by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
I did not grow up commemorating Muharram. And not for reasons I have read from others; I wasn’t raised to be a Shi’a-hating Sunni nor was my Sunni family sublimating the significance of Karbala. I did not grow up commemorating Muharram as the Exodus either… I did not grow up “Sunni” or “Shi’a.” We just called ourselves “Muslim”.
I do have one early memory of the concept “Shi’a.” I vaguely recall someone asking why someone was praying with their hands down and someone else explained that some Muslims pray like that and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) prayed like that too, so it’s okay. End of Story.
Now, as someone who has spent a long time studying Muslims in the United States, I know that even though we just called ourselves Muslim, I was, in fact, raised in the Sunni tradition. Although I knew it was okay to pray with your hands at your side, I was taught to pray with my hands flatly folded against my chest. This has a lot to do with forces beyond the control of both me and my community’s control, namely what kinds of Muslims were able to come and proselytize in the United States, and to the Black and Latinx Muslims of my parents’ generation. (I have a nascent theory that if the US had responded to the Iranian Revolution differently and not effectively cut off Iran as a religious influence while facilitating a particular Sunni influence through Saudi Arabia, many more Black American Muslims would, in fact, be Shi’a.)
From a young child I was taught about the ancestors: who they were, why they matter and how it relates to me; and now it is a part of my way of being in the world. Loving and honoring my ancestors is a part of who I am.
The tradition we had greatest access to, from the hadith collections, sirah and fiqh we were taught to the non-Black thinkers that were popular (Qutb, Mawdudi, Deedat and the like), we were primarily trained in Sunnism—the postcolonial version. But we were promiscuous Sunnis. I was introduced to Ali Shariati, the intellectual of the Iranian Revolution, while browsing my mother’s Islamic book collection, which also includes a Maulana Muhammad Ali (read Ahmadi) translation of the Qur’an. Shaykh Hassan Cissé was always a guest at Aunty Kareemah’s house, so we did Sufi stuff too. Because I was not inculcated as a Sunni or a Shi’a, all that sectarian strife was, and remains, fairly meaningless to me, which is a good thing. However, I also do not have an affective or emotional connection with events like the Battle of Karbala, which I think of as a loss.
Some years ago when I was studying in Damascus, I had the opportunity to visit the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque. This masjid is home to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) granddaughter, Zaynab, who is the daughter of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahra and Imam Ali, and sister to Imams Hasan and Husayn.
While there I was struck by ways in which pilgrims cried and mourned at her tomb as if they were at the gravesites of their very own mothers. I was impressed by the kind of connection—deeply personal and emotional—these contemporary Muslims had with individuals who had died years ago and whom they had never met in person (at least I assume that). And frankly, I felt a little cheated that I was not moved in the same way.
I know there are many Muslims who find that kind of expression, the tears and the pain, disturbing (and those who think it is forbidden). But when I think about how I feel about my enslaved ancestors, I get it. I cry and mourn them. I know their past suffering intimately and I see it everywhere in my present. It is my own. This attachment I have to people who died years ago and that I have never met in person is not innate. For a very long time in our history, and still for some Black folks in the Diaspora today, the ancestors were only a source of shame—you didn’t remember them but tried to forget them; you didn’t see yourself linked to them but rather attempted to eviscerate any connection you have to them. I was raised differently. From a young child I was taught about the ancestors: who they were, why they matter and how it relates to me; and now it is a part of my way of being in the world. Loving and honoring my ancestors is a part of who I am.
This is how I imagine people feel about Ahl al-Bayt and Karbala.
In the story of Karbala, I find hosts of women and men who came before me, I find resonance between the fight for justice waged by my ancestors, African and Spiritual. In fact, the lamentation “Ya Husayn!” is also familiar to me, in it I find libation.
In an effort to gain that kind of feeling for myself, I started to read about this history. When I read the story of Karbala, I’m touched by the martyrdom of Imam Husayn and his companions… to know that certain death awaits you and to nevertheless fight for what is right is not an easy nor common thing to do. Yet it is familiar to me: in Imam Husayn I find Malcolm. When I read the story of Karbala, I am inspired by the words and actions of Sayyida Zaynab. Speaking truth to power, whether that power is a state or your own community, is not an easy nor common thing to do. Yet it is familiar to me; in Sayyida Zaynab I find Dr. Betty and my Umi too.
In the story of Karbala, I find hosts of women and men who came before me, I find resonance between the fight for justice waged by my ancestors, African and Spiritual. In fact, the lamentation “Ya Husayn!” is also familiar to me, in it I find libation. As the libation is poured, ancestor names are called. Their names are spoken so we might remember them, be inspired by them, pray for them and receive any blessings their lives offer.
I suppose it is not surprising that despite not being raised Shi’a, I find so much familiarity. After all, those categories of ancestors overlap. Yet there is one distinct difference. I don’t yet know the names of my enslaved ancestors but I do know Husayn’s. Perhaps his name is their name, too, and in the cry “Ya Husayn” my heart hears all of their names. Perhaps it stands in like a bridge between time and place, between myself, my ancestors and the righteous struggle for justice.
I’m older now and I know the official difference between Sunni and Shi’a and still just call myself Muslim. But I have grown to become a Muslim who seeks the kind of connections unbroken by time and distance contained in the cry “Ya, Husayn!”
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist who uses anthropology and performance to explore the intersections of race and popular culture. Su’ad is currently associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is a graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and completed the Islamic Studies diploma program of the Institute at Abu Nour University (Damascus). Her latest work, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press 2016), is an ethnography on Islam and hip-hop that examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the US.