Haven't been able to write lately,. My mind is going blank. I'm down in Basrah at the moment where I think I'll probably stick around a bit longer this time. As you might know, it's the month of Muharram, which is the first month in the Islamic Hijri calendar. It's been 1425 years now since Muhammed left Mecca on his camel evading the Kuffar and taking refuge in Medina. It marks the birth of the Islamic
umma, or nation.
Muharram is also a very special month for Shia, specifically the first ten days of it. 10th of Muharram is the day Imam Al-Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib (Muhammed's grandson from his daughter Fatima) was killed/ martyred by the Ummayids at Al-Taff (near present day Karbala) with several sons and brothers. Al-Hussein along with his family and a handful of followers rebelled against the Ummayid rulers to restore the
Caliphate to Ahl Al-Bait (the prophet's household). He left Medina for Iraq (Iraqis were very frustrated with the Ummayids back then) responding to a cry of help and where he naiively imagined he would garner support and man power for his cause. He was so wrong. Iraqi Arabs typically abandoned him at the first display of force by the Ummayid governor Ubaid Illah bin Zeyad who oppressed the Shia
violently (which is one of the many reasons Shi'ites hate my name ;)).
To make a long story short, Al-Hussein was slaughtered and his head sent to the Caliph Yazid bin Mu'awiyah (whose grandfather was one of the most prominent Quraish kafirs who fought against Muhammed) at Damascus along with the women and children of Bani Hashim (Muhammed's clan). A young son of Hussein (Ali Zain Al-Abidain) survived the Taff battle. He returned to Medina, and took solace in studying religion. The Ummayids watched him closely. Iraqis also tried luring him into revolting against the Caliphate, but he wisely refused (one of his sons was fooled though and headed to Iraq only to meet the same fate as his grandfather but with slightly different details). Anyway, the descendants of Imam Al-Hussein through his son Ali are the twelve infallible imams (a'ima alma'ssumeen). They are the
saints of Shi'ite Muslims. Starting from Ali bin Abi Talib (Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law), Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein (his two sons), Ali Zain Al-Abidain bin Hussein, Mohammed Al-Baqir bin Ali, Jaffar Al-Sadiq bin Muhammed, Musah Al-Kadhim bin Jaffar, Ali Al-Ridha bin Musah, Mohammed Al-Jawad bin Ali, Ali Al-Hadi bin Mohammed, Al-Hassan Al-Askari bin Ali, and the last Mohammed Al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi allegedly dissapeared into a cave in Samarra when he was very young around the ninth century. The Shia strongly believe he will reappear one day from this cave to fill the earth with justice once again. In other words, he is their version of the Messiah. The belief in a guided saviour descending from the prophet is held by the majority of different Islamic sects, but the Shia insist that Al-Mahdi is the one. Many renown Islamic historians even deny he ever existed.
Hope all the above makes sense. So, Iraqi Shia have special rituals to perform during the first ten days of Muharram. First, tabukh (cooking), or mass feasts to feed the poor. They make qima which is a minced beef sauce served with boiled rice, harrisa, which is some kind of porridge, and zarda my favourite (a sweet dish which I have no idea about ingredients). The second ritual, latum, I'm sure most of you have seen it during Shia demonstrations, where they furiously beat on their chests and heads in unison while singing certain lamenting verses, only, during Muharram it is carried out on a much wider and systematic scale. Large spiky chains, whips, and many other items that BDSM enthusiasts would be proud of are used. It's a horrible and depressing scene to watch. If I can get away with it, I'll try to take pictures when it starts over here.
Of course all these rituals were prohibited by Saddam's regime, which is why they are fervently being followed out now. My opinion is that he should have accomodated them. I'm sure many Shi'ite Iraqis are going to read this and say: oh, a spoiled Sunni kid bashing holy Ashurra. Believe me, that's not the case, but if you were here right now witnessing the mass hysteria that I am, you would actually be ashamed to be associated with any of this. But keep the tabukh it's good!
I have to run now, but I'll write more later about the Iranian influence in Basrah, Islamic parties, opinions of people I've talked to here on many issues, smuggling, indisciplined Brits, and the latest developments at the doctors residence (where a mini civil war is about to break!). Ciao.