LECTURE 1: INSPIRATION FROM KARBALA FOR A TURBULENT WORLD
31 August 2019 (1ST night Muharram 1441)
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Respected brothers and sisters, lovers of our beloved Nabi and Rasul (SAWA), and his purified progeny, the Ahlul Bait (a.s). Once again, we are in the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, which reminds us and takes us back to the very important, very critical, and sensitive part of the history of Islam.
Of course, the Muslim Ummah commemorates this first month of Muharram in a variety of styles, based upon their understanding of this month and important events which occurred during this month. But for us, as followers and lovers of the family of Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), this month comes with a very different approach, and we commemorate this month in a very unique manner.
Of course, in our calendar, this month is very, very special, and in particular, these first 10 days are very, very special.
Tonight, I would like to address this very important subject, namely, why Muharram, and why to commemorate Muharram, and why to commemorate the way we do. There are a few very basic questions in the minds of our brothers and sisters, which I will address as follows:
- Why should we commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a.s)?
- Why do we commemorate Ashura the way we do?
- Why do we curse the killers of Imam Hussain (a.s)?
- Why do we cry for Imam Hussain (a.s)?
These are the questions which keep resurfacing with those who are perhaps not familiar at all with this culture, and those who were born and grown in a culture where Muharram is a celebration, and the time to distribute sweets and enjoy the ushering in of the new year, or Muharram Mubarak. Or maybe, it is also a question to some of us who are new to this school and this approach and thought ie. why do we commemorate Muharram the way we do?
It is our tradition to start our series of Muharram discussions by addressing these questions in the first night, but the need to address these questions with fresh angles is quite important. Basically, to address this enquiry of why, because these questions are in the minds of everybody.
MUHARRAM – THE TIME WHEN MUSLIMS FALL INTO THE DECEIT OF DIVIDE
Somebody from the broader Muslim community (not from our Shia community) beautifully wrote on Facebook that Muharram has arrived, and you will witness a group of people speaking about the family of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). They will praise them and they will speak about their history, their sacrifices, sorrows, suffering and pain, to the point where they will even shed tears and cry. This person says that for this group of people, the month of Muharram is to talk about the family of Rasulullah (SAWA).
He was saying this in a general sense, and not drawing direct reference to us Shia per se. He was explaining this reality for a segment of the Ummah.
At the same time, he very interestingly goes further to write that this month of Muharram is also the time of year where a number of people use this opportunity to praise the killers of Ahlul Bait (a.s), and to defend and glorify them, and anyone who expresses their love for the Ahlul Bait (a.s) is declared as Shia or opponents of the Sunnah and opponents of the Sahabah (companions of our Prophet Muhammad (SAWA)).
Yes, it is really at this time of the year when these discussions are revived. I would like to address some of these issues tonight.
WHY SHOULD WE COMMEMORATE THE MARTYRDOM OF IMAM HUSSAIN (A.S)?
The first question to address is a basic question in the minds, and that is, why should we commemorate Ashura? This question emerges particularly due to the rigid Wahhabi thought which has been promoted and propagated tirelessly, to the point where it has affected and influenced the minds of the people, in the way that they think.
The reply to this basic question is very simple. Muharram, and Ashura, and the tragedy of Karbala is without any doubt a very critical point in the history of Islam, whether we like it or not. Irrespective of who we agree was right and who was wrong, whether it was Yazid or Imam Hussain (a.s), nobody can deny the fact that this tragedy in the year 61AH on the plains of Karbala in Iraq created a big, challenging situation for the whole Ummah (Muslim nation) and people needed to decide their direction.
IT IS CUSTOMARY FOR ALL NATIONS TO UPHOLD THE MEMORY OF HISTORIC EVENTS
The event of this level and magnitude requires to be remembered and commemorated, without any doubt. I’m speaking here about a very basic level. And this has nothing to do with religion, by the way. All the nations remember their history by commemorating and celebrating the days which are important in their history. For example, in South Africa, we not so long ago remembered Youth Day on 16 June.
Now, why do we celebrate this day on 16 June every year? The reason is that it reminds us of the stand and uprising of youth in our struggle against Apartheid. We keep this day as a special day to remember what occurred on this day in 1976 and the message of this day. We remember the role of the youth in our liberation struggle and we draw important lessons from the way they played such a crucial role in the struggle against Apartheid. We then also reflect on the crucial role they have in our present day democratic society.
We will be celebrating Heritage Day very soon in this month of September, which is the celebration of the rich diversity of different cultures and religions in our country. A few weeks ago, we celebrated National Women’s Day on 9th August. Once again, the reason for this is to remind us of the brave stand taken by thousands of women who marched onto the Union Buildings in Pretoria and stood firmly against the oppressive Apartheid regime.
We remember these events. Every nation and every country has this culture of upholding key events in its history. Now, regardless of your opinion on the tragedy of Karbala, one cannot shy away from the fact that this was no small incident.
THE FLIMSY ATTEMPTS TO SUPPRESS THE TRAGEDY OF KARBALA REMAIN EVERGREEN
People try their level best to trivialize this significant event in Islamic history and make it as insignificant as possible, because Karbala presented a challenge for a big number of people, and came as a threat to their interests.
Hence, they tried to let it pass by as being nothing more than confined to the annals of history. In our city of Cape Town, we see the effects of those efforts which were made immediately after the tragedy of Karbala by the enemies of Imam Hussain (a.s).
Back in the day, in the newspapers of Cape Town published by Muslim religious organizations, the Islamic New Year was always ushered with greetings of Muharram Mubarak, and then they would narrate historical references for events which supposedly occurred on the Day of Ashura to various Prophets (a.s). These would be as follows:
- Almighty Allah (SWT) accepted the repentance of Nabi Adam (a.s);
- The ship of Nabi Nuh (a.s) emerged safely from the storm;
- Nabi Yunus (a.s) emerged from the belly of the whale on this day;
- Nabi Moosa (a.s) was saved from Pharaoh on this day too.
- Also, Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) came out of the fire on the Day of Ashura too.
The list goes on and on, and we still hear about this today…
Sometimes, they would go as far as to omit reporting the fact that the grandson of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) was brutally killed on this day.
DID PROPHET MUHAMMAD (SAWA) FAST ON THE DAY OF ASHURA?
Amazingly, all these events noted above is reported to have occurred on the Day of Ashura, and therefore we must also fast on the day of Ashura!
They do not mind making our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) as a follower of Jews! They report that Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar, and the Islamic calendar was established with the migration of Rasulullah (SAWA) from Mecca to Madina (Hijrah). So, they deduce that Muharram is the month of the migration, and as we all know, the migration of Rasulullah (SAWA) is without doubt a very important landmark in the history of Islam.
It is important to note that the Prophetic migration (Hijrah) did not occur in Muharram. Months were already established beforehand. That year was referred to as the year of the Hijrah, but the Hijrah itself occurred in Rabiul Awwal (not Muharram).
Nobody from amongst the reputable historians have recorded that Rasulullah (SAWA) moved from Mecca to Madina during the month of Muharram, and it became the first month of the Islamic calendar as a result.
Then the fabricated story that we have heard all too often, that when Rasulullah (SAWA) came to Madina, he saw the Jews fasting on the day of Ashura, and then Rasulullah (SAWA) apparently said to the Jews of Madina that we Muslims have a greater right over Nabi Moosa (a.s) than them, and therefore we should also fast.
Now, let us take a step back for a second, and try to make sense of this Hadith. Forget about whether this Hadith is authentic or not, and forget about analyzing the chain of narrators to establish their credibility. Let us look at what this Hadith is trying to say to us. This Hadith is saying that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) did not know the history of Ambiya (Prophets), and that the Jews of Madina taught him about Nabi Moosa (a.s)!
Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), who is supposed to bring the final divine message from Almighty Allah (SWT) to mankind and humanity, followed the practice of Jews, according to this Hadith. Can we believe this?
Then, a number of scholars did a great deal of research and proved that no Jewish religious holiday coincides with Ashura in the particular year when Rasulullah (SAWA) arrived in Madina. There is no match. This is based on digging into the Jewish archives and scriptures, where no evidence can be found which matches any of their religious holidays to the Day of Ashura in the year of the Prophetic Hijrah.
It is all to say that everything happened in Muharram other than the tragedy of Karbala!
WHY THE CENSORSHIP ON NOTABLE EVENTS ABOUT THE AHLUL BAIT (A.S)?
This is not an issue of Sunni or Shia. The Ahlul Bait (a.s) are the family of Rasulullah (SAWA), and he is the final, divine Prophet (a.s) for all Muslims, Sunni and Shia, both. However, amazingly, anything that is connected to the Ahlul Bait (a.s) is sidelined.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the event of Ghadier. We all know how overwhelmingly recorded this incident is, but for all of us who have grown up as conscious, practicing mainstream Muslims over the generations, none of us have ever heard about this event or anything by the name of Ghadier, before being exposed to the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s).
I am not referring to the interpretation of Ghadier the way that we Shia believe this event to be. I am referring to the interpretation from the other side. We have never, ever heard about it! Similarly, Mubahila, which we have never heard about until being exposed to the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s).
Anything which is connected to the Ahlul Bait (a.s) has been kept away from us, and the same can be said about Karbala! We commemorate Karbala, and a very big number of our Sunni brothers commemorate Karbala. Even non-Muslims commemorate Karbala, because Karbala is a very important incident in the history, regardless other angles of Karbala.
This is one very important point I wanted to make. If you want to remember 16 June, and 9 August, and 24 September, then this is the history of Islam that we shall remember.
WHY DO WE COMMEMORATE ASHURA THE WAY WE DO?
Now, after accepting that we need to commemorate and remember Karbala, the next question that arises is why do we need to do it in this particular manner? This is a bit of a deeper question than the basic one we responded to above.
Normally, a program of commemoration in the general understanding entails holding seminars and workshops, academic discussions and debates, and analysis of what we have learnt from these events, and perhaps a small rally in a stadium. For example, this is the way we commemorate 16 June (Youth Day).
But now, why do we suddenly change everything to black for Muharram? All of a sudden the suitcase of black clothes comes out, and black flags adorn our gatherings to commemorate Imam Hussain (a.s) and the tragedy of Karbala.
Let us unpack this question.
For us, to practically learn something from history, which will reflect practically in our life, we need 2 ingredients:
- We need to know accurately what the historical event was; and
- The power of our internal emotions
WE NEED TO KNOW ACCURATELY WHAT THE HISTORICAL EVENT WAS
Let us take 16 June (Youth Day) as an example. In order to learn about this, we need to understand what the philosophy behind the Soweto uprising was, and what occurred in the lead up to this brave stand taken by the youth against Afrikaans being enforced as a medium of instruction for them. So, this is the first important aspect ie. accurate knowledge about the historical incident itself. Otherwise, we will not learn anything and there will be no impact on our practical life.
Now, let me tell you something more. Often, we have knowledge of the particular historical event, but unfortunately, in most cases, our knowledge does not motivate us enough or create that energy inside us which can drive us towards action.
For example, I don’t think there is anybody in this crowd today, who does not know that smoking is harmful, and that it destroys our lungs and creates cancer. That being said, we all know all to well how many people would run for a quick smoke break throughout the day, and this is with full knowledge about the harmful effects of smoking.
So, the knowledge is there. Smoking is just one example. What about eating? Doctors warn us all the time about eating healthy, and we are all guilty of not obeying, even though we have full knowledge of the harmful effects of eating unhealthy food.
So, the point is that something more than just knowledge is required. Shaheed Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari, one of the greatest intellectual giants of the 20th century, gives a very beautiful example to illustrate the point. He says that when one looks at a car, it requires 2 things for it to move on the road:
- Petrol/gasoline, which is required for the engine to produce the energy which will result in the required movement.
- Lights, and a driver who knows how to control a car, because if the energy described in the preceding point is there, but there is no proper driver, or if the lights are not there, then this car will indeed move, but won’t reach its destination. Rather, it will end up in a ditch!
So, the driver is like knowledge, and the light is to distinguish between the right path and the dark alley which will lead you to an abyss. Now, to come to the point, when we talk about the remembrance of Karbala, then of course, we need to analyze and know what happened in Karbala, which led to the stand which Imam Hussain (a.s) took. We need to analyze the philosophical, intellectual reasoning behind this courageous position.
THE POWER OF OUR INTERNAL EMOTIONS
Knowledge in isolation is not enough, because within us, we all have the power of emotions. We need to activate that emotional power, as that motivates us and drives us to act upon our knowledge.
Now, if you want to know why do we commemorate Karbala the way we do, where we make a big fuss, with mass advertising and banners and flags, it is to stir that emotion within us to connect us to the incident itself.
Many of us will recall from years gone by, our good friend and brother, the Christian Catholic Priest, Father Christopher Clohessy, who conducted his research on Imam Hussain (a.s) and the commemoration of Karbala. He used to say so beautifully, that the commemoration of Karbala and Muharram is not confined to remembering history. Rather, it is about delving into that history and connecting with that history. Therefore, it is not history any longer in the past tense, but rather, it is present!
Father Christopher Clohessy, a non-Muslim religious leader, when he analyses this culture of commemoration programs, says that these people are not simply narrating a historical incident which occurred 14 centuries ago. Instead, they are going there, because for them, Imam Hussain (a.s) was not killed 14 centuries ago, but instead, Imam Hussain (a.s) is being killed now! Karbala is taking place now!
ASHURA IS THE ANNUAL REVIVAL TO RENEW OUR ALLEGIANCE TO THE HUSSAINI MISSION
Ashura comes every year, and this tragedy of Karbala comes alive as a living reality. This is different to simply talking about a history lesson.
Of course, we must have seminars and webinars, discussion groups, debates and lectures about Imam Hussain (a.s). However, it is along with this emotional aspect and personal touch. We are not only connecting ourselves to Karbala and the history of 14 centuries ago through our minds and our intellectual capacity. We are connecting ourselves to Karbala and Imam Hussain (a.s) with our souls, our emotions, and as a matter of fact, with our whole existence.
Therefore, we say that Karbala is not history. Karbala is not about the past. Karbala is a culture and an institution. Karbala is a dynamic and consistent reality. It is not something which simply occurred in the past and confined to the annals of history.
When we look at any incident in the history, we notice that it occurred and is recorded in the books of history, and that is it really. You can read a couple of times, and then you will be tired of it, and will not read again. However, we listen to the tragedy of Karbala every year, but none of us can claim to be tired of listening to the tragedy of Karbala!
Karbala and the discussion of Imam Hussain (a.s) is fresh every year! When Muharram comes, it appears to us as if it has arrived for the first time in our lives.
WHY DO WE CURSE THE KILLERS OF IMAM HUSSAIN (A.S)?
Let us move to the next question. Besides praising and commemorating Imam Hussain (a.s), one very important element of this commemoration is that we curse the killers of Imam Hussain (a.s), and the question is why? Some people have a very serious problem with this practice, as they want to understand where does cursing fit into our programs of commemoration.
The answer to this question is very simple. Many of our mainstream Muslim brethren who uphold the memory of Karbala like we do, tend to drift away from us when it comes to cursing the killers of Imam Hussain (a.s). The key point to understand is cursing is an expression of a commitment that if I am committed to Imam Hussain (a.s), it means that I am opposed to the enemies of Imam Hussain (a.s). I cannot be in both camps.
One of the very crucial points of Karbala is that it is a place where you have to decide whether you want to be in the camp of truth or falsehood. You cannot be in both! The mentality of being OK with everything does not work. This is not only a crucial principle in Karbala, but beyond this, it is an important Quranic principle.
We should note that the Holy Quran issues curses in various verses, and then we all know about the curse of Almighty Allah (SWT) being invoked upon Abu Lahab in Surah Lahab (chapter 111 of the Holy Quran). Now, Abu Lahab died 14 centuries ago, but we are still reading this Surah, which says:
تَبَّتْ يَدَا أَبِي لَهَبٍ وَتَبَّ
Perdition overtake both hands of Abu Lahab, and he will perish.
Interestingly, Abu Lahab has already perished, but we are still invoking this curse from Surah Lahab, as the chapter of the Holy Quran has not been nullified.
Similarly, we are also saying after 14 centuries, that we should announce our opposition to the murderers of Hussain (a.s) and the enemies of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) of Rasulullah (SAWA), as it is not possible to be in the camp of Imam Hussain (a.s) and then be OK with the enemies of Imam Hussain (a.s).
IS THERE CREDENCE TO THE APPROACH OF LOVE FOR ALL AND HATE FOR NONE?
We notice a growing trend of apologetic Islam, which promotes the notion of love for all, and hate for none. I have a very serious problem with this as it is not Quranic. It is practically impossible to be friends with everyone and enemies with none. You have to pretty much be a hypocrite to make this work! You want to love the oppressor and the oppressed! You want to love the killer and the one killed! You want to love the victim and the culprit! Is this really possible other than through hypocrisy?
Again, the meaning of love of Imam Hussain (a.s) in Karbala, and hate for the enemies of Imam Hussain (a.s) in Karbala, is not confined to the annals of history and those who lived 14 centuries ago. Quite the contrary, as Imam Hussain (a.s) created a headline where he said that “a person like me will never pay allegiance to a man like Yazid”.
So, Imam Hussain (a.s) did not say that the story of Karbala is confined to the year 61AH or about Yazid of that particular era. A “person like me” means that whoever follows the ideology, approach and thought of Hussain (a.s) will never surrender, love or be inclined to the people who are like Yazid or who have the Yazidi mentality and approach.
So we do not feel shy, nor do we apologize for cursing the killers of Imam Hussain (a.s). We very proudly say “Allahummal an qatalatal hussain wa as-habi”.
أَللّٰهُمَّ الْعَنْ أَوَّلَ ظَالِمٍ ظَلَمَ حَقَّ مُحَمَّدٍ وَآلِ مُحَمَّدٍ وَآخِرَ تَابِعٍ لَهُ عَلىٰ ذٰلِكَ. أَللّٰهُمَّ الْعَنِ الْعِصَابَةَ الَّتِي جَاهَدَتِ الْـحُسَيْنَ وَشَايَعَتْ وَبَايَعَتْ وَتَابَعَتْ عَلىٰ قَتْلِهِ، أَللّٰهُمَّ الْعَنْهُمْ جَمِيعاً.
O’ Allah! Curse those who placed the foundation of injustice against Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, and those who followed, until the day of Qiyamah.
O’ Allah! Curse the group who fought against Hussain and those who followed them and supported them and assisted them in killing him. O’ Allah, curse all of them!
WHY DO WE CRY FOR IMAM HUSSAIN (A.S)?
We have now understood why we commemorate the tragedy of Karbala, and we have also understood why we commemorate it in the manner we do, and why we include cursing. Now, we can do all of this in a nice manner. The question now is, why do we cry?
What is the need to cry when we say that these were the days when Imam Hussain (a.s) was finally victorious? Why are we then making this a sad occasion and grieving?
The first aspect to address in this question is what does crying for Imam Hussain (a.s) mean?
You see, sometimes you cry out of feeling sorry for someone. Let me make it abundantly clear on this point, that we are not crying for Imam Hussain (a.s) out of feeling sorry for him. Imam Hussain (a.s) is the prince of Jannah, so who are we to feel sorry for him?
Sometimes you cry out of fear. Obviously, we do not cry for Imam Hussain (a.s) out of fear either. In fact, I can very proudly say that in today’s world, this nation that cries for Imam Hussain (a.s) are the most courageous people on this earth! Those who cry for Hussain (a.s) are ready to clash with the mightiest forces of this world, and they do not mind. So, this crying is not for fear!
Sometimes people say that we cry because we regret. This stale argument is still brought forward, that the Shia are the ones who killed Imam Hussain (a.s) and now they cry out of regret. This is a different discussion of who killed Imam Hussain (a.s), and whether it was the Shia who killed Imam Hussain (a.s). Let me make it clear over here that this crying is also not out of regret! Not at all!
So then, what is this crying? There is a very big difference between smiling, laughing, and crying. Both emotions are an expression of human feelings. Let me ask you a question – which one is purest in its expression? Laughing, smiling or crying? It is good when you laugh and smile, but you can fake it if you want. However, you cannot shed tears if this particular incident has not penetrated your heart.
When we cry for Imam Hussain (a.s), we are connecting with him through the most purest expression of human emotions and feelings. When we are shedding tears for Imam Hussain (a.s), we are connecting ourselves to Karbala and the Ahlul Bait (a.s) of Rasulullah (SAWA).
In addition, shedding tears and crying is a form of allegiance from the depth of our hearts with Imam Hussain (a.s), as explained so beautifully by Ayatollah Mutahhari and Dr Ali Shariati where they say that the tears for the martyr is an allegiance with the ambitions and message of the martyr. We make a commitment with the martyr through our tears.
All the questions discussed tonight were responded to based upon rationality. However, when it comes to Karbala, even rationality does not fly very far. After 14 centuries, we still know very little about who Hussain (a.s) was and what he did in Karbala!
How is it that Imam Hussain (a.s) can motivate and drive multi-millions of people so powerfully after 14 centuries? Nobody can explain this magnetic effect of Imam Hussain (a.s). Therefore, when we talk about crying for Imam Hussain (a.s), let me remind you that Prophets (a.s) and the angels cry for Imam Hussain (a.s)!
UMMUL MU’MINEEN UMMI SALMA NARRATES A POIGNANT ANECDOTE FROM RASULULLAH (SAWA)
I would like to conclude with a Hadith recorded in “Al bidayah wan nihayah”, which was authored by ibn Katheer. Who is ibn Kathir? He is a student of ibn Taymiyyah! Ibn Kathir is a very highly regarded scholar in history, and has also compiled his own commentary of the Holy Quran, referred to as the Tafsir of ibn Kathir.
Al bidayah wan nihayah is a comprehensive piece of work by ibn Kathir, covering many volumes. The Ash’aris believe that ibn Kathir was Ash’ari, while the Salafi Wahhabis believe that ibn Kathir was Salafi. I am giving you the background before sharing the Hadith with you. Clearly, this Hadith I am about to relay is not from someone who is inclined towards us Shia.
Ibn Kathir narrated in Al bidayah wan nihayah from Ummul Mu’mineen Ummi Salma, the wife of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). She narrates that Rasulullah (SAWA) came home one day and requested that she not allow anyone inside as he wants to take a bit of rest. Now, Ummi Salma says that Rasulullah (SAWA) went inside to rest for a bit and all of a sudden young Hussain (a.s) emerged.
Ummi Salma told Hussain (a.s) that he cannot go inside as his grandfather is resting, but the young Hussain (a.s) was over-eager and she could not stop him. The young Hussain (a.s) went inside, and Ummi Salma says that she went inside after a while just to check if everything is OK.
Ummi Salma narrates that when she went inside, she saw Hussain (a.s) on the chest of Rasulullah (SAWA) and Rasulullah (SAWA) is crying profusely. This narration is also recorded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal in his Musnad, together with others.
Ummi Salma asked Rasulullah (SAWA) what is the reason for him crying, as she thought it may have been Hussain (a.s) who disturbed him while resting. Rasulullah (SAWA) explains that the young Hussain (a.s) came to sit on his chest, and suddenly angel Jibra’eel came from the Heavens.
Ummi Salma says that she saw something in the hand of Rasulullah (SAWA), while he is crying, and Hussain (a.s) is sitting on his chest. Rasulullah (SAWA) informed Ummi Salma that angel Jibra’eel came and said to him that this Hussain (a.s) will be slaughtered on the plains of Karbala.
Rasulullah (SAWA) further narrates that angel Jibra’eel brought this dust from the heavens, which he was holding in his hands. Rasulullah (SAWA) explained to Ummi Salma that Hussain has a special status in the heavens, which he will reach upon achieving the martyrdom.
Rasulullah (SAWA) explains further to Ummi Salma, that the promised Mahdi (atfs) will be from the lineage of this Hussain (a.s), and it is the lovers and followers of Hussain (a.s) who will be from the successful people in Jannah.
Ummi Salma then narrates that Rasulullah (SAWA) asked her to keep this precious dust in a little bottle as it will turn red one day, and that is the day she must be aware that Hussain (a.s) was brutally killed!