This Ashura, I have a confession

Published: November 14, 2013

I simply accepted as fact that some people deserved my love while others deserved my hatred because they were not people - or at least not people like me. But the adults were wrong…PHOTO: AFP

My beloved Hussain,

I write to you today on the anniversary of the day you died. Take it as what you will, I think of it more as a confession.

Ever since I was very little, they told me to love you. To know you and understand you. To be like you. Probably one of the first things anyone ever told me was that your death on the 10th day of Muharram – Ashura as they said – was a tragedy that should only elicit heartache and sympathy. But before that, I knew nothing.

As I child, I didn’t know who I was besides the fact that I was, well, alive. Then, I learned I was a human being because other human beings constantly called me that – “human”.

It wasn’t until I was a few years old, and learned to speak and comprehend that the adults in my life spoke about what I was – or rather I would and should be when I became an adult.

I had no clue if I was a Sunni, a Shia, a Christian, a Hindu or a Jew. It was the adults who said,

“You are this. You have to be like this,”

I wish they had shut up at that point, but they didn’t. They then said,

“Since you are this. You must hate that. The people over there, the way they hold their hands when they pray… the god they pray to… The colour of their skin… the language they speak… those people deserve your contempt and hatred.”

I was too young to ask why. I simply nodded.

It never dawned on me that I should question them. I simply accepted as fact that some people deserved my love while others deserved my hatred because they were not people – or at least not people like me. But the adults were wrong…

I didn’t realise that until I saw what happens to us when we’re dead. Yes, dead people taught me the adults were liars. It’s when I saw death that I saw that in death, we are just people.

No one is Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, Mahayana or Zen or atheist or white or black or brown or woman or man or whatever. The dead were simply people like me… who had to face life, with all its tears and all its laughter; with all its challenges and rewards. They, too, had to grapple with what I had to grapple.

You know what’s funny? The same people who told me to hate taught me to love, too and no one deserved more of my love, they said, than you. However, faced with humanity in the state that I have faced it – in death – I really learned how much I loved you.

I didn’t love you because they told me to love you. I loved you because when I saw dead people, I figured out how much your death meant to me.

I wish we lived in a world where adults taught children that they are simply human. That all life is worth preserving – not just the lives that we prefer – until it’s too late for all of us. I wish children didn’t have to see death to realise that life is simply life. That religious, ethnic and linguistic tags attached to life do not take away from its importance. But that’s not so.

Your death is the one death that taught me the most, though. You are one of the original protesters. Your quest to tell truth to power, to stand for the down-trodden, to speak for the silenced is the one that inspired me the most. Even before I learned about Gandhi’s salt march, Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Nelson Mandela’s 27 years on Robin Island.

You’re the first to teach me that we as human beings endowed with life have a choice against oppression. That when faced with tyranny we can say,


My bond with you starts and finishes there. It doesn’t matter that I’m told your blood runs through my veins. Or that I follow the same religion. Or that we belong to the same ethnic group.


My love for you transcends all.

To me, you are neither blood, nor kin, nor religious fellow.

You are an idea… the idea that I have a choice. That we all have a choice. That dying for love is better than living for hatred and indifference.

That’s why you are my hero and my guide. The purpose of my existence is only to emulate your struggle. On this Ashura, I will confess, I have never mourned you. No, never. I reserve mourning for people who have failed.

This post is dedicated to @MurtazzaHasan

Josh Shahryar

Josh Shahryar

A US-based reporter and blogger, covering human rights in South Asia and the larger Middle East. He tweets @JShahryar (

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

  • zainsheikh88

    Very well written and very bold :). Loved it ! Couldn’t have been described better !Recommend

  • Ajmal

    beautiful, absolutely beautifulRecommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Sigh …. If only more adults all over the world thought like that .Recommend

  • Tuba

    Love this piece to bits.Recommend

  • Critical

    I doubt this will get published as ET always censors my post when it touches atheism…Not sure how long will the world ignore us….

    The main factor which allows religion to grow is that what happens after death…We havent scientifically found out what exactly happens to us…So thats where religion exploits us…

    According to Vedic religions like Hinduism,Buddhism etc,your life depends on your karma where u get reborn again and again…whereas Abrahamic religions say the entire world is a temporary life and a test given to us..If we pass it,we will get eternal salvation in heaven or eternal damnation in hell….

    So basically the supposed good religious people do are due to fear of punishment…That makes us obedient not good…Just like u follow traffic rules when u see a police car,you are being followed a chartered accountant from the sky who would calculate ur sins and reward or punish u based on that

    One of my religious friend asked me “if you dont believe or fear in God,then how can u be moral?”

    The truth is that once u take away the life after death..You realise that you have a short time in the world and also everyone around you has a short time..So next time you see a beggar,you will feel sorry that his few years are being spent with just suffering and you feel compelled to help him and u do it so without expecting anything in return..

    Suppose a Hindu saw a beggar,he will put some money thinking karma will reward him next time he wins a lottery..when a muslim or christian see,they think that last week they made a sin so let me do something good so that the losses are negated by this profits…

    Unlike other atheists,i believe in life after death…For eg,after Edhi dies,there will be a group of people who are eternally thankful to him for possibly saving their lives due to his trust,whereas after Hafiz Saeed dies,a group of people whose relatives died because of his actions would damn him forever…

    Thats the afterlife I want to live,in the hearts of my friends and relatives….Recommend

  • DilipPatel

    Reminds me of Gandhi, when approached by a hindu during the riots of the partition, the hindu man admitted killing a muslim and regretting the incident. Gandhi asked the man to bring up a muslim child in his hindu household and teach him to be a muslim.Recommend

  • charanjeet maan

    Unfortunately many adults don’t even stop at that. They teach that whosoever differs from them a bit needs to be eliminated,killed.And actually go put that into practice.Recommend

  • Satesh Kumar

    This is why I always think that people, including me, should prefer humanity over religion.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Liked the way you went about making your point. I don’t wish to be disrespectful but on the question of the division that this principled protest has caused and the harm that is being done by both sides to a glorious religion……..does seem counter productive.
    Don’t you think level headed younger minds should play a part in forcing a dialogue to bridge this gap which is being exploited by others.Recommend

  • Racer

    Its sad that that we teach our children to hate others, think in a particular way, act in a certain manner. And then we also teach them not to question us. When I grew up, I realised that a lot of the stuff my elders had ever taught me was wrong. They never practised what they preached either. We need to re-invent our ways of bringing up children if we want any sanity in this world.

    Imam Hussain’s message is for the whole of humanity. The best lesson we can learn from him is never to bow down in front of what’s wrong. The essence of life lies in our struggle to get closer to the truth.

    A well-written blog.Recommend

  • IAAgha

    Shia Muslims have lit the light in their hearts of the greatest sacrifice for the World to mourn the pain, to remember the cause and to celebrate the Victory. Labbaik Ya Hussain A,SRecommend

  • Ahmad

    Very well said by writer Josh, I like to request with great respect to my Shia brothers
    and sisters, please do not beat your chest or cry instead of do fasting and show your
    patient before and after Ashura during this 1st Islamic month of Moharram, may
    almighty “Allah” guide all of us and make us united as one Muslim, Ameen.

  • Mufasa101

    loved it!Recommend

  • Pappu

    End of the day, its all struggle for power.Recommend

  • 123xyz

    how much you sugarcoat it, at the end every religion is man made. its nothing but struggle for power.religion is opium for the masses.Recommend

  • Ali

    You claim that you LOVE Imam Hussain (A.S) and then you don’t mourn on the way he alongwith his family were butchered by people who called themselves muslims.
    Is that called LOVE?Recommend

  • Righteous

    Oh, how naive could one be?

    The writer and the “impressed” readers need some serious direction.

    two words:

  • zaman


  • Pappu

    So they believe Hussain (A.S) is happily living in Heaven. What these people are mourning for? He gave his life for Islam but these people are mourning for him..this is mind boggling??Recommend

  • Racer

    For the atrocities he and the offspring of the Prophet (PBUH) suffered in the world. Its not rocket science really.Recommend

  • Vikram

    Think for a second, did God create the man or Man create the God? All religions are based on Beliefs and beliefs only. When it comes to action, most people behave like there is no God.Recommend

  • Pappu

    Jesus suffered atrocities and sacrificed his life. All prophets and other people who fight for good causes suffered atrocities but people do not mourn or torture themselves for their sacrifices. Sacrifices are to be glorified and not to be mourned.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Well said, but I must disagree with the karma analogy, which makes it seem that karma is an external entity that rewards your good behavior. Far from it. If you study hard, you will do well in life – that too is karma. If you are kind to people around you, they too are likely to be kind to you and respect you – every human being knows this. Karma is but the law of reciprocity that governs human relations; there is no need to see it through a religious prism, one can be an atheist and still believe in cause and effect.Recommend

  • Angered

    I’m also sunni and I’m praying for the same. Allah guide and reconsile the hearts of the Muslim people.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Well what if the people Hafiz Saeed killed were the ones that you would also want dead because they were corrupt people. Just consider this for one sec.

    Now answer this. How will and who will we decide who to praise and who to hate. You can’t decide right and wrong.

    Also answer this, how will you do justice with Hitler?

    This life is the biggest gift yet by God. The reason being that He considered us worthy of getting a life in which we can get to know Him. That is the purpose of life.Recommend

  • Taj Ahmad

    We’re just one Muslim, no Shia no Sunni, please don’t divide us.Recommend

  • khan of quetta

    have a referendum if you lose than shut up for ever burger babies crazy movements are not welcomedRecommend

  • Noise

    The Shias dont follow your petty opinions. The follow the teachings of the imams from the Ahl-e-Bayt and mourning Hussian (as) during Muharram is a tradition of the Imams. You cannot be a Shia (a loyalist of the ahl-e-bayt) and be ok with the suffering of the Ahl-e-Bayt. Their pain and their suffering is everything, while we are nothing. You are not a loyalist of the ahl-e-bayt.Recommend

  • Proletarian

    With that attitude you forget that sacrifice is not fun and games. It is pain and suffering and loss. From whats told of his crucifixion, Jesus did not laugh or smile on the cross. He screamed in agony and asked “father why have you forsaken me” and those who love him truly empathize with his pain and try to understand the suffering he went through for all people’s souls instead of saying, “well lets ignore the pain because it all turned out ok in the end.” Only by empathizing with the pain, suffering and the loss faced by the true heroes can we understand the true magnitude of their actions. And only then can be cultivate courage and the spirit of sacrifice within ourselves, and only only with that spirit can the world be changed.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    And just to add to my earlier comment, there is a rather famous shloka in the Gita (Karmanye Va Adhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana…) that specifically advises performing action without expectation of reward, so doing good in order to obtain a future windfall is actually in stark contrast to advice in scripture. My argument is certainly not that you need religion to be good or righteous, but that even atheists feel a sense of misplaced superiority related to their chosen path, just like several religious people do with theirs. In truth, there is no single path.Recommend

  • Pappu

    There is a huge difference between ” empathizing with their pain” and “publicly mourning and torturing yourself”. We are in 21st century now.Recommend

  • Proletarian

    21st century, where people have lost the quality of empathy. Where they think revolution is fun and games, something to be celebrated like some movie or CoD.Recommend

  • Pappu

    If you believe than keep in mind that God sends a Messiah or a Prophet only when he is completely disappointed from humanity. Todays humans (apart from some muslim countries) are living very peacefully and harmoniously.Recommend

  • Pappu

    I just wish Prophet (PBUH) had clearly nominated in his life who will be the first caliph of muslims after his demise, than muslims would not have divided into Sunni and Shia sects.Recommend

  • Muhammad Ali

    “The truth is that once u take away the life after death..You realise that you have a short time in the world and also everyone around you has a short time..So next time you see a beggar,you will feel sorry that his few years are being spent with just suffering and you feel compelled to help him and u do it so without expecting anything in return..”

    This is absolutely illogical… If u take away the life after death, then the only thing left will be “greed”… if you saw a beggar who knows that he isn’t going to get any other life, he will sure resort to extreme measures to earn wealth, i.e. even killing people for money.. what is left in the end? “Chaos” and a big one!! That is what is actually happening in the world!! Even though people say they believe in life after death, reality is that they don’t!! Think about it!!Recommend

  • Asad

    He did!
    It is us humans who did not get it.

    Read the incident of Ghadeer Qum.

    Once you read that, read the last wish of prophet (saw) when he asked for a paper and pen and he was about to write something which would bring unity between us till qayamat. Somebody opposed his wish and said he is talking non-sense.Recommend

  • Kappa

    I understand your pain but they say ” might is always right”. Prophet (PBUH) could conquer Mecca only when he had 10000 warriors on his back.Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    A beautiful write-up but apparently got support because of the last sentence ,

    “On this Ashura, I will confess, I have never mourned you. No, never.

    Endorses yet another point where sectarian divide takes place. This will go on forever and ever and ever! :(Recommend