SO many centuries after Karbala, Imam Husain continues to inspire people across the world in many different ways. In fact, his magnetism seems to go beyond ritual and devotion; it speaks to the deepest parts of the human soul and tends to bring out the best in mankind.
There are countless examples of how Imam Husain has inspired people towards excellence, to create a better world for mankind and to reject injustice and tyranny. The Imam’s inspirational mission statement before he left for Iraq — in which he expressly stated that he was not taking a stand against the Umayyad state for personal glory, but for betterment of the community — counters the flawed argument by some that suggests that Karbala was a personal, political battle.
There was of course a political facet to Karbala: the Imam was doubtlessly opposed to the transformation of the Islamic community into an imperial juggernaut under the Umayyads. However, he was particularly concerned about the moral and spiritual decay of the community under a ruler like Yazid. But let us leave the spiritual and gnostic aspects of the Hussaini struggle for another day; let us focus on how Imam Husain continues to inspire.
There are many examples of how Imam Husain has inspired people.
Poets and sages have throughout history lamented the fact that the Imam, many of his family members and companions were martyred after being denied water for three days. In fact, thirst is a central symbol in all forms of azadari. Today, especially in the subcontinent, people from different communities seek to quench the thirst of others — complete strangers — by offering cool water, milk, sherbet etc at sabeels, in memory of those parched lips.
The sabeel is just one manifestation of the spirit of altruism Karbala inspires. Countless people inspired by Imam Husain are working across the world in their own way to change it for the better. One of these efforts is the Who is Hussain? movement. Originally started in London in 2012, the movement has spread to cities across Europe, North America, the Gulf, Africa and the subcontinent. It seeks inspiration from the Imam because “Hussain cared more for shared human understanding than for titles and names that divide us.”
Whether it is volunteers picking up litter at Karachi’s mourning processions, distributing free water bottles at an international cricket match in England, or raising money for literacy campaigns in developing countries, the people behind Who is Hussain? take their inspiration from the Imam. These and other noble acts reflect the spirit of Islam that is oft quoted, but rarely seen in Muslim societies — a spirit that owes a great deal to the Husaini struggle.
This spirit is also powerfully manifested during the Arbaeen/Chehlum commemorations in Iraq. Arbaeen is one of the biggest human gatherings on earth; as per the BBC, last year’s event attracted around 17 million people to Iraq, as they marched to Karbala. Yet the Iraqis — again inspired by the Husaini spirit — have done a remarkable job of hosting these visitors, despite their meagre resources and the ever-present threat of terrorism in that barely functioning country.
Many zaireen (pilgrims) choose to walk from Najaf al-Ashraf, the resting place of Hazrat Ali, to Karbala. This is a distance of around 80km and can take between two to three days to cover by foot. Other zaireen walk from even farther afield in Iraq, sometimes covering hundreds of kilometres on foot. However, what is truly remarkable is the hospitality the locals extend to those headed to Karbala despite Iraq’s fragile situation.
Those who have walked from Najaf to Karbala say it is a life-changing experience. All along the route lie thousands of mawakeb where travellers to Karbala are offered meals, places to rest, medical attention — all free of cost. This is logistically and financially a mammoth undertaking, while the visitors and hosts both know their lives are at great risk considering Iraq’s continuing battle against militancy and terrorism. But there is one major factor that keeps pulling them towards Karbala: the love of Imam Husain. In fact, what is Karbala, other than a manifestation of divine love?
In this age of materialism, cynicism and doubt, divine love is the much-needed antidote that makes man realise a spiritual, higher reality beyond his material needs. And without doubt, Karbala is a testament to divine love.
As one mourns over the Imam’s sufferings at the hands of the Syrian hordes, the heart is awakened and softened, able to feel the suffering of mankind. In fact every Ashura, the conscience of those who think and feel is shaken out of its slumber and reinvigorated with new life. Man is a forgetful creature; perhaps this is why the divine plan has decreed that Karbala never be forgotten.
Ultimately, Imam Husain represents courage, faith and love — values that are universal and eternal.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2015