Lessons from Karbala
By Farhan Bokhari
“I am not rising (against Yazid) as an insolent or arrogant person, or a mischief-monger or tyrant. I have risen (against Yazid) as I seek to reform the Ummah of my grandfather. I wish to promote good and forbid evil.” – Excerpt from the last sermon of Hazrat Imam Hussain (AS) before departing from Madina on his journey for the epic battle at Karbala, Iraq, 61 Hijri (680 AD).
Last week saw a wave of congregations across the world, dedicated to mourning the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain (AS), the younger son of Hazrat Ali (AS) and Bibi Fatima (AS), the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him).
On Friday, the 10th day of the month of Muharram, remembered as Ashura, the commemoration peaked as mourners recalled and ought to relive, to the extent possible, each step through this tragic day whose memory has only become increasingly powerful with the passage of time.
But in this continued remembrance almost 14 centuries later lies the compelling face of the enduring legacy of Imam Hussain (AS), powerfully delivered through the strength of his message of defiance and inspiration to his followers.
In military terms on the day of this historic battle, the odds appeared to have been lined up squarely against Imam Hussain (AS). His small group of followers, by most accounts no more than 72, was no match for the large army dispatched by Yazid, the monarch.
The soldiers of Yazid under his personal orders had a narrow set of choices. They were to either seek “bayt” (allegiance) from Imam Hussain (AS) in favor of Yazid, which Imam Hussain (AS) had consistently refused, or to eliminate the Imam and his followers.
What followed on the 10th day of Muharram was indeed a tragedy of monumental proportions. All of the males, including Hazrat Ali Asghar, the six-month-old infant son of Imam Hussain (AS), were martyred at the hands of Yazid’s army, while the women and the remaining children were all taken captive. The sole male left to represent the clan of Bani Hashim, the household of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), was Imam Zainul Abideen (AS), who survived mainly because he was too frail to fight following a long-term illness.
The trials and tribulations for the household of Prophet Muhammad (PUBH) following this epic battle, took the prisoners of Karbala in humiliation on foot and on camels through an arduous journey to appear in the court of Yazid in Damascus.
The number of children who passed away en route to Damascus remains a matter of debate. But what is certain is that the journey saw many mothers part with their children who simply could not endure the painful ordeal.
A dungeon in Damascus, which will never pass the test of international human rights standards of today on the minimal accepted norms for a prison, was reserved to hold the captives of Karbala, ably led by Bibi Zainab (AS), the sister of Imam Hussain (AS), who became the torchbearer of his cause after the battle.
A visit today to this dungeon – a frequently toured site by scores of pilgrims who descend upon Damascus around this time of the year – is a mind-boggling experience. It is here that visitors are left frequently asking themselves the obvious question: “How would any able-bodied human being with an average frame, ever stand upright, given the tight space of the prison?”
Within Damascus is the huge complex once used by Yazid as his court. Known as the Omayyad Mosque, the scores of visitors to this shrine venture through its compound, seeking to trace the steps of towering figures from the household of Imam Hussain (AS), notably Bibi Zainab (AS), rather than those of Yazid and his forefathers.
While the martyrs of Karbala and their survivors were numerically no match for their foes, their remembrance to this day underlines the ever-growing strength of their cause. In the words of Imam Hussain (AS) himself, “Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala.” He was pointing to the enduring capacity of his stance.
The reference of Imam Hussain (AS) to the continued relevance of Ashura and of Karbala for time immemorial has proven true, in spite of many eras that have since passed under some of the world’s most brutal dictators, seeking to oppress their subjects. Courtesy The News