Muharram is the first month of the Islamic year, and unlike many other new years in many other calendars, it is a thoughtful, solemn, and sometimes even grief-stricken occasion. It’s worth thinking about why this might be, and how we might make use of it to strengthen our own faith and practice, as well as to support the spiritual growth of others.
“Muharram” literally means “sanctified.” By many accounts, it is the holiest of our months after Ramadan. All agree that Muharram is one of the four Sacred Months of the ancient Arab year. Observing these Sacred Months is a duty confirmed by both Qur’anic revelation and Prophetic practice, yet many Muslims have not been educated about the importance of that duty. During the Sacred Months, fighting is prohibited. Although we may neglect the prohibition, or may not even have heard of it, Muslims are expected to take the suspension of fighting seriously. The ethical implications are profound.
Ironically, history has provided the month of Muharram with the strongest possible illustration of what neglect of the Sacred Months allows. The Massacre at Karbala on the 10th of Muharram produced horror from one end of the Muslim world to the other, and is mourned and regretted to this day, by Sunnis and Shi`is alike, as the greatest instance of internal betrayal of the spirit of Islam. I will not tell that story again here. The point to which I’d like to draw your attention is that those who committed the atrocity considered themselves to be justified, largely because they had split the ethical teachings of the religion from its ritual performances – and they considered the latter to be sufficient.
According to one anecdote that has long circulated in the Sunni community, the murderers of the Blessed Husayn and his family were anxious to finish the job in time to offer the `Asr prayer. By discounting the ethics of Muharram, they struck a dreadful blow at the whole ethical legacy of the Prophet. We are all still healing.
Because AMC is devoted to healing, we are also devoted to the union of ritual and ethics. To affirm that devotion and make it visible to the world, every AMC chaplain makes a public ethical pledge. You might want to take a closer look at it, and to share it with those with whom you work.
Every calendar represents a cycle, a pattern of development. We observe that our calendar begins our development pattern as Muslims with a call to abandon violence. What does it mean, to start our cycle in that way? And if we take that call as seriously as we ought, how might we make our seriousness visible in our lives? I warmly invite readers to share their reflections and experiences on this topic.
– Chaplain Rabia T. Harris