In the Footsteps of the Righteous
By: Ali Jawad
By remembering Imam Husayn(a) and the epic of Karbala one can find rejuvenation, says Ali Jawad

As the day of Ashura (the tenth of Muharram) approaches, we are overcome by a strange sense... We are seemingly transported to an alternate plane of existence. We suddenly find ourselves We suddenly find ourselves in Karbala beside the commander Hurr ibn Yazid al-Riyahi as he hovers before his decisive choice separating heaven from eternal doom; we measure our attachment to this world as we witness Zuhayr ibn al-Qayn forsake vast material wealth for certain martyrdom; we turn towards the burning tents of the household of the Holy Prophet(s) to gain glimpses of patience and honour from the heroine of Karbala, Lady Zaynab(a).

One cannot help but be overcome by bewilderment in the face of such an overpowering influence. What is the secret that attracts millions to this holy personality and his mission in this manner? And what universal messages are brought forth by his stand, which make it resonate in the hearts of humanity across all times and ages? Finally, what does it mean to follow in the footsteps of Imam Husayn(a) in the present day?

These questions are implicit in the very act of remembering Imam Husayn(a). Indeed they are inescapable for those who gather to commemorate the sorrows of that fateful day. The answers on the other hand are contingent on the measure of our understanding, awareness and spiritual consciousness.

Nevertheless, it is useful to picture the general context of the Muslim community in 61 A.H/680 C.E. in order to unearth the causes, content and consequences of the Husayni uprising.

Sources of Deviation
Question: How did it come to be that the grandson of the Holy Prophet of Islam was mercilessly slaughtered along with his companions and family less than 50 years after the demise of his grandfather, by such a large faction of the 'Muslim' community claiming to follow the religion of Islam and justifying such a heinous crime in its name?

Historians are unanimous about the incidence of the fabrication of traditions during the first century after Hijra. This phenomenon rapidly accelerated during the Ummayyad era beginning with the rule of Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan. Consequently, central tenets and beliefs of the Islamic faith were distorted - foremost amongst them, differences concerning the concept of 'justice' in Islam, a particularly prickly subject that formed the backdrop for a number of conflicting schools of thought.

It is of little doubt that religious fatalism played a contributing role in influencing the attitudes of the Muslim masses towards issues of political authority and dissent; however it seems easy to overstate its importance. There was yet a second factor that went beyond theological rivalries and reached out to strike at the very psyche of the Muslim community.

Even during his era, the virtue and faultless character of Imam Husayn was widely attested. His name was synonymous with deep knowledge, piety and bravery. Divine revelation attested to his purity and prophetic narrations confirming his lofty status still reverberated across the community.

On the other side, there was Yazid, a renowned playboy with his obsessive drinking habits and utter disregard for even the most basic Islamic injunctions.

Virtue and vice could not be more starkly placed. And this was certainly not lost on the masses. En route to Kufa, Imam Husayn encountered the illustrious poet Al-Farazdaq. Asked about the allegiance of the people of Kufa, he replied: 'the hearts of the people are with you, but their swords are against you'. His response clearly illustrates that the Muslim masses clearly understood on which side truth lay. Yet despite this knowledge, they lacked the resolve and commitment to act upon what their hearts had ascertained.

What factor's are responsible for breeding such a social condition? The answer to this sheds greater light on the debilitated condition of the community at the time. It exposes the culture of indifference and heedlessness that had overtaken Muslims; a condition in which religion had become little more than an empty shell. Whilst Muslims may have observed prayers and fasting, the essence of their faith was being corrupted from the root. It is of little surprise that one of the central goals of Imam Husayn's uprising was aimed at curing this paralysing malady.

Goals of Revolution
Throughout the various phases of his uprising, one notices a singular theme consistently emphasised in the words of the Imam. Indeed, this theme is so pervasive that it can be traced back even to the letters of the Imam during the reign of Muawiyah.

Shortly before his departure from Medina, the Imam clearly stipulates the goal of his uprising in his will to Muhammad ibn Al-Hanafiyya: "I have taken this stand not out of arrogance or pride, neither out of mischief or injustice. I have risen to seek reform in the community of my grandfather. I would like to enjoin good and forbid evil, and [in this] follow the tradition of my grandfather and my father Ali bin Abi alib."

The Imam again voiced this duty in his famous sermon in Mina in which he almost exclusively focused on the importance of enjoining good and forbidding evil. In his address to Muslim scholars, the Imam chastised them for disregarding this fundamental duty, detailed its repercussions on society and warned them of the grave consequences that would ensue. This sermon is perhaps the most comprehensive in depicting the social reality of the time and the indifference that had engulfed it. It also outlines the calamitous situation that had arisen in which religious scholars had become lackeys of tyrants and propagandists for their injustices.

Final Thoughts
When one looks at the uprising of Imam Husayn(a), one notices indomitable resolve and clarity of purpose. His message is addressed to all open minds and receptive hearts. Considerations of social norms, stature or political compromise are totally absent in his words and those of his followers. Instead, one scents the aroma of sincerity, responsibility and duty towards the Divine in a social context polluted by selfishness, indifference and injustice.

For Muslims today, Karbala symbolises the realignment of our life compass. The message of the grandson of the Prophet asks us turn introspectively, into our own selves, and to question our hearts about the reality of faith. Is religion a mere set of empty rituals devoid of true life and essence? Are we similar to the Kufans (those who betrayed Husayn) such as to attest to the righteousness of the Imam and yet remain lined up against him?

Modern-day society promotes indifference towards issues of right and wrong. We are taught to regard morality and active participation in society as mutually exclusive objects. Justified by post-modernist notions of truth and falsehood, we are ironically taught to view these ideals as 'absolutely' relative and ultimately meaningless in the social sphere. To be trapped in this mentality under false pretexts of 'living with the times' is to commit the same blunders as those who either rose up to fight the Imam or stood on as silent bystanders.

In the epic of Karbala, there is a clarion call for those who profess to be religious individuals: it is totally unacceptable to simply profess faith and acquire religious teachings from any and every claimant of Islamic knowledge, regardless of the respect that society affords them.

To do so would be to align ourselves with the killers of the Imam on the day of Ashura. The Imam's followers are distinguished by clear-sightedness, firm belief, sincerity and an unshakeable resolve in the face of the gravest odds. Salutations be upon you, O the honourable martyrs of Karbala.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 2 No. 13 | November 2013. It has been republished here with permission.