On every Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim calendar month of Muharram (which fell on December 6th of 680 AD), many Muslims all across the world commemorate Hussain’s (PBUH) great sacrifice, but tragically the central message of Karbala appears to evade the broader Muslim thinking today. Especially the series of events that led to the rule of Yazid bin Mu‘awiya are often left unelaborated. In Western literature and research on Islam, this episode is often viewed through the lens of certain Shia rituals practiced on and around Ashura. It is worth probing why that is so. Even more importantly, it is critical to understand why terrorists and extremists like al-Qaeda and the Taliban often attack the Ashura related gatherings (as is evident from attacks in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan), and what is at the core of their disdain of all the things that Imam Hussain (PBUH) stood for.

A brief historical reference is required to understand the context of Ashura. After Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH&HP) death in 632 AD, the expansion of Islam became a global phenomenon, courtesy of a variety of means. Islam was a rising power in the world, but in the process, the fabric of Muslim society was also being transformed, as the Muslim outlook was gradually influenced by people from various cultures.

New elites that were more interested in power and wealth alone started emerging as more influential, and consequently, Islam’s emphasis on egalitarianism, justice and equity started getting diluted. A deliberate attempt to imitate the dynastic empires of the Byzantines and Sasanians was obvious to many observers at the time. The distortion of Islamic ideals became a favorite pastime of Yazid and his coterie. The expansion of influence by way of the sword was a hallmark of his times.

Imam Hussain (PBUH), the spiritual custodian of Islam at the time, staunchly stood against this shifting tide, and his unprecedented sacrifice was intended to shake the Muslim conscience and expose the misleading path introduced in the name of Islam. It was a matter of principle for him – one of human dignity and honor.(2) Challenging the newly introduced monarchical system of government was another important feature of this struggle. In his last sermon before departing from Madina on his journey towards Karbala, Iraq, he made clear his mission: “I seek to reform the Ummah of my grandfather.”(3)

This was not a mere political battle, though some Muslim historians try to project it that way so as to cover up not only Yazid’s atrocities, but indirectly to defend his school of thought as well. The mainstream view, however, both among Sunni and Shia Muslims, is very sympathetic toward Imam Hussain (PBUH). It would be an absolute travesty of Muslim history to call this a Sunni-Shia battle. Some writers still do that, either out of lack of in depth understanding, or in a flawed effort to simplify things for a lay Western reader.

Though Shias are often at the forefront of commemorating the tragedy of Karbala, Sunnis, especially those belonging to the Barelvi school of thought in South Asia and almost all Sufi circles in broader Asia and the Middle East, also enthusiastically participate in paying homage to Imam Hussain (PBUH) and his companions. Extremists and terrorists among Muslims want to destroy this element of unity, as sectarianism suits their divisive and violent agenda. Distorting religion to make it dogmatic in outlook and regressive in approach is also what helps them achieve their goals exceedingly well. For them, political power is an end in itself. Hussain’s (PBUH) message stands completely contrary to this perspective.

An armed struggle for that purpose was never his intended route. He believed in conveying the message through love and compassion. It was a message motivated truly by humanity. Therefore the idea of defiance against tyranny and oppression owes a great deal to Hussain ibn Ali (PBUT), the hero of the battle of Karbala in 680 AD.; with just 72 valiant followers and family members, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) faced the military might of the Muslim empire ruled then by the despot, Yazid bin Mu‘awiya. Hussain refused to sanctify Yazid’s reign through baya’a (allegiance) and consequently, he and his small contingent were martyred in the most brutal of fashions. The accompanying women and children were imprisoned for months in the dark alleys of Damascus.

The great Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aptly acknowledged this by saying: “I learned from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”

(The above is a selection taken from “History Lessons from Karbala”, by Dr. Hassan Abbas (published in Journal of Foreign Policy December 11, 2011))

Roshd Website offers its condolences to all Muslims, especially you dear friend, upon the arrival of 20th of Safar, Arba’een (forty days after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (PBUH)), the time to renew allegiance to the master of the martyrs, and the time to visit the Imam of the lovers.

Footnotes:

1. The above text is taken from the article “Historical Lessons from Karbala” published in Foreign Policy in 2011, which is an influential periodical in world politics and economy. Therefore the goal of the article is to address the aspects of the Ashura uprising to western educated minds.

2. Imam Hussain (PBUH) demonstrated human virtues during his uprising: “Beware that an evil son of evil (Obaid Allah ibn Ziad) has forced me to choose between either of the two: death or indignity. Never will we accept indignity. The Almighty God and His prophet and the faithful, the pious hearts of the courageous people in the world will not like it if we prefer the obedience of the inferiors to honorable death. (Ihtijaj Tabarsi, vol. 2, p. 24)

3. Manaqib ibn Shahr Aashub, vol. 4, p. 89