Folk Islamic Ritual #12: Taziah and Muhurram

This blog post is the ninth in a series on South Asian folk Islam and its rituals. Click here to go to the first of these articles. Understanding the rituals of Folk Islam provides insight into the beliefs and practices of folk Muslims. This understanding helps us to make disciples of folk Muslims.

Bara Imambara in Lucknow, India. This Imambara is the most famous in the world. By Sachin Yaduvanshi1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72237985

In the previous lesson, we began to look at folk Islamic beliefs and practices among Shia Muslims in South Asia. Because there are so many Shia in South Asia, we must explore the worldview of this segment of Muslims to engage them with the gospel. Here, we will look at Shia’s perspectives on taziah and Muhurram. Before beginning, we need to recognize that there is significant diversity in Shia Islam worldwide. While these rituals and beliefs are common, not every Shia Muslim you meet follows the practices precisely described here.

Taziah are replicas of the tomb of Hussein that are housed in imambaras. Imambaras are houses of worship for Shia Muslims, which are unique to South Asia. The purpose of an imambara is to serve as a house of mourning for Hussein and the seventy martyrs of Karbala (the site of Hussein’s tomb). Plaques or writings on the wall often give the names of each of the seventy martyrs who died in 680 AD at Karbala, which is in modern Iraq. The martyrdom of Hussein was the definitive split between Sunnis and Shias. Some Shias say that one pilgrimage to Karbala is worth 1,000 Hajj to Mecca.

Some Shia hold to folk beliefs about taziah. They say that the taziah is a conduit of the blessing and power of Hussein’s tomb from Karbala. While Hussein’s power is more concentrated in Karbala, Shias can also bring their prayers and needs to these replicas. The panjtan pak (“five holy people”) of Shia Islam form one family. Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, married Ali, who was a relative of Muhammad. Ali served as the fourth Caliph after the death of Muhammad from 656-661 AD. The two sons of Fatima and Ali were Hasan and Hussein.  

One common phrase among South Asian Shias is, “Live like Ali; die like Hussein.” South Asian Shias often use the Nahjul Balaghah, a collection of sermons, letters, and sayings from Ali. For the Shia, it is vital to study Ali’s life so they can follow his example. They see the lives of Muhammad and Ali as being in perfect synchrony, so following Ali’s example also means following Muhammad’s life. To die like Hussein goes to the heart of the most important Shia festival, Muhurram.

Muhurram is the first month of the lunar calendar in Islam and is the month for remembering the death of Hussein. During this month, Shias will undertake various rituals to remember the sacrifice of Hussein. Especially important is the tenth day of Muhurram, which is called Ashura. Ashura marks the day of Hussein’s death, which is understood sacrificially as if he gave his life for the Shia community. Shias reenact plays to remember Hussein’s life and death, wear black clothes to signify mourning, and even scourge themselves to remember Hussein and the other martyrs. One ritual in South Asia is that some Shias, especially in Lucknow, make taziah and submerse them in lakes and rivers. Historically, this ritual has led to significant conflict between the Sunni and Shia communities in Lucknow since the Sunnis believe that Shias borrow this ritual from the Hindu Durga Puja festival.

One gospel bridge with Shias is to find an opportunity to share the sacrifice of Christ when they share about the martyrdom of Hussein. Shias believe that the death of Hussein as a martyr was for their whole community. When hearing Shia stories about the death of Hussein, a Christian can take the opportunity to share the story of how Jesus also died as a sacrifice for His community. This can open up a dialogue where Shias can understand the gospel. In the same way that Hussein died for his community, Christ died for the world. 

If you found this article helpful, click below to read all of my articles on Folk Islamic rituals. https://nocousinsleft.com/2022/10/18/folk-islamic-rituals/

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