“The tyrant dies and his rule ends, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” — Soren Kierkegard
The straight path or the right path is always the most difficult one to travel but one that rewards the most, and so we are told when young. This battle of good versus the evil is an age old phenomenon. Every religion has some story or the other to show us the right path from the wrong one. Hinduism celebrates the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakasura (among other stories) as Diwali, Christians remember the crucification of Jesus Christ as a supreme sacrifice in the way of God, and so do Muslims observe Moharram (the month in which the tragedy of Karbala took place) to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet [PBUH].
“Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord.—Surah Aal-e-Imran (Chapter 3), Verse 169
The tragedy of Karbala took place some 50 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] in 61 Hijri (AD 680).
The Events Leading Up To Karbala
The Muslim Caliphate briefly came to Imam Hasan (elder grandson of the Prophet [PBUH]) after the martydom of Ali bin Abi Talib (son-in-law of the Prophet [PBUH] and the Fourth Caliph of Islam). Sensing a possible split in the Muslim empire Hasan entered into a peace treaty with Amir Mu’awiyah, the son of Abu Sufyan and father of Yazid.
“Hasan agreed to relinquish all authority to Mu’awiyah in exchange for an agreement not to harm any of the supporters of Ali, and to govern by the book of God and the examples of the Prophet. This he would do by letter and by word, explaining to the congregation in the Kufa mosque that he had ceded his right to rule for the best interest of the community and for the sake of sparing blood. Mu’awiyah acknowledged that the reign would belong to Hasan after him (though this would soon be quietly forgotten) and that to avoid all future strife the next Caliph was to be decided by a formal council.
—The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad and the roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism, Barnaby Rogerson
All the first four Caliphs had first been acclaimed by the people of Medina but this right and duty had now been brushed aside in favour of the courtiers at Damascus. The solemn pledge to hold a ‘shura’ was broken. None of the previous Caliphs had thought to impose their own sons on the community, and had looked beyond the narrow loyalties of a family, towards their brother in faith. When Mu’awiyah died, Yazid was acclaimed as the Caliph. It marked the decisive emergence of dynastic monarchy triumphing over the religion of God.
The moment Yazid came to power he started demanding the oath of allegiance (bay’ah) from everyone using unfair means. Paying allegiance was an old Arab practice which was carried out in important matters such as that of rulership and authority. Those who were ruled, and specially the well known among them, would give their hand in allegiance, agreement and obedience to their king or the one in authority and in this way would show their whole-hearted support for his actions without any opposition to him. The approach of Yazid was proof enough of the kind of Muslim he was. He showed complete disregard for the tenets of Islam.
*Ibne Aseer (A renowned historian Allamah Ali bin Abil Karam more famous as Ibne Aseer Jazari) in his Tareekhe Kamil has this to say for Yazid, “Yazid was notorious and well known for his love of numerous musical instruments, passion for hunting and play with young boys, dogs, monkeys, etc. Every morning he rose still drunk. His monkeys and young boys wore gold caps. If a monkey died, he spent a considerable time in mourning it.”
“Traditions inform us that Yazeed loved worldly vices, would drink, listen to music, kept the company of boys with no facial hair, played drums, kept dogs, making frogs, bears and monkeys fight. Every morning he used be intoxicated and use to bind monkey with the saddle of a horse and make the horse run.”
—Al Bidayah Wal Nihayah, Ibn Kathir
Yazid’s message was delivered to Imam Husain as well but he said a firm no. Acknowledging Yazid’s authority by the Prophet’s [PBUH] grandson at this point would have meant confirmation of his evil deeds and Caliphate. For Yazid, Husain’s seal of approval was the one most needed.
*Abul Hasan Ali bin Husain Mas’oodi in his Muroojuz Zahab wa ma’adinul Jawahir reported, “Whoever accepted the slavery of Yazid by swearing fealty at his hands was spared, otherwise he was subjugated. Thus the meaning of allegiance to Yazid was not merely the acceptance of a new caliph, but it meant to sell one’s Religion and faith in slavery to a tyrant.”
The Kufans urged Husain in Medina to ride north and lead them against the usurpation of the Islamic world by Yazid, and to reclaim his rightful place as the head of the Muslim nation. Husain, encouraged by the chief men of Medina, decided to respond and rode out of the oasis to assume the leadership of the true army of Islam. But not a soul left the garrison city to join him on the desert trail. The Kufans too would betray him! When Husain settled at a land devoid of water or vegetation named Karbala (‘Karb’ in Arabic means grief and ‘bala’ is for trials) he had just 72 loyal soldiers with him.
Battle For Truth
The battle of Karbala finds great similarity with the one at Badr – Islam’s first battle. It was the holy Prophet [PBUH] at Badr who fought with 313 die-hard supporters against a formidable army of some 1000 men. That day against all odds the small group won a decisive victory, and paved the way for a future Muslim empire. 56 years later it was his grandson with just 72 loyal men, who fought against an impossible opposition of several thousands to save Islam from the clutches of tyranny.
Karbala was a battle of truth against falsehood, humanity against villainy, righteousness against evil, justice against corruption. The much loved grandson of the Prophet [PBUH] stood in the scorching heat of Karbala along with his companions, devoid of water but determined. His loved ones, including his six month old son, fell martyr one after the other. In spite of this he repeatedly invited the other party towards righteousness and forbade them from evil and immorality, but it all fell on deaf ears. When the time arrived for him to march ahead all alone, he did it in a fashion which was reminiscent of his illustrious father Ali.
One of those who fought the battle of Karbala against him says, “I have never seen a person bereaved of his sons, menfolk and his companions more Lion-hearted than him. The foot soldiers were scattering to his right and left like goats when a wolf come upon them.” —–Ibne Aseer, Tareekh Kamil
Husain fell in the desert of Karbala on that fateful Friday, the 10th of Moharram 61H. Worse was to follow. The bodies of the martyrs including the Imam were not only refused a proper burial but were trampled under the horses’ hooves and were left for the birds. The Kufan army looted the belongings of Husain. Imam’s family including his women-folk and tender children were humiliated and taken captives after burning down their camps. The women were paraded with uncovered heads. It wasn’t Islam!
“If Hussain 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.—Charles Dickens
The severed heads of the martyrs including Husain were raised on spears. How Yazid played with Husain’s head and the emotions of Imam’s family is a well documented fact. Karbala to this day remains a heart-wrenching story of exemplary courage and bravery to uphold the real principles of Islam.
“In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Husain will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.—Edward Gibbon
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the famous English translator of Qur-‘an, has beautifully summed up the whole essence of this epic battle.
There is of course the physical suffering in martyrdom, and all sorrow and suffering claim our sympathy, —- the dearest, purest, most outflowing sympathy that we can give. But there is a greater suffering than physical suffering. That is when a valiant soul seems to stand against the world; when the noblest motives are reviled and mocked; when truth seems to suffer an eclipse. It may even seem that the martyr has but to say a word of compliance, do a little deed of non-resistance; and much sorrow and suffering would be saved; and the insidious whisper comes: “Truth after all can never die.” That is perfectly true. Abstract truth can never die. It is independent of man’s cognition. But the whole battle is for man’s keeping hold of truth and righteousness. And that can only be done by the highest examples of man’s conduct – spiritual striving and suffering enduring firmness of faith and purpose, patience and courage where ordinary mortals would give in or be cowed down, the sacrifice of ordinary motives to supreme truth in scorn of consequence. The martyr bears witness, and the witness redeems what would otherwise be called failure. It so happened with Husain. For all were touched by the story of his martyrdom, and it gave the deathblow to the politics of Damascus and all it stood for.
Lessons From Karbala
Karbala stands for courage, self-sacrifice, integrity, honesty, vision, and bravery beyond words. It symbolises all that is pure and true. Karbala teaches us that real battles are always fought in the minds and not on ground. Yazid was powerful and yet he lost the battle for truth.
“I learned from Hussain how to be wronged and be a winner.—Mahatma Gandhi
Also, being in the majority need not necessarily make you right.
“The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Hussain 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 Hussain despite his minority marvels me! —Thomas Carlyle
As the old adage goes, “Nothing lasts for ever.Husain and his followers made sure that their martyrdom gave a fatal blow to Yazid’s oppressive rule. Karbala haunted Yazid till his eventual death two years later.
“Imam Husayn uprooted despotism forever till the Day of Resurrection. He watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, and indeed he awakened the sleeping Muslim nation. Husayn weltered in blood and dust for the sake of truth. Verily he, therefore, became the bed-rock (foundation) of the Muslim creed; la ilaha illa Allah (There is no god but Allah).—Sir Muhammad Iqbal
It also teaches us to be patient and stand up against any form of wrong treatment. We curse Yazid and his army for their inhuman treatment of people, yet the cruel treatment of captives by the so called jihadis meets little protest. Muslims must recognize and protest against the savagery of inhuman treatment at all times, no matter who does it and where it takes place.
“If a man kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein (For ever): And the wrath and the curse of Allah are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him.”— Surah An-Nisa (Chapter 4), Verse 93
The best homage that we can pay to the great tragedy is to do some soul-searching. Do we have the right to be called the followers of the Prophet [PBUH]? Have we really understood the message of Imam Husain? Are the tears for Husain drawn merely by the scenes of mere butchery? Would we ever stand up to the false narrations of the events at Karbala by some maulanas to generate excessive grief? Was Karbala a political war or a struggle for true faith? Are we ready to shed aside our differences and respect each others’ view during our religious discourses during Moharram?
And when we finally have all the answers then we would understand the real message of Karbala.
“Shah ast Hussain, Badshah ast Hussain,
Deen ast Hussain, Deen e Panah ast Hussain,
Sar dad, na dad dast, dar dast-e-yazeed,
Haqaa key binaey La ila ast Hussain”
“It’s Hussain the Prince, it’s Hussain the king,
He is Faith, and Faith’s Defender most daring,
He preferred death to Yazid’s allegiance,
With his blood, Islam has verily been living.
—Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti
*Taken from Nafasul Mahmoom, Haj Shaikh Abbas Qummi
Photo: Imam Hussain Shrine, Karbala