On the 10th of Muharram in the year 61 in Hijri calendar and in desert called Karbala, Hussain ibn Ali (pbuh), the grandchild of Prophet of Islam (pbuh), was killed and his family members were sent into captivity.
The following Op-Ed article tries look into the question that why 50 years after the demise of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), such a tragedy occurred in the Islamic community.
“When Hussain’s few companions were defeated in the battle with Omar Saad’s army, Hussain rode his horse to the Euphrates River… The army stood between him and the water, knocked down his horse, and shot at him as a result of which blood flowed from his body. At this time, about ten soldiers moved to the tents where the children and women who had come with Hussain (pbuh) were located. Seeing this movement of the enemy, Hussain (pbuh) also stepped toward the tents. They prevented him. Hussain (pbuh) told them, ‘Woe to you! Even if you do not practice a religion and even if you are not afraid of the Day of Judgment, at least be free and honorable in your worldly life and do not let my tent, my household be at the disposal of the thugs and ignorant members of your army.’ They surrounded Hussain (pbuh). At this time, a child wanted to reach Hussain (pbuh) from the tents. But Zainab, the sister of Imam Hussain, held him back. Hussain asked his sister to hold onto him, but the child freed himself, reached his uncle Hussain and stood beside him. At this time, one of those who had surrounded him targeted the Imam with his sword. The child used his hand as a shield and his hand was cut off. Hussain (pbuh) embraced him and finally the child was martyred by an arrow.”
This is one of the scenes of Karbala. It took place after the martyrdom of Hussain’s companions one after another and before the horrific scenes of the attack and looting of the tents by the claimants present in the army who had been sent by the so-called ruler of the Islamic country!
It is hard to believe that the last moments of the life of the children of the Messenger of God passed in this way among those who claimed to follow his grandfather’s religion, namely their prophet. But according to Islamic historical sources and narrations, this event cannot be denied. It seems that differences between the followers of religions are a historical tradition. But how can this level of cruelty toward the closest people to the Prophet of God be believed, and how can this be analyzed?
Strangely enough, historical evidence suggests that most ordinary people who were even willing to take part in the campaign against Imam Hussain (pbuh) were not satisfied with this extent of cruelty and were basically dissatisfied with the killing of the son of the Messenger of God. So how did such an event take place in their presence and with their support?
Regarding the origin of this event and considering the Islamic society to be divided into three parts—government, intellectuals and the masses of the people—three issues can be discussed. The first is the making of a decision by the government. The second is the intellectuals going along with this and accepting this decision, even if this was done reluctantly. The third is a lack of awareness and vigilance on the part of the masses of the people about what was happening in Islamic society and their government. Therefore, an analysis of this event requires a study of the problems that may arise due to these three areas. Basically, Imam Hussain’s (pbuh) decision to rise up and reject the request for him to pay allegiance to the government and his decision to refuse to go along with the ruling body, were made with the aim of eliminating or reducing injury in these three sections.
With regard to the issue of the government–if we ignore for the time being the fact that according to the Shi’a the government is the exclusive right of the Household of the Prophet when they are present—what is certain and applies to the philosophy of the Islamic government is that an Islamic ruler should be knowledgeable and just. Considering that the Islamic ruler is the executor of Islamic rules and the guardian of the interests of the Muslims, he must first of all be aware of Islamic teachings, the Islamic laws and the interests of the Muslims. Secondly, he must not be unfair in implementing justice and the rulings regarding himself and the other members of society. Otherwise, the ruler does not have the necessary legitimacy to rule. If he insists to rule, the Islamic society is obliged to rise up against him, to put him aside and to give the rule of the government to those who are eligible.
In the event of Karbala, the ruler of the Islamic country at the time was Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah. Historical evidence exists proving that he did not have the legitimacy to rule and to lead the Muslim community. His vices and evil traits were such that even Mu’awiyah—who had gathered the people’s pledges of allegiance for his son’s caliphate—was extremely annoyed by his behavior. Therefore, what happened in the event of Karbala in terms of the government was not just a mistake. Rather, it originated from the incompetence and illegitimacy of the ruler and the ruling body. In other words, basically Yazid did not have the right to make decisions on any governmental matter, including giving an order of war against Imam Hussain (pbuh). Thus in the area of the government, this damage led to illegitimate decisions, and therefore the tragedies of Karbala were mainly due to the ruling body.
The intellectuals and scholars of the Islamic society of that day can be divided into various groups. The verdict about each of these groups is different from the others. For example, some did not consider it necessary to interfere in the affairs of the government, although they probably did not consider Yazid’s government to be legitimate. This group suffered from a deviation in its thought, although deviations in thought are not largely unrelated to deviations in practice. Another group was indebted to Yazid and they were considered to be the nobles. Gaining personal interests through pro-government actions was more important than anything else for this group. Naturally whatever led to the weakening of Yazid’s government was detrimental to them. For this group, right and wrong was not important for them in the matter of government. Because they pursued their own desires, they inevitably supported falsehood since it helped to ensure their interests. Some people, despite the fact that they considered Yazid’s government to be illegitimate and although they deemed it necessary to become involved in the government, stepped aside for fear of losing their life and their property due to their lack of faith and weakness of spirit. As a result they were unable to show any reaction.
Thus, among the prominent intellectuals and scholars various deviations arose. They suffered from a deviation in outlook based on their belief in a separation of religion from politics. They suffered from the damage that had been inflicted on their personalities due to the existence of traits such as selfishness and love of the world, as well as traits such as cowardice and a desire to pursue comfort and pleasure. These led them to taking the wrong measures or inaction toward the government and toward the uprising of Imam Hussain (pbuh).
The third group in society, the general public, also suffered mainly from a deviation in theory and practice that had its origins in the government and the intellectuals. They reacted to events based on how they were influenced by the government and the intellectuals. The general public of that period can be divided into two sections. One section was the people coming from the lands that were new to Islam, such as Greater Syria. Due to their distance from the center of Islam and the government’s carelessness in introducing Islam, they did not have a correct understanding about the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Household. For this reason, they cannot be blamed very much. The second section was the people of other Islamic lands who had a longer association with Islam. Naturally they had a greater duty with respect to the political issues affecting Islam in proportion to their knowledge. This group’s religion and Islamic practices were less influenced by the government due to their presence in the main centers where Islam was present. But under the influence of the intellectuals of that time, they either converted to Islam without considering politics or they remained silent. Of course, such a silence would be considered to be an involuntary support for any action taken by the government.
Therefore, the event of Karbala was mainly due to the appearance of deviations in theory and practice in the Islamic society of that day, which was a result of their abandoning the Quranic principle and practice of “enjoining good and forbidding evil” (al- Amr bi al-Maruf wa’l-Nahy an al-Munkar). Imam Hussain (pbuh) himself announced that the purpose of his uprising was to reform the nation of his grandfather, the Holy Prophet (pbuh). He said, “I have risen up to save the nation of my grandfather, Muhammad (pbuh) and to reform his community. I wish to engage in enjoining good and forbidding evil.” Since this deviation existed in the ruling sector, among the intellectuals and among the general people, the various dimensions of Imam Hussain’s uprising directly involved the following two goals.
- The overthrow of the government of the time, which was the main source of corruption and deviation, and the formation of a legitimate government. Of course, this goal would also indirectly lead to the reformation of society and the people, thanks to a legitimate government.
- Declaring the illegitimacy of the government of the time by not accepting to pledge allegiance even at the cost of sacrificing one’s life! Considering the spiritual and religious position of Imam Hussain (pbuh) in the Islamic society and his relationship with the Prophet (pbuh), his uprising was essentially interpreted as a declaration of the illegitimacy of the government of the time. If the ruling body was unwilling to compromise, that declaration would be signed with his martyrdom.
In other words, considering the illegitimate pretensions of Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah as the ruler of the Islamic society, the acceptance of this ruler by the Islamic society and following him are the biggest deviations. Obedience to an illegitimate ruler who openly disobeys God’s commandments and does not have divine attributes is considered to be obedience to the taghut [tyrants] according to the Qur’an. Since obedience to him is not in line with obedience to God and is actually in conflict with it, it is contrary to monotheism and is considered polytheism. On the other hand, according to the verses of the Qur’an, polytheism is a grave, unforgivable oppression and sin. Therefore, following an illegitimate ruler and recognizing him is a grave deviation from the principle of Islamic monotheism. This is where the work of the scholars and intellectuals of the Islamic society in eliminating this deviation becomes apparent. But for the reasons that have been mentioned, they remained silent and this silence itself showed the depth and extent to which this deviation had become normalized in society.
Therefore, due to this grave deviation and the deterioration of monotheism in Islamic society on the one hand, and also due to the Imam’s influence stemming from his privileged spiritual and religious position and his affiliation with the Holy Prophet (pbuh) in Islamic society, Imam Hussain (pbuh) rose up against this deviation. He did so with the aim of either overthrowing the illegitimate government of Yazid and replacing it with a legitimate government, or at least undermining the legitimacy of Yazid’s government in Islamic society. This is precisely why Imam Hussain in response to the government’s request for his allegiance, replied that, “Someone like me does not pledge allegiance to someone like him.” In other words he was saying, “As a religious personage who should be a symbol of adherence to divine commands, it is not possible for me to swear allegiance to you, who are a manifestation of non-adherence to religion.”
Imam Hussain’s second goal was possible only with his martyrdom, because Yazid, considering the spiritual and religious position and social status of Imam Hussain (pbuh) as the grandson of the Messenger of God, insisted on obtaining his allegiance in order to legitimize his government. His insistence was to the extent that the Imam either had to pledge allegiance or be removed from society. Therefore, this insistence on obtaining his pledge of allegiance continued to the point where they wished to physically eliminate and assassinate him. Thus, Imam Hussain left Hajj unfinished due to the threat of being assassinated there. In addition, he left due to the nature of assassination, its surreptitiousness, the fact that the arrangement and confrontation of right and wrong with each other and the motive of assassination are not revealed in such a situation, and the fact that the message of martyrdom would not be conveyed to society in full. Imam Hussain did not flee from pledging allegiance and being forced to eventually live in secret or be assassinated. Rather, he chose to take a comprehensive stance against falsehood. The result was a martyrdom that was effective throughout the history of the Muslim community and that conveyed the message of the illegitimacy of governments like the government of Yazid completely to the Muslim community. An outcome of this was that in the years after his martyrdom, there were numerous uprisings against illegitimate governments.
However, it is necessary to re-emphasize the fact that Imam Hussain (pbuh) was well known in terms of his social and religious status among the people. Otherwise, all this insistence and emphasis on the part of the government on the necessity of his pledging allegiance would have been meaningless. Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah needed the Imam’s allegiance to prove the legitimacy of his government, and the Imam’s opposition and refusal to pledge allegiance would cause his government to waver. Therefore, the prominent religious and spiritual status of Imam Hussain was quite obvious to the people, and in this respect, he had a social base of support. However, when the issue of his refusal to pledge allegiance to Yazid led to tensions between him and the ruling apparatus, why was the support of the general public and the intellectuals for Imam Hussain (pbuh) reduced to mere expressions of regret or to attempts to prevent the Imam from taking action in opposition to Yazid? And why did such an event occur amid the silence of the Islamic community?
The answers to these questions are rooted in the prevalence and normalization of sins among the Islamic nation. If a people commit sins, they will not withstand the greater trials.
“Sins take away our steadfastness against our big enemy—namely the devils from among men and jinn. ‘Those of you who turned back on the day when the two hosts met, Satan alone it was who caused them to backslide, because of some of that which they had done.’ In another verse, God says, ‘Then evil was the end of those who did evil, because they denied the revelations of Allah and used to mock them.’ Bad actions undermine our resistance in the field. Bad actions change beliefs.”
In other words, deviation from the path of truth occurs gradually. Smaller sins, if people do not repent, lead to bigger sins and then to the biggest sin, which is destroying the sources of truth and knowledge in society.
As mentioned, the main sin of the Muslim community in those days was negligence with regards to the government and submission to the illegitimate ruler of that time. When the government saw this negligence of the people, it naturally went a step further and imposed the event of Ashura on the people. But how could the Islamic society reach such a state where the lowest people and those who were the farthest from the religion of God ruled over them?
The answer to this question can be found in Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Nahjul Balaghah. The first Imam of Shia said, “Do not give up enjoining good and forbidding evil lest the mischievous gain positions over you.” Surely, if the practice of enjoining good and forbidding evil, which is mostly the responsibility of the intellectuals in the society, is abandoned, this will result in the members of society not being sensitive enough to the trampling of the religion of God by other members of society to such an extent that they will show no reaction. In fact, it means that people in society will ignore religion, social relationships and their effect on each other. As a result, they will come to think that religion does not involve social issues. It is natural to assume that in such circumstances, the collective identity of society will be devoid of religion. The consequence will be that the religion of God will be ignored when it comes to the issue of government, which has a social aspect to it, and ultimately the way to gain power will be paved for those who have no commitment to the religion of God.
Therefore, there is a clear pattern about the calamities that afflict the Islamic nation: 1) abandoning the practice of enjoining good and forbidding evil and reducing religion to an individual practice, 2) villainous people taking over the government as a result of abandoning this practice and 3) the perpetration of unimaginable, abhorrent acts by the government.
This pattern is applicable to the Islamic nation in all periods, including the present era. In the current era, the rights of many Muslim nations are being ignored. People are being killed and becoming homeless in Palestine, Yemen and Afghanistan. There are many calamities that are brought about either directly by the governments of some Islamic countries or indirectly through their financial support. Or at least, such calamities are the result of their silence. In the same way, the silence of the intellectuals in the Islamic nations in the face of such governments helps these governments to survive and to continue their crimes.
In view of the above-mentioned arguments, the problems of the Islamic nation will never be resolved unless illegitimate governments in Islamic societies are replaced by legitimate, righteous governments. This should be carried out under the guidance of the intellectuals in the Islamic nations, and consequently with the support of all the Muslims in general.
The Islamic society never imagined that one day the son of the Messenger of God (peace and greetings be upon him), with those exemplary virtues and attributes, would be martyred in that tragic manner in the midst of the Muslim nation. Today too, we will continue to witness such crimes and tragedies in the Islamic nation if the intellectuals and people reduce the intensity of their resistance against illegitimate rulers.
 Tabari, History of the Prophets and Kings, vol. 5, pp. 451-468.
 Ibid, pp. 386-405.
 Ibn Asakir, History of Damascus, pp. 401-402. Tabari, History of the Prophets and Kings, vol. 5, p. 480.
 Ibn al-A’tham, Book of Conquests, vol. 5, p. 21.
 Holy Qur’an, 4:48 and 4:116. Holy Qur’an, 31:13.
 Ibn al-A’tham, Book of Conquests, vol. 5, p. 14.
 Holy Qur’an, 3:155.
 Holy Qur’an, 30:10.
 Leader’s speech in meeting with members of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. [June 13, 2011]
 Nahjul Balaghah, Letter 47.