Ashoura through the eyes of Sunnis

Sunnis, like Shiites, believe that the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein was a tragedy, but they reject the bloodier aspects of the mourning process.

al-monitor An Iraqi Shiite Muslim bleeds after hitting his forehead with a sword to commemorate Ashoura in Baghdad, Nov. 4, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.

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sunni, shiite, religion, islam

Nov 9, 2014

Though many centuries have pased, Shiites around the world continue to commemorate the death of the Prophet’s grandson and his family. They continue to accept condolences for his beheading, which occurred when he was surrounded by the army of Yazid ibn Muawiyah.

Many centuries later, they still mourn his death. They sob for 10 days starting on the first of Muharram of every year. However, grieving over the death of Hussein is not exclusive to Shiites; Sunnis take part in it as well, according to Sunni scholars. So, the pertinent question is: Why don't Sunnis publicly commemorate his death?

Imam Hussein's death was a tragedy

The director-general of the Islamic Waqf, Sheikh Hisham Khalifa, told An-Nahar that all Muslims view the battle of Karbala from the same perspective.

“Sunnis, as Shiites, hold the great Imam Hussein in high esteem. All Muslims, including Sunnis, consider the Battle of Karbala to be a tragedy that befell the entire Islamic nation, given the great significance of Imam Hussein. He was not only the grandson of the Prophet but his beloved one and the dearest to his heart. Therefore, we Sunnis believe that what happened in Karbala on that day was a great tragedy,” Khalifa said.

One difference

“The only difference between us [Sunnis] and Shiites lies in the commemoration — how this tragedy is revived and relived. We all agree that the Battle of Karbala was a painful occurrence that we denounce. We all agree that he who killed Imam Hussein is a criminal who had strayed away from the path of faith. Had he had an atom of faith in him, he would have never harmed the son of the daughter of the Messenger of God,” Khalifa added.

Commemoration of the tragedy

According to Khalifa, “Shiites commemorate the tragedy by reliving the pain, which is justified. As for us, we commemorate the battle by drawing on what we can learn from it, so as to embark on the path of unity between Muslims. People ought to reform and not betray, as happened with Imam Hussein. This should be done wisely and consciously without the need to open old wounds. However, from a Shiite point of view, reliving the agony of the past will reinstate their vow to Imam Hussein.”

Unacceptable practices

“Shiites agree that some of the practices during Ashoura celebrations are unacceptable. Indeed, many of their clerics issued fatwas banning certain acts, such as cutting oneself with swords and other forms of self-flagellation. Should all these practices come to an end, all Muslims would be equal in mourning and commemorating the Battle of Karbala,” Khalifa said.

Two aspects at the heart of the Sunni-Shiite dispute

There are two key aspects at the center of the disputes between the Sunnis and Shiites, and the Battle of Karbala is not involved in either. One aspect is the disagreements over jurisprudence. It is normal that these disagreements exist, as jurisprudential debates arise even between Sunni schools, which is the natural outcome of the concept of ijtihad [independent reasoning] in Islam. Ijtihad enriches Islamic jurisprudence, without raising any dilemmas — not now and not in the future.

As for the second aspect — the political dispute over the issue of Imam Ali, and him being the rightful successor alongside Abu Bakr, Omar and others — it is also long resolved. Yet there are still disagreements over how to express grief during mourning periods. The practices can be toned down so as to avoid future incitement.

Khalifa said, "I can confidently say that the agreements between Sunnis and Shiites are much greater than their differences. In fact, Shiites and Sunnis agree on roughly 90% of issues and, given historical events, it is only natural that there are some disagreements over the remaining 10%."

The suffering of the Prophet

Judge Sheikh Hassan al-Hajj Shehadeh said: “There is no doubt that Sunnis share the same perception as Shiites regarding the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein bin Ali, whose death is seen as unjust. However, unlike Shiites — who have made commemorating Hussein’s death a sort of tradition, which we respect — we believe that the Prophet and Ahl al-Bayt [Muhammad’s household] experienced great hardships and sadness, which were far more difficult than murder. The Prophet suffered a lot at the hands of his own family. He was expelled from his own city to the city of Medina, and then when he returned to Mecca, he was asked by those who betrayed him: ‘What will you do to us, Messenger of God?' He answered: ‘You are all good people, you are free to go.’ This means that he pardoned them.”

“For Sunnis, there is nothing greater than the love of the Prophet, his companions and [his] grandchildren, some of whom were killed, while others were wounded, and the rest died as they defended their religion,” Shehadeh said.

“For us, these processions are needless, but this does not mean that we are not grieving or mourning. Many other great men in Islam died as well, including Ali bin Abi Talib, Othman bin Affan and many others,” he added.

Shehadeh continued: “The commemoration [of the Battle of Karbala] is blown out of proportion, aimed at conveying a message to other Islamic groups and the entire world that ‘we [Shiites] will always remember the death of Hussein.’ However, the greater goal behind the commemoration is to instill the memory of Imam Hussein’s death in the minds of everyone, from children to the elderly, from the moment they are born until their dying breath.”

The Sunni fast

Shehadeh said, “Shiites all over the world are well aware that Sunnis had nothing to do with what happened centuries ago. Stories indicate that Hussein’s companions were the ones who let him down, particularly the people of the city of Kufa, who promised to support him if he came to confront Yazid, but when he showed up no one was there at his side.”

“Harming oneself to the extent of death is not permissible, not in Ashoura or any other commemoration. However, the chest-beating as a display of remorse during Ashoura processions without hurting oneself is not denied,” he added.

Regarding the fast of Sunnis on the ninth and tenth of Muharram, Shehadeh said, “We fast not for the sake of Ashoura, but based on the Sunna [practices] of Moses.”

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