Abbas Rattani: Muharram, Community, Privilege and Power

A year ago, I wrote a piece on why non-Shi’as should attend Shi’a events, arguing that history is often dictated/determined by the group in power, and in our current case, “Islam” is dictated primarily by heterosexual Sunni Arab men (with some influence from South Asian men).  Syntax and grammatical issues aside, the article raised some concerns among Sunnis about the emphasis on Hussain and the “usefulness” of acknowledging and addressing their Sunni privilege. In this short essay, I attempt to revisit those concerns, and this time with better grammar and syntax choices (inshallah—I’ve already messed up, didn’t I?).

Countless Muslims have fought battles and lost their lives for the sake of Islam. Why remember Hussain and not others?

I am not calling for a universal homage to be paid to Hussain and his family. Everyone is entitled to commemorating whomever they want and for whatever reasons. Hussain, like many who came before and after him, was an exceptional individual who we have mythicized to some extent to emphasize a larger, symbolic meaning in the construction of the Shi’a identity and philosophy. The important distinction that I am trying to make is that Hussain is important to Shi’a Muslims (and some Sunnis and non-Muslims as well), and it is the lack of acknowledgement of this fact, that perpetuates grievances and division.

There is no one group of people that gets to decide what Islam is, and nor should there be—Islam is an abstraction, and any attempt at defining it is often a failed attempt.[1] Islamic history, like all history, is an interpretive exercise.  Claiming ownership over the entirety of Islamic history is what I have a problem with; history is not for anyone to own. Unfortunately, many Sunnis claim ownership over the recounting of historical narratives through unawareness, or ignoring or discounting of the narratives of other groups. The privilege that comes with being the majority religious sect places an extra responsibility to be informed, and to take particular caution when discussing intra-faith unity.  How we construct our historical narratives contribute to our identity, marginalizing people because of disagreements or an unfamiliarity with historical events is disrespectful, privileged, discriminatory, and unfair.  Hence, I am calling for Sunnis to acknowledge their privilege.

Every year, Muslims, irrespective of Sunni of Shia, will have to make a moral and political choice regarding how they wish to interpret an aspect of Islamic history. We know that less than 50 years after the death of the Prophet, the first caliph (Yazid I) of the first major Islamic dynasty (Ummayad Caliphate) ordered his commanders (with an army of 5000+ soldiers) to intercept Hussain and his 100+ men. After massacring the small group, Hussain was decapitated and his headed paraded into town atop a sword.[2] For some Muslims, the slaughter and humiliation of the Prophet Muhammad’s immediate family is so appallingly repugnant, nothing will eradicate this moment from their retelling of Islamic history. Many Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, will wish people a “Happy Islamic New Year” or fast on the day of Ashura. Because Sunnism is currently the majority sect and wields the most sociopolitical power, it is an example of privilege to never having to justify their choices on Muharram. Their version of Islamic history, along with the practices and rituals that follow, are rarely, if ever, questioned.

In my last piece, I argued that “the concepts of justice, passion, martyrdom/sacrifice, preservation, guardianship, and patronship that we have come to know and love can all trace their theoretical roots back to the epic Battle of Karbala.” Some Sunnis were offended by this statement and suggested my comment was a “stretch.” I am not going to revisit this discussion or argue why this battle was different from any other battle fought within Islamic history (ok, real quick: in the Battle of Kerbala, you see the first instance of a fledgling religion assert a normative claim over what Islam ought to be versus what it was. Hussain believed that Islam was veering away from his grandfather’s message and was determined to set the record straight as a guardian/protector of the faith). However, I will state that comments that disparage historical interpretations, especially when the historicity of the event carries less weight to the symbolic/philosophical meaning, are examples of privilege that does more to discredit and marginalize than to help build foundations of unity.

We should be aware of our privilege, and all of its manifestations, especially when seeking to broaden the intra-faith discourse. We are constantly making choices as to what Islam is or isn’t when we choose to forget, ignore, or remember various aspects of history or practice. The choices we make shape our identity, philosophy, culture, society, and politics. We should think critically about how we directly or indirectly disparage others for their valid interpretations. We should seek to broaden our own knowledge of our fellow human beings that are often marginalized.

[1] For a definitional attempt of Islam that is pretty good see: Ahmet Karamustafa, “Islam:  a civilizational project in progress”, in Progressive Muslims:  On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, Omid Safi, ed. (Oxford:  Oneworld Publications, 2003), pp.98-110.

[2] For many people the heinousness of this act is self-evident given the Prophet’s documented relationship and love for his grandson Hussain (e.g., the Event of the Cloak and other hadiths. Some examples:

“Husayn is from me and I am from him.” Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, v4, p172; Fadha’il al-Sahaba, by Ahmad Hanbal, v2, p772, Tradition #1361; al-Mustadrak, by al-Hakim, v3, p 177. “Muhammad looked towards Ali, Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn and said, “I am at war with those who fight you and in peace with those who please you.” Sahih al-Tirmidhi, v5, p699; Sunan Ibn Majah, v1, p52.)

Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn and said, “I am at war with those who fight you and in peace with those who please you.” Sahih al-Tirmidhi, v5, p699; Sunan Ibn Majah, v1, p52.)


Abbas is a Muslim Hipster (Mipster), comedian, and Islamic studies enthusiast. You can follow him on twitter at @AbbasRattani and find him at