The Martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, occurred on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims worldwide commemorate that tragic event on this day in 680 AD. It was a battle between good and evil. Imam Hussain, the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), stood up against Yazid, whose father, Amir Muawiya, made him a successor caliph (Khalifah). Yazid was impious and did not show Islamic character or behavior to be a Khalifah. Imam Hussain refused to recognize or endorse his leadership over the rapidly growing Muslim Ummah and Muslim state.
On this day (July 28th, 2023), 1400 years ago, a large force of Yazid martyred and mutilated the bodies of 72 followers of Imam Hussain. They captured and enslaved women and children and took a harsh journey of over 400 miles from Karbala to Damascus.
Muslims consider the month of Muharram unique as it is one of the four sacred months of the Islamic lunar calendar. Prophet Muhammed migrated from Makkah to Medina to build a new society on Justice. It also marks the day of salvation for Moses and the Israelites, who successfully escaped from Egypt (where they were enslaved and persecuted) after Moses called upon God’s power to part the Red Sea. Prophet (pbuh) said, “I am closer to Moses than Jews.” So, he observed the fast (on that day), and Muslims followed this tradition. Muslims also fast to experience the suffering of Imam Hussain and his family, who were martyred in Karbala by Yazid’s army.
An Umayyad caliph, Yazid, ordered Hussain to pledge allegiance to him, and Hussain refused because he believed Yazid’s rule to be unjust and illegitimate. Umayyad Caliphate became a dynasty ignoring human dignity, freedom, and Justice. Yazid was a corrupt and immoral leader. Imam Hussain disagreed with his appointment because it was undemocratic, and the new ruler had questionable personal character. Imam Hussain was the most beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and lived as per Quranic guidance from early childhood. He remained deeply committed to the Quranic values of Justice and equality.
Imam Hussain was going to Kufa at the invitation of the local Muslim community. However, when he reached Karbala, he found nobody to support him in the Muslim community. All of them were frightened of Yazid’s power and influence, whose army had killed his opponents. Imam Hussain was aware of the situation but decided to face Yazid for a dialogue.
His rejection of the pledge of allegiance to Yazid led to a massive ten-day standoff at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, between Umayyad’s enormous army and a few of Imam Hussain’s followers, which included his half-brother, wives, children, sisters, and closest friends. His supporter betrayed him, but his family stood by him in Karbala. He chose to stand his ground, knowing that he and his followers may not survive at the end of the conflict. He stood for righteousness and Justice and sacrificed his life for Islam. It is an incredibly tragic story and a constant reminder to all Muslims to stand up for what is right. We must all be courageous with an abiding commitment to stand up for Justice in the footsteps of Imam Hussain.
Muslims from different sects and denominations commemorate the Martyrdom of Imam Hussain, but the Shia Muslims, of course, express their grief conventionally. They hold daily ceremonials (Majlis) and narrate the events that led to Shahadat (Martyrdom). However, besides expressing grief, it is even more essential to convey to the young people that we all should have strength like Imam Hussain to face the calamity and stand firm on the principles of righteousness and Justice. We also remember Karbala’s massacre for the bravery of Hazrat Bibi Zainab, the younger sister of Hazrat Hussain, who Publicly rebuked Yazid and his followers without showing any fear even after witnessing the Martyrdom of her brother and her two teenage children. It was a shining example of her defiance against the powerful Yazid. Hazrat Zainab also saved Hazrat Zainul Abedin, the only surviving son of Hazarat Hussain, from any harm from Yazid’s forces during the long journey. She also kept Bibi Sakina, daughter of Hazrat Hussain, from enslavement. After her release and return to Madina, she continued to spread the mission of Hazrat Hussain to raise her voice against oppression. We should never forget Bibi Zainab for her bravery and courage and for preserving human dignity. Despite facing the unbelievable tragedy in Karbala, she showed strong faith in God and Islam.
Since the Martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the world has faced similar situations often and met with the same cowardice as the Muslim community who invited the Imam to Kufa. People are constantly influenced and frightened by people of power and do not dare to follow a true leader. For instance, in a short period of a few years and under the leadership of one of the world’s worst dictators- Hitler, the entire Germany became the followers of the NAZI doctrine.
Even today, we know that people with enormous wealth and power influence millions towards extremely questionable, unethical conduct and immoral values. Seeing how some educated and sophisticated people succumb to control and influence is incredible.
Unfortunately, only dictators rule most of the Muslim World with oppression, and we have not produced a leader to follow in the footsteps of Imam Hussain. However, we have seen some world leaders who show courage, like Imam Hussain, and stand firmly against the oppressors. To name a few, Martin Luther King was against racism in the US, Nelson Mandela was against the most potent apartheid government in South Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi was against the British Empire to get India’s independence. Mahatma Gandhi stated, “If I had 72 companions like Hussain, I would have freed India in 24 hours from the British; the progress of Islam resulted from the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussein; I learned from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”
There is a saying: “Islam Zinda Hoota Hai her Karbala Ke Baad (Islam becomes alive after the massacre like Karbala).” After the massacre of Karbala, Imam Zain al-Abidin -Son of Imam Hussain, was the only adult male left alive from the household of the Imam, as he could not participate in the battle of Karbala due to high fever. He played an essential role in the aftermath of Karbala, particularly in rebuilding the moral, spiritual, and ethical foundations of Islamic society. The post-Karbala period was one of great internal dissensions, tumult, and crises among Muslims. People feared challenging or questioning the Umayyad Khilafat(state), not wanting to attract the state’s wrath. Imam Zain al Abedin kept Islam’s spiritual, ethical spirit alive by continuing to teach and give sermons in Masjid-e-Nabawi.
A Muslim dearly loves Imam-Hussain and detests his killers and will always be saddened by the story of his killing, even if they do not express those feelings on its anniversary every year. All reputable Islamic schools of thought strongly condemn those who killed Imam-Hussain. It was a sacrifice given in support of human rights and human dignity.
Unfortunately, today, Muslims of all sects practice ritualistic Islam and lose sight of the spirit of Islam and its actual Islamic teachings. Some Shia brothers and sisters do self-flagellate and beat their chests. Others beat bare shoulders with heavy steel chains attached to razor blades to remind the pain and suffering of the Martyrs of Karbala (Some Shia scholars forbid these practices). While observing these rituals, the young generation does not get the actual message, meaning, and purpose of Martyrdom.
During the Ashura, the Shia intellectuals should hold open seminars for the community to promote unity and elaborate on Imam Hussain’s bold step and the sacrifice the whole family offered to uphold the Quranic principles of Justice and human dignity. People should learn that oppression and injustice are wrong and challenge the oppressor with courage and conviction. Young Muslims must have an engaging experience that communicates the meaning of Ashura.
Muslims should use this day to unite us, not a day to divide us, and despite our differences, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and not assume ill intentions based on things that happened hundreds of years ago. Imam Hussain is a living legacy of Muslims. Shia and Sunni need to work together to uphold the legacy and sacrifice that the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussain, gave.
All human unity is the aim of the teachings of Islam. The doctrinal and ideological differences must not end up in bloodshed. Quran says, “And hold fast all together by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you) and be not divided among yourselves and remember with gratitude Allah’s favor on you” ( 3:103). Quran also says: “The believers are nothing else than brothers (in Islam). So, make reconciliation between your brothers, and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy” (49:10). The unity of people makes an unbeatable strong nation. Islam lays high stress on the importance of unity. To deal with the challenges Muslim Umma faces in today’s world, unity among Muslims is vital for our survival.
Dr. Basheer Ahmed is a former professor of psychiatry at South Western Medical School, Dallas, Texas, and President Emeritus Institute of Quranic Knowledge and Religious Acceptance (IQRA) North Texas.