Scroll: October 31, 2015
I might have been in the sixth or seventh grade when my teacher asked, at the start of our mandatory Islamiat class at the convent school I attended in Karachi, if we were Shia or Sunni. “Raise your hand if you’re Sunni,” she instructed. I turned to a friend. “Am I Shia or Sunni?” I needed to know immediately; hands were going up pretty fast. “Well, I’m Sunni, so you must be too,” my friend replied. My hand went up.
I thought of that question on the day I met Dr Syed Zamir Akhtar Naqvi, a Shia scholar and public speaker. “Anything you might want to ask me, you can read about in my books,” he said after I was introduced. “And every year, the TV waalay take my interview, so you can find those online. In fact, if you just write my first name in Google, it automatically fills in the rest.”
I met Dr Naqvi a few days before the start of Muharram, the month of mourning for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, almost 50 years after the death of the Prophet. In gatherings of Shia Muslims during this month, a horse (often snow-white) called the Zuljinnah will make an appearance, walking with the mourners during the processions. It has no rider, nor will it ever have one. The Zuljinnah (meaning “the two-winged one”) is a replica of the horse Imam Hussein rode.
According to accounts of the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussein and his 72 compatriots (including the Imam’s six-month-old baby boy) were brutally killed by a corrupt caliph’s army of up to 10,000 men and at the time of his death, the Prophet’s grandson had been alone, shot at by arrows and stabbed 33 times. His body was pummelled under the hooves of the caliph’s army’s horses before he was beheaded. Legend has it his loyal horse refused to abandon him. The Arab stallion wept, and, covered in his master’s blood, returned to the camp to inform the remaining women and children of Imam Hussein’s death. In the years since, this moment – when the cleft between Shia and Sunni Muslims deepened irreparably – has been resurrected in this witness every year during Muharram.
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