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What Karbala Taught Me About Collective Grief

by in Identity on 18th August, 2021

My condolences to you on the Martyrdom of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW), his family, and companions. 

Muharram marks the first month in the Islamic Lunar Calendar. Unlike the Gregorian Calendar, the Muslim New Year begins, for many, with commemorating a tragedy where both the strength and weaknesses of humanity were tested. It begins with the commemoration of the deaths of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW) – Imam Hussain (AS), along with his family and companions. It begins with death for the sake of Islam.

And with death, comes grief. 

As we know, grief is universal. We all experience grief in some capacity. Whether that’s the loss of a loved one, the loss of cultures, of nations, of a collective of peoples, the loss of healthy systems, a loss of dreams and expectations, a loss of world possessions, a loss of lifestyle, a loss of environmental safety, a loss of spiritual connection – grief meets us all at one stage or another. It is guaranteed. 

“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits but give good tidings to the patient.” [2:155]

And in today’s globalised world, our grief is not only individual or local, it is collective and the rituals of grief have transcended borders. Our grief rituals have experienced innovation, a loss in and of themselves, or new-found expressions.

But grief, whatever form it takes, gives space to collective mourning and collective witnessing. In today’s climate where there is so much injustice, it can be difficult to mourn collectively, and grieve in ways that lead to healing, change, and sustained remembrance. It feels so often that we are grieving so much, all the time, and have no time to sit with the grief.

For guidance on how to grieve, and what rituals we must maintain, I look to, and am guided by the collective grief I learnt from the events of Karbala. As well, from the collective witnessing carried through by the Ladies of Karbala after the Tragedy that occurred on the 10th of Muharram. 

Here is what Karbala taught me about collective witnessing and grief:

1. Finding Meaning

One of the primary things Karbala has taught me about participating in collective grief is that we need to find meaning within the grief. The grief, when attached to a higher purpose offers healing and action.

In the case of our collective grief over Karbala, we find meaning in God through it. We find meaning in bettering ourselves to be the companions of Imam Mahdi (AS) today, and to work to distance ourselves from that which displeases Allah (SWT). 

What is unique to Karbala are the meanings we ascertain to that event, they are the gifts that keep on giving. We will continue to find new meanings and we will continue to find God through this tragedy till the day of Judgement. Why? Because we collectively acknowledge and face it. Karbala gives no room for suppression of grief. It demands it. 

2. Spaces for Grief

We need collective spaces for grief. Spaces where we do not need to explain our grief. Spaces where our grief is not invalidated. Spaces where we know why we are grieving. The space gives way to our mourning, and in that space, we validate the grief of one another verbally and non-verbally. In that space, God validates our grief. Our grief over the hijacking of His Islam, and over the suffering inflicted on the best of humanity. We need spaces where our grieving in this temporal reality bridges our efforts for the space we will permanently reside in. 

3. Grief is Re-Witnessing

Karbala has taught me that grief is a form of re-witnessing. Karbala is an event that has not been lost to the speed of time. To the confines of time. Every year we collectively re-witness what the worst of humanity looks like. We collectively re-witness what truth should look like in our souls and what characteristics we need to embody the truth and to act in just ways consciously and daily. Grief allows for re-witnessing what we must strive to never witness again. We witness the Witnessers of Karbala. We strive to embody their akhlaq and connection with Allah (SWT), as individuals and communities. We understand the negative witnessing of tyranny and the result of sealing our hearts from Allah (SWT). Yet, we also have a positive witnessing of Love for the Sake of Allah, of Submission for the Sake of Allah (SWT), and the power of submitting to His will. We witness as physical beings and spiritual beings. 

4. Naming and Claiming

In re-witnessing the truth every year, we also continue to name and claim our grief. Our grief is not something to be ashamed of. Our grief is not to be hidden. Our grief has power and meaning. We claim our grief is a witness of the tests in this world and a witness of “there is no God but Allah (SWT)”. We name our griefs in all of their complexities. We name our grief through the identities that were oppressed and martyred. We name our grief by remembering who they were and what they represented. We name our grief by identifying what we need to do to embody their spirit. In naming and claiming our grief, we are naming and claiming what it means to trust in the Will of Allah (SWT), and the peace that can come with that submission. 

5. Lessons in Grief

In participating in collective grief, we must seek out what lessons we can learn from this grief. Whether that be lessons regarding our nafs, the actions of the ummah, or the actions of those outside of the ummah. Whether that be lessons that we learn and teach about God, the Prophet (SAW), the Imams (AS). Without actively seeking these lessons, our grief remains temporal and limited within time and space. With it, our grief transcends the boundaries of time and space. Our grief reminds us of and guides us to:

“Verily we belong to Allah (SWT), and verily to Him are we returning.” So now, how can our grief aid our current injustices in humanity?

6. Sacred Rituals

Karbala has also taught me the power of having rituals rooted in God and faith. Every test we are tried with is a means of turning back to God. Every success we are blessed with is a means of attaining Taqwa. In grieving, the rituals we have in place must also be tied to God. The rituals tied to knowing God, as shared by the Progeny of the Holy Prophet (SAW) are the rituals that are boundless and timeless. They are rituals that last. These sacred rituals continue to validate our grief and give momentum to it. They offer ways for our grief to be a movement, and not a response. Our remembrance then becomes a grounding tool in a transient world – and connects our spiritual selves to our permanent abode. 

7. Different Expressions

Karbala has taught me that when grief is not bound by space and time, the grief is subject to different expressions of remembering and mourning. It is okay for the grief to differ in different spaces and time. So long as the grief relates back to God and centres Him, and what guidelines He presents through Islam. It is okay for grief to look and feel different. It is okay for grief to be quiet or loud. It is okay for it to evolve with time.

The grief is boundless and so the expressions are boundless. 

8. Emotions are Valid

Karbala has taught me that the range of emotions we have been gifted from God matter. They are valid. Whether the grief comes in the form of anger, tears, hurt, pain, kindness, love etc. What is beautiful here is that we have guidelines for how to channel this grief, so it serves a higher purpose – worshipping Allah (SWT). Our grief shouldn’t propel us to act outside of Islamic principles, and that is when the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) and the lantern of light of the Ahlul-Bayt (AS) guides our grief to increase our Taqwa. 

9. Sense of Hope

Finally, Karbala has taught me that our grief, when connected to knowing Allah (SWT), can provide us with a sense of hope. It can provide us with hope for inner and outer change. Inner and outer justice. Inner and outer expressions of love. Our grief can provide us with hope that we will individually, collectively and actively strive to become closer to Allah (SWT). Our grief can provide us with a hope of bettering ourselves in this world so that we can achieve the best of places in the permanent world of the hereafter. 

I pray we are granted more opportunities to re-witness the event of Karbala. I pray we are granted more opportunities to grieve for all we have lost in this world and will continue to lose. I pray that we never lose hope in Allah (SWT), and that all of this is for us to submit to His will and find peace in it in this world and the hereafter. After all, we strive to be those who, when calamity befalls them, say:

“Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return” [2:156].

The Rogue Muslim

The Rogue Muslim

The Rogue Muslim is a Podcast for Muslims, about Muslims, by a Muslim. It seeks to destablize the binaries of Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim within the Ummah and external to the Ummah. We're going Rogue. Instagram: @theroguemuslim