The importance of the Battle of Karbala and our ignorance towards it

Published: October 18, 2015
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Iraqi Shiite Muslims gather outside the shrine of Imam Hussein in the Iraqi city of Karbala. PHOTO: AFP

With the Islamic month of Muharram upon us, I wanted to take the opportunity to implore Muslims (and whomever might be interested) to check out some of the events happening in their municipalities on the remembrance of the battle of Karbala. I will not talk about the battle itself, rather I would like to provide a few reasons as to why learning about this battle is vital for all Muslims.

Though I cannot speak to the accuracy of the content of the lectures that are happening in your area, I still implore you all to attend these events in order to gain knowledge of the incidents. Go read a book or two about the battle of Karbala (academic presses tend to publish the most historically verified recounts).

Here are three reasons to learn about the battle of Karbala:

Benefits taken for granted

Many of us take Islam for granted and rarely, if ever, question its historical development to what we have come to know of it in the modern day. Very few of us can articulate the history of the formation of the Sunni orthodoxy that many subscribe to. However, it is important to point out that the concepts of justice, passion, martyrdom/sacrifice, preservation, guardianship, and patron ship that we have come to know and love can all trace their theoretical roots back to the epic battle of Karbala.

We have come to take ideas and concepts within Islam for granted, and we have reaped the benefits of those ideas in our daily practice of lived religion without being self-aware of why we believe what we believe. We can continue to reap the benefits that these concepts provide us without ever questioning or exploring their originations in the battle of Karbala. In doing so, we are discussing and living ideas that are devoid of any knowledge through which these ideas/concepts are supported and constructed. Hence, I urge us all to become more self-aware of the faith that we practice and subscribe to with such pride.

Preserving historical narratives

Since the waning influence of the Safavids at the turn of the 18th century to present day, the Sunni orthodoxy has strongly dominated our retelling and interpretation of Islam’s history. To draw some sort of comparison, what we learn about the history of blacks in America or the legacy of Native Americans is controlled by whites in this country. Any middle school or high school social studies teacher with a rounded education in American history will tell you that our American history is seriously skewed in favour of a privileged white-retelling of history.

It’s easier for some whites to say, “Let’s put racism aside” when ‘racism’ is a socio-political construct that oppresses minorities.

It’s a position of privilege that is afforded to them that allows for the dictation of how we remember and know our history and legacy. More importantly, these positions have grave consequences for human beings when a skewed awareness of other peoples’ narratives is missing from legal and policy development. A Daily Show clip highlights this.

Similarly, many Sunni Muslims today will rhetorically ponder “why do we have to create divisions of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’, and why we can’t we all identify simply as ‘Muslims’?” Though I acknowledge that the Sunni-Shia discussion is beyond the scope of this explanation, the ability to do away with ‘labels’ is something afforded to a person of privilege.

As Omid Safi puts it,

“It is vital that mutual respect and coexistence not be a license for eradicating real historical grievances and particularities.”

Every Muharram, if not at every khutba (sermon), Shias remind each other of the commitment to justice the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) beloved grandson Imam Hussain (RA), granddaughter Zainab(RA), and about 100 other close family and friends made in Karbala. They remind each other so as to preserve this important historical narrative that could one day be extinct like the number of other developments in our religion that have escaped preservation.

These historical narratives have serious implications for the modern day. Shias, like other minority traditions, must preserve and maintain their identity, legacy, and historical narrative among the eclipsing dominant Sunni tradition.

Reflecting on the battle of Karbala is also a way for many to call attention to the on-going oppression of Shias and other minority groups (seriously though, the oppression of Baha’is in Iran is highly hypocritical) around the world (e.g. Gulf States, pre-war Iraq, Bahrain, etc).  Neither Shia Islam nor Sunni Islam can lay claim to an absolute truth of Islam, but together, and within each respective tradition, Muslims are able to achieve a more holistic picture of truth.

Being completely unaware of events such as the battle of Karbala causes us to sacrifice a comprehensive understanding of our religion and tradition.

I implore you to study the religion to which you subscribe, and fight for a more robust, anti-hegemonic retelling of Islamic history. Historical narratives shape a lot of our belief in Islam, ritualistic practice, memories of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and Quranic interpretation, which in some countries results in oppressive policies and laws.

Familiarity with what is out there will inform our understanding of what we believe and why we believe it. The way learned people fight for accurate retellings of American history in classrooms, this should serve as inspiration for us to become more aware and socially conscious of the narratives being cut out of our retelling of history.

Learned lessons from epic cosmic historical events

Certain historical events transcend being a moment that took place in a given time and space. They become cosmic events that still remain impactful and influential in our lives across time and space today. These include events like the crucifying of Christ, the mental transcendence of Siddhartha, and even the battle of Karbala.

These events are remembered by scores of people in many different ways. Both Sunnis (e.g. Turkey) and Shia Muslims reflect on the battle of Karbala in many different ways. Events in New York like ‘Muharram in Manhattan’ showcase one way in which Muslims remember and reflect on the cosmic event of Karbala and how it has shaped much of Islam’s legal, juridical, ethical, and overall normative frameworks overtime. These events can be inspiring or they can turn someone away, regardless of what happens, the rich and meaningful wisdom found in this cosmic event is waiting to be tapped by active, not via passive efforts (e.g., such as attending an event or two). It must be sought after and discovered.

One lesson that I have retained from a Turkish Sufi teacher, Cemalnur Sargut, is that Karbala teaches us that we are Imam Hussain (RA). We are also Yazid. We must overcome the destructive ego (Yazid) within us and establish the humility and social consciousness (Iman Hussain RA). We must engage in a constant battle with ourselves.

Another interpretation that has also stuck with me is to recognise the fundamental fight against systematic oppression, to stand up for justice even when it is against one’s own community.  The events at Karbala teach us to stand up for all the Hussains of the world. The tragedy reminds us that evil succeeds when the good remain silent and are not actively addressing evil.

There is a lot of thematic and symbolic meaning waiting to be extrapolated for those interested in deepening their spiritual sensibilities. Thus, I argue that attending events on Karbala during the month of Muharram with an open mind, open heart, and a willingness to learn, will provide you with insights into lived religion, and hopefully it will also inspire you to explore, discover, and learn more about yourself and your belief system.

This post originally appeared here.

Abbas Rattani

Abbas Rattani

The author is an ethicist interested in ways Islam can expand the secular consciousness. He is the creator of #MIPSTERZ and host on the talkshow "Hot Sauce x White Sauce" He tweets as @Abbasrattani (twitter.com/AbbasRattani)

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

  • ajeet

    This does teach us that a man who lives by sword dies by it. Buddhism or Jainism are more fairer.Recommend

  • Ahmed Farooqi

    Islam was completed as a religion by the Creator Himself during Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) time. Battle of Karbala is part of islamic historyRecommend

  • Urvashi

    It moves my heart to read this blog which makes strong case for appreciating what a shia feels of the massacre of its great saints and heroes. I wonder why the same empathy is not extended to other religions. Both shias and sunnis have massacred any number of non-Muslims, and each other as well, in the course of history. Must we forget Chengiz Khan, Nadir shah, Mir Kasim, Moahmmads of Ghori and Ghazni, and so on? Why does your heart not melt with pity and remorse when you read the history? Why, you being the people of religion of peace — and I sincerely mean it — turn into stone when it comes to the plight of Non-Muslims?Recommend

  • abdpak

    Sorry to say, we have ignore our religion as well. Follow basic principles of Islam first which are common for Sunni and Shia.Recommend

  • S O

    While I understand the need for all muslims to read about, understand and take lessons from the battle of karbala, & to follow the footsteps of Imam Hussain (RA), I am at failure to comprehend how the event is a reason to change the underlying ‘aqeedah’, concept of deen, its rituals as prescribed by the prophet (SAW). Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) was a Prophet of Allah and his last khutbah completes the deen. Any events happening after that are part of islamic history and lessons are to be learnt from them. If we do things that the Prophet (saw) didnt do himself or hadnt asked us to do as part of the message and call it ‘deen’ then it is a question mark?Recommend

  • Saladin1Chamchawala

    History is full of instances where a successful religious/moralist movement culminated in an empire and failed quest for empire ended up becoming a religion.

    Islam and Judaism are an excellent example of the former while Christianity and Shia-ism are examples of the latter.

    Shia-ism is manifest Persian nationalism and Sunni philosophy represents Arabs’ anti Persian reaction; nothing more nothing less!

    Saddam Hussain initiated “Qadesiah II” and was supported wholeheartedly by all Arab States.

    Muslims of Indian Sub Continent are just proxies for ex regional powers who ruled the area.
    In reality, Indian Sub Continent Muslims have no dog in this pre Islamic Arab and Ajam fight but our historical ignorance always gets better of us and we jump headlong into others’ fight!

    Go figure!Recommend

  • Blue eyes

    This is a Shia opinion. The killings of Karbala is a post Mohammad (PBUH) issue & Sunnis have their own opinion that the concepts of justice, passion, martyrdom/sacrifice, preservation, guardianship, and patron ship were principles introduced by him & the last message of the Prophet (PBUH) ended the faith. What happened subsequently was the fight for political power & history is full of stories of family members fighting for ancestral power & dying for it. In any case post the Prophet (PBUH), its a part of history that can be judged by our own studies. The current example is of the self claimed follower of this thought Iran, a Shia Ashnari state joining up Assad another Alawaite Shia in the killing of 300,000 Syrian women & children citizens & making millions refugees just for the sake of power..Recommend

  • AmericanMuse

    This is all pablum!Recommend

  • zeshan

    well a lot has been said on karbala as an islamic history. its not a history if someone understands it. it was not a political fight. it was all about saving the deen. Islam was saved by Karbala. many haram changes were introduced by yazeed like marriages with daughters, sisters and other mehrams. and he wanted the allegiance of hazrat imam hussain (AS) so as to make it legal which imam hussain denied. now question is was it political? if it would have been political imam hussain would not have opted for getting his complete family killed including himself. he would have opted for a middle solution. and regarding considering it a historical event, a simple incident i will quote: guru nanak was once asked by his follower that why i should join congegration of imam hussian as he is the guru of muslims. guru nanak asked him do u have sister and daughter at your home. the follower replied yes. he said if i ask you to go and marry them. the follower replied its a sin i will not do it as my conscious also deny it. guru nanak said imam hussain is the guru of all those who have the conscious. therefore it not about sunnis or shias. its about Islam and islam was reborn on the day of karbala. please think over it.Recommend

  • RameshHeg

    Your last sentence doesn’t make sense. You read it again.
    How can a religion that does not encourage sympathy for the non-muslims can be religion of peace?Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    As I see it, the Caliphs hijacked Islam just as the roman emperors hijacked Christianity. To spread, religion requires state sponsorship. This is the reason Sunni Islam and Christianity spread far and wide.Recommend

  • Saladin1Chamchawala

    I am neither a fan nor a supporter of Yazeed and he (like any ruler of any era) was not an angel but introducing incestuous marriages?
    Now that is really creative!

    What is next that Yazeed followed in Oedipus’ foot step; mandated every man to perform that Royal “duty” to honour the old king?

    By the way did you know that Imam Hussain and Yazeed were close relatives and Yazeed’s aunt Ramlah bint e Abu Safyan was married to The Prophet PBUH and was Imam Hussai’s step grand mother!Recommend

  • Fahad

    Shia ideology curses the Chaliphs as you can see above. Which is a shame. Recommend

  • Syed Muhammad Antiq

    We can only learn from the battle of Karbala once we stop taking it as ‘just another Islamic incident’. Karbala is beyond that it is not a battlefield it is a learning playground. Muslims or the Shias do not own Imam Hussain. Hussain left a legacy for the whole mankind. Hussain propagated tolerance,Love, sacrifice and will to stand up for what is right.

    I’d like to share an incident i read in Bihar ul Anwaar. There was a Kufi Soldier who had a daughter. She told her father ‘What will you bring for me from the battlefield’ Her father asket what does she want. She said ‘ Hussain wear a Aqeeq ring in his right hand. If you can, please bring that for me. On the 10th of Muharram while Hussain was lying on the ground tormented with wounds. The man was standing right there to see if Hussain had passed on. Hussain stood up called his name, took the Aqeeq ring off his finger and said Oh Abdullah give this ring to your daughter. Abdullah sat down and cried like a child. This is what Hussain is. He teaches us to give, to be compassionate, to be on the giving side. Hussain Zindabad.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Reading your comment I just could not stop thinking that the majority of the Muslim world fails to understand that the Shia / Sunni divide is the cornerstone of the implosion of Islam that we witness today…….others understand this and are using it to their advantage.Recommend

  • Gullu

    Absolutely right!! Thanks so much for clarifying who is responsible
    for maligning Islam and giving it a bad name. According to your logic,
    it is the Sunnis.Recommend

  • Gulwant Singh Bedi

    You are the one with a chip on your shoulder. And a problem.
    Shia ideology does not curse. It is a belief, as to who should have succeeded the Prophet [PBUH] as a leader of the Muslims. You do not have to buy into it. Or accept it. But do
    not enforce YOUR ideology on others.Recommend

  • Zeba

    I guess Gautam Buddha or Lord Mahavir wouldn’t have survived a single day in middle east without self defense. It would be suicide to live there without means of self defense. God’s reps are not meek if you think of them as some weak men without any power and depending on others to save their life. If they need, they can also defend themselves.

    The prophet and Imams came to fix a population too tough to fix. Their task was the most difficult.. you get dirty while cleaning the filth. that’s why you think bad about Imam Husain, prophet Mohammed etc. If Husain was a man to live by the sword, he wouldn’t be Imam Husain, if you know who he is. I know you didn’t get that. If not anything, read at least about the days of Jahiliya. You will get a feel for who Prophet Mohammed was dealing with.Recommend

  • Syeda Ali

    Indeed it is equally ironic if any non-Muslims are killed by Muslims & we condemn all such acts. However, even today Muslims are killing Muslims more brutally and in huge numbers as compared to non-Muslims. As far as Karbala is concerned, even some Hindus gave their lives for Imam Hussain according to some historians. He was the family of our Holy Prophet(PBUH) & he was massacred with his family in the worst possible way. Hence his martyrdom is highlighted more than any other such massacre..Recommend

  • Zee

    Oh please! Karbala was the battle amongst two groups of Muslims i.e. Yazeed R.A ( the head of then legitimate govt. ) and Hazrat Hussain R.A (heading the group of people trying to topple the established govt.). One won and other lost.

    So let’s move on.Recommend

  • Zee

    Islam was hijacked by those who propagated the simple battle of Karbala as some thing unimaginable. Pl get over it. It’s a simple battle and one group won and other lost.

    Recommend

  • Raghu Reddy

    Excellent.Recommend

  • Ghayas Haqeer

    If yazeed was head of a legitimate govt, then every tyrant, cruel, dictator, murderer is legitimate and has the right to lead muslims. This is against the basic principles of islam. Have you heard about “amr bil maroof wa nahi anil munkir”??Recommend

  • Zee

    Who told you that all above issues were prevalent in Yazeed R.A govt? Not everyone subscribe to your accounts!Recommend

  • Ardasher Alevi

    How can Yezid (L.A) Be legitimate, when the treaty between Hassan and Moawiyeh stated that Moawiyeh can’t appoint a succesor? Moawiyeh broke the law thus Yezid (L.A) government was illegimate, otherpoint, the paradox is how can the killer and the killed be both in heaven? you said Yezid Radhiollah and Hossein Radhiollah, so whose action is Allah agreeing with exactlyRecommend

  • Ardasher Alevi

    Chengez Khan was not a moslem, he followed the Tengri faith of shamanism
    Nader Shah Afshar was a Sunni, and he’s attack on Hend was political,
    the others you mentioned were Sunni’s
    NO SHIA HAS EVER ATTACK HEND/INDIA OR TORTURED ITS PEOPLERecommend

  • Alex Khunvadhana

    you just followed you media too much. don’t you think the west also joining up just for sake of power?Recommend