Justin Mashouf : Telling the Story of Ashura in America

The event of Ashura is arguably the most singularly impactful story in Shia identity. This tragic event in which the grandson of the Prophet is slain while thirsty in the battle field, surrounded by the corpses and of his own family members and close friends, has been and continues to be central in a diverse collection of rituals and traditions expressing and preserving the Shia ethos.

Though Mahatma Gandhi’s famous mention of Imam Hussain was, “I learnt from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed,” the victory of Imam Hussain was not a military or even political one. The reign of the Ommayad’s after Ashura lasted another 70 years only to be followed by the arguably more cruel and repressive Abbasid dynasty.  The apparent failure of Hussain at the time of his uprising and martyrdom raises questions as to the Shia claim of a divine purpose behind this “victory.” The discussion of the successful outcomes of Imam Hussain’s sacrifice at Karbala in its entirety is lengthy and deserving of more extensive analysis. However, in my view, the greatest outcome of Ashura is the formation of the powerful Shia mourning traditions of “azadari” and ritual telling of the story of Imam Hussain.

These emotive re-tellings of the event of Ashura have manifested themselves in many forms including song, poetry, spoken word, and even elaborate passion plays re-enacting the battle of Karbala.  Melodious eulogy poems incorporating the sounds of congregate striking their chest in rhythmic synchrony, forming an orchestra of human percussion.  Each culture which has adopted Shiism has developed its own very specific practices surrounding the commemoration of Imam Hussain, making the sacrifice and its message in remembrance of Ashura but relevant to their culture.  This elaborate storytelling in its many forms has been the most dynamic feature to Shiism and has managed to invigorate its believers with a message of justice and martyrdom relevant to every society it touches.

Little Boy Who Loves Hussain  photo credit: Justin Mashouf

Little Boy Who Loves Hussain
photo credit: Justin Mashouf

A significant majority of the world’s Shia are subjected to repressive governments, sectarian killings, and systematic injustices. These hushed voices are often emboldened by Ashura and inspired to stage large processions marking the commemoration of the “King of Martyrs” not only as religious expression but as an act of defiance in the face of repression.

Unlike many of the world’s Shia population, American Shia’s do not live under fear of sectarian violence and government sanctioned censorship of religious teachings.  However, American Shias are presented with a unique challenge in regards to keeping these traditions alive in a modern, highly pluralistic society: effectively preserving the message of justice from an incident dated 1,300 years ago.  In my view, it may be helpful to explore the history of the African American community who, despite being an oppressed minority, made their stories relevant and even popular in American culture.

Kidnapped from their native land and brought to the Americas, African Americans were stripped of their cultures, traditions, and languages but they managed to develop powerful methods of storytelling to develop and maintain a new identity with the incorporation of themes from their original African traditions. Mainly forbidden to learn to read and write African Americans’ use of oral storytelling passed down generations of stories and songs which often drew from African folk tales and led to stories of escape from bondage. These stories were a source of empowerment and hope to a people trapped in the horrors of slavery. As this oral tradition continued, their unique and developing style, method, and vernacular gave a distinct flavor to the African American storytelling. These stories were later recognized and even consumed by white society. Author Joel Chandler Harris’s book Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation sold thousands of copies and spawned a series of 185 tales from “Uncle Remus.”  Harris’ contemporary, Mark Twain, even performed live readings of Uncle Remus’ tales and admitted they were the most popular with his white audiences.

Throughout history, these methods of storytelling inspired countless stories and art forms including rap music, whose listeners hail from every races and level of societal status.  With its origins deeply rooted in the African American inner city experience, rap came as a form of sincere expression of the realities of the inner city intertwined with an evolved form of storytelling set to a rhythmic drum track.  The mainstream adoption of rap music which ensued in the late 80s and early 90s came both as a fascination with the under-told African American narrative and the new captivating musical style. Now, despite the commodification of mainstream rap music, this musical form remains arguably the most influential to youth culture in America.

Drawing these parallels will seem stretched or even offensive to some, however, as Shias become more confident with their identities in America, only then can they create an expression of Ashura traditions that can begin to be heard beyond the Shia community. The formation of both azadari and African American storytelling are both rooted in the preservation of memory and tradition in repressive circumstances as well as the desire to find higher meaning in a tragic story. As the Shia American community develops its own voice, it is important to recognize the universal value of the story and message of Imam Hussain and not to squander its benefits to isolated, dark mourning gatherings in Islamic centers.  American Shias must recognize the benefit of making the telling of the event of Ashura relevant to the American story.  By revisiting the tradition, Shias can adapt the message of Ashura to be of benefit to the American mainstream. The story of Imam Hussain does not belong to any one race or culture nor is the the form of storytelling locked to any preset and unmalleable design. The message of Ashura is one that has been kept in the veins of all believing Shias and should become of benefit to everyone.

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Justin Mashouf is Muslim American filmmaker based in Los Angeles where he works in television news and independent film. Justin works extensively on the topics of social justice, identity and Muslims in America.

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