The significance of the Karbala story

Published: December 19, 2010
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The narrative of Karbala is powerful and unlocks the most noble of human virtue.

The Islamic New Year has arrived, but instead of the celebration that we see in other religious traditions, there is mourning and reflection because of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (RA).

There is an exhaustive amount of literature on the history of this tragic event in the canons of Islamic thought across all the schools of thought, but it is not the historicity of the event itself which is of concern but the existential significance of it.

Religious literalism can be best described as grasping for excruciating detail of the event, usually steeped in antiquity, whilst forgetting to draw from these events, stories and traditions their  rich moral meaning. Literalism ignores the latent ethical symbolism of religious events and ignores the spirit for the sake of the letter.

The Karbala story

The best account of Karbala, particularly in the South Asian context which pays attention to the influence of the event is Syed Akbar Hyder’s, Reliving Karbala Martyrdom in South Asian Memory. Hyder notes that richness of the Karbala story, a story born in tragedy, a symbol of resistance against tyranny and a beacon of hope for those who suffer injustice. It is quintessentially a story of epic struggle and has been a source nay a reservoir of inspiration for not just Muslims but non-Muslims as well. Notably Gandhi, an exponent of pacifist resistance cites the example of Hussain RA, when he says:

I learnt from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed

The Karbala story has been employed for causes of political protest, struggle and spiritual devotion. Perhaps, it is the electric spirituality of Karbala which moves the hearts of men and brings innumerable tears to so many that is most captivating. Annemarie Schimmel a great scholar of Sufi poetry and philosophy wrote that:

The tendency to see Husayn as the model of martyrdom and bravery continues, of course, in the poetry written after Sana’i by Persian and Turkish mystics, and of special interest is one line in the Divan of ‘Attar (nr. 376) in which he calls the novice on the path to proceed and go towards the goal, addressing him:

Be either a Husayn or a Mansur.

That is, Husayn b. Mansur al-Hallaj, the arch-martyr of mystical Islam, who was cruelly executed in Baghdad in 922. He, like his namesake Husayn b. ‘Ali, becomes a model for the Sufi; he is the suffering lover, and in quite a number of Sufi poems his name appears alongside that of Husayn: both were enamoured by God, both sacrificed themselves on the Path of divine love, both are therefore the ideal lovers of God whom the pious should strive to emulate. Ghalib skillfully alludes to this combination in his tawhid qasida: God has kept the ecstatic lovers like Husayn, and Mansur in the place of gallows and rope, and cast the fighters for the faith, like Husayn and ‘Ali, in the place of swords and spears: in being martyrs they find eternal life and happiness and become witnesses to God’s mysterious power.

But Hyder’s work sheds light on the literary works of passion, spiritual excellence and political liberation by authors such as Iqbal who all owe their inspiration for their literary wonders to the events of nearly 1,400 years ago. Stretched across time and space, people from different walks of life have always come away attached with an intimate sense of meaning. From the works of the lyrically gifted such as the Sufi poets of old such as Emre or Rumi to the modern greats like Iqbal, profound artistic expressions of this event have made many reflect.

From the broken threads of catastrophe, poets and writers have weaved narratives of hope and optimism, reaching out to people throughout the ages.

Make no mistake, the narrative of Karbala is powerful and unlocks the most noble of human virtue. It is the elusive combination of justice and spirituality, the synthesis of the noble warrior and otherworldly saint, the heartbreaking tale of injustice and poignant narrative of faith which makes this particular event etched in the hearts and minds of countless millions. Such is the emotion that it overflows into public and communal displays of devotion, indeed this raw sense of mourning has been institutionalised into the religious fabric of Muslim societies, and although sectarianism has always been present within Islam, such events have usually been universal, appealing to peoples of all creeds. There is a transcendental resonance about this event.

Mourning as a means of worship

There is always something we can draw from the spiritual wisdom of Hussain RA, for instance this inspiring quote:

Some people worship God to gain His gifts; this is the worship of the merchants.  Some worship Him to avoid His punishment; this is the worship of the slaves.  Some worship Him solely to show gratitude towards Him; this is the worship of the free!

Some today have suggested new ways of expressing this devotion, for instance the Islamic Unity Society in the UK:

Its founder Dr Marwan Al-Dawoud said donating blood was a way for Muslims to show their devotion as well as saving lives……

What we’re saying is that this is a time when we feel that Imam Hussein gave something of himself.  “Use that message and give blood because it’s something that is good for society.

“It’s saving life at the end of the day and there is no greater gift from God.”

And today when Muslim societies struggle for freedom and democracy against tyrannical monarchs, interfering general-dictators and overbearing and coercive clerical orthodoxies, the message we can take away is a message of liberty, both spiritually and physically. To rejoice in the freedom of God’s love and celebrate freedom from tyrants everywhere who only manipulate the Divine for self-gain, is the enduring moral of this event.

This is just one way the life affirming message of that day of tragedy can be marked. The mourning of that day however has a deeper spiritual significance, and it should be on this aspect of a universal and emotional spirituality with a profound and animated conscience for justice, that should bring people of different creeds together rather than apart. A spirituality animated by the quest for justice is one which is universal and pluralistic and on this a platform for inter-religious pluralism should be built in a modern day Pakistan ravaged by sectarian division.

ali.ahmad

Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

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