The tragedy of Karbala must rank as one of the greatest setbacks in Islamic history. Are Muslims—Sunnis and Shi‘is—prepared to draw the right lessons from it or continue to turn this into a partisan issue?
Muslim history is full of major events, both good and bad. The birth of the noble Messenger (pbuh), his bi‘thah (appointment) as the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), his mi‘raj, hijrah to Madinah, the Battle of Badr and the liberation of Makkah are high points in Islamic history. The Battle of Uhud, and subversion of the khilafah into mulukiyah by Mu‘awiyah who grabbed power and later imposed his corrupt and drunkard son Yazid upon the Muslim Ummah can be considered as low points in early Muslim history. In particular, the tragic events at Karbala’ in 680ce, when the grandson of the noble Messenger (pbuh), Imam Husayn (ra), and his 72 companions were mercilessly butchered by the army of Yazid, must rank as the lowest point in Muslim history.
The Battle of Uhud, and subversion of the khilafah into mulukiyah by Mu‘awiyah who grabbed power and later imposed his corrupt and drunkard son Yazid upon the Muslim Ummah can be considered as low points in early Muslim history.
That tragedy further deepened divisions in the Ummah created by the Battle of Siffin when Mu‘awiyah rebelled against the legitimate authority of Imam Ali (ra) as the khalifah of the Muslims. Muslim history has not recovered from the twin blows delivered at Siffin and Karbala’. If the one — Siffin — led to the emergence of the Khawarij (today’s takfiris), the second — Karbala’ — created a clear breach in the unity of the Ummah whose repercussions are still deeply felt to this day.
There is also a great deal of misunderstanding interwoven into the narration of the tragedy of Karbala’. Some Muslims have a tendency to reduce great historical events to minor incidents or trivialize them by ritualizing them. The tragic events of Karbala’ also fall into this category. They are misinterpreted by some as a power struggle as if Imam Husayn (ra) wanted power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Imam Husayn (ra) wanted to ensure that power and authority were reposed in the hands of legitimate and qualified rulers. Islam has very specific rules regarding the qualifications of a legitimate rule because the institution he represents is extremely important. With such criteria, Yazid was not fit to be the khalifah of the Muslims. Both his ignoble personal life as well as the manner in which he usurped power — his father imposed him by force upon the Muslims — meant that this dealt another blow to the process of bay‘ah, willing consent of the Muslims to accept someone as their ruler.
If the events at Karbala’ were a tragedy, an even greater tragedy is how these events have been used for other purposes.
If the events at Karbala’ were a tragedy, an even greater tragedy is how these events have been used for other purposes. If some Muslims — primarily those that call themselves “Sunnis” who are in fact supporters of mulukiyah (hereditary kingship) — belittle what happened at Karbala’ because their personal interests are tied to the continuation of monarchical and illegitimate rule, others who call themselves “Shi‘is” have turned it into passion play. True, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (ra) and his companions was an immense tragedy and it should be mourned but the manner of mourning is important. In some parts of the Muslim world (India and Pakistan, for instance), people use chains to beat themselves during Muharram ceremonies. Others use blades to strike their heads causing blood to flow. In his book, Howza va Ruhaniyat, Ayatullah Murtaza Muttahari Shaheed has rejected such practices describing them as “instances of deviation.”
So what should Muslims do, but more important, what lessons should Muslims draw from the tragic events of Karbala’? It needs emphasizing that the stand Imam Husayn (ra) took was not for worldly power but one between haqq (truth and righteousness) and batil (falsehood and injustice). It was a struggle to restore legitimacy following the usurpation of power by those unfit to rule. His was a struggle to restore Islamic rule based on the pristine principles established by none other than the best of exemplars, the last and final Messenger of Allah (pbuh) to all humanity.
Muslims must also ask themselves what was the principle for which Imam Husayn (ra) sacrificed his life, precious as it was. No amount of passion play or shedding of tears would help clarify this crucial point. What is needed is to emulate the example of Imam Husayn (ra). It is one of courage in the face of tyranny and oppression; of principled opposition to unprincipled rule and usurpation of power.
Muslims must ask themselves whether they find examples of the character of Imam Husayn (ra) among the rulers that litter the landscape of the Muslim world today or whether they are all following in the footsteps of Yazid? Honest reflection would provide a clear answer. If the Muslim world is mired in endless crises and corruption and much suffering, it is because most Muslims are closer to Yazid in their personal and collective conduct than to Imam Husayn (ra). They pay lip service to the great struggle and sacrifice of Imam Husayn (ra) and many also participate in commemoration ceremonies for the noble Imam, but they live like Yazid.
In the Muslim world, there are often elaborate ceremonies for Imam Husayn (ra). During the first ten days of al-Muharram, music is not played on radio or television. Instead nashids and naats are recited in his honour and memory.
In the Muslim world, there are often elaborate ceremonies for Imam Husayn (ra). During the first ten days of al-Muharram, music is not played on radio or television. Instead nashids and naats are recited in his honour and memory. On the ninth and tenth of al-Muharram, most Muslims also fast, according the Sunnah of the noble Messenger (pbuh). It is important to be respectful but this is not enough. A lot more needs to be done. The most important lesson from the tragedy of Karbala’ is that haqq refused to bow before batil and in the process offered the supreme sacrifice of life. It was offered without flinching so that honour, dignity and legitimacy are protected and ultimately restored. This lesson must be imbibed in our individual as well as collective lives and revived by all Muslims, especially today. Verbalizing principles without living them would condemn us to the category of hypocrites. This is a most terrible state to be in for Allah (swt) has condemned such people to hellfire to reside therein forever.