By (Late) Syed Haider Husain Shamsi, MD
Affiliation: Columbia University
Husain bin Ali, the third of the Apostolic Imams was born in Medina on Shaban 3, 4 AH. The birth of his second grandson to his beloved daughter Fatima-Zahra made the Prophet very happy indeed. He named the new born child al Husain. He often took al-Husain and his older brother al Hasan with him wherever he visited.
It is well known that the Prophet used to carry his two grandsons on his shoulders, and he used to say that al Hasan and al Husain were the two princes amongst the youth of paradise, it is also quoted from him: “O Allah, befriend those who befriend them and be their foe whoever designs to hurt them.”
Specific to his grandson al Husain, he used to say: “Husain is from me and I am from Husain.” It can only be inferred from these quotes that they were not the utterance of a grandfather madly in love with the children of his daughter, but those of the Prophet of Islam about whom Allah says that His Apostle neither does nor utters anything that is not in accordance to His Divine Will.
Husain bin Ali had the good fortune to be with his grandfather for about six years before he died. Just as his father did before him, and along with his older brother Imam Hasan, Imam Husain also received the personal nurture from the Prophet of Islam. He was the fifth of the recipients of the Quranic Ayat-e-Tatheer. He was the youngest of the representatives the Prophet of Islam took with him at the Mubahila with the Christians of Najran. The significance of his nurture and representation must not be underestimated. He laid down his life along with that of his family and friends in defense of the Message of Islam.
After the death of his grandfather, al Husain grew up during the times of the first three caliphs and saw the way his father, Imam Ali conducted his affairs. When he was unanimously elected the caliph after the murder of the third caliph, ‘Uthman, al Husain actively participated in all assignments made by his father, whether in the mosque or be in the battlefield.
He manifested total obedience towards Imam Hasan during his brief caliphate, and helped him actively on whatever was required of him. He concurred with him over the truce with Muawiyah. He never raised his voice in the presence of Imam Hasan, and would not interject him when he was replying to questions by others or when preaching to his audience.
When Imam Hasan was dying from poison, he called his younger brother, al Husain to his bed side and passed the leadership of the faithful to him. Muawiyah was aware of this. Whereas he had a written agreement (which he violated freely) with Imam Hasan, he had no such binding with Imam Husain.
At this point Muawiyah declared his intention to have his son Yazid succeed him after his death. He started the campaign to recruit fealty for his son Yazid from all the prominent companions of the Prophet who were alive at the time. The Hashemite clan, led by Imam Husain refused to give their pledge of fealty to Yazid. However, he died in 60 AH and his son Yazid succeeded him to the throne.
After the death of his father, Yazid took this as his primary mission to either obtain the pledge of unconditional submission from the Imam or to have him executed. The Imam was aware of the character of Yazid. Having taken on the responsibility of preserving the true Faith, the Imam could not accept the (unjust) wicked ruler as his religious leader. He also knew that Yazid would stop at nothing short of having him killed for this. In fact Yazid had given specific orders to his cousin, Walid bin Uqba bin Abu Sufyan, the governor of Medina that if the Imam did not submit to his orders, he should be killed and his (severed) detached head be sent to Yazid for confirmation.
The Imam knew that Yazid would have him murdered at the very first opportunity. He was not prepared to accept a quiet death of oblivion. He decided to leave the relative comfort of his home in Medina and marched towards the holy sanctuary of Mecca on Rajab 28. 60 AH. He had wanted to stay there for prayers and ultimately perform Hajj. By Islamic law it is forbidden to hurt anyone in the vicinity of Makkah.
Upon arrival of the Imam’s group in Mecca, Sad Ibn Abi Waqqas, the governor of Mecca vacated his seat and rushed to Medina to send first-hand information to Yazid. Yazid replaced him with Umar bin Sa`id as the governor of Makkah, and again issued the same specific orders to have the Imam killed without further delay. Consequently, scores of assassins disguised as pilgrims swarmed the holy precinct of Ka`ba.
The Imam had received thousands of letters from Kufa, inviting him to come there and establish the righteous rule of Islam. Some of these letters were actually signed by respected companions of the Prophet and friends of the Holy Family. With that sized correspondence from Kufa, the Imam was duty bound to respond to the call from the faithful. This was, thus, the start of the fateful journey of the caravan of the Imam from Makkah towards Kufa. His long supplication in Arafat is the epitome of the sincerity in prayers and the exhibition of devout faith in the Will of Allah.
In order to size up the apparent support and to prepare the grounds to receive his caravan in Kufa, the Imam sent his gallant cousin Muslim bin Aqil to Kufa. Muslim hurried to Medina to pack for his long trip to Kufa, and took along with him two of his young sons, Muhammad who was only seven years and Ibrahim who was eight years of age. As Muslim arrived in Kufa, he was greeted by thousands of apparent supporters. He sent a letter to the Imam saying that indeed there was a large enough supporters who wanted the Imam to come and lead them on the Path of Righteousness.
It would appear that the thousands of letters that the Imam had received in Makkah was a wicked plot of Yazid. He dispatched Ubaidullah bin Ziyad to Kufa as the governor and to take charge of government from Nu`man bin Bashir. Ibne Ziyad had clear instructions to kill Muslim bin Aqil, and send his detached head to him for confirmation.
In the large mosque of Kufa, Muslim led the prayers with a huge congregation of apparent supporters. When he turned to face the congregation at the end of his prayers, he found just a handful of believers staying behind him. Alas it was too late to inform the Imam of the treachery of the Kufan plot. Muslim was unable to fight his way out of Kufa, and he was killed and beheaded. This was followed by the slaughter and beheading of both of his young children.
The Imam was in Makkah for about four months. He found that he could not perform his Hajj with safety, as assassins disguised as pilgrims were swarming within the holy precinct of Ka`ba. He decided that he would not have his blood spilled in the Holy Sanctuary. He only performed the Umra instead of the full rituals of Hajj, and started his fateful march towards Kufa.
Umar bin Sa`id knew the price of failure. His counterpart in Medina had failed to kill the Imam, or to prevent him from leaving Medina. He sent Yahya bin Sa`id to stop the Imam from leaving Mecca. However, he was unable to stall or stop the Imam who continued his journey towards his planned destination.
While he was well on his way, he learnt of the martyrdom of his beloved cousin Muslim bin Aqil. At that point, there was no turning back for the Imam. He decided to continue his march to face his destiny. Just before the approach to Kufa he was met by the army of Ibne Ziyad who caused this caravan to be diverted towards the desert of Karbala.
It was in this wilderness that this little caravan of the righteous Imam was deprived of their basic human rights to food and water in the desert heat, to their right of choice of their religious practices, and to their right of safe passage out of the oppressive regime of Yazid. They were denied access to any support from their well-wishers, and were instead encircled by a massive army of professional soldiers and were ruthlessly slaughtered in the desert of Karbala on Muharram 10, 61 Hijra.
After the blood bath, the martyrs were beheaded and their bodies were run over by the mounted soldiers. The tents were put to flame and the belongings of the survivors looted. The rag tag caravan of the survivors was then led to Kufa. Ibne Ziyad, played safe by diverting the caravan towards Damascus via a less frequented route, lest there be reprisals from believers who learnt of the massacre.
Despite the extreme odds the Imam Husain had faced in this confrontation, his strategy did not let this event emerge in the history as merely quelling of an insurgence from a dissident group against the power of the ruler of the time. Instead, he laid down the lives of his family and friends as sacrificial offerings whose blood was spilled on the hot desert sand for no political ambition.
The survivors after the blood bath consisted of Imam Ali Zainul-Abedeen, the sick young son who was unable to go out in the battle-field, but now had to assume the role of leadership, bound in shackles and hand-tied; Zainab binte Ali, the sister of the Imam; the widowed ladies and a (group) bunch of children. The courageous captives were neither silenced by the force of the army nor by the pain of the massacre of their loved ones had they just witnessed, but continued to introduce themselves at every stop of the caravan and in the court of Yazid in Damascus. Whereas some members of this little army of the righteous had fought in the battle-field with sermons and sword, the captives continued their mission by educating the masses by eloquent sermons that rekindled life of faith in the dead conscience of the Muslims of the time.
Whereas the kingdom of the tyrant is long gone, the candles of Faith left burning by the Imam and his companions enlighten the conscience of Islam each time this story is told and retold. The annual commemoration of this event with energy and commitment by the devout believers that has survived through centuries despite the forces of oppression is our divine miracle. The believers continue to take out processions to demonstrate against tyranny, injustice and oppression against the bearer of the Truth. They congregate in gathering places and retell the painful story of the struggle between vice and virtue. They deny themselves comfort, food and water to relive the pain and suffering of their beloved Imam, his family and his friends.
It must be stressed that this commemoration is not an exclusive ritual of the Shiite Muslims but of all those who believe in the Rights of the Righteous and the Truth in the Message of Islam. It would not be inappropriate at this juncture to state that the force of evil that unleashed such atrocities and torture on a small band of the righteous about fourteen centuries ago, are still present among us to this day. It is therefore necessary to continue this survey of those wrong doing year after so that the purpose of the supreme sacrifice of Imam Husain and his companions does not get diluted with indifference to decadence, but remains alive and the lessons learnt through this remain as our guidance throughout life.