THERE is debate in Muslim societies about the need to project ‘true’ Islam. Considering the abominable acts carried out by militants and terrorists in the name of religion — which make the average believer recoil — this is a valid concern.
Rather than the gruesome violence being perpetrated in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and in our very own backyard by the self-declared champions of religion, the enlightened among the believers prefer to highlight the devotion, compassion and sense of community that lies at the heart of Islam. And perhaps few events in Islamic history embody these noble attributes than do the events that transpired in Karbala on Ashura, 61AH. Perhaps to find the ‘true’ face of Islam, we need to focus our attention towards Karbala, and the valiant stand of Imam Hussain.
Two major characteristics can be witnessed in Karbala: the heroism of the Hussaini camp, and the cruelty of the Syrian horde. Far from being a battle for power — as some short-sighted revisionists have described it, between the Banu Hashim, the clan of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and the Banu Umayya, the clan of Yazid — Karbala was a battle of values. Imam Hussain epitomised the values of nobility, courage and strength of character, while the Imam’s Kufan and Syrian opponents, especially their masters in Damascus, adhered to the ‘values’ of treachery, brute force and subterfuge.
Hazrat Abbas typifies the height of Islamic and indeed human values.
And amongst the best examples of Hussaini values in the field of Karbala was none other than the Imam’s half-brother and the alamdar or standard-bearer of Karbala, Hazrat Abbas bin Ali.
Hazrat Abbas stayed true to Imam Hussain till the last moments of his life. He exemplifies the height of Islamic and indeed human values, in the face of unimaginable adversity and cruelty. A few instances from the battlefield would suffice to illustrate his noble character.
As is well known, the Hussaini camp was outnumbered many times over by the Syrian legions. There are various accounts detailing the number of fighting men in Imam Hussain’s camp, with most putting the number between 70 and 100. Confronted with the full, brutal might of the Umayyad imperial force — some historians have stated that four fully-fledged lashkars had arrived from the garrison town of Kufa — it indeed required unparalleled courage to take a stand at Karbala. But that is exactly what Imam Hussain and his followers did; a stand that has gone down in the annals of history.
As recounted in Nafasul Mahmum, one of the more authentic accounts of Karbala, compiled by master traditionalist Shaikh Abbas Qummi, in the midst of this show of military muscle, one of the Umayyad commanders called out to Hazrat Abbas, appealing to his tribal affiliation from his mother’s side. The Syrian offered him amnesty if he were to switch sides. Hazrat Abbas scoffed at the offer, replying that he would never leave Imam Hussain alone.
Another example of Hazrat Abbas’s lofty character can be seen in the way he was martyred. An expert swordsman and rider, he was never one to retreat from the battlefield. However, on the day of Ashura, he was immensely moved by the thirst of the women and children of the Hussaini camp, as the Syrian forces had cut off access to water.
Requesting Imam Hussain to let him fetch water, he fought his way to the banks of the Euphrates, and despite the scorching heat of the Iraqi desert and the toll the battle had taken on him, he refused to drink until the women and children were satiated. However, as he was returning to the Hussaini camp, Hazrat Abbas was ambushed by the Syrians, who were under orders to prevent water from reaching Imam Hussain. The enemy cut off both his hands, and upon finding Hazrat Abbas wounded Imam Hussain is quoted to have said, “My spine is broken”.
Indeed self-sacrifice, faith and devotion — characteristics that were found in abundance in Hazrat Abbas — are the truly sublime and spiritual traits that make man eligible for the title of ashrafal makhluqat, the crown of creation. Hazrat Abbas stayed devoted to Imam Hussain even when he was offered amnesty; he risked his life to fetch water for others and was mercilessly martyred while trying to do so. Due to his love for the Imam one of his titles is “Bab al-Hussain”, or the Gate of Hussain, and his mausoleum lies not too far from that of Imam Hussain in Karbala.
As the Almighty says in Surah Rahman (verse 60): “Is the reward for good [anything] but good?” Today the memory of Hazrat Abbas’s acts of valour lives on across the world, wherever the alam or Hussaini standard is unfurled, announcing the victory of Imam Hussain.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2017