Tuesday, May 22, 2007
(Doorway of Possibilities - photo by Qiyamah A. Rahman, 2006)
Our Lives as Living Breathing Documents
Claiming ones life as a living breathing document is part of the training that most clergy acquire to learn effective companying with individuals in crisis or simply to assume a pastoral presence. Our experiences, past and present help to inform us about our inner landscape that then allows us access to understanding others and how we might best engage them in effective pastoring. Self reflection is the first step toward not only differentiation and the ability to distinguish between where ones own feelings and thoughts begin and end and where others begin and end. Differentiation is critical toward developing a transformative consciousness. What do I mean by that? If we want to be self aware we have to engage in self reflection. If we want to create a shift from where we are to achieve a goal outside of our current reality and the space that we currently inhabit, then we have to know how to shift our thinking and therefore self awareness is imperative. It is very similar to watching the watcher and being able to step outside of ones self in order to deconstruct behavior, particularly chronic behavior patterns that oftentimes plague many of us. Replaying and reinterpreting our life's narratives and stories help us to identify such patterns of thinking and behavior. Knowing that we desire to alter such behaviors does not automatically move us toward inhabiting a new and different space and way of being. It takes awareness, it takes honesty and it takes hard work and patience.
Shaharazard, a client, is working on claiming her power. While that may seem abstract and vague I worked with her to establish specific tasks necessary to demonstrate milestones that she was in fact claiming her power. Establishing small gestures such as not allowing herself to minimize compliments from others with her usual unconscious replys like, "Oh, it's nothing." Or a typical retort to compliments about her funky and stylish way of dressing, "Oh these old clothes? I got this ten years ago at the Salvation Army." Bigger tasks also were assigned that forced her to speak to three individuals each time she attended seminars and workshops and to obtain business cards before she left a social function. We acknowledged her awkwardness at such functions and the tendency to resort to her old shy patterns of behavior instead of standing in the power of her new identity that she has been forming over the last ten years. While others view her as a powerhouse she is oftentimes engaging in positive self talk to get herself through difficult situations that others would not even be phased by. Recently, in response to initating a contact to further a goal she received a call from the individual inviting her to a social gathering. When she realized that the gathering was at the home of a former U.S. Senator she lost her composure for an hour. She later recounted how she talked herself down as she dressed and how she could actually see the humor in her panic because it was actually what her old identity would have done and yet even as she indulged in obsessive behavior like what to wear and what to expect she knew whatever the situation, that she had it within herself to "rise to the occasion." She was surprised how effectively she could stand aside and watch herself behave irrationally worrying about silly things. She convinced her inner child that she needed to settle down and not feel threatened because the adult was going to handle this grown up situation and that her inner child could stay "home" or come and appropriately bring her "playful humorous self" to the social event. Thi was an intervention that she and I had worked on in our sessions. Sharazard reported that the evening went well. While she didn't "enjoy" it she enjoyed the conversations and seeing how other families did holiday rituals and gatherings.
Another client, Carmen recently received her doctorate. She talked abot using her new title, "Dr" and how it was sometimes a challenge since she did not want to bring attention to herself. Yet, she is very outgoing and verbal around social justice issues and does not hesitate to claim her prophetic voice. Internally however, she is constantly engaging in a process of analysis about her surroundings and her inner landscape. Not only does she love being in her head but it is apparent that her insightful analyses have benefitted her career. However, the contradictions between her behaviors and her abilities are stark. There is no question that Carmen has the ability to assume any role or responsibility she chooses. She is resourceful and possesses good instincts. Her archilles heel is her ability to know the truth about who she is. And that is where she is lerning to stand in her power and to declare that in the very moment her self doubts begin. She was recently sweating bullets when she attempted to make reservations for a conference out of the country. Money issues came up that triggered guilt about spending the money and taking time away from her current position where she was working on a special project approaching its due date. Even though she had a contingency plan she still found it very difficult to make the reservations that she found herself overwhelmed by the flight options after spending hours comparing different airlines. Some of her old tapes were activated, "I should not be spending money to fly to a conference." These disparaging messages assailed her even though she had been literally working full time to finish her Masters in Divinity after being granted a doctorate that she had been working on for many years. She finally convinced herself that she deserved the treat. She informed me in one of her sessions that she endured an early morning ride to the airport at an ungodly hour and several stops and layovers because she was simply unable to really treat herself to the cost which would have been an additional $300. But she didn't beat herself up about her decision and when reporting the escapade to me she was clear about her behavior and owned all the consequences rather than making herself the victim.
We devalue ourselves and judge ourselves for not being good enough or deserving enough. Examining our life's narratives helps clarify the stories that we have bought into about ourselves, some good, some bad and some indifferent. Carmen's and Sharazard's life narratives main themes support their belief that they are not good enough to experience their good. So they go out of their way and stop short of going for the gusto and often settle for less than their wildest dreams. The plus is that their behavior is no longer covert or unconscious. When Carmen panicked at the thought of a social encounter with individuals she didn't know she realized her old tapes had seized control and that she had the ability to regain control. Furthermore, she knew exactly what parts of her were threatened and the usual pattern of acting out was squelched and she could appease her inner child by promising that she did not have to entertain adults but the adult Carmen would do the necessary work. Another strategy she employed was to reconceptualize failure not as something bad, nor a reflection of herself but something that visits all of us sooner or later and that if she simply continued to try to avoid any possible failure, not only would she have a boring life but it be even harder for her to deal with failure when it eventually showed up in her life.
Thus, it is not about us not being good enough.
In the instance of another client, a recent career "failure" left Naim feeling defeated and unworthy until we worked through the feelings that he was holding onto that labeled him a failure in a society that is schizophrenic about failure. We say it is inevitable and a learning tool, yet when we fail, our employers and supervisors place our heads on the chopping block. Sometimes that might even lead to the auction block and unemploymen. Naim was determined to work through his feelings about failure once and for all. As an African American male, some of those issues may never go away, instead, Naim worked on getting better and better at recognizing the games he played with himself that buy into dysfunctional patterns. Now, when he has the desire to beat up on himself, Naim remembers to start his internal dialogue, that is, processing the situation and to not give in to his emotions that want to indulge the distortions around not being "good enough" "liked enough" etc. Recently, I delivered a presentation on some research that I had been working on. I spent time delivering and posting flyers and talking it up. First of all, claiming the intellectual space to assert my leadership was a major milestone. Furthermore, marketing it meant I was important enough to expose my ideas and create a forum to share my research. Finally, I delivered a well organized and well thought out presentation. That is never the real worry. It is always about, "who do you think you are.?" "How dare you think that you should bring attention to yourself." The truth of the matter is that in my childhood I was the invisible one sitting off in a corner with a book. I learned to love my solitude and I learned to love reading and experiencing life through the written word. As a result, I have capitalized on my love of knowledge and have far more education in my family of origin than all my siblings. That is not a judgment on them or me. Book knowledge does not make a inherently good or smart etc. I am demonstrating how my use of a survival strategy benefitted me over my lifetime. However, what I have noticed is that some of my siblings who have less education are more entrepreneurial than I am. An entrepeneur requires risk taking and the willingness to strike out on their own and march to the beat of a different drummer.It has taken me a lifetime to even begin to think about being self employed. I make a good employee because I usually choose jobs that reflect my passions in life and then I give my all and all. I now understand that tendency is part of my compulsive/obsessive pattern and I have learned to honor my tendency to drive myself while still setting limits. I will push myself for a designated period over time to finish a project. After that I will rest and enjoy my success before moving on to another major project. I usually check in with myself to make sure that I am practicing good self care like diet, exercise, movies and tv, meditation, reflection time and time with others. It is so easy to isolate myself and experience some degree of content until I start to crave social interaction. So I often have to push myself to get out. When I do, I usually enjoy it but it is not my first inclination.
Ministry is about self awareness. The more proficient we become at understanding ourselves, the better we can engage others and be present with them. Wrestling with ones own inner demons also is a great way to foster empathy, compassion, non-judgemental attitudes and patience. Using our own lives as living breathing documents is both necessary and empowering.
(Breaking through Glass Ceilings - picture by Qiyamah A. Rahman,2006)
Following are examples of Muslim women leading various aspects of Muslim worship. This column will continue to be expanded to add new voices and examples of Muslim women claiming self agency and forging new frontiers in Islam:
Dr. Amina Wadud in Barcelona -- One of the world’s leading experts on the Qur’an and its discourse on gender led a mixed-gender congregation in a Friday communal prayer in Barcelona, Spain yesterday.
The impromptu prayer came after Wadud, professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, was invited to lead a congregation by several Muslim women during a question and answer period following a talk by Wadud at the International Congress on Islamic Feminism.
After answering a slew of questions on the historic mixed-gender prayer she led earlier this year in New York City, members of Spain’s Muslim community quickly organized a makeshift prayer in a conference room at the Alimera Hotel in Barcelona, where the Congress was being held.
About thirty worshippers participated in the prayer.
Before the prayer a minor controversy erupted about whether Spanish television cameras can record the event, with several congregants refusing to be filmed. Soon, the TV cameras were removed and the prayer began with the call to prayer followed by a short sermon by Wadud.
Ahmed Nassef is editor-in-chief of muslimwakeup.com.
Raheel Raza describes her experience delivering the kutba, Muslim sermon:
It was April 22, earth day and here we were, a motley crowd of some 40 people gathered in a backyard – close to earth. Although the meteorologists had predicted rain, the skies were bright blue, the sun shone and there was a slight breeze. I felt the heavens smiling on us and I took a deep breath of peace. The time for Friday prayers was near.
I wasn’t so calm three weeks ago when Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) asked me if I would lead a mixed gender prayer for the community. My first reaction was to say no because I wasn’t ready to be part of media frenzy.
So Tarek took the petition to my husband who convinced me that it would be a natural progression of the work I do in interfaith, to actually lead a prayer for my own community. I thought about this deeply and realised that there are many Muslim women who don’t have a safe space in which to pray, so this might open some doors. Once my intention was clear in my mind, I agreed. My sons were concerned for my safety, but once I made the decision, I left the rest up to Allah, praying for guidance and strength.
My trepidation was not unfounded because the venue had to be changed twice before it could be considered safe. We finally ended up in Tarek’s backyard which had been cleaned up in a record one hour and had carpets laid out in a row.
About 40 people turned up, more men then women surprisingly, and it was a joy to note the diversity. It was also remarkable to note that this was not a ‘reactionary’ crowd or a battle of ‘progressive vs conservative’ because there was an Imam and women in hijab in the group. I was humbled as I stood before the congregation on this landmark occasion. I thanked them for their trust and confidence in inviting me to lead them in prayer. “Your faith today” I started by telling them, “is the only criterion really required in Islam to empower a person to lead prayer. This is especially heart-warming for me as I’ve lead prayers in churches, synagogues and temples and feel honoured as I stand here with my own community”.
I explained how we would proceed. A young man called out the azaan (call to prayer) and I gave the sermon beginning with the first verse from Sura Nissa (the chapter on women in the Quran).
O mankind fear your Guardian Lord who created you from a single person, created out of it His mate and from them scattered like seeds countless men and women – fear Allah through whom you demand your mutual rights and be heedful of the wombs that bore you for Allah ever watches over you.
I continued “So we know at this moment Allah is watching over us and I believe from my heart and soul that Allah made us equal in creation and wanted all of us to have this equality that is denied to many women today. What we are doing today is not re-inventing our own tradition, rather following in the teachings and role models of our faith. And how auspicious is this occasion today, being the birth anniversary of our beloved Prophet who is a mercy for all humankind.”
The fact that this momentous event was taking place on the birth anniversary of my beloved Prophet Mohammed, was a sign of great blessing for me. Yet I knew that some of these brave men and women, who were here to support me, may have doubts and in the second half of my sermon, I allayed those fears.
I said “I’m often asked where I get the strength of conviction that I’m doing the right thing. I’m inspired by the first woman of Islam – Hazrat Khadija – uumul momineen – mother of believers – it is said that her wealth could cover the grounds around the Kaaba – yet she donated her assets to build that small Muslim community which desperately needed her support. I’m motivated by Bibi Fatima who relayed the Prophets sermons to the larger community and tradition records that when she entered the room, the prophet stood up in respect for his daughter. I draw strength and courage from Bibi Zainab who shook the court of Yazid with her impassioned khutba after the tragedy of Karbala. Here we see a woman building an empire through her financial status, a woman stabilizing that empire though her piety and a woman shaking an empire though her passion for truth and justice. And of course, I’m impressed by Hazrat Ayesha, a theologian and narrator of hadeeth.”
By this time I could see some eyes were getting wet – the message was getting through. I ended with the following words: “Today it doesn’t matter who leads prayers. This event is just to break the domination of a few misguided bigots who try to reduce God to a policeman and who’s only interest in ‘profit’ is the kind that comes out of their bank account. Each one of us today is empowered to take with us a message of peace, justice, equality, tolerance, compassion and open mindedness. This is not my message or that of our host – this is the message of the book”
We ended with a dua, but as we rose to our feet to meet and greet each other, I was overwhelmed with tears and so were others. Some of the women told me they had not prayed in years and were ecstatic to come back into the fold. For at least one person, this was their first congregational prayer so this auspicious occasion was blessed from the inception and became a ‘first’ for many of us, held together by love of Allah and His Prophet.
Muslim Sisters around the world are challenging the prevailing gender stereotypes of Muslims and non-Muslims. By assuming roles that traditionally have been relegated to Muslim males, Muslimas or Muslim women defy the myth of the submissive Muslim woman. They come veiled and unveiled, bringing different cultural traditions and Islamic tradition, practicing their religion they reimagine not only themselves but even imaging Allah as the feminine:
"I wanted to talk about the Allah that I knew and loved intensely, but one that few Muslims met at the mosque. The Allah who calls Herself "the light of the heavens and the earth" and tells us that when we call upon Him, "I am near"." Imama Nakia - AKA Nakia Jackson
Not Without My Maybelline: The Advent of Imama Nakia
After attending and speaking at an event at Brandeis University featuring Asra Nomani talking about her latest, Standing Alone in Mecca, the conversation turned to continuing the efforts that had begun on March 18th with Dr. Wadud. Asra, being the action-oriented woman she is, secured a spot for a Jumu’ah prayer that Friday. We were talking about who to invite and other logistics, letting me know that this was for real, that we were going to have the kind of Jumu’ah that we’ve been waiting to attend for years. But the panic that I was barely stifling was due to an older fear.
I knew that I’d gotten myself into trouble when I realized that I had agreed to be khateeba. Sure, I’d just given a four-minute speech an hour before, but what did I know about giving a khutbah? I was familiar with the format, but had never memorized the standard phrases and du’a that were essential to an authentic khutbah. On the ride home, I went into panic, calling my dad to bring myself down from the adrenaline high I was on. I told him about the weirdness of that day- the police escorts, the metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dog, trying to pray while flashbulbs went off in front of me. He was glad that I was protected... I was more worried about making a fool of myself.
I wanted to make sure that the khutbah fit into the standard format, so I looked up the fiqh of the Jumu’ah khutbah . I quickly abandoned hope of memorizing the formulaic opening and du’a, so I had everything printed out for me to fall back on, especially if I blanked out, which I tend to do while under performance anxiety, and this was stage fright squared.
Picking a topic was the area where I got the most help, but needed the least. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to deliver a khutbah that had what many were waiting to hear, and some, like me, had given up hope in hearing from the minbar. I wanted to talk about the Allah that I knew and loved intensely, but one that few Muslims met at the mosque. The Allah who calls Herself "the light of the heavens and the earth" and tells us that when we call upon Him, "I am near".
I chose du’a for forgiveness and support, not so much for any sins real or imagined, but to lift the burden of guilt that so many Muslims bear for not dressing, thinking, speaking, smelling just like the Prophet (SAWS). If the Forgiving can forgive us for being ourselves, perhaps we can find a way to do the same.
I turned in at three in the morning, my khutbah nearly done, I had one question left- what to wear? I knew that no choice of attire would endear me to naysayers, but the wrong choice would give them extra ammunition. I went for something somewhat conservative-a grey jilbab with pearl buttons, and a silver scarf. After agonizing over the makeup issue for more than an hour, I decided to go natural- natural, for me, that is. The demure makeup look that I chose may not have passed conservative muster, but I refused to make history without my Maybelline. Qaradawi might condemn me to hell, but he couldn’t deny that I looked good.
I was on the train later that morning, reviewing my khutbah, streamlining the speech. The khutbah is supposed to be brief, according to the Sunnah, but somehow, I’ve never listened to a khutbah that was less that forty minutes. I had planned for no more than ten, telling my dad I was going for some "Old Time Religion". I got a call from Asra, and had a few nightmares of what she was going to tell me in the few seconds before she announced that a local cable news station and a member of the Turkish press would be filming the service and interviewing us. Great for the performance anxiety I was experiencing. I’d count myself lucky if I didn’t dissolve into a Porky Pig- like stutter.
I arrived at the site Asra reserved, and was told that we couldn’t use the site if it was going to be filmed, citing security concerns. After a bit of going back and forth, we decided on a site by the Charles river, one popular with local fowl. I staked out a relatively clean spot , gave interviews, and waited for our muezzin to show up. He’s the guitarist and backup singer of the mostly Muslim punk rock group the Kominas, although the rest of the group couldn’t make it. He finally arrived two hours after our intended starting time, bringing tales of adventure with a nice but completely hapless cab driver. After giving a last interview, we were ready to begin. He called the adhan, I gave salaams and sat down, told him to call the adhan again. After some confusion, it went as smoothly as any Jumu’ah I’ve ever attended- only much nicer.
I told no tales of hellfire , made no calls for anyone’s death, and frightened no one. I could have done better, but I’ve heard worse. I had to read most of what I had prepared out of nervousness. I ignored the cameras during the service, and didn’t blank out during the salah, Alhamdulillah. Afterwards, we had to pose in "prayer mode" for the cameras, bringing me back to surreality. We went to lunch and crashed , and my sermon on the parable of light in the Qur’an got a few compliments. I’m just glad that no one fell asleep. I asked a few people in and around Boston what the khutbah they listened to was about, and the answers that they gave told me that I did exactly what was needed: no khutbah that I inquired about contained the light, beauty, mercy and love that I strove to fill my khutbah with. Our Fridays have been filled with darkness for too long. It’s time to return to the light of Allah.
Nakia Jackson is a musician and budding young troublemaker living in the Boston area. She enjoys alte musik, belly dancing, and scaring men
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.
(Wall Hangings in the Boudoir of an African Princess -picture taken by Qiyamah A. Rahman
Welcome, traveler! Enter and take your rest in the Chaikhana. What is a chaikhana. It is a teahouse along the legendary Silk Road pilgrimage and trading route linking China to the Middle East and Europe. It is a place of rest along the journey, a place to shake off the dust of the road, to sip tea, and to gather together to sing songs of the Divine...
(excerpted from: Poetry Chaikhana at www.Poetry-Chaikhana.com)
Sarmad, or Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, is a fascinating and complex character who seems to have bridged several cultures in Persia and India. Apparently, Sarmad originally lived in an Armenian community in Iran. Some believe that Sarmad was from a Jewish background, earning him the modern epithet of the Jewish Sufi Saint of India. Other scholars suggest he was Christian before taking up the Sufi path.
He had an excellent command of both Persian and Arabic, essential for his work as a merchant. Hearing that precious items and works of art were being purchased in India at high prices, Sarmad gathered together his wares and traveled to India where he intended to sell them.
Near the end of his journey, however, he is said to have fallen in love with a dervish boy. This ardent love ('ishq) created such a radical transformation in his awareness that Sarmad immediately dropped all desire for wealth and worldly comfort. In this ecstatic state, he even lost all concern with social convention and began to wander about without clothes, becoming a naked faqir.
He continued journeying through India, but now as a naked dervish rather than as a merchant. He ended up in Delhi where he found the favor of a prince in the region and gained a certain amount of influence at court. That prince, however, was soon overthrown by Aurengzeb, who saw the naked Sarmad as a political enemy. Sarmad was eventually accused of political crimes and unorthodox Muslim practice, and Sarmad was eventually put to death.
The following account provides more detail about the interaction between Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed and his final demise at the hands of his adversaries:
His entry into Delhi
He reached Delhi in this state of nakedness. Prince Dara Shikuh was Sufi-orientated and a friend of fakirs. When he discovered that Sarmad had entered Delhi he ensured that he became acquainted with the Shaykh very soon. After he got to know the Shaykh closely, he was greatly affected by his spiritual power. He respected the Shaykh very much. Prince Dara Shikuh was one of his admirers. Thus he became to have much influence at court.
A change of government
Prince Aurangzeb defeated Dara Shikuh and took the reigns of power into his own hands in lieu of Shah Jahan. Dara Shikuh began to wander from desert to desert and settlement to settlement. This period was a testing one for Dara Shikuh’s sympathisers, supporters and associates. Hazrat Sarmad was one of these too. Some people had fled with Dara Shikuh and those who remained considered themselves in danger. Hazrat Sarmad chose not to leave as he knew that his burial place would be in Delhi.
The accusations which were made upon him were not free from political machinations. The first accusation was that he had apparently rejected the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) physical Ascension [mi’raj] in the following quatrain :
Every man who is aware of his secret
He becomes concealed even from the skies
The mullah says that Ahmad  went to the heavens
Sarmad says that the heavens were inside Ahmad!
The second accusation made upon him was that he was a sympathiser and well-wisher of Dara Shikuh. The third was that he was always nude which is against the teachings of the Shar’iah. The fourth accusation was that he did not read the full kalimah and only recited the words, “There is no god ” .
Aurangzeb sent the Chief Justice Mullah Qavi to Hazrat Sarmad to question him about why he remained naked. When Mullah Qavi asked him the reason as to why he remained naked he recited the following quatrain:
He is happy on account of my humble self
Evil eye and wine is stolen from my hands
He is in my bosom; search for Him in me!
Tis strange that a thief has caused me to be naked!
He was summoned before the court. In this gathering there were the greatest scholars and divines present too in addition to Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb asked him, “People say that you gave Dara Shikuh the good news of the sultanate. Is this true?” Hazrat Sarmad replied, “Yes it is true; and that good news was truthful for he has attained the crown of the eternal sultanate.” The scholars asked him, “Why do you roam around naked?” He gave the same reply which he had given earlier to Mullah Qavi. The scholars asked him to put on some clothes but he ignored them  . Aurangzeb addressed the scholars and said, “Being naked in itself is not a reason to kill someone. Ask him to recite the first kalimah.” Sarmad was asked to recite the kalimah. As per his habit he only recited, “There is no god”. When the scholars heard these words of negation they were extremely annoyed. He replied, “Presently, I am drowned [mustaghraq] in Negation  ; I have not yet reached the (spiritual) station of Affirmation yet. If I read the full kalimah in this state, I will be telling a lie.” The scholars decided that this action of his was blasphemy [kufr] and that repentance was necessary. Hazrat Sarmad refused to repent. The scholars decided that the death penalty was permissible in this case.
The next day he was taken to the execution spot. When the executioner came near to him with a gleaming sword in his hand, he smiled on seeing him and then lifting his eyes to the heavens spoke these historic words:
“May I be sacrificed for you! Come, come, for whichever guise You come in, I recognise You!” Then he recited this distich:
There was a commotion and I opened my eyes from the dream of Non-Existence
I saw that the night of sedition still remained, and so went back to sleep!
After reading this verse he presented his neck and drank from the goblet of martyrdom. His martyrdom occurred in the year 1070 A.H.
His shrine is beneath the Jamia Masjid in Delhi and a fount of blessings and grace.
Hazrat Sarmad was a perfect intoxicated [majzub] saint. He had no equal in his Islamic knowledge and virtues. Many people were his followers and disciples. His letters, which are known by the title, “Ruqa’at e Sarmad” [Epistles of Sarmad] are a testimony to his knowledge. He also wrote many quatrains [rubai] in Persian and these are famous as Rubaiyyaat e Sarmad (Quatrains of Sarmad). These have been published. Two of his most famous quatrains are given below and are a representation of his thought and ideas:
O’ Sarmad the pain of love is not given to slaves of their desires
The burning of the moth’s heart is not given to the honey-bee!
A whole lifetime is required to obtain Union with the Friend
This treasure, Sarmad, is not given to one and all!
I have been honoured with the office of Love
I have been made oblivious to asking from creatures
Like a candle have I been melted in this world
Due to my burning have I been made a confidante!
After his martyrdom the words, ”There is no god but Allah” were heard from his mouth thrice. Not only did his severed head recite the kalimah but it continued to praise Allah Almighty for some time afterwards. Aurangzeb ruled for nearly 48 years after Hazrat Sarmad’s martyrdom but never achieved peace and tranquillity. He spent a long time fighting in the Deccan and finally died there.
The following poems,all separately titled and separate poems represent a small sampling of Hazrat Sarmad's poetry:
Along the road, you were my companion
Seeking the path, you were my guide
No matter to whom I spoke, it was you who answered
When Sun called Moon to Sky, it was you who shined
In the Night of aloneness, you
were my comforter
When I laughed, you were the smile on my lips
When I cried, you were the tears on my face
When I wrote, you were the verse
When I sang, you were the song
Rarely did my heart desire another lover
Then when it did, you came to me in the other.
Every Man Who is Aware of His Secret
Every man who is aware of his secret
He becomes concealed even from the skies
The mullah says that Ahmad went to the heavens
Sarmad says that the heavens were inside Ahmad!
To the Dignified Station of Love Was I Raised
To the dignified station of love I was raised,
And from the favours of the people I was freed.
Like a candle I was melted in this assembly,
By being burnt, in the divine mysteries I was initiated.
This next poem, unlike the previous ones were written by the poet, Dariya Sahib. Sant Dariya Sahib of Bihar was born in India at a time when the power of the Muslim Mughals was declining and the British had not yet fully asserted their power over the region. It was an era of many petty rulers and warlords and general social turmoil and religious strife. Sant Dariya emerged as a poet-saint who encouraged harmony between Hindus and Muslims. He received enlightenment at the age of 20, and began to teach a path of non-violence and love for all.As a poet, Sant Dariya composed more than 15,000 verses.In fact, in one of his books, Dariya suggests he was the great poet Kabir in a previous incarnation. There is some disagreement about the years of his life, but many assert he lived nearly 150 years.
You Have Nothing to Worry About
You have nothing to worry about.
Be free from worries,
And remain immersed in love for the Beloved.
He shall take you across the ocean of the world,
If you seek support of his boat sailing in this ocean.
No amulet, charm, yogic practice
or other holy repetition is of any avail.
Only he provides the technique which destroys sins,
and removes vices from the heart.
By seeing and reflecting within your heart,
You will be freed from all ills
Just by kindling the wick of Nam
with the Satguru's lamp.
A final poem by Dariy Sahib:
Without Love There Can Be No Devotion and Wisdom (from Love Chapter)
Sant Dariya Sahib of Bihar was born in India at a time when the power of the Muslim Mughals was declining and the British had not yet fully asserted their power over the region. It was an era of many petty rulers and warlords and general social turmoil and religious strife.
Sant Dariya emerged as a poet-saint who encouraged harmony between Hindus and Muslims.
He received enlightenment at the age of 20, and began to teach a path of non-violence and love for all.
As a poet, Sant Dariya composed more than 15,000 verses.
In fact, in one of his books, Dariya suggests he was the great poet Kabir in a previous incarnation.
There is some disagreement about the years of his life, but many assert he lived nearly 150 years.