Each year during this month in Iraq, it is remembered that dignity is higher than the most powerful tyrant and conqueror. Today marks the beginning of the month of Muharram in which Iraqis commemorate the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain, who was violently murdered by the forces of Yazid in Karbala in the year 680 CE. During this time Iraqi Muslims and non-Muslims alike gather and reflect on the death of this saint. It is believed that mankind, God’s very own creation, has let this tragedy occur - and to mourn it people recite poetry, donate food to the poor, organize gatherings to reflect, but also emotionally experience this tragic event. The commemorations of Imam Hussain are often framed as a specific religious event but are actually indigenous to Iraq and Iraqi culture and go back centuries.
In the period between the Ummayad empire (661-750) and the Abbasid empire (750-1250) Muharam gatherings were mainly organized in people’s homes. Often a poet well versed in the Arabic language would guide such meetings as people expressed their grieve in different ways. These gatherings created a sense of unity that dissipated differences between rich and poor, pious and sinful. Under the Abbasid -when they did not feel politically threatened by it- public mourning of Imam Hussain began to take place in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. Under the Buwayids who ruled together with the Abbasids from the year 963 parades and processions were held in the street and markets.
The root for the yearly ritualization of Muharram commemorations lies in the mourning for the death of the saint by the people of Kufa, Iraq, because they felt a deep regret for not having helped the holy saint in 680. Another typical example that relates the tragedy of Hussain to Iraq is the running theme in the narrative about the weaponization of the Euphrates river by the Yazidi Empire against Imam Hussain and his comrades. Hussain and his followers were prevented from drinking from this river as they were traveling from Medina to Kufa. The thirst and longing for only a drop of water reaches its ultimate climax when Hussain’s half brother Abbas is assaulted and killed while he was filling his container with water for the small children that accompanied Hussain. This struggle and longing for water and the tears that this longing creates is a persistent narrative in many of Iraq’s literary expressions. This demonstrates that even in how the tragedy of Hussain is narrated it is closely tied to Iraqi culture itself.
Under the government of the Baath party (1968-2003) Muharram gatherings were strictly monitored on its rituals but also its contents. Substantial discussions about the tragedy of Imam Hussain that relate to political and social realities were strictly forbidden. Yet people persisted in remembering Muharram in any way possible, facing enormous risk. Simultaneously one can then understand how deep the remembrance of Imam Hussain lies. Already in the 1990s the Baath party had to relax its restrictions on Muharram gatherings and tried to superficially reintegrate it into its official ideology.
The mourning of Imam Hussain is part of Iraq as much as the history of Sumer is. The Muharram gatherings thickens and enriches Iraqi heritage and actively brings Iraqis together under its universal messages of justice and unity.