Karbala and universal truths

Published: November 3, 2014
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Thousands of Iraqi Muslim Shiite pilgrims crowd around the Imam Hussein mosque in Karbala. PHOTO: AFP

There comes a moment in our lives when we realise the ‘Great Truths’ around us and this happened to me a decade back 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 (RA) and when it finished, I asked him why he allows the mourners to block his store’s entrance.

“Syed Sahib, it is because of Hussain that we earn our living. If it was up to me I would have people do a Majlis and matam 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 alms fall upon them as 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 Hazrat Ali (RA), and Tabood. Their children were distributing water and tea, and 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 13 centuries, the message of Imam Hussain (RA) and the message of Karbala rings true and strong. The message has thrived and found new followers in spite of centuries of virulent state persecution and covert subversion and obfuscation of truths. The cruelties and abominations of his killers are universally condemned and offer clear proof of the victory of ideals against force, of eternal triumph against transient and ill-gotten gains. Imam Hussain’s (RA) 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.

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 (RA) 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 (SAW) 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 (SAW) household as they were marched thousands of miles as if slaves in a Roman triumph?

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 (RA) till today and are called Hussaini Brahmin. Legend goes around the time of the incident when their Maharaja was told by a seer to go and fight for one called Hussain (RA) in a place called Karbala. The prince came too late to help the Imam but carried his message back to his people and they continue it to this day. Karbala is ishq and this is why the myriad lovers of Imam Hussain (RA) identify him as their own.

A Punjabi friend told me that when he was a child, he could have sworn that Imam Hussain (RA) was from his village while a Sindhi follower told me that he thought he’s from interior Sindh. Lucknowis see him among themselves and a Lebanese said that he only knew of Imam Hussain’s (RA) Arab origins when he was well into his teenage years. This commonality exists because in fact, Imam Hussain (RA) is present in all of these people and transcends culture and backgrounds. As poet Josh Malihabadi wrote:

“Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do,

har qaum pukaraygi hamare hain Hussain”

(Just let humanity awaken,

Every tribe 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 month of mourning and restraint. 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.

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

Won’t the reward be given to me by the Keeper of Kauser)

Just as doing a Nazi salute at Auschwitz or sitting on a hill and celebrating the bombing of helpless civilians in Gaza are incredibly insensitive and morally reprehensible acts, 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 (RA) the personification of timeless truths and values, and so is praised by atheists such as Bertrand Russell and believers alike.

Nowadays, Imam Hussain (RA) is hailed by followers in Chicago, London, Sydney, Paris and Beirut. 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 but the processions continue, the mourners mourn and the eulogies sound out. Imam Hussain’s (RA) supreme sacrifice saved Islam then 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

Sibtain Naqvi

A writer and social commentator who has written extensively for various Pakistani English dailies. An art critic accredited by the AICA and the Royal College of Art, London, he dabbles in music and sports writing and tweets @Sibtain_N (twitter.com/Sibtain_N)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.