Every year Muslims throughout the world observe with great solemnity the 10th of Muharram as a day of great tragedy. It was on this day that Imam Husain, along with his 72 relatives and friends and supporters were martyred in Kerbala (Iraq) in 61 A.H. (Islamic calendar). For last 1400 years Muslims have been mourning this tragedy. And for Shi'ah Muslims this day of Muharram known as 'Ashura has even greater significance. Sunni Muslims too observe this day with great solemnity.
What is the significance of this day? Why Muslims observe 10th of Muharram with such solemnity and so much mourn the death of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam? What is important to note that all Muslims across sectarian lines (except perhaps the Kharijites) accept the significance of the tragedy of Karbala. It is maintained, and rightly so that it was martyrdom of Husain which gave new lease of life to Islam. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the great sufi saint from India says in one of his ruba'i (quatrain) that 'so much so that Husain is the very foundation of la ilah (hatta ki bina'i la ilah ast Husain)
In order to understand this we have to go to the very background of this tragedy and for that we will have to understand the significance of Islamic revolution itself. The Arab society before Islam, as endlessly has been pointed out by many scholars and historians of Islam, was a tribal society without any higher civilisation or culture and without any written tradition, much less any religious scripture or literature. It is said by Tabari, and other historians that there were on 13 persons in Mecca who could read and write. There was no tradition of learning in Meccan society of the time. However, there was strong oral tradition as also of oral poetry as in most of the tribal societies. And this poetry amounted to much more than folk songs. This could be rated as higher genre of poetry.
The pre-Islamic Arabs were hardly interested in seeking knowledge. In fact they took pride in being illiterate. There was no tradition of meditative or reflective knowledge also. However, a great change was taking place in the Meccan society. It was not merely a static tribal society but a dynamic society with emerging international trade relations and Mecca being in route to borders of Roman Empire, had also emerged as an international finance centre of significant proportions.
Thus there was a sharp social contradiction emerging in the society: a primitive tribal social structure with no traditions of higher learning was moving in higher gear of international trade and finance. This contradiction, though motive force, was also causing a social malaise. Mecca, in other words, was in great need of a socio-religious revolution, a moral revolution and a revolution of knowledge and ethics.
It was this socio-religious backdrop for appearance of Islam on the Meccan scene. It was a great revolution, revolution of knowledge, of ethics and morality, of great social, economic, political and religious significance. W. C. Smith, a great Islamist from Canada says that Islam was the greatest and most systematic effort to usher in social justice before Marxism.
Islam, it is interesting to note, laid great emphasis on acquisition of knowledge, on equality of all human beings and on social justice. Knowledge, 'ilm, was not only repeatedly emphasised but was equated with light and ignorance - jahl - with darkness and posed the question 'Can darkness be equated with light'? One who is ignorant is like blind and one who acquires knowledge like one who can see. Thus Qur'an brought the revolutionary message of knowledge - 'ilm. In twenty- first century it might not appear of such gigantic proportion but in 6th Century Mecca, such fundamental emphasis on knowledge was no mean revolution.
Also, in that world of sixth century which was socially deeply hierarchical such emphasis on equality of all human beings and equality of dignity for all children of Adam - something which we have not achieved even in twenty first century - was, to say the least, was of utmost significance. Needless to say, the world then could hardly appreciate significance of the concept of equality of all human beings white or black, rich or poor, Arab or non-Arab, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Also, today in the post-modern world we have begun to understand the importance of plurality of cultures and religions. The Qur'an declared then, more than fourteen hundred years ago, the importance of plurality and taught respect for all the prophets and religious guides, hadis. In fact the Qur'an says that if Allah desired he could have created one ummah, one religious community but he created plurality in order to test us whether we can live in peace with each other. (5:48) The Qur'an, while doing away with all differences of caste, creed and colour emphasised the message of istibaq al-khayrat i.e. vie one with the other in virtuous deeds rather than quarrel about superiority of one's own faith.
The Qur'an also laid emphasis on distribution of wealth equitably. It warned against wealth circulating only among the rich and being accumulated by the few depriving others of their basic livelihood. The importance of this message was also realised only in twentieth century. No one in those days had thought of equitable distribution of wealth. Today it is duty of every state to ensure welfare of weaker sections of society. In the world then weaker sections counted for nothing. At the most they were object of charity and could not think of rights.
Islam did not make weaker sections only object of charity but gave them rights. The concept of zakat is not the concept of charity. It is tax on the wealthy, a share of weaker sections in the wealth of rich, a tax even to pay debt of indebted and to free the slaves in addition to take care of widows, orphans and the poor (9:60). It denounced concentration of wealth (9:34).
Not only this: it took another revolutionary step. It empowered women and gave them equal rights (2:228) and 33:35). It even gave women right to earn and own properties besides right in inheritance as daughter, as wife and as mother. This was very revolutionary step which Muslims of that time also could not appreciate, much less practice it honestly. The prophet of Islam (PBUH) made acquisition of knowledge for women as obligatory as for men. Groups of women used to go to the Prophet to acquire knowledge, ask him questions and many female companions of the Prophet became source of narrating Prophet's tradition and important source of knowledge for scholars of subsequent generations.
Women played very important role in Islamic history until they were confined again in the four walls of their houses by the society ironically in the name of Islam. In Karbala too, as we will see, Susain's sister Syeda Zainab, played very important role. The concept of equality of sexes was most revolutionary one and ahead of time by centuries and hence could not be practised by Muslims of that time and even today Muslims, mostly living in feudal societies, are not able to realise its significance.
Thus Islam came to Arabs and non-Arabs as a liberative religion, a transformative movement and hence the rich unbelievers of Mecca opposed it as they had powerful vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They believed in continuing uninterrupted accumulation of wealth, enjoying all pleasures of life without realising the significance of spiritual side of life. In other words it was crass materialism for limited few and unending suffering for the people at the bottom of economic and social hierarchy. The powerful rich of Mecca opposed Muhammad (PBUH), not so much because of his doctrine of unity of God (tawhid) as for revolutionary implications of his teachings on their wealth and prestige. Islam gave the poorest and slaves equal rights, and demanded judicious distribution of wealth, something the rich of Mecca would never accept.
But all those who were suffering and all those who realised the importance of spiritual side of life and significance of social justice rallied round the Prophet and suffered all persecution and indignities in order to make Islam successful. Many of them happily courted martyrdom in various battles fought by the Prophet so that Islamic revolution succeeds. It is interesting to note that the word for martyrdom in Qur'anic terminology is shahadah which means witness.
Thus martyr shahid is one who witnesses, at the cost of his/her life, the end result of his/her martyrdom. The moment of shahadah is the moment of witnessing, witnessing what is one dying for. Thus they die in order to live permanently in the form of social revolution they help usher in. It is in this sense that Qur'an says, "And think not of those who are killed in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they are alive being provided sustenance from their Lord." (3:168) Thus it is in this sense that a martyr lives permanently by giving his life so that others can live. They make humanity permanent, sustenance of human life permanent by giving their own life. It is living through others. It is permanently witnessing fruits of ones own sacrifice.
If martyrdom of any believer is so significant the martyrdom of Husain, the grand son of the Prophet himself, is even more significant. We will throw light on the significance of Husain's martyrdom (shahadah) below as to why it has such special significance in the history of Islam that he is referred to as shahid-e-a'azam i.e. the greatest martyr.
The period after the demise of the Holy Prophet was not an easy period. The period saw many controversies, of succession to the Prophet, share in power by different tribes, clans and regional groups and about method of appointments of caliphs. The period of 30 years - the period for which the Caliphate lasted was full of turmoil, violence and civil war. More than hundred thousand people are reported to have been killed during this period. This period also was the period of major conquests. It was during this period that major parts of Roman and Sassanid empires came under Muslims.
These conquests not only brought great deal of wealth but also created new power equations and political conflicts. The Islamic shura' (consultation) system also came under great stress. Ali, in order of elected caliphs was the last caliph. His standards of justice and his enforcement of Islamic ideals was very rigorous and now the new class of governors and power brokers which was coming into existence, resented these rigorous enforcement of standards of honesty and integrity and began to create other power centres. Ali's letter to one of his governors Malik Ushter, bears witness to the rigorous standards Ali wanted to follow in his administration. This created many enemies for Ali.
Thus the power centre began to shift to those who were hardly committed to Islamic ideals and revolutionary goals of Islam. They were interested more in either capturing power or enhancing their share in it. Ali was martyred by Kharijites (seceders) as a result of conspiracy while he was praying in the mosque of Kufa early in the morning. After Ali's martyrdom his elder son Imam Hasan was elected but the people of Kufa were enticed by the new ruling class in Damuscus, Syria and was forced to abdicate in favour of Mu'awiyah. Thus now a new centre of power came into existence away from Islamic centre of power.
This shift was very fundamental and had far reaching consequences in Islamic world and in the history of Islam. It was, in fact a paradigm shift and Maulana Maududi, a theologian and political theorist of Islam from Pakistan, termed it a shift from Khilafat to Mulukiyyat (i.e. from caliphate to monarchy) (See his book Khilafat se Mulukiyyat). This shift created new political tensions in Islamic world. As far as Caliphate was concerned, it was far more democratic and Muslims of different origins had say in it and Caliph used to consult prominent Muslims before any policy decision.
However, due to this paradigmatic shift in politics, power was concentrated in the hands of one person. There was no consultation for major policy decision. The Islamic caliphs had not allowed any change in their style of living and had tried to stick to the simplicity advocated by Islam and practised rigorously by the Prophet (PBUH). The caliphs used to consult companions of the Prophet before taking all major policy decisions or before laying down Islamic law. Successor was not appointed from caliph's own family or matter left to the Muslims.
Now all this changed forever. Damascus was far away from centre of Islam and much closer to Roman Empire. And this was not symbolic but substantive. The new power centre was much closer to Roman imperial ways than to Islamic ideals. Mu'awiyah now created atmosphere of Roman court, put on expensive silken robes considered prohibited for men in Islam and constructed a palace to live in. Now imperial orders were issued and the rich and powerful were favoured and companions of the Prophet had no role in shaping the policies of the state. This was a big difference from the Caliphate period.
The change was not limited to this. The question of succession also underwent a radical change. When Imam Hasan abdicated in favour of Mu'awiyah one of the conditions of the agreement signed was that Mu'awiyah will not appoint his successor and leave the question of successor to the Muslims. However, Mu'awiyah did not fulfil this condition and appointed his son Yazid as his successor. Thus shift to monarchical model of rule was complete.
After the death of Mu'awiyah Yazid took over reigns of power. This shocked all the important companions of the Prophet. Even a person like Abdullah bin 'Umar, son of Hazrat Umar, the 2nd Caliph who was not much interested in political matters, refused to recognise Yazid as a legitimate successor of Islamic Caliphate. Imam Husain of course refused to accept Yazid as legitimate successor for two reasons: Firstly, he became successor in violation of the agreement between Imam Hasan and Mu'awiyah as the agreement stipulated that the matter of succession would be left to the Muslims to decide. And, secondly, Yazid's personal conduct was totally unacceptable to any pious Muslim, let alone to Imam Husain.
Yazid was neither a companion of the Prophet nor he had cared to imbibe any of the ideals of the Islamic revolution. He was brought up as a prince rather than an Islamic revolutionary or activist. He adopted all the ways of pre-Islamic Arabian society, drinking, enjoying all the material pleasures without any ethical or moral considerations. Also, many historian of Islam tell us that the Umayyads (Banu Umayyah) had never accepted Islamic principles and Islamic morality. Arab paganism ran through their blood (with some exceptions, of course). Yazid even ridiculed teachings of Islam.
Naturally Imam Husain strongly disapproved of all this. He was brought up not only in Islamic atmosphere but was brought up by Fatima and Ali. Fatima was the dearest daughter of the Prophet who had spent every moment of her life with the prophet from her childhood until the death of her father. The Prophet himself had shown highest respect for her and for her integrity.
Ali was also under the patronage of the Prophet (PBUH) from his childhood and he had made maximum sacrifices for the sake of Islamic revolution. He was not only the flag bearer of Islamic revolutionary army but one who had deeply imbibed Islamic values. He, after the Prophet, was most knowledgeable about Islam. The Prophet used to say that "I am city of knowledge and Ali is its door." (Ana madinah al-'ilm wa 'Aliyun babuha). Thus Imam Husain had imbibed all this and was highly respected by all Muslims. There was no comparison, absolutely not, between Yazid and Imam Husain.
Mu'awiyah, disregarding all this appointed Yazid as his successor which negated all that Islamic revolution stood for. In fact appointment of Yazid, with his un-Islamic conduct, was, what could be called as counter-revolution. Husain, who had lived Islam every moment of his life and had been brought up by parents like Fatima and Ali, could not accept appointment of Yazid as Caliph of Muslims. It meant a counter-revolutionary heading a revolutionary regime. This was just not possible. There was absolutely no place for monarchy in Islam, no place for negation of various ideals of Islam.
Yzid wanted Husain to give bay'ah (pledge of loyalty) to him as Husain was person of extra ordinary importance in the Islamic world. His recognition of Yazid would have meant silencing all the critics and would have legitimised his appointment. Yazid thus gave top priority to extracting bay'ah from Imam Husain and Imam Husain was determined not to give bay'ah to Yazid. Accepting Yzid as legitimate ruler of Muslims would mean endorsing all that Islam stood for.
Islam stood for dignity of all human beings irrespective of caste, creed and colour or social status. Yazid, on the other hand, stood for superiority of one clan over the other, he stood for morality of period of jahiliyah (ignorance) when Arabs lived in an era of darkness without higher morality, without any written and codified law. Women had no rights and status and so in Yazid's court also women were an object of pleasure and enjoyment rather than human beings. Brotherhood and equality were replaced by social distinctions and feudal hierarchy. Non-Arabs and non-Umayyads were treated as lesser beings. Piety and fear of Allah (taqwa) was at a discount.
Islam, in other words, became merely a powerful political establishment and was losing its revolutionary fervour. Husain, the only true inheritor of Islamic values of equality, justice and brotherhood, refused to legitimise Yazid's regime by pledging political support to him. This incensed Yzid and he ordered his governor in Madina Walid either to take bay'ah from him or to behead him. Husain, coming to know of this plot left Madina and went to Mecca. He left Mecca also realising that Yazid was after his blood in the holy city of Mecca also.
Husain then came to Karbala, a city on the bank of river Furat and encamped there as he was prevented from going to Kufa. Imam Husain was invited by people of Kufah to lead them against Yazid but people of Kufa were also silenced by unleashing terror on them through 'Ubaydullah bin Ziyad. Husain's emissary Muslim bin Aquil who was sent to Kufa by Husain to gauge the mood of the people of Kufa was also killed by Ibn Ziyad.
Husain, it is important to note, did not fight Yazid to get political power as alleged by some. He fought Yazid and sacrificed his life and those of his friends and relatives to restore values of Islamic revolution. He could not see Islamic values being trampled underfoot by Yazid and his supporters and era of darkness being restored. The martyrdom of Husain undoubtedly gave a new lease of life to Islam and Islamic values. It is in this sense that Moinuddin Chishti, the Sufi saint of Ajmer, said in his quatrain that Husain is the very basis of la ilah which is the founding principle of Islam.