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Making Muharram Matter

By the time this article goes to print, the world will have moved on. It will have moved on from the horrific stories of children being beheaded and men being shot while seeking freedom.  The haunting images of thousands of men, women and children, mere bags of skin and bones staring out through our screens will have faded, blotted out by the passage of time and overshadowed by our own more immediate needs. The word ‘Rohingya’ will have been filed away alongside ‘Palestine’, ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘Syria’, to be pulled out when there is another increase of violence in any of these areas. We will have moved on and we will have left behind what by now has become ‘history’.

The fleeting nature of time has never been more obvious to me than now. Two and a half years into this journey of parenthood, I can only look in disbelief at photos of my daughter from just a year ago.  Memories I was sure I would never forget can only be refreshed by the visual proof of the pictures we snapped, and even then with disbelief. Was she really that small? Did she really not know how to properly put together words? Was she that clumsy in her attempts to walk, eat or do any of things she now does with ease? She is creating history before my very eyes. Hers as well as mine.

I wonder often what she will remember of these days and what I will remember of them.  Where will our memories match and where they will differ? Then something happens that reminds me that these memories will add flavour to our lives, but they will not matter.  Not in the big picture. This is one of the traps of parenthood that I find myself falling into often: thinking that my life, my child, these moments are what life is about. Thinking that our history, or rather the history we are choosing to make, will make a difference simply because it is ours.

History is brutal in what it chooses to preserve and what it forgets.  Taking my own family as an example, I only know vague details about my grandfathers, yet one was a political freedom fighter and another was a pioneer scholar in the birth of a global community. How much less will my children know of their ancestors? It takes a mere few years for a normal life to vanish – even amongst those who knew it well.

And yet, there are some whom history not only preserves, but reveres. People who seem to be etched into the very timeline of history, holding it together, saving it from falling into chaos and guiding it towards its inevitable end with dignity. Every year, when Muharram comes around, we remember the epitome of all heroes, a man whose actions God took the responsibility of sanctifying from the start to the end of time.

Husayn ibn Ali(a) is a man who defies explanation. No matter how much we try, the strength of his patience, his conviction, his bravery and most of all, his unshakeable faith are beyond comprehension. We ask why and how, but we inevitably step back and have to admit that it was only possible because he was who he was.

The people that I spend a lot of time wondering about though are those who accompanied him, especially the mothers and children. There was something about these women that I feel I need to understand and incorporate into my life. Their personal strength and loyalty aside, how did these women instil such a strong love for Islam in their children? And at such tender ages as well!

It is all well and good for me to think (and hope!) that I would send forward my child to defend faith and leader if called upon, but can I be sure that my child would go forth willingly and eagerly as well? How did my parents pass on this love to me?  Was it their doing at all?

The more I wonder about how to teach my children the right lessons and how to guide them to the right path, the more I realise that all my plans involve mere actions. I can show them how to perform the outward actions, but how can I educate them about the inner inspirations? It is one of the ‘aha‘ moments scattered along the path of parenthood: the realisation that you are not really in charge.

We can prepare – and we must.  We have to refine our selves, our attitudes, our thoughts and words. We can set an example and encourage our children to follow. But this is simply a framework.  The journey of exploring and discovering their beliefs must be their own. We all have a clear memory of that one experience or series of experiences when we saw the Hand of God at work in our lives. It was that time when we – however fleetingly – felt the presence of the Divine. The search for that spark is what keeps us going, that desire to find it and use it to light the fires of Love within our hearts.

Our children too have to find that spark for themselves. And it may not happen on our watch. It may well be long after they have left our care. We may never see our efforts bear fruit, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plant as many seeds as we can. Some of the best of those seeds are the practices of ‘aza) lamentation). The famous tradition: “Surely, there exists in the hearts of the believers, with respect to the martyrdom of Husayn(a), a heat that never subsides” alludes to the fact that remembering Karbala is one of the ways to keep the heart alive and receptive to intense experiences.

When we watch the oppressed in the world, our hearts break. Yet, it is the best way to bring to mind the horrors of the day of Ashura. In our current times, with the revival of the ‘super hero phenomenon’, it is all too easy to gloss over the reality of what fighting injustice looks like. The only idea of revolution our children have is the silver screen version where the battle has awesome SFX and the good guys always survive to walk off having saved the world.

This easy version of sacrifice is what most of our kids will be willing to endure if they are ever called upon to stand up for justice. Unless we describe to our children what suffering truly looks like from a young age, unless we challenge them about their responsibility and their role in changing the situation, they will never be ready to join the Imam of their time.

They may shed tears and carry banners extolling the virtues of the children and youth who stood shoulder to shoulder with the veterans on the plains of Karbala, but they need to then spend the rest of the year sacrificing time, energy and material wealth fighting for the rights of their brothers and sisters, sharing in their pain and allowing it to disrupt their lives. Then, perhaps then, history may deem it fit to remember them.  And us as their parents.

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