Remembering Karbala

History serves as a guide to our past. Its study is fascinating as it teaches us about the rise and fall of civilizations, the epic battles and wars that happened in the distant or the recent past. It also serves as a guide to understand the transformation and evolution of human society. It teaches us lessons as well, in how various challenges, be they political, military or social have been handled at various stages of human history. Viewed critically, history can be an excellent guide to understanding and handling current and future challenges faced by human beings.

History is transmitted not only in written form, through proper documentation, but some parts of it are also transmitted to different generations by way of storytelling. In almost every culture, children learn some important stories of their history, early on in their life, through their elders. Among Muslims, the story of Karbala, for example, is learnt at a very early age, when children don’t even know the basics of history. This is one way of keeping children attached to their traditions and roots and also help them in imbibing good values. As a child, I remember hearing, from my elders, the story of Karbala– the story in which Hussain (R.A) was martyred by the army of Yazid. Hussain (R.A) was a symbol of valor and great sacrifice, who, despite all odds, stood for truth, justice, honor and for upholding his principles. Yazid was the villain; the one who grabbed power and sent an army numbering in thousands to fight Hussain, who had gone to Karbala, with no more than 70 odd people, many of them his family members. Yazid’s army outnumbered Hussain’s men and their ratio was more skewed than between that of the Quraish and the Muslims in the battle of Badr. This story of supreme sacrifice, in the face of huge odds, would run a shiver down one’s spine. The heart would ache and inevitably one would form a rough sketch of what happened in the plains of Karbala, with the progeny of the Prophet (PBUH), on the 10th day of Muharram.

In 60 AH/ 680 C.E, Yazid became the King of Muslims. His ascension to the throne marked a clear departure from the earlier practice of electing the Khalifa among Muslims, who would come by mutual consent. The nature of the state changed from that based on broad consultations to absolute monarchy. Imam Hussain (R.A) and other Companions most notably Ibn Zubair (R.A) and Ibn Umar (R.A) showed their strong resentment towards this. Yazid sent urgent orders to the Governor of Madina to force oath of allegiance from Imam Hussain (R.A), Ibn Zubair (R.A) and Ibn Umar (R.A). Yazid clearly knew that he could not be rightfully seen as the leader of the Muslims without the backing of Imam Hussain (R.A). But both Imam Hussain and Ibn Zubair showed no signs of accepting him as the ruler. How could these noble souls accept an oppressor as their leader?

It was just sixty one years after the Muslims migrated from Makkah that Karbala happened. In a way it was the natural consequence of the 360 degree transformation of the Islamic State –one which was earlier representative in form and was based on general consensus to one in which the leadership became a matter of inheritance. In the earlier period, the Khalifa was answerable for his conduct. But with the ascension of Yazeed, absolute obedience, whatever the conduct of the ruler, became the order of the day. No one could now question the ruler and anyone seen doing this would be seen as a direct challenge and threat to authority and hence would be dealt with severely.

It was in this context that Imam Hussain (R.A) undertook his journey, first from Madina to Makkah, which finally culminated in Karbala. He left for Kufa, from Makkah in Dhul Hijja, 60AH. He abandoned the ritualistic Hajj to perform the true essence of Hajj, which is embodied in his abandonment of worldly pleasures and his ultimate sacrifice at Karbala. In a different period, it was Prophet Ibrahim (A.S) with his wife Hagar and their infant son Ismail (A.S), who had made their journey towards the forlorn desert of Makkah. Hussain (R.A) and his family and followers made their journey from Makkah, in the same month of Dhul Hijjah, which is remembered for the patience, sacrifice, trials, tribulations and Hijrah of Ibrahim and his family. Imam Hussain (R.A) embarked on the same journey, where he would be tested, tried and would literally go through fire for the sake of truth, justice and standing up against oppression. In a way the life of Ibrahim and his family and Hussain and his family bear a remarkable similarity. Both undertook Hijrah and were willing to be tested for their convictions and values and offer sacrifice.  Ibrahim left his wife and infant son in the desert of Makkah where Hagar beseeched her Lord when her son cried with thirst. God delivered her from her predicament and answered her prayer in the form of a stream of water. Hussain and his family and other companions, on the other hand, were denied water by Yazid’s army and they shed their blood which seeped into the soil of Karbala. The tents in Mina are a reminder of the tents in which Hussain (R.A) and his companions spent their days in Karbala before they were martyred on the 10th of Muharram. During Hajj, when pilgrims drink from the well of Zam Zam, they should not only remind themselves of the pain that Hagar felt for her thirsty son, but also that suffered by Hussain (R.A) and his companions in Karbala.

Many of the ritualistic acts of Hajj resonate in the tragedy of Karbala. The symbolic slaughter on Eid ul Adha, on the 10th day of Dhul Hijjah, was in a way, given a new meaning by Hussain and his companions, exactly a month later on the 10th of Muharram in Karbala. Ibrahim (A.S) was spared by God from slaughtering his son Ismail (A.S), but Hussain sacrificed himself and his family members in Karbala. In a way his sacrifice marked the culmination of the sacrifice of Ibrahim and Ismail (A.S). Without understanding the sacrifice of Hussain (R.A) and his family, it is not possible to understand the sacrifice of Ibrahim (A.S) and his family.

The life of Ibrahim (A.S) and his family and that of Hussain (R.A) and his family seem to be intertwined with each other. Despite centuries separating the two, the trajectory of their life bears remarkable resemblance. Ibrahim stood up to Nimrod and his tyranny while Hussain did the same against Yazid. In their Hijrah, in their perseverance, patience and ultimate sacrifice, one can’t miss the obvious parallels. Similarly the journey of Hajj and Karbala are also intertwined. Both Karbala and Hajj are about giving up worldly pleasure for the sake of God.

Karbala and the sacrifice offered by Hussain (R.A) and his companions has been the guiding force and a beacon of hope for all the oppressed throughout the ages. It makes it amply clear that despite the numbers, falsehood cannot stand upto truth. It is light that will prevail over darkness, whatsoever the intensity of darkness. His sacrifice appeals not only to the Muslims, but humanity in general. The history of Karbala will always be relevant to the whole humankind, transcending all barriers of race, creed, color and geography. Its message is universal. Given the importance of Karbala, it becomes incumbent upon us that we properly present and analyse this momentous event, in its true spirit. It has had a profound impact on the history of Muslims.

During the last few decades, the events and history of Karbala is subtly being distorted in a way that tries to show Yazid in good light and not put the blame of what happened in Karbala against Imam Hussain (R.A) and his companions, on him. It is also painful to note that rather than condemning and criticizing Yazid, some Muslims have started glorifying and eulogizing him. If that was not abominable enough, honorifics have also been added to his name. History is being distorted and the real story of Karbala is being obfuscated to fit in the narrative of these apologists. Every platform—be it the pulpit of the mosque or the comfortable air conditioned studio of a TV Channel, is being used to spread this vile propaganda. It is not difficult to imagine what mindset is behind this distortion and fabrication of history. It is a deliberate and shameful ploy by the Yazids of our time to corrupt our thinking. This propaganda is being purposely encouraged, funded and spread by the ideological heirs of Yazid to justify their power grab and tyranny, which they have indulged in various parts of the Muslim world. It is unfortunate that many Muslim preachers are becoming willing tools to spread this deceitful, malicious and evil propaganda. We cannot and should not remain oblivious to this distortion and should use every available platform to spread the right message about Karbala and the sacrifice of Hussain (R.A).

The story of Hussain and his family in Karbala, reminds us of the eternal battle between truth and falsehood and good and evil. It gives courage to the oppressed to rise against their oppressors. Karbala is not merely a historical incident which can be treated superficially. It is an institution and a way of life. From a different era, it reminds us of Moses and Pharaoh and Ismail and Nimrod. In the final analysis, the message of Imam Hussain’s sacrifice in Karbala is that truth does not need numbers to prevail over falsehood. His message has left an indelible mark and will always remain stamped on people’s hearts. 

Tariq Jameel, based in Bangalore, is an investment professional with interest in history, politics and sports.

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