Less than 50 years after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad (s), a small remnant of his family found themselves captives of the rulers of the Muslim state. They had been dragged through the Iraqi desert, with the women dishonoured and most of their men killed. Among those martyred was Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. How could something like this happen? How could the followers of a religion of justice and mercy have gone so wrong, so quickly? More importantly perhaps, how did it happen? How did the Muslim community go from lovingly gathering around the Prophet to killing his precious grandchildren in less than two generations? These issues are at the very heart of the schism that eventually manifested itself as the split between those who came to be known as the Shia and the Sunni factions of Islam. There are events in world history where the significance of what takes place far outstrips its mere historicity. A first-century Palestinian Jew is crucified between two thieves at the behest of Roman authorities, and today over a billion Christians see the crucifixion of Christ as the ultimate symbol of God’s deliverance of humanity from sin. Six centuries before Christ, an Indian prince sat under a tree, vowing not to move until he had transcended the cycles of birth and rebirth. Today hundreds of millions of Buddhists look at the enlightenment of Siddharata Buddha as the very model of how to rise above attachment and ignorance. The martyrdom of Imam Husayn(a) was such an event. At face value, it represented the massacre of 72 people at the behest of a corrupt and violent ruler. It would be not the first and not the last time that the blood of innocents has been shed on this Earth. And yet for many Muslims, particularly for those who call themselves the Shia, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn on the 10th day of Muharram (referred to as Ashura) is indeed a cosmic event whose significance is far greater than a bloody massacre in the remote plains of 7th century Iraq. In all such cases, the crucifixion of Christ, the awakening of the Buddha, and the martyrdom of Husayn, the events become a symbol, a map of something fundamental about the nature of universe: that there is sin and it must be redeemed, that there is attachment/suffering and it must be transcended, and that there is injustice and one has the cosmic responsibility to rise up against it. In all of these cases, what happened there is also projected against all time and space.
It would be not the first and not the last time that the blood of innocents has been shed on this Earth. And yet for many Muslims, particularly for those who call themselves the Shia, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn on the 10th day of Muharram (referred to as Ashura) is indeed a cosmic event whose significance is far greater than a bloody massacre in the remote plains of 7th century Iraq.
Christians not only look back at the crucifixion of Jesus, but see that act of redemption as shaping their lives here and now. For Buddhists, the key is not how that Indian prince became awakened, but rather how we are to be enlightened. And for Shia Muslims the question is not what Husayn(a) did on the plains of Karbala in Iraq in the month of Muharram of the year 680, but rather what are we doing today. This is the power of religious imagination, which makes every place a sacred place, and every day a sacred time. An Iranian intellectual of the middle of the 20th century said it best: Every day is Ashura Every place is Karbala May we remember that in order to avoid fossilising Ashura, we should remember that the real question is, what are we doing today? Honouring Imam Husayn (a) is not to sink into the abyss of melancholy, but rather to engage in “carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair,” as other teachers have reminded us. What would best serve the cause of Imam Husayn and Islam is not just to sit in mourning but rather to rise in protest, rise majestically like Imam Husayn(a) against all the Yazids of the world today. It is not the tears that I object to, but tears that do not lead to identification with today’s meek, tears that do not lead the cry of the heart to take up direct action today. We should avoid the trap of what some have called pious irrelevances, and cultivate a potent, politically aware, spiritually charged and effective faith that is put to the service of today’s Husayns. The Yazids of the world are sometimes individuals every bit as devious as Shemr and Yazid of yesteryear, but more often they are entities and concepts like oppres – sion, greed, occupation, militarism, brutality, violence, and every oppressive ideology that stands in the way of affirming the dignity and integrity of each and every member of humanity. There are Husayns today. In every corner of the earth where there are marginalised and the poor of the earth, there are those who bear the perfume of Husayn. And everywhere there are Yazids of today who oppress the Husayn-like meek of the Earth, and shed the blood of innocents. May all these Yazids, literal and metaphori – cal, be upended on every Ashura, so that we can realise the daily relevance of the teachings of a beautiful and meaningful Islam. May we rise to embody the spirit of revolution in countering tyranny and oppression. •
Omid Safi is Head of the Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina and author
of “Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters” published by HarperCollins (Nov 2010).
This adaptation is curtsey of the author.