Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
The third Shīʿa Imam, Ḥusayn, was the second son of ʿAlī and Fāṭima. He was born in 626 AD. He was named in a ceremony similar to the one held for his elder brother Ḥasan in the presence of the Prophet.
‘My two children – Ḥasan and Ḥusayn – are leaders of Umma (the Muslim comunity) whether they rise or they sit,’ the Prophet had said. The most important event pertaining to Imam Ḥusayn’s life was his sacrifice and martyrdom in Karbala. The Ashura uprising remains engraved on people’s memories.
Even significant events in the world are sometimes forgotten and may be marked only in history books. However, there are exceptional events that are not forgotten easily. Examples of such events are the sacrifice of God’s messengers and revolutions led by divine leaders. Because these events touch something deep in the human psyche.
Imam Ḥusayn’s movement and the tragedy of Ashura are lasting events and they have not been overshadowed by the passage of time. The Ashura uprising has three outstanding features that must be discussed: 1) the reason for Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising; 2) the features of Imam Ḥusayn’s movement and 3) the ramifications of the movement.
Why did Imam Ḥusayn rise up up against Yazīd?
The central reason for Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising was the deviation of the government from Islamic rule. These deviations were visible in the way the Umayyad men were ruling; the Umayyad party – led by Abū Sufyān – had pretended to accept Islam as their religion when Mecca was conquered, while nurturing disbelief and hypocrisy in his heart. When ʿUthmān was in power, Muʿāwiya told a private meeting of Umayyad seniors: ‘Now that we are in power, we must seize the caliphate and pass it to one another, and try to avoid any extinction of the Umayyad dynasty…I swear that there is no Heaven or Hell.’ (Istīʿāb)
The Umayyad party openly campaigned against Islam. After the capture of Mecca, this party continued its activities clandestinely. Under cover of Islam, it was trying to eradicate the religion itself. Imam ʿAlī’s five-year rule undermined Umayyad power but failed to fully root it out and, after Imam ʿAlī’s martyrdom, Abū Sufyān’s son Muʿāwiya took power in the Muslim world and appointed his cruel agents like Ziyād, Amru As and Marwān to handle Muslims’ affairs. A large number of resisters like Hujr b. ʿAdī, Rushayd al-Hajrarī and Maytham al-Tammār were brutally killed for their protest against this tyranny.
During his 20-year rule, Muʿāwiya strengthened the basis of his son Yazīd’s rule. Yazīd, a symbol of corruption, came to power after his father’s death. He was fiercely opposed to Islam.
A government which was supposed to represent Muslims was taken over by a corrupt man who openly denied the prophecy of Muḥammad and shared his grandfather Abū Sufyān’s view that Islam was just an illusion. (al-Bidāya wa al-Nihāya) In fact, Yazīd was inclined to Christianity. He was also a decadent hedonist who lacked foresight. (Murūj al-Dhahab)
The difference between Yazīd and Muʿāwiya was that the father paid lip-service to Islam, but the son did not even feign piety. He openly ignored Islamic teachings and did not steer clear of any revelry. He used to organize parties and get drunk. The self-declared poet recited the following sentences: ‘My friends in drinking! Stand up! Listen to singers and get drunk. These beautiful songs make me forget the call for prayers. I am ready to exchange heavenly angels with my drink.’ (Ibn Jawzī, Tadhkirat al-Khawāṣṣ) He openly insulted Islamic sanctities and never covered his inclination for Christianity; ‘Drinking may be forbidden in the religion of Aḥmad, but you can drink under the religion of Jesus.’ (Tatimmat al-Muntahā) Yazīd’s court was the centre of corruption and sin. He did not even keep Mecca and Medina safe from his mischievous acts. (Murūj al-Dhahab)
At that time, Ḥusayn saw the conditions conducive to a revolution because the Umayyad rulers could no longer paint a misleading image of Ḥusayn’s objectives in the public sphere and describe it as a struggle for power. Ordinary people could see clearly that the ruling government was flouting Islamic teachings. That prompted Ḥusayn to call on his follower across the world to rise up. This uprising was designed to revive Islam and Islamic traditions and not seizing power and caliphate.
After the martyrdom of Imam Ḥasan in 670 AD, the Iraqi Shīʿa started writing letters to Ḥusayn asking him to unseat Muʿāwiya. Imam Ḥusayn noted in response that he could not renege on the treaty with Muʿāwiya. However, after the death of Muʿāwiya in 680 AD, Imam Ḥusayn found the conditions ripe for an uprising. He described the attributes the governor of Muslims is required to have: ‘the Imam and ruler of people is he who makes judgments based on Qur’an, who promotes justice, follows divine religion and exercises patients on the divine path.’ (Mufīd, Irshād) In one of his speeches near Karbala, the Imam explained his revolutionary motives as follows:
O people! The prophet of God said: ‘Anyone who sees a tyrannical governor who breaks his pledges to God, opposes the traditions of His messenger, and rules with force on people, is obliged to oppose him with words and deeds. If not, God will send him along with the governor to Hell.’ O people! Yazīd and his followers have chosen to obey to Satan. They do no longer obey God and they promote corruption and flout Islamic rules. They have seized public wealth…I am the most qualified to oppose this government. (Tārīkh Ṭabarī)
Imam Ḥusayn’s conscious uprising
The important issue in the Ḥusayn revolution is to know if it was an uprising or an explosion. Those who always want to underestimate all sacred events describe the Ḥusayn uprising as an explosion. They apply the law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. Probably the most commonly cited example of this is the change of water from a liquid to a gas, by increasing its temperature. There has also been an effort to apply this mechanism to social phenomena, whereby population increases result in changes in social structure. The society can tolerate oppression up to a certain extent. After the martyrdom of Imam ʿAlī, the Umayyad rulers stepped up their tyranny against Muslims until the society reach the point of explosion. This group of exegetes says Ḥusayn’s uprising was the symbol of this forceful explosion.
Such a judgment about the movement of Ḥusayn is inaccurate and originates from the views of materialists. Had these exegetes studied the history of Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising and had they been a bit more realistic, they could not have make such baseless judgment about the movement of Imam Ḥusayn. These exegetes have accepted the principle of ‘transition from quantity to quality’ for all natural phenomena and they have had to explain the uprising of Ḥusayn within this worldview. Had they not applied this principle to all world phenomena they would not have named Ḥusayn-led revolution an involuntary explosion in order to disparage the event. The problem with this group is that they interpret every movement on the basis of materialist concerns. Every time they see an uprising that does not meet their standards they prefer their own thesis.
In materialist logic, the explosion of a society is like the explosion of a boiler whose safety valves are fully blocked. In that case the explosion will definitely happen. An example of explosive uprising is a man filled with inferiority complexes. He will vent his frustration involuntarily and he will regret it later. In that event, an uprising lacks any moral value and the hero of such a revolution does not merit any praise because all participants in the uprising are really at the mercy of blind material forces and not active participants in their own right.
Materialist exegetes believe that conflicts in the society need to be increased so that the boiler of the society will explode much sooner and overthrow the government in power.
But there are two questions to be raised here:
Are explosive battles of any moral value?
Was Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising a conscious one or an explosive one?
In response to the first question, it would be enough to know that anything outside our control as human beings will lack any moral value, no matter how useful it may be. Consider a wild animal preparing to attack a man to maul him. At the same time, someone else who is not aware of the presence of that man kills the animal. The shooter could not be praised in this context because he was not aware of the result of his act. As far as social unrest is concerned, revolutionaries who lack any control or freedom are driven to rise up against the ruling government by blind material forces. Such a revolution lacks any moral value.
When the Muslims conquered Spain, the commander-in-chief of the corps ordered all ships to be burnt and their foodstuff to be thrown away. Then the commander told the troops that they had no option but to fight because they were surrounded by sea and enemy forces. Staying in that point had no result but death. Everyone decided to combat and they triumphed over enemy. This action of the commander drew praise worldwide as he went to the heart of the enemy, but it lacks moral value because mankind should always have two options – good and bad – and choose the virtuous one freely.
Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī and his conscious uprising
After the departure of Imam Ḥasan, the grounds were gradually prepared for his brother Ḥusayn and his followers to rise up. Imam Ḥasan used to object to Muʿāwiya for his crimes against the Muslim nation. From time to time, Muʿāwiya wrote letters to the Imam, trying to dissuade him from rising up or making any move against him with threats. When Muʿāwiya died and his corrupt son succeeded him, the core of Ḥusayn’s movement began to take shape. The Imam invited Muslims to revolution in different ways.
Imam Ḥusayn had worked out all necessary mechanisms before inviting his followers to rise up. How can one describe this uprising as an involuntary explosion and compare it with valueless revolutions? There is also historical evidence that Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising was voluntary.
Imam Ḥusayn’s speech delivered when Muʿāwiya was trying to seek people’s allegiance for Yazīd
After having killed Imam Ḥasan, Muʿāwiya convinced a group of influential people to endorse his son Yazīd as his successor. But Imam Ḥusayn told him: ‘I’ve heard a description of perfection and skillfulness of your son Yazīd. Are you going to mislead people? Apparently you do not know your son. Or maybe you have information which we don’t about him. Yazīd has already proven his incompetence for this post. He plays with dogs and pigeons. He is passing his time with women and playing music. You had better reconsider your decision so that your sins will not become heavier…’ (al-Imāma wa al-Siyāsa)
Imam Ḥusayn’s letter to Muʿāwiya
Imam Ḥusayn wrote a letter to Muʿāwiya detailing his crimes, above all the murder of senior Companions and pious people. ‘I regret I have not risen up against you due to some shortcomings. It is possible that my excuses would not be acceptable to God,’ he wrote. The Imam noted in his letter that Muʿāwiya’s biggest mistake was that he won endorsement for his son who gets drunk and plays with dogs. (Al-Imāma wa al-Siyāsa)
Imam Ḥusayn’s address in Mena
In the last days of Muʿāwiya’s reign, Imam Ḥusayn gathered nearly a thousand people, including senior Hashemite figures, in Mina and delivered a speech about the formation of an Islamic government. He highlighted the crimes committed by Muʿāwiya against the Islamic community, particularly the Shīʿa.
In his speech, Imam Ḥusayn recited Qur’anic verses about the Prophet’s household and asked the influential figures in Mecca, Medina and other cities to endorse him. (Kitāb Sulaym b. Qays) The Imam preformed his Ḥajj pilgrimage individually and left for Iraq. ‘My death approaches and I look forward to meeting my ancestors… From here, I can see the place in which I will be martyred and where the wolves will maul my body,’ he said. ‘Those who are ready to give their blood in this way and join their Creator can accompany me. I am leaving early in the morning.’ (Luḥūf) Is it still correct to interpret Imam Ḥusayn’s movement as an involuntary explosion while he let his followers decide to come with him or stay behind?
The Ramifications of Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising
The effects of Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising and its consequences are innumerable. Here, we will briefly mention the most significant of them.
Exposing the corruption of the Umayyad regime
We mentioned earlier that Imam Ḥusayn decided to rise up against the ruling government because he openly flouted Islamic teachings, got drunk in public and played with animals. Religion had become a plaything in the hands of Yazīd and his followers. The martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn at that time gave an important lesson to people that Islam is preferred to life and family. Muslims are obliged to sacrifice everything in the face of corrupt governments. Ḥusayn sacrificed his life for Islam and Qur’an. Moreover, the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn shed light on the corrupt nature of the Umayyad dynasty. The famous Indian poet, Muʿīn al-Dīn Kashmīrī has described Ḥusayn as the second promoter of monotheism after the Prophet.
Revolutions and Riots
After the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn, the spirit of revolution was revived in the Islamic community and revolutions happened in rapid succession. It was indicative of a deep hatred of Umayyad rule.
The first uprising following the martyrdom of Ḥusayn was launched by the Tawwābūn (‘Penitents’) led by Sulaymān b. Ṣurad, a Companion of the Prophet. A group of senior Shīʿa figures participated in this uprising under the slogan of ‘Revenge for Ḥusayn!’ They first went to the tomb of Imam Ḥusayn and stayed there one full day, lamenting that they had not assisted Ḥusayn and repenting to God.
The uprising of Mukhtar came later. More uprisings and revolutions happened until the Umayyad dynasty was fully unseated.
The School of Martyrdom
The school of martyrdom was founded by the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet. But after his death and the ensuing development of Islamic countries, some incompetent governments took power. Even ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar justified his cooperation with Ḥajjāj on the grounds that opposition to the ruling government will cause division and trigger sedition and bloodletting. Such an attitude will push the society to be obedient to any tyrannical regime.
With his martyrdom, Imam Ḥusayn changed the rules of this game and revived the school of martyrdom in the Islamic community; he taught Muslims the lesson of resistance, courage and uprising. To that effect, Musʿab b. Zubayr told his wife Sakīna, who was the daughter of Ḥusayn: ‘Your father stripped all free people of any pretext and taught the Muslim world that a violent death is much better than a shameful life.’