Muharram and messages: Banners as harbingers


As the lunar year of Al-Hijri starts with Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Calendar, Muslims across the world, particularly the Shia community, are observing the revered month marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (A.S). They raise symbolic flags and display Muharram banners around places of worship and other public spots.

In Srinagar’s Hassanabad area, a large number of banners, arranged in a pattern, are laid flat on the grounds of a public park. Amid the spectre, boys are enthusiastically spraying Ittar over these flags.

Along with binding ropes and fitting wooden sticks, many young boys are busy in sun-drying handwritten pieces of fabric and fixing the framework for these banners.

“We are preparing to install Muharram banners and flags at different locations in our locality,” says a youth while spraying rose water on these banners.

Every year Muslims put up banners in various public spaces to spread the messages of justice and sacrifice, in the Islamic month of Muharram, marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (A.S) and his companions.

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Written in Arabic, Urdu and English, the quotes on the banners symbolise the philosophy behind the incident, when Imam Hussain (A.S), grandson of the Prophet and his companions fought in Karbala (in present day Iraq) in 680 A.D.

“We start our preparations months ahead of Muharram. It starts with the collection of donations to buy the fabric, choosing the quotes to be displayed, and then ensuring that these are written within time. A team of volunteers help in timely raising and honourable lowering of the banners,” says Waseem Hussain, Head of the Abuzari Volunteers in Hassanabad.

“Imam Hussain stands for truth, justice and humanity.  These banners help in spreading those messages, which even the Karbala incident is significant for,” adds Waseem.

At a distance of around 7 km from the Abuzari youth, a young man of stout appearance and tattooed arm inscribed with an Islamic symbol and a name in Arabic, is preparing youngsters for the putting up of banners in the city. Standing in the neighbourhood of Abiguzar in Srinagar, Rizwan says, “Our anjuman has been raising these banners near Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) and other prime spots of the city for years now”.

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“Ghanta Ghar has a pertinent significance since the square has a legacy of resistance in the history of Jammu and Kashmir. Raising a flag here helps in reaching out to a mass audience with the messages of Karbala,” says Rizwanm the organiser for Anjuman-e-Abiguzar, explaining the motive behind the flag raising.

Hanging on electric poles, towers, walls, gates, lanes, streets, and roads these banners and flags speak of the spectacular passion and emotions behind observing this religious event.

Messages, quotes and slogans written in different languages transfer the onlooker into the world of Karbala, imbibing within them the thoughts of revolution, religion, and closeness to God.

“Our banners are a symbol of unity and humanity. Messages and quotes written on these banners are a perfect mark of brotherhood and unison among general masses, and the Muslim Ummah in particular,” says Rizwan.

In the western outskirts of Srinagar city, a group of boys is seen loading a carrier to ferry the ladder, ropes, and flags to Jehangir Chowk area of the city.

“The boys intend to raise the flags around the area,” says one of the locals in Gundhasi Bhat area of Srinagar. “We are a group of almost twenty boys, who set up these flags at different places around our vicinity and in Jehangir Chowk,” says Mudasir Hussain, representative of Anjuman-e-Sadaie-Hussain (A.S) Gundhasi Bhat.

“Generally these flags last for only 2 to 3 years due to wear and tear. After that, we replace them with new ones”, adds Mudasir.

A little away from the City Center is the Shia populated neighbourhood of Pandrethan. Volunteer group Anjuman-e-Pandrethan is known for its Muharram banners and signboards set up at different spots on the National Highway and picturesque areas of Dalgate.

“We choose the messages and slogans for these banners after careful deliberations,” claims Yawar Ali, Head volunteer of the Anjuman. “These sayings and slogans carry the message of unity and harmony. Unity among the Muslim community is the need of the hour and Imam Hussain’s (A.S) philosophy of life serves as the best panacea to all the social evils,” says Yawar Ali while ironing one of the banners to be set up in the vicinity.

Apart from the durable cloth that goes into the making of these symbols, the lines scribbled on these banners are carefully chosen. From the selection of words to be carried to the brush and style of the artist, every detail plays a pivotal role in adding grace to these revered signs of faith.

“I have been engaged in writing these banners since my childhood,” says Altaf Hussain, a calligrapher and artist from Zadibal area of Srinagar.

Painting the sayings and slogans in Arabic, Misri Khat, Urdu and English, Altaf says he gets orders for the making of Muharram flags and banners from all parts of the Valley and even the Shia dominated Kargil belt in Ladakh.

“During the initial days of Muharram, the rush of orders is such that I have to work for eighteen hours a day,” says Altaf while painting a Quranic verse on the banner in a hall which also serves as a office at his residence.

“These banners are a living harbinger of the philosophy of Imam Hussain (A.S). They symbolise the triumph of truth over falsehood. Acting as a universal symbol of peace, justice, and humanity, these flags are a potent medium relaying the concept of revolution and reaffirming the faith of the believers in human values and a just society,” says Aga Syed Hadi, a prominent Shia religious scholar from Budgam, while commenting upon the significance of Muharram Banners.

“Hussain stood for truth and freedom and confronted the tyrant at Karbala for the survival of Islam and humanity,” says Moulana Ali Mohammad Jan, a Shia religious scholar from central Kashmir. “By raising these flags, we pledge our support to the oppressed throughout the world and demand restoration of human values in line with the universal message of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet,” adds Moulana Jan while explaining the significance of Muharram banners and flags.

While the administration has disallowed the Muharram procession and fired at people at multiple places, the devoted say they are using alternative ways, and are determined to observe the day of Ashura, and spread the message that the event of Karbala carries.


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