Muharram in times of pandemic

Javed Beigh

A new battle of Karbala has unleased all over the world for the past eight months, only this time, Corona Virus is the new Yazid and the spirit of the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali (AS) has manifested in the collective will of the humanity to fight this pandemic, which has caused widespread human suffering all over the world. 

Muharram, is one of the most important months for Muslims all over the world and marks the start of new Islamic year. Based on the lunar Hijri calendar, Muharram is the first month of the Islamic New Year and is second only to Ramadan in its significance for the global Muslim community. But this year is different. The world is grappling with a global pandemic not witnessed by the humanity for last 100 years since the outbreak of Spanish Flu in early 20th century that infected nearly 50 crore people and claimed lives of estimated 2 to 5 crore people including one crore people in undivided British India alone.

The spread of Corona Virus has now reached every nook and corner of the world and has already claimed lives of nearly 7 Lakh people. It is therefore expected that marking of Muharram will be subdued this time, both in terms of its celebration as Islamic New Year and observance of the 10th day of Ashura, that commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson Hussain Ibn Ali(AS), who was martyred along with his 72 loyal companions in the battle of Karbala, on the day of Ashura in AD 680. Just like all other religious communities, Corona Virus pandemic has impacted the Muslim community as well, even as the Muslim ummah grapples with and adjusts to the “new normal”.

In March, early this year, the Saudi Arabian government suspended the year round Umrah pilgrimage over fears of the Corona Virus spreading to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, an unprecedented move that raised uncertainty over the annual Hajj pilgrimage as well. The uncertainty over the Hajj pilgrimage was cleared early this month, when Saudi administration allowed a drastically reduced numbers of pilgrims to make the Hajj pilgrimage. In an unprecedented move, the annul Hajj pilgrimage, that usually attracts over 2.5 million pilgrims was restricted to just a fraction of that number – only 10,000 pilgrims to be selected by the Saudi government from among local Saudi citizens and foreign residents living in Saudi Arabia, which in effect means that for the first time in the history, no international pilgrim will be allowed to make his or her Hajj pilgrimage. This has been done to ensure physical distancing in an atmosphere which is otherwise teaming with ocean of humanity. 

Saudi Arabia incidentally remains one of the worst affected countries of Corona Virus with over 3 Lakh infections and nearly 3,500 deaths. But it is not the only Muslim nation that is grappling with serious impact of Corona Virus. The Islamic republic of Iran is the worst affected Muslim nation with nearly 3.5 Lakh Corona Virus cases and nearly 20,000 deaths. Pakistan and Bangladesh, both have close to 3 Lakh Corona Virus patients and nearly 6,000 and 4,000 deaths respectively. Turkey with nearly 2.5 Lakh infections, Iraq with nearly 1. 8 Lakh infections and Indonesia with nearly 1.5 Lakh infections are also not far behind as each of these three countries have suffered over 6,000 deaths due to Corona virus. 

The “new normal” has also altered the traditional way, the mourning of Muharram observed by the Shia Muslim community. Iranians, who usually hold special ceremonies during the first 10 days of the lunar month of Muharram are observing a much scaled down version of an otherwise detailed, elaborate and well attended ceremonies. For example, mourners in Iran’s central Yazd province have decided to allocate most of the cost of their Muharram rituals to the poor and needy families this year. Even Yazd’s trademark Muharram ritual on the 10th day of Ashura, of congregation of faithful in “Hosayniyas” and beating of chest to the rhythm of a sung eulogy has been scaled down drastically by limiting the number of people, who would participate in such congregations and that too for less time in small neighborhoods as per the orders of Iran’s National Headquarters for fighting Corona Virus, which decided that gatherings and attendance in crowded places for extended time could lead to further spread of the Corona Virus disease. 

Much closer home, the Muslim community in India has also decided to observe the period of Muharram, following all government instructions and medical standard operating procedures. Even the smaller and close knit Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community of western and central India has decided to celebrate the first day of the 1442 Hijri New Year in smaller in-house family gatherings by feasting on special food palette prepared from sweets, fruits and dry fruits. Furthermore, even the All India Shia Personal Law Board has issued its Muharram advisory asking people to follow all norms of social distancing, wear masks and wherever possible, take part in Muharram rituals online or via TV channels broadcasting them.

Even in Kashmir valley, J&K Ittihadul Muslimeen announced that this year the traditional Muharram ceremonies in Kashmir valley will be held as per norms set by the medical authorities in view of the raging Covid 19 pandemic that includes safe, limited mourning gatherings at local level rather than big congregations at mosques and Imambaras to prevent the spread of Corona Virus. The collective spirit of the holy period of Muharram is to motivate the Muslim community to remember the sacrifice and martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) in the battle of Karbala and learn from its inspirational message of waging a collective fight against injustice and oppression of evil forces that in the present contemporary time is represented by the grave danger and threat of Corona Virus pandemic, which has challenged the collective might of the humanity.

This is the modern day fight of the Karbala in which Humanity must prevail over the evil design of a deadly virus. 

The author is an Aspiring Politician, Political Analyst and Columnist. Who served as PRO to Ex. CM of Erstwhile state of J&K. He has also done his MBA & MPA.His Views are personal. He can be reached at [email protected]


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