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For those not well acquainted with the life and death of Imam Husain(a.s.), the commemoration of his martyrdom is seen as an emotional occasion - a cry of the heart for what is lost. It is this, but it is also much more than this.
It is a time when the fundamental tenets of Islam (those truths which are the very heart and essence of the Qur'an) are remembered and re-affirmed.
The events at Kerbala act as a focal point for primary Qur'anic principles. It is as if all the rays of truth shining forth from the Qur'an are collected and brought into sharp, precise focus at one place and one moment in history. And the lesson made so clear that none could doubt it.
The Qur'an is a book which urges man to expand his vision beyond his immediate surroundings and past the confines of the narrow strip of time he inhabits. It presents a view of a world backed by a truth, a purpose, a pure intention. And like the rhythms and cadences which manifest themselves during its recitation, it presents history as a meaningful pattern unfolding slowly, patiently, against the background of time.
So the Qur'an is far more than a series of commandments, a list of what is halal and haram for mankind. Rather, it seeks out the root causes behind man's condition and lays out a pattern of life which will allow man to emerge from this condition and fulfill his human and spiritual potential.
In order to do this it seeks to cultivate an attitude within the heart and mind of man, an attitude which needs to become an integral, inseparable part of the human personality to be truly effective - a condition of mind known as submission, or Islam.
But it is a submission which grows out of the awareness, the understanding, and the recognition of the Reality behind existence which the Qur'an sets forth. Such a submission leads to iman (belief informed by true and correct knowledge) which in turn leads to ihsan (goodness or beauty which flows from the inner character and inner content of a person).
This obedience to The Reality which underlies all Creation is not a passive servitude but an active movement, a never ending migration of man's nature and will in the direction of God. It does not arise out of an acceptance or capitulation to the current state of affairs, for that would be a movement toward "shirk" - a submission to the world, nor does it originate in needless, stubborn rebellion, for that would be foolishness and impatience.
No, this submission is based on a foundation of discipline and struggle and guided by an intellegence and knowledge that must go beyond the simple compilation of facts and observations if Islam is not to be lost in a quagmire of directionless traditions and artificially generated legalities. The Qur'an is a clue to the living pulse of history, not a mere recitation of ancient tales, and as such it requires of man a vital, energetic submission.
This is why the Qur'an refers to religion as an ascent - a process of becoming, rather than a state of being. This is why the Most Noble Messenger(P.B.U.H.) is ordered by God to rise up and become active for the sake of mankind when he is told:
"O thou shrouded in thy mantle, Arise and Warn!" (Sura 74)
This is why prayer in Islam is not a passive meditation but a process full of movement. And finally, this is why Jihad (striving in the way of God) is a part of the very substance of Islam as a dynamic submission, a continuous struggle waged until "...man 'reaches his origin and the heights of spirituality' - meaning God and the full potential of man."
It is said of the Imams (Peace be upon them all) that their worth and high standing came because they had achieved an understanding of the Qur'an in both its inner and outer dimensions. They had attained the heights of spirituality, and accepted the heavy responsibility which God conferred on man when He made him His vicegerent on the earth.
So it was with Imam Husain(a.s.).
When Husain moved towards Kerbala he was carrying out the responsibility which his Islam (his submission) required and he did so with a depth and profundity that arose from iman and displayed itself with ihsan. His journey towards Kerbala was a movement against the untruth of Yezid's rule. It was a movement designed to shatter the pattern of corruption which had manifested itself under the banner of Islam. And it was left to one man, with his family and a small band of followers to accomplish this.
In an age when falsehood was in the ascendancy, Husain came forward as a witness to the Truth.
This is the meaning of the word "shahid" or "martyr". A "shahid" is one who is present as a witness for truth and against falsehood. He is one who has actively carried his submission forward in life and fulfilled his duty even unto death - and each step towards his death is filled with beauty, wisdom, patience, and knowledge - not with desperation, spite or violent hatred.
By committing this act of absolute surrender to God he embodies within his action the true essence of pure Islam. By his death he brings the principles of Islam to life, and by his blood and the purity of his sacrifice all that is false and narrow stands convicted and condemned.
So, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husain ibn Ali is more than just a time of weeping for those who fell in Kerbala.
It is a time for re-affirming the truth which rose up from the blood of the fallen.
In the Qur'an, the Prophet Ibrahim(P.B.U.H.) says:
"I have set my face to Him Who created the heavens and the earth, in all exclusivity. My prayer, my sacrifice, my life, and my death are for God, the Lord of the Worlds.... Of this I am commanded, and I am of those who surrender." (Qur'an 6:162)
Muslims who hold the painful memory of Kerbala in their hearts, affirm this attitude of submission with every beat of hand against chest, and with every repetition of the name of Husain.
- Irshaad Hussain
"When I studied History of the
Mideast, I was told that the crossroads at which the Shi'ites diverged
from the Sunni Muslims was the ambush where a descendent (Husayn) of Muhammed was killed.... My professor
argued that the Shi'ite movement when it was crystallizing, vowed to
avenge this death, and that to some extent this spirit of pain, anger,
and revenge stayed with the Shi'ite community ever since. What do you
think of this view?"
What your professor spoke about is the massacre of the people of the Prophet's household (his grandchildren) that took place under the orders of the Muslim government of that time. But this is not a matter of Sunni-Shi'ite differences - this is a matter of an unjust government (the Ummayads) that perpetrated an action that was reprehensible to all Muslims. However, the government presented itself as a legitimate Islamic government (even as many rulers of Muslim countries do today) because to come out openly against Islam would have nullified their supposed legitimacy. They were efficient at propaganda, efficient at political manipulation, efficient at simultaneously terrorizing and placating their populace, efficient at manufacturing religious justification for their policies, and ruthless against all who opposed them. Much of the religious distortion they produced continues to cause confusion even today. However, there is no Sunni (who has even a small amount of Islamic historical knowledge or understanding of Islam) who will try and justify the slaughter of the Prophet's closest family members.
The situation at that time was one in which those who represented the spiritual heritage of Islam (the Prophet's family and most knowledgeable companions) were put aside. Those who held power (the Ummayads) carried only the external formalities of religion while concealing vast, systemic internal corruption. Karbala was the place where this external facade ruptured even while "pious" propagandistic justifications were offered as excuses for the brutal action taken against the Prophet's own household and family members.
Once there was a conflict between some bats and a chameleon. The
bats agreed that when night fell they would gather as warriors,
attack the chameleon and, having taken him captive, punish him to their
heart's delight and extract their revenge. When night came they all
together dragged the chameleon into their nest. and that night they
held him prisoner.
At daybreak they wondered how they could torment the chameleon. They
all agreed he should be killed, but they wondered how best to carry out
the execution. Finally they decided the worst torment would be exposure
to the sun. They themselves, being bats and accustomed to darkness and
shadows, knew of no torture worse than being in the sun, and making an
analogy on their condition, they threatened him with exposure to the
sun. The chameleon, of course, wanted nothing better. Such an execution
was what he desired "Slay me, my friends, for in my being killed is my
life. My life is in my dying, and my dying is in my living."
So when the sun rose they cast him out of the blackness of their
house so that he would be tormented by the rays of the sun. The torment
was his salvation.
"Thou shalt in no wise reckon those who have been slain in the cause of God as dead; nay, they are sustained, alive in the Presence of their Lord, rejoicing for what God of his favor hath granted them." (Qur'an 3:169)