Shereen Yousuf : Decolonial Practice of Majalis and its Potential for Communal Healing

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Decolonial Practice of Majalis and its Potential for Communal Healing

When I see folks ignoring the tragedy of Karbala, I cannot help but feel that it is because of their discomfort in drawing attention to Shia commemorative practices.  Though I understand that there are disagreements regarding the permissibility of some of these acts, it seems to reek of a colonial aroma that casts our emotional expressions as ‘irrational’, ‘primitive’, and ‘uncivilized.’ However, I have come to see our gatherings of communal grieving as inherently decolonial, primarily because of transformative power that grieving offers for oppressed communities, while additionally recognizing its potential for intra-communal healing.

I have become increasingly drawn to decolonial and women of color scholarship that introduce concepts such as “self-love” and “self-care,” as tactics to un-learn the manners in which layers of

oppression suffocates us under systems of colonialism, patriarchy, and racism (to name a few).  These oppressive systems have instructed us to question the legitimacy of our voices, blunt the pain of not feeling valued or rendered invisible, and to pity vulnerability as a sign of weakness. What I find so de-colonizing about majalis (gatherings of communal mourning), is that our communal grief serves as a radical act of defying these modes of “living” and “being” that are so oppressive to our communities.  I find that tears can heal the communal body as they would an individual body, in that tears garner the potential to cleanse us of the toxins named fear, shame, doubt, anxiety and guilt, that reside in the crevices of our minds, hearts, and souls. In fact, these very emotions of inferiority are what permits these modes of domination over us to begin with, and it is tears grant us the space to heal from them.

Muharram Majlis 1795

Muharram Majlis 1795

Which is why for me, one of the most revolutionary legacies of the survivors of Karbala — namely Imam Husayn’s sister, Sayyeda Zaynab (sa), and his son, Imam Zain al-Abideen (as) — was not solely their ability to survive, but their brilliant method of memorializing this tragedy in a way that harnesses the potential for communal healing. What better way to defy systems that de-humanizes us, than through the human act of shedding of tears which allows us to move out of despair, and into the realm of hope? Furthermore, this healing serves a vital tool for resistance. Narrating these stories in a manner that induces grief additionally connects us with principles such as “death with dignity is better than a life of humiliation” as Imam Husayn (as) once said, — without divorcing them from Allah (swt).  In fact, our form of memorializing tragedy elevates our tears to the realm of the divine by marking them as an act in devotion to Allah (swt).

Now, even though I recognize its decolonial potential, I am also severely critical of how some of these practices have been taken up in Shia communities today. For example, I am not unequivocally opposed to matam, or acts of self-flagellation pertaining to beating of the chest.  However, I do sense that some community members glorify a particular hyper-masculinized performance of matam, and I fear that this fuels a brand toxic masculinity where in my community, like so many others, domestic violence is both prominent and silenced.  My friend Farwa Batool Shirzai even asked me once, “How many of these men do you think beat their chests, and then go home and use those arms beat their wives?” Other times, I find that these gatherings function as yet another platform that alienates Muslims who do not feel a sense of belonging in the mosque due to their race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation and/or gender-identity, and ability. What are we doing when we invoke the name of al-Husayn (as) at an event, while making that same event inaccessible to the very people that will identify with Imam Husayn’s narrative of feeling abandoned by the ummah?

And yet, conveying these criticisms feels as though I am stabbing my own heart, as if I’m piercing a part of my own body and then leaving it – my very being – behind.  This is because it is in these very moments when I am in a room with others who are shedding tears – for the same reasons why I scramble to wipe tears as they roll down my cheeks – is a moment that cannot be shared with anyone else.  As much as I have come to criticize the misogyny, racism, ableism, and more within my community, it is in this brief moment when we are collectively participating in one of the most intimate and vulnerable human acts of crying, that I recognize that these are the only people who reflect back the same pain that grows in my heart for Imam Husayn (as). Their tears, like mine, pour for our shared heart ache over the story of Imam Husayn’s brother Hazrat Abbas (as), and their souls stir at the thought of hearing Sayyeda Zaynab (sa) speak in Yazid’s court. It is in this moment that I am reminded of a kinship that I cannot find anywhere but here – in this community.  As a result, this single moment carries the potential to heal from intra-communal aggressions because, encased in a tear, is a reminder of why we need to heal.

Unlike criticism that comes from those who do not engage in these practices, my criticisms stem from a place of love, and an aching visceral passion to heal in community rather than from without. And so, though I understand why people some Muslim remain silent on Ashura in order to veer attention away from these practices, it actually denies the decolonial power that these events harness, and further robs us of the depth that these gatherings bring to us.  They are by means perfect, but they are undoubtedly powerful. Most importantly, they should not be used as a means to ignore what happened over 1400 years ago, or remain silent on the attacks on Shia communities who engage in these practices such as what happened in Nigeria[1] and Afghanistan[2] this past Ashura, and repeatedly in Iraq[3].

I would like to end with a note to my fellow Shias and others who engage in azadari (mourning rituals): As we continue to gather during these days and plea with those around us not to forget Karbala, we may find ourselves on the streets in processions and remembering those Shias who have died before us because they were not safe to practice in their homelands.  But let us use this to think of what it is like for those bodies who make themselves visible to fight injustice every day.  Let us think, for example, of the water protectors of the DAPL who are protecting water and remember that Hazrat Abbas (as) also fought for access to water.  Let us non-Black Shia Muslims, think through the lives of Black folks in this country who live in perpetual danger because their bodies are read as threatening, particularly by increasing militarized police forces and prisons that profit from incarcerating their bodies. Let us remember that the Yazids of today are structural and rooted in State oppression.  Let us remember how the decision to kill Imam Husayn (as) and his loved ones for publicly defying Yazid was facilitated and authorized by the collective silence of people of Kufa. Let us fear becoming like the Kufans when our words are made up of empty promises and we see injustices occurring against Black and Brown bodies today. While we take the time to remember Imam Husayn during these days, let us truly remember the ways in which “every day is Ahsura and every land is Karbala.”




Shereen Yousuf is currently a graduate student in the Rhetoric, Politics and Culture program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in how ‘Muslimness’ is conceived within U.S. Muslim communities, and how this influences intra-Muslims relations particularly as they relate to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and sect.  Prior to moving to Madison, Shereen was living in the Chicago-land area where she was adjunct instructor for three years, teaching courses in intercultural communication and public speaking.  She has also been involved in her community for years, and continues to search for ways to engage community while living in Madison.