by Mansoureh Tajik for The Saker Blog

By way of introduction, I would like to borrow words from The Saker that explain, rather concisely, the “why” of the essay you see before you: “The AngloZionists have embarked on a program of demonization of everything Muslim and we have to resist that as best we can. Even just showing the immense diversity of the Islamic world would be most useful.”[1] At the risk of appearing willfully tactless, I will rattle the same saber The Saker graciously handed me to first disturb and dismantle the implicit assumption underlying his reasons. I am certain he recognizes a feint when he sees one but I am equally certain that my unskillfulness in correct maneuvering might cause inadvertent injuries. So, brace yourselves, here comes the thrust: I do not believe Muslims and Muslim societies in the world need either permission or confirmation from anyone, or any entity, or any anthropogenic convention, or any nominal power to live by the commandments of their belief and lead a pious lifestyle. All they ought to do, all they are required to do, is to make every effort possible to correctly and clearly understand, to the best of their abilities, what they are commanded to do by God, as stated in Quran, and authentically follow, live, and die by those commands while taking great deal of care not to slip into hypocrisy. Full Stop. The ultimate judgment and outcomes are up to God, only God, and no one but God.

Now that it is made clear this writing is not a product of a mind that is afflicted with “please-don’t-hate-us-and-try-to-understand-us” syndrome, the Saker’s thoughtful request and conscientious rationale for a regular column describing life in a Muslim society in general, and in an Iranian and Shi’a society in particular, warranted a serious consideration, albeit for reasons other than hoping to appear less demonic. Moreover, a deep sense of appreciation and a sincere desire to reciprocate, in a very small way, this blog’s untiring and ongoing efforts to provide critical, informative, and consciousness raising analyses, interviews, and translations all explain why responding “yes” seemed to be the only appropriate response. These reasons, to a large extent, prompted drafting of the composition before you and the monthly follow ups, God Willing, you will see thereafter.

With this pointed introduction, it would be helpful to begin this installment with an excerpt from a collection of memoirs by friends, family members, and fellow fighters of the most known Unknown Soldier of God, Martyr Ibrahim Hadi[2]. It fits the timing nicely well:

“It was during the first year of the war. In the company of the guys in the Andarzgoo infantry, we moved to the heights of northern Gillane Gharb. It was early in the morning. We took positions on the hills overlooking the border. The border checkpoint was under Iraqi control. Iraqi forces and military vehicles were moving freely about and around on the surrounding roads. Ibrahim opened his prayer book and all of us began reciting the passages of Ziarat Ashura.[3]

After the recitation, I was looking rather longingly at all the territory before me, infiltrated and dominated by enemy forces. I turned to Ebrahim and said, ‘Ebram jan, take a look at this border road. The Iraqis are moving about so freely everywhere,’ then added with a deep yearning, ‘I mean, do you think that one day, our people could travel to and from their hometowns just as easily on these roads?!’ Ebrahim seemed as if he was not paying any attention to my words. He was looking at some horizon very far away into the future. He smiled and said, ‘What are you talking about?! There will come a day when from this very same road, arrays of our people will be travelling to Karbala!’

On the way back, I asked the guys if they knew the name of that border post. One of them said, ‘Khosravi Border Crossing.’[4]

Twenty years later, we were on our way to Karbala. My eyes happened to catch the high point of the elevations, the very same one on top of which Ebrahim had recited Ziarat Ashura! It felt as if I was looking at Ebrahim seeing us off. That high point was exactly across from Khosravi Border Crossing. That day, the buses were moving toward the border. On the very same road, scores of our people were going to Karbala!”[5]

The first segment of the excerpt illustrates, to an extent, the state of Iranian territories and forces at the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war some thirty nine years ago. The last paragraph gives a synopsis of the situation twenty years later, or about eighteen years ago. It vindicates more than it gloats. These days coincide with Muharram 1441 in Islamic Lunar calendar, the tenth day of which marks the events of Ashura. The same border crossing bears witness to the movement of millions of Iranians in cars, in busses, and on foot making their way to Karbala.

In Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and anywhere in the world there are Shi’a Muslims and Sunni Muslims of non-Wahhabi origin, masses of people commemorate the event of Ashura in Karbala and its aftermath. Granted the commemorations might be more pronounced in Shi’a communities but they are held by Sunni Muslims more on an individual basis. Nevertheless, Muslims do so by going on pilgrimage, fasting, holding street processions, mass prayers, religious recitations, candle light vigils, fulfilling their nazr (pledges to give food and services to the public and the needy as alms and charity), and much more.

To an alternatively initiated and trained soul, all these rituals, prayers, and pilgrimages might appear quite overwhelming and excessive. Why make such a big deal about something that happened eons ago? Decidedly, the story of Karbala has penetrated into contemporary lives of Shi’a that include, but are not limited to, defense, resistance, mourning, celebrations, and, in short, in every way of life. The Shi’a, in particular, have carefully guarded the event and have zealously remembered its account for one thousand three hundred seventy nine lunar years, equivalent to four hundred eighty nine thousand twenty one solar days so far. They have done so covertly at times, even for centuries, and overtly at other times.[6] Why do we insist on remembering Hussain (a.s.), his household, his few companions, and rehearse, with consistency and great attention to details, the events leading to Ashura in Karbala and its aftermath? How long are we going to continue this and to what end?

It is helpful to explore these questions through a more familiar lens. In science, we calibrate very carefully the instruments we use for measurements by regularly comparing them with highly reliable and accurate standard instruments. We then make adjustments to ensure our devices accurately and precisely measure what they ought to be measuring. With our gold, silver, diamonds, and millions of other items to which we have attached conventional worth and significance, we often pay neurotic attention to details and take agonizing care in favor of precision in evaluation and measurement. We develop thousands of progressively fine-tuned standards against which to appraise and sort out the genuine piece from the fraudulent, the real bit from the fake, and the fact from the faux. Conducting a simple search using keywords like “measurements + standards + calibration” for any field and industry, from physics to chemistry to medicine to commerce to manufacturing of automobiles, trains, and planes to petrochemical industries, and more yields hundreds of thousands of relevant documents, each having taken thousands of person-hours to develop and publish. That’s all splendidly dandy and fop.

While manically preoccupied with developing standards, calibrations, and measurement methods for all things material, however, what standards and calibrations have we developed to measure our most precious possession, our nafs – our “soul”, “self”, “existential essence”? What standards do we use to evaluate that which makes us humans? Not that which makes us two-legged animals, or malfunctioning bots, or accidental extensions of apes, or the omnivores on the top of the food chain, or the survivors of the misfits, or any other creature defined based on some deliberately misleading assumptions. How do we calibrate our lives in terms of the very quality and essence that makes us humans? What essential attributes and indictors of our nafs could lend themselves to be observed, compared, measured, and adjusted? What criteria, if any, are there to select those indicators? Who sets those criteria in the first place? What is his or her qualification and who gives him or her the right to do so? What evidence and examples do we have that they work? What and who are the golden standards against which we could measure ourselves? That is, who are the ones with superior qualities who could serve as a point of reference against which we could measure our “nafs”? What path have those people taken? What epics have they created and for what aim? How do we know we are on the same path as they are? What, or who, are the yardsticks with which we measure our deviation from their path?

For Muslims (minus the Wahhabi), more broadly, and for the Shi’a, more categorically, the standards, the calibrations, and the yardsticks are quite well known. They have names, titles, places and times of birth and death, and everything they did (or continue to do) while on earth. They are Muhammad Ibn Abdollahﷺ; Ali Ibn Abitalib (a.s.), buried in Najaf; Fatima Al-zahra (s.a.), tomb unknown; Hasan Ibn Ali (a.s.), buried in Medina; Hussain Ibn Ali (a.s.), buried in Karbala; Zainab Alkobra (s.a.), buried in Syria, and many more. Pick a regular Iranian calendar. You will find listing for three different calendars: a Solar Islamic Iranian calendar, a Lunar Islamic calendar, and a Gregorian calendar. It will be quite difficult to find in a year more than a handful of days in which significant figures and notable events are not observed, commemorated, and celebrated. Why? Because people do not wish to lose or forget the golden standards and calibration methods by which they measure how far or how close they are to the path of a true believer of God and true followers of صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ “The path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your Blessings, and not those who have earned Your Wrath on themselves, and not those who have gone astray.” [7]

The west, at least, should not begrudge us for all these prayers, commemoration rituals, and remembrances of significant religious figures. They, too, have their own set of significant standards, calibration, and measurement methods by which they measure, adjust, and develop their “selves” and their nafs. They believe these are good enough, worthy enough, character-building enough, nafs-evolving enough standards to export and spread all over the world. They do so the easy way if possible; by all other means and “options on the table,” if not. From the pious and upright characters portrayed in Hollywood cartoons, animations, movies, and more to justice-seeking music industry replete with respectful language and dance moves reverential towards women and young girls to violence-free comic books, computer and online games to social media texting that cultivates deep thinking and thoughtful analysis; there is potpourri of cultural icons and products to nourish people’s nafs, courtesy of the western world.

It would be a cheap shot to dispense an off-the-cuff psychoanalytic babble prescription and write that perhaps this disproportionately obsessive attention to accurate measurement and standardization of all things material, to vanity, to appearance, and to profanity might be, in fact, a mask to cover up or to overcompensate for some other major spiritual and ethical deficits in people’s lives and societies. Lives and societies that are engineered by by Sponge Bobs, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Clash of Clans, Cinderella, Batman, Superman, and an assortment of other iconic figures and events. Instead, it would be more interesting to suggest something different.

Let’s conduct an experiment in which each society works with its own ways, systems of beliefs, and cultures. Muslims model their beliefs and behaviors through lessons and figures like Ashura, Karbala, Imam Hussain (a.s.), and more to produce Ibrahim Hadis, Martyr Hojajis, Sardar Suleimanis, Seyyed Hassan Nassrullahs, Seyyed Ali Khameneis, Sheykh Zakzakis, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthis, and the like. The west could use whatever it is the west uses to produce its own brand of people. We could then compare and contrast each person as the product of both ways of life examining indicators like courage, justice, truthfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, resilience, struggle against oppression, wisdom, maturity, credibility, compassion, decency, morality, ethical conducts, taking responsibility for the family, and many more. No cheating, no interfering, no subversive operations, no un-sportsmanship, no underhanded mischiefs. An honest global competition.

Well, we know that is not going to happen. It does not cost us to imagine though, granted we do not let our guards down. The reality on the ground is that the story of Karbala has insisted on being told and has begun to gently brush many of efforts, non-Shia in crux as well. In fact, the depth and breadth of its spread has grown large enough to sound the alarms for the lesser gods of the western underworld. The US Department of ‘Desecration’ (DoD) spends handsomely to sponsor research through various initiatives, like MURI, in order to look more closely into this phenomenon[8] and find ways to create division, discord, and fitna (sedition) among Muslims, Shi’as and Sunnis, no doubt. At the same time, there is a campaign of dual containment going on, unbeknownst to many. One from within the western societies, one from without, in Muslim lands. For instance, the British government has been just too kind in this regard. It spends sums of money to sponsor research examining the Shi’a Muslim phenomenon on UK campuses, for example. This one is a “gem” of a research that cannot be left untold:

“…the antagonistic political and social climate in Britain—whereby Islam and Muslims have been pathologised and securitised as presenting an existential threat to the wider British public—as well as the growing international profile of Salafist and Wahhabist Islamist groups such as ISIS, has arguably fostered articulations of the Shi’a subject that either explicitly or implicitly seek to distance Shi’ism from such negative perceptions of (Sunni) Islam. This move towards a sense of Shi’a particularism and exceptionalism—often predicated on a historical sense of victimhood dating back to the Battle of Karbala—has also been compounded by the very real experiences of marginalisation, misunderstanding, and even active discrimination encountered by Shi’a students at the hands of Sunni Muslims (not to mention the persecution of Shi’is in the Islamic world by Islamist and terrorist groups). For this reason, while the promotion of a distinctive Shi’a identity as qualitatively different from broader perceptions of (Sunni) Islam can be understood partly as a strategic choice within the context in which it is articulated, there is an important sense in which it also actively contributes to the sectarianisation of Shi’a identity through the act of discursively bracketing off Shi’ism as an identity category in its own right. Again, it is worth stressing that our use of the term sectarianism functions here as a purely descriptive category and does not imply any kind of normative judgement about the content and resonance of the identity in question.

While our research and findings in this paper have focused on the British case, we would like to highlight the fact that the British context serves as a microcosm for the kinds of political, social, and religious discourses currently operating on Shi’a communities across Europe. Ultimately, the experience of Shi’a students should not be understood as being limited to the British university context, but is reflective of the ways in which Shi’a minorities are engaging with non-Muslim populations both in Europe and elsewhere in the West. For this reason, we propose that the discursive contours underpinning the forms of student activism documented in this paper ultimately transcend such national and cultural boundaries and contribute to an ongoing reinterpretation and reimagining of Shi’a sectarian identity for the modern age.”[9]

The immediate impulse is to send The Saker to the blackboard and have him write with a white chalk the following sentence, one hundred times: “Showing the immense diversity of the Islamic world will be used to paint any group of Muslims with a cynical brush and twist things around and define the diversity in terms of particularism, exceptionalism, and self- sectarianisation.” Fortunately, we have learned to be more patient than impulsive, thus we proceed with a measured response. Firstly, we will let go of the warm and fuzzy feelings that are oozing through every carefully-crafted word and phrase that are purely-descriptive, non-normative judgment-free. Secondly, we thank the British government for enlightening us about ourselves. Thirdly, we will spread the word that the British government is terrified of a handful of students on its college campuses and the campuses across Europe, if and when they talk about oppression and provide historical examples of ways of to resist oppression. To that end, the government is hard at work, with a bleeding heart, trying to protect the English and the Europeans against such discourse. One of the ways they do this is by putting the word “justice” inside quotation marks. This action tells the British public that they should move on; that there is nothing to see here; and that this “justice” is something entirely different from what they might think. Another way is for them to engage in (character) assassination of the messengers. Both very effective, age-old strategies. That should put a stop to things, internally and temporarily at least.

On our end, we focus our attention a bit differently. Firstly, we regard the efforts by those entities as smelting, refining, or steelmaking processes: impurities are removed, precious gems, pure beliefs, and wills of steel are produced. We, too, know how to manage our perceptions. Secondly, on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, in every opportunity we get and in conjunction with our other routine rituals, like when we perform our mass prayers, or recite and employ Tadbbur (deep thinking) of Quran verses, or narrate our Ziarat Ashura, or read our Hadith-e Kisa, or intone our Du’a Kumail, we (man, woman, young, and old) make sure that we also read, analyze, and teach ourselves and others exactly what is, for example, in CFR Annual Reports, in US House Bills, and in US Senate Bills with respect to the Muslim world, the region, Iran, Shi’a, Sunni, and any other subject that directly or indirectly affects us and our world. We examine, for example, the exact relationship between the British government, its agents, and Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. We explore the how and the why of the role the Brits played in planting the seeds of Wahhabism and spreading it across the Muslim world.[10] We analyze reports of DoD-Funded MIT research like, “To Karbala: Surveying Religious Shi’a from Iran and Iraq.” We dig deeper into British government funded research about “Fighting for ‘Justice’, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus.” We discuss not only what questions are asked in such surveys and why but what questions are not asked and why. We go even further and imagine many possible ways those data could be used against us as Muslims, and against people of the world and ways to neutralize their efforts.

We live in an interesting world and curious times. When the dust settles, let’s see the side that has remained standing.

References

[1] Email Communication between The Saker and the author on August 20, 2019. Extracted with The Saker’s permission to quote, September 18, 2019.

[2] Peace Be on Ibrahim: the Biography and Memories of Martyr Ibrahim Hadi, the Champion without a Tomb; Volume 1. Available online at: https://followersofthepure.com/images/ebooks/Peace%20Be%20on%20Ibrahim.pdf

[3] Ziarat Ashura is a commemorative text that pilgrims, both in body at the Imam Hussain’s shrine and in spirit from afar, recited to remember and honor the events of Ashura in Karbala. Arabic and English text of could be accessed online through Al-Islam.org site, at: https://www.al-islam.org/torch-perpetual-guidance-expos%C3%A9-ziyarat-ashura-al-imam-al-husayn-b-ali-ali-asghar-azizi-tehrani-0

[4] Khosravi Border Crossing is, and has historically been, the most important border crossing between Iran and Iraq since 1977. Islamic Republic of Iran, Ministry of Roads and Urban Development (2017). Accessed online at: http://rmto.ir/en/Pages/Khosravi.aspx

[5] Shahid Ibrahim Hadi Cultural Group (1395 HS, parallel in date with 2016). “Salaam to Ibrahim: Biography and Memoires about Martyr Ibrahim Hadi”; Trans. from original in Farsi. Edition 91, Page 127. Published by Shahid Ibrahim Hadi Publication.

[6] Allameh Seyyed Muhammad Hussain Tabatabai. “Shi’ite Islam”. Translated from Persian and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Seyyed Hussain Nasr. State University of New York Press, 1975; ISBN-10: 0-87395-390-8.

[7] Holy Quran, Chapter 1, Verse 7.

[8] Fotini Christia, Elizabeth Dekeyser, Dean Knox (October 20, 2016). “To Karbala: Surveying Religious Shi’a from Iran and Iraq.” Research Report, Political Science Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available online at: http://web.mit.edu/cfotini/www/Shia_Pilgrims_Survey.pdf

[9] Emanuelle Degli Esposti & Alison Scott-Baumann (2019). “Fighting for “Justice”, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus.” Religions 2019, 10, 189; doi:10.3390/rel10030189

[10] Abdullah Mohammad Sindi (2004). “Britain and the Rise of Wahhabism and the House of Saud.” Kan’an Electronic Bulletin, Vol. 6, Issue 361, Pages 1-9.

 

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