There is a lot that can be said of a society by looking at their heroes and role models. We could almost say ‘tell me who your role model is and I’ll tell you who you are?’ To have a role model to look up to can be a good way to survive in difficult and confusing times. The problem is that as society’s ethical values change so do its heroes. Yesterday’s heroes are not necessarily today’s.
If I was a Mongolian I might consider Genghis Khan as my hero and this would be a subjective consideration. Many imitate or take as their heroes ephemeral characters who briefly make the headlines, people who have nothing to teach, and contrary to what they believe are nothing more than insignificant extras on the world scene.
With society having pushed out from its heart and intellect the last residues of belief in a divine dimension, the heroes of today’s humanity are worldly individuals valued for their economic success, achievement of power or tabloid fame. In short, they are secularised like the society that has produced them.
Modern society has little room for ‘sacred heroes’ and broadly struggles to admit the concept of ‘sacredness’. Accepting the existence of the sacred is to accept that which transcends, that goes beyond man, time and space, towards the Eternal. Sacred is what reconnects our worldly life to the invisible forces of the supernatural world, where things are kept in order by laws that are for man but orientated towards the Divine. True heroes are an effusion of the Sacred that is why they really and truly exist in the sacred dimension. Their task is to remind us of our real purpose in life and as such operate in the domain of faith and belief.
The nearest possible term that can be used to describe them in our contemporary language is saints. Endowed with exceptional faith they perform exceptional acts of sacrifice. They live in the realm of certainty. It is their certainty that gives us certainty. They don’t ask to be followed; we follow them instinctively when we achieve awareness. Even those who hate them acknowledge their praiseworthiness and moral superiority; they cannot be mistaken, confused or compared to others no matter how powerful others are in this world. They are true historical personalities that cry out for the faith of humanity, easily distinguishable from imposters and charlatans. Their example is not time related and their remembrance becomes a duty for future generations that evoke their epic lives.
They have ranks and the highest of them are the closest to God, whose pleasure they see as the ultimate objective. They belong to whoever recognises them and the love for them is ever expanding. They come from a line of purity whose covenant with God was signed in the world of pre-existence.
God has granted them a master and his name is Husayn ibn Ali(a) the grandson of Prophet Muhammad(s) known simply by his followers as Imam Husayn(a). Among the heroes of history he has undoubtedly the largest number of followers. Last year more than two million people visited his grave at a single moment in Karbala, Iraq, with a constant flow of pilgrims throughout the year. It is not by chance that this Master of Heroes is from the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad(s). Like his grandfather, who completes the cycle of prophets, Imam Husayn(a) can be said to complete the cycle of heroes. He is the archetype of the martyred heros.
The story of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn(a) with his followers on the plane of Karbala in the year 61AH / 680CE, may be related to Islamic history, but in reality it has cosmic significance. If the Imam represents the custodian of Prophet Muhammad’s(s) true message, his killers, who obeyed the infamous Yazid ibn Muawiya, represent the trend within human history intent on desecrating the Sacred. Their objective is to slow down or destroy the generating power of the spiritual force, to remove the dynamic presence, capable of generating via institutions, cultures, laws, religion…, spiritual values that are above the individual, constant and unchangeable.
Today the followers of the Prophet Muhammad(s) are occupying the front lines of the struggle against selfishness and utilitarianism and in this the example of Imam Husayn(a) provides us with clear lessons of intent and purpose.
Bravery and courage are virtues appreciated universally but they are wasted if not placed at the service of the highest ideals, worse still if put at the service of those who oppress and massacre humanity (this applies to Muslims too). This is why the heroic struggle of Imam Husayn(a) is incomparable with any other struggle of the past and of the future.
His discerning followers understand this. His story and struggle is not about rivalry between two ancient families of the Arab Qureshi tribe, these are just details of history. The real picture is much broader with implications in all aspects of daily life. It has to do with the historical corruption of true Prophetic Islam, and the failure of a community to bring forward the Prophet’s vision of Islam rather than a caliphal, monarchical and dynastical interpretation embodied by those who came to rule the Muslim world.
Historians are quick to point out that less than 50 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad(s) his community had allowed the structure of the Islamic political system to turn into a dynastical family with Muawiya ibn abu Sufian at its head. This system is not to be confused with the wise, pious, just prophets/kings of the Old Testament.
There is no doubt that today there is much confusion in the world of Islam as it is outside. What is right? What is wrong? Who is just or unjust? Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor?…….. In the absence of such clarity we take comfort in the words of Prophet Muhammad(s) who said about his grandson; ‘Indeed Husayn is the Beacon of Guidance and the Ark of Salvation.’
For the lover of the Prophet and his family, Imam Husayn(a) is the ultimate hero. The beacon of his light is guiding generations after generations and will continue to do so. No special features are needed to see it and be guided by it except humbleness and the acknowledgment of the Sacred.
I am sure that in a world that has confined the sacred to hidden corners there are still people capable of being moved by the guiding light of true heroes. We will do our best to help Imam Husayn’s(a) light to reflect in all directions by living by example and honouring him with perpetual remembrance.
Yazid I’s ascension to power in 680CE through the machinations of his father Muawiya was not complete. The grandson of the Prophet Muhammad(s), Husayn ibn Ali(a), highly respected by the community and whose opinions and actions were important, rejected legitimising Muawiya’s plan. His famous reply that ‘a person like me can never give allegiance to someone like Yazid’ is an exhortation for us to analyse the characteristics of the two personalities to realise that they represent two opposing realities, two parallel dimensions, one carnal and soulless represented by Yazid, and the other spiritual, soul-edifying, hope-giving, despair-removing and heroic represented by Imam Husayn(a).