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Muharram in Nigeria: Keeping alive Karbala movement despite heavy odds

By Isah Omogbai

Muharram marks the beginning of the Islamic year and is synonymous with grief and bereavement in the Muslim world for the events that unfolded in the desert plains of Karbala more than fourteen centuries ago.

There is a wide range of views about this month among Nigerian Muslims. The Shias in Nigeria are of the uniform belief that Muharram is for mourning the martyrdom of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

Nigeria is a country that is made up of people from different ethnicities and diverse cultures, which contributes to the uniqueness and beauty of the country.

However, this diversity of culture and geography among the Shia Muslims in Nigeria also manifests in the ways they mourn for Imam Hussain (AS) and his family.

There are similarities regarding chest-beating which comes with slow eulogy or heavy chest-beating with moderate rhythm, and also a hard beat with short intervals while moving in circles.

The passionate chest beating with a gentle beat without intervals is also done at different gatherings.

Mostly Ashura and Azadari (mourning) in Nigeria are commemorated in gatherings, by recitation of the Quran, ziyarah of Imam Husain (AS), followed by sermons regarding the events of Karbala.

The lovers of Ahlulbayt (AS), like their Muslim counterparts in other parts of the world, wear black as a symbol of mourning and grief over the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) and his family and companions.

The intensity of the Muharram commemoration is relatively greater in the northern part of Nigeria followed by the southern part of Nigeria due to the indefatigable efforts of top Nigerian Shia cleric and leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) Sheikh Ebrahim Zakzaky.

In the southern part of Nigeria, due to the comparatively less Shia population, mourning for Imam Hussain (AS) is mostly observed in small gatherings of family and friends, which has in recent years significantly contributed to the awareness about Ahlulbayt (AS) and the tragic events of Karbala

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria has been mainly responsible for increasing awareness about Shi’ism, Ahlulbayt (AS), and Muharram despite the negative propaganda to suppress and silence Shias.

In recent years, the Nigerian Shias have faced various forms of attacks, both violent and non-violent. A vicious propaganda has been unleashed against them mostly by the Takfiri Wahhabi group, inciting violence and hatred against the minority community.

The government has also often used indiscriminate force on gatherings and processions of Ashura and Arbaeen, but that hasn’t prevented the lovers of Ahlulbayt (AS) from carrying forward and preserving the legacy of Imam Hussain’s (AS) movement.

For almost 10 years or more, the Shias have been killed on the streets during Ashura processions by Nigerian forces who are supposed to protect the lives and properties of all Nigerian citizens.

The biggest crackdown by the Nigerian government came in December 2015, when they opened fire on Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat and then killed thousands of Shia men, women in Zaria, Kaduna state.

Shias were hunted in their homes, and schools owned by the Islamic Movement were destroyed by thugs accompanied by the Nigerian police force.

The Nigerian federal government placed tight police restrictions and passed a law ordering its forces to arrest Shias who openly commemorate Ashura and banned religious centers from holding Muharram events.

That, however, has only strengthened the resolve of minority Nigerian Shias to hold annual Muharram commemorations and participate in large numbers.

Isah Omogbai is a researcher and writer from Nigeria, presently based in Iran.

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