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Newsletter for November 2011
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The Imam Husayn (a)'s Concept of Religion and Leadership
by S.H.M Jafri
courtesy: Al-Serat, Vol XI No. 1
ONLY now and again does there arise above the common level some rare spirit, who, having looked upon God face to face, reflects more clearly the divine purpose, and puts into practice more courageously the divine guidances. The light of such a man shines like a strong beacon on a dark and disordered world. Our concepts of human values, human dignity and human freedom are better understood today because there has come into its life, among others, a personality that is a flame of God. His suffering embodies the pride of mankind, and in his sacrifice is reflected the eternal patience of man's greatness. An intrepid spirit, an impregnable will-power, and a superhuman passion for truth and justice are his main characteristics. And that man is Husayn b. 'Ali, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam. He presents to us the purest, the most elevating and the most inspiring ideal known to man. He is the one who taught man that death is not worse than a dishonourable life. He showed the world the real meaning of religion and the function of the leaders of mankind.
Religion as such is as old as man himself and is an inseparable part of his history, and therefore it has always been an object of deliberation, speculation, interpretation and also of rejection and criticism. From its earliest form of animism, nature-worship or totemism to that of its purest form of monotheism, religion in its broadest sense symbolizes and articulates society's most basic values and commitments. Moreover, there is the elemental urge in man not only to live, but to live nobly. When our passion for noble living receives cosmic backing, we have the peculiar ardour of religion. There is no one who does not raise at some time or other these fundamental questions: What am I? What is my origin? What is my destiny?
Religion is based on the discovery of the essential worth and dignity of the individual and his relation to a higher world of reality. When the human being perceives that he belongs to an order of reality higher than brute nature, he cannot be satisfied by worldly success or materialistic achievements. That he is capable of martyrdom for ideals shows that he lives in and for a world of eternal realities. Worship is man's reach out to the divine. Religion is the discipline which touches the conscience and helps us to struggle with evil and sordidness, saves us from greed, lust and hatred, releases moral power, and imparts courage in the enterprise of saving man from his inordinate desires. As a discipline of the mind, it contains the key and the essential means of coping with evil which threatens not only the dignity of man but his very existence. It implies the submission of our thinking and conduct to eternal truth. In its essence, religion is a summons to spiritual adventure. It is not theology, but practice and discipline. It is the only remedy for a pride of spirit which has divorced itself from the eternal; when the human spirit defies its sources and conditions and claims absolute self-sufficiency, it becomes insane and suicidal. To restore the lost relationship between the individual and the eternal is the purpose of religion. It is this basic and fundamental relationship which alone can bring ease and harmony in man's relationship with God, with himself, with his fellow man or with the society in which he lives, and with nature. If the relationship between the individual and the sole Creator is broken, the entire fabric of peaceful and meaningful human life will be broken. It is this harmony which religions serve to establish, Islam being the last of them.
Islam means peace as well as submission to the will of God and this is the essence of the Islamic concept of religion. The submission to God in Islam implies, in attitude and action, a regulation of our lives. God, according to Islam, is not a dogma but an ideal and a regulative force in life, and a guarantee of our highest values. Thus, the submission to God, the 'Ideal', with a firm belief in its reality, is a life both of virtue and inner happiness. A man who submits himself to God is true to his real self and, therefore, attains inner peace, which is real happiness, and quite different from worldly pleasures. This happiness more than compensates for any lack of material gain, or for physical pain and suffering.
It is with this concept of religion in general and Islam in particular that we should try to understand how the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, the Imam Husayn b. 'Ali, explains the meaning of religion and the function of religious leadership. The question of the leadership of mankind is the oft- repeated topic of the Qur'an. Whenever the Qur'an talks about divine guidance it also points out those who are entitled to guide. The Qur'anic terms for leaders of mankind are rasul, nabi and imam. The first two are specific terms, whereas the word imam is used in a rather general sense for those who are endowed with the special qualities with which they can lead others to righteousness and good deeds. Thus, for example, we read in the Qur'an that when Abraham, the patriarch of the prophets was told by God 'Behold, I make you an imam (leader) of the people', he asked: 'And what about my offspring?' God replied: 'My covenant will not go to evildoers.' Thus an imam, or leader, of the people is one who leads the people in all cases of conscience, keeps the covenant of God remembered and the teaching of the Prophets alive and effective. He is to protect the religio- ethical message delivered by the messenger of God from being corrupted and changed, and to save it from the reactionary forces which emerge from time to time.
The Message of the Prophet of Islam
passed into the hands of the worldly Umayyads within thirty
years of his death. After the death of 'Ali in 40/661, Mu'awiya
b. Abi Sufyan appropriated the office of the leadership of the
community for himself through the use of force and deceit and
ruled the Muslims for twenty years. On Mu'awiya's death, his son
Yazid assumed the role of the leadership of the Muslims as the
caliph in accordance with the former's unprecedented testament.
Yazid's anti-Islamic behaviour and openly irreligious practices
were well known throughout the Muslim world and earned for him
contempt and disfavour, especially among those who cared for
Islamic religio-ethical values. An embodiment of all sorts of
vice, tyranny, injustice, oppression and despotic rule, Yazid
wanted Husayn to pay him homage as the leader of the Muslim
community and submit himself to his authority. That was the
crucial point in Islamic history when the meaning of religion
had to be reasserted and the function of leadership redefined.
This was done by Husayn b. 'Ali with the most effective method
of sacrifice, suffering and martyrdom. In reply to the letters
written by the people of
From Husayn b. Ali to the believers and Muslims [of Iraq]: You have invited me to come to you because you have no imam to guide you, and that you hope my arrival there will unite you in the right path and in the truth. You must be clear about the fact that the imam can only be one who follows the Book of God, makes justice and honesty his conduct and behaviour, judges with truth, and devotes himself to the service of God.
In response to the invitation of the
. . . I have sent my messenger to you and I call you to the Book of God, and the sunna of his Prophet, the sunna which has become obliterated; innovations have become active and energetic. If you listen to me and obey my orders, I will guide you to the right path. May the peace and mercy of God be upon you.
There is space here only to give
these two quotations from numerous such statements which Husayn
made from the time he left
The main points which emerge from them are: (i) that an imam is one who unites the people; (ii) that he should lead them to the right path and to truth; (iii) that the Qur'an, as the Book of God, is an eternal truth, and the duty of the imam is to follow its model, and conduct his life according to the will of God; (iv) that the imam must make justice and honesty the cornerstones of his life; (v) that truth in its most universal and absolute form must be his only criterion; (vi) and that he must devote himself to the service of God.
The functions of the imam enumerated here are both particular and universal, descriptive and normative, and primary and evaluative; they can be applied in every society, time and epoch. They are particular, descriptive and normative when read strictly in the context of Islam, and are universal, primary and evaluative if read in their general meaning which embraces all religions and the whole of humanity. The key terms in Husayn's declarations are: the unity of people (which is basically a unity of purpose), the right path, truth, justice and honesty, and devotion to the service of God. These are in the essence of all religions as well as of Islam. Here religion is not separated from the well-being of society, and society is based on the eternal reality which creates consciousness in society.
An inseparably implied meaning of
Husayn's declarations is that the leader of men need not take an
active part in politics or in governmental affairs. His primary
function is to serve humanity with ethical and normative
integrity. He must create moral consciousness and a sense of
responsibility which transcends the limits of the political
community. He must serve social and spiritual values, but
unfortunately totalitarian and despotic regimes subordinate
spiritual and moral activities to their ends. It is at this
point that Husayn rises up to set a new standard of leadership
for challenging totalitarianism, despotism and the forces of
evil. There were two ways open to him, one to mass his forces,
gather strength, power, weapons and the military might to combat
the despotic rule of Yazid. This would not have been difficult
for the prestigious grandson of the Prophet, if he had wanted to
resort to such action. But the actions of Husayn show that from
the beginning to the end his strategy aimed at a much higher
goal than simply accession to the caliphate, the term given to
temporal authority in Islam. There is no evidence that he tried,
while at Mecca, to enlist active supporters from among the
people who gathered around him, or to propagate his cause among
the great number of people who were coming to Mecca for the
hajj; there is also no evidence that he attempted to send his
emissaries to stir up any rebellion in the provinces such as the
Yemen or Persia, which were sympathetic to his household, even
though he was advised by some of his family members to do so.
Above all, had he acted promptly on the invitation of the Kufans,
while Umayyad control over the city was weak, he might have had
a fair chance of success in grasping temporal power. In the
six-month period before the battle of
Some of the writers on
I leave it to God to choose what is best.... God is not hostile to him who proposes the just cause.
From these replies it is clear that
Husayn was fully aware of the dangers he would encounter and
that he had a certain strategy and plan in mind to bring about a
revolution in the consciousness of the Muslim community.
Furthermore, it is also very clear from the sources, as has been
pointed out above, that Husayn did not try to organize or
mobilize military support, which he easily could have done in
the Hijaz, nor did he even try to exploit whatever physical
strength was available to him. On the contrary, from the moment
A careful study and analysis of the
He realized that mere force of arms would not save Islamic action and consciousness. To him it needed a shaking and jolting of hearts and feelings. This, he decided, could only be achieved through sacrifice and suffering, and therefore, in order to save Islam and its values, and the freedom of man and his dignity, Husayn made one of the greatest sacrifices in human history. Eighteen male members of his family including a six- month-old son and 44 of his companions were killed in front of him and then he himself laid down his life at the altar of truth and human rights.
Husayn's body, already torn by numerous wounds, was trampled under the hooves of the horses, his tents were burnt and looted; the helpless women and children were shamelessly paraded through the streets of Iraq and Syria as captives, and were treated with humiliation at the crowded courts of Ibn Ziyad in Kufa, and Yazid in Damascus.
Husayn was fully aware of the extent
of the brutal nature of the reactionary forces. He knew that
after killing him the Umayyads would make his wife and children
captives, and take them all the way from Kufa to
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