Friday, November 20, 2015

The Reformation Of My Grandfather’s Ummah – Imam Hussein (A) – Part 2

Masoom Sanji (name not real) is an 18-year-old fella way beyond his age; in wisdom. I first noticed him at Zed Palace Khoja Center in Andheri, Mumbai some 5 years ago, when I lived there. He was a serious looking, lanky teenager then, with worry lines running through his face and a serious look that suggested he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. I took on to him because he behaved so refreshingly different from other teenagers, who made merry outside during lectures, smoking and gossiping, while Masoom sat inside, listening to the presentations.

I meet him again a few days ago for a Muharram event, in Mumbai. The guy has shot up, taller than I even. He recognizes me instantly and comes over with a happy smile and a firm handshake.

Uncle, he exclaims happily, genuinely. Kaiso ho? Kahaa ho? I ignore the Uncle insult and reciprocate his greeting instead, his happiness. Since there is a lot of commotion going on with maatam inside in full swing and men and women cramming the narrow stairs, we move on down and into a secluded corner of the building. The air is fresh and November cool, without the stifling humidity Mumbai is so well known for. This is the best time to be in Mumbai, weather wise. Diehard Diwaali revelers set off ear splitting firecrackers that lighten up the sky with a rainbow of sparkles. It was pretty bad last week, when these firecrackers sounded like explosions in a war zone, with thuds of explosions resembling Gaza or Damascus conflicts.

Masoom and I chitchat for a while. He says he closely follows CAI activities and my Blogs and wishes he could help. But with a mother whose eyesight is now failing due to years of sewing zari patterns onto sarees for a living and a younger sister to take care of, he has to skip college and start work at a call center. I urge him to complete college, at least. And make sure his sister does it as well.

I simply can’t afford it Uncle, he says with downcast eyes. I have to work to bring the daal home. And my sister, I guess we’ll have to find her a suitable boy soon. She is very smart and is top in her school, but the fees are simply out of my reach. Ammi has sold the last of her jewelry and my Mamu says he can’t pay our fees any longer.

My heart sinks. Where is your father? I ask on an impulse. Masoom turns scarlet, shuffles his feet and keeps quite. He has remarried, Uncle, Masoom whispers after a while, making me strain to hear him, he wants nothing to do with us.

I make a mental note to look into this later, do my due diligence. If they are poor and the grades are above average, CAI can and will help insha’Allah.

 I do not want to bother you with my troubles Uncle; I just wanted to say sallam after all this time. By the way, can I talk to you about something that is bothering me? Since you are well traveled, well read and Blog on so many subjects, I thought I’d ask you?

It is my turn to turn cherry and shuffle my feet in unease.

Uncle, don’t get me wrong. I do not want to be a rebel, nor blasphemous, far from it. I think I am a good Muslim, a good Ahlebeiti Muslim. I pray regularly, on time, do all the waajibaats, and many mustahaabats as well, am good to Ammi and help the less fortunate than me whenever I can. I will marry as soon as I can afford a wife and go for hajj and ziyaarat when Allah decrees it.

All good stuff. This guy is a near perfect son any father could wish. Aw. I feel great. My chest puffs up. My chin lifts up. So does my sprits and a glow of happiness sets in. This young man looks up to me. Why, I could have kissed and hugged him then. Like a son. But just as quickly, he punctures by chest, droops my chin and a cold fear sets in, making be break out in a sweat. I look around wildly, just to make sure nobody else has heard the bombshell Masoom has let out.

I think I am being misled by some of those in authority. Religious authority. Especially on the question of azaadari. There are so many conflicting opinions from the ulema. I don’t mean the home grown and self-taught zaakirs. I mean the top ones. In Najaf and Qoom. Take the subject of tatbeer or kamazani. I thought there was unanimous agreement that it should be avoided in this day and age. I was happy with this agreement, since it made perfect sense, intellectually. To me.

Masoom pauses here, looking at me anxiously. My heart has begun thumping. This is a very taboo subject, especially here in Southeast Asia. People have been physically trashed and visiting zaakir(a)s insulted, threatened and deported for bringing these topics to the forefront. Masoom seems unaffected by the change in my pallor; perhaps because it’s dark?

There is no historical base for this practice, continues Masoom, I have done my research. None of our Aimaas (A) practiced tatbeer and we must fall back upon the deeds of our Aimaas (A) as our role models. Even Imam Sajjad (A), who had every right to lament freely, remotely practiced it or asked his followers to do it, although he rightly, loudly, lamented and mourned the massacre of his family for years. And encouraged us to do so. Why can’t our ulema get together and come to a consensus on the subject? The command recently put forward by a wise man from Najaf, (or Qoom?) is that kamazani is a supreme ibaada. That the chest being pierced open is nobody else’s business, that we are preparing the two week old babies (for what?) by slitting their foreheads, that even if we were to donate the blood for a good cause, 2 drops should be spilled for Imam Hussein (A), that Lady Fatema (A) would be much pleased with this act…

I look this way and that, wanting to escape this onslaught of, at face value, reasonable line of questioning. But Masoom has me cornered and I can’t be rude opposing logic. Masoom holds up one finger.

If this wise and respectable aalim deems kamazani to be a supreme ibaada, why don’t I see him practice it in the front lines? Surely he should be leading the frenzied crowds?

Another finger comes up.

What about the forehead of the infant? Did the child ask to be scarred for life?


What is the logic of wasting even a drop of blood? Tatbeer is an unhealthy method and seen as barbaric by non-Shias. Rightly so, in this awful, painful and turbulent period for all Muslims…


Imam Hussein (A) had one aim for his mission - to reform his grandfather’s nation. To stand for justice. Most importantly, his mission was / is an opportunity for us to reform. For the better, not regress to medieval rituals…

I cut Masoom off.  Young man, I say, you are treading very bloodied currents that will surely drown you, no matter how logical your reasoning. Let this issue be, don’t peruse it. Please. Else you’ll burn your fingers very badly, or even worse. It is not a wajibaat, so don’t participate if you are uncomfortable with it. The more educated and younger generations will change it eventually, insha’Allah. But it’ll be generations before that happens…

Masoom looks at me with dubious, accusing, disappointed eyes, as if I have let him down. I feel awful, awful.


Attached is Sohail Abdallah’s second Photo Blog on his recent trip to Afghanistan. I urge you to watch the delightful and extraordinary production. Please click here. Thanks.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Reformation Of My Grandfather’s Ummah – Imam Hussein (A)

When I meet Mullah Mchungu recently, the guy’s smile almost blinds me. But then I gather that the dazzle is not a smile at all, rather, they are bright, white, brand-new, ill-fitting dentures he dons, hurting my eyes. We have been in touch by phone, the Mullah and I, since I last met him in Dar, all shriveled up and about to kick the bucket. The accursed free WhatsApp makes it possible for the Mullah to call and torment me at will, at odd hours of the day, regardless if it is in the middle of the night. For me. But he looks okay now, seated like an emperor, with his servant helper fussing around him, adjusting the wheelchair this way and that.
I am provided a hot cup of tea and some piping hot (elchi free, thank God) vitumbua bought fresh from the street corner downstairs moments ago from a MamaNtilia. I try to make small talk and ask the Mullah about his health, but he waves at me impatiently, his dentures grinning at me as he adjusts to them by regularly sucking in air sharply.
You don’t have to be polite, Kisukaali, it’s not important how I am or feel. I a setting light, running out of my time fast. You really do not want to hear about my personal problems, nor care for that matter. I survive with this wheelchair and this faithful man; he waves towards the servant, who is a mother to me. My daughter pays my few bills and makes sure I don’t starve, bless her. She made these silly dentures possible since I cannot chew with my constantly infected gums anymore. My khabees son Aliraza wants nothing to do with me any longer, except a sallam over the phone now and then. I miss my grandchildren in Florida however.
He is right; I don’t want to get involved in his private business. But I do care. That is why I am here, to see him, to ask about him. Apart from his eccentricities, normal for anybody his age, the Mullah is a decent human being, with surprisingly acute and insightful mind and paradigms. But I keep my trap shut. It’s simpler that way. I am about to take the last morsel of the delicious kitumbua when the Mullah suddenly demands:
How did you find Vinay Khetia, the visiting zakir at your HIC center at Sanford this year?
Jeez! Not again! I’ve had nothing but pain in my rear end since Blogging that Sheykh Khetia’s time management sucks. Is this guy going to give me grief as well? But it’s hard to tell with the constant grin on his face, making me unsure if he is genuinely happy or his new teeth playing tricks on me.
He was okay, I guess, I say cautiously, non-committal. I am being honest. I found the guy genuinely committed to his new religion but his lectures I found to be dry and awfully long.
You are like a bloody teenager, Kisukaali. Restless and impatient. I know you had not so nice words to say about Khetia’s time discipline. Yes, I heard him on the Internet. Yes, the time he spoke was very long, but that is not a very big deal. HIC management is to blame. They could have easily fixed it by politely but firmly telling the Sheikh not to cross the limits. But don’t take away the excellent points he had regarding the Shia world and how much we take Imam Hussein’s supreme sacrifice and Muharram as a ritual, by the Khoja beraadars in particular. His pointed reminder about at least five of our Imams born off Black women was very telling. And timely. And brave.
Mullah Mchungu nods his hoary head wearily, the crooked grin of his teeth making him look like some goofy comic character on Saturday mornings kids TV shows.
As I pointed out to you last year, Imam Hussein was sent in as a reformer, standing for justice. Period. The Imam told us in clear terms - I am going to Kerbala for the reform of my grandfather’s religion. The religion of the Prophet, tainted and corrupted by the forces in power then. Here is a man whose mission, annually, gives us a chance for self-reform, become humans that Allah wants us to be and atone for our evil ways...and we turn it around into a circus.
Again, I want to be non-committal. This is an area that has been much discussed and dissected, with very little progress. And much ill will, resentment and disunity. My personal opinions match with the old man's, but it is better to remain quiet now.
Chicken as usual, nai, Kisukaali? Fine, keep your trap shut. But hear me out. Khetia should come and lecture us here in Dar. He points at his servant, sitting on a hardback chair, quietly watching us converse. That is Ally, you’ve met him before. The guy is old enough to be your father. Has been with me thirty-five plus years. Fiercely loyal and one hundred percent honest. But to most of us Khoja’s, he is a Black man, a Gaggo. Unworthy of respect. Just because he was born Black and poor. He was never given the opportunity of an education, nor did his parents leave him a business to take over.
So we keep him at arms length. He is our brethren, but with separate rights and standing within our fraternity. Because he is a Black man. Just as five of our holy Imams were. Including our current Imam. Go ponder on what I say, Kisukaali. And Blog about It. If you have the courage.
I do. As usual, I leave Mullah Mchungu’s drab apartment disturbed, my mind full of swarming dudus that stay on for a long time afterward.
Note: Due to a technical snag, Sohails Photoblog of Afghanistan will resume in 2 weeks.