Opinion: The Universality of Karbala


H Shah, Kenya

The tragedy that took place in the bare deserts of Karbala in seventh century Iraq is not limited to its time, nor to the faith and cultures that have embraced it as legend. Here is what the world can learn from the life and martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussainra, the grandson of the Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.

The tenth of the first Islamic month, Muharram has just passed. This year, the universal coronavirus pandemic stemmed the tide of processions mourning the murder of the Holy Prophet’ssa grandson that have annually taken place since the ninth century (when such commemoration evolved into tradition in cultures practicing Islam) in every Muslim country with a sizeable Shia Muslim population.

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However, in places such as Uttar Pradesh, India, crowds still managed to slip through government regulations and observe the mourning rites that have become tradition for most Shia sects in Islam.

The traditional rites of Ashura – the name given to the date on which the battle of Karbala and subsequent murder of Hazrat Imam Hussainra – are commemorated by Shia Muslims and some Sufi sects around the world. Parades of the faithful march through the streets, beating their chests (an act called matam, an expression of mourning for the late martyr) and carrying slogans to honour Hazrat Imam Hussain’sra sacrifice.

In many countries, such as Pakistan, Iraq, even India, hardliners carry batons from which hang chains and knifes to slice through their backs as they march through the streets, bleeding in remembrance.

In Iran, besides the parade, candles are lit in remembrance. In India, it has become tradition in some areas to carry an alam – what is believed to be the slab upon which the mother of Hazrat Imam Hussainra and the daughter of the Holy Prophetsa, Hazrat Fatima al-Zahrara was given her final ablution – and is lavishly decorated and carried through the streets along with the mourning procession.

Plays called tazieh are performed, reenacting the battle scene in which Yazid, along with an army of 30,000 well-armed horsemen, cornered Hazrat Imam Hussainra who stood with 70 followers, many of them from his household and murdered them for their resistance to his claim to the Caliphate.

Afterwards, Yazid ordered his horsemen to trample over the deceased. This was not before he had deprived Hazrat Hussainra and his 70 followers of water for a few days prior to the battle. And yet, for all these remembrances and storytelling and grief stricken elegies that are recited every Muharram, the objective of remembrance, and in fact the objective of Imam Hussain’s resistance and honoured death, seems to be utterly and totally forgotten.

So what is the significance of Karbala? Is it the legend of heroism and the fight of good against evil, a rebellion of truth against the unjust usurper that is heard in religious songs and fiery sermons unleashed from the pulpits every Muharram, worldwide; the re-enactments and grief laden chest beatings and self-flagellations that echo down the centuries of Islamic history since the travesty that took place in the middle of the nation of Iraq?

As Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IVrh so eloquently put it many years ago in a televised question and answer session in London:

“The practice of celebrating Ashura is a new and un-Islamic tradition. There is no base or foundation for it either in the Holy Quran, nor in the Hadith, nor by the Holy Prophetsa nor by his Companionsra. Hazrat Ali’sra children themselves never commemorated Ashura. Upon whom all this passed, they themselves did not get to know how one must celebrate this. The Shias who came afterwards got to know somehow the real way of commemoration … And it is not just one tragedy, many tragedies have occurred. Jesus Christas passed through a very painful incident too, and before that there have been incredibly hardened tyrants … in the era of the Holy Prophetsa, he was made the target of oppression; through whom his progeny gain their eminence, to leave him and to raise them above him … for example how Hazrat Hamzara and other many companions of the Holy Prophetsa were martyred and dragged through the streets, all of this began in the time of the Holy Prophetsa … where has Ashura been commemorated for them?”

Hazrat Imam Hussainra was martyred, the Holy Prophetsa was cruelly oppressed for most of his life after prophethood, his family members murdered and starved. Jesusas was nailed by his hands and feet to a cross and left to bleed. Abrahamas was thrown into the fire. All of these people were tortured due to their unwavering conviction of what was the right path, all with nothing but the clothes on their back and the hand of God upon their heads as their support and sustenance.

Whether it is the inner battle of giving in to our natural animal desires or to the higher moral state of the “soul at rest”, or if it is seeing wrong in every corner of our lives – the oppressions and injustices caused by prejudice and short sightedness; the starving poor who live in slums just footsteps away from rising mansions in Nairobi; Palestinians in Gaza; the anti-racial movements sprung out of sprawling injustices from a racially prejudiced justice system; Ahmadi Muslims being murdered and silenced because of their faith by the Pakistani government officials, encouraged by dated and unjust blasphemy laws; broken healthcare systems in America and social inequalities in Britain, both first world countries that possess the kind of wealth most of the world can only dream of – everyone has a Karbala that they must fight.

Self-flagellation and beatings in honour of the deceased, lavish ornamentations of shrines dedicated to holy martyrs and prophets, fervent prayers on dead saints’ graves do not do honour the pure bravery of Hazrat Imam Hussainra. They do not further the legacy of his death, nor the legacy of his life, which was spent in humbleness and forgiveness and kindness always to those who had less.

As an imam, he followed the path of the holy founder of Islam and all those prophets and saints who stood tall with conviction and truth and gave their lives and thus, Karbala became Karbala and Hazrat Imam Hussainra became renowned not because of his impressive lineage, but because of his sacrifice and his bravery in the face of thousands of arrows and swords. A man who stood with a small band of 70 followers against a well-equipped army of 30,000 horsemen, and despite all odds against his victory, he remained in his place because he knew that oppression was worse than death and he knew that if he did not stand for the truth, then it would become trampled upon – the fate that met his lifeless body after his martyrdom by Yazid’s army.

Hazrat Imam Hussainra stood up for what was right and what was just and true. In this, he followed the tradition of his forefathers, the prophets and saints before him. He did not bend to the will of the masses and paid for it with his life and the life of all his sons present, including his six-month-old son. He followed his holy grandfather in this respect who suffered and grieved his whole life for the fate of his people. So much was his concern for the people who persecuted him daily that God the Almighty addressed the Holy Prophetsa in the Quran, saying “So it may be, thou wilt grieve thyself to death sorrowing after them if they believe not in this discourse.” (Surah al-Kahf, Ch.18: V.7)

This is what we can learn from the battle of Karbala for this battle resides in all of us. Who can say they have seen injustice – in whatever niche of human life it may be; small social injustices and inequalities, racism, the divide between rich and poor, even domestic strife – and have spoken up or taken action to make amends despite societal norms dictating otherwise?

Thus, to further the sacrifice of Hazrat Imam Hussainra is not restricted to those of the Islamic faith. It was the Hindu leader of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, Mahatma Gandhi, who said “Imam Hasan and Hussain refused to acknowledge the authority of Yazid for it would have been wrong to do so. For this reason, in order to preserve their honour, they became martyrs”, and elsewhere, “When called upon to surrender, they refused. They knew at the time that this would mean death for them. If, however, they were to submit to injustice, they would disgrace their manhood and betray their religion … the head of these fine young men rolled on the battlefield. In my view, Islam did not attain its greatness by the power of the sword, but entirely through the self immolation of its fakirs (saints).”

Seven billion hearts beat everyday and are given the choice everyday to choose between what is right and true over what is easy and popular yet unjust. Hazrat Imam Hussain’sra martyrdom stands as a universal paragon of resistance under conviction despite the certainty of defeat. For in reality, truth and bravery demand a sort of death, even if not physical; it is the inner battles that we win with ourselves that define the wars that will make us victors. The truth is, this world is a Karbala, so be the Imam Hussain to this world.

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