Observing Yom Ashura in a multicultural Canada

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When I came to Canada nearly 15 years ago, I could not have imagined that the place which is now my new home would be so accepting, accommodating and tolerant of other cultures. Here we learn how to earn respect by giving respect to others. This is the beauty of Canadian society, which allows hundreds of cultures to co-exist peacefully.

Yom is an ancient Hebrew and Arabic word which means "day." Yom Eid is a Muslim thanksgiving day after a month of fasting in Ramadan. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. Yom Ashura is a day of mourning observed by the Muslim community every year on the 10th of Moharram, the first month of the lunar calendar. This year, it was observed on Thursday, November 14. It has a special significance, as we commemorate the great battle between the forces of right and evil fought on the banks of Euraphates in the town of Karbala in present-day Iraq, in 61 Hijra (October 10, 680).

The ruler of the time wanted Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), to accept his nefarious governance and show allegiance to his throne, which would have given validity to the ruler's unprincipled regime. Hussein refused and decided to resist the tyrannical forces to save the teachings of Islam.

He sacrificed his life along with his family and companions for a principled stand to restore the dignity of humanity in attempts to build a civilized society that rested on the pillars of equality, freedom, justice, truth and tolerance. Since then humanity has passed through centuries of darkness in Asia, Africa and Europe. But now we practice these noble values in Canada in a civilized and tolerant society.

His last words before he fell were: "I submit to the will of God and I have succeeded."

Hussein's commendable courage, determination, dignity and steadfastness gave him recognition throughout the world for drawing a clear and visible line between the forces of truth and falsehood on the sands of Karbala.

Mahatma Gandhi said: "I learnt from Hussein how to attain victory while being oppressed."

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) noted: "In a distant age and climate the tragic scene of the death of Hussein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader."

Hussein's message of commitment and submission is religiously communicated, discussed, heard and preached every year. To mourn his death, Muslims arrange lectures and speeches every day from the first of Moharram to its climax on Yom Ashura.

On the eve of Ashura, during the night vigil, mourners wear black clothes, light candles and pray that darkness gives way to light with justice, freedom and truth spreading around the world. They pray for the victory of rightness over the forces of evil and the rule of justice and equality for all human beings in all parts of the world.

The mourners offer special prayers and keep themselves busy in rituals and refrain from taking food and water until the time of the martyrdom (about 3 p.m.). All lights are turned off until "sham-e-Gharibaan" (the evening of the mourners) is over. At sunset, a scholar sheds light on the message and lessons learned from the event, and then delivers a lecture.

Communities that observe Ashura come together and arrange mourning processions in Toronto every year. The main processions in Toronto this year started out from Queen's Park and Milliken Park. The mourners hold symbolic flags (alams) and walk slowly, reciting elegies to express sorrow over the tragedy, while also showing their support for justice and truth.

We live peacefully among nearly 200 cultural groups in Toronto. This peaceful co-existence is thanks in part to the multiculturalism policy introduced by Pierre Trudeau in 1971. It calls on the government of Canada to recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all segments of society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.

If we survive as a Canadian nation, we must accept multiculturalism without destroying our cultural harmony and heritage. By educating ourselves about others' cultures and making cultural connections based on the pillars of mutual respect, we can work to rid ourselves of ignorance and prejudice. Muslim states divided by sectarian strife can follow the Canadian example and the message of Hussein, which is an old version of the modern Charter of Human Rights that we practice for the benefit of humanity, not any one community.

Mehdi Rizvi is a former member of the Community Editorial Board, Toronto Star and an affiliate of the Center of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, which is a consortium of three Toronto universities. His column appears in rabble each month.

Photo: Naseer Najwa/flickr

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