Battle of Karbala

What is the meaning of Imam Husayn's sacrifice at Karbala?

by Reverend Frank Julian Gelli

Father, the angels cried when Imam Husayn was killed!’ a devout Muslim named Hasan told me in Beirut. ‘It was the fulfilment of a message. Jibril, the bringer of revelations, had announced it to the Prophet Muhammad at his grandson’s birth’, he continued. ‘The Imam was visited by the Prophet the night before they killed him. His grandfather told him of his impending martyrdom. It was ordained…’ The man was visibly moved. Tears streamed down his haggard face. More pious or legendary narratives followed. An amazing one being that of Wahab al-Kalbi, the Christian man who fought and fell at Karbala on the side of Husayn: fascinating!

Husayn’s death in the desert of Iraq at the battle of Karbala is no legend but fact. Almost inevitable, given the massive disproportion between his followers – 50 men plus women and children – and his foes, an army of 5000. The outcome was a slaughter and a crushing defeat. The details are harrowing: the Imam’s lifeless body was outraged, stripped, trampled on by horses and his head was cut off. Nonetheless…who really won in 680 AD at Karbala?

Historian Hugh Kennedy comments how many Muslims felt that the much-loved grandson of Islam’s Prophet ‘had been brutally done to death by the forces of godless oppression’. The humiliated, the oppressed and the insulted of the umma, the grassroots people of Islam, henceforth regarded Husayn as emblematic of their sufferings, as well as of their hopes of redemption. His antagonists, the Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, are generally unlamented.

Husayn was in his way to Kufa in Iraq, invited by locals who wanted him as their leader. Others, prudent ones, had warned him against going: ‘The Kufans are a fickle and unreliable lot.’ ‘Even if their hearts may be with you, their swords are not’, al-Farazdak, a poet, had told him. ‘At least don’t take the women and children with you’ somebody else had advised. They all had failed to dissuade the son of Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. Why? Total trust in a God who is on the side of the just – that is the answer. Thus Husayn and his people were not afraid of dying for a righteous cause.
The Caliph of Damascus was Yazid. The son of Mu’awiya, the ruler of Syria. The man who had become Caliph after Husayn’s father, Ali, had been assassinated. Immensely astute and cunning, Mu’awiya came from the influential mercantile aristocracy of Mecca. His father, Abu Sufyan, was Muhammad’s implacable enemy. His mother’s fame, Hind, is notorious. She deeply loathed the Prophet and had Hamza, Muhammad’s uncle, killed with a javelin and then she cannibalised his corpse – not a nice lady! However, after the Prophet’s triumph they all embraced Islam. The phenomenal success of the Arab conquests brought them much power and rich pickings – a huge Empire. The Meccan privileged clans were determined to cling on to the loot.
The initial Caliphate had not been hereditary but Mu’awiya willed to establish his family as a dynasty. Whether this was Islamically lawful or not is for Muslims to debate but certainly Mu’awiya persuaded many to recognise his son Yazid as his successor. Only Husayn and a few others declined, keeping a dignified, disdainful silence. The arrogant Caliph was no man to forget that.

Across the vast world of Islam the first ten days of this month, Muharram, are known as Ashura. For the Shia’ it is a time of remembrance, mourning and lamentations, in condolence for the martyrdom of Karbala. The theatre is not part of Arab culture and tradition but ad hoc passion plays are performed, re-enacting the bitter sufferings of the Imam and of his followers.
Although simple and amateurish, they powerfully affect the spectator. I found myself mesmerised in watching them. My only reservation, speaking as a Christian, was in sensing about me an atmosphere, an almost palpable desire for revenge. The salutary words of St Paul then arose before my mind: ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God’.

What went on at Karbala? What is its significance? On one level it was the culmination of a struggle for power. Who was to rule the Muslims? Husayn or Yazid? The descendants of the Prophet, of Ali and Fatima, or those of Abu Sufyan and Hind?

The Shia’ faithful of course perceive the battle as something more than unfolding on a human, mundane plane. It was a heavenly determined event, a spiritual combat, the earthly manifestation of a cosmic fight between good and evil. Under the opaque veil of mere contingent history, Karbala was as supernaturally awesome and crucial for human destiny as Waterloo and Stalingrad are said to be in the secular realm. Or like Moses opposing the Pharaoh, Hasan claimed.

Bloody, remote and exotic events of no or little significance for a materialist, unspiritual West? Maybe once but no longer. Muslim communities, now a firm and permanent reality in Europe, are understandably stirred and excited by the old emotions. The civil war raging in Syria – fought at the doors of Europe, if Turkey is in Europe – is partly between factions whose banners are those of the antagonists at Karbala. Shia’ people now suffer from endless, daily terrorist attacks throughout Islam. Passions will run high during the next days of Ashura.

Next Saturday the priest will speak at a public gathering in Peterborough, before the Cathedral. A Peace Vigil will remember the sacrifice of the noble Husayn. Peace. An excellent and most apposite title. Not war but peace is what all human beings yearn for. The peace of God. God’s gift. A peace such that the world cannot give. That is because the Peace of God is one that surpasses man’s understanding. A mysterious, glorious, tremendous Salam, Shalom, Irene: God’s Peace!


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