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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)
Ibn Ziyad said to Shamir bin Dhi al-Jawshan:
"Take this message to Umar Sa'd and let him offer al-Husayn and his followers (the opportunity of) submitting to my authority. If they do that, let him send them to me in peace. If they refuse, he should fight them. If he (Umar Sa'd) acts (according to) my instructions, then listen to him and obey him. However if he refuses to fight them then you are the commander of the army, attack him (Husayn), cut his head off and send it to me."
Then he wrote to Umar Sa'd (and sent the letter with Shamir):
"I did not send you to al-Husayn for you to restrain yourself from (fighting) him, nor to idle the time away with him, nor to promise him peace and preservation (of his life), nor to make excuses for him, nor to be an intercessor on his behalf with
me: therefore see that if al-Husayn and his followers submit to my authority and surrender, you send them to me in peace. If they refuse, then march against them to fight them and to punish them; for they deserve that. If al-Husayn is killed, make the horses trample on his body, both front and back; for he is a disobedient rebel (and therefore deserves a rebel's disgrace), and I do not consider that this will be in any way wrong after death. But it is my view that you should do this to him if you kill him. If you carry out your command concerning him, we will give you the reward due to one who is attentive and obedient. If you -refuse, then we withdraw (the command of) our province and army from you and leave the army to Shamir bin Dhi al-Jawshan. We have given him our authority. Greetings."
Shamir brought the letter to Umar Sa'd. After he had brought it and read it, Umar said to him: "Shame upon you, what is this to you? May God never show favour to your house.... What have you brought to me! By God, I did not think that you would cause him to refuse what I had written to him, and ruin for us a matter which we had hoped to set right. Al-Husayn will not surrender, for there is a spirit like (his) father's in his body."
"Tell me what you are going to do," demanded Shamir. "Are you going to carry out the governor's command and fight his enemy or are you going to leave the command of the army to me?"
"No, (there is going to be) no advantage to you. I will carry that out instead of you. You will take command of the foot-soldiers."
(from Kitab al-Irshad by Sheik Mufid)
"In the morning al-Husayn mobilised his followers after the morning prayer. He had with him thirty-two horsemen and forty foot-soldiers. He put Zuhayr bin al-Qayn in charge of his right wing and Habib bin Muzahir in charge of his left wing, and he gave his standard to his brother, al-Abbas. They positioned themselves with the tents at the rear. He ordered (the) firewood and cane which was behind the tents to be left in a ditch which had been dug there to be set on fire, fearing that they would attack them from the rear.
Umar Sa'd began the morning of that day... by mobilising his followers. He went out with the men with him towards al-Husayn.... When the cavalry began to approach al-Husayn, he raised his hands and said:
"O God, it is You in Whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, (no matter) how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish (my hope) in it, the friend may seem to desert (me) in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in (everything) and have revealed its (significance to me). You are the Master of all grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire."
When the enemy began to move around the tent of al-Husayn, peace be on him, they saw the ditch behind and the fire burning the firewood and cane which had been thrown in it. (At this) Shamir called out at the top of his voice: "Al-Husayn, are you hurrying towards the fire (of Hell) before the Day of Resurrection?"
"Who is that?" asked al-Husayn, peace be on him. "(It sounds) like Shamir bin Dhi al-Jawshan?"....
Muslim bin Awsaja wanted to shoot an arrow at him, but al-Husayn stopped him from (doing) that.
"Let me shoot at him," he asked, "for he is a wicked sinner, one of the enemies of God, and the great tyrants. (Now) God has made it possible (to kill) him."
"Do not shoot at him," ordered al-Husayn, "for I am unwilling to be the one to commence the hostilities against them."
(from Kitab al-Irshad by Sheik Mufid)