Festivals are an integral part of any culture because they give a valuable insight into a nation’s history and temperament. Pakistan’s sensitivity to the contemporary world, coupled with her rich Islamic heritage and ideology, has lent a unique flavor to both her cultural and religious celebrations. As part of our socio-economic structure, we use two calendar systems simultaneously: Gregorian or Christian (January – December) for civic purposes and Islamic (Muharram – Zilhaj) for religious reasons.
Since the majority of Pakistanis are Muslims, the Islamic New Year is celebrated with far more zeal than its Christian counterpart. Nationwide celebrations for the eve of December 31 are usually subject to government policies: if it’s liberal the big cities get a fireworks display on a favorite public spot, otherwise January is greeted gracefully in the privacy of homes and chapels. In truth, New Year’s Eve is a celebrated night for Christians, of course, and for young or westernized Muslims. The rest of the country contently marks its calendar to keep in step with the world and to wish each other a very ‘happy new year’ the next morning.
For all my years of education in a Karachi convent school, in spite of being a Muslim, a Christian New Year always translated into celebrating many important events in my life: promotion to a new grade, fifteen days of winter vacation, an annual school party and a Christmas musical, plus a million greeting cards that I hand-crafted and sent out to everybody.
As years went by and I graduated from school to step into a local college, these festivities shriveled from small private dinners in pricey restaurants to very small gatherings at the beach, all breaking up well before midnight. Five more years down the road and the only respect January got from me were quick calls and free e-greetings to a handful of close friends, and a one day shopping spree for my own birthday falling in mid-month.
Muharram, on the contrary, always received incessant attention.
So, what exactly is this “Islamic New Year” that an entire nation greets so fondly? Let me give you a brief background.
Hazrat Omer-ibn-Khatab, the second caliph succeeding Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him) some 13 years after the migration of Muslims from Mecca to Medina, modified the Arabian lunar calendar to serve as a standardized tool for Islamic date calculation during the fourth year of his government (638 AD). Since then, the Muslims have used that Islamic or Hijrah calendar as their own.
The Hijrah year is divided into twelve months, each of twenty-nine or thirty days determined by lunar movements, and it is 11 days shorter than the solar Christian year (354 days and 365 days respectively). The year of migration or Hijrat of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina (622 AD) is counted as the first Islamic year – hence the term Hijrah calendar. The dates are followed by words Al-Hijrah (AH) and Muharram is the first month.
Over the years, much history was recorded to give our months the meaning and character we celebrate today. Muharram, according to both Arabian and Islamic history, was always a month of peace and prayer. However, in 61 AH (680 AD), 44 years after the inception of the Islamic calendar, one remarkable event defined Muharram as also the month of remembrance and repentance.
In 60 AH, Yazid-ibn-Muawiya succeeded his father Amir Muawiya as the second caliph of the first Islamic empire, the Umayyad Dynasty (661–750 AD). Upon accession, Yazid sought allegiance from all his subjects to validate his rule on Islamic basis. Since he did not fit the Divine description of a Muslim caliph, Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, and his followers refused to accept Yazid as head of an Islamic state.
Unfortunately for Yazid, the Imam was an emblem of Islamic principles and his allegiance to a caliph meant Islamic endorsement of that administration. Hence, the rejection came as a huge blow to Yazid’s caliphate and he decided to counter it.
He got his chance when the Imam was leading his family and friends from Medina to the Iraqi town of Kufa to honor an invitation from the townspeople to discuss their grievances with Yazid. On their way, they decided to camp on the land of Karbala near river Euphrates, unaware of the lurking menace in the form of Yazid’s powerful army surrounding the campground.
The army surprised the travelers and put their camp under siege. It cut off their water supply from the river and held its post until the captives’ food and energy ran out. Once again, the Imam and his supporters were asked to obey Yazid but the besieged, guided by religion and fearless in the face of danger before them, refused to surrender.
Hence, forced into battle by an army of some 4500 soldiers, all 72 men of the Imam’s camp including him and his infant son were killed on Muharram 10, 61 AH.
This tragedy went down in history as the legendary Battle of Karbala that ended within the first ten days of Muharram, from the day the Imam left Medina to the day he was martyred in Karbala along with his peers.
In Pakistan, Muslims dedicate themselves to worship for these ten days to commemorate the Imam’s sacrifice for upholding justice. The tenth day of Muharram, Ashura or Yom-e-Ashur, is the climax of the entire event and while many Muslims continue to worship intensely for the remainder of the month, most of us resume normal life after Ashura.
Islam defines worship both as a way of celebration and mourning, which is why prayer forms an integral part of all our events. Muharram is a month of great charity and religious activity throughout the country, most of which also reflects our colorful culture.
The first sign of Muharram is the beautiful tradition of Sabeel: terracotta pitchers, filled with cold water or sherbet, are set outside houses for passersby to drink from freely. Private and public ceremonies of Durs, Majlis and Niyaz, in which tribute is paid by way of sermons, elegies and fine food to the Holy Prophet and the martyrs of Karbala, are inspiring examples of spiritual enrichment and charity throughout Muharram.
The more affluent people revere Muharram by not only praying and fasting but also by enjoying fine cuisine and wearing nice clothes, and by giving away the same in charity to seek forgiveness and prosperity in the future.
Another delicious custom of our new year is Haleem or Kichra, a savory concoction that the women of Imam Hussain’s camp cooked for their family’s last meal. It is a mixture of meat and grains that is cooked on low heat until all the ingredients blend together to form a thick paste. And just before it is served hot with Naan, traditional Pakistani bread, we garnish it with chopped ginger, green chilies, fresh coriander leaves and fried onions with lemon slices on the side. Although, our version of Haleem is much richer than the original recipe in terms of flavor and ingredients, we prepare it as a tribute to the female victims of Karbala.
Finally, on Ashura, the Shia Muslims, dressed in black for mourning, take out huge processions in memory of the Battle. A colorful feature of these processions is a heavily adorned white stallion representing Imam Hussain’s horse, the Zuljana. They also hold a variety of placards and cardboard structures representing mausoleums of some of the Karbala martyrs. Often times, a procession is led by a single person holding a black flag in memory of Hazrat Abbas, stepbrother of the Imam and flag bearer for his camp.
More than 1300 years have passed since the tragedy of Karbala but its message of peace and righteousness is still fresh in our minds.
Author’s Note: Growing up, I believed that Muharram-ul-Haraam was synonymous with Zikr-e-Hussain, and I wrote this piece a long time ago while I was still that naïve. A lot has changed since then, or I’m told. However, for me and my family, Muharram will always be the month that kicks off the Islamic New Year by reminding us of the daring stance of Imam Hussain and his 71 brave men against a tyrant.