By: Dr. Bashir Datoo
The contemporary world, its socio-political structure and civilizational growth, owe a great measure of gratitude to sacrifice and leadership of a few people of yore who have left indelible foot prints on the sands of time. Imam Hussain’s name stands out among these people as one whose supreme sacrifice against ignorance, tyranny and oppression, and to uphold human rights, truth and justice will never be forgotten from human memory.
Who is Imam Hussain ? He is the grandson of Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, son of his daughter Fatima and his cousin Ali, and the Third Imam of the Shi’a, from amongst the Twelve Imams.
Surmising on the rise and breakdown of societies and civilizations in his great work, A Study of History, Professor Arnold Toynbee concludes that societies and civilizations develop under the guidance of a very small group of leaders. He observes that when a society deteriorates and it seems that it is beyond any hope of reform, God chooses to send “His vicegerent”, who in behavior and conduct displays His qualities and virtues; it appears to human eye “as if God Himself had descended on earth in the garb of man”, to redeem humanity from the darkness and chaos. Hussain, Professor Toynbee writes, is one of these vicegerents of God, sent to dispel ignorance and to reform society of that time in history.
Moral and Criminal Transgressions
Deviations from the norms and practices of pristine Islam began in earnest less than two decades following the demise of the Prophet in 632 CE. It occurred during the reign of the third Khalifah, Uthman b. Affan, who was from the Umayyad clan. The situation further deteriorated when the Umayyads established their dynasty in 661 CE, specifically during the imamah of Imam Hussain when Muawiya b. Abi Sufyan and his son Yazid became the first two dynastic rulers. The Umayyads were later and reluctant converts to Islam and their goal was to use the cover of Islam to pervert the religion and rehabilitate their pre-Islamic values and privileges.
Injustice: The Umayyads made a mockery of justice as unjust measures were used against the perceived “enemies” of the regime. In a letter to all the judges, Muawiya wrote, “Do not accept the testimony of the followers of Ali [b. Abi Talib, the first Imam in the line of succession to the Prophet] or of their descendants in [your] courts”; in another letter to his officials, he instructed, “If you have evidence that someone likes Ali [b. Abi Talib] and his family, omit his name from the recipient of rations stipulated from the zakat funds [distribution of religious taxes].”
The inequity and injustice became so rampant that the 10th century historian Masudi opines, “In the Muslim ummah [community], Yazid was like Pharaoh among his subjects.”
Oppression: There was no safety or security of life and property especially for the devotees of the progeny of the Prophet. Thousands of them were killed and others were robbed of their means of livelihood. Muawiya instructed one of his commanders (Sufyan b. Awf al-Ghamidi) to “Kill whoever holds different views from ours; loot their villages and demolish their homes. Indeed, fighting them against their livelihood and taking their wealth away is similar to killing them but is more painful to their hearts.”
As had happened during the period of Uthman’s Khilafah, additional prominent companions of Prophet Muhammad, some of whom he personally certified as having attained higher levels of piety, were tortured or killed. Maitham at-Tammar, upon refusing to curse Imam Ali, had his limbs severed and his body nailed to the trunk of a tree; when he persisted in praising the Imam, his tongue was cut off. Hujr b. Adi al-Kindi and his associates objected to the cursing and were also against Muawiya’s rule, so they were indicted on trumped up charges of rebellion against the regime and disbelief in God; Muawiya gave Hujr and six of his associates a chance to win their freedom if they would only denounce Imam Ali, but they refused and were consequently beheaded.
Acquiescence or Indifference of the Muslim Community
Given that transgressions had become pervasive, it may seem surprising that there was no grass-root movement to challenge the Umayyad’s attempts to turn Islam into a political instrument to justify the actions of their regime. The regime perceived the real center of danger not to be any particular city or specific group within the Muslim Empire, but rather, the hearts and minds of the people that could give rise to revolutionary fervor. Hence, the regime sought in the name of God and the religion of God to propagate — with the active support of the religious clergy that had been won over with bribes or threats — two misguided philosophies that effectively preempted any effort to organize opposition to the regime.
One was the philosophy of hope. The proponents opined that whatever crime a person commits, be it a sin or treason, they must have faith and hope in Allah ’s mercy and forgiveness. Thus to condemn such a person before the Day of Judgment would be to judge him before Allah does. Briefly, then, they suggested suspension of judgment against erring believers. Another philosophy was that of determinism. The advocates maintained that whatever takes place in the universe is because Allah so Willed. Hence whatever one does, whatever choices one makes, whether virtuous or despicable, is the manifestation of Allah’s Will. In short, any criticism against the rule or power is a criticism of the Divine Will. These two philosophies had the disastrous effect of sapping the capacity of the people to rise in protest.
Imam Hussain’s Lone Stand
Among all the possible stakeholders that could conceivably mount opposition to the regime, Imam Hussain was the only one who was willing – nay, duty-bound — to respond to the Holy Qur’an’s call to action on behalf of the Muslim society as a whole.
The Imam’s dilemma was that he could not surrender to Yazid’s demand for an oath of allegiance to legitimize his authority. Yet he did not have the power to fight him militarily. He was all alone with no significant base of support. However, as the eldest surviving member of the progeny of the Prophet and the anointed Imam of the Muslim community, he was still responsible. For responsibility is born out of awareness and faith, not power or possibility. The post-Muhammad New Age of Ignorance was darker and scarier than the pre-Islamic Old Age of Ignorance. Giving lectures to re-educate the people would no longer suffice as deviations extended beyond a few individuals and permeated the entire society. The Imam had to choose a dramatic action to re-awaken the community.
Imam Hussain’s Mission Statement
Before Imam Hussain left his home town of Medina in Saudi Arabia to embark on his mission, he wrote a Will that he left in the custody of his brother. The Will contained a clear, concise statement of his mission. For the Imam did not wish history to misunderstand or misrepresent the purpose of his stand against Yazid, the new ruler of the Umayyad dynasty. The mission statement reads:
“I’m not rising [against Yazid] as an insolent, or an arrogant or a mischief monger or as a tyrant. I have risen [against him] as I seek to reform the ummah [community] of my grandfather [Prophet Muhammad]. I wish to bid the good [amr bil-ma’ruf] and forbid the evil [nahy’ ‘anil-munkar], and to follow the way of my grandfather and father [Imam Ali b. Abi Talib].”
The Imam first dispels the accusations that later-day historians might level against him. He denies that he is planning to lead a rebellion against Yazid. Rather, the Imam emphasizes that his purpose is to reform the Prophet’s community. Barely half a century had passed since the Prophet’s demise and the religion of Islam had become so distorted and diluted that there was a grave risk that the pristine religion would be completely replaced by the court religion.
Instruments of Reform
As the mission statement indicates, the instruments that the Imam planned to use to bring about the transformation of the society were those of amr bil-ma’ruf which is to enjoin good and nahy ‘anil-munkar which is to forbid evil. Now, these injunctions are typically applied at the individual level, with one Muslim exhorting another to the right path. However, given that the very foundation of the Muslim society had been seriously undermined, there was a dire necessity to apply these injunctions at the societal level, with one institution (imamah) that represents Allah’s goodness on this earth challenging another (kingship) that had become an embodiment of evil.
As a logical corollary, while the individual application of the injunction is done in private to protect the dignity of a Muslim whose actions one wishes to rectify, the societal application has to be done in the open to draw the attention of the whole community to the actions that one would like to stop. Muslims everywhere would then be inclined to implement fundamental Islamic obligations of enjoining good and forbidding evil. If these obligations are carried out in a concerted and coordinated manner by protesting against and refusing to abide by alterations in religious ideology and practices, the society can reform itself and once again become followers of true Islam.
Imam’s Unique Strategy for Reform
Imam Hussain opted for the unique strategy of sacrifice that would powerfully and effectively achieve his mission. It can be summed up in three words – “arousing the consciousness” of Muslims and in the process bring about a complete transformation of the society. This strategy is eloquently elaborated upon by Ali Naqi Naqvi (A Martyr for Mankind, trans. by S. Ali Akthar and I. K. A. Howard, London: Muhammadi Trust, 1986): “to revive in the people the capacity to feel, awaken in them the power to think for themselves independently, and restore to them the courage to give free expression to the dictates of their conscience.”
Imam’s Selection of Companions for Sacrifice
To succeed in his mission, it was not enough for Imam Hussain to sacrifice just his own life; he needed a “critical mass” of companions to lay down their lives to generate maximal impact on consciousness. When he left for Iraq, it is estimated that he had with him about 50 persons who could bear arms, 18 relatives and 32 others. The latter number grew during the course of the journey. The vast majority of the people who joined him though were motivated solely by economic considerations, the expectation of material benefits should the Imam be triumphant over Yazid.
Yet Imam Hussain made it abundantly clear that there were no gains to be had, only sacrifices to be made. His most poignant message to his entourage came when he received the news of the death of his emissary to Kufa in Iraq whom he had sent ahead of him at the invitation of that town’s residents. At that point, it became obvious to everybody that the Imam would not fight Yazid, so it was futile to stay with him in the hope of any worldly rewards. Many therefore left him.
Having pruned the ranks of his companions, Imam Hussain tested those who remained on the eve of the Tragedy of Karbala. His purpose was to do a final check of their steadfastness. His address is remarkable for its keen insights into human psychology. He first appealed to their reason – Yazid was only interested in his head, so they should leave him to his own fate. Next, he relieved them of their social responsibility – he absolved them from the oath of allegiance that they had sworn to him. When all else failed, he protected them from a sense of shame – he put out the light, so they could leave in the darkness of the night. Virtually all the historians who recorded this incident do not mention that any companion left.
Before the battle commenced on the day of Ashura, the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar in 680 CE, Imam Husain had purged his forces and tested the purity of the intention of his kinsmen and companions who still remained. They all passed the test when they, in their own separate ways, assured him that they had made their decision according to the voice of their conscience and took full responsibility for their actions. Some 110 of them sacrificed their lives along with Imam Hussain.
Importance of Place for Sacrifice
Imam Hussain did not wish to be killed in Medina where he was summoned by the governor to extract an oath of allegiance to Yazid. He left for Mecca, another town in Saudi Arabia, to be in the precincts of the Holy Ka’bah but left even as the annual hajj or pilgrimage approached since Yazid had sent assassins disguised as pilgrims. He thence left for Kufa but he did not wish to be killed there too because the governor, through bribes and intimidation, had melted down his support that his envoy had marshaled on his behalf. The Imam reasoned that if he were to sacrifice his life, it had to be for the benefit of Islam, so the cause for his death had to be publicly known and not shrouded in mystery.
The Imam was diverted to Karbala while en route to Kufa by a commander in Yazid’s army. Karbala was an ideal place to offer his sacrifice. It was a wide open field where he could starkly juxtapose truth versus falsehood, principles versus expediency, values versus whims and, above all, justice versus tyranny and oppression for all to observe and bear witness to his just cause.
Enduring Message of Karbala
The Tragedy of Karbala has been commemorated for over 1400 years with the same fervor year after year. Karbala resounds today and will continue to resound until the end of time. Thus the message of Imam Hussain and his stand in Karbala on the day of Ashura is relevant for all times and represents a perpetual call for constructive action.
America needs to know about Imam Hussain, the prince of peace, who sacrificed his life and the lives of his children and friends, to save humanity from the agents of hate and tyranny and oppression. The terrorists of our time are incarnation of the ignoble Yazid and his clan. Their barbarity – killing and beheading of victims in the name of religion is a repeat and reminder of what happened in Karbala. These terrorists of past and present have nothing to do with the peaceful message of Islam, according to which killing of one innocent person is like killing of whole humanity.