The Ashura Tragedy


The Ashura tragedy blurs the struggle and the person overshadows the symbol that it turns into rivers of tears as long as one can remember instead of triggering storms of revolution. Also the emotional and historical conception presents it as a characteristic of the self, in such a way that the broad cause becomes a personal affair instead of the opposite in which the movement of the self is a product of the cause.

This atmosphere has made the commemoration acquire a kind of tradition in the popular and historical reality that it turned out to be a mere popular tradition of emotional tragedy, pride in heroism, and absorption by excitement. In each period, the emotion has been nurtured with new tidings and analyses till the truth has got lost in a flood of lies, and imagination has been set off without restraint that the emotions have formed the significance of the tragedy. Also, a new context has been added to the intellectual content that can neither apply to original Islam nor does it relate to the main issue.

In this discussion, I would like to limit myself to some main points related to the significance of the commemoration, its influence upon both the intellect and the feelings. This is meant to go deeply into the Islamic context within this cause based on our need to enrich the Islamic experience currently through the liveliness of the experience in the past; it should be enriched here where the legal extension of the Islamic truth is available through the practices of the Imam apart from the personal characteristic.

In addition, some concepts should be corrected as they are misrepresented in the commemoration, something that does not fit the Islamic concept in the human sense, while a struggle is going on.


The Limits of legitimacy in Ashura

A question is asked repeatedly: Couldn’t Imam Hussein (a.s.) have foreseen his tragic end once he set off to Karbala? If he did, how was it justified to set out, and end in getting dead bearing in mind the Quranic deterrence about willfully giving one’s life to mortality?

The answer is: The Husseini (a.s.) tragedy has several indications which tell that Imam Hussein (a.s.) had known about his fate through the reported saying of the Messenger of God (p.) and through his conversations with those who requested him to change his decision of traveling to Iraq, and through what he said to those who accompanied him to Mecca and whom he told of the inevitable end of his trip. May be this was due to the balance of powers, particularly in the middle of the trip when he learned about the killing of his envoy, his cousin, Muslim Bin Aqeel/ in Kufa after people failed him. In the light of the above, how can we interpret the issue jurisprudentially?

Perhaps it is based by some people on the characteristics of Imam Hussein (a.s.) and his religious duties stated by his title in what he is allowed to do while others are not, because his role is different from the role of others.

And thus it is considered by those that he assumed the duty because he knew better what God has chosen for him; here it is not meant to study the matter in terms of the religious duties. However, I ask what is the problem in this issue? Why can’t the principled revolutionary move against those who are trying to muffle Islam in its movement, its strength, and its propagation whenever they are in danger and jeopardized? And does this fall under willfully giving one’s self away to mortality?

The answer is that there is a difference between individual cases that end in death and Jihad cases which move in dangerous areas, for God has authorized and approved of Mujahideen to move in situations that may lead to their Killing as individuals or in groups and thus it is an obligation dictated by Islam. Therefore, the circle of Jihad differs from the circle of willful killing of oneself.

In the light of this, Imam Hussein (a.s.) had identified for himself and for his companions and family members his assumed responsibility. He considered it a religious obligation, which represented the supreme interest for Islam. It is exactly similar to what used to happen to the Mujahideen at the time of the Prophet (p.) when they would encounter danger. They used to hope through shahada (Martyrdom) to gain paradise as promised by God. The Mujahideen would give up both their wealth and their lives “that they will gain paradise by fighting for God, so they either kill or get killed “(Al Tawba:111) as it was stated in the Holy verse.

Even if the case were as they said, Why can’t the behavior of Imam Hussein (a.s.) represent a religious evidence for an exception of such cases of deterring people from getting rid of their lives.

It is necessary to pause at a point here and that is his family and his companions who started out thought the broad meaning of Jihad having obtained his permission and following his guidance. This suggests that the issue has nothing to do with the individual but it rather has extended to the masses. It is jurisprudentially deduced that any similar case of similar conditions and situations can acquire its religious legality for its movement from Ashoura, bearing in mind that it is totally excluded from the circle of religious deterrence of willful killing of one’s self.

In the same jurisprudential frame of the Ashoura issue, another question is asked… Through the Husseini (a.s.) movement, can we understand the legality of armed struggle when Islamic reality calls for such an act of enjoining good and forbidding evil?

Is it possible for the precepts among the Muslims to motivate the Islamic leadership and the Muslims in the direction of confrontation, especially of the Islamic reality reflects the reality of a deviating leadership which undermines the intellectual and the practical Islamic path and weakness it?

Was the revolutionary movement in Ashoura active enough and up to the level of the Hussein i initiative or was it a reaction to the pressure due to the siege practiced by the Umayyads against Imam Hussein (a.s.) and his companions that they had to resort to defend themselves?


Misbalanced powers and the legality of the Movement

Such points of concern could be suggested by some people to confirm that Imam Al-Hussein (a.s.) revolted because he felt, through the communications he was making with the influential figures in Kufa, Basra and other cities, that he had a lot of followers tending to form a big power.

Thus , he was convinced that he had the ability to face the situation from a strong position and reinstall legality back to its powerful position.

This would enable him to encounter the illegally gained authority on the basis of new principles that might develop from his movement. He could request all the powers including the tyrant ruler to give up their authority; consequently, in case the ruler failed to comply, Hussein (a.s.) would fight the ruler for being a dissident who rejected Al Bay’a (the pledge of allegiance) which is based on Islamic legality.

Al- Imam Al- Hussein (a.s.) was confident that he was able to turn Kufa into a center for the legal authority, and this was similar to what his father Imam Ali(a.s.) believed in. He believed that he could do it without fighting had his messenger, Muslim ibn Aqiel succeeded in controlling Al Kufa. It is the view of those people they may also add and confirm that had Al-Hussein (a.s.) known about the fight ahead, he wouldn’t have started in that forceful and revolutionary form. Also, enjoining the good and forbidding evil do not dictate a Muslim, whether a leader or a soldier, to follow such a style in their movement because the issue may worsen and develop into bloody or deadly violence.

However, in my study of the Hussein’s account, through the words By Imam Al-Hussein (a.s.) in his conversations with the persons who tried to make him change his decision and stay instead of starting out in his expedition; they were warning him against the danger he might face due to the disappointment that the people in Kufa could bring forth, and due to the pressure practiced by the Umayyad. However, we find Imam Hussein conscious of the hard results his movement could end up with, regardless of the extent of losses.

The researcher may feel from the words that certainty and conviction were so solid. Especially if we know that the nature of such a situation where he was intending to topple down the head of the authority was expected to lead to what happened. His brother Imam Hassan (a.s.) who began from the same position where it was impossible to a great degree for the conflict to end without a violent fight; however, it is noteworthy to say that Imam Hussein (a.s.) refused any sort of reconciliation. His refusal was due to the current phase he was moving through and which denied any reconciliation for the sake of the Islamic interest. This was totally different from any previous phase he survived together with his brother Imam Hassan(a.s.) in his conflict with Muawiya. Thus, the dangerous consequences turned out to be very natural.

Furthermore when Imam Hussein knew of the killing of Muslim Bin Aqeel and that the people in Kufa had failed him and that the Umayyads were in control over Kufa through Ibn Ziad , he had not reached a point of complete siege that would prevent him from returning to Medina or feeling somewhere else. If it had been a matter of belief in the supremacy of his power, Imam Al Hussein (a.s.) should have retreated upon learning that the balance of power was weighing more for the interest of his enemies.

Thus, we see a decisive and determined attitude in insisting on revolution for martyrdom; for this reason, Imam Hussein (a.s.) refused all the proposals offered by Ibn Ziad through Imam’s followers such as securing safety for him, his family and his followers on condition that Imam Hussein (a.s.) would give way for Yazeed and hold a truce, something similar more or less to what happened between Imam Hasan (a.s.) and Muawiya.

Imam Hussein (a.s.) put the issues of reformation, enjoining good and forbidding evil as an introduction for his movement. He wanted to remind those Muslims who chose to be with him of the religious goals that urged them to move with him- He wanted them to know that his cause was not a matter of looking up to authority as a source of conceit and tyrannical dominance. For him it was not a personal cause but rather a suggestion that those titles do impose on people to respond to any leadership that works to convert those titles into live reality… As it does impose on the leadership to move for the sake of those titles.


Are the aims personal or public?

Somebody may claim that the issue was merely a matter of Imamate which turns this movement into a personal cause limited to the responsibilities of the infallible Imam, and that it had nothing to do with public agenda that could apply to any other leadership.

The answer:

An Imam never sets out in his movement from the certain hidden responsibilities that are unknown to the Muslim followers… Because the cause is the cause of Islam which dictates him to urge the nation to realize strength, dignity and honor for Islam. This only can be done through the broad titles and objectives. Thus, an Imam sets out from the causes of Islam and its titles which the Muslims feel concerned and responsible for, and not due to blind obedience for the Imam(a.s.), despite the fact that their obedience is a must.

For this, the style of the Quran upon talking about the battles that the Muslims wanted to fight or about the battles that the Muslims fought before the verses were inspired used to come as goals selected by God for the Muslims to strive till they accomplish them. God wanted the Muslims to be aware of the objective but not to react blindly. This observation was traced in the verses, which spoke about the batters of Badr, Honian, Al Ahzab, and others.

Thus we could see the broad objectives as headings for the battles that the Muslims waged against the nonbelievers. They were the same titles that Imam Ali (a.s.) started out with in the internal war in order to confirm the power of a legal authority regardless of the characteristics of infallibility in the leader or in his distinguished rank. Al Imam used to address the whole nation within limits of his legitimate leadership-any leadership-and that was based on the needs of the battles regardless of their time and place.

Therefore we can conclude that in Karbala, Imam Hussein (a.s.) decided that the battle was legal through its broad public titles and not through the characteristic of his being an Imam. It is exactly what we read in his speech with which he started his expedition: “Oh people! The Messenger of God said: Whoever saw an irreligious and unjust ruler who breaks the promise and reverses the teachings of the Messenger of God, a ruler who does harm to the believers unjustly and aggressively, and he never attempts to deter him by saying or by doing, God will consider him as bad as the ruler. Don’t you see that those people have quit obeying God and stuck to the obedience of Satan, shown corruption and violated the limits of God, taken everything while I deserve it more than them?”

On another occasion Imam Hussein (a.s.) said, “I have come out neither for arrogance, nor for vanity, or for injustice, nor for corruption, yet I have come out for reformation in the nation of my Grandfather. I intend to enjoin the good and forbid evil

Thus, those who approve of my choice should know it is the choice of God, while those who don’t will leave me no other choice but to be patient till God decides on the matter. He is the best to judge”.

In the light of this, we can go through a similar experience on the basis of the legality of the standing if the situation were similar to the period during which Imam Hussein (a.s.) lived with all the conditions, attitudes and positions. For this reason the problem in its broad titles is affected by the reality of the nation in Terms of time, politics and the extents of positive results that those titles will secure for the highest interest of Islam. Or one can choose to shock the nation politically and psychologically which prepares the nation for a new stage or prepares a long term plan to encounter the immense challenges of the tyrants. The case may either require the Karbala method, or it may require the cool method which opens up to peace on the basis of flexibility which represents bowing before the storm till it passes by, so that the movement can be resumed in an appropriate and natural atmosphere. A third choice could be a blend of both methods ; amity and violence.

The movement of Imams (a.s.): the variation of the subjective conditions:

This is what must the observed in the methods of the Imams … The problem was not a matter of difference in viewing the nature of the reaction, whether to be violent or flexible, whether to be military or peaceful. However, it was a matter of variable subjective conditions, which made a certain method a necessity at that point of time in connection with the major goal.

This is the general Islamic approach in its broad lines. There is not one violent line in all situations all the way through, neither there is a meek line in all the situations all the way either. It is the final and important result that requires this method or that.

The Unnatural concepts of Anxiety:

It is worthwhile to pause here to review the unnatural concepts of anxiety, that is the way the tragedy is raised which conflicts with the authentic Islamic concept, or the way some people upset the balance upon visualization, or the way the commemoration is thought of as tribal fanaticism far from the Islamic missionary intellect and feelings, all of which may negatively reflect on the layman’s thinking. Then these concepts will be stored and infiltrate to the unconscious of man through tears and pains resulting into excitement in both the intellectual context and the emotional one. To illustrate one can refer to Hiddar Al Hilli, a well-known poet in his poem arousing the coming of Al Imam Al Mahdi, may God bring him soon where he says, “Uproot even the infants of the Umayyads, whether boy or girl.”

Clearly it is a call foe revenge from the Umayyads even if from the infants , a request that conflicts with the Islamic values in the line of justice stated and called for by the Quran “None can be made bear the responsibility for some one else.”(Al Isra:15).

It is even reported in the Husseini account that some soldiers in the Umayyads army said when Imam Hussein (a.s.) carried his infant boy ,Abdullah, to the opposing army to give him a drink of water: “If the mature were guilty, how could the infants be guilty? “How can the Muslims respond to a cry to kill the guiltless infants which makes the human feelings aggravate, while on the other side, and in principle the commemoration of “Ashura should be a reason to protest and condemn the whole reality that caused the tragedy of Hussein (a.s.), his family members and his followers, and to crystallize the Islamic protest and rejection to such a reality and congregate collectively in the face of whoever wants to repeat the tragedy for Man at present and in the future, the way the tragedy was made by others in the past.

Another example can be illustrated from a poet who claims speaking for the family of the prophet(p.):

“Masters we are, and others are but slaves. Ours are the singular qualities and the time-honored old possession. Mohammad is our father, the Master of all men. And his descendants deserve to prevail”

On the surface, this concept in the above poetic lines conflict with the Islamic intellect, which rejects slavery for Man. Similarly, the Islamic intellect refuses looking at one’s self in this way. Even prophets and Holy men kept away from this style in their talks about people.

Even the Quran spoke of those totally differently. In fact, not in the whole religious heritage could we find, particularly in the Islamic one, such haughtiness and arrogance over people as slaves and masters.

Although through religious truth, we already know that those descendants are well loved by God, and they are higher in rank than people only because they are closer to Him in their good practices. We also know that obeying them is a must because of the Message they carry from God for all people.

They are legally delegated to represent religion in life. However, obedience differs wholly from slavery because obedience ends up with responsibility but not with human subjugation.

Even if the literary style justifies humbleness to a noble person, like when somebody says, “I am your slave”, which implies degrading one’s self, we find that the Islamic education considers this unsuitable for a noble man to speak like that of himself. Therefore, conveying such an image about the Prophet’s family and claiming that they speak of themselves and of others in this way never agrees with their highly spiritual characteristics when it comes to humbleness before God while dealing with people.

A Third example that presents the situation in a poetic manner conveys an image of the struggle as if it were between tribes, namely between the Hashemites and the Umayyads. Such a presentation was shown in the style the famous poet Abu Al Ala Al Maarri used when he said,

“A war was flared by AbdShams against the Hashemites for which the newly born may grow gray-haired, Muhammad(p.) was encountered by Ibn Harb, Ali (a.s.) was encountered by Ibn Hind, and Hussein (a.s.) was encountered by Yazed”.

Many of such a kind of poetry about Al Imam Al Hussein (a.s.) can be found and heard in the commemorative assemblies. They resulted in forming a popular mental image of tribal fanatical emotions drawing the Hashemites against the Umayyads, certainly overshadowing the real Islamic problem. Some people even feel that religion is a familial characteristic, but not a message to be assimilated and be completely open to the Islamic consciousness that they could meet with the main Islamic figures and leadership in a common unifying arena and a correlation is made not through familial characteristics but through Islam.

Most likely this emotional influence has left its traces on the popular consciousness development in some political phases rich in anxiety. This is noticed when the royal family of Hashemites, the descendents of sheriff Hussein, obtained a lot of emotional support from the religious scholars and the good-hearted groups of people only because they descended from the Hashemite family.

It was never verified whether the descendents were religiously principled in Islam or even in sectarian terms where sectarianism has a great significance both intellectually and emotionally. For this reason, king Faisal the first obtained the Shiite enthusiasm that was mainly led by the religious scholars of Jabal Amel in Lebanon once he was announced to be king of Syria. Similarly and may be more of that enthusiasm was obtained when some Shiite scholars and Shiite crowds in Iraq gave him support. Such an emotional tendency towards the Hashemites paved for them the way to many governmental position. Equally that tendency kept the people verifying the political background of the Hashemites connected with the British colonialism which planned for them to be guards for its interests, a façade for its indirect control, and a means for its plots.

Thus, we have seen the unconscious connection to family but not to the Message causing confusion in the political arena even at the level of the Shiite rights in Iraq. Why? Because the Hashemites came to implement British plots in widening the discrepancy among the people of Iraq by creating a problem of unjustly treated majority against a minority so that the destructive complication would continue in Iraq as a factor of confusion for the whole reality there.

When I raise such an issue, it is not meant to pose the message as something abstract separate from the model.

In fact, individual leaders do have a characteristic in the depth of the movement of the message, and the organic correlation with the leadership is a must so that the relation can be missionary but not personal.


Poetic imagination in the frame of the Tragedy

Both prose and poetry may need some imagination in addition to some artistic glimpses for the emotions in a tragedy be more affective in the inner consciousness of the Muslim. However, imagination has to be rather objective that it does not create irrelevant dimensions or interpretations or produce a variant intellect. Actually, the artistic side in its suggestive, faith -related, and expressive aspects should convey some of the real beauty to reflect the context, yet additional beauty should never be imposed on the idea or be given a non-existing characteristic.

For the reason, I call for a Husseini literary production nurtured by the Islamic vocabulary of the Husseini movement in its spiritual, intellectual and active dimensions of Imam Hussein ‘s tragedy. Let the commemoration serve the cause through continuous suggestion all the way down in history.

Let it be the outstanding image because Ashoura must be the launching ground but not the end. It is meant to produce a new audience for its concepts at all times and places by stressing the never-dying elements in comprehending the future that shows up to man everlastingly.

Sometimes we may go across some tragic Husseini poetry that presents Imam Hussein (a.s.) in Karbala as weak and afraid looking for a shelter but no shelter. It is something similar to a wandering fugitive trying to evade his enemies. Such features can be noticed in a poem by Sayyed Ja’far El Hilli when he says, “Hussein departed from Al -Madina the way Moses did, silent and fearful….

He departed and never knew where to take rest as if he has been denied to have shelter”

In this poetic image of Hussein (a.s.) showing him as he was escaping from the Umayyads, afraid of the murderers, just as Prophet Moses(a.s.) who “left fearfully looking out for danger” was afraid of Pharaoh’s plot to kill him together with his followers. We can notice that Imam Hussein (a.s.) was lost with no sense of direction because he couldn’t find any secure place although it is known that he left Mecca and headed for Al Kufa to revolt.

In this image, we can’t see the revolutionary who was moving against the deviating tyrant in order to change a corrupted reality in authority, behavior, and action. It contrasts with what he said when he introduced his movement and the title he made for his legal movement which relied on the words of the Prophet(p.).

Now, if the poet chose to agitate emotions, then his choice is hurting the powerful Islamic attitude in the personality of Imam Hussein (a.s.).

There are several images in which Imam Hussein (a.s.) is presented yelling for help and not getting it; yelling for protection but no one defends him; and he pleads for a drink of water, but no one responds. Towards the end of the battle when Hussein (a.s.) was dying, a soldier from the tribal army of Saad whose name was Humayd Bin Musallam noticed that the Imam’s lips were cursing them,.” Then he approached him and heard him say, “O people give me a drink of water. My liver is breaking apart because of thirst.” And other narrators add to that, “By my Grandfather I am thirsty.”

Clearly such an image suggests weakness not strength. It does not suit the image of Imam Hussein (a.s.) who represents a rebellious person against all weaknesses and the elements of pain in the face of the tyrannical and deceptive powers.

They all put their forces together to defeat him, to shake his steadfastness, to force him away from his solid and distinguished attitude, and to impose on him submission to the authority of Yazeed. Yet he refused to retreat, give up or yield. He wanted to bear all the hard consequences in order to embody the great human values, which God wanted for man in life. It was not a personal conflict, yet it was the question of the Message against the big challenges and a question of holding on and remaining intact and in balance during hard times when many an earthquake shakes the ground underneath.

It was relayed that he said, “Now that this braggart, the son of a braggart, is forcing me to choose between death and dishonor; how impossible is it for me to accept disgrace. Neither God, His prophet, the faithful, the dead, or the ancestors would prefer obedience for the wicked to honorable death.”

Again, he said, “No, by the name of God, I would never disgracefully surrender, or acknowledge you the way slaves do.”

Such words never reflect the style of someone seeking for pity as it was told in a previous narration because they reflect powerful determination to bear the hardest consequences just to stick by his principles of dignity and the line of Godly inspiration.

It can not be denied that even prophets or imams could grow weak being human, but Imam Hussein had made up his mind to stand up and fight after he examined all the consequences. He had known about the bestial nature lying in the tyrannical personality of his enemies. He also saw in the battlefield how harshness’ is represented in the enemies attitude even towards a breast-fed infant, so how come he yelled for help or asked for a drink of water when his body was completely inflicted with wounds in the ugliest manner?! How come he would utter words that would be reason for disgrace and call foe a look at him while breaking down? One time prior to his expedition he said to his sister Zeinab(a.s.) when she showed her fear of the destiny he described to her as for how he would and – “Never let our enemies rejoice at our misfortune.

The true image of Imam Hussein (a.s.) is the one produced by one soldier in Yazeed’s army, “By God, never have I seen someone whose children and family members are killed with firmer self-possession, nor more courageous fighter than Hussein. Every time the fighters drew close to him, he would charge at them and they would scatter before him like goats attacked by a wolf.”

Similarly, we don’t find the image of Zeinab in the Husseini or the popular poetry as a heroine powerful and challenging in the manner she was when she stood firmly, surely, and forcefully before Ibn Ziad to challenge him, in Kufa to point out the deviation and the frustration the people caused, and before Yazed when she scolded him. However, we see the image of a Bedouin female with feeble spirit speaking in a weak style being bereaved of loved ones looking for the tribe that she did not find, nor did she find someone to support her; as a result she would face the cause by calling for tribal avenge…

is an image of a feeble female stricken by calamity and taken a captive. Her worries were limited to her pains, her children, and other women with her without any interest in the main cause…

Nevertheless, I notice that such a style may impose a balance between emotions and the ideal image of a prototype which makes a perfect blend of the elements of revolution to serve the main cause. Therefore, I do not refuse the emotional excitement as long as the elements of the tragedy are kept in a real form. However, I refuse the content which carries the tragedy from the atmosphere of the cause in terms of power and vigor, I refuse also the style which does not make a match between the atmosphere and the idea.

In the light of the above, I call for a new Husseini literature to serve the main goals and trace the events of the Husseini cause with conscious criticism that takes into account the surrounding conditions namely the followers, the nature of the enemy, and the image of the historical stage so that to bring in all of those facts to the presents reality in an attempt to suggest revolution and a movement to change on the basis of Islam, and in order to give the commemoration a momentum throughout time so it may be a blessing for the present and the future the way it was a blessing for the past, so let the narration be not different from popular fiction.

By: Ayatullah Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah

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