What is Ashura? How this Shiite Muslim Holiday Inspires Millions

Ashura in Syria.  Tasnim News Agency ,  CC BY-SA

Ashura in Syria. Tasnim News Agency, CC BY-SA

ens of millions of Shiite Muslims from around the world will visit Iraq on Sept. 10 this year to see the shrines of Hussain, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, and his brother Abbas on the day of “Ashura.”

This annual pilgrimage marks the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic new year. As the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, the day of Ashura changes from year to year.

Muslims visit the shrines to observe the martyrdom day of Hussain, who was killed in the desert of Karbala in today’s Iraq in A.D. 680. Shiite Muslims believe that Hussain was their third imam – a line of 12 divinely appointed spiritual and political successors.

Muharram may be an ancient festival, but as my research tracing the modern-day impact of Islamic pilgrimage shows, its meaning has changed over the centuries. What was once a commemoration of martyrdom today inspires much more, including social justice work around the globe.

Martyrdom of Hussain

The story of Muharram dates back 13 centuries, to events that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed.

After the prophet’s death in A.D. 632, a dispute emerged over who would inherit the leadership of the Muslim community and the title of caliph, or “deputy of God.” A majority of Muslims backed Abu Bakr, a close companion of the prophet, to become the first caliph. A minority wanted the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Those that supported his claim later came to be called Shiite Muslims.

Even if Ali was not made the caliph, Shiite Muslims would consider Ali their first imam – a leader divinely appointed by God. The title of imam would be passed on to his sons and his descendants.

Political leadership largely remained out of the hands of Shiite Imams. They would not be caliphs, but Shiites came to believe that their imam was the true leader to be followed.

By the time Ali’s second son, Hussain, came to be the third imam, divisions between the caliph and the imam had further deepened.

In A.D. 680, during the holy month of Muharram, a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazīd, ordered Hussain to pledge allegiance to him and his caliphate – a dynasty that ruled the Islamic world from A.D. 661 to 750.

Hussain refused because he believed Yazīd’s rule to be unjust and illegitimate.

His rejection resulted in a massive 10-day standoff at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, between Umayyad’s large army and Hussain’s small band, which included his half-brother, wives, children, sisters and closest followers.

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.  Alessandra Kocman ,  CC BY-NC-ND

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Alessandra Kocman, CC BY-NC-ND

The Umayyad army cut off food and water for Hussain and his companions. And on the day of Ashura, Hussain was brutally killed. Among the men, only Hussain’s sick son was spared. Women were unveiled – a violation of their honor as the family members of the prophet – and paraded to Damascus, the seat of Umayyad rule.

Passion plays and performances

This history is reenacted throughout the world on the day of Ashura.

In Iraq, millions of pilgrims fill the streets to visit the shrines, chanting poems of lamentation, and witness a reenactment of violence in Karbala and the capture of the women and children.

From New York and London to Hyderabad and Melbourne, thousands take part in Ashura processions carrying replicas of Hussain’s battle standard and following a white horse. This symbolizes Hussain’s riderless horse returning to the camp after his martyrdom.

Persian passion plays known as “taziyeh,” music dramas of the many martyrs and tragedies of Karbala, are performed across Iran and many other countries. Taziyeh performances are meant to evoke deep emotions of grief in the audience.

A powerful set of themes

Numerous historians and anthropologists have explored how communities across time and space have adapted the story of Karbala or the rituals around Ashūrā.

In the 16th century, a vast majority of the population across Persia, or today’s Iran, would be converted to Shiite Muslims. In this region, the passion plays evolved into a popular form of religious and artistic expression.

The character of Zainab, the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter, has also come to play a central role in remembrance of the Karbala story.

Scholars have drawn attention to speeches in which Zainab denounced the violence in Karbala and lauded Hussain’s “martyrdom.”

Today, Zainab is seen as a strong female model of resistance.

In the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the story of Karbala became a rallying point for opponents of the shah, who were fighting against the shah’s brutal and oppressive regime. They compared the shah to the caliph Yazīd and argued that ordinary Iranians had to stand up to an oppressor, just like Hussain had.

Zainab’s resistance to oppression helped emphasize the role of women in Islamic society.

Anthropologist Michael Fischer calls this the “Karbala paradigm” – a story that captures a powerful set of themes, including people standing up to the state and fighting for justice and morality.

Inspiring change?

Today the story of Karbala has become a powerful tool of fight for social justice in Muslim communities.

“Who is Hussain?,” a social movement with chapters in over 60 cities worldwide, carries out charitable activities and blood donations in the name of Hussain. Volunteers are encouraged to organize around events that will be meaningful in their communities and will tie into social justice issues that Hussain is believed to have fought for.

In 2018, local volunteers donated tens of thousands of bottles of water in Flint, Michigan in remembrance of Hussain and his companions, who were denied water for three days before they were killed.

As historian Yitzhak Nakash points out, the tragedy of Karbala gives Shiite Muslims a common narrative to pass on to the next generations. And commemorating it in multiple ways is an part of their unique identity.

NOORZEHRA ZAIDI is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


The Netherland’s New Burqa Ban is a Sign of Hostility Towards the Dutch Muslim Community

The discriminatory law violates both religious freedom and freedom of movement.

Photo of Library Hall in the Rijksmuseum by  Will van Wingerden  on  Unsplash . This is one of many buildings now off limits to people wearing burqas or niqabs.

Photo of Library Hall in the Rijksmuseum by Will van Wingerden on Unsplash. This is one of many buildings now off limits to people wearing burqas or niqabs.

Last June, the Upper House of Parliament passed a ban on face-covering garmates such as burqas and niqabs by 35 to 40 votes. The law came into effect early this month, banning those wearing such garmates from entering public places including government buildings, public transport, hospitals, and schools.

Amnesty International has released a statement calling the ban an infringement on women's rights to dress as they choose. The ban follows similar laws throughout Europe and will make the Netherlands the 6th country in the EU to ban burqas and niqabs in public buildings. The law does not apply to streets and other outdoor public spaces.

While the exact number of women impacted by the law is unclear, the Guardian writes that according to a 2009 study by University of Amsterdam professor Annelies Moors, an estimated 100 women routinely wear a face veil and less than 400 sometimes wear a veil. Moors, a critic of the bill, states that it has the power to interfere with women's daily lives. It restricts their access to hospitals, police stations, and schools, preventing them from accessing education, reporting crimes, and other necessary abilities.

While the Dutch government has stated that the law is a non-discriminatory effort to ensure public safety, the far-right has been quick to cite the ban as a party victory. "Finally, 13 years after a majority in the Dutch Parliament voted in favor of my motion to ban the burqa, it became law yesterday!" Geert Wilders of the far-right Freedom Party tweeted last June including the telling hashtags #stopislam #deislamize.

Al Jazeera writes that Wilders hopes to go even further with the ban."I believe we should now try to take it to the next step," he told the Associated Press. "The next step to make it sure that the headscarf could be banned in the Netherlands as well."

Under the new law, someone wearing a banned clothing item must either remove it, or face a fine from 150 to 415 euro. Police and transport officials, however, have expressed a reluctance to comply with the ban. 

After a statement from the police saying that enforcing the law is not a priority for them, transportation authorities announced that they would not be enforcing the law as police assistance would not be readily available. 

“The police have told us the ban is not a priority and that therefore they will not be able to respond inside the usual 30 minutes, if at all,” Pedro Peters, a spokesman for the Netherlands transport network told the Guardian. “This means that if a person wearing a burqa or a niqab is challenged trying to use a service, our staff will have no police backup to adjudicate on what they should do. It is not up to transport workers to impose the law and hand out fines.”

Hospitals also stated that they would continue to treat patients regardless of clothing.

The Muslim community has rallied to support those affected by the law. The Nida (Rotterdam’s islamic party) has stated that it will pay all fines imposed on those wearing niqabs. The party even created a community account where people can donate money to be used for fines. Algerian activist Rachid Nekkaz also offered to cover fines.

Despite the lack of enforcement surrounding the ban, its existence alone is a sign of hostility towards the Dutch Muslim community. According to Al Jazeera, Nourdin el-Ouali, who leads the Nida Party, called the ban a “serious violation” of religious freedom and freedom of movement, and warned that it will have far-reaching consequences.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

emma bruce.png


China is Putting Muslims in Concentration Camps Because of an “Ideological Illness”

People of Xinjiang. Peter Chou Kee Liu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

People of Xinjiang. Peter Chou Kee Liu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to a UN report, China has declared Islam an “ideological illness”. One UN spokesperson claims there are approximately over a million Muslims currently in these camps. The UN report states “the evidence indicated that most of the detentions were taking place outside the criminal justice system, and targeted specifically Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, such as Kazakh”. But why is this happening? In the words of the Official Chinese Communist Party, “Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient”. The region of Xinjiang, in recent years, has faced attacks from extremist groups and because of this, have targeted the entire Uighur community in Xinjiang to prevent them from being further “infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.”

The region of Xinjiang is a highly populated by the “Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority, who make up about eight million of its 19 million people”, according to a BBC article profiling the region. With the population being highly Muslim, the Chinese government has profiled that area in a subtle racist attempt to force the people of the area to renounce Islam and their practices. In a statement from the Communist Party, they state that “in order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines”. Furthermore, they say, “At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families”. It is disturbing to read words such as “disease” and “those infected” when it is in regards to innocent Uiguhr individuals. Using such diction creates a harmful and discriminatory connotation that the Uighur community is “sick” and “infectious”, a dangerously false narrative.

Although the camps have the intention of “[fighting] separatism and Islamic extremism”, they stem from a fear of an uprising in the Xinjiang area and has become a prejudice and gross abuse of human rights. Many of the people who were able to leave the concentration camps now are facing psychological ramifications and a complete lack of faith in the country that they are living. The camps are supposedly supposed to help threats and protect the people, yet they are harming them instead.

 In many interviews from those who were in the concentration camp, they have mentioned that the “re-education” forces them to renounce Islam, renounce the Holy Quran, admit that the Uighur culture is backward in comparison to the Communist Party, and if the detainees refuse to cooperate, they are punished harshly. Some punishments include them not being fed, solitary confinement, or physical beatings. Recently, it has come out that there has been a death in one of the camps. A Uighur writer Nurmuhammad Tohti, died at the age of 70 because "he had been denied treatment for diabetes and heart disease, and was only released once his medical condition meant he had become incapacitated", according to his granddaughter, Zorigul. But even with the criticism and the death, the Chinese government still does not believe what they are doing is wrong. 

China Daily, a popular media outlet, claimed that “Western critics of China's policies on human rights and religious freedom in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region seem to be divorced from the realities of the situation.” They stand in defense of their practices rather than understand how harmful they are and how they are creating a dogmatic perspective.

It is concerning to see how fear has created a ripple of harmful decisions and gross infringements on human rights. There is no reason for an entire community to reap the consequences of extremists actions when they are the innocents.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 


What Ramadan Means to Muslims: 4 Essential Reads

Women pray at a mosque during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 6 in Bali, Indonesia.  AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

Women pray at a mosque during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 6 in Bali, Indonesia. AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world will not eat or drink from dawn to sunset. Muslims believe that the sacred text of Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the final 10 nights of Ramadan.

Here are four ways to understand what Ramadan means for Muslims, and in particular for American Muslims.

1. Importance of Ramadan

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. Each pillar denotes an obligation of living a good Muslim life. The others include reciting the Muslim profession of faith, daily prayer, giving alms to the poor and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mohammad Hassan Khalil, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University, explains that the Quran states that fasting was prescribed for Muslims so that they could be conscious of God. He writes,

“By abstaining from things that people tend to take for granted (such as water), it is believed, one may be moved to reflect on the purpose of life and grow closer to the creator and sustainer of all existence.”

He also notes that for many Muslims, fasting is a spiritual act that allows them to understand the condition of the poor and thus develop more empathy.

2. Halal food

During Ramadan, when breaking fast, Muslims will eat only foods that are permissible under Islamic law. The Arabic word for such foods, writes religion scholar Myriam Renaud, is “halal.”

Renaud explains that Islamic law draws on three religious sources to determine which foods are halal. These include “passages in the Quran, the sayings and customs of the Prophet Muhammad, which were written down by his followers and are called ‘Hadith’ and rulings by recognized religious scholars.”

In the United States, some states such as California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas restrict the use of halal label for foods that meet Islamic religious requirements. Various Muslim organizations also oversee the production and certification of halal products, she writes.

3. Puerto Rican Muslims

In Puerto Rico, where many have been reverting to the religion of their ancestors – Islam – Ramadan could mean combining their identity as a Puerto Rican and as a Muslim.

Ken Chitwood, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, explainsthat Muslims first came to Puerto Rico as part of the transatlantic colonial exchange between Spain, Portugal and the New World. There is evidence, he writes, of the first Muslims arriving somewhere around the 16th century.

In his research, he found Puerto Rican Muslims in search of a “Boricua Islamidad” – “a unique Puerto Rican Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Puerto Rican and a Muslim.”

He saw the expression of this identity in the food as Puerto Rican Muslims broke fast – “a light Puerto Rican meal of tostones – twice-fried plantains.”

4. Jefferson’s Quran

Ramadan dinner at White House in 2018.  AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Ramadan dinner at White House in 2018. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

With an estimated 3.3 million American Muslims, Ramadan is celebrated each year at the White House, except for one year in 2017. Scholar Denise A. Spellberg explains that the tradition was started by Hillary Clinton when she was the first lady.

She writes that “Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and even earlier.” Among the most notable of the key American Founding Fathers who demonstrated an interest in the Muslim faith was Thomas Jefferson. Her research shows that Jefferson bought a copy of the Quran as a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence. And as she says,

“The purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.”

KALPANA JAIN is a Senior Religion and Ethics Editor.


Don’t Blame Sharia for Islamic Extremism – Blame Colonialism

Conservative lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have raised fears that Islamic fundamentalists want to impose Sharia on Americans.  Reuters/David Ryder

Conservative lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have raised fears that Islamic fundamentalists want to impose Sharia on Americans. Reuters/David Ryder

Warning that Islamic extremists want to impose fundamentalist religious rule in American communities, right-wing lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have tried banning Sharia, an Arabic term often understood to mean Islamic law.

These political debates – which cite terrorism and political violence in the Middle East to argue that Islam is incompatible with modern society – reinforce stereotypes that the Muslim world is uncivilized.

They also reflect ignorance of Sharia, which is not a strict legal code. Sharia means “path” or “way”: It is a broad set of values and ethical principles drawn from the Quran – Islam’s holy book – and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. As such, different people and governments may interpret Sharia differently.

Still, this is not the first time that the world has tried to figure out where Sharia fits into the global order.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Great Britain, France and other European powers relinquished their colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, leaders of newly sovereign Muslim-majority countries faced a decision of enormous consequence: Should they build their governments on Islamic religious values or embrace the European laws inherited from colonial rule?

The big debate

Invariably, my historical research shows, political leaders of these young countries chose to keep their colonial justice systems rather than impose religious law.

Newly independent Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia, among other places, all confined the application of Sharia to marital and inheritance disputes within Muslim families, just as their colonial administrators had done. The remainder of their legal systems would continue to be based on European law.

France, Italy and the United Kingdom imposed their legal systems onto Muslim-majority territories they colonized.  CIA Norman B. Leventhal Map Center ,  CC BY

France, Italy and the United Kingdom imposed their legal systems onto Muslim-majority territories they colonized. CIA Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, CC BY

To understand why they chose this course, I researched the decision-making process in Sudan, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from the British, in 1956.

In the national archives and libraries of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and in interviews with Sudanese lawyers and officials, I discovered that leading judges, politicians and intellectuals actually pushed for Sudan to become a democratic Islamic state.

They envisioned a progressive legal system consistent with Islamic faithprinciples, one where all citizens – irrespective of religion, race or ethnicity – could practice their religious beliefs freely and openly.

“The People are equal like the teeth of a comb,” wrote Sudan’s soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Hassan Muddathir in 1956, quoting the Prophet Muhammad, in an official memorandum I found archived in Khartoum’s Sudan Library. “An Arab is no better than a Persian, and the White is no better than the Black.”

Sudan’s post-colonial leadership, however, rejected those calls. They chose to keep the English common law tradition as the law of the land.

Why keep the laws of the oppressor?

My research identifies three reasons why early Sudan sidelined Sharia: politics, pragmatism and demography.

Rivalries between political parties in post-colonial Sudan led to parliamentary stalemate, which made it difficult to pass meaningful legislation. So Sudan simply maintained the colonial laws already on the books.

There were practical reasons for maintaining English common law, too.

Sudanese judges had been trained by British colonial officials. So they continued to apply English common law principles to the disputes they heard in their courtrooms.

Sudan’s founding fathers faced urgent challenges, such as creating the economy, establishing foreign trade and ending civil war. They felt it was simply not sensible to overhaul the rather smooth-running governance system in Khartoum.

The Sudanese city of Suakim in 1884 or 1885, just prior to British colonial rule.  The National Archives UK

The Sudanese city of Suakim in 1884 or 1885, just prior to British colonial rule. The National Archives UK

The continued use of colonial law after independence also reflected Sudan’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity.

Then, as now, Sudanese citizens spoke many languages and belonged to dozens of ethnic groups. At the time of Sudan’s independence, people practicing Sunni and Sufi traditions of Islam lived largely in northern Sudan. Christianity was an important faith in southern Sudan.

Sudan’s diversity of faith communities meant that maintaining a foreign legal system – English common law – was less controversial than choosing whose version of Sharia to adopt.

Why extremists triumphed

My research uncovers how today’s instability across the Middle East and North Africa is, in part, a consequence of these post-colonial decisions to reject Sharia.

In maintaining colonial legal systems, Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries that followed a similar path appeased Western world powers, which were pushing their former colonies toward secularism.

But they avoided resolving tough questions about religious identity and the law. That created a disconnect between the people and their governments.

In the long run, that disconnect helped fuel unrest among some citizens of deep faith, leading to sectarian calls to unite religion and the state once and for all. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and parts of Somalia and Nigeria, these interpretations triumphed, imposing extremist versions of Sharia over millions of people.

In other words, Muslim-majority countries stunted the democratic potential of Sharia by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving Sharia in the hands of extremists.

But there is no inherent tension between Sharia, human rights and the rule of law. Like any use of religion in politics, Sharia’s application depends on who is using it – and why.

Leaders of places like Saudi Arabia and Brunei have chosen to restrict women’s freedom and minority rights. But many scholars of Islam and grassroots organizations interpret Sharia as a flexiblerights-oriented and equality-minded ethical order.

Women in Saudi Arabia have campaigned for gender equality, including the right to drive cars.  Reuters/Faisal Nasser

Women in Saudi Arabia have campaigned for gender equality, including the right to drive cars. Reuters/Faisal Nasser

Religion and the law worldwide

Religion is woven into the legal fabric of many post-colonial nations, with varying consequences for democracy and stability.

After its 1948 founding, Israel debated the role of Jewish law in Israeli society. Ultimately, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his allies opted for a mixed legal system that combined Jewish law with English common law.

In Latin America, the Catholicism imposed by Spanish conquistadors underpins laws restricting abortiondivorce and gay rights.

And throughout the 19th century, judges in the U.S. regularly invoked the legal maxim that “Christianity is part of the common law.” Legislators still routinely invoke their Christian faith when supporting or opposing a given law.

Political extremism and human rights abuses that occur in those places are rarely understood as inherent flaws of these religions.

When it comes to Muslim-majority countries, however, Sharia takes the blame for regressive laws – not the people who pass those policies in the name of religion.

Fundamentalism and violence, in other words, are a post-colonial problem – not a religious inevitability.

For the Muslim world, finding a system of government that reflects Islamic values while promoting democracy will not be easy after more than 50 years of failed secular rule. But building peace may demand it.

MARK FATHI MASSOUD is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


New Zealand’s “Headscarf for Harmony” Effort

Women wear headscarves to stand in solidarity with New Zealand Muslim community.

This week, women in New Zealand are wearing hijabs to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community following the shooting of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch.

The effort, called “Headscarf for Harmony”, was created by Auckland doctor Thaya Ashman. After hearing a Muslim woman say that she was afraid to leave her house wearing a hijab, Ashman wanted a way to show her support and solidarity. “I wanted to say: We are with you, we want you to feel at home on your own streets, we love, support and respect you,” she told Reuters.

Ashman spoke with the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand and the Muslim Association of New Zealand before putting the effort into action. She told the New Zealand Herald that she used the word headscarf instead of hijab to recognize the cultural difference present for non-Muslims.

The Headscarf for Harmony hashtag continues to spread across social media. where New Zealanders are posting pictures of themselves in headscarves accompanied by captions offering their support for the Muslim community.

"These people are New Zealanders, just like I am,” twenty four-year-old Cherie Hailwood told CNN. “I understand that one day is very different to wearing it all the time, but I am honored to be given the permission of the Muslim community to walk in their shoes. Even just for a day.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a black headscarf when meeting with members of the Muslim community. Even news anchors and reporters joined the effort, wearing headscarves on live television. At an open prayer at the Al Noor mosque where the attack had taken place, New Zealand women wore head scarves as a gesture of respect and solidarity.

“Being a Muslim, I’m overwhelmed,” one man tweeted, “I have never seen this kind of solidarity in my entire life—the vigils, the Haka performances, the scarves. It’s just amazing and heartwarming.”

Not all supported the effort. On Stuff.co.nz a Muslim woman published an unsigned article saying that while the movement may mean well, it is no more than “cheap tokenism”.

She wrote that the effort, “stinks of white savior mentality, where Muslim women need to be rescued by (largely) white folk. This type of ideology plays a part in the pyramid of white supremacy and must be acknowledged so people can stop virtue signaling and understand the impact of their actions.”

She went on to say that the attack, “was not just about Muslims, it was against any person of colour in a 'white' country so this focus on hijabs is derailing the examination of white supremacy, systematic racism, orientalism and bigotry. We don't want to be turned into a caricature.”



EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her.

emma bruce.png

Three Things We Can Learn From Contemporary Muslim Women’s Fashion

Ilhan Omar, a Somali American, who was elected from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, will be the first woman in U.S. Congress to wear a hijab.  AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

Ilhan Omar, a Somali American, who was elected from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, will be the first woman in U.S. Congress to wear a hijab. AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

Major art museums have realized there is much to learn from clothing that is both religiously coded and fashion forward.

Earlier this year the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a fashion exhibition inspired by the Catholic faith titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination.” With more than 1.6 million visitors, it was the most popular exhibit in the Met’s history.

And now the de Young Museum of San Francisco has the first major exhibit devoted to the Islamic fashion scene. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” displays 80 swoon-worthy ensembles – glamorous gowns, edgy streetwear, conceptual couture – loosely organized by region and emphasizing distinct textile traditions. This exhibit is a bold statement of cultural appreciation during a time of heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In studying how Muslim women dress for over a decade, I realized a deeper understanding of Muslim women’s clothing can challenge popular stereotypes about Islam. Here are three takeaways.

1. Modesty is not one thing

While there are scattered references to modest dress in the sacred written sources of Islam, these religious texts do not spend a lot of time discussing the ethics of Muslim attire. And once I started to pay attention to how Muslims dress, I quickly realized that modesty does not look the same everywhere.

I traveled to Iran, Indonesia and Turkey for my research on Muslim women’s clothing. The Iranian penal code requires women to wear proper Islamic clothingin public, although what that entails is never defined. The morality police harass and arrest women who they think expose too much hair or skin. Yet even under these conditions of intense regulation and scrutiny, women wear a remarkable range of styles – from edgy ripped jeans and graphic tees to bohemian loose flowy separates.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, but Indonesian women did not wear head coverings or modest clothing until about 30 years ago. Today local styles integrate crystal and sequin embellishments. Popular fabric choices include everything from pastel chiffon to bright batik, which is promoted as the national textile.

When it comes to Turkey, for much of the last century authorities discouraged Muslim women from wearing pious fashion, claiming these styles were “unmodern” because they were not secular. That changed with the rise of the Islamic middle class, when Muslim women began to demand an education, to work outside the home and to wear modest clothing and a headscarf as they did so. Today local styles tend to be tailored closely to the body, with high necklines and low hemlines and complete coverage of the hair.

A stunning range of Muslim fashions are found here in the United States as well, reflecting the diversity of its approximately 3.45 million Muslims. Fifty-eight percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. are immigrantscoming from some 75 countries. And U.S.-born Muslims are diverse as well. For instance, more than half of Muslims whose families have been in the U.S. for at least three generations are black.

This diversity provides the opportunity for hybrid identities, which are displayed through clothing styles.

This diversity provides the opportunity for hybrid identities, which are displayed through clothing styles.

2. Muslim women don’t need saving

Many non-Muslims see Muslim women’s clothing and headscarves as a sign of oppression. It is true that a Muslim woman’s clothing choices are shaped by her community’s ideas about what it means to be a good Muslim. But this situation is not unlike that for non-Muslim women, who likewise have to negotiate expectations concerning their behavior.

In my book, I introduce readers to a number of women who use their clothing to express their identity and assert their independence. Tari is an Indonesian college student who covers her head at her parents’ objections. Her parents worry that a headscarf will make it harder for Tari to get a job after graduation. But for Tari, whose friends all cover their hair, her clothing is the primary way she communicates her personal style and her Muslim identity.

Nur, who majored in communications at Istanbul Commerce University, dresses modestly but is highly critical of the pressure she sees the apparel industry putting on Muslim women to buy brand-name clothing. For her, Muslim style does not have to come with a high price tag.

Leila works for the Iranian government and considers her off-duty clothing choices a form of civil disobedience. Monday through Friday she wears dark colors and long baggy overcoats. But on the weekends she pushes the limits of acceptability with tight-fitting outfits and heavy makeup – sartorial choices that might get her in trouble with the morality police. She accepts the legal obligation to wear Islamic clothing in public, but asserts her right to decide what that entails.

Designers have also used clothing to protest issues affecting their communities. The de Young exhibit, for example, includes a scarf by designer Céline Semaan to protest against Trump’s travel ban. The scarf features a NASA satellite image of several of the countries whose citizens are denied entry to the U.S , overlaid with the word “Banned.”

3. Muslims contribute to mainstream society

A 2017 Pew survey showed that 50 percent of Americans say Islam is not a part of mainstream society. But as Muslim models and Muslim designers are increasingly recognized by the fashion world, the misperception of Muslims as outsiders has the potential to change.

Muslim models are spokespersons for top cosmetic brands, walk the catwalk for high end designers and are featured in print ads for major labels.

Today clothing inspired by Islamic aesthetics is marketed to all consumers, not just Muslim ones. Take the most recent collection of British Muslim designer Hana Tajima for Uniqlo. In its promotional materials, the global casual wear retailer described the garments as “culturally sensitive and extremely versatile,” clothing for cosmopolitan women of all backgrounds.

To be hip today is to dress in culturally inclusive ways, and this includes modest styles created by Muslim designers and popularized by Muslim consumers. Fashion makes it clear that Muslims are not only part of mainstream society, they are contributors to it.

LIZ BUCAR is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University.


How an Ancient Islamic Holiday Became Uniquely Caribbean

Hosay procession in St. James.  Nicholas Laughlin ,  CC BY-NC-SA

Hosay procession in St. James. Nicholas LaughlinCC BY-NC-SA

A throng of Trinidadians line up along the streets of St. James and Cedros to admire the vibrant floats with beautifully bedecked models of mausoleums. Their destination is the waters of the Caribbean, where the crowds will push them out to float.

This is part of the Hosay commemorations, a religious ritual performed by Trinidadian Muslims, that I have observed as part of the research for my forthcoming book on Islam in Latin America and the Caribbean.

What fascinates me is how a practice from India has been transformed into something uniquely Caribbean.

Re-enacting tragedy

During the 10 days of the Islamic month of Muharram, Shiite Muslims around the world remember the martyrdom of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was killed in a battle in Karbala, today’s Iraq, some 1,338 years ago. For Shiite Muslims Hussein is the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, is marked by public mourning and a re-enactment of the tragedy. Shiite Muslims put on passion plays that include inflicting suffering, as a way to remember Hussein. In Iraq, Shiite are known to beat themselves with swords. In India, mourners whip themselves with sharp blades. Some Shiite also visit Hussein’s shrine in Iraq.

Ashura procession in Pakistan.  Diariocritico de Venezuela ,  CC BY

Ashura procession in Pakistan. Diariocritico de VenezuelaCC BY

The commemoration has also become a symbol for the broader Shiite struggle for justice as a minority in the global Muslim community.

Early history

In Trinidad, the 100,000 Muslims who make up 5 percent of the island’s total population, celebrate the day of Ashura, as Hosay – the name derived from “Hussein.”

The first Hosay festival was held in 1854, just over a decade after the first Indian Muslims began to arrive from India to work on the island’s sugar plantations.

But Trinidad at the time was under British colonial rule and large public gatherings were not permitted. In 1884, the British authorities issued a prohibition against Hosay commemorations. Approximately 30,000 people took to the streets, in Mon Repos, in the south, to protest against the ordinance. Shots fired to disperse the crowd killed 22 and injured over 100. The ordinance was later overturned.

The “Hosay Massacre” or “Muharram Massacre,” however, lives in people’s memories.

Colorful floats of Trinidad

These days, Hosay celebrations in St. James and Cedros not only recall Hussein, but also those killed during the 1884 Hosay riots. Rather than recreate the events through self-flagellation or other forms of suffering, however, people in Trinidad create bright and beautiful floats, called “tadjahs,” that parade through the streets to the sea.

The tadjah, a colorful model of a mausoleum.  Nicholas Laughlin ,  CC BY-NC-SA

The tadjah, a colorful model of a mausoleum. Nicholas LaughlinCC BY-NC-SA

Each tadjah is constructed of wood, paper, bamboo and tinsel. Ranging from a height of 10 to 30 feet, the floats are accompanied by people parading along and others playing drums, just as is the practice in India’s northern city of Lucknow. Meant to reflect the resting place of Shiite martyrs, the tadjahs resemble mausoleums in India. To many, their domes might be a reminder of the Taj Mahal.

Walking ahead of the tadjahs are two men bearing crescent moon shapes, one in red and the other in green. These symbolize the deaths of Hussein and his brother Hassan – the red being Hussein’s blood and the green symbolizing the supposed poisoning of Hassan.

The elaborateness of the tadjahs continues to increase each year and has become somewhat of a status symbol among the families that sponsor them.

A bit carnival, a bit Ashura

Trinidad’s Hosay brings in a more carnival-like joy to a somber remembrance.  Nicholas Laughlin ,  CC BY-NC-SA

Trinidad’s Hosay brings in a more carnival-like joy to a somber remembrance. Nicholas LaughlinCC BY-NC-SA

While the festival is certainly a somber one in terms of its tribute, it is also a joyous occasion where families celebrate with loud music and don festive attire. This has led some to compare Hosay to Trinidad’s world-famous carnival with its accompanying “joie de vivre.”

But there are also those who believe that the occasion should be a more somber remembrance of the martydom of Hussein. More conservative Muslims in Trinidad have made attempts to “reform” such celebrations. These Muslims believe local customs should be more in line with global commemorations like those in Iraq or India.

What I saw in the festival was an assertion of both the Indian and Trinidadian identity. For Shiite Muslims, who have dealt with oppression and ostracism – both in the past and in the present – it is a means of claiming their space as a minority in Trinidadian culture and resisting being pushed to the margins. At the same time, with its carnival-like feel, the festival could not be more Trinidadian.

Indeed, the celebrations each year illustrate how Indian and Trinidadian rituals and material culture merged to create a unique festival.

KEN CHITWOOD is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas and Global Islam at the University of Florida