Muqeet Drabu | Karbala and Utopian Praxis

By Muqeet Drabu

“Ultimately, I believe that […] the key issue at stake in utopian imagination, especially the “socialist” utopias, is a quest for the retrieval or the replacement of the lost community […]” – Etienne Balibar[1]

to be human means in reality to have Utopia” – Ernst Bloch[2]

Religion and religious practice have utopic dimensions.

This assertion does not pertain to the religious notions of a “heavenly hereafter” being utopic or a utopia. However, what the idea seeks to communicate is that the practice of religion can be, and is, ‘utopic praxis’. Rather than fostering complacency or allowing for passivity owing to idealized notions, religious frameworks and practices have the ability to be the animating ideas, and ideals, behind utopic praxis. A manifestation of such a framework is the battle of Karbala, as the archetypal struggle against tyranny along with providing spaces for collective grieving. Karbala, as a metaphor and its practice of memorialization, provides avenues for intimate reflection, for subjectivities in one’s way of being in the world, as well as for political engagement. It allows for solidarity formation, and identity formulation for communities across the world, especially for a specific sect of Muslims, i.e., Shias.[3]

Our project aims to find and identify spaces which are imbued with the spirit of liberation, and in many cases pregnant with possibilities for substantive change.[4] Concrete utopias, as Bernard Harcourt states, are “really-existing, functioning, already-working practices, institutions, models and exemplars of a just society” which possess the ability to “burst open the possibilities of the present…”[5] The commemoration and memorialization of the almost-mythic event of Karbala is an active and ‘concrete utopia’; one that is being understood and embraced by millions the world across as the pervasive idiom that governs their engagement with the world.

Karbala refers to a seventh-century event in (Islamic) history where Husain, the younger grandson of Prophet of Islam, was martyred along with his kinsmen and friends in the desert of Karbala (modern day Iraq) by the tyrannical caliph Yazid. It is a battle that has become emblematic of the fight between good and evil. The events of Karbala showcase the power of resistance against an oppressive power, where a 72-person army of Husain stood up against thousands of Yazid’s troops and lost their lives in the fight against injustice. The significance of the event comes from the fact that the Prophet’s grandson knew that he would be slaughtered but would not perish. The end of the tyrannical regime was brought about by exposing its moral bankruptcy, which led to commemorative rituals being developed leading to solidarities of resistance.

The memory of the fallen at Karbala and their struggle persists through commemoration and memorialization practiced by communities through the ages, with every culture having its own manner of remembering. The incident took place in the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, which is recognized as a period of mourning for Muslims worldwide. The underlying idea behind such mourning is the righteous resistance of the fallen against a totalitarian sovereign. Every year there are collective mourning rituals centered around the martyrdom witnessed at the battle of Karbala, which rituals are together called ‘azadari’. Azadari is practiced through congregations and gatherings (majlis), lamentations, processions with maatam (self-inflicted injuries on the body), juloos (procession); each of which express solidarity with Husain and his cause, grief at his loss, and revulsion against the idea of Yazid. There is recitation of poetry and religious texts, emotional displays of grief and lamentation. Azadari varies from region to region and is imbued with differing cultural markers depending on the circumstances in which the performance takes place.

In Iran, there exists a form of theatre of protest, called ta’ziyeh, which commemorates Karbala. The performances are held in public spaces and involve retelling of the story of Karbala through a combination of acting, music, and narration with elaborate sets and costumes.[6] In Kashmir, faced with increasing state repression and violence, young Shias have started articulating narratives of struggle and resistance through Muharram processions.[7] In Trinidad, there are festive Muharram processions under the banner of “Hosay” festival, where bright and beautiful floats are carried out in processions which mark the death of Husain as well as a massacre that occurred during the period of British colonization.[8] Karbala also provided a symbolic form to a growing working-class consciousness throughout the Caribbean working-class.[9] In North India, there is a distinct style of elegiac poetry called the marsiya, used almost exclusively to commemorate the martyrdom and valor of Hussain and his comrades.[10] The poems are recited in public gatherings of collective mourning during the month of Muharram. The recital is done dramatically, sometimes sung, which moves the audience to tears over the tragic fate of Husain and his kinsmen who were deprived of water and food before being mercilessly murdered.

Every manifestation of the ritualistic commemoration of the sacrifice of Husain localizes the universal grief expressing it in poignant, vernacular metaphors. The memorialization has many resonances for its participants, including, resisting injustice, devotion, sacrifice and martyrdom. Understanding the idea of such struggles within the framework of the theoretical guideposts[11] suggested by Etienne Balibar, the act of resistance and grieving can be regarded as an attempt at new modes of life and of communication[12]. Much like the communist / utopian communities where struggling and living are not separated[13], the practice of azadari is an exercise of concrete thought of difference and of an imagination that invents counter-conducts. The counter-conduct in this framing is not meant to be invoked as a dialectical anti-thesis of the dominant framework. It allows for a nuanced view of the relationship between practices of politics, resistance and practices of the self.[14] Karbala is ultimate the struggle, the “jihad”, unmoored from orientalist and racist conceptions, for a utopia. Much like its etymological root, it may never be; but it’s lack of existence and manifestation is not what matters. What matters is that we strive and struggle.

While considering the idea of practices of the self, the teachings of André Gorz as beautifully set out in Françoise Gollain’s piece André, My Teacher[15] are relevant. Gollain talks about how existentialism, Marxism and phenomenology ground the ability of humans to challenge social norms (such as, anti-capitalism) only after having had the experience of self-production. Self-production, in this context, means the ability of a sentient subject to produce meaning. She further goes on to state that for social change to occur, individuals must free their “emotional and imaginative abilities”. This is beautifully formulated by her as follows:

re-appropriation of both production and consumption on the one hand, and the reflexive attempt to liberate ourselves from our subjective alienations on the other, are both involved in a political project of radical transformation. Dis-alienation arises both from a political and social action and from a process of personal transformation.”[16]

The production of meaning and any politics of radical transformation premised on the liberation of self from one’s subjective alienations, is done through meaning-making with the metaphors and paradigms that we choose to identify with. While no metaphor is universal, and I would argue need not be, the paradigm of Karbala provides space for meaning making towards the act of transformation. Embracing heterogeneity in our formulation of utopic ideals[17], this provides us with a framework through which transformation of oneself, one’s community and its circumstances can be sought. Since its first commemoration, soon after the battle in 681 C.E., Karbala has animated the imagination of millions. Demonstrating its transformative potential, the paradigm has proven malleable enough to allow different groups and cultures to imbue it with meaning, and therefore, its impact is not limited to specific communities. It is not chained by institutionalist formulations and is nimble enough to be adapted across varied contexts.

The core of the symbolism associated with Karbala is the dichotomy between worldly injustice and corruption on one side and (God-centered) justice, piety, sacrifice and perseverance on the other. Towards a greater understanding of the potential of such framing, the idea of Karbala has appealed to the wider world and lives in the popular memory and imagination, through the oral as well as written literature. Themes from Karbala can be found underpinning the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Lebanese Civil War, and the anti-colonial movement in South Asia. Specifically, in South Asian history and memory, Karbala has been deployed as a conceptual paradigm by freedom fighters, politicians and interlocutors of all kinds (reciters, poets, and writers). They have renewed and re-engaged with the story of Karbala by recasting it in various forms rooted in their contemporary contexts, lending it a new meaning and currency. In South Asian memory and history, the parable of Karbala has been used to introduce and contextualize Marxist ideas[18], alternative conceptions of secularism and social harmony[19], anti-colonial and ideas of liberation.[20] To understand the potentiality and resilience of the metaphor, see how it is deployed for the death of Martin Luther King by Makhdum Muhiuddin[21]:

This dusk is the “dusk of the dispossessed”[22], this dawn the “dawn of Hunain”[23]

This is the murder of the Messiah[24], this is the murder of Husain[25]

In terms of constituting utopic thinking, the metaphor of Karbala and its practice, should be considered in context of Ernst Bloch’s statement in his introduction to philosophy in 1997, ‘I am. But I don’t have myself. And only therefore we become.’[26] Reformulating René Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, Bloch’s affirmation of existence only flourishes when there is a collective ‘we’. The blossoming of human existence comes from a process of transcendence which requires more than an alienated and atomized ‘I’.[27] There is the subjective force of the collective that is necessary to move beyond the contradictions in the way of human progress. At its core, Karbala is a story; one that has shaped us and continues to do so. It is a conceptual paradigm, which has engaged Muslims and non-Muslims in different parts of the world. It has provided a basis of meaning, and created spaces for intimate grieving, commemoration, and even celebration. The memorialization of the event has allowed for distinct spaces to develop where people can formulate their identity, find community, develop solidarities, and express themselves outside recognized social frameworks. The idea of the collective ‘we’ which such spaces foster is the same concept that underpins a mutualist future, enriches organizing relationships,[28] and fuels communities such as Cooperation Jackson.[29] It also provides us with the emancipatory potential of a radical alternative to the current framework allowing for exploration of active measures to recalibrate our priorities with human flourishing as a goal.[30]

To appreciate the utopian potential of the Karbala paradigm, I argue that its various manifestations have heterotopic dimensions. Heterotopia, as a concept defined by Michel Foucault, refers to a space that exists as an inversion to utopia. It is a space that has “the curious property of being in relation with other sites, but in such a way to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.”[31] Bernard Harcourt describes them as spaces outside society in tension with normal social institutions.[32] Examples of heterotopias for Foucault include cemeteries, gardens, museums, and brothels. Heterotopias are spaces that exist even though they reveal possibilities not found in everyday life. There are many dimensions of this concept that Foucault has explored, but the reason for its invocation is to explore avenues of heterotopias that Etienne Balibar suggested. For Balibar, concrete utopias ought to be considered as heterotopias: exploring alterities and heterogeneity underlying such conceptions.[33] Keeping this in mind, the intrinsic idea behind heterotopias is linked to “alterity, alteration and alternative”: wherein we embrace conceptions different than dominant norms, ones that exist in the world, rather than those of a future, yet unrealized world.[34] Balibar argues for embracing concrete utopias which are born somewhere around us.[35]

To take the example of juloos (procession) in context of the Indian subcontinent, the ritualized practice of individual body breathing, performing, embodying, and commemorating sacrifices (by which calling out injustice) is representative of a realization of justice that moves beyond the pale of individual effort.[36] It is public performance as well as individual reflection; a space that is created every year (per the Islamic calendar in the month of Muharram). The processions are gatherings of individual devotees with flags, groups of men performing self-flagellation synchronized by elegies, Hindus and other ambivalent indigenous groups moving on through main thoroughfares of cities towards a traditionally designated destination.[37] The varied performances are symbolic of the ways in which various groups and communities commemorate Husain, his character, and his death. Some include material memorials such as miniature replica of Husain’s tomb in Karbala, Iraq which are ceremoniously buried in special graves. This contrasts singularly well with the symbolism associated with heterotopias. While the ritualized nature of performance in a juloos can itself be dismissed as a mere procession, it creates a heterotopic space that relates to elements of the battle of Karbala, actual shrines in Iraq and Syria, political ideologies, and religious devotion. It is the living embodiment of the alternative world that would have existed in case of the victory of Husain against Yazid, while also celebrating the very act that ensured the ‘survival’ of the faith through the necessary sacrifice. It creates parallel spaces to everyday reality where participants can grieve, self-flagellate, scream and express despondence while also being engaged in devotional praxis. It conceives spaces of memory and celebrating traditions, much like museums, but in a more dynamic sense. It allows for juxtaposition of several spaces into the one where the juloos is performed. In all of this, it also provides avenues to re-configure Yazid from being the tyrant ordering the killing of Husain in 7th century, to a protean symbol representing authoritarian governments, occupying powers, or systemic injustice. It also allows for internal reflection against the Yazid within us; which can be avarice, disassociation with reality, lack of meaning or purpose.

As follows, the expression ‘Karbala’ then is used more as a verb more than a noun.[38] It is not the desert in the middle of (present-day) Iraq where more than a millennia ago the grandson of the Prophet of Islam sacrificed his life for the principles of justice, perseverance, and preservation of an idyllic form of faith. It is heterotopic praxis. It is the tears that stream down one’s eyes every time the story of the Husain’s six month old son, Ali Asghar, was shot with a three pronged arrow. It is the beating of one’s chest when one hears of Husain’s sister arming her two teenage sons to go out and give their life for the cause of Husain. It is Ali Shariati, an Islamic utopian[39], shaping the vision of a new Iran through revolutionary action by laying bare the injustices of the Shah regime in Iran without ever mentioning the rulers or their conduct. It is the mystic Sufi idea of one’s self containing both Husain and Yazid, and the struggle against our own propensities for injustice. Karbala is the struggle for economic justice; where Yazid is the symbol of systemic injustice. It is the call to action, where participants (whether physically, spiritually, or intellectually) can use the metaphor to build solidarities and establish relations of care.

In response to the four theoretical markers that emerged from the introductory seminar with Balibar[40], I argue that Karbala allows us to engage with each of the issues set out therein. It is a non-totalizing, vision of a useable past[41] that has resonance with an identified community, but also the potential for embracing new and differing meanings towards the goal of building a utopic ideal. It allows for disparate and heterogenous readings and is resistive to its very core. Once we start to conceive of utopias as praxis and identifying such active engagement with the metaphors and ideals set out herein, we can take learnings to move away from the malaise of nightmarish dystopic visions that have been plaguing the collective dreams of humanity.


[1] Étienne Balibar, Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards A Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes, October 1, 2022, available online at

[2] Quoted in Vijay Prashad, An Achievable Necessity, January 8, 2023, New Age, available at:

[3] Torsten Hylén, Myth, Ritual, and the Early Development of Shiite Identity, Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 6 (3) (2008), 300–331; Edith Andrea Elke Szanto Ali-Dib, Following Sayyida Zaynab: Twelver Shi‘ism in Contemporary Syria,  Dissertation, University of Toronto (2012), available at

[4] Bernard Harcourt, Introduction to Utopia 13/13, September 20, 2022 online available at

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hamid Dabashi, Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire, Routledge & CRC Press (2008), 177.

[7] Raashid Maqbool, ‘Why the Indian State Is Now Scared of the Kashmiri Shia’, Al Jazeera, 20 September 2020, available at

[8] Ken Chitwood, ‘How Muharram Travelled from India to Trinidad and Became Uniquely Caribbean’ Scroll.In, 21 September 2018, available at

[9] Gustav Thaiss, Muharram Rituals and the Carnivalesque in Trinidad, ISIM Newsletter 3 (1999), 38.

[10] Syed Akbar Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory, Oxford University Press (2006) 26-30.

[11] Bernard Harcourt, Introduction to Utopia 13/13, September 20, 2022 available online at

[12] Etienne Balibar, Regulations, Insurgencies, Utopias: For a “Socialism” of the 21st Century, December 11, 2021, available online at

[13] Étienne Balibar reconfiguring Rancière’s formula as a critical and foundational reflection on “concrete utopias” in Étienne Balibar, Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards A Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes, October 1, 2022, available online at

[14] William Waters, Resistance as Practice: Counter-Conduct after Foucault, in Alena Drieschova, et al (eds.), Conceptualizing International Practices: Directions for the Practice Turn in International Relations, Cambridge University Press (2022), available at

[15] Françoise Gollain, My Teacher, November 3, 2022 available online at

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue to Utopia 1/13, October 1, 2022 available online at

[18] See writings and poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Josh Malihabadi.

[19] See Munshi Premchand’s story “Karbala”, available at: See also, Nishat Zaidi, When Premchand wrote a play about Islamic history to highlight communal tensions in 1900s’ India, December 8, 2022,, available at:

[20] Syed Akbar Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory, Oxford University Press (2006) 201.

[21] Syed Akbar Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory, Oxford University Press (2006) 162.

[22] Dusk of dispossessed, or sham-e ghariban, refers to the night that came in the wake of the battle of Karbala, when Husain’s household was engulfed in a state of sorrow and despair.

[23] Dawn of Hunain, or subh-e Hunain, refers to the morning of the Battle of Hunain, a battle in which the Prophet of Islam participated where his hypocritical followers fled, abandoning their commitment to Islam’s cause.

[24] Messiah in this case refers to Jesus of Nazareth.

[25] Syed Akbar Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory, Oxford University Press (2006) 162.

[26] Vijay Prashad, An Achievable Necessity, January 8, 2023, New Age, available at:

[27] Ibid.

[28] Alyssa Battistoni, Spadework, Spring 2019, NPlusOne Mag available online at

[29] Kali Akuno, The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy. Undated PDF available online at

[30] Bernard Harcourt, Introduction to Utopia 13/13, September 20, 2022 online available at; Françoise Gollain, My Teacher, November 3, 2022 available online at

[31] Michel Foucault, Jay Miskowiec (trans.), Of Other Spaces,  Diacritics 6, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 22-27.

[32] Bernard Harcourt, Introduction to Utopia 13/13, September 20, 2022 online available at

[33] Étienne Balibar, Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards A Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes, October 1, 2022, available online at

[34] Étienne Balibar, Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards A Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes, October 1, 2022, available online at

[35] Ibid.

[36] Aseem Hasnain, Fractured identities: Comparing Muslim-ness and Shia-ness in 20th century India, Dissertation, (2016), 20-21, available online at:

[37] Ibid.

[38] Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue to Utopia 1/13, October 1, 2022 available online at As suggested by Ann Stoler and Kendall Thomas in the first seminar, we should possibly consider utopias as action, as a verb, rather than as a noun.

[39] Ali Rehnama, An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati (1998).

[40] Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue to Utopia 1/13, October 1, 2022 available online at

[41] Van Wyk Brooks, the one who coined the term, explains that one should treat the past as “an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals; it opens of itself at the touch of desire; it yields up, now this treasure, now that, to anyone who comes to it armed with a capacity for personal choices” as quoted in Nils Gilman, The NIEO as Usable Past, Progressive International, 4 January 2013, available online at