars who continued in a position they occupied in the Indian subcontinent’s processions (101). This was a direct continuation of the Indian legacy which saw the inter-communal participation in the Muharram processions.

The Hosay festival places great emphasis on the tajdahs, or the replicas of the shrines of the Imams (Prashad, 79). This is most strikingly an inherited legacy from the subcontinent. The competitive nature of the tajdah builders is also inherited from India (Korom, 107). The tajdah workers take their job very seriously and often actual Shi’ites are the main participants in this field such as in the northern Trinidadian town of St. James (117). As an expression of their solidarity with the plight of Imam Husayn in Karbala, these tajdah workers abstain from meat, sex, alcohol, and fried food during the time that they begin working on these replicas (usually the 1st of Muharram at the latest) until they throw them into the waters on the 13th of Muharram (126). The yards where these tajdahs are built also are grounds for prayer meetings starting from the 1st of Muharram. These tajdah workers embody the personal devotion of the Hosay festival in their passion for their work as an expression of a long religious and cultural tradition they know only from their forefathers (121).

There are of course many differences between the Hosay festival in the Caribbean and the Muharram processions in India. You will not find breast-beating, flagellation, eulogy recitation or stick fighting in Hosay (Korom, 119). However, certain traditions continue on such as the playing of the tassa drums and the carrying of alams which are standard bearers of the People of the Cloak symbolized by a hand with five fingers symbolic of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, Fatima, Imam Husayn, and Imam Hasan (125). The two characters most represented at the Hosay festival are Imam Hasan and Husayn. Indeed, many participants believe that Hasan and Husayn were martyred together at Karbala (125). They are symbolized by two moon structures, one green and one red. The green moon represents the poisoned Imam Hasan while the red represents the blood of Imam Husayn (124). On the 7th of Muharram, the processions begin as the alams are brought out to the streets along with tassa drums. The 8th of Muharram is referred to as Little Hosay Night in which the replicas of Hasan and Husayn’s tombs are brought out. On the 9th, the symbolic red and green moons are seen by the public for the first time along with the tajdahs. The 10th is the final day of activities.

A more sensationalized aspect of the Hosay festival has been the consumption of alcohol, drugs, and sensuous dancing (120). However, Korom argues that the Sunni orthodoxy has exaggerated the element of dancing in the festival to undermine Hosay when in actuality, dancing has greatly declined over the last couple of years in this festival (120).

The contemporary governments in Trinidad have utilized Hosay as a marketing tool for their tourism industry (Korom, 122). They understand the popularity and the festivity of the event and they have specifically reached out to the urban locale of St. James in northern Trinidad which has one of the most popular Hosay festivals (124). We continue to see the multiple ways of interpreting the Hosay festival. Although one cannot deny that it differs more from the Iranian and Indian versions of commemorating Muharram than the Iranian and Indian variations differ between themselves, it nonetheless is an inheritor of a tradition that is dynamic and adapts to indigenous lands for religious and cultural survival. We can see how the ideas of a Shi’ite ideology are perpetuated and reconstructed, sometimes unconsciously, by observing the comments of some non-Muslims who are zealous participants or advocates of Hosay:

“one member of the conservative, and separatist, Hindu Sabha told anthropologist Gustav Thaiss a few years ago that Hosay is a ritual to remember the conflict between Hasan (a Muslim) and Hosayn (a Hindu), and that they ‘died together battling over their Faiths. People now make the tajdahs to commemorate their deaths,’ he said, and to ‘show we should all live in unity together’” (Korom, 83)

Korom also writes about a Hindu questioned about his involvement in Hosay:

“When one of the main organizers of the event in southern Trinidad was asked if he saw a contradiction in being a Hindu who participated in the Muslim rite and believed in its power, he simply responded, “I presume I am a Muslim one month each year”. Such religious oscillation reflects the amalgam of many different cultural influences that have gone into making Hosay what it is in Trinidad” (124)
Although many Shi’ite Muslims argue that what these participants of Hosay practice is heresy, one cannot deny that the tradition is part of a longer history of the cultural adaptation of religion which creates a “popular religion”. Indian practices during Muharram such as walking over fire are often questioned by non-Indian Shi’ites in the same manner and many wonder if this is not excessive or even haraam. Conversely, many Shi’ites in the subcontinent do not accept the dramatization of Karbala in Iranian taziyehs because of their adherence to a strict interpretation of the ‘no depiction’ notion in Islamic law. Thus, we must understand the universality of the processes that created the distinctly Caribbean Shi’ite festival called Hosay. Korom writes in his epilogue about Shi’ite missionaries who have newly arrived to Trinidad to teach the Shi’ites there a more globally accepted notion of Shi’ism. This has already created rifts between the black Afro-Creole Shi’ite communities who adhere to a more orthodox Shiism and embrace the Shi’ite mission’s message and the East Indian Shi’ite community that adheres to the traditions of Hosay and the distinctive legacy of that history. The only rule governing all these processes is a dynamic process of global exchange. What one must not forget to do is engage in a dialogue rather than an authoritarian monologue which can draw people away from faith by creating a reaction to foreign impositions. The legacy of cultural adaptation that took place in Iran and India must also be allowed to foster in the Caribbean.

Asad Rizvi is a student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ where he is graduating with a degree in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies this year


Korom, Frank, J. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Prashad, Vijay. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

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