Məhərrəmlik and Aşura
Last night was the last night of Aşura, the memorial of the martyrdom of Huseyn. Aşura takes place on the 10th day of the first month in the Islamic calendar, known in Azerbaijan as Məhərrəmlik, in Arabic as Muharram. Aşura and Məhərrəmli are a big deal for many Azerbaijanis because they are primarily Shia Muslims. Huseyn ibn Ali was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and was killed in the Battle of Karbala. He was supposed to go on and take the the reigns of Islam, as he was a blood relative of the Prophet, but it was not to be, and for that the Shia Muslims mourn.
Məhərrəmlik is considered a sorrowful month in the Islamic calendar. In Azerbaijan, that means that there are no weddings during this time, any music that is played must be religious music, and there’s more activity about the mosques. When you greet people these days, it’s common to say “Imam savab versin,” meaning something along the lines of “May the Imam (Huseyn) reward you.” I should note that this is what I’m seeing here in Lənkəran, in a region of Azerbaijan that is considered more religious than others. For example, in northern Azerbaijan, where there is even a fair Sunni population, this sort of memorial is much less prominent, possibly even non-existent.
As last night was the 10th night of Məhərrəmlik (Aşura means ’10’ in Arabic), it was the high point of the mourning for Huseyn. On this day more than a millenium past, Huseyn was killed by Yazid, a short-lived caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate in the AD 600s. As such, in Lənkəran and the surrounding area, there was much ado the whole night last night. The mosques we’re open until daylight this morning. Women were inside mourning. Men were outside, chanting, beating their chests, and possibly using any number of things to self-mutilate. Last year, I saw the men swinging small bags of coins or rocks to hit themselves with on the back. Just a few years ago, in a village north of here, there was tell of the men using swords to cut their heads, allowing blood to flow down their faces in solidarity with the suffering of Huseyn at the hands of Yazid centuries ago. Beyond that, mullahs are generally at the mosques, reciting parts of the Quran, and others may be reciting poetry. The message goes beyond solidarity and includes standing up to oppression, knowing that it will crumble under truth and justice.
Much of the time, it seems like Azerbaijan is not exactly the most religious place around (I think we might be able to blame the Russians for that one). Yet, commemorations like this are good reminders of the Muslim culture that defines Azerbaijan. Last night, the activity went on until daylight broke this morning. Today, you could see masses of people (women in full cover) making public processions to the mosque near Eli’s house. It’s made for quite a night, as well as quite a day today, where many shops were closed because everyone was sleeping off their overnight lament.