Maybe you have been thinking about it for a long time or maybe you have recently felt curious, but the prospect of attending a Majlis in Muharram is on your mind. You feel a bit anxious because of security concerns and a little fear of the unknown … Let me take care of the second scenario so you feel better prepared of what to expect at a Muharram Majlis.
The events of Karbala are tragic and significant for all Muslims irrespective of whether they are Shia or Sunnis. There are universal lessons to be learnt of bravery, integrity, piety and patience. The message of Karbala, to stand with the truth irrespective of the cost, is relevant more than ever in the world of today.
Muharrum is the first month of the Islamic Calendar and the tenth day of this month called Ashura, marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain with His companions. Muslims around the world commemorate the occasion in many different ways. One of them is to hold a Majlis, which is a gathering in remembrance of this great tragedy.
The format of Majalis is reflective of the cultural traditions of the area e.g. Majalis in the subcontinent are very different from the rest of the world. While the format of Majalis is similar in the subcontinent, the content varies depending on the knowledge and belief of the orators. When you attend a Majlis do remember that you can not judge an entire community by the actions of a few and one or more orators do not speak for all Shia Muslims. Also watching a part of the Majlis on TV or YouTube is very different from attending one in real life.
Here are a few things you can expect when you attend a Muharram Majlis (these are based on traditions from Pakistan and India and those originating from these countries and may differ across other cultures):
- Be mindful that you’re attending a religious event of a solemn nature. So keep your disposition reflective and serious. Go with an open mind to learn, experience and pray.
- Keep your dress modest showing religious respect. No shorts for boys. And girls keep their head covered.
- If you can, wear black. White, blue and green are OK too. No reds, oranges or pink. Girls should avoid dark makeup. Dress up how you would for an event marking a person’s death like a funeral. Along the same lines, skip any elaborate jewelry also.
- Some Majalis happen at public places like Imam Bargahs/Mosques/Islamic Centres and others at houses. You do not need an invite to attend a Majlis and everyone is welcome. There would be more security checks at an Imam Bargah.
- These gatherings are gender segregated. Most people sit on the floor after taking their shoes off at the entrance. If you cannot sit on the floor for any reason, there are usually chairs towards the back.
- There is a raised platform for the orators and the crowd faces them. You might see banners and posters on the walls around you carrying verses and slogans describing the events of Karbala.
- The Muharram Majlis starts with a recitation of ‘Hadees e Kisa’ in arabic, and then announcements of the upcoming Majalis, as the crowd keeps coming in and getting settled.
- This is followed by ‘Soz Khawani’, which is a recitation by a group of poetic verses on many topics, some pleasant and others tragic. As they recite verses in praise of Allah, his last Prophet P.B.U.H and His Ahle Bait the crowd smiles and nods encouragingly. As the topics turn to the tragic events of Karbala, handkerchiefs come out and cover eyes wet with tears.
- The ‘Marsiya’ is a tragic poetic narration and always starts with a Surat Fatiha for all martyrs of Karbala.
- Next is time for ‘Hadees’ which is a lecture given by a Zakir, who is an orator or an Alim who is a well-learned scholar. It starts with one verse of the Quran and it’s explanation, context and applicability to our daily lives and challenges. At the end one tragic event of Karbala is narrated and the mood again changes to mourning. I would like to stress here again that one orator does not speak for all Shia Muslims. If you hear something you do not agree with, you can listen to more educated scholars like Ammar Nakshawani to be aware of the views of educated Shia Muslims.
- The Muharram Majlis concludes with ‘Noha’ and ‘Matam’. This is the face of Moharram that most people view on media. It is definitely one of the most emotionally charged ones. Chests are thumped in sorrow, as the crowd joins in the chants following the lead of the ‘Nohakhawan’ (narrator). You can move towards the back if you do not wish to participate. There is no obligation or expectation.
- The Majlis concludes with the distribution of ‘Tabaruk’ (food) for all attendees. This is regular food. If there is any “niaz” you would be informed. There are many misconceptions about the food distributed at Majalis. Let me assure you that it’s regular food, safe to consume.
- An average Majlis from start to end is 1.5 to 2 hours long but you can join and leave at any point. Most people try to attend the whole Majlis.
I hope this answers some of your questions of what happens at a Muharram Majlis.
May we all benefits from the universal lessons of Karbala and may there be peace and tolerance around the world.