As the days and nights of Muharram set in a grief creeps into our hearts as we recognize the epic tragedy of the grandson of the Messenger of God (pbuh&hp). This tragedy shakes our hearts as we yearn to be in his company and defend his message. In addition, reflecting upon the incredible legacy of Imam Hussain (p) and his family, as described on the Day of Ashura, gives us an opportunity to transform our hearts and souls as we take inspiration from their God-consciousness and submission to the Creator.

Traditionally, the ceremonies that recall the tragedy of Imam Hussain (p) and his family are held communally, as mosques, Islamic centers, and homes are filled with incredible intensity and zeal—a practice that has historical roots and was established by the Imams of the Holy Household. However, the historical circumstances that we currently face due to the COVID-19 pandemic limit many gatherings across the world. While we understand this unfortunate reality, we may feel a sense of additional grief that we will not be able to gather in our community centers to share the significance and sacredness of the mourning rituals and the mutual feeling of grief we endure over the tragedy of the Prophet’s family. At the same time, we can take solace in the fact that Shia communities have historically faced unique challenges, and still, they have consistently been resilient and made sure that the tragedy of Imam Hussain (p) was commemorated with great intensity.

Historical Challenges

Throughout history, there have been numerous attempts, particularly by certain political forces, to create hurdles and obstacles to the commemoration of Ashura. Specifically, the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties violently repressed visitation to the shrine of Imam Hussain (p) at different points in history, forcing worshippers to conduct the mourning rituals secretly. In the early period, it was evident, through the practices of Imam Zayn al-Abidin (p) and Lady Zaynab (p), that there must be a strong emphasis on gatherings which remember the tragedy of Imam Hussain (p), and this practice was certainly modeled by the infallible imams throughout their history. This legacy of the prophetic household (pbut) is important to note, because it was upheld and propagated in spite of the real challenges and risks of commemorating the tragedy of Imam Hussain (p), his family, and his companions—challenges that included death, imprisonment, loss of property, and other gross violations of human rights. In addition, we know that there were numerous historical attempts to demolish the shrine of Imam Hussain (p) due to its symbolic nature and sacredness for the early Shia community, which only led to a greater emphasis on visiting his grave. Thus, we see unique traditions from the Imams which offer incredible rewards for those who visit the grave of Imam Hussain (p). For example, the Abbasids banned visiting Karbala, and as a response, the Shia community continued to perform the visitation due to the encouragement of the Imams. As such, a reported tradition states that “For surely visitation to the grave of Hussain is an obligation on every man and woman.”1 Other traditions emphasize that visiting the grave of Imam Hussain (p) is a right or a haq for every believer who desires to show loyalty to the Prophet and his family.2 Traditions like these, which are plentiful, demonstrate and  stress the honoring of the martyrs of Karbala during a time in which it was terribly challenging to do so.

Contemporary Challenges

Challenges in the classical period differed in many ways from contemporary challenges. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that there are numerous obstacles our communities face today. An obvious challenge is the current pandemic we are experiencing—and in spite of the hurdles, it is vital to maintain the same sacredness surrounding the nights of Muharram as we commemorate the tragedy of Imam Hussain (p), albeit from our homes or in socially distanced and responsibly organized gatherings. For many of us, it may be the first time we are ever experiencing such circumstances, and although it is painful to not congregate with fellow believers, it is a humbling experience to realize that there are so many members of our broader community who often do not attend functions in our centers due to age, illness, lack of a center nearby, or even a feeling of not being welcome. In addition, adverse socio-political circumstances in some areas and the practice of taqiyyah or dissimulation are ever-present across Shia communities globally. This experience should also serve as a reminder for us to create ways by which all members of the community can actively participate and feel engaged in our mosques and Islamic centers, especially during the commemorations of Imam Hussain and the tragedy of Ashura.

Parting Advice

Though the situation is very dire, and the current health risks may not allow us to commemorate the tragedy in the way that we are so accustomed to doing, it is important to keep in mind that we are privileged in so many ways. While the early Shia community faced forced restrictions and their lives were threatened, we are free to remain active and keep ourselves busy with the love of the Prophet and his family in our own homes. Moreover, we are fortunate to have technology at our disposal to ensure we can still hear and learn from the inspiring speeches, participate in the elegies, and remain connected to our communities.

In-Home Gatherings

In the company of our close family members and loved ones, we have the opportunity to gather and host the mourning ceremonies from the comfort of our home and allow for it to be a place that is blessed and sanctified with the remembrance of the Prophet and his family (pbut). A tradition from Imam al-Sadiq (p) demonstrates the sanctity of hosting such gatherings. He states, “The breath of the one who is mournful due to our oppression is glorification [of God], his sorrow for us is worship, and his concealing of our secrets is struggle in the way of God.”3 Our homes have the potential to be places of God’s worship and locations where the angels frequent if we use this opportunity with a pure intention. Moreover, this is an immense chance for family members (e.g., husband and wife, brother and sister, father and daughter) to sit together during the majlis of Imam Hussain (p), when they would not be able to do so in the centers and Hussainiyyahs, and discuss what they learned from the shining example of the martyrs.

Cultivating Love of Imam Hussain with our Family Members

Due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders across the globe, there is an opportunity for us to spend a bit more time with our families and grow spiritually with one another. Sitting in front of our televisions, live-streaming our programs, and creating an environment where a family weeps over the tragedy of Imam Hussain (p) together will surely create an inseparable bond between the members of the household.

Staying Engaged Online

While we may not have the potential to gather together with the same fervor or intensity as we normally do, for the sake of our hearts and souls it is vital for us to continue to remain linked with the lessons and themes that we take from the grandson of the Messenger of God (pbuh&hp). At the same time, we are privileged with Internet access and connectivity to programs taking place across the world, and it is important that we stay connected and engaged. In a conversation between Imam al-Sadiq (p) and his companion Fudhayl, the former asked, “Do you sit and gather [in our remembrance]?…Surely I love those gatherings! May God have mercy upon those who enliven our affairs!”4 Though the style of our gatherings may be different this year, we still have a chance to receive remarkable rewards from our Creator!

1. Ibn Quwlawayh, Ja’far ibn Muhammad, Kamil al-ziyarat, p. 237.
2. Please see Kamil al-ziyarat of Ibn Quwlaywah for an abundance of traditions on the merit of the ziyarat of Imam Hussain.
3. Shaykh al-Mufid, Amali, majlis 40, hadith 3, p. 338.
4. Allamah Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 44, p. 282.

1. روي عن الإمام الصادق (ع): ” زيارة قبر الحسين واجبة على الرجال والنساء”
3. روي عن الإمام الصادق (ع): ” نفس المهموم لظلمنا تسبيح، وهمه لنا عبادة، وكتمان سرنا جهاد في سبيل الله”
4. روي عن الإمام الصادق (ع): ” تجلسون وتحدثون؟ قال: نعم جعلت فداك قال: إن تلك المجالس أحبها فأحيوا أمرنا يا فضيل! فرحم الله من أحيى أمرنا، يا فضيل من ذكرنا أو ذكرنا عنده فخرج من عينه مثل جناح الذباب غفر الله له ذنوبه ولو كانت أكثر من زبد البحر” 

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