Seeing Myself in “Ya Husayn” and the Resonance of Ancestral Familiarity

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.


The late Malcolm Latif Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X, visiting the resting place of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, Syria. Courtesy: Professor A.L.I

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!”

skhabeerSu’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 an assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies at Purdue University. 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.

NWMI “Faith in Action: At the Intersection of Islam, Race and #BlackLivesMatter” Panel 2016

In October 2016, Next Wave Muslim Initiative (NWMI) hosted a panel titled “Faith in Action: At the Intersection of Islam, Race, and #BlackLivesMatter”. It was held at the renowned Busboys & Poets Restaurant in Washington, DC.

Moderated by Saafir Rabb II, the panel included notable guests Donna Auston (Rutgers University PhD candidate), Professor Layla Abdullah-Polous (MuslimARC), and essayist Tariq Touré. Coinciding with the month of Muharram, the panel discussion encouraged the audience to reflect on the story of Karbala and the Exodus from Egypt, think critically about positioning in matters of social justice, and discuss what allyship and support by non-Black Muslims for Black Muslim organizations and issues.

Watch the entire discussion here via YouTube:

“I Love You More” – Amir Sulaiman

Def Poetry Jam alum Amir Sulaiman’s portfolio is replete with fathomless and Divinely-inspired works of lyrical art that we here at Sapelo Square have been a fan of for years. This piece from 2010 titled “I Love You More” is one of our favorites, wherein Amir unapologetically establishes himself as “an extremist in love” for the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) and his noble family (Ahl al-Bayt).

“I wrote this on the 10th night of Muharram/my body in the gutter/my soul in the Haram/my spirit in the heavens/my hunger from the bottom/ on the fifth pillar leaning on a column/ staring at the Ka’ba thinking about Karbala…”

Listen to it in its entirety here on YouTube:

Karbala Mixtape Vol.1: Blood in Our Eyez

In 2013, a group of hip-hop artists in the Bay Area came together with Shaykh Hashim Ali Alauddeen to record and produce the “Karbala Mixtape, Volume 1”. This project aimed to call grassroots and underground lyricists and creatives back to putting relevant messages in their craft, harkening back to the “golden age” of hip-hop.

Shaykh Hashim said about this mixtape, “Each track tells important events in this story culminating in the imprisonment of the survivors in the court of his mortal enemy, Yazid. We tell the story while connecting the struggles of Imam Husayn with struggles of African peoples, both Christian and Muslim. The retelling of this history is important as it is also important for us as a people to retell the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow and the hardships that have happened to all people around the world who have been victims of injustice. Our inspiration comes from our love of divine justice.”

This project came about in the wake of the assassination of al-Hajj Malcolm Latif Shabazz, the grandson of al-Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), in May 2013, with whom Shaykh Hashim had a close relationship. al-Hajj Malcolm is featured on the tracks, “By Any Means Necessary (Yaa Husayn)” and “Candles for Husayn”, the latter being a tribute to his mother Qubilah.

Other artists include Amir Sulaiman, Left from the Bay Area Group the Frontline, Phenomena the Poet, Professor ALI, Yusuf Abdul Mateen of Blak Madeen, Young Skitz, Shareef Nasir and Cameron.

Listen to the mixtape via Reverbnation here:

Muharram: A Month of Resisting Oppression

by Dawud Walid

Courtesy: Al-Madina Institute’s IMAN Wire

Surely those who disbelieve in the signs of Allah kill the prophets without right and those who enjoin justice among the people, so give them tidings of a painful punishment. (Qur’an 3:21)

Muharram, which is the first month on the Islamic calendar, holds special importance in Islam, it being one of the four sacred months. Within Islamic tradition, there are several historical events which many Muslims connect to the importance of the month. Two of these events in particular contain a vast amount of lessons—the time of the salvation from the Children of Israel from Pharaoh and the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn and his companions (may Allah be pleased with them) on the Day of Ashura.

Pharaoh is the most unjust human mentioned in the Qur’an. He arrogantly stated to the people of his time that “I am your lord, the most high.” (Surah an-Nazi’at, Ayah 79). He enslaved the Children of Israel, who were not of his nation and ethnic group, and treated them extremely cruel, including murdering their sons. He even ordered the beheading of his own wife Asiya (may Allah be pleased with her) due to her non-agreement with his oppression. Pharaoh, thus, is a representation of the worst type of state power.


Photo: Patrick Semansky (Associate Press)

Allah (Mighty & Sublime) out of His immeasurable mercy provided the Children of Israel with prophetic leadership through Musa and Harun (peace be upon them) to guide them out of Pharaoh’s oppression.

The Children of Israel were delivered from slavery and Pharaoh was destroyed despite their disobedience of prophetic leadership. Even after their deliverance, however, the Children of Israel’s profound ingratitude of Allah’s favor caused them to wander miserably for forty years before making it to the promise land, a walk that should not have taken even a month to make.

Centuries later, after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him), the believers in monotheism faced the dilemma of the leadership of Yazid bin Mu’awiyah. Yazid, a Muslim who was a known wine drinker and neglected making the five daily prayers, sought to make the remaining companions of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) and the successive generation pledge allegiance to him despite his lack of Islamic qualifications. When Imam al-Husayn, who the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) called one of the two “leaders of the youth of the People of Paradise,” practiced non-violent civil disobedience by not pledging allegiance, he was met by Yazid’s general Ubaydullah bin Ziyad who led an army against the family of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him). Imam al-Husayn along with other Hashimites and his supporters were slaughtered in Karbala, Iraq.

The unintended consequences of disobedience in times of uncomfortable conditions have the potential of adding to our miseries, not softening them.

Prior to the massacre of Imam al-Husayn on Ashura, the People of Kufah in Iraq called him to come there, promising to pledge allegiance and provide protection to the Prophet’s family. The Kufans, however, broke their word which they gave to Imam al-Husayn and sold out their covenant. The betrayal of the Kufans in fact was collusion with unjust state power that led to the bloodshed of Imam al-Husayn. This then led to the massacre of the people of al-Madinah the following year who refused to give allegiance to Yazid, which in turn then led to the attack against the followers of the Prophet’s companion Abdullah bin az-Zubayr at al-Masjid al-Haram that led to the Kaaba being burned down.

The insubordination of the Children of Israel and the People of Kufah as well as the silence of many Muslims in the face of Yazid’s tyranny holds contemporary relevance. In times of calamities and injustices, the incumbency of following Allah’s guidance is weighty. The unintended consequences of disobedience in times of uncomfortable conditions have the potential of adding to our miseries, not softening them. Seeking to be accepted by corrupt principalities or copying others in their ways as the Children of Israel did directly after crossing the Red Sea are recipes for greater problems. Moreover, silence in the face of oppression is passive facilitation of its ability to further spread.

The first ten days of Muharram, the Day of Ashura being the most important, should be used as a time for fasting and supplication. Reading the Qur’an regarding the challenges of Musa with his people and reading the biography of Imam al-Husayn are also noble endeavors to take part in. In all of these, we will hopefully be able to draw closer to what is pleasing to Allah (Mighty & Sublime), which includes a renewed consciousness towards obeying Him, following Prophetic leadership and not being agents of oppression, be it aiding and abetting our own oppression or letting oppression spread through our silence.

unnamedImam Dawud Walid is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), is a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) Imams Committee and is the co-author of the new release Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles Among the Early Pious.

Imam Hussain: A Beacon of Justice for Black Lives

by Brother Adibudeen

The battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hussain ibn Ali in 680 CE is often exclusively viewed as a Shia issue. Every year millions of Shia Muslims remember the events at Karbala that took place on Ashura (the 10th day of Muharram on the Islamic calendar). But not only is this tragedy not exclusively a Shia issue, but it is also not exclusively relevant to Muslims. There is a lesson in Karbala for all people, particularly people who have been oppressed, marginalized and exploited. For African Americans, the lesson of Karbala is one of sacrifice, struggle for justice and hope for a fair and equitable future.

“We suffer political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation — all of them from the same enemy. The government has failed us; you can’t deny that.” – Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964)

The United States government has failed us, black people in America, since our ancestors were brought here in chains and sold into perpetual slavery, through decades of unchecked lynching, Jim Crow and now the modern mass incarceration system. While the image of a black president on television might lead the casual observer to believe racism has ended its chokehold on America, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Although individual race relations and attitudes toward diversity have improved in America over the years, systemic racism persists in nearly every institution, from police departments to churches. It is so pervasive that many of the people working within those institutions do not even realize they are perpetuating racial inequity.

1400 years ago, Prophet Muḥammad (peace and blessing be upon him) faced persecution from Arabs who did not want to see their privileged way of life upset by a new monotheistic religion. Idolatry for them was not simply their belief system but also an extremely profitable industry. Slavery was commonplace, and female infants were often buried alive because male offspring were better for family business. Tribalism, racism and sexism were rampant. Islam stood against all of that, and the tribe of Quraish and clan of Banu Umayyah that once stood against him eventually embraced Islam.

As the renown historian Ibn Khaldun determined, history is cyclical in nature, and those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

After the Prophet’s death, however, old wounds left from tribal rivalries persisted. Banu Umayyah would eventually once again rise to power, but this time claiming to uphold the banner of Al-Islam. Mu’awiyah ibn Abu Sufyan instituted what would become the Umayyad dynasty, and the leadership of Muslims was, for the first time, in the hands of a monarchy. His son and successor Yazid had little interest in keeping Islam alive and more interest in strengthening the dynasty by subduing any perceived threats, particularly from Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s own grandson.

Just as many white Americans would prefer to ignore history and pretend as though racism does not exist or was not all that bad, many Sunni Muslims choose to turn a blind eye to the darker portions of Muslim history and imagine that Islam’s “golden age” was golden for everyone rather than an exclusive elite and their loyal subordinates. In doing so, they not only ignore years of oppression and exploitation, they also enable present-day Muslim leaders to repeat those mistakes. As the renown historian Ibn Khaldun determined, history is cyclical in nature, and those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Islam is particularly unique among world religions in that justice (‘adl) is a fundamental principle. The Just (al-‘Adl) is one of the divine Names and attributes of Allah. When Prophet Muhammad began to preach his newly revealed message, one of his first tasks was to stop the burial of newborn infant girls. Justice is so crucial to Islam that a Muslim is even obligated to defend a non-Muslim against an unjust Muslim. Justice does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or religion.

Imam Hussain could have hidden and stayed quiet. After all, his brother Imam Hassan, the rightful successor (khalifah) after Imam Ali, had abdicated to Mu’awiyah and chosen to spend his last days teaching and fostering good will among Muslims. tumblr_owhzvcysNj1v14rjio1_1280But Imam Hussain recognized that at certain times the injustice and tyranny becomes so great that remaining silent and hidden is no longer an option. Resistance becomes an obligation. Standing for truth becomes a necessity lest the very light of truth be extinguished completely. Such were the conditions in the still young Muslim community (ummah) at that time.

Likewise, throughout America’s history, great men and women have recognized when the time for waiting quietly was over and the time for action was imperative. Harriet Tubman understood this. Robert Smalls understood this. Rosa Parks understood this. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. Malcolm X understood this. And there were numerous others, some we know and some who have been lost in history.

The Yazids of the 21st century have made it clear that Black lives do not matter to them.

At least 72 of Imam Hussain’s family members and followers stood with him on the desert plain of Karbala and were butchered because they understood this. Through their sacrifice, the people began to once again understand the importance of truth and justice. His sister Zaynab survived and began to teach people the purity and compassion of Islam and also expose the corruption Yazid had dispersed over the land.

Martyrs like Imam Hussain and Malik Shabbazz (Malcolm X’s name after returning from Hajj) are symbols of hope for a day when justice prevails, but more than this, they provide us with examples of how and when to stand for justice. It is no accident that Malik Shabbazz was killed not long after he decided to take the grievances of African Americans to an international audience at the United Nations. It is when great leaders demonstrate for us a path to justice that tyrants seek to silence them, but in their martyrdom, their voices become louder and their causes become immortal.

The Yazids of the 21st century have made it clear that Black lives do not matter to them. This is clear in their words, but it is even clearer in their actions. And now we see young and old black men and women standing up (or kneeling as the case may be) to expose this tyranny and oppression while putting their careers and possibly even their lives at risk. Imam Hussain is a shining light for the oppressed and disenfranchised people of the world, and today he lights the way to justice for Black lives in America.

(originally posted for OneUmmah.Net on October 12, 2016)

Brother Adibudeen has worked for the unity of Muslims since the inception of One Ummah Network. He accepted Islam in 1995 and has been working to increase his knowledge and unite Muslims ever since. His responsibilities include the oversight of both One Ummah Network and Bayt al-Hikmah Islamic Library.