This post was originally posted on Urdu Mom and is republished with permission. All photos are courtesy of the blog’s founder, Tamania Jaffri.
Maybe you have been thinking about it for a long time or maybe you have recently felt curious, but the prospect of attending a Muharram Majlis is on your mind. Let me prepare you better by sharing what to expect at a Majlis whether it happens in the Islamic month of Muharram or later in the year.
The events of Karbala are tragic and significant for all Muslims irrespective of whether they are Shia or Sunnis. There are universal lessons to be learned of bravery, integrity, piety, and patience. The message of Karbala, to stand with the truth irrespective of the cost, is relevant more than ever in the world of today.
Muharrum is the first month of the Islamic Calendar and the tenth day of this month called Ashura, marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain with His companions. Muslims around the world commemorate the occasion in many different ways. One of them is to hold a Majlis in Muharram and all around the year. This is a gathering in remembrance of the great tragedy of Karbala and the events afterwards.
The format of Majlis is reflective of the cultural traditions of the area e.g. Majlis in the subcontinent is very different from the rest of the world. While the format of Majlis is similar in the subcontinent, the content varies depending on the knowledge and belief of the orators. When you attend a Muharram Majlis do remember that you can not judge an entire community by the actions of a few and one or more orators do not speak for all Shia Muslims. Also watching a part of the Majlis on TV or YouTube is very different from attending one in real life.
Here are a few tips you can expect when you attend a Muharram Majlis.
*The following points are based on traditions from Pakistan and India and those originating from these countries and may differ across other cultures.
Be mindful that you’re attending a religious event of a solemn nature. So keep your disposition reflective and serious. Go with an open mind to learn, experience and pray.
Keep your dress modest showing religious respect. No shorts for boys and girls should keep their head covered.
If you can, wear black. White, blue and green are okay too. No reds, oranges or pink. Girls should avoid dark makeup. Dress up as you would for an event marking a person’s death like a funeral. Along the same lines, skip any elaborate jewelry also.
Sometimes the Majlis happens at a public place like Mosque or Islamic Centre and sometimes at a house. You do not need an invite to attend a Majlis and everyone is welcome.
These gatherings are gender segregated. Most people sit on the floor after taking their shoes off at the entrance. If you cannot sit on the floor for any reason, there are usually chairs towards the back.
There is a raised platform for the orators and the crowd faces them. You might see banners and posters on the walls around you carrying verses and slogans describing the events of Karbala.
The Majlis starts with a recitation of Hadees e Kisa in Arabic, and then announcements of the upcoming Majalis, as the crowd keeps coming in and getting settled.
This is followed by Soz Khawani, which is a recitation by a group of poetic verses on many topics, some pleasant and others tragic. As they recite verses in praise of Allah, his last Prophet P.B.U.H and His family the crowd smiles and nods encouragingly. As the topics turn to the tragic events of Karbala, handkerchiefs come out to cover eyes wet with tears.
The Marsiya is a tragic poetic narration and always starts with a Surat Fatiha for all martyrs of Karbala.
Next is time for Hadees which is a lecture given by a Zakir, an orator, or an Alim, who is a well-learned scholar. It starts with one verse of the Quran and its explanation, context, and applicability to our daily lives and challenges. At the end, one tragic event of Karbala is narrated and the mood again changes to that of mourning. I would like to stress here again that one orator does not speak for all Shia Muslims. If you hear something you do not agree with, you can listen to more educated scholars like Ammar Nakshawani to be aware of the views of educated Shia Muslims.
The Majlis concludes with Noha and Matam. This is the face of Muharram that most people view on media. It is definitely one of the most emotionally charged ones. Chests are thumped in sorrow, as the crowd joins in the chants following the lead of the Nohakhawan (narrator). You can move towards the back if you do not wish to participate. There is no obligation or expectation.
The Majlis concludes with the distribution of Tabaruk (food) for all attendees.
An average Majlis from start to end is 1.5 to 2 hours long but you can join and leave at any point. Most people try to attend the whole Majlis.
I hope this answers some of your questions of what happens at a Majlis.
May we all benefit from the universal lessons of Karbala and may there be peace and tolerance around the world.
Tamania blogs about her Pakistani-Canadian family at UrduMom.com sharing the journey of raising bilingual children, teaching them Urdu in fun ways and their multicultural life in Canada.
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”
For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.
As we enter the holy month for Muslims around the world, Ramadan — a month of fasting, reflection, community, charity and celebration — I aim to foster long-lasting Ramadan memories and traditions for my children while also showing them the beauty of our faith.
The rich tapestry of my life has been intricately woven by the threads of my Pakistani ancestry, an Indian-Kashmiri partner, and the multiculturalism we have passed on to our children. As I navigate the current journey of my life while being a mother to two children, I aim to provide my kids with a life enriched by different cultures which will ultimately help them to become compassionate and empathetic human beings in the future.
Through education, conversation, and exploration, I hope to help set a strong foundation of values that will serve them well in their journey as Muslim Americans and make Ramadan a holiday that they look forward to every year.
Before we explain the importance of Ramadan to children, it’s helpful to holistically explain the importance of the five pillars of Islam.
Declaration of Faith (Shahada)
Giving Alms/Charity (Zakat)
Fasting During the Month of Ramadan (Sawm)
Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
When it comes to Ramadan for young children like mine, there is no better way to teach them than implementing practices of both fun and learning. Engaging them in activities that feed their interests means that they are much more likely to retain information.
It’s amazing to see the assortment of Ramadan decor available at national retailers such as Target and Amazon. I purchased Ramadan lanterns for the kids, and we decorated our home with majestic lights, crescent moons, and other arts and crafts the kids and their friends enjoyed. Noah and Liyana also look forward to the ‘Countdown to Eid Calendar,‘ and put a star sticker on, each day before bed.
Charity and Gifts
Charity supports building a strong foundation for children and demonstrates to them that their actions, no matter how big or small, can make a difference. I strongly believe that good habits instilled during childhood go a long way. The kids have been packing gift bags filled with toys and food packages for local orphanages. I have partnered with other Muslim families to create Ramadan cards for the victims of the Syrian and Turkish earthquakes.
Songs and videos
Another form of educational content that we have introduced to our kids is singing and watching animated videos — after all, we are in a tech generation! Below are some options for child-friendly and lyrical songs to teach your children about Ramadan.
Community is an integral part of a Muslim’s life and even more so important during Ramadan. It shows the profound significance of relationships to humanity. As a Muslim parent, it is important for me to make my kids excited about community-based traditions such as Eid-ul-Fitr. This year we will be taking the kids to the Washington Square Park Eid Event where there will be many family-friendly activities.
Whether it’s decorating our home during this blessed month, Ramadan-themed coloring books, bedtime stories or our ‘Countdown-to-Eid’ calendar, the best part of it is that we do it all together, as a family.