In 1991, Abbas Hussain Zaidi began organizing an Ashura commemoration march in Toronto. He faced some early challenges, including late responses from religious centres, but he had big plans for the event.
“My father’s vision was to have it here in Toronto, the same in New York, and one in London,” said Abbas “Baba” Zaidi, his son. “It would’ve been my father here, and one of the two brothers being either in New York and London, England.”
After the elder Zaidi’s death in 1996, that didn’t deter his family from carrying on the procession. The Zaidis pushed on to expand the event, and now, their public religious gathering, held this year on September 16, is one of the most well-known among Shia Muslims in the Greater Toronto Area.
“We started young, but after the passing of my father, we continued with the procession,” he said. “We’ve had great support from community centres, and we’ve had the community itself that responded very well.”
Every Ashura, the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shia Muslims around the world commemorate the anniversary of the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third Imam (successor) of Shia Islam. In 680 AD, he led a small party of supporters and relatives against the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I. Husayn and his party were subsequently killed, and their women, children, and sick were marched into captivity in Syria.
While many Shia Muslims hold gatherings around the time of Ashura, what distinguishes this Canadian procession is the lack of a cultural focus.
“It’s open, there’s no restriction, no invitation,” the younger Zaidi said. “It’s not even about nationality, it’s not about the language that they speak. Whatever language they can communicate in, whatever language they can express themselves in, they do so.”
Processions aren’t limited to Shia Muslims either. Attendees believe that the principles Husayn ibn Ali stood up for are ones that can relate to all religions and cultures.
“The message is universal,” Baba Zaidi said. “It’s not restricted just to Islam. It is for every nation, every language, everybody.”
The Zaidis have inspired other local Canadian Shias to establish their own marches around the world.
“There’s so many atrocities, there’s so much injustice going on,” said Aman Abbas Bukhari, 19, whose family organized many marches in Faisalabad, Pakistan. “And just to think about what happened 1,400 years ago, it is still our responsibility, not just as Muslims, not just as Shias, but as humans, despite these atrocities, to stand up and show your support for the ones who are oppressed.”
Both Bukhari and his older brother Chaman, try to attend marches at home, as well.
“I remember how my brother used to give sermons [in Toronto] while it was snowing and all of these people were doing matam (lamentation) out in the streets with their shirts off,” Aman Abbas said.
The Zaidis are encouraged by the enthusiasm of young people like the Bukhari brothers, and others who have grown up in this atmosphere, as important for the continuation of these processions.
“The numbers are growing and these young kids have watched this as they’ve grown up, so they don’t have to go to another country to see it and engage with it,” Zaidi said. “Alhamdulillah, they’re doing extremely well.”