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ON ʿĀSHŪRĀʾ, FASTING, SADNESS AND JOY


Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, "And indeed, He is the One who makes to laugh and cry" (53:43) "Their sides turn away from their beds [into prayer], they call upon their Lord out of FEAR and HOPE and spend from what We have sustained them with." (32:16) "Indeed, with every difficulty there is ease. Indeed, with every difficulty there is ease." (94:6) The 10th of Muharram (ʿĀshūrāʾ) is a day that polarizes Muslims greatly, between only sadness, grief and mourning or only happiness and joy. People on both sides believe that if you don't agree with them, if you don't follow their understanding, then you're deficient in your love and faith. In Sunni Islamic spirituality, also known as tasawwuf (Sufism) or ihsan (perfective beauty), we are taught that the servant fluctuates, during his/her life in this world, between Divine Jamal (Beauty) and Jalal (Majesty), also known as bast (expansion) and qabd (constriction), yusr (ease) and ʿusr (difficulty).


The lives of all prophets and messengers, including – most auspiciously – the life of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, follows this Divine trajectory. Our master ﷺ’s lofty rank with Allah was unveiled when he received revelation, itself an event that was difficult to bear yet joyous, combining constriction and expansion. This was followed by some of his closest family members rejecting him and others embracing his message ÿ.


Then, during 'am al-huzn (the year of sadness), he would lose both his uncle Abu Talib and wife Khadija, peace be upon them, and was stoned out of Ta'if, with his blessed feet bleeding and seeking Divine Mercy, only to be honored soon after with the mi'raj (night ascension) journey.


Then, the conquest of Makkah – and world – would soon follow with the greatest calamity the Muslims would ever experience: the passing of their beloved Prophet ﷺ from this worldly abode. As many companions would proclaim during his lifetime: “Every calamity besides you [, your demise] is ease.”


Perhaps the most severe of calamities the Muslim community would face after the transition of their Beloved Prophet ﷺ is the massacre of his blessed family, peace be upon them, at Karbala' in the year 61 of the Hijrah, which took place on 'Ashura'.


During the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ, on that same day, shortly after arriving in Madina, he ﷺ found the Jews in the city fasting as a form of gratitude to Allah for saving Moses ¡ and the Israelites from Pharaoh and destroying the latter and his army in the Red Sea. As it is narrated in both Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet ﷺ prescribed fasting on that day for his community because “We [Muslims] have more of a right over Moses.”


But the Prophet ﷺ was also foretold by the angel Gabriel of the martyrdom of his grandson imam Husayn, peace be upon him, in multiple narrations. And yet, he ﷺ did not inform his community to stop fasting on 'Ashura' due to the calamity that would occur in the future after his transition from this world.


One can argue – as extremes on both sides do – about the historical and textual proofs for their position and against the other’s. Often, this involves an outright denial of statements and actions of the Prophet ﷺ that are found in the most authentic sources, such as the hadith prescribing the fasting on 'Ashura'.


Similarly, and perhaps more egregiously, some among the Wahhabis, for instance, accuse imam Husayn of being mistaken, God forbid, for marching to Karbala' and that the accursed Yazid was right.


My objective in this essay is not to debate naql (transmitted texts) or ʿaql (reasoning), but rather to return and focus on the spiritual dimension of Jamal and Jalal to reach a balanced perception of our duty as Muslims on this day, as Sunnis who adhere to tasawwuf and ihsan (perfective beauty), that complete lens through which to perceive reality.


Allah informed His Prophet ﷺ that this division would occur in his community, as a tribulation to see which side they would take: denying the sacrifice of imam Husayn, peace be upon him? neglecting the command of their Prophet to fast in gratitude? or to combine and acknowledge both duties to Allah, His Prophet ﷺ and the Blessed Family, peace be upon them?


It is indeed the completed and perfected suluk to acknowledge the bounty of Allah upon His Prophets and, at the same time, grieve and mourn the fact that the blessed grandson of their Prophet and family were massacred by people who claim to be Muslim.


In this regard, the event at Karbala' should always remain a time of introspection for the Muslim community, as we come to terms with the love, reverence and reference due to the Prophetic Family, peace be upon them.


But even when we consider the martyrdom of imam Husayn, apart from the victory that Moses and the Israelites were given against Pharaoh, we find a Jamal and Jalal in this event. Imam Husayn and the Blessed Family, peace be upon them, had no attachments to this world, they were – and still are – the paragons of maʿrifa (gnosis) that they received as an inheritance from their grandfather ﷺ, particularly as gleaned from the Qurʾan.


Just as the Prophet ﷺ himself described his time in dunya: “My example and this world is like a traveler who is seeking shade under a tree, then will get up and continue his journey”, his blessed family, peace be upon them, also treaded the earth with this understanding.


They longed to union with Allah, and what a joyous occasion it is to meet their Lord as shuhada' (martyrs), even though they had already attained spiritual shuhud (witnessing of Divine Realities) during their lifetimes.


I myself come from a half Shiʿi half Sunni background, throughout my upbringing and doctoral research, which branched into Shiʿi ʿirfan (mystical theosophy), I always wondered how a deeply mystical tradition that envisions the Blessed Family, peace be upon them, as primordial lights from which Allah created the universe, would then reduce the martyrdom of imam Husayn into a mere mourning of the body, completely neglecting the joy of spiritual union.


I ask and wonder, as our master Bilal said on his deathbed: “Oh joy! Tomorrow we meet the beloveds, Muhammad and his companions”, would that not also be the condition of imam Husayn and the Blessed Family, elated to reunion with their grandfather, other prophets and messengers? Imam Husayn was not a body with a spirit, he was a spirit dressed in a body, a body that was unveiled to reveal a spirit celebrated and welcomed into the Divine Presence.


As for the assumption and accusation that fasting on 'Ashura' can only be an expression of joy, I ask sincerely with no sarcastic intent: how can a grieving person who mourns the death of a loved one have the appetite to eat or drink? Is eating and drinking not an expression of indulging in the pleasures of this world?


The Prophet ﷺ did not prescribe fasting on 'Ashura' as an expression of heedlessness, but rather gratitude, for just as Moses, peace be upon him, crossed with the Israelites, from one shore of the Red Sea to the other in victory against Pharoah and his army, so did imam Husayn and the Blessed Family, peace be upon them, cross from the shore of this physical world to the opposite shore of eternal bliss, in a victory against the pharaoh of their time, Yazid and his army, who continue to drown in a sea of curses, humiliation and defeat until the Day of Judgment.


As I mentioned above, I speak from the perspective of tasawwuf, Sunni Sufi saints have long since made love of the Blessed Family at the heart of their journey to Allah, how can they not when a countless number of them are themselves descendants of the Beloved ﷺ? And yet, they have not reduced the legacy of imam Husayn and the Blessed Family, peace be upon them, to their bodily death or even the events of Karbala' at large.


They know that Ahl al-Bayt (The Prophetic Household) are vessels of maʿrifa (gnosis), custodians of the Qur’anic Knowledges and that what resided in the chests of imam Husayn, and the rest of the Blessed Family who transitioned in Karbalaʾ, of secrets was poured in the heart of the last remaining son of imam Husayn, imam ʿAli Zayn al-ʿAbidin, the latter’s son imam Muhammad al-Baqir and grandson imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq, peace be upon them, all of whom are the springs of Sufi turuq (paths) and mystical knowledge.


This is the true path, I believe, to honoring the legacy of imam Husayn and ahl al-bayt, peace be upon them: become a walking Qurʾan like their grandfather ﷺ, a vessel of Divine Knowledge, then perhaps we can also attain the shahd (sweet nectar) of shuhud (witnessing) of Divine Realities, away from the reel of this fleeting world towards the reality of the eternal abode.

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