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Newsletter for July 2012
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Karbala: Paradigm of Islamic Resurgence
by ANNEMARIE SCHIMMEL
The martyrdom of Imam
Husayn ibn ‘Ali (‘a) and his companions in Karbala’ proved to be
the beginning of the downfall of the Banu Umayyah
dynasty which had usurped the Islamic khilafah by deceit, repression, and corruption of the Muslim community. Though the Imam (‘a) was
martyred with his family and companions, and apparently his murderers seemed to emerge winners from the conflict, it was the martyr of
Karbala’ who was the real victor. The mourning ceremonies that have been held through the last fourteen hundred years to commemorate this
most significant event in the history of Islam are generally known as Muharram ceremonies, as they are held during the month of Muharram in
remembrance of the ‘Ashura’ movement. This incident has its background whose elaborate details have been given by Muslim historians and I need
not cite them here. Briefly, it may be said that Imam Husayn’s revolt, staged against the tyranny, injustice, and repression of the regime and
torture and execution of pious Muslims, which violated the Islamic concept of a just Islamic polity and society, was to uphold the ideals
and values of Islam propounded in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (S), to rescue the higher human values, moral, social,
political and spiritual, and to preserve the true spirit of Islam. It was basically aimed by the martyred Imam (‘a) to rescue Islam as the
message of the last Prophet, a message that had to endure, not only in the hearts and spirits of saints but on the plane of society, and he
achieved his purpose most completely. The episode of Karbala’ became the everlasting stage on which, more than anything else, the great
spirit of an Imam of the Ahl al-Bayt was put for eternal display, not in mere words or traditions recorded in books, but against the
background of the greatest tragedy in human history and scenes of love and loyalty, bravery and sacrifice, nobility and high spirituality,
blood and battle, and also those of treachery and betrayal, human abasement and wretchedness, perversity and depravity. Due to his
refusal to compromise with godlessness and tyranny, the Imam has been remembered as the very embodiment of tawhid, of la ilaha illallah, by
all great Islamic mystics, thinkers, writers and poets. In the words of the great Indian Sufi of Iranian origin, Khwajah Mu’in-al-Din Chishti:
He gave his life but wouldn’t give his hand in the hand of Yazid (for allegiance, bay’ah)
Verily Husayn is the foundation of la ilaha illallah
Mahmoud Ayoub in his study of the devotional aspects of ‘Ashura’, Redemptive Suffering in Islam, justifiably interprets the Imam’s
message to Muslims as a call for enjoining good and prohibiting evil. In a will he made to Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah while departing from
Makkah, the Imam declares:
Indeed, I have not risen up to do mischief, neither as an adventurer, nor to cause corruption and tyranny. I have risen up solely to seek the
reform of the Ummah of my grandfather (S). I want to command what is good and stop what is wrong, and (in this) I follow the conduct of my
grandfather and my father, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.
In a letter that he wrote to the people of Kufah, in a short sentence he outlines the Islamic concept of a worthy ruler:
By my life, the leader is one who acts in accordance with the Scripture, upholds justice in society, conducts its affairs according
to what is righteous, and dedicates his self to God. Was-salam.
Addressing Hurr ibn Yazid Riyahi and his troops, who had been dispatched by ‘Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, the infamous governor of Kufah, to
intercept the Imam’s caravan on the way and to stop him from entering Kufah, Imam Husayn (‘a) quotes this tradition of the Prophet (s), which
states the duty of Muslims vis-a-vis corrupt and un-lslamic rulers:
O people! Verily the Messenger of Allah (s) said: "Whoever observes a sovereign legalizing what God has made unlawful, violating the covenant
of God, opposing the Sunnah of the Messenger of God, and treating the creatures of God sinfully and oppressively, and does not oppose him
with his speech and action, God has a right to bring him to the same fate as that of the tyrant." Indeed, these people (i.e. Yazid and the
ruling Umayyads) have committed themselves to the following of Satan, and abandoned obedience to God. They have given currency to corruption
and abolished the Islamic laws, plundering the public treasury, making lawful what God has forbidden and forbidding what God has permitted.
And I, of all people, have a greater right to act [in accordance with the Prophet’s exhortation].
On reaching Karbala’, a point where they had been forced to discontinue their journey and to disembark on the orders of Ibn Ziyad, the Imam
stood up to address his companions. In that sermon he declares that life under tyranny is not worthy of man, unless the people rise in an
attempt to restore the higher values.
Don’t you see that what is true and right is not acted upon and what is false and wrong is not forbidden? In such a situation, the man of faith
yearns for the meeting wit’, his Lord. Indeed, (in such conditions) to me death is happiness, and life under the yoke of tyrants is disgrace.
Giving the details of Imam Husayn’s refusal to accept a tyrannical and unjust ruler, starting from his journey from Madinah to Makkah and
afterwards through its various stages until the Imam reached Karbala’, the scene of his battle and martyrdom, historians refers to verses
which are said to have been recited by the Imam on the night of the 10th of Muharram (the day of ‘Ashura’):
O Time (dahr), fie on you of a friend.
How many are those you claim at the morn and eventide.
Many a friend, and many a one seeking revenge,
Yet Time is not satisfied with a substitute or proxy.
Truly judgment belongs to the Glorious One;
And every living soul takes the path [of death].
It is important to note that the Imam’s address to Time inspired a number of Muslim thinkers to propound a new revolutionary concept of
Time with reference to the Qur’anic verses in the Surat al-’Asr. The Imam did not actually vilify time, but he condemned the time-servers.
Otherwise Time, as interpreted by Iqbal, the contemporary philosopher poet of the Indian subcontinent, is, in the light of the Qur’an and the
Prophetic traditions, an expression and manifestation of the continuing process of God’s creativity as well as the creativity of the human
being. While addressing Time, Imam Husayn (‘a) indicated that man is not a time-server but time is at the service of man. He proved by his
example that man has the power to turn the tide of time and he actually did it.
The tragedy of Karbala’, which was in the words of Imam Khumayni the symbol of blood’s triumph-the blood of the martyrs-over the sword,
transformed not only the history of Islam but also human history for ever. Husayn (‘a) initiated a movement that proved to be an archetype
representing an eternal struggle of truth against falsehood, justice against injustice and tyranny, human dignity against dehumanization,
the revolt of the oppressed against oppressors, and overpowering of the strong by society’s weak. The unlslamic rule of the Umayyads was
challenged after him by his followers and descendants, such as Zayd ibn ‘Ali, Yahya ibn Zayd, and before them by Mukhtar al-Thaqafi and the
Tawwabin, which created a ferment that finally resulted in the overthrow of the Umayyads and the coming to power of Banu ‘Abbas, who
deceitfully claimed to avenge the martyrdom of Husayn (‘a) and to advocate his revolutionary mission.
However, this movement continued to be inspired by the message of ‘Ashura’ during the reign of the ‘Abbasid caliphs and afterwards. The
emergence of Shi’i Sufi movements, like those of the Sarbidaran, the Nuqtawis, and the Mar’ashis, as well as the Fatimi-lsmaiili sects,
culminated in the victory of the Safawi Sufi order in Iran, who made it a point that the ‘Ashura’ movement should continue as an inspiring
force and dynamic principle in Muslim polity and society. It were the Safawis during whose reign the ‘Ashura’ commemoration ceremonies took a
The remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala’ as a ritual did not remain confined to Iran and Iraq, but also influenced the socio-political and
cultural life of Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. As a result of this, in India, particularly in Avadh, there developed a culture that
was inspired by the spirit of ‘Ashura’ which was all-embracing. Other Muslim sects and even non- Muslims came under the cultural influence of
Unfortunately this movement, which represented a resurgence of the ‘Ashura’ culture in literature and other art forms, gradually
degenerated in the course of time in Iran, Iraq, and the sub-continent, losing its revolutionary spirit. One of the greatest contributions of
Imam Khumayni is that he recreated and revived the spirit of ‘Ashura’ through his messages against the despotic Pahlavi rule and the
exploitive domination of alien powers over Muslims throughout the world. Some of his disciples and contemporaries have also contributed
to this ‘Ashura’ic resurgence of Islam, Shari’ati and Mutahhari in particular. Imam Khumayni and other champions of the revolutionary
ideology of Islam in Iran made use of the traditional ritual ‘Ashura’ ceremonies to reach the common Muslim masses for effectively conveying
their message to the grassroots of the Muslim society.
There have been various attempts in the Muslim world to reinterpret and reconstruct Islamic ideology to meet the challenges of time. Ghazali
demolished what was in his view unlslamic in the ideas of Muslim philosophers; Jamaluddin Asadabadi, popularly known as Afghani,
emphasized the importance of ijtihad and propagated a pan-lslamic ideology; his followers in Egypt and the Arab world, particularly
Muhammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida’ and others, revived the practice of ijtihad in the Sunni world. Before them, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah
Waliullah had made attempts to awaken Muslims to the needs of the time and revive the Islamic spirit. In the late nineteenth and twentieth
centuries Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Iqbal tried to reconstruct Islamic beliefs according to the challenges of the time and the ascendant
supremacy of science and Western philosophy. In the words of Iqbal, all the earlier Muslim thinkers had failed in their mission because they
destroyed the prevalent philosophies but could not reconstruct Islamic ideas on a secure ground, and they failed to influence the Muslim
society in general.
This failure, in my view, is due to these thinkers’ inability to reach the Muslim masses and convey their message to them in a popular idiom.
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