The battle at Karbala is unique in several respects. At Karbala, Imam Husayn (a.s.) changed the very meaning and connotation of the terms victory and defeat, life and death. He and his small group of his companions redefined human nature itself. They redefined the limits of human endurance of sufferings for a noble cause. In sacrificing their lives, they set an example to those who fight against anarchy and materialism to protect the freedom and independence of mankind. At Karbala, the conqueror became the loser and the vanquished became the victor. By sacrificing their lives, the martyrs of Karbala became immortal, while Yazid by killing them was erased out of the good books of history.
Imam Husayn (a.s.) showed that numbers and odds do not matter. What really matters, is the propriety, nobility and nature of the cause itself. Imam Husayn (a.s.) showed that truth and righteousness are ineffaceable and that the killing of a few persons, does not and cannot obliterate the truthfulness and nobility of their cause.
Before the battle at Karbala, a victorious person was the one who stood with a fluttering banner in his hand, while the vanquished lay slain on the ground, his flag lying limp beside him. The victor assumed the mantle of a successful mission, while the loser was clothed with the infamy of defeat and his unjust cause.
Before Imam Husayn (a.s.) and his companions sacrificed their lives in the battle at Karbala, a victorious person was the one who stood with a fluttering banner in his hand, while the vanquished lay slain on the ground, his flag lying limp beside him. The victor assumed the mantle of a successful mission, while the loser was clothed with the infamy of defeat and his unjust cause. Success in the battle was proof of victory of justice over anarchy and oppression. Victory was synonymous with a just and popular cause and the victor commanded the love, adoration and respect of the public. The victorious and their cause became immortal. The vanquished was buried in history, only to be remembered as a lesson to posterity, his defeat considered the defeat of his unjust cause.
Mothers loved to name their children after the victor and shunned the name of the vanquished. The victorious became heroes and the vanquished were treated as villains in the everlasting memory of a nation, country, tribe or culture. The epics, Iliad, Maha Bharatha, and Ramayana are some examples, depicting truth and justice as personified in the triumphant hero.
All these concepts were changed by Imam Husayn (a.s.). For the first and perhaps the last time in history, the battle of Karbala established that the vanquished might also be the victorious in his cause. The triumphant were the ones who lay beheaded in the battlefield, their lifeless bodies, proclaiming the victory of a living cause of immortal truth.
Imam Husayn (a.s.) and his small group of companions redefined human nature itself. Generally, power and wealth attract people anxious to pick up the crumbs. Those who lose power or wealth, find only deserters. Karbala reversed this notion. None from the small group of Imam Husayns companions deserted him, though they knew that at the end of the day only death and no worldly gain awaited them. On the other hand, even at the last moment before the battle commenced, several warriors from Yazids huge army, crossed over to Imam Husayns camp, despite knowing fully well that only death awaited them though worldly gain in the form of the spoils of war would have been within their easy reach, at the end of the day.
It is natural for every person facing immediate and imminent threat to his life, to seek and gather people for his support and assistance. It is more so where a war is planned and the leader gathers as many men as he could find to form an army capable of facing the threat.
Quite contrary to this human nature, Imam Husayn (a.s.) at every stage of his journey from Medina to Karbala, dissuaded people from joining him, saying that what Yazid sought was only his blood.
It is obvious that, firstly, Imam Husayn (a.s.) was convinced of the threat to his life and yet dissuaded people from joining him to form an army; secondly, he had no intention of waging a war; thirdly, he wanted to avoid bloodshed or at least to mitigate the loss of life; lastly, by taking ladies, children, his close relatives, a few aged companions, and the least number of able bodied youth, Imam Husayn (a.s.) wanted to show that though the small band of people held no threat to his empire, the cruel, atrocious, unjust and evil nature of Yazid and his huge army would certainly commit the most horrendous murder and atrocities without any excuse..
Imam Husayn (a.s.) showed that truth and justice do not always lie on the side of the victorious majority. He showed that numbers do not count and a handful of persons, standing up to oppression at the cost of their lives, do in fact represent truth, justice, independence, and freedom. He showed that truth is irrepressible, eternal, and would manifest itself even from the trampled and lifeless bodies of the martyr. Their death is not defeat but is in fact the victory of truth, righteousness, justice, and the very spirit of freedom of mankind.
In as much as its other aspects, the uniqueness of Karbala extends even to its pathos. There is not a single human relationship that was left out from the list of martyrs. The relationship of the patriarch and his family, between the leader and his followers, parent and child, newly wedded husband and wife, between siblings, between cousins and children of cousins, bond between friends, master and servant, rider and steed etc., were all successfully put to test.
Historians, normally, are patronized by the winning party that assumes power and write the chronicles of the victorious. History may also record a few instances of individual valor of some opponent, but popular historians never espouse the cause of the vanquished. Karbala is unique in this respect also.
Historians, normally, are patronized by the winning party that assumes power and write the chronicles of the victorious. History may also record a few instances of individual valor of some opponent, but popular Historians never espouse the cause of the vanquished. Karbala is unique in this respect also. Without exception, every chronicler records the justness of Imam Husayns cause, the cruel and unjust abuse of his dead body and the torment that the remaining members of his family and friends, particularly the widows and orphans suffered after the tragedy.
Any historian attempting to eulogize the cause of the defeated forces would be branded a traitor. Such historians and their records would be, mercilessly burnt and put out of circulation. However, at and after Karbala, the atrocities were so open and rampant that Yazid and his evil advisors, despite their tyrannical suppression and torture had no means or courage to prevent the tragedy of Karbala being related, recorded, repeated, and passed on to posterity.
In his speeches, letters, and discussions Imam Husayn (a.s.) made it clear that he was leaving Medina only in response to the call of the Kufians who had written thousands of letters and sent hundreds of emissaries complaining that they had no Imam to guide them in matters of faith and that, as the Imam, it was incumbent upon Husayn (a.s.) to hurry to their guidance. Their complaint against Yazid, was not so much regarding the physical or monetary suffering but against the willful distortion of the principles of Islam. Therefore, it became obligatory for Imam Husayn (a.s.) to leave Medina and go to rescue the faith from being mutilated and corrupted by Yazid. There was absolutely no political motive in this.
Later, when al-Hurrs cavalry surrounded Imam Husayns caravan, sealing off all roads except the one leading to Kufa, a false propaganda was made by Yazid that Imam Husayns journey was an affront to the political power of Yazid. Imam Husayn (a.s.) made it clear that he was invited by the people of Kufa for religious guidance and that he had no political aspirations, and said that he would move out to any far-off land beyond the domain of Yazids rule. This demand to be permitted to go out of Yazids dominion was repeatedly made by Imam Husayn (a.s.) till his last moments, signifying that he had no political aspirations and that his only intent was to preserve and propagate the faith in its true form, as revealed by his grandfather the Prophet (Pbuh).1
Curiously, it is called a battle, but there were no two armies waging war at Karbala. On one side was Imam Husayn (a.s.) with a few tens of persons, including an infant six months old and several teenagers. Opposing this small group was a huge army of infantry, cavalry, and other regiments. The nobility and intensity of purpose and the vigour and valour with which the small band of people fought a huge army, gave it the shape of an unforgettable epic battle. Today, Imam Husayn (a.s.) and his small band of supporters are universally acknowledged as innocent martyrs, while Yazid and his huge army are disgraced for their abominable acts of large-scale massacre and torture of men, women and children.
Yet, Imam Husayns battle at Karbala is often distorted by prejudices created over centuries of adverse propaganda carried on by suppressive regimes. The consequent mutilation of real facts led to the dilution of knowledge of the historic events, resulting in an unfounded belief that it was a battle between two powers for succession fought between the Umayyads represented by Yazid ibn Muawiya, and the Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) represented by Husayn ibn Ali (a.s.).
The Shrine of Imam Husayn (a.s.) was razed to the ground at least on eight occasions. Even the lone tree that marked the grave was cut down and the soil tilled, so the people may not be able to identify the spot. Yet after every demolition, a new and more elaborate structure came up. Jabir ibn Abdullh al-Ansari was blind when he visited the shrine at Karbala soon after Ashura. He identified the grave by the aroma and fragrance that emanated from it.
Note: The popular source for eyewitness accounts of the battle at Karbala are the Maqaatil of Abu Makhnaf, and Hamid ibn Muslim, the latter being a scribe embedded with the army of Yazid. They meticulously recorded not only the events but also the conversation, sermons and challenges in the battlefield called Rajaz. If anyone of these two chronicles omitted a particular event or a dialogue or sermon, found elsewhere, it may be due to the scribes absence from that place and time. But, over all, their records are authentic and have never been disputed as the coinage of a fertile imagination.
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