Good Grief

Moslem Tov?

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a bar mitzvah ceremony at a conservative temple here in Los Angeles.  I am well known to many in the congregation due to my profession and I was greeted with warmth and acceptance, despite my Muslim faith.  Although this was not my first temple service, it was the first I attended that fell on Shabbat.  As such, it was the first time I participated in the full religious ritual.  The result was a transformative experience in many ways.

The similarities were eerie, almost like practicing Islam in another dimension.  The sermon was basically about a favorite Muslim topic–tawhid (but as it related to Moses and Aaron, a different subject for a different time).  The head coverings, the segregation of men and women (though not as strict), and the bowing during prayer all evoked images of Muslim services.  Since we share a common heritage, it will come as no surprise to those versed in history or theology that our services have so much in common.

At first, one thing I found a little surprising was the emphasis on holocaust remembrance.  While I am reasonably familiar with the inhuman atrocities committed during the holocaust, I was initially taken aback by the emphasis placed on the holocaust during the services.  After all, my thoughts went, this happened seventy years ago in a far away land, and most of the younger people in the room had never actually met a victim.  Did they really need to perseverate on it so much?

Three words  from my wife caused perspective to crash down upon me, however, as she whispered to me “It’s their Karbala”.

Karbala, of course, refers to the infamous massacre at Karbala, Iraq perpetrated 1400 years ago on Husain ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed (SA).  It is commemorated regularly to this day by Shi’as (such as myself), especially during the Islamic month of Muharram.  It is mentioned at almost every Shi’a service, and often evokes almost uncontrollable expressions of grief, even today.

The power of grief to unite and galvanize a community is second to none.  The massacre of Karbala and the holocaust share this trait in common.  Both are grotesque acts of violence, willfully perpetrated on innocents.  Both of these events are used to unite, and indeed define, their respective communities.  Most historians consider the massacre at Karbala to be the coalescent moment of the Shia movement, which had actually begun a generation earlier.  Similarly, while the modern Zionist movement was in existence long before World War II, the holocaust served to coalesce the movement into a definable and concrete entity.  Even the events of 9/11 can be understood in a similar fashion, as they served to unite the country like very few times in our history. Unfortunately, along with the patriotism, they also awoke the xenophobia which long lived under the surface of the American psyche.

Grief is the ultimate expression of love.  Without love, there can be no grief.  And thus expressions of grief help us to realize the love we harbor inside ourselves.  The grief that we feel serves a true barometer of our internal value for the lost, a barometer immune even from self-delusion.  In this way, grief serves as a true reflection of our soul.  To grieve with someone is thus to share a special bond with them, a bond between the souls.  In this way, shared grief can unite a community like no other single experience.

The holocaust is a trauma on the Jewish experience which will never, and should never, heal.  Much like the effect of Karbala on the Shi’as, the holocaust unites the Jewish people, and even defines them in a very real sense.  Thus, it will very likely be remembered and commemorated 1400 years hence, much as Karbala is today.  The critical observer will find many differences between these events, however.  They would be correct in doing so.  But I would endeavour to focus on the similarities instead, as collective grief is one of the common bonds of humanity which unite us.  With my wife’s simple but profound sentence at that moment, I was privileged to share in that grief; and at least for a moment I became one with my Abrahamic brothers.

 


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6 Comments

  1. Arif Husain

     /  March 17, 2012

    May be it is time to unite the world under the banner of grief rather then love. It hurts so bad, like thorns in the soft tissue of our heart when innocent people are killed just because some tyrants think they are better than the rest of the world’s population. The tragedy of martyrdome of one million jewish people and tragedy of karbala have lessons to offer if we were not so adamant to ignore it or doubt them. may we all flourish by sharing the grief of each other. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    Salima.

    Reply
  2. Ezra Rosen

     /  March 17, 2012

    I really enjoyed this piece, and felt moved by your words. Although I knew about some similarities between Islam and Judaism, this article inspired me (via wikipedia, which has what I think are really rich articles on religious practice in Islam and Judaism) to read and learn more about similarities in prayer and in theology.
    Thanks for writing about this exprience.

    Reply
  3. Altaf H. Akbari

     /  March 18, 2012

    A very well written piece. The beliefs, values and practices taught by these religions have far more in common than many people realize or acknowledge.

    The news and efforts of those who high-light differences, create a divide or promote conflict, grabs our attention and distorts our perceptiion. In reality, there are so many people who build harmony through casual interaction, mutual business dealings, little acts of help or active charity.

    This experience shows the rich reward of engaging each other and participating in each other’s lives. Thanks for sharing it.

    Altaf

    Reply
  4. This is a wonderful post. I wonder if you would be interested in guest blogging for us on our Grief Blog. We’ve been doing a series on Grief, Faith and Culture and are looking for someone to talk about grief and the Muslim religion. I think you’d be able to draw our readers right in.

    Reply
  5. thechiseler

     /  May 13, 2012

    We have spoken often about the similarities of Jewish and Muslim theology, and I think these discussions help build tolerance and understanding.

    The Holocaust is never very far away if you’re an American Jew. Is it possible for a group of people to collectively have PTSD?

    What I really wanted to comment on, though, is the concept of grief. I came across discussions of grief in studying the ancient Stoics. Interestingly, they didn’t believe in it. They sought to minimize it. They thought the secret to a happy life was to try to be happy, which meant, among other things, to not indulge in the sorrow of grief. I use the term Stoic not in the medical sense of a patient who can ignore pain or other symptoms, but in the ancient philosophical sense of a group of people who had a particular way of looking at the world.
    I think it’s not really feasible (nor healthy) to fully ignore grief, but we do, as doctors, have to deal with it differently than many. We may find out a patient has died in the middle of a busy clinic day, or before an important procedure. We cannot take the days or weeks in quiet contemplation that grief really requires. When you add up all the grief that we accumulate over time, you end up with decades, indeed whole lifetimes that would have to be dedicated to a grieving process over our cumulative lost patients.

    I direct you to James Stockdale–yes “that” James Stockdale who tried to be Ross Perot’s Vice President. He survived for years in a North Vietnamese prison camp relying–he said–on the ancient principles of Stoicism. He wrote about his experiences here: http://www.hoover.org/publications/monographs/27147
    and here’s a link to what he wrote about grief (paraphrasing Epictetus): http://books.google.com/books?id=OoTkW8YQciQC&pg=PA235&lpg=PA235#v=onepage&q&f=false
    His prison guards tried–for years–to break him for information, but he remained strong.

    I’m not sure I have the mental toughness of a Stockdale, but I do agree that imperturbability (whether by grief or by other disturbances) and mental tranquility are related, and that mental tranquility is related to happiness. I think mental tranquility is a highly desirable characteristic for a physician: you can’t take good care of another human being unless your own internal state is comfortable. When you are eventually going to open my coronaries, I want you to be a happy camper.

    The Zionists, I think, exemplified the Stoic response to grief: rather than drown in self-pity after the Holocaust, they rolled up their sleeves and created a renaissance of economic and scientific activity in the desert.

    Reply
  6. We have spoken often about the similarities of Jewish and Muslim theology, and I think these discussions help build tolerance and understanding.

    The Holocaust is never very far away if you’re an American Jew. Is it possible for a group of people to collectively have PTSD?

    What I really wanted to comment on, though, is the concept of grief. I came across discussions of grief in studying the ancient Stoics. Interestingly, they didn’t believe in it. They sought to minimize it. They thought the secret to a happy life was to try to be happy, which meant, among other things, to not indulge in the sorrow of grief. I use the term Stoic not in the medical sense of a patient who can ignore pain or other symptoms, but in the ancient philosophical sense of a group of people who had a particular way of looking at the world.
    I think it’s not really feasible (nor healthy) to fully ignore grief, but we do, as doctors, have to deal with it differently than many. We may find out a patient has died in the middle of a busy clinic day, or before an important procedure. We cannot take the days or weeks in quiet contemplation that grief really requires. When you add up all the grief that we accumulate over time, you end up with decades, indeed whole lifetimes that would have to be dedicated to a grieving process over our cumulative lost patients.

    I direct you to James Stockdale–yes “that” James Stockdale who tried to be Ross Perot’s Vice President. He survived for years in a North Vietnamese prison camp relying–he said–on the ancient principles of Stoicism. He wrote about his experiences here: http://www.hoover.org/publications/monographs/27147
    and here’s a link to what he wrote about grief (paraphrasing Epictetus): http://books.google.com/books?id=OoTkW8YQciQC&pg=PA235&lpg=PA235#v=onepage&q&f=false
    His prison guards tried–for years–to break him for information, but he remained strong.

    I’m not sure I have the mental toughness of a Stockdale, but I do agree that imperturbability (whether by grief or by other disturbances) and mental tranquility are related, and that mental tranquility is related to happiness. I think mental tranquility is a highly desirable characteristic for a physician: you can’t take good care of another human being unless your own internal state is comfortable. When you are eventually going to open my coronaries, I want you to be a happy camper.

    The Zionists, I think, exemplified the Stoic response to grief: rather than drown in self-pity after the Holocaust, they rolled up their sleeves and created a renaissance of economic and scientific activity in the desert.

    Reply

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