BEYOND rituals, Karbala is a living symbol that has for 14 centuries inspired man to rise above mediocrity, materialism and self-centredness and aim for the lofty heights of truth and sacrifice. It is a byword for chivalry and an ethical and moral benchmark. And the personality around whom all these sublime virtues and traits orbit is Hussain bin Ali.
In this age of moral bankruptcy and excess, where empty rituals dressed up as religion and rampant, selfish materialism are in an increasing competition to win partisans, Karbala stands out as a beacon, a revolutionary ideology that has the power to change human conduct and transform society. How right the sage of the subcontinent, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty, was when he emphatically declared ‘deen ast Hussain’ (Hussain is the faith).
All of us have heard the virtues of the Imam at different forums. For example, our rulers make it a point to issue statements every year on Ashura lamenting the Imam’s plight and pledging allegiance to his noble cause. Yet if they were even remotely sincere about walking on the path of Hussain, we as a nation would be in a much better condition. Very few of us endeavour to go beyond the tears and mourning rituals and dive into the bottomless ocean of ma’arifat (gnosis) that is Karbala.
The message of Karbala is not constrained by time and space: it is eternal, as emphasised by the tradition Kullu yawmin Ashura wa kullu ardin Karbala (everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala). And it is not limited to any particular sect, race or creed. It is universal. Josh Malihabadi put it best when he said that ‘Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do, har qaum pukare gi hamare hain Hussain’ (Let man awaken; every nation will cry out ‘Hussain is ours’). The name of the Imam contains within it a sublime substance that has the power to shake mankind out of its petrified slumber. Karbala has the alchemic power to turn lead into gold.
Two distinct philosophies emerged on the day of Ashura in 61AH: Hussainiat and Yazidiat (a third characteristic — that of the spineless Kufis also emerged — but that is a discussion for another time). With different names and with different faces, the Yazids of the day continue to propagate the philosophy of Yazidiat, its identifying characteristics being arrogance, tyranny, amorality and naked ambition. Yazidiat today has abundant manifestations, some of its more recognisable forms being terrorism, global neo-imperialism, economic injustice and oppressive regimes. And just as the Imam unmasked and challenged Yazidiat 1,400 years ago, so too must the Hussaini revolution continue in its struggle against oppression of all shades.
The need is to recognise the components of Hussainiat and to apply these to cure the spiritual and moral disease that is Yazidiat. The Imam’s message is stunningly clear across the expanse of space and time: resist the oppressor and side with the oppressed. This is beautifully communicated through one of the Imam’s sermons, quoted in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s The Martyrdom of Hussain:
“You witness the existing state of affairs. The world has changed its colours. It is completely devoid of virtue…. Don’t you see that truth has been relegated to [the] background? Falsehood is deliberately being acted upon. It is high time a believer should try to defend the truth for the sake of Allah…. It is an offence in itself to live with oppressors”.
Tears for the martyrs of Karbala soften hearts but are not enough. Karbala teaches one the twin lessons of ilm (knowledge) and amal (action). Azadari, or mourning for the Imam and his companions, is in fact a dynamic force that has carried the revolution of Karbala through the ages. It cannot be limited to rituals and it cannot be stopped by terrorism. It infuses the Hussaini spirit within all who hear of and are moved by the Imam’s struggle. As reputed scholars have stated, azadari stands for character building: a person of unremarkable character should leave a majlis a changed person.
It would be unfair to mention the merits of azadari without crediting the driving force behind the movement and the primary exponent of the Hussaini revolution: Zainab bint Ali. For it was this brave lady of the household of the Prophet (PBUH) that marshalled the women and children of the Ahlul Bayt when all the male adults of the house — apart from Imam Ali bin Al Hussain Zain Al Abidin — had been martyred at Karbala.
This distinguished lady upheld the dignity of the Ahlul Bayt, while her fearless speeches, mirroring the eloquence of her noble father, shook the court of Yazid under the most adverse of circumstances. It is to Syeda Zainab we owe an eternal debt for preserving the truth of Karbala and preventing the distortion of this gross injustice of history.
It is beyond this writer to comment on the power and articulation of Syeda Zainab’s epochal speeches from Karbala to Damascus. But it would not be wrong to say that after the blood of the martyrs had been shed in Karbala, Syeda Zainab launched her own jihad through her moving speeches. The courage and faith of this noble lady can be gauged from the address she delivered in Yazid’s court:
“Oh Yazid! We take our case to the court of Allah and rely on Him. We will not deviate from our righteous path under the pressures of your oppression and deception… You will not be able to obliterate our name for our message and divine mission cannot be destroyed just as your shame and disgrace cannot be washed clean.”