Tragedy of Karbala: Islam's defining moment
The battle of Karbala for all Muslims is of utmost importance - except for those who consider Yazid, son of Mu’awiyah as a legitimate caliph and the rebellion against him as ‘anti-Islamic’. It is universally observed though the way it is observed differs from sect to sect. Generally Sunni Muslims arrange for sermons on Islam as well as sermons on the events in Karbala. However, there is no weeping, crying or chest beating.
The Shi’ahs, on the other hand, not only deliver sermons for 10 days and not only cry loudly on the tragedy Imam Husain (A.S.) in Karbala but also beat their chest and in extreme cases they also beat themselves with chain or knife and injure themselves as their bodies are splattered with blood. They also take out in procession what is called ‘alam (i.e. the flag of Imam Husain) which his brother ‘Abbas carried in the battlefield of Karbala.
In the subcontinent there are various folk ways of observing the tragedy of Karbala. Muslims carry in procession what are called ta’ziyas (i.e. copies of the mausoleum of Imam Husain in Karbala). These ta’ziyas are of various sizes and shapes and some are really beautiful works of art. These t’aziyas are then taken to maidan-e-Karbala (vast open field); and kept there on 10th of Muharram, the day the battle took place and then these ta’ziyas are immersed in a nearby pond as something holy. Some people also walk on burning coals and consider this as a miracle. And many Muslims take vows that if their desire/prayer is fulfilled they will walk on burning coals.
It is also interesting to note that in India many Hindus also make ta’ziyas and this has been going on for centuries. Many Hindu rulers i.e. Rajas and Maharajas also observed this ritual and every year made ta’ziyas. Even ordinary Hindus do that and think doing that will make their lives secure and also that they will achieve their desire. There are also some towns and villages where there are no Muslims and yet Hindus take out ta’ziyas in procession.
Such is the popularity of Imam Husain among Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It is strange that in most of the Muslim countries except in Pakistan and Bangladesh which were once part of India, Muharram or ‘ashura is not observed. In 1981 I was in Cairo on 10th of Muharram and there was no observation of any kind and no public holiday either. When I asked one professor of Shams al-‘Ayn University about it he told me what is there to observe on yaum-e-‘Ashura? We only make a sweet and eat it with dinner on ‘Ashura and he invited me for dinner and offered the sweet. This tradition also began with the Fatimids who ruled over Egypt until 12th century A.D. and Fatimids were Isma’ili Shi’ahs. They must have of course observed ‘Ashura but that tradition must have been lost after the Sunni regime took over.
Causes of the battle of Karbala
Why the battle of Karbala assumed such great importance in Islamic history? Husain is invariably referred to as shahid-e-a’zam i.e. the greatest martyr. It is often said that but for his martyrdom Islam would have been wiped out from the world and there is truth in this. The great Sufi saint Mu’inuddin Chishti of Ajmer said in his ruba’I (a form of verse consisting of four lines i.e. a quartet “reality is that the very basis of la ilah (i.e. Islam) is martyrdom of Husain”
Why Imam Husains martyrdom is perceived as such? But for his martyrdom Islamic revolution would not have survived. We know that Islam was a great revolution with several far-reaching implications. First of all, it was a moral and spiritual revolution. Before Islam there was no moral and spiritual discipline, no concept of moral and spiritual accountability. Tribal customs and traditions were supreme and held sway. Also sexual morality was conspicuous by its absence. Also, there were several tribes and tribes were subdivided into clans and each tribe had different customs and traditions and even clans within a tribe fought amongst themselves.
For example Hashimites and Umayyads, both subdivisions of tribe of Quraysh and yet they were at daggers drawn from the beginning. The hostility between the two caused so much bloodshed in Islamic history and one of the causes of battle of Karbala was also this hostility. Yazid belonged to the clan of Umayyads and Husain to Hashimites. The prophet (PBUH) himself was a Hashimite and Imam Husain was his grandson.
Umayyads were not as committed to Islam as the Hashimites. Islam, as pointed out ushered in a moral and spiritual revolution among Arabs. It set spiritual and moral standards, strictly prohibited sex outside marriage and drinking and inebriation of any kind. Also, Islam was, though not against creativity and fine arts as it is generally thought but was against life of pleasure be it music for fun or poetry. Arabs were used to for centuries life of fun and pleasure what Qur’an refers to as lahw-o-la’ab. Their motto was to enjoy life and they did not follow any morality in life, not even secular morality.
Islam thus ushered in spiritual and moral revolution and bound the Arabs to certain spiritual and moral standards and made them take life seriously and also told them life is too precious to be wasted in mere fun and pleasure. It had definite meaning and told them through divine revelation what the meaning of life was. Islam also tried to mitigate tribal divisions and gave them the concept of universal brother and sisterhood rising above all sorts of divisions, including divisions of language, colour, ethnicity and nation (qaum).
Such a concept of morality and universal brother and sisterhood rising above all sorts of divisions was too difficult to practice and over and above this to bind themselves to moral standards they had never known. The Arabs were very proud of being Arab and looked down upon what they called ‘ajam (all people of non-Arab origin) and within Arabs they were too proud of belonging to their own tribe and clan and looked down upon Arabs of other tribes and clans.
The Arabs were also not very much interested in knowledge other than that of ansab (plural of nasb – their origin or roots). They took great pride in their origin and showed hardly any interest in knowledge - ilm . It was for this reason the Qur’an gave great importance to knowledge and prescribed as prayer “Lord! Increase me in knowledge”. The Qur’anic revelation also began by the word iqra’ (read or recite).
The word ‘ilm occurs more than 800 times in the Qur’an. The total number of words in the Qur’an are 77,701 which means the word ‘ilm is almost 10 percent of total number of words in the Qur’an. Most of the time it occurs after the word Allah, which occurs 2699 times. Thus Islamic revolution imposed on Arabs both importance of morality and knowledge. Arabs were used to neither of them and it required great discipline in life to practice both. Both knowledge and morality are closely inter-related and one is dependent on the other. One cannot be moral without proper guidance which can be obtained only through knowledge and hence the Qur’an has been described as “guide to those who keep their duty” (2:2)
There are two key words in the Qur’an for knowledge and morality i.e. hidayah and ittiqa i.e. guidance and being pious or keeping ones duty and since hidaya (guidance) is dependent on knowledge and knowledge comes through reading - qira’a . Thus we can say the two key words for knowledge and morality are iqra’ and ittiqa’ and Arabs were allergic to both. Islam gave them both knowledge and morality and both are needed for giving meaning to life and to raise life to a higher place.
The Umayyads were more attracted towards fun and pleasure and that is what Yazid indulged in. Thus Yazid captured power to lead life of pleasure and fun whereas in Islam power is meant for bringing spiritual and moral discipline and for imparting meaning to life. The Prophet (PBUH) never used power he had for personal benefit. He used it strictly for strengthening moral standards. Some of the harsh punishments in the Qur’an known as hudud laws were prescribed because these crimes were rampant in the then Arab society and it was necessary to checkmate these crimes which created anarchy in the society. It is a different thing that our ulama do not understand social conditions and prescribe these punishments as absolute one and as an end in itself. This does not seem to be the Qur’an’s intention.
The students of history know very well that it is easier to make revolution but very difficult to sustain it. Every revolution creates its own vested interest who capture power and ultimately defeat the very purpose for which revolution is made. Islamic revolution was no exception to this rule. Soon after the death of the Prophet many tribes rebelled and renounced Islam. The first Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr had to spend his time in bringing back these tribes back to the fold of Islam. It is known as war of riddah.
During second Caliph Hazrat Umar’s time Muslims from Jazirat al-Arab were mostly engaged in wars of conquests (futuhat) and hence there was no internal trouble. Also wealth was flowing in and people were by and large were happy but this accumulation of wealth in few hands caused deeper trouble in the time of the third caliph Hazrat Usman when Muslims were involved in civil war which resulted in great deal of bloodshed and some 70 thousand people were killed.
Thus any revolution causes much turmoil in society and always faces the danger of being undone. Islamic revolution, like other revolutions, was based, as we have shown in other pieces of writings on Islam, on the concept of justice. Justice is quite central to the value system in the Qur’an including economic justice for the weaker sections of society. Islamic concept of zakat was mainly meant for weaker sections.
Until the rise of Islam in Mecca and later in Madina, there was no government and no taxation. The tribal chiefs and other prominent members of the tribe of Quraysh had accumulated great deal of wealth and there was no taxation on this accumulation and hence when Islam gave concept of zakat they resented it. The issue in war of riddah was also mainly zakat. The tribes which rebelled maintained they are ready to accept Islam if no zakat is levied on them```
Thus Islamic revolution wanted to give priority to both social and economic justice and subject the Arabs to proper governance through the agency of state. The Arabs had not known any governance so far in their history. They had enjoyed complete freedom often resulting in anarchy. But when the state was established it created order and discipline on one hand, but also created race for political power to control the state. The civil war which broke out during third Caliph Hazrat Usman’s time was result of this race as Hazrat Usman was from the Umayyad clan and all key positions in the state were given to members of the Umayyad clan. This was resented by other clans and tribes.
Hazrat Usman could not act firmly against members of his own clan as he was also very lenient by nature and rebels ultimately assassinated him. Though Hazrat Ali was elected as the fourth Caliph (rather he was forced by the rebels to accept khilafat as in that condition of turmoil Ali was most reluctant to accept this great responsibility) and he also found it difficult to restore order as Mu’awiyah from Banu Umayyah was creating constant trouble and wanted to seize power from Ali.
Ali thus had to fight three battles – the battle of Camel, the battle of Siffin and abattle against the Kharijites (secessionists). Ultimately Kharijites assassinated him inside the mosque in Kufa. Though Imam Hasan, elder son of Hazrat Ali was elected as next Caliph by the people of Kufa, Mu’awiyah did not let him rule in peace. He forced him to abdicate in his (Mu’awiyah’s) favour and ultimately got him poisoned through his wife Ja’dah.
Now way was clear for Mu’awiyah to capture absolute power without any rival and he proceeded to nominate his son Yazid as his successor. This nomination was in gross violation of Islamic teachings and practice in last 30 years after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). Moreover, it was a condition stipulated in the abdication document that Mu’awiyah would consult Muslims in appointing his successor. However, Mu’awiyah in violation of this condition appointed his son Yazid.
It was not only violation of conditions of abdication but also Yazid was notorious for bad character. He used to drink publicly and ridiculed prohibition for drinking and would say if it is prohibited in Islam it is allowed in Christianity and I drink as per teaching of Christianity. Yazid’s mother was Christian. He was also very fond of singing and would employ singing girls in his court.
Also, Yazid’s appointment was in complete violation of Islamic teachings. There was consensus among Muslims that the next Caliph be appointed in consultation with Muslims or through bay’ah which was a kind of ballot of that time though restricted to important people. Muslims were very angry at the appointment of Yazid as their caliph whose every act was anti-Islamic. In fact with Yazid counter-revolutionary movement begins in the history of Islam.
It is also beginning of feudalization of Islam. Hereditary succession is an important principle in feudal society and with Yazid monarchy and dynastic rule was established in Islam. Also, Islamic teachings were not only violated but publicly ridiculed. The Umayyad dynasty established its power and now no one outside the Umayyad dynasty could be appointed caliph. All these had serious implications.
That is why Muslims who had sincere commitment to Islam were highly worried. And Imam Husain seems to be the natural choice for them as he was not only the grandson of the Prophet but also the upholder of Islamic revolution though there were other claimants to the post of caliph. But a large number of Muslims were in favour of Husain. He also received host of letters from people of Kufa complaining against anti-Islamic acts of Yazid calling him fasiq i.e. debauch and dissolute, and requested Husain to come and lead them.
When Yazid was appointed as caliph by his father the Imam Husain was in Madina and hence governor of Madnia was instructed to invite Husain and take his bay’ah (oath of loyalty) for Yazid. Husain refused and left Madina same night as he felt his life was not safe in Madina. Husain left Madina along with his family members and loyal companions. He went to Mecca as days of Haj were close.
But before Haj rituals began, Husain felt that Yazid’s men were around and may kill him and he did not want bloodshed in Mecca where during Haj even killing of animals was not permitted. He informed people of Kufa that he is coming to lead them as per their request. He also sent his emissary Ibn Muslim to assess the situation in Kufa.
When he was leaving many relatives and friends came to see him and requested him not to go with his family as his and their lives will not be safe. But he politely turned down their request. There was a reason why Husain was insisting to go with his family. Husain did not want bloodshed between Muslims and being accompanied by his family which included women and children was a signal that his primary motive to go to Kufa was not declared war against Yazid but to sort out matter with Yazid peacefully.
Thus it is beyond doubt that Husain was not a rebel, nor a warmonger. Many supporters of Yazid call him a rebel and a secessionist which is totally wrong. Had he gone with an intention to fight Yazid he would not have carried his family with him. Yazid wanted Husain’s head, not his family. Also, before he could get any message from his emissary to Kufa, Ibn Muslim was beheaded by Kufa’s governor Ibn Ziyad and he could not get any assessment of the situation in Kufa. Had he got information from Kufa he might have changed his intention to go to Kufa.
When he got the information he had reached Karbala in Iraq, some 75 miles from Kufa, he was stopped from proceeding to Kufa or to turn back by Hurr who was leading Yazid’s battalion. Thus Husain was already surrounded from all sides and was helpless. He had reached Karbala on first of Muharram i.e. the first day of Islamic New Year. He was now left only with 72 persons in all which included small children like Ali Asghar who was just a few months old.
He went on negotiating with the chief of forces sent by Ibn Ziyad from Kufa for settlement. He even offered to go back or to go to some border area but all his requests were turned down. He was even ready to meet Yazid and discuss things with him personally. However, Ibn Ziyad, the governor of Kufa did not agree and insisted that Husain pledge oath of loyalty for Yazid which Husain refused and then on 10th of Muharram Yazidi forces attacked him and all 72 persons were killed in a battle lasting over few hours. Now they are known as 72 martyrs - which included from a child of six months to an 80-year-old man Habib Ibn Mazahir.
Husain, thus it will be seen, was ready for negotiations with Yazid but not ready to pledge oath of loyalty (bay’ah) to him. Pledging oath of loyalty would have meant to legitimize Yazid’s counter-revolution. Thus Husain gave his head but not his hand in the hand of Yazid. It is in this sense that Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer said in his quartet (ruba’i) that Husain gave his head but not his hand in the hand of Yazid and truth is that Husain is very basis of la ilah (i.e. Islam). If Yazid’s counter-revolution had succeeded Islamic revolution would have been wiped out.
Though physically Yazid’ sources triumphed but spiritually it was Islam which triumphed. Yazid is universally condemned and Husain universally showered with praises. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence said Imam Husain is the first satyagrahi of the world which is indeed a very rich tribute. Eden Gibbon the great historian calls Husian as a great martyr for the cause.
Indeed Husain saved Islam but his own followers have killed the revolutionary spirit of the Imam and only ritualized such great event in the form of ritualistic weeping, crying and chest beating.