From bloodletting to blood donation: Remembering Muharram's universal message
Wherever in the world you are reading this, it's now more likely than ever that you have heard of the Islamic month of Muharram, and the day of Ashura.
The month of remembrance is intended to be seen as an ultimate example and annual reminder of what Islam teaches; to stand up against oppression and tyranny, and to stand for justice and equality. The message of the life and ultimate death of Hussain encapsulates this, and most fundamentally, is supposed to be a universal message, relevant to all.
But the truth, unfortunately, may increasingly be this; while both Sunni and Shia acknowledge the events of Karbala, and honour and respect Hussain, Muharram is too often known simply as a "Shia festival".
It isn't. Or, at least it shouldn't be.
In a growing climate of sectarianism, the divide – and sometimes controversy - over commemorations such as Ashura is increasing. What is meant to be a universal message has at times even been turned in to a divisive one.
From another perspective, among an even broader, non-Muslim audience, especially here in the West, Ashura is often presented in an even more damaging way.
As Muharram commemorations in countries such as the UK and US expand, more people are becoming aware of them. Often curious to know more, their next port of call is often a google search, and frankly it's unlikely that the words "justice" or "equality" will spring to mind when they see the results.
|Local resident Jen, gives blood at the mosque in North-West London|
That is, of course if they haven't already seen these images in the media. Because, here in the UK at least, the reporting around bloodletting has become almost exclusively the way in which Ashura is covered every year.
Bloodletting is controversial at every level. Within the Shia community it is a sensitive and divisive topic and some top clerics have banned the practice altogether.
Many Shia Muslims, like myself, react exactly the same way to these images as others might do. It's hard for us to understand why it is being done; we are already dealing with enough barbaric representations of Islam to have to add these to the list as well.
Ultimately I believe that they do a disservice when trying to discuss the universal message of Imam Hussain.
But what I really want to say is this; close your eyes and scrap every bloody image you have seen. Erase the newspaper articles you may have read; strip away any feelings of sectarianism and instead picture the following: It's a Sunday, and on a busy high road in North West London there is a mosque.
In the courtyard of the mosque, there's a white NHS van, not something you would usually see, but you could be forgiven for walking past it without noticing.
|Right now in Britain, with everything that is going on, and all the tension, this is totally perfect. Blood is symbolic isn't it? It's our lifeline, let's share it! - Jen, blood donor at the mosque|
However, if you do happen to step into the mosque, you may be more than a little surprised.
The floors have been covered in clean plastic, there is a row of blue privacy screens creating about half a dozen medical booths, and there are about 10 blood donor chairs.
NHS nurses are busy attending to people. In one corner about 20 people have gathered - Muslims and non-Muslims - sitting in a make-shift waiting area. In another, about six young men and women are being given biscuits and juice. They've just given blood. And it's all in the name of Imam Hussain.
The mosque is the Islamic Centre of England, in Maida Vale. The initiative is the Imam Hussain Blood Donation Campaign (IHBDC) and it is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
Started in 2006, IHBDC was the first campaign within the UK that aimed to increase the number of regular blood donors from Muslim communities.
It is a campaign started by and run by young people.
Ammar, 26, has been involved from almost the beginning. Now, he's European ambassador for the initiative.
"The organisation started after a group of four doctors wanted to start a blood donor session - just one session - in Manchester in the name of Imam Hussain," he explains.
|A donor gives blood in memory of Imam Hussain|
"They managed to get a handful of donors to come in and since then with passion and a lot of blessings and mercy the campaign has proliferated across the country. We are now in 25 cities and we are expanding beyond the UK now.
Sessions like these are becoming so popular. Today has been fully booked. When we opened up at 10am there were so many people that we had to stop taking walk-ins. To date, thousands of donations have been done in the name of Imam Hussain."
Looking around the mosque, there isn't a typical donor; there are a lot of young people, especially girls; but also a group of elderly men waiting patiently to donate. There is also a visible non-Muslim presence.
Jen, 65, is a regular blood donor. "I've lived in this area for ages and I was really pleased to see this initiative," she tells me. "I found it on the NHS blood donor website. I have no religion at all, so it is nice to come in to the mosque and see what it's like...
I've been to a few mosques outside of the country as a tourist but never one in the UK. We all have the same blood and an initiative like this is amazing to bring people and communities together. Right now in Britain, with everything that is going on, and all the tension, this is totally perfect. Blood is symbolic isn't it? It's our lifeline, let's share it!"
IHBDC run donation drives at clinics and at mosques, and organisers tell me both are important; it's important that Muslims are seen at the blood donation clinic but also that mosques take part and encourage their congregations.
|Seeing a mosque serve as a blood donation centre seems a beautifully poignant example of what community means for Muslims in Britain|
Mosques are ultimately meant to serve the community, and seeing a mosque serve as a blood donation centre seems a beautifully poignant example of what community means for Muslims in Britain.
At a time when we are told our community is divided and broken, this initiative redefines the term, and how mosques can serve the broader community, in an inclusive and positive way.
"There is a perception that coming to the mosque like this is for religious events only, or for Muslims only, or potentially even for a specific race or ethnic background only, but something like this really breaks down those barriers," Ammar says.
"A lot of non-Muslim donors have even told me they prefer giving blood in a spiritual setting and not one that is clinical or hospital-based so it's a little bit different for them as well.
|NHS staff take blood donations at the mosque|
What is really important is that we do this in the name of Imam Hussain whose message is not just for Shias, or just for Muslims; it goes beyond the religious setting; His message and His stand was a humanitarian stand and that is something for all people and that is precisely what we trying to preach here."
It certainly is an effective strategy. One young female donor told me, she was Shia and had come along with two of her Sunni friends to give blood for the second year in a row. Another non-Muslim couple said it was their first time in a mosque, and they would definitely be coming again.
For others, like Eman, 21, the mosque is familiar, but it is their first time giving blood. "I've been wanting to do this for two years because I want to help people, but this Muharram it really encouraged me to give in the name of Imam Hussain because he stood for so much and it encourages me to do something good as well.
There's not just Muslims here and I think it's really important that the wider community sees the mosque as a practical and positive space for the whole community, and it's nice to see people coming in like that."
|If you are going to spill your blood, at least save a life- Eman, blood donor at the mosque|
It's not long before our conversation turns to the obvious comparison with bloodletting; "For me, they want to show this one aspect that happens - as if we are a minority, violent sect and people. At the end of the day there isn't even agreement on that and it is controversial. I think it makes us look like crazy people to be simply honest. That's why for me I would prefer to come and do this and promote something like this; to show that you if you are going to spill your blood, at least save a life."
It's a topic I broach with several organisers, who are all very diplomatic about it. They don't weigh in on either side of the debate and make it clear that this campaign is focused on bringing people together and saving lives;
"I think what this campaign is trying to do is go beyond the usual narrative that the media pick up, explains Ammar, "it has a very unique angle it is saying by helping other people not only are you remembering the stand of Imam Hussain through this medium, but you are doing it to help others at the same time and I think that is a critical element".
The IHBDC is one of several campaigns started by young people, especially in the UK and the US, implementing the message of Imam Hussain in their broad and diverse communities. Other examples include the whoishussain campaign that has given water and even haircuts to the homeless.
These campaigns are simple, profound and effective, created by young people who have had to think about the universal message of Imam Hussain because of the diversity of their communities.
The result? Not only are they learning from those lessons, but they are introducing them to others in a positive light. And more importantly than anything - they are saving lives.
A single blood donation has the potential to save up to three adult lives or seven infant lives. The NHS needs about 7,000 voluntary donations of blood each day. Find out where you can donate.
Follow Nargess Moballeghi on Twitter: @JournoNargess
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.