The Spiritual Basis of Muharram : Why Islam is in turmoil

The Battle of Karbala took place at Karbala, Iraq, on  the day of Ashura, 10th Muharram 61 Hj (8th to 10th Muharram), 680 AD. According to Islamic thinkers, this single event encapsulates the coalescence of mans religious understanding and personifies the essence of mans relationship with the Creator. In this battle, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, Hazrat Hussain ibn Ali (AlaihisSalam), and his family and companions of 72 people were surrounded by five thousand men belonging to the forces of Yazid ibn Muaviya, on the bank of the river Euphrates. Hazrat Hussain (AS) and his family and companions were denied water for several days in the fierce desert heat and finally mercilessly massacred through the most compelling tale of the fight between good and evil where good prevails, not by the might of the sword but by conviction reinforced by commitment to sacrifice everything, for the sake of God and the religion of God. While, Hazrat Hussain (AS) could have accepted the offer of a comfortable life from Yazid, he chose instead the excruciating path to shahadat or martyrdom.  Today, millions call their children ‘Hussain’, and his tale is ardently told and retold, while the name of Yazid and what he stood for is recounted with revulsion.

In the words of Mohammad Ali Jauhar :

Qatal Hussain asal main marg Yazid hai                         The slaughter of Hussain, in reality is the death of Yazid
Islam Zinda hota hai har Karbala kay baad.                  Islam is re-born after every Karbala


Khawaja Moinuddin Chisty (RA) says :

Shah ast Hussain, Badshah ast Hussain                           Ruler (Spiritual) is Hussain, King (Worldly) is Hussain   
Deen ast Hussain, Deen Panah ast Hussain                     Religion is Hussain, Guardian of Religion is Hussain     
Sardaad na daad dast, dar dast-e-yazeed                         Gave head, but not hand to hand of Yazeed         
Haqaa key binaey La ila ast Hussain                                The foundation of Faith (La ila …)  is Hussain

The origins of the Battle of Karbala lay in the early days of Islam. Opposition to Hazrat Muhammad (Sallallahu Alaihe Wasallam) came from various quarters, and for various reasons. Personal fealty and dispositions, family and tribal loyalties, religious and social convictions, commercial and political rivalries and ambitions all played a part to affect the spread of Islam through Hazrat Muhammad (SAW). Good was to be separated from evil, permanence from transience. It is therefore natural to assume that many people outwardly loyal to the Prophet may have harbored hidden discontent towards him and members of his immediate family during and after his lifetime. Hazrat Ali (AS), the son in law of the Prophet was preferred by the Prophet over others. The tradition of the Ahle Bayet  (Family of the House/Allegiance) became established through the Quran (3:61, 33:33, 42:23) and other acts of the Prophet (the most important being the Hadith of Ghadeer e Khum) which conferred a unique status on Hazrat Ali (AS) and his sons, Hazrat Hasan (AS) and Hazrat Hussain (AS), born of Fatima (AS), the daughter of the Prophet.  This roused further envy and animosity of many, which, after the departure of the Prophet appeared as open and hidden enmity towards Hazrat Ali (AS) and his Ahle Bayet. It can therefore be inferred, that enmity that existed for the Prophet himself, transmuted into enmity for Hazrat Ali (AS) and Hazrat Hasan (AS) and Hazrat Hussain (AS) when the persona of the Prophet was gone. In a manner of speaking the martyrdom of Hazrat Hussain (AS) was actually the martyrdom of Hazrat Muhammad (SAW), the only difference being that, had the Prophet been martyred, then this act would have become a Sunnah of the Prophet, and shahadat  or martyrdom would have become a requirement of the rituals of Islam. Since, martyrdom or absolute sacrifice in the way of Allah gives completeness to one’s deen  or religion, this part of the Prophets responsibility was carried out by his grandson, Hazrat Hussain (AS), a person whose faith and standing was possibly only equaled by the Prophet himself.  

Having always opposed the Prophet, Abu Sufian and his son Muaviya ibn Abu Sufian accepted Islam at the fall of Mecca, only with the intention of being part of the developing new power structure. Shortly after becoming Caliph, Omar ibn Khattab appointed Abu Sufian’s elder son Yazid ibn Abu Sufian (Abu Sufian’s grandson  also had the same name) as the governor of Syria. Later, Muaviya, the younger son of Abu Sufian, and father of Yazid ibn Muaviya, became governor of Syria. A power hungry man with no moral scruples and no respect for Islamic ideals or rules of conduct, he did not give his allegiance to Hazrat Ali (AS) when he became Caliph, and waged war against him. Having succeeded in having Hazrat Ali (AS) and Hazrat Hasan (AS) murdered, the object of Muaviya and Yazid was to eliminate the house of the Prophet entirely by any means, and hence the events of Karbala.

Life from the instant of birth to the moment of death is a constant struggle between the forces of life and the forces of death; the forces of good and the forces of evil. Disease, pain, decay and evil, perpetually joust with health, happiness, renewal and good. Ultimately, death overtakes and defeats life, life as we know it. Shakespeare said –‘To be or not to be that is the question’.  Although man knows that defeat is inevitable in the end, yet man strives to defeat this inevitability. But, life is fleeting. The forces of defeat and death are far more superior to that of life and renewal.  For the time that life manifests itself, it cannot survive, unless the force that controls both life and death is on the side of life, even for a little while. The thinking mind perceives this small window of life as a unique gift and projects it forward into the realm beyond death in the hope of another life and renewal. This hope for renewal and permanence has proved time and again in the past to be the greatest and most ultimate hope for all mankind. This hope for life and renewal after death must be affirmed from time to time. This can only be done by great men and the greatest of them was Hazrat Hussain (AS). God says in the Quran – ‘Think not of those who are slain in God’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord’ (3:169), and ‘And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah. “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not’. (2:154).

Man, in his truest form, tries to fulfill the innate need of ‘understanding the purpose and mystery of creation’ or ‘finding the inherent meaning of life’. He may even assume the presence of a Creator (in the case of Muslims, the One God) and gain the satisfaction of being one with it. Although not universal, this desire defines the spiritual man. No other creature presumably is affected in this way. However, what constitutes ‘meaning to life’ varies from individual to individual.  The desire or urge to find this ‘inherent meaning of life’ seems to be ‘hardwired’ in all individuals in a pre-determined strategy of creation which propels each individual to find what he is destined to look for.  Not that he is destined to find it, but, to the extent that he does find this ‘meaning of life’, to that extent he finds a certain kind of spiritual wellbeing and satisfaction which defines his humanity. Some find satisfaction in money, some in fame and power, others in health, and yet others in whatever it may be. A few, not satisfied with mundane needs of the flesh and the self, take the leap and go beyond the periphery of their own ‘selves’, trying to find the connection that binds man to the universe and beyond. There are levels and levels of this too, and heaven only knows where resides, the ultimate Supreme Being – the destination of the supreme seeker.

This effort is painful and is surrounded by many pitfalls.  It requires patience, contemplation, prayers, empathy, ritualistic exercises, and a host of other exhortations as per the personal disposition of each individual. All such attempts involve the making of sacrifice, in however small an amount it may be. Sacrifice requires one to give up what one loves in the expectation of a greater love.  Sacrifice is an essential element for attaining the knowledge of God (9:24) and this is true even in the case of the Prophets, including the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Only when the prayers and the exhortations of the seeker are answered, is that effort vindicated, and the seeker finds peace, even if the peace be temporary. This process of sacrificing what one loves, and being rewarded by what one loves more, is the journey of the spirit, the spirit that is everlasting. This is the essence of the teaching of Karbala and the central cornerstone of Islam. ‘You never gain something, but that you lose something’, said the philosopher Henry Thoreau.

When the Seeker seeks the Sought, he praises him (or it), by concentrating all his attention to him (or the inner unexpressed, yet real, outline of what is being sought). When the Sought, answers his efforts, the Seeker finds satisfaction and feels ‘expanded’ and praised. Praise is the single most essential element that defines all emotions of man. An understanding of the functionality of this word opens the door to much deeper truths. For the act of praise to take place there must be a ‘Praiser’ and the ‘Praised’. For the act of praise to take place there must be duality (or multiplicity). The act of praise requires the Praiser to merge his consciousness into the Praised. The act of praise creates unity and destroys multiplicity. At one point the praise flows in the reverse direction, when the former Praised becomes the Praiser and vice versa. Genuine praise and praise that is returned is the beginning of love, the most glorious of all things in the universe. In Islamic terminology, the state of the Praiser merging into the Praised is known as fana, and the state of the Praiser being rewarded by the Praised is known as baqa. It is small wonder that the very first Ayat of Sura Fatiha in the Quran starts with the words, ‘All praise belongs to Allah, the Creator of the Worlds’.  The fact that even God praises man is underscored by the famous Ayat in the Quran where God not only says that He Himself praises Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) but asks the angels and men to praise him (33:56).

Many have described Islam as ‘a way of life’. This description can be misleading. ‘A way of life’ signifies a manner of existence or a method to conduct one’s life such as, the desert way of life, the democratic way of life, the Buddhist way of life, the banker’s way of life, and so on. To categorize Islam as ‘a way of life’ would not do justice to the meaning of Islam, because Islam is not just ‘a way of life’ but rather ‘the essential purpose of life’ or even ‘the meaning of life’. Yet there are others who see Islam as a set of rules and practices which if followed would automatically lead one to salvation or heaven in the hereafter. They use the simile of the ‘key’ to these practices which would open the ‘lock’ of heaven. This machine like approach is erroneous too, because it does not recognize the role and state of the heart or soul which does not follow logical formulas. Islam recognizes that every aspect of life has two modes, the outer and the inner. The outer gives it the form, and the inner, the purpose. In Islam, the outer mode is known as the Shariat  or Islamic Law, which is a set of basic laws and rituals that govern the essential elements of man’s social and daily activities. The inner mode is known as the Tariqat  or ‘Special Method’ (5:51) which addresses the special needs of individual hearts and souls to understand the mystery of God and Creation. While there is basically only one set of Shariat  there could be many different Tariquats depending on the preference of the seeker.

Jihad  or struggle is an integral part of Islam, the word Jihad  being mentioned in the Quran 41 times. From the Islamic point of view, Jihad  is a continuous process that encompasses all acts of life, proceeding towards attainment of the higher values of life through overcoming forces that oppose it. ‘Value’ does not just refer to ethical standards but to the attainment of a plane, in the heart and soul, more fulfilling and satisfying than what one may have become complacent with. Personal Jihad  happens in mainly 4 areas, the physical, the mental, the emotional and the value level. However, different Tariquats interpret and employ different methods to achieve the same goal.

The entire period of the revelation of the Quran was a period of Jihad. It started with the revelation – ‘Read, in the name of your Sustainer’ (96:1), and ended with – ‘Today I have perfected your religion for you’ (5:3). The last Ayat, which completed the revelation of the Shariat was revealed on the day of the Hajj which is significant. The Hajj one of the 5 pillars of Islam, performed on the 10th day of Zil Hajj, revolves around the sacrifices of Hazrat Ibrahim (AS) culminating in the attempted sacrifice of his beloved son Hazrat Ismail (AS), ‘attempted’ because it was not accepted by God on that day. It is believed that this sacrifice was finally accepted by God on the day of Ashura  through the ‘momentous sacrifice’ of Hazrat Hussain (AS) (37:106-107). This is the deeper spiritual completion of the revelation of the Quran which was perfected on the day of Ashura, the day on which the world was created and the day on which it will be destroyed. The Martydom of Hussain (AS) is therefore an integral part of the revelation of Islam.

The Prophet used to hold the persona of Hazrat Hussain (AS) in extreme high esteem. This is exemplified in the famous incident where Hazrat Hussain (AS) had climbed the shoulder of the Prophet when he was in prostration in prayer at the time of leading the prayer. The Prophet did not lift his head until his grandson had climbed down from his shoulder on his own accord. The Prophet used to say ‘Hussain is from me and I am from Hussain’. The gravity of this cryptic statement can be understood if one tries to imagine the scenario had God accepted the sacrifice of Hazrat Ibrahim (AS), in which case The Prophet would not have been born because he was born in the line of Hazrat Ismail (AS). Only because of the acceptance of God of the ‘ransom’ of the future sacrifice of Hazrat Hussain (AS) through his ‘momentous sacrifice’ (37:106-107) was Hazrat Ismail (AS) allowed to live and hence the birth of the Prophet made possible. In this way the Prophet owed his birth to the birth of Hazrat Hussain (AS). Since the wahdiniyat  or ‘oneness’ of God was brought to the world by Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) and that, he could not have come without the acceptance of ‘ransom’ of sacrifice by Hazrat Hussain (AS) at Karbala, can it not be said that the Ground of Karbala is more sacred than any other religious site in the world ? The Qabaa may the the Qibla  (point of worship) for the outward world, but Karbala is the Qibla  for the world of the soul.    

The cornerstone of the ritualistic practices of Islam is the elimination or sacrifice of the ‘self’ in one’s life to be replaced by ‘the higher self’ which is more attuned to the will or wish of God. The root word of Islam is aslama  which means to give up, to desert, or to surrender. Another noun derived from the same root is salaam  which means peace. The method of Islam is to surrender and the objective is peace. 

The sacrifice of Hazrat Hussain (AS) is the sacrifice of the nafs  (the lower self) to the will of the higher ruh (the higher self). With Hazrat Muhammad (SAW), only the outward law had been promulgated; with Hazrat Hussain (AS) the inner path towards union with the Creator was established. Law without benefit is meaningless; therefore, the sacrifice of Hazrat Hussain (AS) gives true meaning to the outward form of Islam. By destroying the lower self of the nafs at the will of the ruh which can never die, it was Hazrat Hussain (AS) that defeated Yazid and not the other way round.

So what is the significance of Ashura in the daily affairs of men? It is in the destiny of man that he will be continuously presented with choices between what is the easy thing to do and what is the right thing to do, or to put it in other words, the choice between what will give immediate comfort, and what will give future greater fulfillment but at the cost of sacrifice in the present time. Civilizations have risen and fallen with these choices made by men. Most humans do not have the deeper knowledge of religion, and choose the path to immediate comfort and security, instead of the path to an obscure future of greater comfort and honor through sacrifice. The few who choose the path to future honor and glory are the leaders of men and those entrenched in faith. The real glory of man lies not in immediate comfort, but in the uncovering of his real potentials through the process of self discovery through continuous sacrifice and continuous regeneration. It is the memory of Hazrat Hussain (AS) which re-affirms to all lesser believers, each hour and each place, that there is an inner glorious meaning to life, that there is life after death, and that Creation has not been created in vain, and the short life that has been given to man represent something much more, and that the call of the seeker shall definitely be answered by the Sought.

Hazrat Hussain’s (AS) Jihad on the sands of Karbala is meaningful in many levels, from the lowest to the highest. By refusing to accept the worldly comforts and charms offered to him, he completed the first stages of Jihad. By enduring the physical pain of water being denied to him and his family for over 3 days he overcame the domain of Jihad  of the body. By sacrificing his two sons he exceeded the distinction of Hazrat Ibrahim (AS) and by sacrificing himself, he sacrificed his entire ‘self’ to the service of the Almighty.  

It may be noted that Hazrat Hasan (AS) and Hazrat Hussain (AS) were both martyred, the first through poisoning and the other through a brutal monstrosity that will live through the millenniums. The first kind of Shahadat is a solitary one that is endured by the person in secret. The second kind being open for all to see gives the opportunity to all to share in the grief of the sacrifice and to feel the loss and to be one with him. In this way, Hazrat Hussain’s (AS) sacrifice is a gift to mankind, but only to those who share in this grief. This gift comes in three ways.  Firstly, it set the burning example of how an individual should act in the face of adversity to protect the fundamental principles of life and Islam. Edmund Burke’s famous statement comes to mind ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. Many present day Muslims, like the forces of Yazid are motivated by the view that if sufficiently large number of Muslims support the wrong cause, then it becomes the right cause. These Muslims are completely misguided. They forget that each person shall be accountable to the Creator on the Day of Judgment individually and superiority of numbers will be useless. Secondly, Hazrat Hussain’s (AS) sacrifice reaffirms the faith, of those wavering in faith, about the existence of an everlasting life after death. Thirdly, by sacrificing himself and attaining the approval of the Almighty, he went to a position where exhortations made to him would be heard and answered by him, in all places and at all times, because people who die in the way of God ‘live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord’ (3:169). To Muslims who call on him, ‘Every day is Ashura, and every place is Karbala’.  

It would be another monstrosity if  Muslims did not give the due respect, affection and allegiance to the Great Helper of Mankind, Hazrat Imam Hussain (AS), Shaheed e Karbala who is even today capable of helping those who call on him in earnest. Hazrat Hussain (AS) was killed not by non-Muslims, but by Muslims who obviously were misguided and were only mindful of satisfying their own depraved natures. The question may be asked by men without understanding, how can one man be so sure of himself that he can oppose the majority, all by himself? To answer this comes to mind the Prophet’s statement, ‘I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate’. One man can equal the city, and one man be its gate, if he be the right man.

It is erroneous to assume that a person achieves inner spiritual perfection as soon as he accepts the religion by the performance of the outer obligations of the religion (49:14). Until a man becomes firmly established in the faith of Islam,  a gap, and hence a conflict,  remains between the outer ritualistic compulsions of the religion and the relative inner spiritual state of perfection, which until it is achieved, does not give completeness to the man to achieve an inner sense of peace and harmony.  It is therefore obligatory on Muslims to recognise this fundamental failing in his disposition and to find ways to correct it. What prevents a person from overcoming the fixations of the mind and the heart that prevents the resolution of this conflict between his outer understanding and the inner spiritualistic needs is a mystery possibly equal to the mystery of creation itself. Whom, God leaves to stray, unable to receive inspiration, is a mystery with God Himself. (39:23, 2:7). However, this conflict may be resolved by constantly subjugating the inner self to the reference point of a superior entity who can provide the guidelines for uniting the outer form with the inner spiritual state of the person. These ‘superior persons’ are persons of experience endowed with understanding, and, in the highest echelons are the members of the Ahle Bayet. Having respect and love for the Ahle Bayet is therefore the most essential part of one’s deen. Having love for those held dear to the Prophet is absolutely the essential foundation of Islam. As per the Quran (42:23), this is the one and only price that has to be paid to receive the gift of Islam. However, if this price is not paid, then the taker, by all applications of rationality may become the possessor of a valuable jewel of which he is not the rightful owner.

The greatest threat to Islam today are not non-Muslims or idolaters but the enemies who lie within, hidden in the outer garb of Islam purporting to be devout Muslims, but in actuality, devoid of the spirit and the essence of Islam. The origin of these people can be traced to the field of Karbala where the forces pitted again Hazrat Hussain (AS) were only holding the outer garb of the religion. The sense of unity and purpose offered by the assumption of the outer form of Islam, provides to these individuals the convenient tool to materialize their un-Islamic self-serving ambitions and to do un-Islamic things behind the façade of Islam. Unless and until, that they are indentified, and segmented into their proper stations, they will continue to be the source of discord and fanaticism within the society. Fortunately, these individuals can be easily identified by the fanatical way they assume the external features of the religion for example, by assuming long beards and robes and other such ostentatious attributes. 

Curiously, now a days there are 3 distinct types of Muslims. In the first category, they show genuine sympathy and support for Hazrat Hussain (AS) and his family. In the second category, they show no sympathy or support for Hazrat Hussain (AS) and explain the matter of the Battle of Karbala in the western mould of thought as a power struggle between two political groups in the early days of Islam. In the third category, are men who are actively opposed to Hazrat Hussain (AS) and his family and want to do away with the legacy of Karbala. It is a shame that the first category is in the minority, and hence probably the main cause why the Islamic Ummah is in such disarray today.  Submission to a higher authority through sacrifice of the self is missing in the Muslim Ummah. It is hard to conceive how a nation can achieve and develop without having a hierarchy of authority. Muslims recite the Sura Fateha (first Sura of the Quran) every day but do not understand the plain meaning of the verse which requires them to find ‘those whom thou hast favoured’ (1:7). Internecine quarrels, to the point where the persona of the Prophet himself is being tainted and attacked, as is being done by the Wahabis and the Salafis,  go against the teachings of Islam. It is only through the message of Karbala that the Muslims can unite under the banner of the Ahle Bayet for the advancement of the Ummah in the present world and the next.

It is inconceivable that God in his infinite mercy towards mankind would not keep alive the legacy of Karbala and the sacrifice of Hazrat Hussain (AS) for the benefit of those who would still remember him in later generations.  As revealed in the Quran, it is the promise of the Almighty to keep alive the religion of Islam despite all odds (9:32, 15:9). If the outer form of Islam is preserved, it must be that the inner form shall be preserved too. God had promised to Hazrat Ibrahim (AS) that he would make leaders from among his progeny (2:124). These individuals would lead mankind to the right path. Again, Allah through the Ayat of Tathhir (33:33) had promised to cleanse pure the Ahle Bayet of the Prophet who would be the guiding light for generations of the future. These members of the Ahle Bayet live even today through the progeny of Hazrat Hussain (AS) and Hazrat Hasan (AS). One son of Hazrat Hussain (AS), Hazrat Zainul Abedin (AS) escaped death at Karbala because of illness and the Grace of God. Through him came his line of the Ahle Bayet consisting of the 12 Infallible Imams. Through the line of Hazrat Hasan (AS) has come a long line of the Ahle Bayet the most notable being Hazrat Syed Abu Muhammad Mohyuddin Abdul Quadir Jilani (AS), also known as Ghausul Azam, or ‘The Greatest Helper’,  the most brilliant Shining Star in the firmament of the Ahle Bayet of the Prophet. His birth has been compared to the birth of the Greatest Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) who was the only Prophet to have come from the line of Prophet Hazrat Ismail (AS) whereas many Prophets came from the line of Hazrat Ishaq (AS), the other line of Hazrat Ibrahim (AS).

Hazrat Hussain (AS) sacrificed himself for the benefit of all mankind. It is now the duty of each generation to regenerate its faith and understanding of Islam through the legacy of Karbala through the members of the Ahle Bayet. God’s mercy and blessings descend on those who remember him, and weep for him, for his days of trial on the desert sands of Iraq, on the bank of the Euphrates, 1371 years ago.

Syed Mujtaba Quader
a Servant of Hazrat Hussain (AS),
Ghausul Azam and the Ahle Bayet