Imam Hussein: A martyr in the cause of justice
The tenth of Muharram is a day of mourning for all Muslims, and for Shia Muslims in particular. It marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein,the grandson of the Prophet, which took place in the 61st year after the Prophet's migration from Mecca to Madina.
The fundamental question that people ask is: Why did Imam Hussein have to court martyrdom? It should be noted, in this context, that Islam is, above all, a project aimed at bringing about fundamental changes in society. The Qur'an emphasises the importance of justice and gives primacy to the ideal of a society that is free of exploitation and oppression, a society that is free from the desire of the few to hoard wealth at the expense of many.
The Prophet set the process in motion through his personal example. Rigorously just, he empowered the mustad'ifin - the subaltern sections of society - against the mustakbirin - the elite. However, it is far from easy to uproot various vested interests from the society, even with the loftiest of ideals. The Islamic project ran into trouble within a few years of the Prophet's passing. With the frontiers of Islam expanding swiftly during the early years of the Caliphate - which lasted over 30 years - various powerful vested interests began to develop. The democratic spirit of Islamic society, with its emphasis on mutual consultation, began to be undermined; corruption and authoritarianism raised their heads.
The holy Prophet's companions, like Abu Dhar Ghifari, protested and warned those who were accumulating wealth and trying to concentrate power in their hands. But he failed, and died a lonely death in the desert of Rabza. Islam had no place for dynastic rule and yet, within three decades of the Prophet's death, a form of dynastic rule emerged.
Hazrat Muawiya's son, Yazid, became the first monarch in Islamic history. Those Muslims who had deeply committed Islamic values resented this development. But like all other monarchs, Yazid resorted to the ruthless suppression of the Protest. The camp city of Kufa was the main centre of resistance to Yazid. Kufa had a large population of non-Arabs who came from the conquered lands. Though Islam had abolished all forms of discrimination among human beings, many Arabs were not prepared to give up their privileges.
They began to discriminate between themselves and the non-Arabs who had embraced Islam, referring to the latter as Mawalis (clients of the Arabs). Those who had embraced Islam in the expectation of justice, therefore, felt discriminated against - and soon, a deep unrest spread among them.
Kufa was also the centre of the Alids, followers of Hazrat Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, who had made Kufa his capital when he became Caliph. Hazrat Ali, like the Prophet, practised justice rigorously and became a central figure for the non-Arab Muslims of Kufa, who looked upon him and his family for support.
It was the people of Kufa who invited Imam Hussein, the surviving son of Ali and his successor, to lead them against the tyrannical and licentious Yazid, who was busy undoing all that the Qur'anic teachings stood for. Yazid was, as all Muslims could see, a counter-revolutionary, bent upon sabotaging the Islamic revolution and its vision of a just society.
Imam Hussein, naturally, refused to accept Yazid as a Caliph set up to govern the world of Islam. He regarded Yazid as one acting against the spirit of Islam, a usurper who had violated the treatly between Hussein's brother, Imam Hasan, and Muawiya, to the effect that the matter of the succession to the Caliphate would be left to the people after Muawiya's death. Hussein therefore consented to lead the people of Kufa in their struggle against Yazid.
Furious at this turn of events, Yazid replaced the amiable governor of Kufa with a ruthless one called Ibn-e-Ziyad. He dispatched forces to besiege Imam Hussein on the way to Kufa and either force him to surrender or kill him. The Imam and his followers were surrounded at Karbala and deprived of food and water for three days. And on the tenth day of Muharram in the year 61 (Anno Hegirae), the Imam and his 72 followers were slaughtered by the forces of Yazid.
Hussein gave his life in the defence of justice and equality, the cardinal principles of the Islamic revolution. He is Islam's first and greatest martyr, Shahid-e Azam. Muslims have paid tribute to his courage and righteousness during Muharram, every year, for the last 1400 years.