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Shiites to mark holy days

Soon begins the most important of holy days for Shiite Muslims. From March 26 through April 4, for 10 days during the Islamic month of Muharram, Shiites will mourn the death of Muhammad's grandson, Husain, who was killed in 680. Muslims will gather in the Alrasool Islamic Center in Salt Lake City and in private homes around the state.

Husain and his family were killed by the soldiers of a rival Muslim leader. For those who believe that the prophet's descendants were his successors, the death of Husain and his wife and children is tragic. Every year at this time, wherever they live, Shiite Muslims remember and grieve and renew themselves in their faith.

The mourning is not as intense in this country as it would be in another country where there are more Muslims, explains Salt Laker Hossein Shahreban. (Only in Iran, however, do the majority of Muslims belong to the Shiite sect and Muharram is considered the start of the new year there. In the United States, as in most of the rest of the world, only about 20 percent of all Muslims are Shiite.)

Shahreban is in charge of lining up speakers for the religious programs that will be offered daily at the Alrasool Center during this time. Since Islam does not have an organized priesthood, any virtuous Muslim can lead the prayers and give the talks. But, for these holy days, Shahreban has his heart set on bringing in a speaker, someone the other worshippers have not heard before.

Though the first days of mourning will be rather restrained, Shahreban says, the last day, April 4, will be a day of intense mourning. Yet Westerners need to understand that Muharram is not only about tears, adds Shahreban's friend, Ghulam Hasnan. Hasnan explains that on each of the 10 nights a speaker gives a narration — a meditation, if you will — on some aspect of righteous living. The narration is also a memorial for one of the slain descendants. For example: Husain had a 6-month-old child who was killed along with the rest of the family; thus a speaker might choose faithfulness as a topic, but he would also need to speak about the infant on that particular night, so he would weave those two topics together.

The Utah Shiites are planning to hold programs in a variety of languages — Arabic, Urdu, English and Persian — during the 10 holy days. Because only a few Utah Muslims speak Urdu, the Urdu programs will be held in the homes of the worshippers. Programs in other languages will likely be held in the center. People who are not Muslim are welcome to attend, say Hasnan and Shahreban. (Call the center for details about when English programs might be offered — 467-3978.)

Before they attend, Westerners might want to know a bit of the history, so they can better understand the holy days.

After Muhammad died in 632, a man named Abu Bakr became caliph. He and his successors launched a series of holy wars, or jihads, and within a hundred years, built an empire that stretched from northern Spain to India.

Meanwhile, some Muslims looked for leadership to a man named Ali, who was Muhammad's cousin and also his son-in-law (he was married to Fatima, Muhammad's daughter). Ali was considered an Imam, or spiritual leader. But he was assassinated in 661. Following his assassination, Ali's son Husain (Muhammad's grandson) was considered Muhammad's spiritual heir by the Shiites, the followers of Ali. This is why the caliphs eventually sent their soldiers to kill Husain.

Western scholars have traditionally held the view of the Sunni Muslims, that Abu Bakr was the rightful leader after Muhammad died. But a new history book takes a different point of view, and Ghulam Hasnan says that anyone who wants to understand the Shiites should read, "The Succession to Muhammad." The book is written by Wilferd Madelung, a professor of Arabic at Oxford University. Madelung cites the Quran as proof that Muhammad would have honored his relatives as his successors.

Hasnan says that increasing numbers of Sunni Muslims, those who are educated anyway, are coming to believe that they, too, have something to mourn during the month of Muharram. To Hasnan's way of thinking, it is impossible to be a Muslim and to revere Muhammad and not be saddened by the death of his grandson.

There will be nothing offensive to anyone in the upcoming ceremonies, said Hasnan. In Utah, there will actually be some Sunnis in attendance at the Shiites' religious programs; of that he is sure.

And even if you have no religion, you can find inspiration in the services, adds Hossein Shahreban. The message of Muhammad's grandson is a message of freedom for all. Says Shahreban, "He tried to teach the generations: If you can't be free, then you better die." Such dedication is not unique to the Shiites, Shahreban says. He talks of Japanese pilots who went down with their planes during World War II.

Such bravery is not easy to achieve. It is good to be reminded of it once a year, Shahreban said. "We come and listen to speeches and refresh our memories and refresh our lives, as being free."


E-mail: susan@desnews.com