The Spirit of Karbala
By Nasim Zehra
Islamabad, Pakistan

Throughout history the power of narrative has remained a potent force for constructing common zones of collective existence - ones that often travel through multiple generations. Power of the narrative is like the miracle that overwhelms the human consciousness with its pathos, its sensitivities and its emotional appeal. Few narratives in history have so captured the human consciousness, as has Karbala.
Karbala was a struggle against the immoral exercise of State power exercised by Yazid. Imam Hussain refused to accept Yazid as the Caliph and chose to continue the spiritual struggle to keep the Message of Allah alive. On Yazid’s insistence and the invitation of the people of Kufa, Imam Hussain set out to wage an active struggle against Yazid.
Political developments and Imam Hussain’s personal choice to resist Yazid’s attempt to present himself as a Muslim Caliph led to the battles between one of the most asymmetrical forces of justice and injustice. At Karbala the family of the Prophet (A.S.), his grandson Imam Hussain and granddaughter Bibi Zainab, their families and supporters waged the struggle in a manner that was steeped in courage and compassion. No pain or injustice inflicted upon the Prophets’ family compelled them to betray the teachings of the Prophet.
An event that took place more than thirteen hundred years ago has indeed left powerful lessons for humanity.. Four are particularly significant. One, Karbala represents indivisibility of being, of values, of sensitivities, of thoughts and of action. So in the heat of the struggle, the correctness of human behavior must not be compromised. Pursuit of the virtuous and the moral provide no license for the immoral. In collective zones these are easy licenses to give to oneself. We see this licentious behavior at display in Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq, in Afghanistan; maybe in most battle fields. No less this license is at work when suicide bombers target the innocent.
Karbala is the story of combining the struggle with the best of human values. In the tradition of his grandfather the Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala, Imam Husain demonstrated that the efficacy of the message of struggle is entirely linked to the character of the messenger. Character is the first prerequisite for establishing the validity of the message.
Two, in life your relationship to the context is an obligatory one. Depending on where you are located in the context and your level of consciousness and knowledge, opt for the effective path. The effective path is one through which you can actually impact upon your context; one that allows you to resist what is unjust, illogical and violates the sanctity of globally shared natural and rational values. For Imam Hussain initially not offering allegiance to the politically and morally depraved Yazid was an effective non-confrontational path. Yet when Yazid denied Hussain the space to take this non-confrontational path, forcibly seeking political allegiance, the Imam had to adopt the path of battle. Given Hussain’s spiritual legacy, convictions and sense of responsibility as the Prophet Mohammad’s (A.S.) grandson and the call for help from the people of Kufa, battle was an effective path for Hussain. At Karbala, Hussain demonstrated that even when the space available to you to fulfill your obligations to your context is squeezed, do not abandon your ideals; redraw your roadmaps in pursuit of ideals, in pursuit of your obligations to your context. Karbala’s most compelling message remains to  let your ideals remain your guiding principles. They enrich your soul and spirit and give purpose to collective existence and define the obligation to one’s context. Life without ideals, without struggle is to exist at the margins of the human grandeur.
Three, while flexibility in your path is wise, flexibility in your own conduct in the pursuit of ideals is not. There is therefore no battle big enough, compelling enough to diminish the fundamentals of Allah’s Commands that set the parameters for individual action. Compassion, patience and kindness are the irreducible minimums that the Qur’an lays down even in the pursuit of justice on earth. At Karbala Hazrat Imam Hussain (A.S.) led the most difficult and perhaps the most inspiring act of balancing Allah’s Command. In violating no fundamentals of humaneness as laid down in the Qur’an even in the face of physical annihilation, the Prophet’s family bequeathed in perpetuity to humanity the lesson that is so relevant in the present times: the lesson of discipline in struggle.
Four, Karbala effected a revolutionary recasting of power, both in content and in practice. The strength of the martyred Imam’s message confronted the oppressive power of its times. The message and power of resistance pauperized the riches of the corrupt and vile. Imam Hussain’s own conduct at Karbala, in executing his responsibilities, in conducting his relationships, in engaging with the enemy, presented power in a changed context; it was power away from brutality. Karbala not only threatened tyrannical power, it also humanized power. Karbala tutored subsequent generations also in the values of justice, fair play, respect, dignity, patience and tolerance. Karbala’s values have connected generations. Ultimately it is around the swivel of values that the human civilization connects. Take a look around to know that the contemporary calculus of power that informs most politics is a doomed calculus. The utter fragility of being is not hard to comprehend with the crumbling structures of immoral power and of that surround us.
The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst. Email:



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.