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Muslim Americans participate in the world’s largest oral historical tradition

Written By | Oct 30, 2015

WASHINGTON, Oct. 30, 2015 – For more than 20 years, the United States has been home to a special oral historical tradition that is growing in both popularity and scope in the American Shia Muslim community. For the next two months, hundreds of thousands of American Shia Muslims will be regularly attending local Islamic religious centers in an ancient tradition of listening to special events called “majlis.” While the majlis are common throughout the world, they have unique features as practiced in the U.S.

The majlis are dedicated to explaining the circumstances of the death of the prophet’s grandson, Imam Husain, and attempt to correlate his religious teachings to aspects of modern life. For many American Shias, each and every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night are dedicated to attending the majlis. Throughout the country, however, there are significant differences in how each ethnic community practices the season, which is named after the Islamic month in which the mourning begins, “Muharram.”

For many Shias, a significant amount of learning about the history and beliefs of Islam occurs through these majlis, despite the presence of countless books on related topics.  The oral tradition of majlis is one of the oldest and largest in the world today, and the value of such traditions is well recognized.

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“Unlike the insect frozen in amber, a told story is alive. It always changes from one telling to the next depending on the voice and mood of the storyteller, the place of its telling, the response of the audience. The story breathes with the teller’s breath,” says Joseph Bruchac of The Guardian.

For communities with immigrants primarily from India and Pakistan, Shias showcase a shared culture in clothing, food, language, and the arts. Accordingly, the majlis and related etiquettes become highly ritualized, and each is conducted with a distinctive flair. Shias from these communities will typically wear only dark “funeral” colors, eschewing “celebratory” colors such as red and pink. This practice is often followed not only at the religious center, but at home and at the workplace as well.

After each majlis, Shiite families will sometimes compete with each other to distribute “tabaruk” (literally “blessings”) in the form of elegant foods to attendees.  To show their devotion to the legacy of Imam Husain, such families will attempt to have the “finest” foods to distribute as the “blessing.”

However, due to the scarcity of Islamically permissible versions of typical American foods, many times the tabaruk can take the form of the hard to obtain staples of fried chicken or hamburgers. Otherwise, culturally iconic food items such as samosas, biryani or paratas are typical.

For communities featuring immigrants primarily from Iran, Lebanon or Iraq, the foods change. Each culture exhibits different practices as to whether the foods are meant to be particularly intricate or decidedly “simple.”

In Iranian culture, “passion plays” are an important part of the majlis, wherein emotionally charged recreations of the events of the death of Imam Husain are performed for audiences. In certain Arab cultures, children are dressed in oversized seventh century battle armor typical of the era and stand next to the lecturer during the majlis. The point is to help create mental imagery of Imam Husain’s children and family members’ being forced to defend themselves against overwhelming odds.

The dates change too, as some cultures will conclude the mourning either significantly earlier or later than others. The strict deadlines, followed by the majority, are the first 10 days of the Islamic month of Muharram, and the 40th day after the death of Imam Husain, known as “Arbaeen.”

The majlis itself follows a fascinating outline as well.  It is not unusual to see internationally acclaimed poets flown in from around the world to recite expressive eulogies to start or conclude a majlis. After the recitation of poetry, the majlis itself begins in the form of a 45-60 minute lecture, followed by the practice of maatam. Shiite mosques also negotiate ardently to obtain the best majlis reciters for each program.

“There’s a similarity of intent within oral traditions around the world. In American Indian traditions, a story has at least two purposes. The first is to entertain, ensuring it will be heard. This requires awareness and knowledge of the audience. Secondly, a story must convey a lesson,” continues Bruchac.

A critical feature of the majlis is a part of the program where attendees recall the “tragedy.” In this part, detailed descriptions of acts of violence against Imam Husain and his younger family members are recounted. In response, attendees openly (and sometimes loudly) cry at the retelling. This form of crying continues and of end of each majlis for the entire mourning period.

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In the “English” language circuit, Shia Mosques can pay individual reciters significant amounts, from hundreds to thousands of dollars per weekend. It is considered unusual for the same speaker to give a majlis two weekends in a row at the same religious center, so the lecturers rotate throughout the country on what is colloquially called the “majlis circuit.”

For their part, English majlis reciters will look for Islamic centers that have highly sophisticated audio and video equipment, as each majlis is uploaded to YouTube. For top reciters, there can be more than 50,000 views within the first hour after the video has been uploaded.

For many Shia centers in the U.S., more than 50 percent of their annual budgets can be devoted to these majlis and related programs.  This year, Arabeen is expected to come by Dec. 2, although for many adherents, the mourning will continue for several weeks after.  Next year the practice will continue again, starting near Oct. 2, 2016.

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Rahat Husain

Rahat Husain has been working as a columnist since 2013 when he joined the Communities. With an interest in America and Islam, Rahat is a prolific writer on contemporary and international issues. In addition to writing for the Communities, Rahat Husain is an Attorney based in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. He is the Director of Legal and Policy Affairs at UMAA Advocacy. For the past six years, Mr. Husain has worked with Congressmen, Senators, federal agencies, think tanks, NGOs, policy institutes, and academic experts to advocate on behalf of Shia Muslim issues, both political and humanitarian. UMAA hosts one of the largest gatherings of Shia Ithna Asheri Muslims in North America at its annual convention.