Childhood days during Ashura were spent intensely mourning the heart-wrenching devastation of the Prophet’s (pbuh) grandson and his family of seventy-two persons at Karbala. The time consisted mainly of the reiteration of the tragedy throughout the ten days of Ashura, attending women’s majaalis in the afternoon, and listening to my father’s rendition of the iconic Mir Anees’s marsiyas. The post-Isha hours were spent mostly at the Mochi Gate Imambargah accompanied also by our grandmother.
Nasir Jehan’s reading of 'Ghabraain Geen Zainab' and 'Aaakhri Salaam' triggered the ultimate pain one could possibly experience: the narration of Hazrat Ali’s daughter's arrival, with almost all male relatives – including Hussain and Maula Abbas, male children ranging from Hussain's six-month-old son Ali Asghar, 18-year-old Ali Akbar, Aoun and Mohammad – having been martyred at Karbala. Sketching with unparallel pain and compassion, Munshi Chunnoo Lal Dilgeer had written a marsiya that depicted the climax of an intense weeping solidarity with the beloved but butchered, tortured, and imprisoned family of Allah’s Last Beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
The tragedy is deeply personalized. Every year Muharram means mourning this death, this martyrdom, as if of one’s own family. The attachment in emotion translated in an understanding of what the message of Karbala was – the place it must occupy in daily consciousness as we live life, centuries later, so conflicted by the chaos, the callousness, the compromised values and principles of humanity.
Karbala became the touchstone of what made ‘The Path’ that we must tread. For up to Karbala and onward the challenge that Imam Hussain faced was one of opting for the right as opposed to the wrong and the ugly. The ugly was what violated the basic tenets of decency, of dignity, of mutual respect, of kindness, of compassion – all indeed dedicated to promoting the Oneness of Allah and His Command.
Hussain stood for 'haq', for right, but within a framework of decency and respect as Commanded by Allah. Clearly, there was no Mission greater than promoting Allah’s Message yet Hussain, like Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hazrat Ali and all other caliphs, knew that not even Allah’s Mission allowed them to declare as kosher any act that deviated from the tenets of decency. They all had to stay on the path of good values, decent word and action, and to follow Allah’s Commands.
Karbala was not a battleground; it was a momentous event that illustrated the best of humanity in the most difficult of times. This indeed was the annual lesson we were to derive from the majaalis where Allama Rasheed Turabi would emphasize that at Karbala Imam Hussain was defending the most superior and the most advanced form of the UN Human Rights Charter – only a few centuries ahead of the UN!
The story of Karbala, the event, was passed down through generations, through documentation and through oral history. It is a story of tragedies, characters, dignity, patience, integrity of purpose, the commitment to the Commands of Allah, the courage to say no to the bayt of the vile Umayyad ruler Yazid, the leaving of Makkah on the second day of Haj, the presence of men in their eighties as well as a six-month-old baby, the utter tehzeeb at display in the interaction between Imam Hussain and not only his own family but with the enemy all ready to martyr the Prophet’s (pbuh) family; it is a story of Hussain’s sister, unmatched in courage and bravery, and of the enthusiasm of every member of the Hussaini lashkar to go and battle the numerically superior forces of Yazid.
Hussain’s 70-strong lashkar, unwaveringly facing thousands, stayed willingly on the path of martyrdom even when on the night of Ashura Imam Hussain blew out all the candles in his tent and invited his companions to leave since the morning was definitely going to bring death and destruction. Already, on the second day of Muharram Imam Hussain had received a messenger from Kufa who had informed him that his dear friend Muslim bin Aqeel and his brother in law, the husband of his half sister and daughter of Imam Ali, Ruqaya Bibi (buried in Lahore in Bibi Pak Daman) had been martyred by the people of Kufa. Hence no support was in sight. And yet no one relented on the night of Ashura.
On Ashura the beloved family, except women and an ill grandson Zainul Abideen of the Prophet (pbuh), was physically and tragically decimated. Yazid 'won'. But Bibi Zainab, truly in her father Imam Ali’s footsteps, an emblem of courage, knowledge and oration showed her character and bravery in the court of Yazid, where she, along with other women and children of the Hussaini lashkar had arrived; chained and chided, she showed that Karbala was to live on. And that Hussain was martyred to keep alive the lesson of Allah’s Quran as transmitted to the Prophet's (pbuh) family and to all Muslims. And indeed the lesson lives on. Yazid and his vile ways found almost no sympathizer centuries later.
The message of Hussain lives on – in a world where global crises are seen within societies as translating into a crisis of the soul and the spirit. As life moves on into more complex corridors of existence the event of Karbala, all-encompassing where the human soul and the spirit and the mind come into unison, becomes very relevant.
Karbala is about the cosmic context and content of the human race – of what is Allah’s potentially finest creation. The study of Karbala, of its character, of the dynamics and the beliefs and actions, does therefore give us cosmic wisdom. The great unparalleled event of Karbala encompasses the entire spectrum of being and emphatically communicates to us the intricate linkages between all aspects of the individual and the collective.
Indeed Karbala in today’s conflicted world shows us what it takes to find inner peace and external integrity as we engage with the world. The battles of values, of the soul and the spirit will only exacerbate with time. There is something to be imbibed from Karbala for those who seek to understand the conflicts of our times.
Nelson Mandela explained the relevance of Karbala centuries later; he is quoted to have once said: “I have spent more than 20 years in prison, then one night I thought of surrendering by signing all the terms and conditions of the government. But suddenly I thought of Imam Hussain and the Karbala movement”.
The writer is a senior journalist.
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