The Criterion Of Karbala

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Today, there are various schools of thought each of which claims to represent the ‘real’ Islam or the ‘spirit’ of Islam. There is essentially nothing wrong with groups claiming to be the truest representatives of religion, as each is entitled to its own opinion and interpretation.

However, matters get problematic when adherents of violent philosophies, who resort to mass murder and bloodshed to impose their beliefs on others, start masquerading as the ‘true’ representatives of Islam. And many ordinary Muslims, taken in by their frequent recourse to quoting scripture and other outward displays of faith, start accepting that these individuals and groups actually know Islam better than anyone else.

This is troublesome as it not only distorts the message of Islam, but also creates acceptance — driven by fear and ignorance — of militant schools of thought, as many ordinary people, as well as some of those who claim to be religious scholars, start condoning or justifying atrocities committed in the name of religion. The militant thus sanctifies his bloodshed under the cloak of religion.

However, in this writer’s view there is a very simple way to avoid falling prey to such confusion. Those claiming to represent Islam must be judged by some criteria; without this, we open the door to allowing individuals to mislead the public and abuse religion. And perhaps the single most emphatic criterion — cutting across sectarian and doctrinal boundaries — to judge who is abiding by Islamic values and who is not is Karbala and the heroic struggle of Imam Husain bin Ali.

Centuries after Imam Husain took the field against the Syrian forces, Karbala is a byword for strength of character, bravery and steadfastness. And if these virtues are absent, one can easily differentiate between those who are inspired by faith, and those seeking purely worldly aims in the name of religion.

While many of us are familiar with the epic of Karbala — the sufferings of Imam Husain, his family and companions, the barbarity of the Syrian horde and the valour of Husain on the battlefield — we must ponder over what led him to leave his hometown of Madina and make his way with his family and small band of supporters to the desert of Karbala.

Some have argued that Imam Husain was motivated by political considerations to take the caliphate from Yazid. However, this appears to be a very superficial analysis. For if Husain’s aim was conquest, he would not have taken the field with a force of under a hundred, which included women, children and the elderly. Instead, he would have gathered a large army to confront the Syrians.

Imam Husain’s decision to confront the Yazidi force was motivated by much loftier aims. In Husain’s own words, as quoted by acclaimed scholar Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari, he sought to “enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil and follow the traditions of my grandfather and my father”. This was Karbala’s mission statement.

Imam Husain further clarified his intentions in a sermon at Mina, en route to Karbala: “O God! You know that everything we did was not prompted by rivalry for political power, nor for a search for wealth and abundance; rather it was done to demonstrate to men the shining principles and values of Your religion, to reform the affairs of Your land, to protect and secure the indisputable rights of Your oppressed servants, and to act in accordance with the duties You have established and the norms, laws, and ordinances You have decreed.”

In this passage, Husain beautifully encapsulated the core values of Islam. Obedience to Allah, reformation of society and struggle for the rights of the oppressed are the main features of religion as taught by Husain, and it was for the protection of these values that Husain faced the Syrians at Karbala.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Yazidi force was motivated by purely base concerns, ie pleasing the ruler of the day while casting aside all moral, spiritual and ethical ideals.

So today, when militants or extremists claim to fight for the glory of Islam, we must ask if they are living up to the Karbalai ideals. The answer is self-evident. For at Mina, Imam Husain castigated the scholars saying they had “neglected the rights of the oppressed and the lowly”. Today’s holy warriors care little for the oppressed and lowly, slaughtering them in bazaars, mosques, imambargahs and churches.

Let us not be fooled by outward appearances. Let us refer to Karbala as a criterion for what Islam and humanity is truly all about. For at Karbala, Husain took a stand for righteousness, braving hunger and thirst, sacrificing all that he held dear and prostrating before the Almighty as the ruthless Syrian horde fell upon him after he had been left alone in the field.

The name Husain is symbolic of liberation and freedom, and perhaps the divine plan is to rouse the conscience of all the world’s oppressed through the retelling of Imam Husain’s struggle year after year. In the words of renowned exegete of the Quran Abdullah Yusuf Ali, delivered at a Muharram majlis in London in 1931, Imam Husain’s “blameless and irreproachable life was in itself a reproach to those who had other standards. They sought to silence him, but he could not be silenced”.

Perhaps that is why the tyrants of the day still brutally target all that symbolises Husain and his struggle.

The Article First Appeared In Dawn


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