Identity, Equality, Unity
Less than 50 years after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad, a small remnant of his family found themselves captives of the rulers of the Muslim state. They had been dragged through the Iraqi desert, with the women dishonored and most of their men killed. Among those martyred was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, known as Imam Hossein.
Their path to this destination had been horrific and humiliating had involved a procession humiliating for them, and horrific for those who saw it. This was a procession unlike any that the Muslim society had witnessed. This gruesome scene involved the army of ruling powers of the
Muslim state, the Umayyads, marching en masse from the plains of Karbala to Kufa. According the respected historian Tabari, their soldiers had hoisted the severed heads of 72 of the family members of the Prophet Muhammad on lances. Violating Islamic rules dealing with mutilation of bodies, the soldiers were publicly parading the raised severed heads, and the few survivors, through the cities of Kufa, before making their way to the seat of the empire in Damascus.
In Kufa, the few surviving members of the family of the Prophet were standing before Ibn Ziyad, who ruled over there by the authority of the Ummayad Caliph named Yazid. In a shocking scene that was almost unbelievable to most of those present, Ibn Ziyad was presented with the captives, and a trey. On the trey was the severed bloodied head of the very grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Hossein.
When the bloodied head of Imam Hossein was brought to Ibn Ziyad_s court in Kufa, the cruel tyrant took his cane and mockingly struck the lips of the severed head of Hossein, as if to taunt the fallen grandson of the Prophet. An old man in the crowd, named Zayd the son of Arqam, who had been a longtime follower of the Prophet Muhammad, was unable to control himself any more, stepped forth even though it broke all courtly decorum, and shouted at the ruler:
Remove your cane from these lips!
on these lips have I seen the lips of the Prophet of God,
This was the same Hossein whom the Prophet, as a tender grandfather loved so deeply.
This was the same Hossein that would climb on the Prophet’s back when he would be bent over in prayer. This was the same Hossein whose face the Prophet would kiss again and again, saying “Hossein is of me, and I am of Hossein.”
Now Hossein’s body was on the ground in Karbala, trampled by horses.
And Hossein’s bloody head sat on a silver platter, before Muslim rulers.
How could something like this happen? How could a religion of justice and mercy have gone so wrong, so quickly? More importantly, perhaps, how did it happen? How did the Muslim community go from lovingly gathering around Muhammad to killing his precious grandchildren in less than two generations? These issues are at the very heart of the schism that down the road manifested itself as the split between those who came known as the Shia and the Sunni factions of Islam.
There are events in world history where the significance of what takes place far outstrips its mere historicity. A first-century Palestinian Jew, son of a carpenter, is hung between two thieves at the behest of Roman authorities, and today over a billion Christians see the crucifixion of Christ as the ultimate symbol of God_s deliverance of humanity from sin. Six centuries before Christ, an Indian prince sat under a tree, vowing not to move until he had transcended the cycles of birth and rebirth. Today hundreds of millions of Buddhists look at the enlightenment of Siddharata Buddha as the very model of how to rise above attachment and ignorance.
The martyrdom of Imam Hossein was such an event. At face value, it represented the massacre of 72 people at the behest of a corrupt and violent ruler. It would be not the first and not the last time that blood of innocents has been shed on this Earth. And yet for many Muslims, particularly for those who call themselves the Shia, themartyrdom of Imam Hossein is indeed a cosmic event whose significance is far greater than merely something in the remote plains of 7th century Iraq. In all such cases, the crucifixion of Christ, the awakening of the Buddha, and the martyrdom of Hossein, these events become a symbol, a map, of something fundamental about the nature of universe: that there is sin and it must be redeemed, that there is attachment/suffering and it must be transcended, and that there is injustice and one has the cosmic responsibility to rise up against it.
In all of these cases, what happened _there_ is also projected against all time and space. Christians look not _back_ at the crucifixion of Jesus, but see that act of redemption as shaping their lives here and now. For Buddhists, the key is not how that Indian prince became awakened, but rather how we are to be enlightened. And for Shia Muslims the question is not what Hossein did on the plains of Karbala in Iraq in the month of Muharram of the year 680, but rather what are we doing today.
This is the power of religious imagination, which makes every place a sacred place, and every day a sacred time. An Iranian intellectual of the middle of the 20th century said it best:
Every day is Ashura
Every place is Karbala
May we remember that in order to avoid fossilizing Ashura, we should remember that the real question is not just what Imam Hossein did in the month of Muharram of the year 680 on the plains of Karbala in Iraq, but rather what are we doing today.
Honoring Imam Hossein is not by sinking into the abyss of melancholy and shedding tears, but rather by “carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair,” as other teachers have reminded us.
What would best serve the cause of Imam Hossein and Islam is not to sit in mourning but rather to rise in protest, rise majestically like Imam Hossein against all the Yazids of the world today. The Yazids of the world are sometimes individuals every bit as devious as Shemr and Yazid of yester years, but more often entities and concepts like oppression, greed, occupation, militarism, brutality, violence, and every oppressive ideology that stands in the way of affirming the dignity and integrity of each and every member of humanity.
There are Hosseins today. In Syria, in Gaza, in every corner of the earth where there are marginalized and the poor of the Earth, there are those who bear the perfume of Hossein. And everywhere there are those who oppress the meek of the Earth, the Yazids of today.
May all these Yazids, literal and metaphorical, be upended on this and every Ashura, so that we can realize the daily relevance of the teachings of a beautiful and meaningful Islam. May we do more than merely shed tears. May we rise, majestically, to embody the spirit of revolution, in countering tyranny and oppression.
I am less concerned about the tears of sadness that we shed, and much more concerned about our aware and courageous action in these days of Muharram. I would like to see less sessions of crying, and many more sessions of organizing for action.
May all these Yazids, literal and metaphorical, be upended on this and every Ashura, so that we can realize the daily relevance of the teachings of a beautiful and meaningful Islam.
Every day is Ashura,
Every place is Karbala.
The above is an adaptation of Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters.
Omid Safi is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and classical Islam. An award-winning teacher and speaker, his most recent book, “Memories of Muhammad,” looks at the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.
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