Witness to Karbala

30 Aug 2020


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

ON the burning sands of Karbala 14 centuries ago, mankind’s noblest characters — represented by Imam Husain, his family members and loyal companions — and its absolute worst, in the shape of the Umayyad imperial horde, were on display.

From the Husaini camp, there are numerous shining examples that personify courage, magnanimity and steadfastness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Leading this list is Imam Husain himself, who bravely took on the tyrant of his day to save the very foundation of Islam. Moreover, Bibi Zainab’s stirring khutbas (sermons) in the courts of Kufa and Damascus shook the throne of Yazid, while Imam Zain al-Abidin’s eloquence and patience in the face of calamity has few parallels in history.

Yet another sublime example emerges from this venerable camp: that of Imam Muhammad bin Ali al-Baqir, grandson of Imam Husain and son of Imam Zain al-Abidin. While Imam Baqir was a minor on the day of Ashura, he was a key witness to this massacre, and played an instrumental role in preserving and rebuilding the Islamic edifice after the martyrdom of his grandfather and other family members on the plains of Iraq.

As recorded by late Iraqi scholar Shaikh Baqir Sharif al-Qarashi, quoting ninth-century historian Yaqubi, Imam Baqir remembers Karbala thus: “My grandfather was killed while I was four years of age. Indeed, I remember his murder and what hit us during that time.”

From the Husaini camp, there are numerous shining examples.

As a child, Imam Baqir was an eyewitness to events that still shake anyone with a conscience centuries after the fact. Foremost of these was the brutal slaying of Imam Husain. As mentioned by renowned muhaddith (traditionalist) Shaikh Abbas Qummi in Nafasul Mahmum — one of the most authentic accounts of the Karbala tragedy — Imam Baqir relates that his noble grandfather suffered over 320 wounds from lances, swords and arrows.

But it did not end there. Imam Baqir witnessed Bibi Zainab, his aunts, sisters and other female relatives — members of the house­hold of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) — treated as prisoners of war by the Umayyad army and held in unspeakable conditions. Moreover, his father Imam Zain al-Abidin, also known as Sajjad, was made to march in fetters in the scorching deserts of Iraq and Syria.

Yet what is truly remarkable is that even after experiencing such harrowing circumstances, which would have broken even the hardiest of individuals, when Imam Baqir reached adulthood, he played a vital role in rebuilding the Islamic edifice after it had been severely battered by the Umayyads.

After Karbala there were severe restrictions imposed by the state on members of the Ahlul Bayt. Imam Sajjad started rebuilding the infrastructure of Islamic learning in highly testing times, through his duas and remembering the tragedy that befell his family on Ashura.

After Imam Sajjad, Imam Baqir built on this foundation and using the mosque of the Holy Prophet as his base, restarted the process of propagating Islamic sciences in the manner of his great-grandfather Hazrat Ali. This was all the more important as the Umayyads — preoccupied with the expansion of their empire and tribal politics — were little concerned about matters of learning and spirituality, and there was no one, other than members of the Ahlul Bayt, to fill the void.

The impact of Imam Baqir on Islamic learning can be gauged by the fact that his title means ‘opener’, pointing to the fact that he opened and spread knowledge at a time when Islamic society was slipping back into the ways of ignorance. While Damascus served as a hive of imperial politics and intrigue, Madina al-Munawwara, under Imam Baqir’s guidance, once again became the centre of learning.

Tafsir, hadith and all other branches of knowledge thri­ved in Madina as men of learning flocked to Imam Baqir in order to quench their thirst. In fact even the Umayyad emirs turned to the Imam when unable to answer the great philosophical questions of the day. After Imam Baqir, his son Imam Jafar al-Sadiq would carry forward this stellar tradition of scholarship and piety, giving shape to modern Islamic theology as we know it.

In these times of adversity, when most of the globe is enveloped in crises of different kinds — political, economic, security and health-related — the inspiring personality of Imam Baqir offers a fine exemplar.

After Karbala Islamic society was at its lowest ebb, while at a tender age Imam Baqir suffered an immense personal loss. However, instead of withdrawing from the world this noble soul used his God-given knowledge and his strength of character to revive the ummah, all the while keeping alive the tragedy his family underwent so that revisionists were unable to twist the facts.

Imam Baqir’s life teaches us that in the face of great adversity, those who rely on Allah and the way of His Prophet stand their ground and illuminate new paths for the benefit of mankind.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2020