Idea of Karbala

Imam Hussain’s resistance was the ultimate act of courage, the noblest self sacrifice, made in the state of higher consciousness and with full knowledge of its import

Makhdoom Mohi-ud-din

KARBALA is a combination of two words meaning a place of trial and tribulations. It conveys profound depths of emotional and spiritual associations. It has a seminal place in Muslim history and consciousness. In many ways it  is also cathartic. The Prince of Martyrs, the grandson of Holy Prophet (PBUH), standing against falsehood and tyranny was martyred here in the year 1680 AD Ashoora – tenth of Muharram, the most solemn and somber date of Muslim calendar.

“Imam Hussain’s sufferings is recalled by Shia and non-Shia alike in Muslim fight for self worth. His actions and attitudes, his serenity under siege are inspirational for Muslims,” writes Ed Hussain in House of Islam. Karbala is remembered and recollected in detail as a pall of melancholy descends, pathos and sobriety permeates the ambience. Martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) gave rise to a new history. It elevated the great Imam to a living presence. Karbala continues to ignite imagination. Martyrdom forms the central part of Karbala. Karbala spotlights the injustices of the past and inherent injustices of this world. Imam Hussain (AS) and his gallant and gentlemanly companions made Karbala a high point in the defiance and resistance to the injustice and tyranny. The companions choose a certain and imminent martyrdom.

“We will fight with you until we reach our destiny,” Imam Hussain(AS) recited a verse of the Holy Quran known to all Muslims. “To God we belong and to God is our return”. Karbala is a passionate yearning of Islamic Ideal. It is spiritual and strenuous longing of seemingly elusive values of purity, piety, equity and liberality. Martyrdom of Imam Hussain has sowed the seeds of a “complete revolution in the consciousness of Muslim community,” says Reza Aslan.

“The march of Muslims to Karbala is endless; it is remembered in epic dirges. And for Shias and Sunnis alike Karbala was not some 1340 years ago “it feels as if massacre happened in our life times that we failed to come to Imam Hussain’s (AS) aide. This guilt tugs at Muslim conscience” writes Ed Hussain in House of Islam. So lamentations are atonement for sin. ‘Aza’ or mourning achieved its full expression and form at Karbala. The refusal to give up piety and purity for politics and power led to Hussain’s martyrdom. An effort at conciliation and amity by him was rewarded with poisoning. The goodness, as a result,  was in a rapid retreat. The debilitation of Islamic Ideal was near complete. Forward thrust of material historical forces was daunting and overwhelming, but moral world acutely needed an arrival of a paragon of ethical defiance. It was not crude attempt at power as Tarique Ali claims. The Marxist historian tries to demean moral resistance. He fails to perceive spiritual impulse of individuals and expeditions. The erudite Scholar, Karen Armstrong is more apt in ‘The Battle for God’. ‘…. believing the poignant spectacle of Prophet’s family marching in the opposite direction to tyranny would bring Ummah back to more authentic practice of Islam’.

Imam Hussain’s journey was the ultimate act of courage, the noblest self sacrifice, made in the state of higher consciousness and with full knowledge of its import. Karbala is a classic struggle of good and evil. Martyrdom is primal and Abel is ante-diluvian precedent. Martyrs are altruistic and represent virtues. Expedience subordinates ethics, martyrdom revives it after every Karbala. Karbala is ‘tajdid’- renewal. It prevented stultifying of Islamic Ideal. Martyrdom is spiritual. Mendacious and a materialist cannot experience it. Martyrdom is about austerity and arduousness, an epicurean cannot perceive it. Martyrdom is the realization of the piety of the protest. A martyr embodies idealism, he is unmindful of consequences. The lines of T.S. Elliot scribbled for the different context are relevant here:

And do not think of fruit of action

Fare forward

Not farewell,

But fare forward voyagers.

The martyrdom at Karbala sent shock waves throughout the world. Elegies are still written.  Martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS) is eternal, it transcends sects, schisms and spans. “In the distant age and climate,” says historian Edward Gibbon “tragic scenes of the death of Hussain (AS) will awaken the sympathy of the coldest readers”. The martyrdom of Karbala left behind a complex legacy, both pacific and subversive. Lesley Hazleton, a respected scholar of Islam has a lesson from ‘Karbala Paradigm’. It is particularly pertinent for the west. She counsels ‘the Karbala story has endured and strengthened not least because it reaches deep into the questions of morality of idealism versus pragmatism, purity versus compromise. Its DNA is the very stuff that tests both politics and faith and animates the vast and often terrifying arena in which the two intersect. But whether sacredness inheres in the Prophet’s blood family as the Shia believe or in the community as a whole, as Sunnis believe nobody in the west should forget that what unites the two main branches of Islam is far greater than what divides them, and the vast majority of all Muslims still cherish the ideal of unity preached by Muhammad (PBUH) himself – an ideal the more deeply held for being so deeply broken’.

Karbala, the rendezvous of martyrs is sacred geography. Its configuration within the aesthetic Marsiyya  (elegies) is central. The journey to Karbala like the Hijrah – Migration of Holy Prophet (PBUH) has become a pivotal trope. The journey to Karbala opens up vistas of space to counteract imperial circumscription of Muslims into the artifices of the nation states even within similar ethnic particularities. Karbala internalizes migrant mode of journey and is a soulmate of moral one. It has spiritual antecedents, journeys of earlier apostles and the hijrah of final messenger (PBUH).

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