The message of Karbala and the mission of Imam Husain (AS), know no geographical boundaries.
It has spread around the earth, interacting with human conscience to awaken societies in faraway lands. In the city of Dearborn near Detroit in the US, the commemoration of the epic of Ashura has of late become a regular fixture. Every year, Muslims of various denominations, as well as non-Muslims, mark history’s most heart-wrenching tragedy. Here we present a report from Zahra Farhat.
With social, political and economic injustices devastating nations worldwide, the fight for justice of Imam Husain (AS), almost 1,400 years ago, is stimulating humanity and reform in the hearts of Muslims and non-Muslims alike every year. Although for the first nine nights of the month of Muharram, mainly Shi'a Muslims commemorate hold mourning ceremonies and discourses on the "valor and sacrifice" of the grandson of Prophet Mohammad (blessings of God upon him and his progeny). On the morning of Ashura, or the 10th of Muharram, an Islamic scholar narrates the full battle of Karbala and a procession usually follows right after or a couple days after to spread the Imam's philanthropic message for the human race. The procession is joined by Muslims of other denominations as well as conscientious non-Muslims, since Imam Husain (AS) fought a corrupt militant group in the Battle of Karbala that held a similar ideology to the Takfiri terrorists of our own times. He sacrificed his life to rid the world of inhumanity and tyranny. There are two humanitarian organizations in Michigan enthused by the teachings of Imam Husain (AS) to assist anyone in need— no matter the difference in beliefs or background. One is “The Ashura Project” and the other is “Who is Husain.org” both hold food drives, charity events and other activities for the youth in hopes of spreading the message of compassion and unity. “Who Is Husain.org” in Michigan has donated 70,000 water bottles to Flint residents, which made international news. Both organizations also hold lectures and processions every year to commemorate the heroes of Karbala and share the humanity they've learned from their story.
Two organizers from “The Ashura Project” explained how the group took the initiative to avoid black flags last year, so there were no misinterpretations. Still, they said it is hard to stop the participants from bringing their own when there are around 4,000 people marching. Mohammad Awada said: "From our side, we didn't use black flags; if the people who participated were using some of the flags, you can never stop them, especially if you have a procession of 4,000- 5,000. You can never force each one to take down the flag during the procession itself, but you could do so much from your end."
Aman Agrawala, a Sunni volunteer for “Who is Hussain.org” said the organizers said the prominent banners in the processions every year are messages in English promoting justice — whether it's against ISIS, racism or police brutality — which allows non-Muslims to relate to the cause for which they're marching.
Hassan Bazzoun, for his part said: "They have different messages, against ISIS, against injustice and that's all evident in the videos. Imam Husain (AS) was the first person to fight and sacrifice his life against the ideology that ISIS carries today."
Both Awada and Bazzoun clarified that the black flags participants bring with them solely indicate mourning. Awada added that they consult with different Islamic scholars, so the organization is not tied to any mosques or centers but is rather an independent entity for the community. He said the scholars who are invited to speak at their nightly programs every year also speak at the procession.
Recently, “The Ashura Project” produced a billboard displayed on Ford Road that includes portraits of everyday people along with the saying, "Husain unites us." Bazzoun said: "The message of Imam Husain (AS) was a message to humanity, rather than specifically to Muslims. The persons who were with him resembled that. You got somebody from Africa, you got somebody who is originally non-Muslim and you got people who came from different social backgrounds. One of them was a big merchant and another was a former slave. There were women, children, young, old, elderly men even. There were fathers, sons, daughters… It relates to everybody on the human level." He added that the billboard's purpose is to demonstrate that regardless of all the sectarianism, hatred and prejudice around the world, people unite as human beings and that the imam is a man who signified that unity.
DaVonna Jackson, a Christian volunteer for “Who is Hussain.org” said: Dearborn Police department loved the message the procession stressed. The police were told that it represents the man who fought against an evil ideology, supports his opposition to oppression and demands justice.
The fourth annual Ashura procession, with the theme "March for Justice", was held on Sunday, October 9, at 9:30 a.m. It started from Fordson High School's parking lot and ended at Ford Woods Park. Community leaders spoke to the participants about the injustice of this day and age at the park. According to a non-Muslim and a Sunni Muslim volunteer, in a time of such war and hatred, "Husain unites us." DaVonna Jackson, said she came across the group at Marygrove College when one of her friends asked her if she could take photos. She said: "I started off taking pictures for different events at Marygrove's 'Who is Hussain.org? They had little pamphlets about Husain… how he was just so giving and so loving. The message was kind of like Christianity— love and sacrifice— so I really enjoyed his message."
Jackson started volunteering with the group at food drives, charity events, homeless shelters and more. She said the differences between Christians and Muslims did not matter to her, but that the man and the message he embodied did. "I was inspired," she said.
Aman Agrawala, the Sunni Muslim volunteer at “Who is Husain.org”, said the message of the grandson of the Prophet is a universal one. "I am Sunni," he said. "I actually didn't know too much about Imam Husain growing up, but in college I had two Shi'a Muslim roommates. And as I got to talk to them and get to know more about Shi'a Islam and Sunni Islam… His message resonates with me." Agrawala elaborated on how many groups, like African Americans, Palestinians and others struggle against oppression every day, but most of the time people keep quiet. "They think the system will change itself," he said. "Whereas looking at Imam Husain and his elder brother Imam Hasan (peace upon them), they recognized injustice was there and fought against it. I think that's something we need to remind everyone. It doesn't matter what religion you follow."
Dr. Aziza Askari, head of “Who Is Hussain.org” in Michigan, said that one of the main goals of the organization is to change perceptions and invite dialogue. She said carrying banners and flags with messages in English and other languages allows everyone to understand and be willing to ask questions if they don't understand. "We have more than 80 representatives across all the continents," Askari said. "So what we are doing now is basically talking to people in their language." She added that the website can be accessed in English, French, Dutch, Swahili and Arabic.
Askari also said the organization is a humanitarian one with two missions: To raise awareness about Imam Husain (AS) and to inspire acts of compassion through his teachings. She also highlighted that building a community based on those acts is what the world needs since every religion agrees on humanity.
"We need to make sure that everybody is being inspired," she said. "Imam Husain (AS) is not just for Middle Eastern Arabs, not for people of one region. He carries a universal message of peace, social justice and equality."
“Who is Hussain.org” is currently holding awareness booths at all main universities in Michigan. It is also fundraising for a cable commercial to spread the universal message of humanity at: www.gofundme.com/WIH2016commercial.
"The ad will be for the community to get inspired by Imam Hussain and create a more compassionate world," Askari said. "It will speak to local mainstream, not just Muslims."