Article

Antoine Bara: You Shi’a Do not Appreciate the Value of Imam Hussein!

The writer caused a row by confirming that Prophet Jesus prophesied the appearance of Imam Hussein. He argues that “I am a Christian but call on humanity to follow the holiness of Imam Hussein as he is the conscience of all religions.” Name of the book, “Husain in Christian Ideology”

From Al-Minbar Media Establishment

As we headed for the meeting, we did not expect it to be an appointment with someone who considers himself Shi’a even though he is Christian! What we know about him is that he is a thinker, scholar, Christian and Syrian who wrote a book titled, “Imam Hussein in Christian ideology” which raised controversy because it confirms that the Christ (Peace be upon him) prophesized the appearance of Imam Hussein.

In a meeting which lasted more than three hours, Antoine Bara never mentioned Imam Hussein without saying peace be upon him after his name. Bara maintained that Imam Husain in not exclusive to Shi’a or Muslims but belongs to the whole world because he is the “conscience of religions” as Bara puts it. It is interesting that Bara considers that being a Shi’a is “the highest degree of lover for God”. According to Bara anyone in the world, regardless of his religion, can be a Shi’a depending on his own personal interpretation “due to the greatness of following the pure family (Peace be upon them) in order to preserve the beauty of his religion”!

Bara, however, chastises the Shi’a saying, “You, Shi’a and Muslims, do not know the value of Imam Hussein you are supposed to be absolutely honest in conveying his words on the day of Ashura to the world. This mission requires not only narrating the surface meaning of the event but also to coming to grips with aspects and spirit of his revolution”.

As Mr. Bara uttered these words during the meeting, we remembered how we squandered the heritage of our great Imam and how negligent we are in furthering his cause. This can be revealed today through telling the truth, defending the oppressed and raising the banners of justice and freedom.

Mr. Bara spoke of the circumstances which led him get to know the character of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him), starting with his meeting with the grand religious leader Imam al-Shirazi in the early seventies who enthused him to write his valuable book, and ending with the troubles, difficulties and fights he faced from those who did not like the book. However, he said. “Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) will show kindness towards me on the Day of Judgment.” Here is the text of the interview.

 

  • Q1: What is the story behind your book “Hussein in Christian Ideology”?
  • A: In the beginning, I did not know about the brutal incident of Karbala except some general facts such as Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) revolt against Yazid and his murder in Karbala, This is because during our education, this incident was referred to without any detail. When I met with Imam al-Shirazi in Kuwait, more than forty years ago, he gave me some books about Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). I read these books and discovered they contained a unique heroic story. I was also surprised that such story did not generate much interest from Muslim scholars. A non-Shi’a Muslim speaks about the event as if it were merely a historical one. This is because of the prevalent view of the society in which he lives and in order not to go against his environment and culture. On the other hand, this event has emotional significance for a Shi’a Muslim. As for Orientalists, their writings only present a materialistic outlook which ignores the spiritual and social dimensions of the revolution.

All of this motivated me to note down remarks about this revolution and the character of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). My point of view is perhaps the most neutral and objective despite all other religious and emotional considerations. I am a Christian writer and researcher who lives in Muslim country and has been exposed to Muslim culture from the same sources, which has caused my cultural and social identity to be a Muslim one even though I am Christian. This has made my awareness and understanding of the cause of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) complete. As a matter of fact, I did not have intension to write about this topic. However, I used to visit Imam al-Shirazi in Kuwait with my friend Azhar al-Khafagi. While talking one time, I said that due to the nature of my journalistic work I have written down notes on Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). Imam al-Shirazi said to me, “why don’t you collect these notes in a book?’’ “I will think about it”, I said, The idea fermented in my head, so I went to my office, collected the notes that I had written, Which now seemed a lot, and started to do more research. As you know once a researcher starts research, he never finishes. As I got deeper, the research became more difficult and l found myself caught in a minefield of sensitivities. You might adopt, an opinion which pleases some but not others. Let alone the fact that as a Christian, I should keep away from research, like this, which belongs to Muslims.

However, I continued my research as I thought we, as Christians, should have a balanced view different to that of Muslims, with regard to the issue of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). I reveal no secret by saying that throughout the writing process, I felt a special moral inspiration pushing me to continue researching, editing and writing, however difficult this was due to different considerations.

I have tried to cover all aspects through a lot of explanation and analysis of different sides and dimension. I have also attempted to answer lot of questions which relate to the revolution and the character of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). Why did this battle take place and was it for a worldly purpose? Why did Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) seek martyrdom? What is the secret behind his words and his screams? Why did he take women and children with him? This has extended the period of writing the book to more than five years, two of which were fully devoted to writing. Even though I was not married at the time, it took me that long to write the book. This seemed a long time for me since none of my other works had taken more than two years to complete.

As soon as I finished the book, which I had changed and revised time and again, I sent it to Imam al-Shirazi. He read the book and liked it and said literally, “Print it immediately” I told him that I will do so as long as he writes an introduction to the book and he agreed. I talked to Mr. Baqir Khureibit, editor of ‘Sawt Al-Khaleej’ magazine which I worked for, and he agreed to print the book; hence the book was published.

It is noteworthy here that as soon as the book was published, Imam al-Shirazi asked me for 20 copies and wanted to pay for them. I said, “How can I accept your money when it is thanks to you that I have written this book?” He said: “I want to help you. And if you do not accept the money, I will not take the copies”. In fact I was very embarrassed and due to Imam’s insistence, I had to agree.

 

  • Q2: Did your book not provoke counter reactions?
  • A: Of course it raised many reactions; more than you can imagine. It is true that the Shi’a in particular and Muslims in general accepted the book and I know many who consider it the best book written on Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him), but some Muslims and Christians objected to it. For example, they said, “he is Christian, how can he be a supporter of the Prophet’s family?

I recall that someone in Beirut published a book, containing a response to my book. However, the book’s handling of the case was very poor and superficial. The writer endeavored to prove that the case of Imam Hussein was only a historic incident related to the struggle for power. On the other hand, a doctorate thesis was written on the book and submitted to one of the Lebanese Universities. Also someone from the University of Lahore in Pakistan, named Mushtaq Assad, asked for permission to translate the book into Urdu. I immediately agreed. He was surprised since I did not ask for a share of the profits. I said “I did not write this book for profit, but because of my belief in Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him)”

Also an Iraqi doctor, called Ridha Rasheed, came from Austria, to ask to translate the book into Austrian and Russian. I also agreed thanks be to God, the book has been translated into seventeen languages. This is only thanks to the grace of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him).

Ten years after the publication of the book, I was surprised to be summoned to Kuwait, where I used to work, to be investigated. I was accused of being against the Muslim’s Caliph’s. On appearing at the court, I knew that the case was filed by the Kuwaiti government. They objected to a sentence in the book describing Othman bin Afan’s government policy as corrupt and this policy being the reason behind giving more authority to the Umayyad’s. I defended the use of the statement in court by explaining that I took it from Muslim books. I also named some of these books which are widely circulated and available in the country’s public central library. Addressing the judge I said : “You left more than 499 pages which praise figures of Islam starting with the Prophet, and then Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussein (Peace be upon them) and hold onto this one page which you claim is against Othman! In short, court judged that I pay a fine of fifty Kuwait Dinars and it confiscated and banned the book, even though the book has been approved more than three times for inclusion in the electronic catalogue of the book fair and, as you know, the book gets read every time before inclusion.

 

  • Q3: Was the writing of the book an interpretation of a special feeling you had or pure scholarly research?
  • A: It was both. In the beginning, writing the book had a scholarly purpose but as I got deeper and expanded on the historicity of the topic, a feeling of the greatness of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) grew in me. This character sacrificed himself for religion and principles and to preserve Muslims from deviating from the path of Islam to ensure the continuity of the message and passing it over from one generation to the other. Had he not sacrificed himself in this highly emotional way, this strong effect on people, which preserved the religion of Islam, could not have been felt. The proof is what happened when the prisoners of war were returned to Damascus; Sunnis, Shi’a and Christians threw stone at the soldiers because they were emotionally affected. The same also happened in Homs where people beat up the soldiers and deprived them of water because they deprived the pure family of the Prophet (Peace be upon them) of water.

Indeed human principles were generated by the Ashura revolution. This is what pushed me to continue writing the book which only gave me fatigue and troubles without any other personal benefits except for the blessing of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). By blessing I mean the fact that the book was printed more than twenty times, only three of them by me. Many bodies have printed the book without my permission but I do not mind because I don’t consider the book to be my personal properties, on the contrary it belongs to all humanity the same way that Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) belongs to all humanity.

 

  • Q4: After this in depth study of the history of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) you must have arrived at a definite description of his character, who is he in your view?
  • A: My own description of Imam (peace be upon him) is that he is “the conscience of religions.” Had it not been for him, all divine religions would not have continued to exist. Islam started with Muhammad, and continued with Imam Hussein, and Zainab (peace be upon him) being the scream which completed the march of Jihad and the preserving of Islam.

God wanted to preserve this new religion that is why he sent Imam Hussein to his grandfather as a martyr but not as a prophet. Karbala was a turning point. Had Imam Hussein not carried out his revolution, the concept of monotheism would not have continued to exist and the new religion of Islam would have become tied to the practices of the rulers whose societies would have accepted and surrendered to their oppression under any circumstances because they were the rulers.

I believe that Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) was commanded by God to follow this path because he had a specific divine mission, the same way that prophets had a specific divine mission. Unfortunately, even though Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) is a holy character to you Muslims and Shi’a you do not recognize his value and you have neglected his heritage and revolution. Today you must know how to support this great Imam by saying the truth, helping the oppressed, reforming society and achieving justice and freedom. You are supposed to be absolutely honest in delivering his scream on the day of Ashura to the world. This task requires you to get to study thoroughly the dimensions of his revolution. It is not enough to narrate and describe the outward aspect of tragedy to the world.

 

  • Q5: The chapter in which you said that Christ (peace be upon him) prophesized the appearance of Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) was like a bomb! It was the most controversial chapter in the book ….. Can you shed more light on this?
  • A: Of course this chapter looks widely into the meaning of the word ‘Comforter’ which appears in the Bible. Before I explain what it means, I would like to confirm that the Bible mentions Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his pure family) as well as Imam Hussein (peace be upon him). This prophesies come in the context about the one true religion which, in my view, is Islam. Christ (peace be upon him) spoke of the appearance of Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) in the gospel of John by saying:

“But now I go my way to him that sent me, and none of you asked me, ‘Whiter goes Thou? But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is expedient for you that I go away, for it I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world concerning sin, and concerning righteousness, and concerning judgment” (John, 16:5-8).

Some Christians have explained the word ‘Comforter’ as the Holy Spirit. But having researched its meaning, I do not think this meaning applies to it at all. So, I looked at the other two explanations; that this is either referring to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his pure family) or referring to Imam Hussein (peace be upon him). After more research, I realized that Christ (peace be upon him) could not have sent a prophet like himself but it was possible that he sent a martyr to humanity which means that it is definitely Imam Hussein who is being referred to in the above quote from the Bible. I have discussed this fact in detail in the book and I do not want to repeat myself here but in the third edition of the book, I added an introduction in which I included more proof of Jesus’ prophesy about Imam Hussein (peace be upon him). It is there in the third edition for those who want to refer to it.

 

I would like to point out here that at that time, and after publishing the book, I met with a Christian priest in Lebanon who said to me “I have heard for a longtime that Christ prophesized the appearance of a martyr, but I didn’t know who he was. When I read your book, I was convinced by its sound analysis. Imam Hussein is undoubtedly the martyr that Christ spoke of.”

I believe we all have to get rid of extremism and acknowledge the facts which include Christ’s (peace be upon him) prophesy of Prophet Muhammad and his family (peace be upon them). We also have to believe that the Islamic story about Christ’s ascent to heaven is more accurate than the Christian story of crucifixion and resurrection. Anyway, Christ and all other prophets including the seal of prophets, Muhammad (peace be upon him and his pure family), and also Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husain (peace be upon them) all follow the same path, calling for the same religion of monotheism, for worshipping only one God.

 

  • Q6: In this context, you said in your book that if Imam Hussein was one of us we would have put up a flag and a minaret for him in every part of the earth and we would have called the people to Christianity in the name of Imam Hussein. How is that possible?
  • A: These are not my own words. These are the words of a priest who lived at the time of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. These are natural words that reveal how you Shi’a and Muslims don’t recognize the value of your Imam Hussein (peace be upon him)! We had the hoof of Christ’s donkey and we used to make pilgrimage to it while you have the grave of Imam Hussein, his relics, blessings, heritage, but you have not made use of them in a way that frees the world from its tragedies by turning to Imam Hussein. If Imam Hussein was one of us, we would have built him a beacon on every part of the world for he is not a stage in life but the march of human freedom. He is a permanent principle. However, many Muslim have not yet discovered the secret of Imam Hussein’s (Peace be upon him) revolution and its effect on people’s souls.

 

  • Q7: This statement raises many questions. How come you are Christian and at the same time confirm that Islam is the true religion and that Christ prophesized the appearance of Prophet Muhammad and his grandson Imam Hussein (Peace be upon them). Explain to us how you understand the terms Christianity, Islam, Shia’ism?
  • A: Christianity is one of the stages of the one total religion which has come after Judaism and preceded Islam. Islam is the religion that complements all religions. Since Judaism was theoretical and Christianity was purely spiritual, Islam came to mend these shortcomings. In the end, we are all Muslims because we all believe in the one God. The Torah, The Bible and The Quran.

Shi’ism is the highest degree of the love of God. It is the natural state for all who love the family of the Prophet (Peace be upon him and his pure family), who are the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali (Peace be upon them). Shia’ism is the pride of humanity. Anyone in the world can be a Shi’a by virtue of the greatness of following the pure family of the Prophet (peace be upon them) in order to preserve the beauty of his faith.

 

  • Q8: What attracted you most in the character of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) and which of his words and sayings are closest to you?
  • A: I was attracted to his extreme modesty even he was a great holy figure. Among his words and screams on the day of Ashura which most moved me were “Is there any supporter to stand by us? Is there any ally to rescue us?” I always remembered these words because they describe how ungrateful people can be to those sent by God and how people get involved in pursuing their personal interests and ignore the principles and values advocated by religions. With pangs of conscience, revolution, including al-Tawabeen, started. Unfortunately this was after the death of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). How much loss has all humanity suffered because they betrayed him and did not stand by him (Peace be upon him)

“In the beginning, the purpose of writing the book was

scholarly and research related. As I got deeper and

expanded on the historicity of the topic a special

feeling of the greatness of Imam Husain

(peace be upon him) grew in me”.

“I believe that all of the west will followImam

Husain, if they know enoughabout his revolution

and it’s noblepurpose”.

  • Q9: What is your view of the ritual gatherings held by Shi’a every year to remember Imam Hussein?
  • A: I consider them a model for remembering the Al-Taf tragedy where pangs of conscience return and, in turn, faith is re-born in souls via supporting the continuity of the cause of Imam Hussein.

 

  • Q10: How do you honestly perceive the Shi’a rituals practiced in these gatherings such as slapping, blood Shedding, mourning and the like?
  • A: I think they contribute much in reactivating the memory and conscience since you enact the event without hurting the others. This leaves you with the holy relic of faith throughout your life. When you slap your body, you punish it morally for not being there at the time of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). It also means that you are ready to sacrifice yourself and everything you have to join the march of Imam Hussein. As for the blood-shedding rituals, I believe it is a symbolic message stating that you are prepared to sacrifice your blood for Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) which is truly a great and effective message.

 

  • Q11. What is the message that you want to convey to the followers of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him)?
  • A: As I have said earlier, you have to be absolutely honest in delivering the great message and story of Imam Hussein to the world. This task requires you to have a deep and realistic understanding of the spirit of his movement. This will make humanity adopt the message and employ it in rejecting oppression. The annual anniversary of Karbala should not pass just like that. It is true that your rituals in Imam Hussein centers have acquainted the world with Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) and his story. However, Muslim scholars are negligent because they have not understood and conveyed the message properly. They have to deliver the story of the revolution to all parts of the globe as there are people who cannot understand the revolution correctly with their limited mentality. I think the West would follow Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) if they knew about the noble purposes of his revolution.

 

  • Q12: Do you believe that Imam Hussein will be on your side in the Day of Judgment?
  • A: Yes, my master Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) will be kind to me on the Day when all cannot help because he knows how much I have suffered to bring this book out and all the difficulties and troubles I have been through, for his sake without seeking any benefit or personal interests. I hope my words will echo in the hearts of people. I call on humanity to be guided by the holiness of Imam Hussein and to take him as a beacon to follow in one’s private and public life.

Every day is Ashura,

Every land is Karbala

 

In the Islamic calendar, the month of Muharram and in this month, the 10th day, known as ‘Ashura, is a day of great significance.

As a person who generally prefers solitude and through physical disability actually is not able to join in many community events, I still have to admit that the power of the community can be a precious asset in the life of the spirit. All religions have special festivals or commemorative events that are powerful and inspiring. For Christians, the celebration of the birth of the Savior in a manger, surrounded by animals, worshipped by shepherds and kings alike in the Nativity, is one of the most poignant and beautiful. The commemorations of Holy Week, from the triumphal procession of the King on Palm Sunday to his crucifixion on Good Friday, are extremely emotional events, probably the most powerful of all is the celebration of Easter, when the power of rebirth is affirmed in the Resurrection of the Sacrificed God.

The most significant month for all Muslims is the holy month of Ramadhan. Fasting from dawn to dusk is mandated and people gather at sunset to break fast and pray in unity. The taste of the sweet nourishing date consumed as the first morsel of food to pass the lips after a day of fasting cannot be described. It is not like ‘Holy Communion’ as it is not a ‘divine’ substance, but is the focus of the ritual of breaking fast, combined with prayers of gratitude towards the Divine, as well as a symbol of reward for personal steadfastness and endurance and thus assumes a special potency.

The reason why Ramadhan is considered the holiest of months is because the Holy Qur’an was ‘sent down’ from Allah during that month. The most blessed night in the blessed month is the night of ‘Laylat al Qadr’. On the ‘Night of qadr’ the gates of heaven are open, and spirits, angels and blessings pass freely between the worlds. It is interesting to note that the Prophet Muhammad refused ultimately to tell anyone which night of Ramadhan actually was the ‘Laylat at Qadr’. Although every sect has its own traditional belief as to which night ‘probably’ is the night of Qadr, Muslims pray special prayers every night during Ramadhan ‘Just in case’. Although the Prophet’s ostensible reason for denying certainly to the devout was his anger at the petty bickering between his followers, I think the real reason is to encourage people to pray EVERY night. Indeed, every night of Ramadhan is considered a blessed night.

Actually, the night of Qadr has much in common with the ancient Northern festival of Samhain Belief in a special day or night during the year when the ‘gates’ between the worlds are open is almost universal Although Samhain originally was a pagan festival, it was incorporated to some extent into ‘All Soul’s Day’ or the ‘Day of the Dead’ in the Christian calendar, known to most now as Hallowe’en. In the old Northern heritage, Samhain marked the time of slaughter of the animals before winter, as well as a time to remember or seek communication with the dead.

The month of Ramadhan is a time not only for personal purification but for charity. It is a time when Muslims remember the poor and the unfortunate throughout the world. In particular, people are encouraged to feed and clothe the poor as well as remembering them in their prayers.

Incidentally, the month-long fast or ‘sawm’ of Ramadhan simply is a fast from dawn to dusk each day. People rise before dawn to eat and break their fast after sunset. Breaking fast with others who have kept the fast is a joyful occasion each night during the month. At the end of the month is the ‘Eid al-Fitr’, a festival of celebration that last three days.

Now, however, it is the month of Muharram, which is of special significance to Shi’a or ‘Shi’ani ‘Ali’. The general public may now perceive Shi’a and Sunni as diametrically opposed as a result of media propaganda and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and yet this is not the case. Muharram is the month in which the grandson of the Holy Prophet, Imam Husain, was martyred at Karbala in Iraq. Sunni and Shi’a alike respect Husain and consider him a great hero and saint. As a matter of fact, Husain has been recognized as one of the great heroes of history by non-Muslims a well through the centuries.

It is only the Shi’a, however, who commemorate the entire chain of events that led to his martyrdom. The first ten days of Muharram are devoted to this. The tenth day of Muharram, known simply as ‘Ashura’ (meaning ‘ten’) is the day of martyrdom, but the history of the massacre at Karbala is one that extends through the entire month, with particular focus on the first ten days.

It was during the first ten days of Muharram that Imam Husain, his family and his followers marched to Karbala. Ultimately, Husain and his companions were slain, and the women and children placed in chains and forced to march all the way to Damascus.

It is interesting to note that ‘Ashura’ always have been a day of special to all Muslims. It is considered to have been the day when God parted the Red Sea for Musa (Moses). Actually, it may have been a day that was sacred to the ancient Canaanites as well. ‘Asherah’ was the name of an ancient Goddess and her symbol was a tree stripped of all its branches, a wooden pole. These wooden poles were called ‘Asherah’ in fact.

The sacrifice of Attis, son of the Mother Goddess Cybele, occurred beneath a pine tree stripped of its branches. He sacrificed his manhood, then his life beneath the tree. His followers, commemorating his death annually, would scourge themselves and weep beneath an evergreen pine tree, and often the men actually would emasculate themselves. It was believed that by offering their manhood to the Goddess, their spiritual power increased.

This is a practice that can be seen in different civilizations throughout history. Many Native American tribes, in fact, believed that an individual who was ‘neither male nor female’ occupied a special position and was closer to the Gods than anyone else. The followers of Attis who sacrificed their manhood achieved a special status in the same fashion. This was not an insignificant cult by any means either. The Emperor Elagabalus or Heliogabalus was a follower of Attis and Cybele.

The sacrifice of manhood plays no part whatsoever in Islam, by the way, and yet can be seen elsewhere in the ancient history of the Arab Nation. The Egyptian tale of Osiris includes this element. After Osiris was murdered by his brother Set, his corpse was dismembered and thrown into the Nile. The Goddess Isis managed to retrieve every piece apart from his manhood. She then fashioned an artificial member for him and in the guise of a falcon impregnated herself by means of this magical organ. The issue of this union was Horus.

Another facet of the tale involves the evergreen. The coffin of Osiris floated upon the waters and finally washed ashore in Lebanon where it was held fast in an evergreen (The tree actually grew round it) Isis wandered the world in disguise in search of her lost consort and at last discovered his coffin in the tree.

The Tree of Life is a symbol that is universal of course, and the correspondence between the Sacrificed God or Hero and the Tree is universal is well. One of the most powerful combinations of the two is the Christian crucifix that shows the Sacrificed God nailed to the Tree of Life and Death.

The God Dionysus declared that he was the ‘living vine’ that had to be cut in order to be reborn. The fruit of the vine was considered a sacred drink. Jesus also compared himself to the vine.

The evergreen has become a very central symbol of Christmas. The tree is sacrificed by being cut, then is brought into the hose, where it is decorated with ornaments and lights. The symbolism is very clear. Out of death, new life. Out of darkness, new light is kindled. The evergreen is a beacon of hope in the midst of winter.

One hopes that these comparisons will not offend anyone. It is my contention that a tradition or symbol that has endured since the very dawn of time only is given more validity by its appearance in different religions or faiths.

The ‘Alam or standard pole is a potent symbol in the rites of Muharram. Each of the martyrs has his own standard or ‘Alam and throughout the first ten days of the month, as each falls in battle, his ‘Alam (and sometimes a coffin with a turban upon it) is the subject of contemplation and mourning. In fact, there is an ancient ritual whereby women are tied to the ‘Alam in order to pray for special blessings. One or two of the older women usually do the binding. Those who are ill or disabled are particularly encouraged to participate, but women often tie their infants as well to the ‘Alam for a moment or two in order to bless them.

In this respect, it is the ‘Alam of Hazrat ‘Abbas that is designated for this ritual. ‘Abbas was the young, handsome half-brother of Husain. He is called the ‘Water Carrier’ often because he was martyred as he attempted to bring water to the camp, after three days of an ordeal where every member of Husain’s party went without food or drink. He was 34 at the time of his martyrdom.

The character of ‘Abbas is of particular significance if one traces the ritual back to ancient times and to other ‘sacrificed heroes’ like Dumuzi, Tamuz, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus and Osiris.

One of the most ancient tales is that of Dumuzi. He was a ‘shepherd king’, consort of the Great Goddess Inanna. She voluntarily went to the Underworld and sacrificed herself in order to gain wisdom. When at last she wished to return to earth, her twin sister, ruler of the Underworld, insisted that someone else take her place below. Her consort Dumuzi had demonstrated no sadness at her absence and evidently had been quite happy to assume her position on the throne indefinitely. Inanna therefore chose him as her surrogate for the Underworld.

Dumuzi, rather than accepting his fate bravely, chose to flee. He hid in a field of reeds and was found there and dragged, kicking and screaming into the Underworld. He then was condemned to spend six months of each year in the Underworld and allowed to emerge to live on the Earth during the other six months.

It is an ancient fertility tale, much like the tale of Persephone, and one that explains the passage of the seasons. During the months when the young God is condemned to the underworld, plants die and the earth is in mourning. When he emerges again, the seeds sprout and life flourishes.

There are very few similarities between Dumuzi, Attis and ‘Abbas in terms of their characters. ‘Abbas is extolled for his incredible courage and loyalty, and never demonstrated any desire to escape from his destiny.

The mourning of Hazrat ‘Abbas is particularly intense. It is his beauty, his courage, his selfless loyalty and his youth that are extolled. Cut down like a flower in its prime, however, he is mourned with the same fervor as the deaths of Attis, Adonis, Tammuz or Christ has been mourned though the ages.

There are a number of tales about ‘Abbas. He was the half-brother of Husain and it is said that his father ‘Ali prayed for a son to help his other son Husain in the future battle of Karbala. It is said that ‘Abbas as an infant did not open his eyes until his half-brother Husain took him in his arms. Thus, his first sight was the face of Husain.

Abbas is the quintessential loyal retainer. Although he was Husain’s brother, and of equally noble birth, he considered himself to be his brother’s servant. Another tale demonstrates this. When ‘Abbas was very young. Husain asked another retainer for water. ‘Abbas said, ‘I will bring the water for my master myself.’ Husain gave him the title ‘Saqqa’, ‘Water Carrier’.

This of course served as a premonition of Karbala as well, when Husain as well as everyone in his party would thirst and hunger for three days and nights. Of the events of Muharram, it was because Husain would not pledge his allegiance to an unjust and oppressive ruler that he was pursued and killed. Husain was not a politically ambitious man. It was his lineage as grandson of the Holy Prophet that forced him into the world of politics. In fact, although he refused to pledge his loyalty to Yazid, he had declared that he would not contest the ruler ship but would be willing to retire with his family and followers to another land. Yazid ibn Muawiyah felt that Husain as grandson of the Holy Prophet always would be a threat to him.

The city of Kufa sent a messenger to Husain begging for his help. Husain left Medina and planned to travel to Kufa, but Yazid’s forces pursued and intercepted the small party, and they were diverted to Karbala, a place that was a few miles from the Euphrates.

There is a tale about this as well. Evidently, prior to Muharram, Husain and his party had been camped at the Euphrates, between the enemy forces and the source of water. Husain graciously agreed to allow the enemy forces to procure water, declaring that their fight should not be about water, but about principles.

On 2nd Muharram, Husain’s party reached Karbala. By 7th Muharram, their supplies of food and water were exhausted, but Yazid’s forces would not allow access to the Euphrates.

‘Abbas first was commanded to dig a well at Karbala. The attempt was unsuccessful, however. It was the women and children who began to suffer first as they were unaccustomed to hardships. On 10 Muharram, ‘Abbas finally received permission from Husain for a sortie to the Euphrates in order to obtain water at least for the children.

His prowess was unparalleled and he was successful in reaching the river as well as in filling the water bags, under constant assault by enemy warriors. On his way back to the camp, however, he battled even more fiercely. Fist one arm, then the other were cut by the swords of his enemies. According to the traditional tales, ‘Abbas then took the water bag in his teeth, determined to bring it back successfully to his little four year old niece Sakina.

As he continued to ride furiously towards the camp, an archer hit the water bag with a well-aimed arrow and the water leaked out. ‘Abbas himself was felled finally by the blow to the head with a mace. As he had no arms, he could not remain mounted and fell to the ground. Upon falling, he cried, ‘Ya Akkha! (On Master!)

Husain rode out to take his brother in his arms. ‘My brother, what have they done to you?’ he mourned.

Abbas responded. ‘Mawla (Master), you have come at last. I thought I would be condemned never to gaze upon your face one last time, but praise be to Allah, you are here. ‘He then said, ‘My master, I pray you will grant my last requests. First: When I was born, my eyes opened upon the sight of your beloved face. I pray that the last vision my eyes see is your face. There is an arrow in one eye and the other is filled with blood. I pray you will wipe away the blood so that I can see your beloved face once more before I die. Second. I pray you will not carry my body back to the camp. I promised little Sakina water, and having failed, I could not bear the thought even of facing her after death. Third: I pray that Sakina will not be brought here to gaze upon my body. I know how much she loves me and this sight would undo her.’

Husain promised that all his wishes would be fulfilled, then said, ‘I have a wish as well. Since childhood, you have called me Master. I beg that you will call me brother now, at least once before you die.’ With his dying breath, ‘Abbas murmured, ‘Husain, my brother, my Imam.’

Other titles given to ‘Abbas are Hero of al-Qamah’ and the ‘Moon of the Bani Hashim’. Al-Qamah is the name of the river Euphrates, and it was the Hashemite tribe to which both Husain and ‘Abbas belonged.

He was given the title of ‘Moon of the Bani Hashim’ by his farther ‘Ali after the battle of Siffin when ‘Ali fought against the father of Yazid. ‘Abbas, dressed in his father’s clothing and exhibiting the same fierce style of swordsmanship, was mistaken for ‘Ali. ‘Ali, appearing later on the battlefield, introduced ‘Abbas as the ‘Qamar of the Bani Hashim’ or ‘Moon of the Bani Hashim’.

Again, in many ways, the story of Abbas reflects a number of ancient traditions. Both his arms are cut off, in the same manner as the ancient ‘Asherah tree was stripped of its branches. His eye is pierced with an arrow. The ‘one-eyed’ God is one who sacrifices an eye in order to be able to see into the realm of the other world. The God Odhinn is an example of this.

‘Abbas, having no arms, carried the water bag in his teeth. The water is a symbol of life. There are stories throughout the world of heroes or Gods carrying a sacred or special drink in their mouths when forced by circumstance to do so. Odhinn, when he obtained the sacred mead Odhroerir, transformed himself into an eagle and carried the drink in his mouth back to Asgard. Odhroerir is the mead of ‘inspiration’.

‘Abbas bore the title ‘Alamdar’, which means ‘Standard bearer’. This is why the standard is important in rituals of Muharram. Those who ask themselves to be tied to the ‘alam are pledging their loyalty to the Ahlul Bayt, the family of ‘Ali’. That is the source of the term ‘Shi’a ‘Ali’ or ‘followers of ‘Ali’. Ali is the father both of Husain and of ‘Abbas.

The standard, however is a symbol of the tree of life and Death. During the last three days before ‘Ashura, people often pin charms and necklaces to the ‘alam for blessing. After’ Ashur, the charms and necklaces are returned to their owners, ‘blessed’ by the rituals of Muharram.

‘Abbas is not the main character in the drama of Karbala, however. The commemoration of ‘Ashura focuses rightly on Imam Husain.

Imam Husain was martyred on 10th Muharram, the day of ‘Ashura. He was the son of ‘Ali and Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Holy Prophet. He represented the issue both of the man named ‘Asadullah’ or ‘Lion of Allah’ and the beloved daughter of Muhammad.

Husain’s brother Hasan had signed a treaty with Muawiyah, allowing Muawiyah to reign during his lifetime. Hasan died (martyred), however, while Muawiyah still was alive, and Muawiyah proclaimed his own son Yazid as Caliph, attempting to assure his succession against the claims of the family of the Holy Prophet.

As stated previously, Husain had not been eager to enter into the political contest but when the city of Kufa begged Husain to come to its aid, Husain responded. Unfortunately, before Husain ever reached Kufa, the rebellion had been crushed and Husain’s party was surrounded and forced to march away from the river Euphrates to the desert sands of Karbala.

It is said that size of Husain’s party (in terms of fighters) numbered only 72 or 74 and that Yazid’s forces were between 3,000 and 4,000. It was a very unequal contest, and Husain’s party included his entire family, as well as the families of his supporters. There were many women and children at Karbala and all suffered the consequences of being denied access to the water of the Euphrates.

On the night before ‘Ashura, it is said that Husain spoke to his warriors and told them that, in view of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, the battle would result in certain death. He then offered each one the choice of fleeing under the cover of darkness. Not one accepted, according to tradition.

Imam Husain and his followers prayed fajr (the dawn prayers) the next morning on the sands of Karbala. They went to the front line and one by one, addressed their relatives and friends on the side of the enemy forces. Husain then addressed the enemy force and his speech was so powerful that one of Yazid’s generals named Hurr changed his allegiance and later that day was one of the first to be martyred in the battle.

Ibn Sa’ad, the enemy commander, fearing more defections, shot an arrow towards Husain and the battle of Karbala began, Ibn Sa’ad feared that this might be the first of many defections and therefore hurried to join battle. He shot an arrow towards Husain and the unequal battle began.

In visualizing the battle of Karbala or any other battle of the period, one must be aware of the fact that wars still included single combat between champions from each side. The supporters of Husain were the first to enter the battle and they died one by one, Husain’s family, members of the tribe of Bani Hashim, followed.

As with the ancient Celts and the Norse, warriors composed poems and recited them to the enemy before engaging in combat. These verses often contained references to the honor and nobility of the family of the warrior as well as praising the cause for which he fought. Some of the declamations of the heroes of Karbala are renowned for their beauty and passion.

Among the martyrs were Ali Akber, son of Husain, Qasim, son of Hasan (and nephew of Husain), and Aon and Muhammad, son of Husain’s sister Zainab. Their deaths are mourned and commemorated during the first ten days of ‘Ashura.

Of Husain’s other children, an older son ‘Ali who became the fourth Imam was too ill to leave his sickbed and therefore was forced to remain in the tent. Another son, Ali Asghar, was only six months old and close to death after three days without water.

Before he engaged in his last battle, it is said that Husain took his infant son Ali Asghar to the front lines and showed him to the enemy forces to beg for water for the women and children even if the enemy were to continue to deny it to the men.

An archer named Hurmala ibn Kahil, under orders from Umar ibn Sa’ad, delivered the enemy response by piercing the infant’s neck with an arrow. The baby died in his father’s arms. Tradition holds that Husain was so overwhelmed by the death of his child and the prospect of facing his wife that he paced back and forth across the sands of Karbala seven times, not being able to decide what to do. Finally, he buried the baby himself in the desert sand, believing that the mother would not be able to survive the sight of her child martyred in such a cruel fashion.

This ritual is re-enacted on the morning of ‘Ashura by worshippers during prayer. All those who attend the ‘Ashura morning ritual walk forwards and backwards very slowly at one point, remembering Husain’s agony.

There are two statements by Husain that form part of the ritual as well. One is a quote from the Holy Qur’an. ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ‘ilayhim rajioun” Qur’an 2:156. From Allah one comes and to Him one returns.’

The other is Husain’s tormented plea on the sands of Karbala: Is there any helper to help us? Is there any rescue to rescue us? (This, too, is a verse from the Qur’an).[1]

There are seventy-two martyrs of Karbala whose names are remembered.

During the first ten days of Muharram, Shi’a commemorates the events of Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala through elegy, special prayers and passion plays. Processions are organized to re-enact the tragic forced march of Husain’s grieving family to Damascus. In some countries, Husain’s horse Zuljanah is represented by a real horse. The ‘nakhleh’ or date palm litter is another object that is carried in processions to commemorate the martyrdom of Husain and the ordeal of his family. Shrines dedicated to Husain are carried as well in some traditions.

These processions re-enact the grim procession to Damascus. Husain’s head and the heads of some of his noble warriors were mounted on spears and carried in a procession while his family in chains was forced to march behind them.

Another tradition of Muharram is that of ‘matam’ or ritual mourning. Mourners of both sexes beat their chest and weep. During elegiac songs that honor the martyrs, the congregation will beat their chest slowly and rhythmically, while chanting ‘Ya Husain.’ Other chants accompany matam as well. Abbas and Sakina are subject of many of these elegies and chant of ‘Ya Abbas’ accompanies the appearance of the ‘alam’.

Coffins or martyrs shrouds often are decorated lovingly with red roses and brought into the mosque .Those who volunteer as pallbearers are considered to be particularly blessed and as the coffins is taken through the crowd, mourners will touch it as it passes, and all are encouraged to weep. I do believe that one of the weaknesses of ‘Western culture’ is the stifling of natural sorrow. Those who participate in the matam rituals are able to express all the sorrow and loss they ever have experienced in life and to offer it to God. There is nothing selfish or self-indulgent about this ritual sorrow. It is a pure expression of grief offered to the Creator.

Tears are an offering of love. In one sense, tears are the ‘water of life’ and during Muharram the tears of a devout worshipper are a symbolical offering to those who were denied food and water for three days in the desert of Karbala.

In traditional Arab culture, any death is allotted a forty-day period of mourning. After that, the bereaved are able to resume their ordinary lives, but they are not called upon to pretend that the loss has not occurred. In fact, during that period of mourning, all of society recognizes their loss. People need a mourning period. Without it, the loss festers in the heart and soul and can affect an individual for years.

In any case, the practice of matam is an ancient one, mirroring the ancient rites of mourning for Tammuz and Adonis. In ancient times, women in particular would beat their chest (breasts) and tear their clothing, even lacerating their cheeks with their nails. The tablets found in Ras Sharma describe ritual mourning of this sort for the slain God Ba’al.

Among the Shi’a the women basically confine their physical acts of grief to the act of beating their chest (breasts) and weeping. Men sometimes will use scourges of whips and even cut themselves with blades. This, too, is a very ancient practice and it is not restricted to this religion.

Christianity has its own traditions of ‘mortification of the flesh’ and sacrifice. There are countries even now where men volunteer to be crucified during Holy week, Processions of mourners who wept, used scourges and other forms of self-sacrifice were common in Christianity during the medieval period and still occur in some places.

Although some people may believe these practices to be ‘uncivilized’, ‘primitive’ or otherwise less than desirable, there is nothing wrong with the ritual expression of grief. It has been demonstrated that ritual scourging actually can facilitate a higher state of consciousness, which is one of the reasons it is found in many cultures throughout the ages. In Scandinavia, scourging with birch twigs is a health practice that accompanies the use of saunas. When linked to a spiritual ritual, it can be a powerful experience that liberates and brings one nearer to true ‘Ecstasy.’

Obviously, this sort of ritual is not for everyone, but it would be a mistake to condemn these practices. The performance of matam can be extremely beautiful and poignant. One actually becomes a part of the historical battle of Karbala, living through the sacrifices of the companions and family of Husain.

One of the most powerful images of ‘Ashura is the white horse of Husain. Named ‘Dhuljannah’ or ‘Zuljannah’, the horse bore Husain to the final battle. The white horse always has been a symbol of freedom and courage, of great nobility and purity. For a warrior like Husain, his horse would have been a companion and friend and he would have regarded its welfare highly.

The horse of Husain appears in many re-enactments of ‘Ashura as well as in the elegies that are recited. It is difficult to express the emotional nature of these elegies simply in words on a page.

Here is an example of a recitation during Muharram:

“As he prepared to mount Zuljannah for the last time, Husain spoke to his brave horse: ‘Zuljannah, my faithful horse, I know that you are thirsty, as we are ourselves thirsty. I know that you are weary. You have born the burden of carrying the bodies of our beloved martyrs back from the battlefield since dawn.

My faithful Zuljannah, I ask you to take me one last time to the battlefield. I will not trouble you after that. Please, let us go now, my faithful horse.’

The horse instead turned away from Husain and looked down towards the ground. Husain looked as well and saw his four year old daughter Sakina clinging to the legs of Zuljannah.

Sakina was weeping. ‘O horse! Do not take my father away. No, horse! Please do not take my father from me. I know you will not bring him back if you go now. Since dawn, whoever has gone into battle has not returned. Please, horse, do not take my father! I will not be able to live without him. Please, horse, please!’

Husain embraced his daughter one last time, and begged her to allow him to do his duty. He sent her back to her mother and aunt. He mounted his faithful horse then and went into battle for the last time:’

Whoever recites these elegies always will do so with great passion. Weeping as they paint the picture of the battle of Karbala in words. It is the timing, as well as the gradual increase in tension as each event is described leading to the final sacrifice, accompanied by the weeping of the reciter and those who listen, that lend power to the recitations.

It is the day of ‘Ashura itself that is the most emotional of all. Those who have attended the commemorations of the preceding days know the end of the story and yet await it with a mixture of dread and a sense of being privileged to participate in this incredible tale of courage and sacrifice.

Prayers begin in the morning with the ‘Amaal of Ashura’. Many people will stay at the mosque throughout the day and the evening. Participating in all the rituals. It is at 3.00 p.m. that the death of Husain occurs but the humiliation and suffering of the survivors of Karbala, especially the women, and their courage and steadfastness is remembered in the evening.

The Shi’a have a saying: ‘Kullin yowmin ‘Ashura: Kullin ardin Karbala’. ‘Every day is ‘Ashura. Every land is Karbala’. The lesson of Karbala is a lesson for everyone. The example of Husain is an example of inspiration for the entire world.

The martyrdom of Husain at Karbala is not perceived as a political event as much as one based on moral and ethicalprinciple. Non-Muslims familiar with the tale recognize this as much as the Shi’a themselves.

Charles Dickens wrote; ‘If Husain fought to quench his worldly desires then I do not understand why his sisters, wives and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore that he sacrificed purely for Islam.’

Thomas Carlyle wrote. ‘The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Husain and his companions were the rigid believers of God. They illustrated that numerical superiority does not count when it comes to truth and falsehood. The victory of Husain despite his minority marvels me!’

Dr. K. Sheldrake wrote. ‘Husain marched with his little company not to glory, not to power or wealth, but to a supreme sacrifice and every member of that gallant band, male and female, knew that the foes were implacable, were not only ready to fight but to kill. Denied even water for the children, they remained parched under a burning sun, amid scorching sands yet no one faltered for a moment and bravely faced the greatest odds without flinching.’

In ‘Husain in Christian Ideology’, Antoine Bara wrote: ‘No battle in the modern and past history of mankind has earned more sympathy and admiration as well as provided more lessons then the martyrdom of Husain in the battle of Karbala.’

Finally, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: ‘I learned from Husain how to be wronged and be a winner.’

To me, this is the most powerful statement of all. Husain did not fight for revenge. He did not fight for himself or for his family, however justified that would have been. He fought for principle without hatred or malice towards his oppressors and yet, he steadfastly faced death and became a shining example of heroism to all people.

[1]These are not the verses of Qur’an – Editor.

 

 

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