Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Karbala was the last breath of the age of faith. Very few historical events have shaped the language, culture, music, politics and sociology of Muslim peoples, as has Karbala. Languages such as Swahili and Urdu that were born a thousand years after the event relate to it as if it happened yesterday. A laborer in Kuala Lumpur reacts to it with the same immediacy as a qawwal in Lahore or a professor in Chicago. Karbala is a noun, an adjective and a verb all at once. Indeed, Karbala marks a benchmark in Islamic history and a central hinge around which the internal dialectic among Muslims revolves.

Until the assassination of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) the issue of succession to the Prophet had been decided through mutual consultation. Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r), Uthman (r) and Ali (r) (the Khulfa e Rashidoon as Muslims generally refer to them) drew their legitimacy from the consent of the people. The process was inherently democratic. Abu Bakr-as-Siddiq (r) specifically forbade the nomination of his own son as the Caliph after him, thereby avoiding dynastic rule. Omar ibn al Khattab (r), in his last will, nominated a council of six of the most respected Companions to choose his successor. The Companions were cognizant of the pitfalls of dynastic succession and the excellence of rule by consultation and consent. Theirs was the age of faith. The mission of the first four Caliphs was the creation of a just society, enjoining what is noble, forbidding what is evil and believing in God. In this struggle, they took extraordinary pains to ensure that their immediate families did not profit from their privileged positions.

Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan changed this process. Upon the advice of Mogheera bin Shoba, he nominated his eldest son Yazid as his successor. This was an historical benchmark. Rule by consent requires accountability. Rule by a strongman requires force without accountability. The nomination of Yazid destroyed the requirement for accountability. After Muawiya, Muslim history would produce sultans and emperors, some benevolent, others despotic. Some would declare themselves Caliphs, others would hobnob with Caliphs, marrying their daughters and offering them exorbitant treasures as gifts, but their rule was always the rule of a soldier. The transcendence of the rule of Tawhid and the accountability that went with it came to an end with the assassination of Ali (r).

Muawiya had wasted no time in extending his hold on the territories formerly held by Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) and Hassan ibn Ali. Iraq was in the juggernaut of Muawiya’s police force, so the Iraqis had no choice but to accept the imposition of Yazid. The province of Hejaz (which is a part of Saudi Arabia today and includes the cities of Mecca and Madina) was another matter. Respected personages such as Hussain ibn Ali, Abdullah bin Zubair, Abdullah bin Omar, Abdullah bin Abbas and Abdur Rahman bin Abu Bakr opposed the idea of a dynasty as contrary to the Sunnah of the Prophet and the tradition of the first Caliphs. To convince them, Muawiya himself traveled to Madina. A meeting was held but there was no meeting of the minds. Not to be deterred by this defiant rejection, Muawiya came out of the meeting and declared that the five had agreed to take their oath of allegiance to Yazid. According to Tabari and Ibn Aseer, Muawiya openly threatened to use force if his proposition was not agreed to. The ammah (general population) gave in. Only later was it discovered that the rumor of allegiance of the “pious five” was a ruse. The year was 670 CE.

Muawiya died in 680 CE at the age of seventy-eight and Yazid ascended the Umayyad throne. Of the “pious five”, Abdur Rahman bin Abu Bakr had passed away by this time. Abdullah bin Omar and Abdullah bin Abbas weighed the dire consequences of the ensuing fitna and decided that armed resistance to Yazid would be more harmful to the community than acquiscence to his rule. That left only Abdullah bin Zubair and Hussain ibn Ali arrayed against the rule of Yazid.
Upon ascending the throne, one of the first acts of Yazid was to order the governor of Madina, Waleed bin Uthba, to force an oath of allegiance from Abdullah bin Zubair and Hussain ibn Ali. Sensing the imminent danger to his life, Abdullah bin Zubair left Madina for Mecca under cover of darkness and took refuge in the Ka’ba, from where he could organize resistance to the tyranny of Yazid. Hussain ibn Ali consulted with his half-brother Muhammad bin Hanafia and moved to Mecca as well.

Those Companions of the Prophet and other Muslims, who believed that Ali (r) was the rightful Caliph after the Prophet were called Shi’ Aan e Ali (the party of Ali (r), which explains the origin of the term Shi’a. The term Sunni is of later historical origin). As is recorded by Ibn Kathir and Ibn Khaldun, these Companions were not entirely satisfied when Abu Bakr (r) was elected the Caliph. However, to maintain the unity of the community they supported and served Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r) and Uthman (r). When Hassan(r) abdicated in favor of Muawiya, many amongst Shi’ Aan e Ali withdrew from politics. While maintaining no animosity against the power structure, which was almost always hostile to them, they accepted the spiritual leadership of Ali’s (r) lineage.

Kufa had been the capital during the Caliphate of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) and members of Shi’ Aan e Ali were numerous in Iraq. Hussain ibn Ali received insistent letters from the notables of Kufa inviting him to Iraq and to accept their allegiance to him as the Caliph. As a first step, Hussain sent his cousin Muslim bin Aqeel on a fact finding mission. Muslim bin Aqeel arrived in Kufa and set up residence in the house of a well-wisher, Hani. The supporters of Hussain thronged this residence, so Muslim sent word to Hussain encouraging him to migrate to Kufa.

Meanwhile, Yazid dispatched Ubaidullah bin Ziyad, commonly known as Ibn Ziyad, the butcher of Karbala, to apprehend Muslim bin Aqeel and stop the incipient uprising. Ibn Ziyad arrived in Iraq and promptly declared that those who would support Yazid would be rewarded and those who opposed him would have their heads cut off. Greed and fear of reprisals did their trick. The Kufans made an about-turn and abandoned Muslim. He was attacked and executed by forces of Ibn Ziyad. Before his death, Muslim sent word to Hussain that the situation in Kufa had changed and that he should abandon the idea of migrating there. By this time, Ibn Ziyad’s forces had cut the communications of Hussain’s supporters, so the second message from Muslim never reached Hussain.

Unaware of the ground situation in Kufa, and against the advice of Abdullah bin Zubair, Hussain started his move from Mecca to Kufa in 680 with his family and supporters. He was a prince of faith and was impelled by a higher vision. On the way, news arrived that Muslim had been killed. According to Ibn Kathir, Hussain wanted to turn back but the demand for qisas (equitable retribution) from Muslim’s brothers prevented him. He did inform his entourage of the developments and urged those who wanted to return to do so. All but the very faithful, mostly members of the Prophet’s family, left him.

Undaunted, Hussain ibn Ali moved forward and was stopped by a regiment of troops under Amr bin Sa’ad at Karbala on the banks of the River Euphrates. A standoff ensued, negotiations took place and Amr bin Sa’ad communicated this to Ibn Ziyad in Kufa. But Ibn Ziyad would accept nothing short of capitulation and Hussain’s explicit baiyah (oath of allegiance) to Yazid. Sensing that Amr bin Sa’ad was reluctant to commence hostilities against the Prophet’s family, Ibn Ziyad recalled him and replaced him with Shimr Zil Jowhan. Shimr, a man without moral compunctions, surrounded the Hussaini camp and cut off the supply of water. The final confrontation came on the 10th of Muharram. (Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and the date is mentioned here because the 10th of Muharram has come to occupy a special place in Muslim history). Hussain, the soldier of God, who had drunk from the lips of the Prophet and was heir to the heavenly secrets from Ali (r), arranged his seventy two men in battle formation, advanced and met the forces of darkness. Each of the men was cut down and at last, the grandson of the Prophet also fell. His head was cut off and sent to Kufa where Ibn Ziyad mistreated it in the most abominable manner and paraded it through the streets. The ladies and surviving children in Hussain’s entourage suffered enormous hardships. Great tragedies throw up great personages. It was at this juncture in history that the leadership of Hazrath Zainab shone through. She consoled the survivors, saved the life of Zain ul Abedin ibn Hussain and proved to be the fortress guarding the dignity of Hussain’s household. The ladies and the children were first taken to Damascus and were then safely escorted back to Madina by some well-wishers. It was the year 680.

More Muslim tears have been shed for the blood of Hussain ibn Ali than any other martyr in Islamic history. Hussain’s martyrdom provided Islam with a paradigm for selfless struggle and sacrifice. For hundreds of years, generations would rise, invoking the name of Hussain ibn Ali, to uphold justice and to fight against tyranny. For some Muslims, it was the defining moment in Islamic history.

Hussain stood for faith and principle in the face of tyranny and coercion. In the person of Hussain, faith held its head high against the sharpness of the tyrant’s blade. Hussain was the embodiment of the Qur’anic teaching that humankind is born into freedom and is to bow only before the Divine majesty. Freedom is a trust bestowed upon all men and women by the Creator; it is not to be surrendered before the oppression of a mere mortal.

Karbala imparted a new meaning to the term struggle. Humankind must strive with patience and constancy in the face of extreme adversity. Comfort and safety are not to be impediments in the higher struggle for the rewards of the hereafter. Hussain did not give up his struggle even though he was abandoned by the multitudes that had offered him support. He did not surrender while facing insurmountable odds.

History is a jealous and demanding consumer. Time and again, it demands the ultimate sacrifice from the faithful, so that faith may renew itself. Karbala was a renewal of faith. Islam received an eternal boost from the sacrifice of Hussain ibn Ali. Faith had triumphed even while the sword had conquered.

Before Karbala, Shi’ Aan e Ali was a religious movement. After Karbala, it became both a religious and political movement. As we shall see in later chapters, the echoes of Karbala were heard again and again throughout Islamic history and imparting to it a directional momentum that persists even in contemporary affairs.

So great was the shock from Hussain’s martyrdom, that even Yazid sought to distance himself from the tragedy. Ibn Kathir reports that when he heard of the events of Karbala, Yazid wept bitterly and cursed the actions of Ibn Ziyad. But when we view the sum total of Yazid’s actions and his personal character, these were nothing but crocodile tears of a tyrant.

September 19, 2018, South Bay Islamic Association, San Jose, California
A call to declare Youm e Ashura as an International Day of Universal Justice.

Civilizations move forward when actions emanate from faith and are propelled by righteous action, with patience and perseverance. Imam Hussain was a personification of faith with righteous action.

This day is a commemoration of Youm e Ashura, a day that is indelibly linked with the earliest history of humankind, of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Musa, peace be upon all of them. It is the also the day of one of the greatest tragedies faced by the Muslim ummah, the tragedy of Karbala. Every tragedy is a sign from Allah. Every tragedy is a time for reflection. Every tragedy is a time for renewal.

We live in extraordinary times. We live in times when human progress is limited only by the speed of light and the human capacity to absorb change. On the one hand humankind has conquered space and contemplates the possibility of multiple universes. On the other hand, it stands at the precipice of self-destruction. There is more wealth today than at any time in human history. At the same time, there are millions who are hungry and destitute. The enormous wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. It is as if we live in a structure that is like an inverted pyramid, standing on its tip, ready to topple over at the slightest touch, or the movement of a single digit on the computer, as it almost happened with Y2K.

In this lopsided world, the condition of Muslims is even more tragic. Not since the Mongol invasions of the thirteen century has the world of Islam faced the devastations that it has faced in recent years. I have recently returned from a tour of Asia and I have never witnessed a sense of helplessness and outrage as I have seen this time. From the hapless Rohingya women in Myanmar to the orphans of Tripoli it is the same story. The land of the crescent moon is burning. Country after country is devastated. From Myanmar to NW Pakistan, Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Yemen, Horn of Africa to Libya it is one devastated land after another. Ignorance, illiteracy and dire poverty are rampant. People raise their hands up to the sky asking for heavenly deliverance and the appearance of a Great Helper.
In this world that is aflame what is the relevance of the tragedy of Karbala?
As the poet has expressed it beautifully in Urdu:

Qatle Hussain Asl Mein Marge Yazid Hai
Islam Zinda Hota hai her Karbala Ke Baad

The martyrdom of Hussain is in reality the death of Yazid
Islam is born anew after every Karbala.

Karbala stands out as an historical benchmark, a hinge around which the history of Islamic civilization revolves. The privilege that we have today, of reciting the Shahadat la ilaha il Allah, Muhammad Rasool Allah is because of the Shahada of Imam Hussain at Karbala.

History is a Sign from Allah. The Quran teaches us
Sa nureehim ayatina fil afaq, wa fi anfusihim, hatta yatabayyahahul haq
Soon shall We show them Our Signs on the horizon, and within their own souls, until it is clear to them that it is the Truth.

Allama Iqbal in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam interpreted Afaq, on the horizon, to mean Signs in Nature. The Qur’an offers us again and again lessons from nature and lessons from history to provide us guidance.
Those who are heedless of the Signs of Allah are annihilated. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

The historical context of Karbala is known to all of you. After the Battle of Nawahand at the time of Hazrath Omar, the great wealth of Persia fell into Muslim hands. As long as the towering personality of Hazrath Omar was there at the helm of affairs, the wealth was managed. But when Hazrath Osman became the Khalifa, some people took advantage of his goodness and shyness. Things went from bad to worse in the latter period of Hazrath Osman, resulting in his assassination. This was like the Big Bang of the Great Fitnah. It led to civil wars. Hazrath Ali tried to control the spreading fasad but he too was swept away by its whirlwinds and tasted shahadat. Amir Muawiya took over, the Islamic domains expanded from Pakistan to Spain but internal dissensions continued. Amir Muawiya changed the process of consultation, or Ijmah of the companions that had governed the selection of the Khalifa and forced his profligate son Yazid upon an unwilling ummah to succeed him. The oppression was so great that some well-known personages took refuge in the Kaaba. Only Imam Hussain took up the emblem of justice and stood up to the tyranny of Yazid. Upon the invitation of the people of Kufa, Imam Husain and his entourage moved towards Iraq but the perfidy of the people of Kufa and the dagger of Yazid’s forces intervened and Imam Hussain was martyred on the 10th of Muharram 680 of the Common Era. The household of the prophet, the ladies, faced untold hardships which brought forth the towering personality of Hazrath Zainab as the fortress that protected the dignity of the blessed household.

This is a broad-brush view of very complex events which I have documented in detail in the Encyclopedia of Islamic history, on the web site historyofislam.com. So, what are the lessons of this great tragedy for the Muslims of today, for whom every day seems to be a new Karbala, every week the onset of another tragedy, every month a fresh wave of oppression?

History is not a compendium of who did what to whom; it is a panorama of Signs from Allah through which we attain certainty of faith.

To benefit from the lessons of history, one must acquire knowledge. Knowledge is the basis of faith and faith is the foundation of a civilization. Where there is no faith, there is no civilization. To quote the great philosopher of the Maghreb, Ibn Khaldun, the pursuit of historical sciences is a useful endeavor because it illuminates the struggles of the Prophets and of the generations before us so that we learn from them.

So, what are the lessons of Karbala? The first lesson is faith. Allah subhanahu teaches us in the Quran:
Wal Asr, Innal Insane La Fi Qusr, il al Ladeena Amanu, wa Amilus Salihat, Wa tawasau bil haq, wa tawasau bis sabr.
By the passage of time, indeed humankind is at loss, except such as those who have certainty of faith and engage in righteous action, and work together to establish justice and support each other with patience and fortitude.

The life of Imam Hussain is an eloquent tafseer of this Ayat. He stood fast with his focus riveted on Allah in the face of adversity. Even as the blood flowed from his jugular vein, and he felt the sharpness of the tyrant’s blade, the words from his lips were la ilaha il Allah, Muhammad Rasool Allah. Muslims today face the heavy hand of tyranny, both internal and external. In the face of such tyranny, the lesson is to imbibe the example of the great mujahid, Imam Hussain, and hold onto faith in Allah. Trust in Allah. Tawakkul Al Allah. Faith is the raft that will take the Muslim ummah through the turbulence of modern-day oppression, just as did the ark that took Noah and his followers through the torrents of the Great Flood.
Second is Amalus Salehat, righteous action. Do what is right. Righteousness is conformity to God’s Law, both in intent and in deed. Righteousness is the outward manifestation of faith. It is the fruit of faith, and a fruit is the essence of a tree.

Imam Hussain had a choice. He could have given his Baiyat to Yazid and could have earned for himself a high position in the Umayyad hierarchy. But he did what was right.

Third, the central message of Karbala is justice, al Haq. Al Haq is an ocean in itself. It is inexhaustible. First of all, it is one of Asmaul Husna, the most beautiful names of Allah. It means Truth. It means justice. It means rights and responsibilities. It is an inexhaustible ocean. Imam Hussain stood for justice in the face of tyranny. Justice in this case meant due process, the process of ijma to elect a khalifa and to oppose the imposition of a wayward tyrant by his father. Imam Hussain stood for justice when Yazid demanded baiyat; he stood for justice when Yazid’s forces cut off their supply of water and even the children in the Imam’s entourage were thirsty for a single drop of water. He did not swerve from justice even when he felt the sharpness of the tyrant’s blade.

Imam Hussain’s message is for all the world and for all times. It is not just for the Muslims. Justice is an attribute of Allah. It is a universal longing in the human soul because it comes with the Ruh that is infused into the human at birth. In today’s tipsy turvy world, when the economic edifice stands on its head, as an inverted pyramid, when wealth is focused in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and millions are condemned to poverty, the message of justice resonates with every human heart. For Muslims, the Imam’s message takes on a special meaning as they are subject to double jeopardy. As human beings, they witness the economic exploitation of the many by the few. As Muslims, they are subject to tyranny from within and from without. People often ask: What can I do to change the world? The Imam provides a possible answer: Stand up for justice. The Quran teaches us:
Ya ayyuhal ladhina amanu koonu qawwmeena bil qist shuhadalillah. O you who have certainty of faith! Do stand firmly for justice, as witnesses before Allah.

Imam Hussain was a personification of this Ayat. When he stood on the battlefield in Karbala, he had only 72 followers with him. But he saw not just 72, he saw billions around him, he saw the generations to come until the day of judgement, he saw you and I, and said to these generations loud and clear: kunu qawwameena bil qaism shuhdalillah. Stand firmly for justice as witnesses before God. The imam was a Shaheed before he was a Shaheed. He was a martyr before he was a martyr. He is an example for all generations and for all times.

Wa tawasaw bis sabr. Tawasaw: work together. Reinforce each other. Reinforce each other in the pursuit of justice and truth. Muslims lost their leadership of the world when they swerved from their unity of purpose and started to work against each other. Imam Hussain was betrayed by the people of Kufa who invited him and then abandoned him. Muslims lost the battle of Plassey in 1757 because of the chicanery of Mir Jaafar. Muslims lost the Battle of Mysore in 1799 and gave the great subcontinent of India on a platter to the British because of the chicanery of Mir Sadiq. In a broader sense, is it not time to call it a day on the historical animosity between the Shia and the Sunni? Imagine that the presence of Imam Hussain is here with us, as it is by virtue of his shahadat. What would he say to the Muslims? Would he call them Shias and Sunnis? Would he not advise them to rise above the perceptions of history and embrace each other, as one Ummah standing before Allah, with kalma e la ilaha il Allah on their lips, following the Prophet, standing firm on justice for all.

And lastly sabr and tahammul, forbearance. Tahammul is a quality exhibited by Prophet Muhammad, Prophet Ibrahim, Prophets Musa and Isa. Imam Hussain stood like a rock against the mounting waves of adversity. First the people of Kufa abandoned him. Next, the forces of Yazid would accept nothing less than surrender. Third, water was cut off from his children. And finally, a showdown between 72 men and a host of 30,000. Never in history have so few stood so steadfast against so many in defense of justice.

Great historical events throw up great personages. Hazrath Zainab was one such person. After the shahadat of all the men, she assumed the mantle of leadership for the household of the Prophet. She was the pillar of support as the ladies were forced to march through the desert to Damascus. She protected the infant Zainul Abedin against a judgement from the tyrant that he should be killed. She spoke up, confronted the tyrants and protected the honor of the young ladies. Zainab (r) is an inspiration to all women, offering them an example of fortitude, courage, rectitude and honor in extreme adversity.

Imam Hussain was a reflector of the Light of Muhammed, an Noor e Muhammadi. When asked to describe the Prophet, Hazrat Aisha Siddiqa said that he was a personification of the Quran. If Muhammed (sas) was the personification of the Quran, as Moses was the personification of the Torah, Imam Hussain was the personification of faith, courage, patience, endurance and justice. He died a martyr almost 1400 years ago.

Throughout Islamic history, men and women have gone into battle invoking the valor of Ali and the shahadah of Hussain. The tears that are shed for Karbala cleanse and purify the great community of Islam, generation after generation. Karbala has become a metaphor in all languages spoken by Muslims -Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish, Malay, Swahili, English, German, French, Hausa and Mandinka alike. A taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur as well as the most sophisticated professor at Harvard understands it with immediacy.

Imam Hussein is a living symbol of the presence of heavenly attributes within us, the attributes of justice, truth, righteous action, patience, perseverance and justice.

Would it not be a fitting tribute to the memory of this great event if Youm-e-Ashura was commemorated as an international day of justice and people of all faiths and nationalities were invited to participate in it?