A Journey Towards Humanity
In narratives of the tragic events that befell the Prophet Mohammed’s SAW grandson Imam Husain AS, we are told that his journey towards the Hereafter began where his journey in this world came to an end: the land of Karbala. For Imam Husain AS, his kin and companions, the journey to Karbala through the scorching deserts of Iraq was a journey that eventually ended in their martyrdom. It was a journey to a battle where they took their last stand against the forces of indecency, immorality and inhumanity. A journey towards immortality in which they attained the loftiest of ranks in Heaven and the highest of places in the history of mankind.
Even after the death of Imam Husain AS, for the women and children of his household and for his son and successor Imam Ali Zain al-Abideen AS, the journey continued.
Imam Ali Zain al-Abideen AS was forced to walk barefoot upon the desert sands leading the caravan of his father’s grief-stricken household, the spears of his captors prodding him onward with no regard for the frailty caused by his illness and the crushing loss of his father, uncles and brothers.
'O Husain SA in the Arabic script. This phrase is often repeated by the faithful, especially during the days of 'Ashara Mubaraka.
The journey to Karbala and the events that unfolded on its desert sands have not been forgotten. Over 1400 years later, millions of Muslims remember the path taken by Imam Husain at the start of the new Islamic year and embark upon a journey of their own: one of commemoration, remembrance and grief. ʿAshara Mubāraka, or the Blessed Ten, is a period of ten days at the start of the new year that is dedicated to remembering and recalling the tragedy of Karbala and the plight of Imam Husain AS, his family and companions and their stand for Islam, justice, truth and ultimately, for humanity.
The remembrance and commemoration of Imam Husain’s AS journey is a journey in itself: one that, as His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS explains, illuminates the very essence of what it means to be human.
Yazids commanders demanded that Imam Husain AS surrender and capitulate to the Umayyad ruler, yet for Imam Husain AS, knowing Yazid’s transgressions, his inhumanity and his disdain for the true message of Islam – ‘death was more preferable’. He was fully aware that if he were to surrender to Yazid, word of this would spread, and Islam as established by his revered grandfather the Prophet Mohammed SAW would cease to exist. So Imam Husain AS stood his ground and rejected the Umayyad demands.
On the 9th day, when Yazid’s armies began to mobilise their forces for assault, Husain Imam AS sought one night’s respite. He and his companions spent the eve of the 10th of Muharram, the day known as ʿĀshūrāʾ, in worship and prayer and as the morning of ʿĀshūrāʾ dawned, they prepared for battle. One by one, Imam Husain’s AS companions and kin, after three days without a drop of water, headed into battle striking down many a foe, yet ultimately succumbing to the greatly outnumbering Yazidi forces. Finally, as an ultimate expression of sacrifice, devotion and commitment to Islam and the causes of loyalty, truth and righteousness, Husain Imam AS prostrated before the Creator praying for the salvation and deliverance of humanity when he was beheaded by the wretched Shimr.
News of Husain Imam’s AS martyrdom and the cruelty and tyranny inflicted upon the household of the Prophet SAW spread across the Islamic world, rallying Muslims and fortifying their belief in the true message of Islam. His principled stand against oppressors and his sacrifice for truth have over centuries inspired Muslims and non-Muslims alike, for they represent the very noblest of human virtues and the very essence of humanity.
Imam Husain AS stood for the universal principles of justice, compassion and kindness; his steadfastness and resoluteness in the face of severe oppression against him and his loved ones is perhaps the single greatest example of fortitude, valour and sacrifice in the history of mankind. Remembering him, lamenting the tragedies that befell him and grieving upon his sacrifice and the sacrifice of his family and companions, is at its core a journey towards understanding ourselves and ultimately our role as human beings on this earth.
Picture: The holy sepulchre of Imam Husain AS in Karbala. The 51st dāʿī, Syedna Taher Saifuddin RA dedicated the silver and gold sepulchre seen here in 1355/1937. With the installment of a new shrine in 1424/2013, the sepulchre dedicated by the 51st dāʿī has now been relocated to the Holy Shrine’s museum and parts have been reinstalled at a newly constructed lower level.
"The principles of Maulana al-Imam al-Husain’s AS shahādat (martyrdom) are founded upon truth and loyalty. Its fundamentals are based upon mutual compassion and sincerity, whilst its lofty tents are raised upon trust in Allah Taʿālā with complete conviction and unwavering fortitude in the face of the oppressor’s oppression."
Syedna Taher SaifuddinRA
The largest gathering within the Dawoodi Bohra community takes place at the venue where His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS, the head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, leads the commemoration. The ʿAshara Mubāraka majālis led by His Holiness TUS himself are conducted at a scale like no other and offer a truly unique experience for the tens, and sometimes, hundreds of thousands who attend. His Holiness TUS conducts a series of ten sermons in which he recalls the hardships and tribulations faced by Imam Husain AS and describes the courage and fortitude shown by him, his family and companions.
His Holiness’ TUS counsel and guidance throughout the year, and especially during ʿAshara Mubāraka, are the source and foundation of the community’s ethos: the expression of a strong Islamic identity that resonates with values of loyalty, patriotism, lawfulness and generosity - values which encourage Dawoodi Bohras to be exemplary citizens of the countries they live in and ideal members of today’s global society.
The intense grief and emotion inspired by the remembrance of Imam Husain’s AS tragedy cleanses the soul providing mental and spiritual relief, and also re-sensitizes attendees to contemporary global travesties and inequities thereby generating a greater sense of communal empathy.
Picture: The late His Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA delivering a sermon during ʿAshara Mubāraka in Mombasa in 1430/2008.
Picture Caption: A view of the congregation listening to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s TUS sermons in the Hakimi Masjid complex, Dar es Salaam.
Continuing the time-honoured tradition of his forefathers, His Holiness TUS chooses a different city as the venue for where he leads ʿAshara Mubāraka each year. Among the numerous advantages of such a practice, one major benefit is the transformation of the selected location into a cultural hub for the Dawoodi Bohra community. The presence of Syedna TUS, the influx of thousands of visitors and the coordination and cooperation with local, state and national governmental bodies cements the local community’s standing. Since the event is replete with spiritual, economic, cultural and social impact, cities vie for the honour of hosting it.
Written and oral petitions on behalf of host cities, often at large community events, begin several months prior to Muharram and they present Syedna TUS with reports of their preparations and planning. Prior to Muharram and before the start of the new year, after having taken all the various proposals into consideration, Syedna TUS makes his decision. This announcement of each year’s venue is an eagerly awaited moment for the whole community; within minutes of the formal declaration, the host city is engulfed in a flurry of final preparations and prospective attendees are busied finalizing their travel and accommodation arrangements.
Using the community’s online management portal, registration for ʿAshara Mubāraka begins immediately after His Holiness’ TUS announcement. Data fed into the system allows for organizers to accurately ascertain the number of expected guests, their travel arrangements, accommodation preferences and special needs and requirements. After securing necessary permissions, the host town begins transforming the ʿAshara venue in order to properly accommodate the influx of guests. Washroom facilities, information points, communication centres, a vast complex of offices and several large dining areas to feed tens of thousands of people at a time are set up in the central masjid area and outlying satellite sites. The seating capacity of the central masjid where His Holiness TUS delivers the sermon is also augmented while carefully adhering to safety and fire regulations and construction codes.
The Prophet Mohammed SAW states:
He who sheds tears upon [the tragedy of] my son Husain, or causes another to shed tears, or if unable to cry, reveals his grief through his facial expressions, is guaranteed jannat (heaven).
The ʿAshara Mubāraka event led by His Holiness TUS is a marvel of logistics and planning. With accurate information in the system, including accommodation details, hosts are able to organize transport for guests from across the city. Passes are issued to all attendees that detail their exact seating location, entry point and dining area. In a little under an hour after gates open in the morning, everyone is seated in their spots in the main masjid and surrounding areas ready to listen to Syedna’s TUS sermon. After the culmination of the sermon and afternoon prayers, attendees are served meals in the various dining halls erected for the event in the community’s distinct communal style of eating with 8 or 9 individuals sat together to share a meal from a large steel platter known as the thāl.
Perhaps the single most impressive element of ʿAshara Mubāraka is that it is almost completely organized and executed by a volunteer force of community members. From technical tasks such as steel fabrication and software programming to artistic endeavours such as calligraphy and mural painting, Dawoodi Bohras from across the world converge on the host city and join forces with their hosts in preparation. The entire community comes together in a unique display of esprit de corps which demonstrates the great extents to which people are inspired and mobilized by their love for Imam Husain AS.
Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS states:
An everlasting example of benevolence in the face of injustice, is the benevolence shown upon mankind on the battlefield of Karbala. For the sake of Haq (what is true and right), Imam Husain AS sacrificed the lives of his beloved family and companions upon the scorching sands of the desert, their throats parched with thirst. In the end, he, too, with his sacred being covered with wounds and having shed countless droplets of his blessed blood, gave his life, and in doing so saved all humanity from falling into disgrace and dishonour.
"Those Husain fought against in Karbala did not merely come to desecrate and destroy the religions of past prophets, or the religion of Islam, but to desecrate humanity itself, which is the essence of all religions."
Syedna Mufaddal SaifuddinTUS
Since His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS ascended to the leadership mantle of the community after the passing of his respected father, His Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA in 2014, he has conducted five ʿAshara Mubārakas in three continents. His inaugural ʿAshara Mubāraka as head of the community took place in Surat, his city of birth, in 2014 where over 100,000 individuals attended. The following year, His Holiness TUS was invited to Houston, USA, where he delivered sermons to an audience of over 25,000: the largest community event to have ever taken place in the West. The Mayor of Houston and several local politicians and leaders visited His Holiness TUS at the masjid complex during the event as a recognition of ʿAshara Mubāraka’s impact on the city and in solidarity with the messages of peace, patriotism and love for all that were at the heart of His Holiness’ TUS sermons.
In 2016, Syedna TUS selected Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, as the venue for the ʿAshara Mubāraka gathering. In this historic event, over 30,000 Dawoodi Bohras attended the event making it the largest ever international gathering to have taken place in Tanzania. The influx of visitors to the city and their subsequent contributions to the tourism sector of the country proved a boon for both the local and national economies. The President of Tanzania, His Excellency John Magufuli, called on His Holiness TUS at the ʿAshara venue and addressed the gathering of thousands of people.
The following year, in 2017, His Holiness TUS decided to conduct the sermons in Karachi, Pakistan. Despite security concerns, 60,000 people gathered in the heart of the city’s business district where the community’s central masjid is located for the period of ten days. His Holiness’ TUS sermons had drawn an international crowd in numbers Karachi had not seen in many years. Government leaders such as the Chief Minister of Sindh, Syed Murad Ali Shah, thanked His Holiness TUS for his continued faith in Pakistan, its government and its people, and cited the successful completion of ʿAshara Mubāraka as an example of the peace and stability that has returned to the city.
ʿAshara Mubāraka in 2018 in Indore was also ground-breaking in many ways. It saw the largest congregation of Dawoodi Bohras for the event to date, totalling nearly 210,000 people. On the 4th of Muharram, Syedna TUS welcomed the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi to the ʿAshara Mubāraka assembly in which both he and the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shri Shivraj Singh Chouhan, participated in the majlis and addressed the gathering.
The Prime Minister spoke of Imam Husain’s TUS martyrdom and the lessons his sacrifice offers to mankind today. He and the Chief Minister acknowledged the contributions to the nation by Syedna TUS and his forefathers, as well as the many initiatives for social welfare, economic growth, environmental conservation and education they have undertaken.
This year His Holiness TUS chose Colombo, Sri Lanka as the venue for the ʿAshara Mubāraka sermons. Despite security concerns in the wake of terrorist attacks earlier in the year, more than 27,000 people gathered in Colombo to partake in the sermons with His Holiness TUS. The standards of Husain AS fluttered high atop community edifices in the city communicating to the world the messages inherent in the martyrdom of Imam Husain AS - those of peace, love and humanity - and demonstrating their power in healing wounds and bringing people together. The large influx of community members went a long way in rejuvenating Sri Lanka’s ailing economy which had experienced considerable decline in the aftermath of the attacks and restored confidence in the country as a safe destination for visitors. Colombo has been host to ʿAshara Mubāraka six times in the past during the tenure of the 51st and 52nd dāʿis, with the last one being conducted by the late His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA in 2008.
"An everlasting example of benevolence in the face of injustice, is the benevolence shown upon mankind on the battlefield of Karbala. For the sake of Haqq (what is true and right), Imam Husain AS sacrificed the lives of his beloved family and companions upon the scorching sands of the desert, their throats parched. In the end, he, too, covered with wounds and having shed countless droplets of his blessed blood, gave his life, and in doing so saved all humanity from falling into disgrace and dishonour."
Syedna Mufaddal SaifuddinTUS
The majālis of ʿAshara Mubāraka extend beyond the masjid where the sermons take place. Our faith encompasses all aspects of life and similarly, ʿAshara Mubāraka, arguably the truest manifestation of the Dawoodi Bohra faith, provides numerous opportunities for growth in our personal and social lives. It is where the values and guidance disseminated in the sermons are first put into practice. Throughout the ten day period, a host of community organizations take advantage of the enormous attendance and learning-conducive environment to educate, create awareness and provide various services to the attendees and the city.
Medical camps staffed by volunteer doctors and medical professionals from around the world offer consultations, testing and non-prescription medicine free of charge. The camps are situated in different location and also offer emergency medical aid to community and non-community members. Individuals can walk-in or take appointments with highly qualified specialists where they are offered free tests and diagnosis. Often, the camps help attendees uncover existing but hidden ailments or provide a more effective treatment for known conditions. The medical camps also conduct sessions on healthy eating and living.
At its core, the ʿAshara sermons are about growth in knowledge, understanding and wisdom. This environment is ideal for discussions regarding education. Organisations affiliated to the community’s premier educational institute, Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, offer student counselling sessions conducted by professionals from various fields. The conversations help young students and professionals identify career paths and study options in line with His Holiness’ TUS counsel and guidance. Apart from individual counselling, discussion groups are held where participants, collectively and individually, reflect upon core concepts from Syedna’s TUS sermons. During ʿAshara Mubāraka, as in life, learning is continuous.
Purity is a fundamental tenet of Islam originating in the soul and extending outwards to every aspect of an individual’s life: purity of thought, word and deed. Inspired by this spirit and understanding of purity, the naẓāfat, or cleanliness committee, helps local sanitation departments in keeping the ʿAshara venue clear of litter. The committee also tries to educate attendees about green practices and the small lifestyle changes that make the environment better for all.
The event in Indore went one step further in environmental conservation. In keeping with the city’s reputation for being one of the cleanest and most environmentally friendly in India, the organizing committee successfully made ʿAshara Mubāraka a zero waste event. Separate bins were placed for waste segregation and the cumulative waste of the event was recycled in its entirety. Two hundred tonnes of organic waste were converted into fertilizer and distributed to farmers in the region, free of charge. Paper was sent to local recycling facilities, and plastic use was drastically limited, with single-use plastic bags completely banned during the event. All these efforts resulted in a religious event that set the benchmark for environmental awareness and cleanliness.
The aspect of ʿAshara that requires the most logistics and is, perhaps, most emblematic of the event is the Mawāʾid. Mawāʾid is an Arabic word meaning platters filled with food, and thus it is used as the name for the large dining areas where thousands of guests partake in communal meals. Hosting another for a meal is a tradition deeply rooted in the Islamic faith and observed by the Bohra community with great fervour. Attendees voluntarily fund the millions of individual meals provided during the event and make the most of this opportunity, according to their individual capacities, to be hosts to their fellow community members in the name of Imam Husain AS. Despite the vast amounts of resources required and almost impossible logistics, breakfast, lunch and dinner is served in a couple of hours to thousands of people, on a daily basis. Perhaps the greatest exemplar of feeding others in the love of Imam Husain AS is His Holiness TUS.
On the 8th of Muharram each year, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS, like his revered father before him, hosts a meal not only for the large number of community members present with him, but for all Dawoodi Bohras attending sermons in their local centres the world-over. In remembrance of Husain Imam AS and his family’s thirst and hunger, community members not only contribute monetarily towards feeding their brothers and sisters, but also volunteer time and effort in preparing and serving the meals. Despite these large numbers and vast amounts of food, great care is taken to ensure that not even a single morsel of food is wasted. Children volunteers serve water and milk to community members during Muharram in Mumbai.
For the hosts of the event and their sleepless nights, for the volunteers who sacrifice their time and resources and for the guests who arrive in their thousands in the love of Husain Imam AS, attending ʿAshara Mubāraka with His Holiness TUS is a journey like no other. For each participant, it is a journey of transformation and reinvigoration. Whether it is the knowledge we gain during the sermons, the realization that dawns upon us in a discussion group after a communal meal, or the satisfaction we experience in feeding another or lending them a helping hand, each moment of ʿAshara Mubāraka brings us closer to an ideal version of ourselves. And as the days pass and we grow closer to the culmination that lies in the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, the milestones of thought, mourning and service to one another that we cross each day remind us of who we are and enlighten us with the possibilities of who we can become. ʿAshara Mubāraka is a journey towards the depths of human meaning and the heights of human possibility. We are constantly and continuously reminded of Imam Husain’s TUS loyalty, his sacrifice, his steadfast ability to stand up to tyranny and most importantly, the love he bore for us in his heart, and we are forever changed.