On Exits: Domestic Violence, Karbala, and Exodus

As someone who was raised in the Sunni tradition, at the start of every Muharram I find myself returning to an essay by Annemarie Schimmel, an influential scholar on Islam and Sufism about the significance of Muharram, Karbala, and Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature.* As a Sunni, it has only been in my adult years that I have come to understand the deep, dual significance that the month of Muharram carries with it for Muslims both historically and currently.

In its duality, the significance of this time period, particularly the Day of Ashura, is often presented as two sides of a coin: 1) Sunni commemorations of Moses’ freedom from Pharoah (our version of the Exodus story) and 2) the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in the Battle of Karbala, particularly as mourned within Shia traditions. What has always been fascinating to me is that much of our current conversation focuses on deciding the side of the coin that resonates most with us and our particular faith tradition. However, what might be even more significant is that both of these spiritual remembrances are located on the exact same coin – with the coin being a metaphor for the Muslim psyche as it relates to suffering.

Flipping to the side of the coin that helps us to imagine (in both Shia and Sunni traditions) the otherwise unimaginable tragedy of the brutal execution of the Prophet’s family in the Battle of Karbala, Hussain becomes a central model of both suffering and bravery in the Islamic psychology. His martyrdom exemplifies at once annihilation and union with God. Arising out of the highest level of Divine Love, Husain’s martyrdom is the ultimate self-sacrifice. (“Has not his neck, which the Prophet used to kiss, become the place where the dagger fell?”) Through the telling of the story of his martyrdom, Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, becomes the very image of suffering love and surviving annihilation.

And yet, his revolutionist stance with sword drawn nearing death also stands for something else, something possibly even greater. Beyond sacrificing himself for God, Hussain through lifting his sword resoundly expresses a simple statement: “No.” In this action, Hussain not only seeks Divine Union – he affirmatively bears witness to human injustice being in direct violation to belief in God. In a single moment, this becomes his ultimate act of devotion and what leads him to that Divine Union.


In the United States, this month of October also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In response to calls for raising awareness about domestic violence, it has been refreshing to see people talking about this difficult and painful issue. Similarly, many of my Muslim friends have also been talking about Muharram.

The (perhaps unintended) beauty of social media is that it allows for us to mix concepts that otherwise might not have ever been coupled in our consciousness before. In my recent social media feeds, I’ve seen a flood of articles that capture the informational nature, the FAQ list you might say, of the seemingly unrelated topics of domestic violence and Muharram. Put more simply, these status updates, tweets, and articles are important and informative; they tell us what we need to know about topics we simply don’t know enough about. Yet, what I’ve seen on both topics sometimes feel prosaic, focusing entirely on ‘information’, statistics, data, and facts. In our reasonable obsession with accuracy, the stories about what suffering injustice actually feels like get lost.

In truth, both topics call upon us to stand witness in a way that is dynamic, emotional, raw, and blindingly honest and brave. Like a rare double eclipse, the meeting of both of these events is not coincidental or random for those of us who feel the need to call out the oppressive weight of tyranny past and present.

For instance, Moses’ people knew something about suffering. Under tyrannical rule and oppression of another form, the Jewish community suffered greatly. Through our Day of Ashura story about these believers, we learn that tyrants and oppressive rule is sometimes external to us even as it surrounds us. Pharoah was outside and above Moses and the Hebrews; they were the other. Injustice, however, comes in various forms and it is through the story of Hussain that we learn that tyrannical rule can also be of us – inside our communities, inside our homes, inside the people who stand up to rule us as one of us.

From the articles and updates we share about domestic violence, we know that every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted or beaten in this country. In a single year, nearly 10 million people are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States alone. One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Of course, there is also the matter of deep psychological, emotional, and financial abuse to control, terrorize, and denigrate victims that occurs often in accompaniment with these other aforementioned forms of abuse. I know, I lived through abuse like that in my first marriage.


On a metaphysical level, victims of domestic violence stand in the very same moments that Moses and Hussain stood. These women (and men) breathe the very same air they did and face the same decisions, as they similarly stand before an oppressive force that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be battled with rationally, and cannot be cajoled, argued, or outsmarted.

As Muslims, if Muharram does not call us to lift the anonymous faces that survive domestic abuse every single day, then what else can? And so in response to my own question, here, I shift this essay and its audience to someone who doesn’t get directly spoken to often enough: My dear sister, the one who is living in and around abuse, I’m speaking to you.

I know that being a survivor of domestic abuse is not the label you choose for yourself and I know you are so much more than your abuse. You are smart, you have thoughts, you have opinions, you might have a career you love, children, friends, issues you care about, things that you’re really good at. I know that. But in this rare calendar inspired double eclipse, I want you to know that I – we – stand witness to what you survive every day, every month, every year.

Like Hussain, like Moses’ people, you, my sister, also know something about suffering greatly. You live with it and in it; and, I know you have for quite awhile. You’re the one no one knows about, but I know you. I’ve been you. My story is mine and yours is yours. Hussain’s is his, Moses’ was his and still others, each of our stories are unique. Yet, they’re not.

My sister, we have both been the ones who fell between the cracks; the ones no one notices, the ones that no one wants to notice. Our stories are ugly and anxiety inducing. They require an uncomfortable witnessing of the potential for human darkness. As people, we’re not reared to be very good at that.

Yet, our most inspiring spiritual figures, our Prophets, the women we know God loves, our saints, our imams, they weren’t uncomfortable with witnessing of this kind. They dove in before God and before humanity. Moses and Hussain are not etched in our collective spiritual consciousness simply for being holy men. They suffered. Their defiance was not contained in words. They witnessed silently before God, alone when no one was watching to reward them or laud them for it. When they were ready, they not only witnessed injustice before God, they resoundly said, “No,” before those who were perpetrating against them and before everyone else.

My dear sister, I want you to know I know what you do and stand for within every single day. I want you to know, I know your secrets, your bottomless strength, and your perpetual resilience. Most of all, I’m not the only one who knows that. Those of us who have lived this, the ‘one in three’, we’ve seen a lot. You’ve seen a lot. You know as well as I do, when the phrase ‘you’ve seen a lot’ is applied to you it really means you’ve lived a lot – far more than lifetimes are supposed to offer.

I know that every single day, you contemplate leaving. You think about what it would feel like. You draw maps in your head with safe houses replacing cities and towns. I know every single day, you stand before God – while you’re driving, in the shower, picking up the kids from school, while he’s shouting, when your ears are burning, when your eyes are burning, when your face is burning, when you’re numb and humiliation is a sensation long gone – you stand witness before God, silently and firmly. Like Hussain, like Moses, like Zaynab, Hussain’s sister, a feminine model of defiance in the face of intolerable injustice, you stand and you complain to God that this is not of Him, that this is not His way, that you will not, you cannot, place anything else before Him.

I also want to say that I know that living with domestic violence is complex. Most oppressors are complicated people. Despite their capacity for great cruelty, they can be charismatic, noble-seeming, even beautiful. Many might find them mesmerizing and kind. They might be thought of as good fathers or good friends. Narcissists are by their very nature charismatic, complex, and entirely self-serving. Despite that, I know how hard it is to convince people who benefit from their good graces that the man you’re living with is in fact a narcissist and a terribly cruel one at that.

Even with the vantage point of time and safety, it’s difficult still to enter the thoughts I had when I was in the same spot. I’m not a stupid person now and I wasn’t then, but even I deceived myself into believing that I had the capacity to fix things, to let it all ride out. In the moments that my partner’s ‘love’ was most mesmerizing and intense, I convinced myself that his acceptance was all I needed. In trying to make rational sense of his pathologies, my brain made space to twist ideas so disconnected that even completely irrational ideas began to make sense. (Might my captor be my only protector?) There were other moments in which I felt any level of defiance was futile. Who would believe me if I told them how he really was? Who would want to make a difficult choice for me?

I say all of this not to turn this essay into a personal therapy session. Rather, I say all this to call attention to the astonishing bravery and inspiration contained in the actions that surround our spiritual stories in the early days of Muharram. The defiance of Hussain in his bearing witness is utterly breathtaking when you take in all the complexities of what it means to actually stand up to severe injustice before a crowd and before God. It takes immense strength to affirm that you do not deserve this, that you know God intended for something different from His creation, that God’s order reigns above all. Complexities be damned.

My sister, I know the domestic ceiling on your marriage, your home is not just cracking – it’s ripped open, exposed, crumbling into the ground beneath you. Your capacity to put a lid on both ends of the deceptive tunnel that is your relationship is endless. Being ‘normal’ in the midst of his madness is your methodology, your science, your bible, your compass, your hypotheses and your seeming conclusion. But it’s not.

Accidentally landing in a psychological vortex of twisted manipulations is not your fault. Find your rage at that which is not of God. Let it swell – at your partner for sending you to the brink, at absolutely everything that is that is an object of worship besides God.

In this spirtual double eclipse, we can learn through Moses that sometimes our exodus from injustice is in this world – there is great hope. Through Hussain, we can learn that we can find an exit from injustice in a single, isolated moment, even if it is our last. Coupled together, from both sides of the exact same coin, we learn that an exodus to every injustice is promised.

My brave sister, find your meaning in Moses, in Hussain, and in yourself. Your bravery shines brighter than the sun, brighter than any eclipse, brighter than anyone could ever imagine.

O zephir, O messenger of those who are far away

Bring our tears to his pure dust.

—Allama Iqbal


* Peace be upon Prophets Muhammad, Moses, Hazrat Hussain, Hazrat Zaynab and all of their families and companions.

Samar Kaukab is a member of the altM Advisory Board. This article was first published on altM on October 23, 2015.



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