In the present Islamophobic social and political climate, at a time when extremist Muslim acts of terror and bloodshed dominate the news, many Shias feel fear or nervousness about commemorating Ashura as something that feeds the current stereotype of Muslim bloodthirstiness. On closer examination of the Ashura epic, however, we find that indeed it not only illustrates for us all that is noble in the human spirit, but it is also is a commentary on the cruelty and savagery of the religiously misguided that is an eerie prediction of what we are experiencing today.
On the surface, the epic of Ashura is about jihad on the battlefield and the heroism and sacrifice that entails. If we restrict our view to this, it would not provide much guidance to us in non Muslim environments like the west where we are not engaged in violent warfare as the extremists would like us to think. There is another approach and that is seeing the epic of Ashura on the level of meaning and symbol, as well on the level of human psychology. It is on this level that much can be learned.
The struggle of Imam Husayn and his companions is an outward reflection of the struggle between good and evil in the human soul and all the other actors, good and bad are representative of the inner forces in that struggle. Whilst outwardly we all identify with the Imam and his supporters and condemn and disavow his enemies, in reality we sometimes behave like them and their personalities could reflect our own.
The people of Kufa, for example knew that Husain was right and that the Umayyad regime was tyrannical and wrong, they invited the Imam to come and govern them. This implied forming a base to withstand and combat the political domination of the Umayyads. Like we all do, they were lying to themselves, a character flaw, which in the science of akhlaq (character formation) is considered another form of lying called, lying in intention and determination. This is a kind of lie when someone lets themselves believe that they could do something while in reality they do not have the capacity to do it and would abandon that activity at the slightest difficulty. This self deception is especially morally questionable when one easily abandons achieving high ideals when faced with the threat of material loss as the people of Kufa did; and especially poignant when the weak-willed give a promise to support a spiritual leader and back down to save their skins abandoning him to his fate.
The same problem affects us in our souls. When we embark on a spiritual exercise but abandon it in favour of worldly interests, for example, or wanting to be charitable but avoiding it because we fear loss, or embarking upon doing the night prayer but abandoning it because we prefer to sleep. The more we do this the weaker we make our Husayni spirit until we end up making Islamic practice into a fetish, that is, admiring good works and feeling some sense of accomplishment due to this admiration without doing them ourselves. When we do this we are the people of Kufa regardless of how much we identify as belonging to the Shia school of thought.
The epic of Ashura is full of examples of people who compromise their values and ethics for worldly position and possessions, but also of those who shift their allegiances from being on the side of the wrong to the side of the good. Hurr is an excellent example of this. His story moves from being instrumental in preventing Imam Husayn and his caravan from escaping the approaching army, to his changing sides and then to his eventual repentance and death. At first he is the consummate soldier, defined by his discipline and strong sense of duty following the orders of his superiors. As soon as he finds out that the intention of his commanders was to kill Imam Husaynn, the grandson of the Prophet, he is dramatically confronted with his conscience. Truth and realisation gives him a stark choice; it’s one between success and power on one side and death, having this world or losing it on the other, a choice between heaven and hell. While others easily chose this world, Hurr, clearly distressed, chooses heaven. It is after choosing the next world over this one that he is truly prepared to repent. One cannot repent before one chooses the afterlife as the goal of one’s existence. It is because we lose sight of the true goal and get caught up in the petty goals of this world that we continue to sin, for sins are the result of ghaflah or forgetfulness. Hurr shows us that choosing heaven over earth is not an easy one, it is almost traumatic. He is described as pacing up and down and trembling so much that others thought it very uncharacteristic of the brave and valiant soldier that he was. It tells us something, it tells us that it is not a flippant thing done in comfort and relaxation. One has to experience a crisis where the choice is stark and threatening to make the proper choice of the afterlife.
KarThe armies of Yazid are portrayed as a savage horde that is as cowardly as they are vicious. As individuals they hide in ambush and as a group, scatter when frontally attacked. As a group they behave with rabid hostility when they gang up upon the fallen companions of Husayn and strike them with frenzy. They represent the true nature of the unbridled ego or nafs. It is a soul that is wild and animalistic, one that that finds psychopathic pleasure in depriving others of their rights, property and freedom, a soul that is motivated only by plunder, profit and expropriation.
When we look at the atrocities of Daesh, Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda and groups of this kind, the Shia, familiar with the trials of the Husayni family and Companions see great similarity. Both groups take great pleasure in beheading people, murdering prisoners and disfiguring bodies. Like the enemies of Imam Husayn, one can see the smiles upon the faces of these criminals as they hold up the severed heads of their enemies. There is no kindness in their hearts. They stand as testimony to the fact that religiosity is not enough to restrain the vicious animals we hold inside, it is only the self restraint of piety and the wisdom of the actualised intellect that can do so.