Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Those who are acquainted with a sublime understanding struggle (strive) “in God’s way,” for the sake of God, who sent the Book and the Prophet for the benefit of humanity, to guide us in fulfilling the covenant that we freely swore to, in a time above our time. When we took the sacred covenant, elucidated in the Qur’an, of which the tawaf of the Kaaba is a symbol and a sign, and which our nature, our fitrah, attests to even when we strive to turn away from it.
“When your Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam all their descendants, and asked them to bear witness concerning themselves (concerning their own souls): ‘Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?’ - They responded: ‘Yes! To this we bear witness!’ (This), lest you say on the Day of Return: ‘Of this we were ignorant’” (Qur’an 7:172)
Religion informs us of structures of existence, of the nature of existence, of our own created natures, of systems that encompass the material world. It informs us of our place within a much vaster reality than simply the material world, as expansive as the material world is. Religion gives us a view that says the material world is an entirely dependant subset of a larger more real metaphysical structure. Which is why there are so many instances of verses that deal with events that are not exclusively rooted in the material world. The Qur’an is saying, here are your true origins and here is your true place of return - so in your time in this universe do not lose sight of what is truly important. It posits a metaphysical universe of value and quality that is more key than the material world of matter and quantity. In this way, the verses of human creation, value, and of the covenant provide a valuable understanding so we can properly contextualize and understand our life in this world. With the covenant as an event that is one of the points of our origin and which suffuses our being and determines our beginning and our point of return we can ask, ‘If not for the covenant and our promise before God, for the sake of what do we strive in our life in this world?'
We all are familiar with ayat-al-Kursi (the verse of the throne), “God. There is no God but He, the Ever Living, the Self Subsisting….” (Qur’an 2:255) But it is truly worthwhile to return to the verses that immediately follow that ayat for they provide substantial and uncompromising insight into what life in this lower world requires and what adherence to our covenant entails.
Following the verse of the throne, the ayats read:
“There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance stands out clearly from transgression. So the one who rejects taghut and believes in God has grasped the reliable hold, which never breaks. And God is the Hearing, the Knowing.”
“God is the Patron (the wali) of those who believe; He brings them out of the darknesses (which are many) into the light (of truth and felicity). The patrons of those who go against truth are the taghut. They bring them out of the light into the darknesses....” (Qur’an, 2:256–257)
So, if not for the truth of the covenant and our promise to God as the center of our being and as our wali, for the sake of what do we struggle, according to these verses? It admonishes, that we will, unwittingly, struggle for the sake of the taghut. An interesting word. So “What is meant by taghut? What kind of word is it? Taghut is an emphatic form of tughyan (meaning outburst; inundation; rebellion; and the like.) Tagha’lma is derived from this, and means that water, which under ordinary, controlled circumstances, is life giving, reaches a flood stage and overflows its boundaries, bringing ruin to everything in its path. This is the definition of tughyan in reference to water. A destructive flood which sweeps away all in its path. So taghut characterizes the individual or the society that engages in tughyan, that is like the flood that only wants its own way, recklessly unleashing all manner of destructive desires that lead to harm. This word has a more far-reaching sense than the one philosophers and social theorists later later spoke of, which is still current - that is, mustabidd, a dictator, or tyrant - in that a tyrant may at least control his own passions, but the taghut departs from all social bounds and obligations and tramples them underfoot. It is as if the storms of the taghut’s sensual and passional drives have raged so far beyond possible control that he oversteps all bounds. Some suppose that taghut designates an idol; doubtless this is one possible substantiation of the concept, but this interpretation does not square well with Qur’anic usage.” (paraphrased from Taleghani, Society and Economics in Islam)
In sura Al-Nisa, the Qur’an states, “They wish to give their case jointly to taghut, whereas they were ordered to reject it” (Qur’an, 4:60). If the word refers to an idol: one does not take a case to an idol, giving it the power of influence, arbitration, and judgment. So it is clear that what is intended is not an idol. (paraphrased from Taleghani, Society and Economics in Islam) It is, rather, a system, a societal paradigm, a direction implemented, promoted, guided or let loose by those groups or individuals who, like the destructive floodwaters, overthrow all protecting boundaries in seeking what they desire, no matter what harm it may unleash.So let us return to the verses: “God is the Patron (the wali) of those who believe; He brings them out of the darknesses (which are many) into the light (of truth and felicity). And the patrons (awliya) of those who go against truth are the taghut. They bring them out of the light into the darkness….So the one who rejects taghut and believes in God has grasped the reliable hold, which never breaks. And God is the Hearing, the Knowing.” (Qur’an, 2:257–256)
So two alternatives exist, either God is ascendant in humanity’s existence, brought alive by our efforts and our striving after knowledge and understanding and our seeking the truth in His powerful Book, a book sent down that makes no prevaricating rationalizations to satisfy our egos and tainted sensibilities, but lays the truth out plain and straight but also with such depth and force that it sometimes frightens us. Either we seek understanding with utmost sincerity, and apply the truth, in our will and our inner life, with the result that each individual who strives in this direction, gradually emerges from the dull, stultifying murkiness of egoism, errors, and passions “and their vision expands by the light of knowledge, and a movement towards gnosis (ma’rifa), and foresight; or else taghut may overcome them.” (Taleghani, Society and Economics in Islam) The life of truth flourishes and grows under a true guiding wali, (a guiding friend and protector) concerned for the success of that which is permanent, for our soul and spirit. Our wali will be either God or taghut. “The patrons (awliya) of those who go against truth are the taghut. They strive to bring them out of the light into the darkness.” (Qur’an, 2:257)
If God is not the wali, if He does not govern or guide minds and hearts, taghut waits to govern, to step into the vacuum, to unleash the floodwaters of unregulated desire and a thousand ways of harm upon those who throw aside their protective shields. And this taghut ultimately takes Shaitan (Satan or Iblis) as their wali. “So he (Shaitan) is their wali today (in this world), and theirs (on that day of reckoning) will be a self-deserved torment.” (Qur’an 16:63) The taghut turn them from the light of the primordial nature, of intelligence and perception, of the covenant, and they are gradually drawn toward the darkness of ignorance, passions, errors, license, and malicious or pessimistic attitudes or influences that steadily move away from truth and a guidance that benefits humanity. So, just as He says in the verse, “Those who believe struggle and support God’s way,” He says likewise, “Those who disbelieve struggle and support the way of taghut.” They suffer, along with society as a whole, the rising floodwaters, and they stand in danger of damage to their souls and spirits. They become entangled in fitna brought upon by their affiliation or capitulation to taghut.
Imam Ali once asked, “Do people think they will not be tested because they say, We have believed?” (Qur’an, 29:2) Then he asked, “Do you know what Al-Fitna (a difficult trial) is?” A person replied, “May God keep my soul in service for your cause, in our opinion it is the trials and tests in the path of religion.” The Imam said, “People will be tested and refined (each within their own times) just as gold is tested for its quality and purity.” He then said, “Once fitna arrives, then they must be purified through trial and obedience as gold is purified and refined.... They must be refined, distinguished, and examined for what is in their hearts, what they do, and what they approve and disapprove. The sifting will prove a great many people as without spiritual worth for… “My Lord has prohibited indecent acts, whether committed in public or secretly by oppressors, or in public or secret by individuals.... Who strays more than one who follows their desires and rejects the guidance from God.” (Qur’an, 7:33, 28:50) (Al-Kafi, The Book of People with Divine Authority)
In the time of Karbala, fitna and the forces of taghut united in the government at Damascus. And the battlefield of Karbala became an intersection of a conflict between the spiritual guide of that age who, with his family, was utterly faithful to God’s way, striving to bring a society struggling in darkness into the true light of religion through bringing to life the most profound verses of the Qur’an. For Karbala was the Qur’an in action, a most profound tafsir of the Qur’anic ayats. It was the place where only God was taken as the Wali and the place of complete rejection of the ideology of taghut. It was the place where, once again, God became “the Patron (wali) of those who believe; (to) bring them out of the (many) darknesses and return them to the light.” (Qur’an 2:257) It was a metaphysical drama enacted in Karbala, one whose impact lifted it above time and made it relevant in every age - a drama that involves the inner nature of every human being. To take God as wali is to have the truest helper, a friend and protector who will give you truth and guide you in the best manner to your final goal, who in times of fitna and difficulty will clarify matters for you and will bring your heart to a state of beauty among all the temporary difficulties of a material world dominated by taghut. And Karbala and the nobility of Husayn is a most beautiful example of this metaphysical drama brought into sharp focus.
Although Husayn’s example has shaped us, and the history of Karbala is part of us, yet our internal connection to these continually needs to be reset, reflected upon, and reaffirmed. The commemoration of his martyrdom is a reminder, a chance to contemplate the weighty lessons of Karbala, to absorb them more fully through the softening of hearts to truth, through tears of attachment, through aligning ourselves with those noble ones who took a principled and profound stand against floodwaters of injustice, unleashed by emissaries of taghut and fitna, betrayers of human trust.
It is to once again renew our covenant, to experience the beauty of joining ourselves to God as our Wali, through attachment to the profound act of His representative at Karbala. And ultimately to embody these lessons in the manner in which we live, in how we relate to others, in transforming inner acknowledgement of faith into action, within our own lives and our societies. To allow ourselves to be purified through congruence and obedience to God and through the transformative crucible of Karbala so that we become refined in spirit just as the dross is removed from gold through heat, and impurities are removed till only the finest metal remains.
“And God is the wali of those with true faith….For them will be the home of profound peace (in Paradise) with their Lord. And He will be their wali because of what (beauty) they did.... the wali of the Muttaqin (the truly sincerely devotees)” (Qur’an 3:68, 45:19)