Karbala's Gift of Tears

Tears are a gift. When we don’t know or don’t remember how to shed them, we can pray for the gift of tears. We don’t know the script. We know the Giver.” It is time to know Hussain suffered for each one of us, for all those who are denied justice. It is time to see how suffering is a gift and thank God for it. Let us unfold all these points on the day when the noblest family on earth was massacred for the noblest ideals that ennoble and redeem life.

To be human is to suffer, to grieve and to weep. It is to suffer for the sake of that which is dearer than life, to grieve for that which ideal which humans, our predecessors or we have failed to be loyal to. It is to weep for what overcomes us and undoes all resistance on our part to the decimating embrace of God/Spirit.

God made us humans and not angels. Not to weep in the name of some spiritual or mystical principle would contradict our human, all-too-human status. The Prince of prophets wept. Jesus wept. saints weep. Great men can’t resist tears as no mother or lover can. Fatima (RA) wept – she is said to have wept for months and, for devotees, is still weeping for Hussain (RA) in the majalis of mourners each Muharram. The great Imams likes of which this earth has not known in realizations of stations of acceptance and secret of destiny also wept. God takes account of our concern for the heroes like Hussain as He does of Christ. Ghalib spoke for all humans when he composed the following lines:

dil hī to hai na sañg-o-ḳhisht dard se bhar na aae kyuuñ

roeñge ham hazār baar koī hameñ satāe kyuuñ

it’s just a heart, no stony shard; why shouldn’t it fill with pain

I will cry a thousand times, why should someone complain?

qaid-e-hayāt o band-e-ġham asl meñ donoñ ek haiñ

maut se pahle aadmī ġham se najāt paae kyuuñ

prison of life and sorrow’s chains in truth are just the same

then relief from pain, ere death, why should man obtain?


To weep is human as is to be comforted by tears. The wailing cry, waey waev is a name of God that causes healing as we find emphasized in Sufi understanding of Islamic tradition. The following lines in C S Lewis could be transposed to mourners of Sham-i Gareeban.  “I never heard weeping like that before or after; not from a child, nor a man wounded in the palm, nor a tortured man, nor a girl dragged off to slavery from a taken city. If you heard the woman you most hate in the world weep so, you would go to comfort her. You would fight your way through fire and spears to reach her.” Indeed, it is human to bleed and cry for others and help them even at the cost of one’s life. To be is to be moved by love and compassion. That is why all noble souls identify with Hussain and despite some attempts at apologies and acquittal for Yazid for what happened in Karbala, the world of writers and philosophers, historians and first rate political analysts, has voted in favour of  Hussain. They feel or weep for him. As the conscience keeper of mankind, he is idealized by all the thinkers worthy of note who take justice seriously and poets who celebrate sacrifice and martyrdom. Who would deny the status of martyr to the likes of Hussain and Socrates? And who can take seriously the system of justice or reading of history that exonerates their executors?

Why weep? “Tears enable us to get in touch with our deepest feelings.” A Yiddish proverb says, “What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.” “Tears are a gift of grace from God, and their fruit is always joy. Weeping arises from the heart and signifies an open and softened heart. Perhaps that is why so many people are embarrassed to cry; they do not want to reveal their vulnerability. Yet many of us have felt the rich communal dimensions of crying with others. Think of the great global funerals of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana where millions around the world were united in a common experience of grief.” Indeed tears are “sacraments of love.” Practicing the gift of tears not only “draws us closer to others, it signals our gratitude to God for giving us the primal emotions that come from the heart.”

The point, emphasized in many traditional narratives especially in Shi’te canon, is what has been elsewhere thus expressed: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted,” Mourning can “open one’s eyes to life and to the sacred and irreplaceable value of each person, and at that moment one realizes how short time is.”

Let us note how crying and weeping constitute spiritual practices we treasure on daily basis in certain dramas of passion and tragedies that constitute the soul of great literature.  Tears constitute a proof of our humanity and our participation in higher spiritual or divine life. “In contrast to tears caused by the common human passions and their accompanying stimuli, transformative weeping evidences little reddening of the eyes or contortions of the facial muscles and is accompanied by feelings of physical and psychological well-being. To the weeper, it seems a gift. According to a twentieth-century writer, “… ‘the gift of tears’ – the very expression shows that the tears in question are supernatural, associated not with human passions but with the experiences of God.” Tears are rightly recognized as “a mark of having touched reality, or having been touched by the reality of integration and regeneration.”  They are “an emptying process” that mark the growth of compassion which saves. “This compassion grows because of the revelation of one’s own wounds. These in tum are recognized to be the wounds of all humanity, and of all creation.” Isaac the Syrian has said, “The burning of the heart on behalf of the entire creation, human beings, birds, animals even all that exists, so that by the recollection and at the sign of them the eyes well up with tears as a result of the vehemence of the compassion which constrains the heart in abundant pity.”

We can’t imagine a world without the healing power of songs that tell us of sorrow. “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” We find strange peace and joy after watching a tragedy. Listening to great zakirs and poets on Karbala is a liberating cathartic practice that has healed countless souls. If there were no Muharram there would be so much bitterness and depression. Muslims, especially Shia Muslims and those Sunnis who don’t forget the greatest sacrifice of one family in history in Karbala, are immune to so many psychological diseases due to the grace and elation of spirit that is the remembrance of Karbala.

Fortunate are those who are given opportunity to be  tutored in the school of suffering – “the vale of soul making” – as Keats called our world. To be human is to be a frail creature. It is to be subject to trials of all kinds and the humbling school of suffering. It is thanks to suffering we become good humans worthy of grace. As a contemporary religious thinker Kreeft has written “We lose little bits of life daily—our health, our strength, our youth, our hopes, our dreams, our friends, our children, our lives—all these dribble away like water through our desperate, shaking fingers. Nothing we can do, not our best efforts, holds our lives together. The only lives that don’t spring leaks are the ones that are already all watery. The only hearts that do not break are the ones that are busily constructing little hells of loveless control, cocoons of safe, respectable selfishness to insulate themselves from the tidal wave of tears that comes sooner or later.” As it has been noted that “saints’ faces, whether in statues or in icons, often are carved-out by tears” and “Even smooth marble or wooden skin shows the shadowy softness that only tears can bring. Shedding tears may not be career-promoting, but it may well be part of holiness…St. Gregory of Nyssa long ago wrote that only through tears can we see what’s essential. Tears water the soul as rain waters the garden, St. Teresa of Avila found.”

As long as this world contains the poor, the humiliated, the marginalized or those who need our love and attention, we must remember Hussain. When we contemplate how the elite treat the countless people of toiling class, how souls are on hire, how women are stripped of dignity in so many professions including the flesh trade, how our spirits languish in alienated labour camps called offices and how the world treats disadvantaged homeless or refugees, workers in mines and countless industries that trade souls for bread, we may transpose the following words of Jesus (AS) to comprehend what Hussain means to his devotees and how remembering him helps redeems “the wretched of the earth” here and those in the bondage of sin there. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mathew 2 5:40). Indeed, Hussain is “sneered at in Soweto. He is cut limb from limb in a thousand safe and legal death camps for the unborn strewn throughout our world, where he is too tiny for us to see or care about. He is the most forgotten soul in the world.”  In this world, the prophets and saints have been mocked and persecuted so much so that the family of the Prophet could not find a shelter on their terms in this wide earth. It was propaganda against Socrates that succeeded in poisoning him and it was propaganda against the family of the Prophet that made situation so horrendous that people could helplessly watch almost the whole family’s massacre just a few decades after the wisal of the Prophet (SAW).  About the gateway of knowledge and gnosis one person was reported to have said that Ali (AS) didn’t know of mosque or prayer. The propaganda machine described by the author of 1984 was no match for the propaganda that was actually employed against the goodly reputation of Hazrat Ali (AS) and some of his associates.

Muslims have, thanks to a complex psychological and spiritual process, interiorized Hussain as redemption. Just to remember him, weep for him is salvific for so many devotees.  Again we may transpose words about the Christ to him: “Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but he makes them his… And he shows us that we can henceforth use our very brokenness as nourishment for those we love… Our very failures help heal other lives; our very tears help wipe away tears; our being hated helps those we love. When those we love hang up on us, he keeps the lines open. His withness with us enables us to be with those who refuse to be with us…All our sufferings are transformable into his work, our passion into his action.” Indeed, to state the paradox with Kreeft: The solution to our suffering is our suffering! All our suffering can become part of his work, the greatest work ever done, the work of salvation, of helping to win for those we love eternal joy. This needs seeing suffering and everything else as “a between, as existing between God and himself, as a gift from God, an invitation from God, a challenge from God, something between God and himself.”

Who amongst us can say he has not suffered? Deep down we are all broken and there is “a Pacific Ocean of tears inside us all and locking them in doesn’t make them go away. They will wait, but they will not forget their purpose.” And that purpose is to reclaim us for God. A tear shed in fear of God helps one secure a berth in heaven. In fact tears are the sacred steeds that carry us to the citadel of God.

If we knew how to suffer without feeling its bitterness we stand initiated. Suffering is a Master sent by God for all the lesser mortals who don’t find Guides.  Remembering Hussain and grieving for him constitutes a mass initiation and wazeefa of a sort that transports every Muharram countless believers to seventh heaven in majalis and processions.

I conclude by noting the treasures that suffering brings in the wake of its ruins. Suffering ennobles. It softens hearts and brings down pride that is the only obstruction preventing our entry to heaven. It brings the best part in us. It makes us transcend attachment to anything less than God as all things other than God taste bitter in the end. It brings us beatitude.  It is said to be the lasso of God. It has no bitterness if born for God’s sake. No martyr is bitter. Suffering is so sweet that we all treasure it in rearing children, doing our work in a style or courting perfection. Mothers cherish it for the sake of joy it conceals. It has taught ordinary Kashmiris that the world is suffering (dunya chu tawan) and not to be taken too seriously but playfully. It is suffering that has taught us why we need the virtue of detachment from the  world of becoming which is the world of dualities/dukkkha. It has taught us the need to think of higher things in the world of spirit and thus not to be consumed in or identified with what is less than God. Nothing can win against the community that takes God or Eternity as more central in shaping itself. It teaches us that all things including Joseph’s stay in prison or Rama’s exile or the reign of blind Dhastraster shall pass and to God is the return. And it teaches us to keep going, keep hoping, keep seeking for that which we really seek in the guise of ideological or power seeking projects. Hussain (RA) tells us that dharma or righteousness can’t be sacrificed for any cost including life.