Zehra Naqvi : What Disunity Costs Our Ummah

Every year, I try to approach Muharram with a fresh perspective. Last year, I wrote “Why I Am Shia,” reflecting on how being Shia is an integral part of my identity.

This year, I decided to reflect on Muharram in the context of my interfaith and intrafaith experiences from the past 15 years. I’ve learned that it is very difficult to extricate political narratives from religious narratives and that the closer our faith traditions seem to be, the harder it is to foster meaningful engagement and collaboration between them. People on all sides tend to overlook their own biases, but are quick to identify others’ views as problematic. We lock ourselves into intractable positions when we condition meaningful engagement on resolving disputes that have had no resolution in decades or even centuries. We become fixated with identifying ourselves by our differences rather than building on the commonalities between us. We let our differences take over conversations and encounters. This ends up costing our communities.

Art by Irfan H. Mirza

Art by Irfan H. Mirza

Months after 9/11, I volunteered with South Asian Americans Leading Together to help South Asian communities grappling with an increase in hates crimes and bias incidents. I was part of an interfaith team with Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh members that headed to a small town in Pennsylvania to visit a Muslim community center and a Sikh gurdwara located there. The school-aged children in both communities were being subjected to hateful comments and actions by classmates. The communities, however, were resisting working together to address the problem. One Sikh high school student saw that the adults’ intractability was costing the kids across both communities and reached out to us. We worked hard to convince the communities that clinging to isolation within their smaller communities and focusing on distinctions rather than shared problems was not going to make the problem go away.

No matter how far we all try to pull apart, our struggles and destinies are intertwined. There is a lot of ignorance in the world and we are identified not by how we want to be seen or how we see ourselves, but as people that are different. Ignorant people don’t appreciate nuance. That shouldn’t come as news to anyone. The neo-Nazi male doesn’t care whether we’re black, brown, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh; they are, ironically, quite egalitarian in their hatred. We are all simply seen as “other” and we are all a problem. Sectarianism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia – all these forms of hate and bigotry cost lives. You can believe whatever you want to believe, but fomenting hatred is what exacts a toll on society, slowly but surely emboldening folks to act on their hatred.

Fifteen years later, we still have a lot of work to do in this country. In the past year alone, three Muslim students at Chapel Hill and nine Christians in a Charleston church were gunned down. An Indian grandfather out for a stroll in a suburban Atlanta neighborhood was paralyzed as a result of his traumatic encounter with police after a neighbor called 911 to report a “skinny black man wearing a toboggan.” A Sikh man wearing a turban driving along in his car in the suburbs of Chicago harassed by a white man who exited his own car, called the Sikh man a “terrorist” and “bin Laden,” and then beat him unconscious. This past week, two Yeshiva students were nearly hit with a Molotov cocktail in the streets of Manhattan, with investigators later learning that the real target of the attack was a Muslim man. The last incident perfectly captures the reality of hate and violence impacting multiple communities; hate doesn’t aim well – it casts a broad net and many people get caught in the cross-fire.

So what does Muharram have to do with any of this? Take a moment to reflect on who or what led to the martyrdom of Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain, in Karbala. He had his throat cut by Shimr ibn Dhiljawshan, but the army was led by Umar ibn Sa’ad, and the overall battle was initiated by Yazid I to legitimize his ill-gotten seat of power. It’s a complex story with more complexities built in depending on whose accounts you read and trust and because we are removed from the actual events by centuries. The reality no one can dispute is that Imam Hussain was martyred at the hands of fellow Muslims.

Disunity is what ultimately led to the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. The Muslim community of the time didn’t agree on its best interests and core values and failed to proceed with a unified agenda as a cohesive unit, creating a power vacuum that a politically savvy and tyrannical ruler leveraged for his own aims. Perhaps the biggest lesson of Karbala that we rarely discuss is that we, as Muslims, are our own biggest enemies.

Imam Hussain

Imam Hussain

Yazid’s subsequent reign exacted a lot of costs from the umaah. In addition to massacring many of the Prophet’s surviving family members, he undertook two other violent campaigns against fellow Muslims: (1) the pillage and plunder the city of Medina, with thousands of its residents raped and/or killed; and (2) a siege of Mecca, in which fireballs were catapulted at the Kaaba. That was what disunity cost us then. Disunity continues to cost us today.

To be clear, being Shia or Sunni isn’t just about the differences over the account of what led up to the events in Karbala or their significance, there are other theological and ritual differences that arose thereafter. I don’t minimize that. But why do these differences amount to a two-sided failure to work together today to address the problems we are all facing in this country?

Sects are different than sectarianism. The existence of sects is not problematic and, to me, reflect that our faith is strong enough to encompass diversity, but using the differences as an excuse to promote hatred sets up a rift and an opportunity to leverage one side against the other. Sectarianism also costs lives, with the most recent being five Shias killed in Saudi Arabia this past Friday by ISIS-sympathizers who took great pride in killing “infidels” and proudly proclaimed that “infidels will not be safe in the island of Mohammad.”

The land of Mohammad is where all Muslims are required to perform hajj at least once in their life if they’re able to afford it. In fact, hajj takes place the month right before Muharram. Hajj is tough – it’s physically taxing, expensive, hot, cold, and dangerous because of the sheer number people going. I was sick and exhausted every day of hajj, but it was incredible and worth it because, for the rest of my life, the image that encapsulates Islam for me is the image of millions of people, clad in white, circling around the Kaaba in Mecca. It presents an ideal for us to work towards: a sea of humanity, with the divisions of race, class, sect, nationality, and ethnicity all rendered immaterial – at least momentarily. People flow in and out of the sea, but there is a sense of shared purpose and direction in the action. As we all move, shoulder to shoulder, men, women, and children, we cannot deny that we are all in it together, equal before God, sharing the same space, the same air, the same dreams and prayers for ourselves, our children, our communities, and our world. The shared experience serves as an all too brief reminder of us having more in common than not.

It’s rather heartbreaking that some Shias and Sunnis use the first month thereafter and the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, as an opportunity to undo the unity. Do the lessons from our foundational practices expire a mere one month later?

Before heading to Karbala, Imam Hussain had been in Mecca about to undertake another hajj. Learning of plans to assassinate him in the hurrum during hajj, he decided to leave with his family and those who rose up in support of him rather than risk bloodshed and violence in the hurrum. Think about that for a moment. Under threat from other Muslims, the Prophet’s grandson was denied safety in the land of Mohammad and prevented from completing hajj. That’s the cost of disunity.

I admit that Shias tend to feel quite proprietary over stories about the Prophet’s family, appointing ourselves as guardians of an oral tradition and priding ourselves on keeping the stories alive for over 1,000 years in such detail that we grieve the loss of the Prophet’s family more than we grieve any other losses in our lives. But, as Khalid Latif stated in his recent khutba at the Islamic Center at New York University, the stories don’t just belong to Shias. They belong to all Muslims and make up our shared history.

Let’s all admit that all Muslims – Shia and Sunni alike – can do a better job of honoring the values and legacy the Prophet and his family worked so hard to protect. I’ve often heard Muslims note the irony of fundamentalist Christians who, in the same breath they tout the peaceful teachings of Jesus wish people of other faiths harm. I wonder how often we also fall into that trap of not assessing our own division-mongering objectively and thereby betray our core values.

Internal strife has cost our umaah a lot. That we disagree on accounts and interpretations has never been the cause of our disunity. Our stories and the traditions are not inherently divisive. The problem occurs when one group tries to force another group to agree, to concede the “rightness” of a particular viewpoint, and to leverage that as some sort of indicator of as to which group is best positioned to determine the best way forward for all. Isn’t that what Yazid did?

I don’t worry about what others believe so long as they don’t seek to impose their beliefs on me and I don’t believe I am here to push my beliefs on others. Different stories resonate with different people, but most teach the same things: love one another, show compassion, empathy, and mercy, fight social injustice, and protect those that are in need. Those are the basics and they’re pretty universal.

There’s a lot to work all of us need to do and I believe the umaah is being tested on many fronts in today’s world; our ability to work together will determine if we, as a group, did all we could to look out for the best interests of our umaah and, more broadly, humanity. We are responsible for all. We need to be more inclusive and learn to build consensus among us, and soon.

With election frenzy well underway in the U.S., Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment is rising, hate groups organized anti-Muslim rallies and have been sending disturbing mailings telling Muslim residents to “get out,” the government has undertaken domestic initiatives to counter violent extremism that have the potential to create more problems for our community than solve any for this country, and our Black Muslim (and non-Muslim) brothers and sisters are wondering if we’re ever going to acknowledge and address their unique struggles within our communities and within this nation.

We do our communities a grave injustice through formal and informal policies of exclusion, division, and neglect. All of this costs all of us.

We have to work together to make smarter choices and meaningful progress on addressing the many problems that we are facing today. We have to engage with each other and with our Christian, Jewish and other South Asian brothers and sisters. We have to stop acting like we are insecure about our own beliefs or threatened by the beliefs of others. Have more faith in your faith.

We need meaningful relationship-building that involves reflecting on our commonalities and our every day lives and struggles. A number of folks engaged in interfaith work – Shia, Sunni, Christian, Jewish, and many others – were present at the interfaith ceremony organized for the Pope at the 9/11 memorial. The event organizers did a great job of showing how different traditions can not only co-exist, but thrive alongside each other in New York, sharing a deep sense of grief and loss, and playing a critical role in helping the city heal and rebuild. How we all perceive each other and interact with each other can bring out the best or the worst in us. It’s entirely up to us.

We are all in it together. This Muharram, reflecting on our shared past has actually made me look to the future and reflect on the legacy our umaah will leave behind for future generations. History will tell whether our legacy will be one of unity or divisiveness. There are many good people committed to doing this work, and I pray that all of us commit to do right by all of our communities, very much in the spirit of the Quran, Prophet Muhammad, and his family.

Ya Hussain

Ya Hussain


Zehra Naqvi is an attorney, non-profit consultant, and writer. To read more of her writing, please visit theobserveum.blogspot.com. Zehra is also working on a new initiative called UMAAraise to encourage greater civic engagement and train Shia young adults to organize and strategically respond to the political, legislative, and social challenges facing the American Muslim community as a whole.