In a small town in Jhang, Pakistan that was named after the 14th century Sufi saint Shah Jeewna, thousands took part in an Ashura procession on Tuesday to remember an unforgettable battle that took place in Karbala, Iraq in the year 680.
Ashura is observed on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It marks the day the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain and 71 members of his family, including women and children, were brutally massacred at the battle of Karbala because they refused to acknowledge Yazid ibn Mu'awiya as the sixth caliph of Islam.
Processions and communal gatherings are mostly led by the world’s 400 million Shia Muslims on this day. Clad in black, Shia worshippers cry and beat their chests in unison, while some flagellate themselves with swords, chains or their hands, others carry ornate replicas of coffins, tombs and shrines.
In Shah Jeewna, however, the procession has been led by both Shia and Sunni Muslims for centuries.
“Despite differences in faiths, our collective binding under the spiritual banner of Shah Jeewna supersedes all possible sectarian differences, which is why we have seen interfaith harmony in an unprecedented manner,” Syed Hussain Ali Shah, a procession participant, told VICE World News.
The two main sects of Islam began shortly after the death of Prophet Muhammad in the year 632, with Shia Muslims wanting to nominate his son-in-law Ali (Imam Hussain’s father) as the caliph or leader of Islam, and Sunni Muslims wanting to nominate another leader from the community. The processions in Shah Jeewna offer a unique example where both sects come together.
While interfaith Sunni and Shia Ashura processions used to be a common occurrence centuries ago in Sufi towns across India and modern-day Pakistan, they have now become rare. The united processions in Shah Jeewna carry on, despite outlawed anti-Shia militant groups operating close to the town in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
“There was a time though – in the ‘90s – when distant members of my family were targeted by nearby anti-Shia outfits,” said Shah.
Shah and others participated in the procession by carrying Ta’ziahs, commemorative handmade wooden ornate tombs, and an alam, a heavy metal object filled with intricate engravings, carried on top of a flag to mark the deaths at the battle of Karbala.
He added, “What is truly remarkable about Ashura in Shah Jeewna is that for almost a century, not a single thing has changed about our traditions. It is one of the most organised processions of Muharram. For instance, the same family has been travelling to Shah Jeewna from a nearby village to recite the same noha (an elegy about the tragedy of Imam Hussain at the battle of Karbala) at the same spot for the past 100 years.”
Another participant named Haider told VICE World News, “Every 30 years, Muharram arrives in peak summer – this is the second time in my life when Muharram has come around July–August. I remember this same feeling – drenched in water and sweat, nearly suffocating but wanting to keep going.”
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