Karbala: The true symbol of non-violent resistance

By Rupa Abdi, TwoCircles.net

Black was the colour of pathos, and I was submerged in it. Women dressed in black sarees and salwar kameez were beating their chests to the chant of ‘Ya Hussain’. The chorus rose to a fevered pitch followed by a sudden silence. In that momentary silence was crystallized generations of mourning. The place – a Shia Muslim neighbourhood in Lucknow; the time – the tenth of Moharrum. If grief has different shades, on can see it during Moharrum.

While the rest of the world greets its ‘New Year’ with celebrations, the Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, begin Moharrum, the first month of the Islamic calendar of Hijri, with mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain – son of Hazrat Ali and grandson of Prophet Mohammad. Over 1300 years ago, in the desert of Karbala, in present day Iraq, Imam Hussain and his small band of relatives and supporters sacrificed their lives for Islam.

From the first to tenth of Moharrum, and sometimes for a longer periods, majlis (the Mulsim counterpart of Satsang) are held day and night in Muslim neighborhoods and Imambaras where zakirs and zakiras give sermons which climax with the heart wrenching tale of Karbala.

History has seen numerous massacres of innocent people, but the tragedy of Karbala is one of the few where men, women and children voluntarily allowed themselves to be subjected to hunger, thirst, humiliation and death on the burning sands of Karbala because they believed that Imam Hussain stood for righteousness. Little wonder that for over 1200 years Muslims, have been nurturing the tale of Karbala in their hearts like an open wound, lest they should forget the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his followers.

Great spiritual leaders are known to make great sacrifices, but at Karbala, common men and women with infants at their bosom, their hearts and souls aflame with righteousness, chose death rather than evil and weakness. Such was the greatness of Imam Hussain, such was his spiritual power, which could uplift common mortals to heights of supreme courage and sacrifice.

However Karbala is not an exclusive Shia event, neither do majority of Sunnis consider it as a point of contention between themselves and the Shias. Imam Hussein is widely revered by all Muslim communities without any exception, even many Hindus in India mourn the tragic death of Imam Hussein and his 72 relatives and supporters who were brutally killed in Karbala. Majority of Sunni scholars are unanimous in their condemnation of Yazid including Maulana Ishaq (a Sunni scholar), Shaikh Ahmad Deedat (a Sunni scholar from South Africa), Dr. Shahid Athar (a professor and Sunni writer on Islam), and Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri (Pakistani writer and religious scholar) among others. Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi, deputy chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, issued the following statement in the year 2004:


“The revolution that Imam Al-Hussein made was not a rebellion against a legal ruler; it was a revolution against a tyrant dictator, Yazid Ibn Mu`awiyah, who deprived the Ummah of its right to choose its rulers [by succeeding his father to the caliphate]. Besides, he was notorious for being corrupt and dissolute. The majority of the Sunni scholars and others agreed to that, and Ibn Hajar mentioned so in his book As-Sawa`iq Al-Muhriqah.”

The tragedy of Karbala took place in 680 AD on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq but Karbala has a universal appeal and in today’s climate of violence, it is more relevant than ever. The tragedy of Karbala and its spirit of non-violent resistance and supreme sacrifice has been a source of inspiration to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. The former’s first Salt Satyagrah was inspired by Imam Hussain’s non violent resistance to the tyranny of Yazid. Gandhi is said to have studied the history of Islam and Imam Hussain, and was of the opinion that Islam represented not the legacy of a sword but of sacrifices of saints like Imam Hussain. Nehru considered Karbala to represent humanities strength and determination. According to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, Hussain’s sacrifice indicates spiritual liberation. Munshi Premchand, one of India’s greatest Hindi/Urdu writers, a visionary and reformer, eulogized the tragedy of Karbala in his famous play ‘Karbala’. Premchand’s Karbala was published both in Hindi and Urdu in the 1920s. This was the time when Hindu-Muslim relations were strained and the battle between Hindi and Urdu was raging. Premchand’s Karbala was aimed at both the Hindu and Muslim audience. This play was not just Premchand’s tribute to the martyrs of Karbala but also an attempt at reconciliation of declining Hindu-Muslim relations. In his introduction, Premchand drew parallels between Karbala and Mahabharat and Ramayan.

Karbala drew the attention of quiet a few Western writers and Charles Dickens is believed to have said that, ‘if Hussain fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sisters, wives and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore that he sacrificed purely for Islam.’

According to Dr. K. Sheldrake, ‘”Husain marched with his little company not to glory, not to power or wealth, but to a supreme sacrifice and every member of that gallant band, male and female, knew that the foes were implacable, were not only ready to fight but to kill. Denied even water for the children, they remained parched under a burning sun, amid scorching sands yet no one faltered for a moment and bravely faced the greatest odds without flinching.’

Karbala symbolizes the true face of Jihad – non-violent resistance. Not taking life but sacrificing your life for Islam. In the words of famous Urdu poets:

“Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do,
har qaum pukaraygi hamare hain Hussain”
—- Josh Malihabadi
(Let humanity awakens and every tribe will claim Hussain as their own.)

Qatl-e-Hussain asl main marg-e-Yazid hai,
Islam zindaa hota hai har Karbala ke baad”
— Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar
(In the murder of Hussain, lies the death of Yazid, for Islam resurrects after every Karbala)

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