The Global Message of Karbala
By Dr. Hassan Abbas, AfPak Channel at Foreign Policy, Sunday, December 11, 2011; Asia Society, Monday, December 12, 2011
The idea of defiance against tyranny and oppression owes a great deal to Hussain ibne Ali, the hero of the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. With just 72 valiant followers and family members, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad faced the military might of the Muslim empire ruled then by a 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.
On every Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim calendar month of Muharram (which fell on December 6 this year), many Muslims all across the world commemorate Hussain's great sacrifice, but tragically the central message of Karbala appears to evade the broader Muslim thinking today. In Western literature and research on Islam, this episode is often viewed through the lens of certain Shi'a 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 stood for.
A brief historical reference is required to understand the context of Ashura. After Prophet Mohammad's 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, 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. 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." 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. The great Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aptly acknowledged this by saying: "I learned from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed."
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 Shi'a Muslims, is very sympathetic toward Imam Hussain. It would be an absolute travesty of Muslim history to call this a Sunni-Shi'a 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. On the Muslim side, only a handful of controversial clerics project this version. Still, most Muslims shy away from digging too deep into the matter, and carefully avoid questioning the historical developments leading to the rise of Yazid.
Insightfully, the whole narrative of tragedy at Karbala would have remained unheard of without the tireless struggle of Hussain's sister Zainab ibne Ali, who as an eyewitness of the tragedy propagated details of the event far and wide among Muslims. While in chains, she courageously challenged Yazid's policies on his face in his court in Damascus soon after the battle at Karbala. Many Muslims -- some out of ignorance and others out of bigotry --avoid appreciating the crucial role of a woman in this grand struggle. Zainab's contribution to fighting for the essence of the Muslim faith was as critical as that of Hussain.
Though Shi'as are often at the forefront of commemorating the tragedy of Karbala, Sunnis, especially those belonging to Barelvi school of thought in South Asia and almost all Sufi circles in broader Asia and Middle East, also enthusiastically participate in paying homage to Imam Hussain 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 message stands completely contrary to this perspective.
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This article was also carried by Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and The American Muslim websites.
For background, see The Story of Karbala: Imam Hussain and His Great Sacrifice and Lessons From Karbala: Islamic History's Most Tragic Episode
|Afghan Shiites who were taking part in a religious ceremony at a shrine in |
Kabul on Tuesday were attacked by a suicide bomber.