The Lebanese Twelver Shi'i party Hizbullah (Hezbollah, Hizballah) is marking the beginning of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram today. As part of the annual 10-day commemoration of the passion and martyrdom of the third Shi'i Imam, Husayn bin 'Ali, the party designs artwork.
HISTORICAL SUMMARY OF 'ASHURA
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 and son of the first Imam, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib. 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 Imam al-Zaman (“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 Iraq. His father, ‘Ali, the first Imam, and brother, Hassan, the second Imam, did not challenge Mu‘awiya ibn Sufyan, the first caliph (roughly, “king”) of the Umayyad dynasty, the first monarchical dynastic line following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. The reasons as to why this was are the topic of debate to this day.
Unlike his father and brother, Husayn not only refused to give allegiance to Mu‘awiya’s son and successor, Yazid I, but attempted to answer a call from supporters of his father in the Iraqi city of al-Kufa, who promised to fight with him if he would come from his refuge in the city of Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia to lead them. However, before Husayn and his small band reached al-Kufa, the Imam’s representative and cousin, Muslim ibn Aqīl, was arrested and executed on the orders of ‘Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, the governor of Iraq and a loyalist of Yazid’s.Soon thereafter, a large Umayyad military force sent by Ibn Ziyad, led by the general ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d, cut off Husayn’s band from reaching al-Kufa, stopping them at Karbala, now a city not far from al-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 Damascus in Syria, the base of Umayyad power. Damascus was the Umayyad capital and the stronghold of the late Mu‘awiya.