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Remembering the Martyrs

Added Feb 25, 2004 (5th Muharram)

A question frequently raised in reference to Imam Husain's martyrdom and our commemoration of it is "Why dwell on the past?...Why put so much time and energy into remembering an event that happened centuries ago?...Why not let the past be past and put it behind us once and for all?"

It's a legitimate question and one that deserves careful consideration because the answer lies within the fundamental nature of Islam and of the Qur'an. It lies in the way the Qur'an views history and in the manner in which it illustrates history.

The Qur'an is a book of rhythms and patterns both in its sound and construction as well as in its content and meaning. It does not view history as a linear process, as a sequence of events which succeed one another. Rather it sees history as a pattern or series of patterns which occur over a period of time and which arise as the result of certain natural laws at work in society and within men. These patterns or rhythms in history are repeatedly illustrated in the Qur'an, for example, by references to past civilizations which have all followed the same pattern of rise, decay, and collapse.

At the same time the Qur'an is a book of principles, of truths, which, if they are implemented, will allow men respite from the repetitious cycles of history.

So in its approach to history the Qur'an does not reiterate historical events in great detail and length. But instead it distills the events down to their basic components in order to illustrate the principles to be learned from the events.

This can be seen most clearly in the way the Qur'an tells some of the stories found in the Bible. Wheras the Bible gives a detailed, linear account of an incident, the Qur'an boils the same story down to its essential ingredients in order to concisely and clearly illustrate, in a few lines, a lesson to be found at the heart of the event. The Qur'an lays bare the patterns which rule history and the principles which can free us of this rule and which can lead men to a fuller understanding of historical processes and man's place within them.

Just as the hajj brings muslims from all countries and of all languages and races together to create a form of social and spiritual Tauhid (or social and spiritual unity), so too does Islam's approach to history create a form of historical Tauhid (or historical unity).

History becomes not merely a disjointed sequence of events but is bound by patterns and principles which act as a unifying force - a bridge between widely separated generations. The "principles" or "truths" of history are not bound in the confines of one era or by the rules and customs of one society but span all times and all societies.

Let me give you an example.

Why did Muslims choose the Hijrah (or migration), where the Prophet (PBUH) was fleeing for his life, as the event which pinpoints the beginning of the Islamic calendar?

Why not choose the moment he recieved his first revelation, or the date of the first victory at Badr, or of the fall of Mecca to his army.

It is because the Hijrah was the transition point for a number of factors in the early stages of Islam.

It marked the transition of the Muslim Ummah from a handful of struggling individuals to a complete community in Medina.

It marked the transition of the Prophet from preaching to political, social, diplomatic, and military action.

And it marked the transition from virtually no growth to explosive growth of Islam.

Migration, or movement from stillness towards a specific goal is a key concept in the Qur'an and one whose truth is often borne out by historical reality. Many civilizations arise "...on the heels of a migration....". From the Biblical Exodus or migration of the Jews from Egypt, and the subsequent creation of Israel, to the most recent examples of Canada and America both of which arose following a migration.

The principle of migration is also true on an interior level in terms of the migration of our inner selves away from personal stagnation and towards an awareness of God.

But the important point to stress here is that by being a specific instance of a universal principle the Hijrah of the Prophet acquires a meaning and a force which lifts it out of historical time and makes it relevant as a principle to all times.

Now there are many such principles in the Qur'an and all these principles have many layers of meanings at many different levels, such as the social level, the political level, the individual level etc.

There is the principle of Jihad, of striving in the way of God.

There is the principle of Migration, of movement towards a chosen goal.

And there is the principle of Martyrdom, of the Witness to the Truth.

These are all principles which find their historical focal point in one person, in one place, at one time in history. Imam Husain (A.S.) becomes, through his actions, a living example of principle put into practice. The Qur'an shows us the Truth - Imam Husain acted on the Truth and by doing so he brings that Truth to life in human history.

Husain's movement to Kerbala was a purposeful migration away from the corruption of Yezid's rule, towards a Jihad in defence of the Islam of the Prophet, and a final Martyrdom through which the temporal and worldly was convicted by the eternal (by Truth).

Our commemoration of his sacrifice is done in order to acquaint each new generation with these eternal principles.

These are learned through our hearts as well as our minds because an intellectual understanding is, by itself, a cold and incomplete understanding.

But when Truth is percieved by the "heart's mind", to use a Qur'anic phrase then that truth comes alive in the individual and the centuries which separate him from Husain melt away.

This is why we remember an event that happened so long ago.

That is why we remember it the way we do.

Husain was a witness for the Truth, for Islam, and his message to us, written with his blood, and the blood of his family and friends, is a message for all ages, all times, and all societies.

" Witness your time. Witness the conflict between the truth and falsehood of your age." (from Ali Shari'ati's "Martyrdom")

- Irshaad Hussain (1985)

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Related articles:

New Year's Day - Mourning the Imam

Commemorating Martyrdom

Battle of Badr

Mourning Husayn (On Matam)

On Martyrdom

Tawil of Karbala


Martyrdom (Looking in the direction of God)

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