Why do the grown-ups cry during Muharram?

Published: November 25, 2012

As children, we found ways to amuse ourselves in Muharram. On the majlis farsh we planted ourselves besides the most interesting of the dowagers and matriarchs listening somberly to the majlis. Most dressed in black shalwar kameezes, some wore black chiffon saris whose blouses had grown smaller in such subtle gradations (half an inch every Muharram) over the years that, though their flesh now spilled out of them, they could not perceive the difference in the fitting. From those blouses, their flesh cascaded in soft, maternal folds and it was its shaking and quivering when they wept during the majlis that was an endless source of entertainment to us, the little children of the house.

We would pick our quarries carefully: That one slaps her thighs while she bellows exaggeratedly. She weeps soundlessly but the whole corpulent mass of her, heaving, then still, then jiggling again, is wonderfully amusing. This one now is totally boring, simply bends her head and sniffles politely, the way we’re going to cry when we grow up and finally understand what it is that they’re all going on about.

Because, just as one has the certainty in childhood that they will one day be beautiful, that they will not grow up to be like the faintly ridiculous, plain awkward or simply ugly adults they make fun of, one is also assured that the emotions they feel will be the lucid, comprehensible ones.

So I was never going to be the woman who would have to gasp and choke for air in her weeping, nor the woman who loses control and cries and shrieks during the matam. I preferred the volume of the Majlis, not at a feverish pitch, but at a suitably roused level. I wanted the emotions stirred in the audience to be precisely explained by the narration in the majlis, a mathematical, one-on-one mapping of event and emotion.

My 30-year-old self would make a ripe target for my childhood self.

“Her shoulders shake,” I can imagine my 7-year-old self saying. “And just keep shaking. Also” and this would be the truly damning part of the indictment, the reason she would find me amusing and absurd “she cries even when they’re not on the sad part of the majlis.”

I would find it something of a challenge to explain to her why I’m crying, or what at. Because the calculus of grief is hard to grasp, not just for a 7-year-old with a penchant for tidiness and logic, but for people of all ages. Happiness, well-being, these states seem amenable to calculation and management. Grief is harder to contain and control.

And this question, Why do people cry at majlises? It is posed in various ways: Why give importance to this particular battle – Karbala – over others? Why mourn something that happened so terribly long ago? Sometimes, the very act of crying is found to be disturbing, disruptive, and the question then is, Why grieve, why cry at all? Other times, people want to figure out the mechanics of it, DO you cry on cue? Can you squeeze out the tears? What if you simply don’t feel like it? And how, how can you cry over the same things over and over, every  year?

There are many different answers to these questions. Most people recount patiently the events leading up to Karbala, then they try to impress their interrogator with the magnitude of the tragedy that took place, its uniqueness – the individual stories, the collective sacrifices, the body count, the cruelties. Those with a predilection for debate will launch into the complexities of political Islam. And there will of course be those who will emphasise how the incident provides us with guiding principles, distinctions between good and evil, and thus becomes an integral part of our lives.

Yes, we cry because of all of that, but apart from all these explanations, there is another explanation so simple and so bare that it is almost – but not quite – tautological: we cry because the majlis is a space for grief, a place for empathy and imagination unfettered by time and distance.

And the logical, mathematical mind might want the grief expressed to be proportionate to the event, commensurate with the story told, but the fact is that you cannot dole out expressions of sorrow in manageable, palatable, commercial chunks.

So we choke over tears, we gasp as the air becomes thinner, the world progressively less bearable, we sob with abandon. We cry for the Prophet (pbuh) and his family, but also, vitally, we cry for ourselves. We bring our own sorrows to the majlis, our private sufferings. We cry because we feel frail, because we feel no more than human. And every year, as our sorrows increase, and our blessings, we cry a little harder.

Read more by Batool here, or follow her on Twitter @batool1767 


Batool Zehra

A sub-editor on the magazine of The Express Tribune.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Don’t just cry but repent also

    Only if one cry to Allah for forgiveness of sins committed and for repentence, I think that will be considered as praiseworthy. Recommend

  • A.Samuel

    Being a student of mechanical engineering i believe your use of the mathematical terminologies to me is not less than an art. Wonderfully written.

    “I wanted the emotions stirred in the
    audience to be precisely explained by
    the narration in the majlis, a
    mathematical, one-on-one mapping of
    event and emotion.”

    The one on one mapping phrase is sublime.
    As far as your argument is concerned i wasn’t convinced with your logos i believe people(mostly) are just following the herd.Recommend

  • http://lonepkliberal.wordpress.com Loneliberal PK

    Expertly written.

    I personally feel that it violates the somberness of the gathering when people attempt to, as you put it, squeeze out their tears on cue.

    One would think that it’s more important to silently contemplate the events at Karbala and what they mean to us, rather than to put up a show either for the surrounding people (which is just disingenuous) or for God (who already knows what you’re feeling, with or without the physical weeping).Recommend

  • Rahim

    @ Don’t just cry but repent also,
    It will be even more praiseworthy if you, instead of finger pointing on another faith, mind your own business. No body is allowed to be a Religious Policeman and decide who is doing right and who is doing wrong!!!!Recommend

  • Ammar

    This was beautifully expressed. One can tell it came straight from the heart. And you have a wonderful way with words.

    Loved it. Keep writing. Recommend

  • Sudheer

    Why do the grown-ups cry during Muharram?
    Because there is no place for rationality in religion.Recommend

  • Reza Khan

    Wonderful Batool! we’ve become so socially inept that we cannot fathom an alternate account. Recommend

  • Toba Alu

    Really everything in the life of a Muslim has to find its causes and effects, its reasons and logic in the holy scriptures. Just read a few other books and you may find excellent explanations for all of your “life” questions. I get tears in my eyes when I read your submissions. I was crying when I saw Doctor Zhivago, I cried when I saw Jacky Kennedy (dressed in black) with her to kids. The moment you stop crying for the unproven, for the stories which have been implanted in your brain, and start getting your act together for those who are suffering around you irrespective of creed, color, age, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. and not because you will be rewarded (in the afterlife?) you are becoming a human being. Try to become an independent adult. Rewiring your brain is hard work and requires an open mind, try for once to travel without your guardian (be it your book with all the answers, your husband (?), or male relative). Working hard yourself is rewarding and you will become proud of yourself. The results become your own accomplishments rather then the stuff planted in your brain/mind by your upbringing (with blinkers the size of solar panels). Good luck.Recommend

  • Kanwal

    Dear author, being a secular muslim, i think i do not mind your few days of outdoor and/or indoor mourning. What i do not understand is, why despite having so much focus and non-violent street power, you require security from Taliban provided by somebody as funny as Rehman Malik? Dont just cry, defend yourselves too using non-violent methods. Otherwise, just as Hoodbhoy says, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. This country aint for you.
    I am sorry to say but i am not too much interested why you do your mourning and its philosophy. I want to know how it can help Pakistan and what empowerment it can give to my society. Thats how things in developed nations work. I see the potential you guys have now. Lets see if it is developed over next years or you just keep crying and getting killed for it. Recommend

  • Mango X

    Any human with the slightest of humanity in him/her will become at least teary eyed upon hearing the tragedy of Karbala. Imam Hussain (AS) is for all Humans and we should take lessons from the tragedy of Karbala. Recommend

  • Ali Naqvi

    Even before becoming atheist,i had found these religious rituals to be highly disturbing.I couldn’t stand the blood and the self-mutilation.I didn’t approve of my family and neighbours indulging in deliberate self-harm.I realised i didn’t need to prove my love for someone by torturing my body.Harming myself would please no one.There are other more non-violent ways of showing devotion to religion than the rituals which are performed during this month.Recommend

  • MSS

    Good insight into the mind of a person.Recommend

  • zahra.mohammed

    Beautiful post Batty!


  • http://na deep

    Personally I find it amusing and fascinating in equal measure as the preacher recreates the battlefield. I have a bunch of aunts who can cry over episodes in our God’s lives as well.
    But what I find offensive is the endless analysis of the event in talk shows – elevating a lot of fiction and faith to the realm of so-called historical fact.
    that is truly dangerous. the lines between myth and reality has always been blur with devout muslims I suppose who seem to live for the day of reckoning rather than for today.Recommend

  • Crocodile

    I can’t help it. Recommend

  • Bilal

    Salam ,

    this article is quiet offensive I guess ! devoid is the emotion Respect here ! Recommend

  • Absurdist

    @ LoneLiberal PK

    I can’t believe it you and God? Someone must have hacked into your account.lolzRecommend

  • H.M

    A lovely piece of writing…fairly littered with noteworthy sentences and turns of phrase.Recommend

  • ss

    What do you suggest, what non-violent methods should we use to defend ourselves against Taliban?

    @ author
    i, as a kid used to ask myself the same question, however, rather than making fun of aunties and uncles’ weeping style i used to try to shed some tears myself, never succeeded though.Recommend

  • Venkata

    Wonderful write up .loved it.The buildup was logical but the explanation
    For crying not convincing.As some one else has remarked above perhaps should be
    Done away with.Recommend

  • Sharmeen

    It comes from inside, you just can’t fake it, its a purely unintentional act to express your love.. I wonder and pity him who hears the tragedy of karbala and does not shed a tear. Recommend

  • Ms. Raza

    I suppose this is only your (writer’s) own personal opinion and understanding of the immortal phenomenon of aza, and a very superficial one as well. But now that I’m here I want to ask people a different question: Why do they resort to mudslinging because people mourn the cruelty that the Prophet’s family was subjected to? I see people waiting in the wings for the smallest opportunity to come by so that they can use it for scandalmongering. Haven’t pious people got better things to do?Recommend

  • http://pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    The funny part is that tribune allows promotion of sects .. and that is apparantly liberal for it .. I dont get you ETRecommend

  • Another North Indian

    “Mango X 11 hours ago
    Any human with the slightest of humanity in him/her will become at least teary eyed upon hearing the tragedy of Karbala. Imam Hussain (AS) is for all Humans and we should take lessons from the tragedy of Karbala.”

    What is this with Hussain is for everyone, Muhammad is for everyone kind of claims? These people and these things are important to you, that is good. But if you impose your expectations on others, you will be disappointed. Others really have no reason to see the world from your eyes. Recommend

  • Abdul-Razak Edhy

    It is human nature. Many souls can not control themselves when they see others weeping, especially near and dear ones. Mass hysteria swaps over most participants. It is not limited to Muharram Majalis, one can see weeping adults at funerals and at other tragedies. In case of religious rituals, Sawab is an additional incentive. Kudos to authoress for good presentation. Recommend

  • Azadar

    Nice article. As a shia, I went through a similar experience. As I got older, I actually have begun to appreciate those elders whom some of us mocked for crying during majlis.

    As a conscience awakening exercise and simply as empathy to a deeply tragic event, I cannot begin to appreciate those who make the emotional effort to express their emotions honestly and lend an air of solemness to an event that deserves nothing less.

    I think a lot of this also has to do with class – after all mourning for Imam Hussain – Azadari is the faith of the dispossessed.

    When Edward Gibbon stated “In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.” he obviously underestimated a post-Zia and post-Farhat Hashmi Pakistan.Recommend

  • aamir

    I only enjoyed the vocab and nothing else. Actually ur inner self asks u y u mourn ? And u have no answer suchme. U r confused but its a good news ask yourself can it be a way to show respect and love to someone who hates violence and who is well known for his kindness and love ? Just think once. Recommend

  • http://lonepkliberal.wordpress.com Loneliberal PK


    I don’t believe in that personally. I’m just trying to look at it from a theist’s perspective.Recommend

  • http://twitter.com/Z3alous Sarah Haider

    Beautifully written. I cry because I hold all those great personalities very close to my heart and I can relate to their sufferings, the emotions are difficult to explain, and it differs from person to person. There have been times when I didn’t shed a single tear at a majlis, and there have been times when I cried even when someone was reciting the salam after the majlis.
    Some people find it absurd and make fun of the entire episode of moharram and majalis. Some people from other schools of thought are even forbidden to cry when their own loved ones die. I personally find that suppression and cruelty to forbid people from shedding tears, but again, to each, his own.
    As for someone saying “Only if one cry to Allah for forgiveness of sins committed and for repentance, I think that will be considered as praiseworthy.” No one cries or seeks Allah’s forgiveness so that others can praise them. Recommend

  • Hassan Jawad

    These processions and majalis are blessings for those who love Prophet(S.A.W) and his household(A.S.), we cry because we love them more than our family members and we want to share their pain and sufferings and pay tribute to their great sacrifices in the form of tears.

    Sufferings of Household of Prophet(S.A.W) on the land of Karbala diminish our own sufferings because our sufferings look so small in comparison. The tears shed on floor of azadari make us soft from inside and at the same time strong to strive in this ruthless world. Recommend

  • Baqar Hasan

    Why do people mourn? why do pople laugh? Oh look her capris are quarter of an inch longer he-he. Why do you wear a polka dotted underwear? We are never going to learn if we keep finding dissimilarities. Have you, as a grown man, read the tragedy of Karbala? a cold blooded would cry too. Good Job Zehra B ( she’s my sister :D)Recommend

  • Mustafa Moiz

    Why are your personal religious beliefs being aired here?Recommend

  • Neutrino

    Alot of times i saw on TV, as the camera focuses on someone of the audiance “that person begins to cry”. Lol… “an honest piece”.Recommend

  • Syed

    Edward G. Brown, the professor of Arabic and oriental studies at the University of Cambridge, praises Imam Husain in these words:

    “… a reminder of the blood-stained field of Kerbela, where the grandson of the Apostle of God fell at length, tortured by thirst and surrounded by the bodies of his murdered kinsmen, has been at anytime since then sufficient to evoke, even in the most lukewarm and heedless, the deepest emotions, the most frantic grief, and an exaltation of spirit before which pain, danger and death shrink to unconsidered trifles.”
    [A Literary History of Persia, London, 1919, p. 227]

    We cry because our Imam Hussain a.s. was all alone on Karbala. That is enough reason for us. Recommend

  • kashif

    Ashura is multifaceted. Books have been written about it.

    The mourning is an end in itself, the expression and experience of grief over the brutal massacre of the Prophet’s grandson and his family (even the 6 month old infant wasn’t spared).

    But it is also a means to an end – ensuring that the events of Karbala are never forgotten. The public mourning is meant to ensure that word is spread, that more and more people know what happened – especially in the face of centuries old attempts to suppress information about Karbala.

    And finally, it is meant to serve as an inspiration to the world – once they realize what happened, and how Hussain AS and his family stood up to tyranny, to have the world emulate their example by standing up against injustice and to preserve human freedom and liberty.

    This is the essence of Muharram.Recommend

  • Insaan

    @Abdul-Razak Edhy: Some people when they are in emotional state of mind…..they cry easily. Some even are moved by romantic blogs, movies. loneliness etc. Recommend

  • Insaan

    @Sarah Haider: There have been times when I didn’t shed a single tear at a majlis, and there have been times when I cried even when someone was reciting the salam after the majlis.

    I guess your state of mind controls your tears. When people are “highly emotional” they want to cry more. Recommend

  • GhostRider

    To cry and not to cry is a personal choice and a trivial matter. What is astonishing is when people pose a question “why do you mourn for Imam Hussain?”

    My simple answer is Hussain was the grandson of the same Prophet for whom muslims can kill or die over a smallest blasphemy. I wonder how Karbala is not seen as a blasphemy by “THE MUSLIMS”. It was the worst blasphemy that happened and we cry because people committing this heinous act were the reciters of Kalma that Hussain (A.S) was trying to save. Recommend

  • Allama

    “the fact is that you cannot dole out expressions of sorrow in manageable, palatable, commercial chunks.”

    But some allamaas can do that to get a better audience. No offense intended.Recommend

  • murtaxa

    Startup of Blog is pathetic there are no such questions just imagine when someone dearest killed and he suddenly knows all that it’s human nature that he/she cries with emotions which are not under their control. Can be start in better manner.Recommend

  • Divine-Wisdom

    Let your grown ups cry as much as they like .But please keep these rituals confined to your
    worship places .Teh majority should not be forced to suffer in the name of Jalsas and Juloos.Recommend

  • ding dong

    What is the purpose of this blog again?

    Crying is an emotion, just like laughing, which is something very personal to ones heart. As a shia myself, whether i cry or why i cry is, or what i do is something i do because its linked to my personal emotion. It doesn’t need to be justified to anyone, even myself! Recommend

  • Hazeen

    What’s wrong about grown ups crying? Crying, wailing and lamentation is the sunnat of the prophets, see Sura Yusuf in the Quran at how the Prophet Yaqoob (A.S.) wept so much that he lost his eyesight even when he knew that his lost son was alive.

    Similarly, the Prophet’s daughter used to weep so much at the tribulations that followed the loss of her father that the people of Medina, consciences pricked, objected to her mourning even within the confines of her own house.

    So we mourn in this age, in added grief that the tragedy of Karbala still awaits justice. The same perpetrators’ minions, their consciences pricked in turn, are the only ones who seem to have issues with our personal and benign acts of crying. Bombing mourners into submission has the opposite effect – the explosion resonates with even greater numbers of potential mourners drawn to another senseless tragedy in the footsteps of Karbala. Hence Karbala continues………Recommend

  • http://twitter.com/bohotsaara Sarah Haider

    @Insaan: AgreedRecommend

  • Divine-Wisdom


    The Islamic teaching forbids mourning for more than 3 days !
    Who awaits justice is a relative term .You have put forth your version .
    The Others have thier own .Lets keep the balance intact .
    Hope you u/s what I mean .Peace .Recommend

  • Chairman

    A young guy, 29, during azadari in Lahore cut his nerve and died in hospital. http://e.dunya.com.pk/detail.php?date=2012-11-27&edition=LHR&id=61771_91621806 Recommend

  • Fatima

    The title suggested to me this was another ill informed piece devoid of empathy. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Congrats on potraying so vividly the emotions that most of us experience in Moharram.

    It is true that year after year, listening to the tragic account instills such profound grief in an individual which stays with them forever.

    May Allah never inflict on us any grief other than that of our beloved Imam (A.S.).Recommend

  • Ali kazmi

    @Don’t just cry but repent also:
    Dear, crying over repentance only and for the way of getting Allahs approval is not Islam’s way of justification of weeping in sorrow. How would we explain the crying of Hazrat Yaqoob over Hazrat Yusuf (although he knew his son is alive) for decades, and loosing eyesight? He cried due to objectivity of the distance between he and his beloved son and his sufferings, yet Allah in Quran terms Hazrat Yaqoobs cry as “Sabr-e-Azeem”Recommend

  • XARA

    Dear Batool,
    Nicely written. You rightly said

    *but the fact is that you cannot dole out expressions of sorrow in manageable, palatable, commercial chunks.*

    Hence you shouldn’t have made fun of the emotions of the people at first place. You could have looked for a better opening i think. Recommend

  • M Mehdi

    Very wisely written. God bless you friend. Recommend

  • Qasim

    Please do not write about something you do not comprehend and have very limited knowledge of. The title of this piece drew me towards it – little did I know that the concentration would be on how people look when they cry in a majlis rather than the essence of the concept that makes them cry.

    Once again I can not emphasise enough the importance of the right to express your views on a particular topic that you do not have enough knowledge or perseverence to grasp. If you want I can give you a crash course on what the battle of Karbala was all about and why it is remembered almost 14 centuries later – and the reason behind mourning and self flagellation.

    In the absence of this insight you do not have any right to express your ill informed views on the subject and I hold you and the Express Tribune network responsible for the complete lack of consideration of the religious and emotional sensitivities of people connected with the mourning of Ahlul Bayt. Recommend

  • Qasim

    @Another North Indian:

    No one is asking you to see things from ‘our’ eyes as you say. Maybe its your own lack of consideration for other people’s views that’s talking here. You’re incredibly impressed by Marxist theories, Martin Luther King’s speeches and Shakespeare’s fiction that have got nothing to do with you or your society but are too prejudiced to even listen to icons related to the Muslim world just because you were discriminated against by a bunch of headless, mindless and heartless people who call themselves Muslims. I expected better from a North Indian given the quality of education and professional experience and my personal experiences with North Indians, sadly though prejudice knows no bounds.Recommend

  • Syed Hasan Mustafa

    Islamic teachings forbid u to cry for more than 3 days eh? have u ever read these so called Islamic teachings urself or are u just parroting what ur local mullah has said? crying is the sunnat of the Ambiyah (AS) which is why Hazrat Hajrah cried for Hazrat Ismail, Hazrat Yaqoob cried for Hazrat Yusuf, Hazrat Maryam cried for Hazrat Issa, Hazrat Mohammad cried for Hazrat Hamza and so on. matam is only an elevation of this grief. did u ever get a chance to see a program PTV used to air a couple of yrs ago called Kashmir File? it showed the families of youths who were taken from their homes and killed by the indian army or young women who had been raped and then killed in front of their family members. see how the surviving parents, siblings and family members would wail in grief and beat their faces and chests at their calamitous loss. we do the same but for the family of the Prophet who suffered even more at the hands of the rulers of the time. the only people who come up with these Islamic injunctions are the ones who cannot bear to see people mourn Imam Hussain or cry for the tragedies that befell not just him at the battle field of Karbala but the women (the daughters of the daughter of the Prophet) and children of his family who were taken captive by Yazid son of Mawiya and imprisoned for over 2 yrs in Damascus becos once people start investigating the history of the event, all fingers point towards a truth that shakes the very foundation of orthodox Islam. tell me this, if not for the fact that every Moharram us shias open our houses for all and sundry to come mourn Hussain and take out processions commemorating his martyrdom, would u all even remember what happened at Karbala? or would history continue to be distorted at the hands of the orthodoxy for the political salvation of a few like it has been since the death of the Prophet? Recommend