Many a time, and usually during the month of Muharram, I see debates spark surrounding the traditions of mourning Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. While discussions on the event are in most cases healthy and natural, I am regularly irked by those that attempt to downplay or downsize the sheer magnitude of the Battle of Karbala, with some suggesting we as an Ummah need to “move on” and "stop living in the past".
But even by today’s modern standards, commemorating such events is a sacred act. Since 2001, the Western world has prohibited us from passing the 9th of September on our calendars without a mention of the tragic 9/11 event - and rightfully so. To this day, the World War II Holocaust, which took place in 1945 regularly makes headlines. In Palestine, the Nakba day which marks the creation of Israel is offered as a huge event to protest the injustice and oppression faced by the Palestinians. A whole month is dedicated to mark and remember slavery and the deeply-entrenched oppression of black people. The Armenian genocide, the Darfur genocide, Sabra and Shatila, the Rwandan massacre - these are just a few events in history that are marked and kept alive by those adamant on reminding the world that once upon a time, human beings sacrificed their lives to stand against injustice and in return we must therefore breathe life into their struggle.
All of the above mentioned could be described as Karbala in their own rights, and each had a Hussain or a number of Hussains to lead their plight. But to understand the depth of what this truly means requires us, as always, to refer back to the great Prophet Muhammad.
“Hussain is from me..” are words once uttered by the prophet - which for many merely identifies the relation between the grandfather and his grandson - but the prophet of Islam did not stop there. He went on to add “..and I am from Hussain, God loves those who love Hussain.” If we take this iconic and powerful narration and contextualise it with the battle of Karbala, it immediately awakens the soul to the real tragedy that took place in 680 AD.
After all of Hussain’s companions were killed in days of fighting, the battle peaked on Ashura - the tenth day of the month of Muharram - when the leading commander of the opposition army, Shimr bin Dhul Jawshan, sat on the chest of Hussain and severed his head, before then taking the women and children in chains to the dungeons of the Caliph.
Brutal, savage and vicious. But the reality is those who hold the reigns of power would rather you did not know about what was essentially a messy battle between Muslim factions because of the spirit of strength it would inspire in the people. The Battle of Karbala, which took place in modern day Iraq, pitted the Caliph and Muslim ruler of the time against the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Naturally, the Caliph had thousands of men at his disposal, whereas Hussain travelled with just 72 companions, as well as his immediate family members. Hussain’s camp was en route Kufa to heed the calls of Muslims there that, like him, rejected the unjust Caliph. On the way, when the camp reached Karbala, they were intercepted by some 30,000 soldiers who were ready to force Hussain to pledge allegiance to the Caliph or face death.
Hussain rejected the plea and chose to fight in the name of his grandfather and his religion, noting that the corrupt Caliph, who was illegally appointed to lead by his own father, was unfit to lead the Muslim world and would thus not receive Hussain’s loyalty nor blessing. “I will never give Yazid my hand like a man who has been humiliated, nor will I flee like a slave… I have not risen to spread evil or to show off… I only desire to enjoin good values and prevent evil,” he echoed. And it is in these words and this powerful statement where Karbala was personified and Hussain was eternalised. In fact, it is this revolutionary stance - which highlighted and underlined the strength of the people against their governing authorities - that would become a concept that shakes the thrones of kings to come.
Since the battle took place, Ashura has become a key date in the calendar of millions of Muslims who relive the tragedy in their own ways on a yearly basis. For many, the story of the battle is not just about Hussain nor even his relation to the Prophet Muhammad, but the core values and principles we abide by today. The battle signifies our Islamic duty to stand in the face of injustice and unjust rulers; to heed the calls of the oppressed no matter where they may be; to fight along the righteous and be willing to sacrifice our selves, desires, egos for the betterment of lives and society. This is why there are thousands of people of other faiths, including Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, that flock to the shrine of Hussain along with some 14million others on a yearly basis, as a sign of respect and honour.
Hussain is not just a man, nor is he just the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, but he is a universal concept that has taught revolutionaries of our time. Nelson Mandela famously said “I have spent more than 20 years in prison, then on one night I decided to surrender by signing all the terms and conditions of the government. But suddenly I thought about Imam Hussain and the Karbala movement and Hussain gave me strength to stand for right of freedom and liberation, and I did.”
Meanwhile, Mahatma Ghandi said he “learnt from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed”. Today, we live at a time of growing tension across the globe. Millions of believers from all faiths are being attacked and slaughtered for choosing to abide by the laws of their religion. In China, Muslims are shackled in concentration camps where authorities attempt to reverse their belief system by eating bacon, drinking alcohol and renouncing their faith. In the United States, migrant families are being ripped apart by the US government whose detention of children has recently been exposed. In the Middle East, Muslim rulers are waging deadly wars that have left more than hundreds of thousands of their own people dead across the region.
So while some may urge you to overlook Karbala in the month of Muharram, know that it has become, in fact, an obligation for humanity to delve into history to ascertain our position against corruption today. It is absolutely essential to adopt the stance of Hussain in Karbala to fight our modern day struggles, and to use him as a moral compass during a time of injustice, corruption and falsehood as not only a symbol, but a precedent of justice, morality and truth.
While there are many layers to commemorating Hussain in Muharram, there is no one way to do so; and while many may use the time to mourn and shed tears, the first month in the Muslim calendar can also be utilised to re-energise, revitalise and reload to take on the challenges of the coming new year. To know Hussain and his revolutionary message is to know the prophet and his divine message. After all, he is from the prophet and the prophet is from him.
To find out more information on Hussain and the Battle of Karbala, please visit www.whoishussain.org