Onward To The Past

By Ali Abbas

A personal reflection on whether religion is a ritual of escapism

Ritual and religion now appear synonymous : indeed, that religion imbibes a person through mundane ritual is a popular critique of religion. For the Shiite reader, this criticism, rightly, may be dismissed as the foofaraw of our times.

However, after recently consuming a heavy dosage of Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, I realize an urgent need to address their assertion of religion/ritual being nothing beyond a weakling’s escapism, through the threat of an egregious netherworld,  from physical existence.

Though this assertion may sound absurd, primarily because the followers of Imam Ali (as) do not worship, solely, in salivating for a heaven or in fear of a hell, I take lesson from Muhammad Baqir As Sadr’s Contemporary Man And The Social Problem and respect the aforementioned assertion as Islam’s approval of a human’s freedom of expression as a project in human perfection.

As Sadr’s work is a unique protein for building the intellectual muscle to answer the question around ritual and religion : far from viewing Islam as a form of escapism from physical existence, he presents the Muslim as existing in an alternative social and intellectual experience that is far apart from the naturalized, singular experiences celebrated by Hitchens and Maher.

Thus, let us proceed to examine the question before us. Is religion, and in our case the Shiite faith, nothing but a ritual of escapism?

As Shias, we can certainly call upon a collective answer to speak for us all. However, given my acute shortage of knowledge on Shiite teachings, I ponder over this question through my own turbulent experience of being a Shia in different regions of physical, social and intellectual being.

Firstly, I begin by welcoming Hitchens and Maher. Their questioning brings me to question.

Secondly, if I do, momentarily, accept ritual to be a part, if not entirely, religion, what rituals have I performed? The dictionary definition of a ritual will provide me with little sustenance. Instead, broadly, I can think of a plethora of practices that would easily be deemed as ritual. As this is a personal reflection, I will reflect upon Azadari ( mourning for the Ahlul Bayt ).

Given the purview of my reflection, I have little to object to Azadari encompassing a ritual of sorts. After all, Azadari has taken on the vernacular character of the region in which it is practiced : simply note the differences between Azadari in Iran and Pakistan. There are, undeniably, multiple influences on Shiite identity and though the lines to change are drawn when necessary, that Azadari has a ritualism in its fabric cannot be, at least to me, denied.

But the question is not really whether it is a ritual that is cause for concern. Rather, I am concerned that this ritual, Azadari, be established as a means of “escaping” from this world.

Once again, I dissect this proposition into two.

Firstly, to suggest that I am escaping through Azadari presupposes that I am imprisoned, that I need to go back to the past to move forward. I cannot digest this condition. By whatever standard of freedom, I do not regard Azadari as a means to escape from torment and oppression. Instead, the opposite is true. Azadari brings torment and oppression to escape.

Secondly, Imam Husain (as) is not a character imprisoned by time.  Husain is a political, spiritual and universal figure : he symbolizes the struggles for and of  humanity. Many thinkers have adopted Husain as a model for change.

The Islamic Revolution of Iran and the Hezbollah resistance gravitate around Karbala. South Asia has seen Husain as an exemplary model for justice : Munshi Premchand and Mahatma Ghandi evoked Husain in a number of reform-minded writings.  Husain, theorists suggests, serves a discourse of resistance.

This relation is eloquently contextualized in Ali’s collection Rooms are Never Finished, “For just as Jesus went to Jerusalem to die on the cross, Husain went to Karbala to accept the passion that had been meant for him from the beginning of time”. Hence, Husain is always kept alive. Instead, Azadari keeps us alive with more than just a physical dimension. It grants us a social and intellectual one, one that is free.

In Muharram in Srinagar, 1992, Agha Shahid Ali writes about Kashmir’s fight against injustice. He urges Kashmiris to remember Husain and stand, albeit fatally, for justice. To remember Husain, he calls on Kashmiris to engage in the Azadari, “ O mourners, Husain bleeds, tear your skins with chains.” Muharram is a “metahistorical phenomenon” and the mourners attempt to place themselves in a historic moment that happened centuries ago. That there is no difference between then and now suggests that our Imam is the Imam of time.

There is a lot more to convey. But, brevity is wit. I have not done enough, though, to defend my position. Thus I invite you to consider a ritual, albeit momentarily, and dissect it. Do you see any relation with escapism? Or, if you choose to remain with the boundaries I have weakly established, do you think we as Shias are guilty of turning Azadari into a ritual?

Ali Abbas is a Masters student at York University