We are presently in the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The first ten days of the month have a particular importance to Shi‘ī Muslims, as well as many Sunnī Muslims, who mark the martyrdom of Husayn ibn ‘Alī, the third Shi‘ī Imam. The role of the Imam in this case combines both religious and temporal (worldly or, for lack of a better term, “political”) social roles. In short, Shi‘īs view the Imams to have been both the legitimate leader of the Muslim community, a leader who holds the reins of both religious and temporal authority.
For the largest group of Shi‘īs, the Ithna ‘Ashariyya or “Twelvers”, the line of Imams runs to 12, the last of whom is believed to be in occultation, a concealed/hidden state beginning in the tenth century in order to safeguard him from his worldly enemies. This twelfth Imam, the “Hidden” Imam or the al-Imam al-Zaman (“the Imam of the Age”), will return at a time decided by God, and upon his return, he will establish absolute justice. It is my hope to raise several questions in this short essay about the nature of the actions taken by Husayn, in that year 680 C.E., that were themselves raised in my mind during a conversation several days ago with a couple friends and a few others. First, for the benefit of lay readers, I feel it is necessary to provide a brief background of the events in question. However, what follows is just that, a brief background of the relevant historical events. It is not meant to be a comprehensive retelling of events. Hopefully, I have found the correct balance.
Husayn holds a place of particular importance to Shi‘īs, Twelvers and others, who view him as the most important of their martyrs, of whom there have been many throughout history. He is given the popular title, “Sayyid al-Shuhada” (“Lord of Martyrs”), a title that clearly denotes the esteem in which they hold him and, as importantly, the story of his and his companions’ actions on the barren plain of Karbala, in present-day
Soon thereafter, a large Umayyad military force sent by Ibn Ziyad, led by ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d, cut off Husayn’s band from reaching Kufa, stopping them at Karbala, now a city not far from Kufa. The Kufans, who had promised to aid the Imam, reneged on their promises, perhaps out of fear, and effectively abandoned him and his companions and their families. In a siege and battle lasting several days, the Umayyad soldiers killed all but one of Husayn’s male relatives and companions, and, on the tenth day of Muharram, the Imam himself. Only Husayn’s ill son, ‘Ali ibn Husayn, better known as Zayn al-‘Abidīn, survived, of the Imam’s male relatives and companions. His sister, Sayyida Zaynab, and his daughters were among the survivors of his band. They were all taken back in chains to
Several days ago, in the aforementioned conversation, the question of whether Imam Husayn’s actions were political was raised. The definition of “political,” as I used it was as follows: “exercising or seeking power in the governmental or public affairs of a state, municipality, etc.: a political machine; a political boss.” One friend strongly contested the argument that his actions, namely his decision to challenge Yazid, were “political.” Another participant and I countered that his actions, whether intended to be political or not, were in fact political, at least in part. Although Husayn’s intentions may have been solely to challenge the bogus religious authority claimed by the corrupt and immoral Yazid, the results of his decision were not limited to the religious or moral realm. In other words, I may argue that A is morally corrupt and thus should not be allowed to claim religious and moral authority/leadership. However, if I lead a rebellion against A, this rebellion will not only have an impact on religious/moral affairs, but will also impact the political sphere, whether this was my original intention or not.
My sense during this conversation was that the friend who disagreed that the Imam’s actions were political was, at least partly, opposed to this argument because “political,” particularly today, carries a negative, impure meaning. I need to clarify that this was just my own sense, and it may be incorrect. I disagree with this view regardless. The events of ‘Ashura have a clear political message, a message that should and has inspired the oppressed and persecuted throughout history since their occurrence, as they should. Why should this be viewed as controversial or negative? Why is acknowledging that Husayn’s decision and actions had and still have political relevance problematic? Isn’t his story a clear example for those challenging political repression? I argue that it is. Husayn’s example was of the oppressed resisting and fighting the oppressor, out of principle and a desire to establish a moral and just society. This example should (and will) continue to inspire spiritual and political action on the part of the oppressed against their oppressors.