Hearths Closer

            The views of Huntington that the world is ahead of a major confrontation of cultures were sensational and indeed very catchy when his book was published. Scholars quite early on pointed out obvious oversimplifications in his ideas and rightly so, but as the idea lingered on in the public discourse it became a favored theme by political agendas. Especially now, that one of the main topics of public discourse is the matter of mass migration from Australia to the US all the way to Europe. At the same time, as sort of natural retaliation to the general apostasy in the West and to the immense suffering of Christian communities in the Middle East so called right wing movements masked themselves as defenders of Christianity. The result is the re-emerging theme of clash of civilizations as if there was an eternal and inherent oxymoron between Christianity and Islam irreconcilable. As if not only fruitful dialogue was impossible, but even more problematical that the followers of these faiths cannot understand each other since they are driven by utterly different emotions and ideals.

            One could point out, as many idealists do that there is dialogue. As we discussed not long ago, Pope I. Francis recently visited the Emirates to sign the document of Human Fraternity and such steps could be interpreted as genuine gestures to finally solve the drift between Christians and Muslims. Sadly, however, as was pointed out most of these gesture are rather void not building on the experiences of those communities, which indeed managed to live together for centuries. And such gestures did not stop nor the political agendas fueling hate and mistrust between communities – as Christchurch and Sri Lanka bare testimony to that – nor the rapture within the Christian and Islamic communities.

            There are, however, beautiful examples where Christians and Muslim did indeed understood each other much more in hearth, than in the dogmas. While our project aims to focus on the political currents of the Middle East and not to be a cultural site, in the holy time before Easter and only week away from the holy month of Ramadan it is fitting and just to remember how many times Muslim and Christians can and do understand each other. Like in the picture above, when in 2017 a Christian Archbishop in Iraq joined the pilgrimage to Kabalā’ at ‘Āšūrā’, one of the holiest days of Shia Islam. So this week we chose to bring this matter closer to our readers.


The message of Easter: self sacrifice.


            One visits the Middle East where Christianity is still vividly present, like Syria, Egypt, Iraq or even Iran, especially with a Western upbringing many times gets stunned by just how different religious holidays are. Not simply the public festivities and traditions, but the general public approach to them. The shopping frenzy which so sadly came to dominate both Christmas and Easter in many parts of the West is seldom appearing, but the streets are many times taken over by celebrating crowds from both communities. That is far less rare to be seen as usually imagined in the West. And since for many Easter is becoming yet only an other occasion for shopping it is only fitting to remind us what Easter is really about.

            The story is less in question, since most people know how Jesus Christ entered to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with a cheerful public greeting him, only a week before this Crucifixion. Less the Passion of the Christ, as by Christian tradition he took the sins of this world knowingly and suffered torture and humiliation of the authorities, both Jewish and Roman. But Easter is full of eternal lessons for all of us, which are often forgotten. And since forgotten, the real moral of Easter is slowly slipping away in our times as many tend to regard it as a sad, but old historic tale with little significance for our times now.

            Though we should remember, not the least for our topic here, that the crowd which greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday at the gates of Jerusalem left him a week later and many even wished for his death. Even those closest to him shook in their faith, like Peter who vowed to follow his master in the Last Supper, only to deny him three times before the next dawn. That should remind us how weak we are in times of need and how easily our fortunes can change from triumph to tragedy in the hands of the authorities. Or as in our times we could interpret it, by the treacherous currents of politics. But beyond all humiliation and seeming defeat there is redemption, there in Sunday and Monday of Easter. The resurrection and the triumph of the faithful, the moral price of those who stay loyal to their principles even in the hardest times. Christian tradition many times holds that impossible for humans, but nonetheless a moral principle to be followed, while many focus on the sacrifice Jesus made for mankind. In any case it is undoubtable that there is something catastrophic yet cathartic in the Holy Week. While even the best among us can be betrayed and can suffer for our sins there is reward for the faithful and there is hope beyond all tragedies. That is why Easter is even holier in Christian eyes than Christmas, but yet harder to grasp and understand.

            The massage of Christmas, the joy that our savior has finally arrived is joyful, but Easter holds morals present in our everyday life. That is the essence of faith, which was driving Christian thinking for centuries. But is it something Muslims can share? Considering, by Islamic traditions Jesus was not crucified on the cross, but someone closely resembling him.


‘Āšūrā’, a tragedy with similar message?


            Interestingly, less known for Westerners Islam has a tradition very similar with almost identical message. A story most holy for Shia Muslim, which many times even Sunnis tend to disregard as a lesser known Shia holiday. That is the story of ‘Āšūrā’, which has its sad shadow over the long dispute between the Shia and Sunna, but in fact has eternal moral messages for of us all.

            After the death of Prophet Muḥammad in 632 the thus far united yet small Muslim community had to face the question of succession. Who should and who in fact could take over the duties of the Prophet not as a messenger of God, but as a leader of a community. And while the most obvious and likely choice was his cousin and son in law ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib the companions of the Prophet elected three caliphs, Abū Bakr (632-34), ‘Umar (634-44) and ‘Utmān (644-656) before him. When ‘Alī (656-661) finally got elected in 656 the formerly small Islamic community was already transformed into a sizable multilingual empire, which ruled over vast and lucrative territories. His reign, however, was overshadowed by six years of endless war. That was the first strife within Islam. He first had to face some of the old companions of the Prophet, who were jealous of him, then the already immensely powerful provincial governors, who feared dear positions and lucrative income from the pious caliph. The most ambitious and powerful among them was the Syrian governor Mu‘āwiya, who could be seen as the quintessential example of the perfect politician always saying what the people want to hear, elusive in promises, flexible in morals, but sharply determined in his goals. The struggle between ‘Alī and Mu‘āwiya somewhat reflect the eternal question of how the ideal leader should be. An impeccable moral example, who is always respected and adored – though mostly the history books – yet rarely loved, or a skillful and cunning administrator, who rarely says the same about a topic twice, yet manages to gain the love or the fear, consequently the obedience of his subjects. Their war, the first internal war of Islam, not only caused general instability in the Islamic community, but saw the seeds of the conflict the Shia – the followers of ‘Alī – and the Sunna, those who supported Mu‘āwiya. A moral dilemma, which even now, after fourteen centuries still haunt the Middle East.

            When in 661 ‘Alī was assassinated the leadership instantly fell upon Mu‘āwiya (660-80), who founded the first hereditary dynasty of Islam, the Umayyad Caliphate. Those, however, who supported ‘Alī against all odds stayed loyal to his house and cause, and pledged their loyalty to his sons Ḥasan, and Ḥussayn. That is the time, when the Shia started to develop the doctrine not shared by the Sunna, that the Holy Qurān hides secret knowledge only accessible by the anointed ones. Namely ‘Alī and his descendants. Therefore their succession is not only just as ‘Alī was the closest relative of the Prophet and a pious caliph, but logical as the sacred and most suitable leaders of the community.

            Upon Mu‘āwiya’s succession he quickly promised to pass on his powers after his death to Ḥasan, a promise very soon forgotten, ‘Alī’s elder son showed little resolve to carry on the fight. He stayed in Medina until his death in 670 and became the ideal example of the peacemaker, as he abdicated from all his positions for Mu‘āwiya, only to end the rift within Islam. Things, however, quickly changed in 680, when Mu‘āwiya died and passed on his power to his son, Yazīd (680-83). Many resented the succession of Yazīd as an unprecedented move of hereditary rule, and soon rebellions were on the horizon. In Iraq especially, where ‘Alī’s household always has a very strong support. Supporters from Kufa convinced Ḥussayn that if he went to Iraq the people would support him and Yazīd could be overthrown. Since he did not accept Yazīd’s succession anyways and for many he represented the legitimate opposition to an unjust rule and a divination from the prophetical path he accepted the offer. He left Medina with his bigger family and with a handful of supporters to Kufa, but before he could reach it he was confronted by the army of Yazīd’s governor at Karbalā. The promised support was nowhere to be found, and he was slain with all the men in his company. Islamic history is full of heroic images of his bravery and moral never surrendering and the gruesome details of his martyrdom and what has befallen to his corpse. The murder of the beloved grandson of the Prophet, especially by so shocking circumstances caused outrage and general revolt all over the Islamic state at that time. Which made Yazīd to wage a siege upon Medina and even Mecca, causing an internal war even more destructive then that of ‘Alī and Mu‘āwiya. Which only ended with his death.

            Both Yazīd and Ḥussayn became symbols in Islamic thinking, and not only among the Shia. Yazid for the most part became the symbol of tyranny and corruption, complete moral deviation from the rightful path for the Shia, and a shameful topic best to be avoided even for the Sunna. For many he is a terrible reminder what injustice a state can cause in the wrong hands, and that rising up against such injustice is not disloyalty, but a sacred duty. And while even the Sunna acknowledge the valor of Ḥussayn, his character became immortalized by the Shia as a brave and chivalrous leader, who confronted evil even when he was fully aware what will happen to him.

            That tragic battle of Karbalā, which happened in the tenth day of the month of Muḥarram is remembered in ‘Āšūrā’, meaning the tenth. That day many Shia Muslims take the pilgrimage to Karbalā or the holy city of Nağaf nearby, where ‘Alī is buried. Both pilgrims and those who choose to stay at home give a public manifest of their devotion shocking for outsiders. It is common to see them flogging, even cutting themselves as they morn the death of Ḥussayn, and many take his huge symbolic coffin on their shoulders and carry it around the streets. They gather in the mosques and public places reciting the famous epic weeping and pledging not let down the rightful cause, as it happened in Karbalā. Yet, though forbidden in many hardline Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, in many Sunni states this day is remembered, like Algeria or Pakistan.

            ‘Āšūrā is the epic tale of the rightful standing up for what is just against tyranny even if that means death. It is also the epic tale of fear and treachery, as those who invited Ḥussayn to Iraq were the first to abandon him in need. This eternal symbol always found its way to daily politics all the way to the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, when the Shah became the new Yazīd, and the revolutionaries flocked under the banner of Homeīnī as it was the renewed battle of Karbalā. Only from the perspective can one understand the motto of ‘Āšūrā: Every day is ‘Āšūrā’, everywhere it is Karbalā. Which rarely means violence, but much rather a readiness to resist evil in this world and a will to renounce spoils and corruption in this world. However, ‘Āšūrā’ is not all weeping, as it holds the message of hope as well, as Yazīd did not last long on the throne. Therefore evil can has its ways, but cannot last forever.


Christian pilgrim taking part in ‘Āšūrā’ in Lebanon

Crossing points?

            Seemingly, there is little common in the two stories, especially from historical point of view being separated by some seven centuries. But one looks into the details and moral of the two tragedies founds striking similarities. Eternal messages of betrayal by even those who seem to be the most devoted. The impossible humiliation and torture, which even the bests among us had to suffer for our neglect and indifference. But also the massage of hope, as beyond all horrors and tyranny by a corrupt state there is reward for the devoted.

            It is true, that seemingly the difference is big. How could a Muslim understand what Easter means for a Christian, as for him by the Holy Qurān the Messiah did not die in the cross? Or how could a Christian even living in the Middle East feel anything in common with ‘Āšūrā’, as that is a purely Islamic event, which had nothing to do with Christians? But we should not forget that regardless of the constant agitation to Huntington’s idea, that civilizations are, or soon shall be in struggle with each other members of the two great faiths live together for centuries in the Middle East and they share the same language. Their celebrations meet each other in the streets just as churches and mosques in some many places from Algiers to Tehran. In fact it would have been a bigger surprise if after fourteen centuries they haven’t learned anything from each other. Regardless of hate being cultivated in so many parts of the world Christianity and Islam has many of the same morals. Might not in the details, but certainly in approaches. And indeed, anyone who ever visited Syria, Palestine or Iraq certainly heard that is common for Muslims to greet Christians on Christmas or even give them presents. But how many of us would have thought that is not uncommon for Christians to take part in Islamic events? In one hand, that is only natural, since Jesus is sacred in Islam, and by the Holy Qurān as well he was born by Virgin Mary without a father, and at the end of times he will come back to take this world to the next. But even for Christians, as we could see, there are events, which are tragically familiar. Messages of hardship and betrayal, but also hope and the justice. These messages, especially now amidst such immense suffering in the region don’t fall on deaf ears.


All so wonderful?

            At that point one could rightfully raise objection. But if all is so beautiful than what about Dā‘iš? What about the burned and blown up churches and the thousands of martyrs who lost their lives in the last decades or so simply for being Christians? Where was compassion there? How can anyone speak of fraternity, when these thing indeed took place? Explanation, however, is easier than one would think.

            First of all, there is a huge big difference of Islam in the Middle East, and the diaspora mentality so virulent in the West. The social problems in the West are practically unknown in the Middle East. Should we not forget, that the biggest problem in the West is with the third and fourth generation of Muslim immigrants, who are all the children of that environment and educational system. So blaming the East solely for their behavior is a cynical denial of responsibility. But also the terrorist groups like Dā‘iš and those like them not only targeting Christians or Muslim minorities, but even Sunnies who don’t agree with them. And they are the majority. If there was not a major opposition to these ideologies on the ground, than how could the Syrian, Iraqi or the Egyptian armies overcome these organizations in recent years? Because no one should believe some American bombs – which killed more innocent civilians than terrorists – defeated Dā‘iš. If bombs were enough for that, than how come the Ṭālebān is still not destroyed? In fact, Muslims are victims of radical ideologies in even bigger numbers, but as martyrs and as their children are being seduced to such dark agendas.

            It is true there are radical and hateful agendas all over the Middle East. And their numbers, just like the support behind them is growing. One of the most famous of them is the Egyptian preacher Yusaf al-Qaraḍāwī, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a shadowy front organization for the Muslim Brotherhood originally centered in Dublin and founded by Qatar. He and his influential programs on al-Jazeera surely affected huge numbers in the Islamic world and he is rightly shown in the West as a terrifying image of hatred and hypocrisy. As he had some shocking views on Christians and Christmas particularly. But he is also the same person, which is lesser shown in the West, who supported the mass killings of Syrian soldiers and civilians even if they were Sunnis. And he was a cheerful supporter of the war on Libya. But it was his home country Egypt and Iraq, which issued arrest warrants against him to the Interpol for his incitement for hate. Well known conservative scholars, like late Syrian Mufti Muḥammad Ramaḍān al-Būṭī renounced him many times.

             But more important than that, contrary to the general image propagated in the West, there is genuine and deep rooted criticism in the Islamic world, even among scholars. Like Ṭāriq al-Miṣrī, who not only dared to say years ago, that hatred against others is widespread in the Islamic world, but he also dared to renounce this hatred and its ideological masters. And one listens to his reasoning founds it unmistakably familiar from Christian teachings. And what he said years ago should still be repeated many times in the West as well, as given the general public discourse much could be learned. And he is not a sole example. Grand Mufti of Syria, Aḥmad Badr ad-Dīn Ḥassūn is well known for his peace loving views. In 2011 his son was assassinated just for staying loyal to the government. Yet his speech in his son’s funeral, and his strength to forgive the killers of his son is something remarkable. Those would be pride for any Christian.

            And for a historical lesson, many times it is repeated to scare the masses that wherever Islam takes root it takes over soon and replaces the previous culture. And from Islam, there is no return. While it is true, that Islamic teaching does not support the idea that ones leaves to choose another religion, history is not without such examples. Within the Ottoman Empire Lebanon had for long a limited autonomy, which from 1697 to 1842 was lead by the Šihābī family. They were Sunnis, who traced their lineage back the the Prophet’s tribe. One of their members, III. Bašīr already converted to Maronite Christianity, and after Lebanon gained independence in 1946 its third president, Fu’ād ‘Abd Allah Šihāb also came from this family. And by the Lebanese constitution the president has to by a Maronite Christian.

            Barriers in the Middle East, or the clash envisioned by many are not between Muslims and Christians. Especially that Christians always suffered more, when the West wanted to “help” them only bringing destruction and causing distrust among Muslims towards them. Christians and Muslims from Egypt to Iran know each other well, and as these humble examples might show, beyond the details they feel each other’s hearth much more, than it is believed. Fraternity here exists without any document. Which does not mean the lack of atrocities, sometimes extremely severe. The barrier is much more between this mentality of coexistence and compassion, and that of hatred against practically everything. The mentality of the Brotherhood exploiting the poverty and misery in the region and being supported by the Gulf.

            And where the West stands in this struggle? Logic would suggest support for the first group. Yet for some reason the West chose to wage war in the last two decades against Iraq, Syria, Palestine even Lebanon. In which the biggest supporters and partners were the Gulf states. And which resulted in the shocking drop in Christians in the Middle East. They managed to survive almost two thousand years of war from the Sassanids to the Arabs and the Mongols, yet by the recent helping hands of the West their future is more doubtful than ever before.

            Therefore is should not be surprising that ‘Āšūrā’ reaches the hearths of Christians, as Eastern has a message to Muslim now. And one sees the press and political class in the West, really should think just how far they are from the views of al-Qaraḍāwī.