Like many of you, my heart is wrestling with Israeli atrocities in Gaza, the deaths of innocents including children there and elsewhere, the continuing and growing colonization of Palestinian land, the horrible unchecked suffering and deaths in Syria, the struggles of IDPs from Waziristan, the still unrecovered girls in Nigeria, now the completely insane shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane, and I could keep going.
Nowadays, I check social media in the morning, and then I shut it off for the entire day. Everyday, I hope that there will be better news, that the deaths will stop, there will be ceasefires, there will be some integrity, the US government will take ethical stands, and everyday, I find worse news. I know I have the luxury to compartmentalize and that this is probably irresponsible of me. I’m slipping into depression, grief, frustration, and even anger. So when my friend R.R. (she prefers anonymity) posted this status, it spoke to my heart. I want to share it with those of you who are also struggling with the sadness that is running through these days. I was raised in a pretty conservative Sunni Muslim family. I don’t know as much as I should about Shia Muslim practice but I have a deep respect and attraction to it and I find in it a spiritual wisdom that many of us can be enriched by.
“I think perhaps it is time for me to share with you something I shared with the women at the Muslim-Jewish retreat this past June. It is about what I appreciate most about my religious tradition, about being Shia: having different spaces for feeling and processing grief, and understanding your place in the world as a result.
The first kind of grief is the lamentation. This is the kind of grief where you feel abandoned, in a confused whirl, in great pain; you need to know that there is something out there beyond all this, that there is some kind of hope to be found. I’ve always found these feelings beautifully encapsulated in the turning point of Dua Kumayl, one of the most important duas in my tradition. It begins with affirming the greatness of God but soon segues into a search for understanding, trying to figure out what went wrong, and then into a lamentation, asking, is it possible to be made to suffer, to call upon God’s mercy and not receive it? Is it possible to be abandoned by God? Is that actually possible?
And the answer, the turning point, is a long and beautiful HAYHĀT – “Far be it!” The rest of the dua affirms this – this is not what we know of God, this is not how we know God, other than as Mercy. Thus, we cry out:
“O Light of those who are lonely in the darkness!”
يَا نُورَ الْمُسْتَوْحِشِينَ فِي الظُّلَمِ
This is the grief with space for hope when there appears to be no reason for hope. This is personal grief, and personal hope.
The second kind of grief is the grief of unimaginable injustice, of things that should never happen but do. This is the heavy grief of Ashura.
This tragedy is of such enormity that it goes beyond understanding: people who called themselves Muslims tortured and killed the Prophet’s own grandson and members of his family. What is there to say? How could this ever happen? There is no sense to be made of it, no boundaries to be drawn around it, no containment. It is done. All you can do is cry, and wail, and beat your chest, and sit with your grief.
And yet: kul yawm Āshūrāʾ wa kul arḍ Karbalāʾ; every day is Ashura, and every land is Kerbala. This story, this unimaginable injustice, is not over; it repeats itself in every time, in every land. You are not grieving only for the Prophet’s grandson and his family; you are grieving for the world. The injustice in our world needs to be acknowledged, and we must grieve for it. It must be made known through our tears, our witness, our memory. This grief is communal, and it must be communal.
There is more to the story of Ashura, beyond the death and destruction. There is the story of Husayn’s sister Zaynab, the survivor to whom we owe knowledge of what happened at Kerbala, and who continued his heroic acts of speaking truth to power. She is just as much a part of the story of Ashura as is Husayn, but her role would not exist without her grief, which is now our grief, and the grief of the world.
And so, when we feel overwhelmed with injustice, when we cannot even process its enormity, when there is nothing else we can do…we grieve. Our tears say, we know this happened to you and we will not forget or let others forget. Your lives are worth remembering. There will come a time for a different role but that will come later. For now, we sit with our grief.”
So, I sit with my grief for now, and wait. I know I share my grief with many of you, and that helps. But I wait, wait, and I do what I can to overcome the hate, pain, and suffering before which I so often feel so extremely helpless.