As we mentioned recently on our Facebook page, we have been going through a difficult time. From just before Eid-ul-Adha (one month ag0) until now (Ashura), there have been something like nine deaths (it's so many I'm losing track) in Neman's extended family, including his aunt and uncle who were the matriarch and patriarch of the clan (and had been married for 66 years). Most of those who have died have been ill and/or quite elderly, but this string of tragedy included the utterly shocking news that Neman's teenage cousin in Germany suddenly collapsed and died on her way into school one morning. No one knows why. Her grandmother died later the same day, in India.
In the last few days, friends of ours have also lost loved ones, both quite suddenly. It's gotten so that I don't want to answer the phone anymore, or read e-mail, or hear any news from anyone, because it always seems to be bad. In fact, the news of the ninth death came while I was writing this post.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji'un. To God we belong and to God we return.
Now it's Ashura, and in addition to grieving all these losses, we are mindful that our Shi'a friends are grieving and commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali at Karbala. (Some Sunnis also fast on this day, for other reasons which you can read about on that Ashura link.) Many Shi'as observe this occasion with dramatic displays of grief, including matam (chest-beating) and tatbir (self-flagellation/self-mortification), and the news is typically full of graphic, bloody images from these commemorations. ("If it bleeds, it leads...") It is a time, for many, of lamentation and laceration (of both body and spirit). And just speaking for myself personally, I think it should be a time for all Muslims to reflect on the sectarian hostility and violence that characterizes too much of our tradition, and the pain of our division as a community.
In researching Ashura a little, I found an interesting blog entry from a few years ago, covering an Ashura procession on Park Avenue in New York City. The author provides what he calls a "ludicrously short primer" on the Sunni/Shi'a split and Ashura, along with photos of the Ashura procession. Is this done every year in NYC? Or was it a one-off? If you know more, please post in the comments. Either way, it's intriguing to see how this event was carried out in North America.
I also discovered that in recent years there have been calls from many quarters, including several prominent clerics, to channel the powerful impulse to spill one's own blood in observation of what happened at Karbala into the practice of blood donation. One's losses can be transmuted, literally, into others' salvation. For example, in the UK, the Islamic Unity Society is urging Shi'as to give blood. Founder Dr. Marwan Al-Dawoud says:
"If people want to self-flagellate, it's up to them," he said.
"What we're saying is that this is a time when we feel that Imam Hussein gave something of himself.
"Use that message and give blood because it's something that is good for society.
"It's saving life at the end of the day and there is no greater gift from God."
Similar campaigns have happened or are underway in places like Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Pakistan, and, I'm sure, other places. While the religious studies scholar in me totally gets and appreciates the ritual of tatbir, I think there's also something to be said for the meaningful redevelopment of religious practice, too. There's a place for both rituals. And for those of us--whether Shi'a, Sunni, another Muslim sect, or perhaps not even Muslim--who'd like to commemorate Ashura without tatbir, blood donation is a worthwhile option. What's not to like about having a choice?