Iraqi Shi'a Observe First Ashura in 30 Years
For the first time in more than three decades, Iraqi Shi'a will be able to
observe the holy day of Ashura and its associated period of mourning this year
without the shadow of the Ba'athist regime hanging over the ceremonies.
While many Shi'a made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala immediately
following the war last year, this is the first time they will be free to observe
the actual day of Ashura since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
According to Sayyed Farqat Al Qizwini, Director of the Hilla University for
Humanitarian, Scientific and Religious Studies, "Saddam Hussein absolutely
prevented the observance of Ashura. He actually imprisoned many people who were
practicing this ritual."
"The army and the security forces used to surround Karbala and Najaf for two
months to keep people from practicing the rituals," he said in a recent
interview. "They used to enforce checkpoints on all roads leading to Karbala. If
anyone tried to pass the checkpoint, he would have been killed or arrested."
Ashura, which falls on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram,
commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a seminal moment in the history of
Following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD, disagreement arose within
the Muslim community as to who should succeed him in his position as commander
of the faithful. The mantle eventually passed to the Prophet's father-in-law Abu
Bakr despite the belief of some Muslims that power should devolve to Mohammed's
cousin and son-in-law Ali.
Ali finally acceded to the position of caliph (the leader of the
community) in 656, but was challenged by Mu'awiya, a successful warrior who was
serving as the governor of Syria and wanted to lead the Muslim community.
Five years into his rule, Ali was assassinated, and Mu'awiya assumed the
caliphate, but this did not set well with the Shi'at Ali (partisans of
Ali) who continued to believe that the position should remain with the
descendents of the Prophet.
Mu'awiya reached an agreement with Ali's eldest son Hassan, by which Hassan
withdrew from politics, but the Shi'at Ali continued to group around the younger
son Hussein, who was also, of course, the grandson of Mohammed. When Mu'awiya
died in 680 AD, Hussein believed it was his duty to challenge Mu'awiya's son
Yazid for leadership of the community.
Hussein and 72 supporters set out for the southern Iraqi city of Kufa in the
hopes of raising additional support, but the group was ambushed and besieged in
the desert outside of Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq. After a 10-day siege,
on the tenth of Muharram, Hussein and his forces were attacked and massacred.
The adherents of the Shi'at Ali became the community now known as Shi'a Muslims.
According to Qizwini, "Saddam prevented the clerics from making lectures and
statements about the Battle of Karbala and from referring to the memory of Imam
He added, "Most importantly, Saddam prevented anyone from having any book that
had Imam Hussein's name or the story of the Battle of Karbala. He executed many
young people who had a book like this."
"After the liberation of Iraq, the people were allowed to do three things
-- read the history of Karbala and the Battle of Karbala, listen to the lectures
in the Mosques about the history of Karbala, and walk to Karbala," he said.
Qizwini said, "This year I am sure the Shi'a will feel for the first time that
they can again reconnect with their Imam Hussein." He expects several million
Iraqi Shi'a to undertake the pilgrimage to Karbala.
However the pilgrimage is not the only religious observance associated with
Ashura. During this period, many Shi'a observe daytime fasts and nightly vigils.
The observances reach their peak on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram during
which groups engage in commemorative processions and perform street plays and
tableaux vivants recalling the events of Hussein's martyrdom.
Recognized cantors will lead mourning chants in mosques and during special
observances in people's homes. These chants, known as the latmiya, typically
recount the suffering of Hussein and his supporters during the siege in the
desert and the cruel massacre of the forces during the hour of the Friday noon
But Ashura is also a time to remember the poor and share food with the less
fortunate. Many people sponsor open dinners in the street or prepare food for
their friends and neighbors.
In a bid to woo Shi'a support for his regime following U.S. attacks on Iraqi
military bases in 1998, Saddam allocated funds to Ba'ath Party officials in
Shi'a areas to sponsor free meals during Ashura.
Qizwini said, however, "He used this as propaganda to tell the world that he is
the grandson of Imam Hussein and to tell the world he likes the Shi'a and
respects them! But the funny thing was only the Ba'athists ate that food. None
of the Shi'a did."
A 2003 report from Britain's Channel 4 News also observed that as the regime was
sponsoring meals, Iraqi television was airing a series entitled "The
Conspiracy," which recounted the Shi'a uprising following the 1991 Gulf War and
the violent manner in which it was crushed.
Qizwini said that upon listening to the stories and sermons in the mosque this
year, the Shi'a "will know Imam Hussein sacrificed for human beings, justice,
freedom, and peace on Earth -- just like Jesus Christ did for the same reasons."
He said, "It is impossible to compare Shi'a freedom today with all the
restrictions during Saddam's time. Now we have freedom for Shi'a, freedom for
Iraq, and freedom is open without restrictions."
This year, the month of Muharram began February 22, and the climactic tenth day
will fall on March 2. While the ninth and tenth of Muharram mark the height of
the observances, the period of mourning continues for 40 days, and some Shi'a
continue to observe the traditional activities for the full period.
By David Shelby and Hilary White
Special to the Washington File
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information
Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: