Karbala, The Greatest Truth

Karbala, The Greatest Truth
I experienced it a twelve years ago in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, India. I was taking part in a Muharram procession when I stopped to talk to a Sikh cloth seller. His shop’s porch was being used as a pulpit to read a eulogy of Imam Hussain (AS) and when it finished, I asked him why he allows the mourners to block his store’s entrance. “Syed Sahib, it is because of Hazrat Hussain that we earn our living. I am honoured that my shop is blessed so. If only there could be a Majlis in front of my shop every day.”

Later when I passed by the Hindu jewellers, I saw that they had opened their safes and carried their valuables outside to let the shadow of alams (flag standards) fall upon them. When I enquired about it. I was told that the shadow of alam is a blessing for their livelihood. After that, they closed their stores and joined in the procession and carried the Tazia, a replica of the mausoleum of Imam Ali (AS). Their children were distributing water and tea and then the Hindu Baniya community showered rose petals on the procession.

While watching all this, I recalled Fredrick Douglas' words, “When a Great Truth once gets abroad in the world, no power on earth can imprison it, or prescribe its limits, or suppress it. It is bound to go on till it becomes the thought of the world.”

After 14 centuries, the message of Imam Hussain (AS) and the message of Karbala rings true and strong. The message has thrived and found new followers despite centuries of virulent state persecution and covert subversion and obfuscation of truths. The cruelties and abominations of Imam Husain (AS) killers are universally condemned and offer clear proof of the victory of ideals against force, of eternal triumph against transient and ill-gotten gains. His martyrdom at the hands of those who would have destroyed Islam has been hailed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as the finest example of sacrifice, fortitude, patience, courage, and strength against adversary.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I learnt from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed. My faith is that the progress of Islam does not depend on the use of sword by its believers, but the result of the supreme sacrifice of Hussain.”

The reason for this universality of Imam Hussain (AS) is because the lessons of Karbala are not bound by religious beliefs and practices but tie into the very fabric of morals and ethics.

Can anyone be insensible to the tragedy of the family of the Prophet (PBUH) being starved and deprived of water in a burning desert and then massacred while striving to uphold truth and justice in a capricious world? Can anyone remain unmoved by the killing and beheading of a six-month-old child? Can anyone absolve Yazid and his band of murderers of the grave injustices done to the women of the Prophet’s (PBUH) household as they were marched thousands of miles as if slaves in a Roman triumph?

Photo credit: Sibtain Naqvi

These tragedies are universal in nature and affect all who have sensitivities and sensibilities. Unfetters and unbound, they reach across artificial boundaries and appeal to all those who believe in truth, justice, dharma, duty, sacrifice and love. A Hindu clan mourns for Imam Hussain (AS) till today and are called Hussaini Brahmin. According to accounts, Imam Husain (AS)'s wife Bibi Sheher Bano (AS) was the daughter of a Persian king whose other daughter was married to a Hindu king in modern-day India. A letter was sent to him reporting that Imam Hussain (AS) is starting his divine journey to free Muslims from the tyranny of Yazid. The king came too late to help the Imam but carried his message back to his people and they continue it to this day.

Karbala is pure ishq-e-junoon and this is why the myriad lovers of Imam Hussain (AS) identify him as their own, be they from any creed or culture. A Punjabi friend told me that when he was a child, he could have sworn that Imam Hussain (AS) was from his village while a Sindhi follower told me that he thought he’s from interior Sindh. Lucknavis see him among themselves, and a Lebanese said that he only knew of Imam Hussain’s (AS) Arab origins when he was well into his teenage years. This commonality exists because in fact, Imam Hussain (AS) is present in all these people and transcends culture and backgrounds.

As Josh Malihabadi wrote:

“Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do,

Har qaum pukaraygi hamare hain Hussain”

(The moment humanity awakens,

Every nation will claim Hussain as their own)

Today, there are some who have become so removed from the soul of religion and its moral implications that they have forgotten the lessons of Karbala and trivialise it. We now hear people wish each other “Happy Islamic New Year” on first Muharram as if it is Sunnat, even though for centuries, this time has been respected by all sects as the solemn month of mourning and prayers. We now see people celebrating their marriages and even utilising 9th and 10th Muharram holidays for enjoyment instead of reflection.

But this is not a subjective matter. It cannot be swept under the carpet and befuddled with the ‘free choice’ and ‘freedom of speech’ parrot cries. If you cannot determine good from evil than you lack empathy and not religion. Morality comes from the soul and only the soulless can be insensitive to evil. You don’t need religion to have morals. Religious affiliations can be subjective, but morals are not. Mourning is a human condition and to deny it means denying ourselves of a basic human emotion.

Regarding the mourning Iqbal said:

“Ronay wala hoon Shaheed-e-Kerbala key gham men main,

Kya durey maqsad na dengey Saqiye Kausar mujhey”

I am one who weeps at the plight of the Martyr of Kerbala

Surely the reward be given to me by the Keeper of Kausar

Just as doing a Nazi salute at Auschwitz is incredibly insensitive and a morally reprehensible

Photo credit: Sibtain Naqvi

act, denying Karbala and being insensible to the tragedy is a sign of moral turpitude. Truth and justice are universal ideals and Karbala is a shining example of the soul of every religion. Praying five times a day in a certain direction or going to the temple or communion are religious practices and so followed by adherents of a certain faith. These practices are to lead us to a higher truth and Karbala is the manifestation of these truths, Imam Hussain (AS) the personification of timeless truths and values, and so is praised by atheists such as Bertrand Russell and believers alike.

Nowadays, Imam Hussain (AS) is reverentially remembered by followers in Chicago, London, New York, Sydney, Paris, Beirut, and other places. Hindus, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and even atheists march alongside Muslims. The message of Karbala reaches across to lovers of truth everywhere and serves to strengthen Islam as it has for eons. There have been killings and terrorist attacks on processions and Imam Barahs but the processions continue unabated, the mourners mourn and the eulogies ring out. I asked survivors of the terrible bomb blast of 2009 that targeted the Ashura procession and killed dozens of mourners.

A Sunni Barelvi said, “I am now even more determined to go to next year’s processions. Imam Husain (AS) gives me that courage. If I am killed mourning for him then it will be the best possible way to leave this world.”

Imam Hussain’s (AS) supreme sacrifice saved Islam and morality on the field of Karbala, and it will for all time. As Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar wrote:

“Qatl-e-Hussain asl main marg-e-Yazid hai,

Islam zindaa hota hai har Karbala ke baad”

In the murder of Hussain lies the death of Yazid,

For Islam resurrects after every Karbala.

Sibtain Naqvi is a researcher and writer who focuses on cultural and institutional history. His latest book is "Unravelling Gordian Knots."