A few weeks ago I might have taken no notice of this headline: Shiite Pilgrims Crowd Karbala. Like many Americans, I knew there were Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims but not quite what the difference was. (I learned it long ago in a high school history class, but at the time it seemed hardly worth remembering once the test was over.) I certainly had no idea what or where Karbala was, or why pilgrims of any sort would be going there.
Then a book in the public library caught my eye. American Crescent: A Muslim cleric on the power of his faith, the struggle against prejudice, and the future of Islam and America is both the personal story of its author, Imam Hassan Qazwini, and an explanation of Islam and its history and traditions for Americans who know little about them. I had read about Islam in books on world religion, but not a description by a Muslim of his own faith.
I have read less than half the book so far (once I finish reading it, I will write more about it in a future post), and I have just reached the point where Qazwini comes to the United States. So far I have read primarily about his childhood and his education, and about the places he has lived and their importance to Muslims. He is from Iraq, but moved to Kuwait at age six because his father’s life was in danger from the Baathist regime (controlled by Saddam Hussein) which he had frequently criticized. When they realized that even in Kuwait they were not safe from Saddam, they moved to Iran, where Qazwini attended seminary.
Qazwini intersperses accounts of his childhood with discussion of Islamic history and practices, and one of the first of these is about his hometown, Karbala. An ancient holy city, Karbala is the site of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, grandson of Muhammed and leader of the Shiite Muslims (and a direct ancestor of Qazwini). The leader of the Sunni Muslims, the caliph Yazid (viewed as a false caliph by the Shiites, as Muhammed had not intended leadership to by inherited but chosen by consultation), demanded that Husayn come take an oath of allegiance. Husayn at first hoped to participate in a rebellion against the tyrant, but when Yazid’s huge army took the heart out of the rebellion before it even started, Husayn and his companions fought anyway until they were all killed.
Every year Shiite Muslims observe Ashura to commemorate Husayn’s fight against Yazid and his death. Some men flagellate themselves with chains, which Qazwini explains as representing “a victory of blood over the sword.” This self-flagellation is the aspect of the commemoration that is highlighted in newspaper accounts of the event here in the U.S., though Qazwini says that “the number of men who actually cut themselves is small.” The real significance of the event, according to Qazwini, is that “through solidarity with Imam Husayn, we atone for the brutal injustice that took place the day he was killed and simultaneously pledge vigilance to prevent it happening again.”
I look forward to reading about Qazwini’s impressions of America, where he has lived since 1992. He is convinced that Islam is compatible with democracy and civil rights, and hopes to show both Muslims and non-Muslims in America that they can live together in peace. Of course, as a Shiite, Qazwini is part of a minority among Muslims worldwide, and some Sunnis even consider Shiites apostates rather than true Muslims. Even if Shiite Muslims and non-Muslims can learn to live in peace, hardline Sunni Muslims seem unlikely to be persuaded by any of Qazwini’s arguments.