Why a man murdered in 7th century is mourned by millions of Muslims today

Marwa Osman
Ms. Marwa Osman. PhD Candidate located in Beirut, Lebanon. University Lecturer at the Lebanese International University and Maaref University. Political writer/commentator on Middle East issues with many international and regional media outlets.
Why a man murdered in 7th century is mourned by millions of Muslims today
The tenth day of the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar marks a significant day in the Muslim world, known as Ashura.

“Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves” ― Imam Hussein Ibn Ali

Every year, millions gather for at least ten days to pay homage to the tragedy that occurred in Karbala, Iraq, the beheading of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain ibn Ali (October 10, 680/Muharram 10, 61 AH). Shias, in particular, remember the tragedy and recite eulogies and repeat the heart-wrenching epic poem year after year.

Hussain Ibn Ali, a name that has inspired millions of Muslims all over the world, is bound to never fade or lose its glory. A massive sacrifice, one so big, so grave, that the world, still speaks of Imam Hussain with a great sense of awe, deep from the heart. No Muslim can deny Imam Hussain’s gracious sacrifice in Karbala. When Islam needed a savior, son of Ali Ibn Abi Talib stepped up and offered 72 lives of his kin to save the religion. Karbala made Hussain an example for Muslims and the rest of the world to follow.

Hundreds of years have passed and people from all walks of life - whether Muslims, Christians or simply those who support the oppressed against the oppressor - still mourn Imam Hussain. However, a person looking from the outside would want to understand the significance of this event and the messages one can derive from the martyrdom of Imam Hussain.

By reading the sacrifice as a history lesson, one would find that Imam Hussain left Saudi Arabia along with his family due to the ongoing threat of the tyrant ruler Yazid’s demand for allegiance. Another contributing factor to leave was the letters he received from the Kufans of Iraq asking him to come and lead them against Yazid.

However, that history alone can’t explain the huge crowds of black-clad Shia Muslim pilgrims that throng the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala every year in Ashura, weeping and beating their chests in mourning for the seventh-century killing of the Prophet's grandson. It is a legitimate question to ask: Why do people still mourn a man who passed away hundreds of years ago and still recite the story of his death?

A large army, which had been mobilized by the Umayyad regime, besieged a group of people numbering less than a hundred and demanded they take the oath of allegiance to the caliph. The group, which also comprised old men, women, and babies, refused to surrender and following a brief battle, they were all viciously killed. Although many other similar and more important events occurred throughout human history, this historical event would not be forgotten.

The event of Ashura was much worse than a tragic hardship, mass murder, manslaughter, or massacre. Imam Hussain was brought up in the Prophetic guidance where he received the direct concern of the Prophet. The ideal atmosphere where he had grown up with his grandfather, father, mother and elder brother was the highest level ever attained. Thus he acquired wisdom, generosity, bravery, and piety. He occupied outstanding posts during his father’s reign in the Islamic state. During the terror and corruption which swept the Muslim world at the hands of the Umayyads, he was the sole hope of the Muslims to restore the establishment of Islamic laws which would bring them prosperity and peace. He never failed the Muslims, but acted as expected of a great ideological leader, and discharged his duty to the best.

Imam Hussain did what no other would do; he gave up his home, safety, life, and entire family for a message. Surely Muslims and believers throughout the world from that day on would continue to weep and mourn his loss on the day of Ashura.

The message that deserved the sacrifice of the head of one of the Prophet's precious grandsons was one of humanity, peace, and justice; hence the message of Islam and of God. It is the message that inspired all of humanity with divinity. Imam Hussain’s revolution was aimed at saving the people from corruption, humiliation, mortification, and ignorance.

The vast amount of time that separates us from Imam Hussain’s era should not discourage us from learning his timeless morals and exemplary ethics. In discovering the essence of his teachings, we can learn how to behave like him in our own modern times. Such is the case regarding Islam’s other role models, above all, the Prophet Muhammad, who is the role model for all Muslims (Quran 33:21). These ethical teachers promote fundamental moral values that transcend time and space.

The issues Imam Hussain stood against, such as dictatorship, injustice, economic corruption and the lack of civil liberties, are very much the problems of our modern world. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the most distinguished leader of independence movements in the 21st century, stated who he emulated in liberating his nation: “I learned from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”

It is irrefutable that the highest point of Imam Hussain’s influence occurred during the event of Ashura. Imam Hussain’s integrity and principles prevented him from a forced alliance with a corrupt dictator unsuitable to lead the Muslims, and he was willing to give up his life to prove his opposition to tyranny.

Imam Hussain’s enduring lessons teach Muslims that they are responsible for standing against dictatorships brought about in the name of religion and to stand against those who weaken the people’s ability to decide about their own social and political affairs. Imam Hussain’s stance against the tyranny of an imposed government accentuates the importance of a right to a dignified life and respecting unassailable civil and human rights.

Consequently, commemorating the events of Ashura must be comprehensive and equal to its breadth and beauty. It must be studied by a correct understanding and fair analysis of the event and its rational goals.

The rational and emotional aspects of the event must be considered together. Unfortunately, the emotional aspects in commemorating Ashura sometimes become so intense that the realistic, humane and rational appealing aspects of the event are pushed to the margins. Sometimes, the superstition and myths about Ashura, which are deemed forbidden by many scholars, are promoted to such an extent that they are given center stage. This, in turn, diminishes the real significance of Imam Hussain’s uprising.

On the other hand, the rational defense of Ashura should not overshadow the true feelings and pure emotions of Muslims who love Ahlul Bayt (the Prophets family). It is then usually anticipated that expressions like showing sadness, lamenting, or shedding tears stem from grief at the inhumane treatment of a historic leader like Imam Hussain, his family, and his companions.

Hence, when commemorating the events of Ashura, we are reminded that our intentions should be to remember and strive for the goals that Imam Hussain and his pure-hearted companions fought for.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.