The Covenant of Abraham (as) in the Torah, Bible and Qur’an: Implications about the Universal Nature of the Lessons of Karbala

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SHAFAQNA – Allamah Iqbal once wrote, “The story of the Kaaba is unique, simple and colorful – it ends with Husain (as) and begins with Ishmael (as).”

Some scholars have noted a relationship between the events we commemorate in Hajj and in Muharram, between the actions of Abraham (as) or Ishmael (as) and those of Imam Husain (as).

In translation of the Qur’an it is written, “You will never find any change in Allah’s way of dealing.” (35:43) In all the scripture we find that every prophet or imam announced his successor or heir according to God’s will. Some of the important events and coming of prophets were predicted or prophesized about long before they came.

So a Muslim might naturally be curious about what surviving scripture from the People of Book has to say about certain aspects of religion, even though Muslims look at the Bible, Torah and other works used by the Jews and Christians today as being not identical to what was originally revealed.

Further, if something is contained in the works used by followers of all three faiths, it can potentially serve as a basis for a common understanding and communication between the followers.

So we might ought to look at the Qur’an as well as what the People of the Book have today as we think about Imam Husain (as).

In the New Testament, Simon Peter, the first apostle of Prophet Esa (as), said in a sermon,
“For Moses (as) truly said unto the fathers, a Prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me, and in all matters from him you will hear only what God says unto him. And it shall come to pass that every soul which will not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from among the people. And all the prophets from Samuel (as) and those that follow after, as many as have ever spoken, have foretold those days. You all are the children of prophets and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham(as), and in thy seed shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed.” Acts 3:22-25

This is presented as referring to Jesus (as), but many Muslim scholars recognize it as referring to the Prophet Muhammad (saw), for, as the prophecy repeated by all the prophets says, Muhammad (saw) came through Ishmael’s (as) line rather than Ishaq’s (as), is more like Moses (as) than Jesus (as), and history records undoubtedly that he spoke the Qur’an as revealed from God, just like the prophecy suggests. Further, the prophecy says the prophet is for every soul, not just for a select population, just as Qur’an says about Muhammad (saw) “We sent thee not but unto mankind as a whole.” (34:28) – something claimed about no other prophet. This prophecy is also mentioned in the Torah or Old Testament, in Deuteronomy chapter 18.

And God says, “I will raise them a Prophet from among their brethren, and will put My words into his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.” Some Jewish scholars believed this prophet was Jeremiah (as), who lived around 600 BCE, but others still waited for this prophecy to be fulfilled.

Other Christian scripture verses that appear to refer to the coming of prophet Muhammad (saw) are contained in the Gospel of John:

Jesus (as) was asked, “Are you that Prophet”, the one referred to in Deuteronomy but not yet come? He answered them, “No.” Howbeit when the Spirit of Truth is come, he will guide you unto all truth, for he shall not speak of himself, but whatever he shall hear from God that shall he speak.”

History records that some Christians after the time of Jesus (as) were still looking for signs of another prophet based on these writings, such that some of them became interested to find out about Muhammad (saw) during his lifetime.

Simon Peter also mentioned a covenant between God and Abraham (as) – “You all are the children of prophets and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham (as), and in thy seed shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed.”

Torah and Qur’an also both mention this covenant

In the book of Genesis: And as for Ishmael (as), I have heard thee; Behold I have blessed him and will make him fruitful, and will multiple him exceedingly: Twelve Princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation” (18:20) This is my covenant which ye shall keep between Me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised as a token of the covenant.

And in Surah Baqarah: God said, I will make thee an Imam for mankind. Said Abraham (as) – and my offspring? My covenant shall not reach the unjust. 2:124

So we see the covenant between God and Abraham (as) signified with circumcision is that the just offspring of Abraham (as) will be blessed and include Twelve Princes from the line of Ishmael (as), that some scholars believe refers to the twelve Imams (as). As a further sign of this, some scholars have said that the male direct descendants of Ishmael (as) including the Prophet (saw) and twelve Imams were born without foreskin, the covenant already being fulfilled in them.

Abraham (as) obeyed the command of God to take Hajar and Ishmael (as) to the desert where she struggled to find water for him. In Genesis it says, “Arise, lift up the lad Ishmael (as) and hold him in your hand for I will make him a great nation. And God opened hajar’s eyes and she saw a well of water and she went, and filled the bottle with water and gave the lad to drink.” When Ishmael (as) had grown, Abraham (as) and Ishmael (as) raised the foundation of the Kaaba, and prayed for just offspring according to the covenant. Then, Abraham (as) had a vision to slay Ishmael (as). He and Ishmael (as) were prepared to obey God with the sacrifice, but instead a ram was put in Ishmael’s (as) place, and according to the Qur’an, Abraham (as) heard, “O Abraham, of course thou hast faithfully fulfilled the dream, thou art of the truthful ones, but verily it is an open test, we have substituted it with a Greater Sacrifice. We have transferred it to later generations.” 37:105-108

According to the scholar S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali, the purpose of such a waylaid sacrifice is as a symbol of obedience and submission to the one God, but that the time was not right for the sacrifice to be able to serve the purpose of leading mankind as a whole towards a universal religion. That time would have to wait until the universal prophet came, and the third of the twelve princes would be put in Ishmael’s (as) place. Whereas Ishmael’s (as) thirst was abated with the well of Zam-Zam, and he and Abraham (as) was victorious in obeying God about the sacrifice while it was only an open test, Husain’s (as) thirst would go unabated and his sacrifice was real, the Greater Sacrifice for the universal religion for the well-being and guidance of all people who should pay heed to the message.
Thus it might be said that the hajj rituals re-enact the beginning of the covenant that is fulfilled in the line of prophets and imams descended from Ishmael (as) at the end of the calendar year, while the beginning of the next calendar year then marks the Great Sacrifice of Imam Husain (as), who turned away from Kaa’ba, who was denied water, and who by his sacrifice achieved the victory of preserving truth and guidance. The hajj –goers wear white shrouds similar to death shrouds. The male participants in hajj must be circumcised, honoring the covenant. It seems that there are many intimate connections between hajj and the sacrifice on Ashura to ponder about.

From the time of Abraham (as), then, it was known that this other, greater sacrifice would be coming. Shaikh Tabarsi reported that Adam (as), Zachariah (as), Abraham (as) and Ishmael (as), Solomon (as), Moses (as) and Jesus (as) all were informed about the upcoming event of the Great Sacrifice of Husain (as) to re-establish God’s religion in the earth.

Hadith report that shortly after the birth of Imam Husain (as), Gabriel told the Prophet Muhammad (saw) about Kerbala, saying, “He will at last be martyred with all his faithful supporters in a desert called Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq, it will be a time when the religion of God will be in crisis and the existence of this truth for future generations of Mankind will rest upon the sacrifices of Husain (as), your grandson.”

There is one verse in the Book of Jeremiah in the Jewish Nevi’in or the Christian Old Testament that is sometimes suggested as being about Kerbala.

Jeremiah 46:10 says “For the Lord God of hosts hath a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.” However, the context of this is about war between Babylon and Egypt around the same time as Jeremiah (as) lived. There may be a relationship in location but it seems a bit far-fetched to associate the verse with Imam Husain (as).

Incidentally, There is one ayah of Qur’an that may be about Jeremiah, although it appears more commentators say it is Ezra, who lived a few hundred years after Jeremiah (as).
Consider the one who passed by a ghost town Jerusalem and wondered, “How can GOD revive this after it had died?” GOD then put him to death for a hundred years, then resurrected him. He said, “How long have you stayed here?” He said, “I have been here a day, or part of the day.” He said, “No! You have been here a hundred years. Yet, look at your food and drink; they did not spoil. Look at your donkey – we thus render you a lesson for the people. Now, note how we construct the bones, then cover them with flesh.” When he realized what had happened, he said, “Now I know that GOD is Omnipotent.” 2:259
Aside from the ayah about the Greater Sacrifice, it is reported from Shaikh Tabarsi that the Eleventh Imam, Hasan Askari (as) said that the Holy Prophet (saw) was informed of the tragedy of Karbala and that it is confined in the symbol letters in the Qur’an – “Kof Ha Ya Ain Saad of Surah Maryam.
Kaf – Karbala
Ha – Halakat (destruction/death/perdition)
Ya – Yazeed
Ain – Atash (thirst)
Saad – Sabr e Husain (as) – patience and fortitude of Imam Husain (as) “These words are from the concealed codes regarding which Allah informed His Servant the Prophet Zakariyah (a.s) and regarding which it was revealed to the Holy Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w.s).
The incident is as follows :
Prophet Zakariyah (a.s) asked his Lord to teach him the names of the Five Pure Ones, to which Jibra’eel descended and taught him the five names. Whenever Prophet Zakariyah (a.s) recited the four names, Mohammad (s.a.w.s), Ali (a.s), Fatemah (a.s) and Hasan (a.s), his heart would be enlightened and his sorrow would part away, but when he took the name of Husain (a.s) he would become sorrowful and turn restless. One day he asked Allah Almighty, “My Lord! When I utter the names of these four Pure Personalities, my sorrow parts away, but when I take the name of Husain (as), I turn sorrowful and weep & wail.” Then Allah, the Mighty the Sublime revealed to him regarding Kaf, Ha, Ya, Ain, Swad. Kaf stands for Karbala, and Ha for Halakah (perdition) of the Prophet’s Household, Ya for Yazeed, the oppresser and murderer of Husain (a.s), Ain for Atash (thirst), and Swad for (Sabr) Patience and forbearance of Husain (as). When Prophet Zakariyah (as) heard this he was so much grieved that for three consecutive days he refused to come out of his place of worship and did not permit people to meet him, and remained grief-stricken and wept profusely. And he recited the following elegy: O Lord! Will you let the best of Creatures see the plight of his son? O Lord! Will you allow this disaster to fall upon his House-hold? O Lord! Will you let Ali (as) and Fatemah (as) wear the dress of grief and will they witness this calamity”? He (Prophet Zakariyah (as)) would always say, “O Lord!
Bestow upon me with a son who would be the light of my eyes in my old-age, and when you present me with a son make my love intense for him and then let me taste the grief of his loss as Your Friend Mohammad (s.a.w.s) who will mourn the death of his son. Thus Allah blessed Prophet Zakariyah (a.s) with a son Prophet Yahya (a.s) whose death was mourned by Prophet Zakariyah (as). Prophet Yahya (a.s)’s period of (his mother’s) pregnancy was six months similar to that of Imam Husain (a.s).”

However, it is also said about these and other such letters beginning surahs of the Qur’an that many interpretations have been forwarded and manipulated by some commentators but they are based upon conjecture, lacking definite authority. The Imams (as) said that these letters are a means of reaching the higher realms of true knowledge available in the Qur’an but reserved for the chosen representatives of Allah (swt).

Another selection in Qur’an associated with Kerbala in commentaries I’ve seen in English 2:154 and 155 reads, “And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah “dead.” Nay, they are living, only ye perceive not. “And We will most certainly try you with somewhat of fear and hunger and loss of property and lives and fruits; and give good news to the patient.

It is reported that 154 was first revealed for the slain at the Battle of Badr, but that, in the words of Mir Ahmed Ali, “only once in the history of the world all kinds of trials mentioned in this verse to the maximum conceivable degree have been happily and triumphantly endured and coped with by Imam Husain (as) and his family and friends in the desert of Karbala. Imam Sadiq (as) is quoted in Al-Burhan fi Tafsir il Qur’an as saying that the glad tidings to the patient refers not only to Hereafter, but also means advent of the Mahdi (as), and that all those tribulations before it are signs of his advent. So if these verses are related to Kerbala, then they would appear to have other meanings – such as the general meaning, the Battle of Badr and signs of the end days, as well.

So to this point we see that the tragedy Kerbala itself may or may not be indirectly suggested in the scriptures, but a trend in the various sources suggests that the covenant of Abraham (as) is fulfilled in his progeny, to include the descendants of Ishmael (as) up to Muhammad (saw) and the Imams (as), and that it is plausible that the sacrifice of Ishmael (as) put off for the Tremendous Sacrifice of a later generation refers to the sacrifice of Imam Husain (as), and that its delay was for the fulfillment of the purpose that its message be for all mankind, not a particular sect or tribe of mankind, at a time when this message of God’s religion had been sent for all people.

If we examine the causes of the tragedy of Karbala and the actions of Imam Husain (as) and his party, we see that the stand was one for upholding and saving truth for the benefit of all people of the present and future and opposing oppression and corruption.

All the great monotheistic faiths lay claim to Abraham (as), to the extent of being called the Abrahamic faiths, but all humanity can lay claim to Imam Husain (as), for he rose up for the whole of humanity on universal principles. A Persian saying says about Husain (as)” you came to the world to unite, not to divide.”

Someone said, “It is in the very nature of great reformers that they belong to everybody, everywhere. Hussain’s (as) noble deed is so relevant to the entire human race, that I am sure there is a far bigger audience waiting for him somewhere than the one he has already. All that is required is to draw people’s attention.
The contemporary society, irrespective of race and religion, would do well to have a closer look at the Hero of Kerbala as his message transcends the barriers of caste and creed, race and religion. Advocates of human rights, sociologists, reformers, theologians, all included, will find “delightful wisdom, sweet instructions, and a meaning suited to their mind”, in his story. His message is certainly not an exclusive preserve of any particular group. It embraces the entire human race.”

In the modern era, where free to do so, it seems that those educated about the tragedy of Kerbala with understanding of its implications have a duty to share that education with those willing and able to benefit. Imam Husain (as) and Karbala could be a point of unity on which to grow and increase understanding between cultures and religions.
We can see that people of all backgrounds and faiths can understand, relate to, and benefit from Imam Husain (as)’s service to humanity: this is illustrated numerous times through examples of people in history and present.

Mahatma Gandhi (Indian political and spiritual leader): “I learned from Hussein (as) how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”

Thomas Carlyle (Scottish historian and essayist): “The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Cerebella is that Husain (as) and his companions were steadfast believers in God. They illustrated that the numerical superiority does not count when it comes to the truth and the falsehood. The victory of Husain (as), despite his minority, marvels me!”

Edward Gibbon (English historian and member of parliament): “In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein (as) will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, London, 1911, volume 5, p. 391-392)

Charles Dickens (English novelist): “If Husain (as) had fought to quench his worldly desires…then I do not understand why his sister, wife, and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore, that he sacrificed purely for Islam.”

Antoine Bara (Lebanese writer): “No battle in the modern and past history of mankind has earned more sympathy and admiration as well as provided more lessons than the martyrdom of Husayn (as) in the battle of Karbala.” (Husayn in Christian Ideology)

Edward G. Brown (Professor at the University of Cambridge): “…a reminder of that blood-stained field of Karbala, where the grandson of the Apostle of God fell, at length, tortured by thirst, and surround by the bodies of his murdered kinsmen, has been at anytime since then, sufficient to evoke, even in the most lukewarm and the heedless, the deepest emotion, the most frantic grief, and an exaltation of spirit before which pain, danger, and death shrink to unconsidered trifles.” (A Literary History of Persia, London, 1919, p.227)

In the modern era, a large segment of the world population is ignorant of Imam Husain (as). Education is lacking in this area. But even if someone is not Muslim, we can see from the mentioned examples that they can appreciate Imam Husain (as) and learning from his example can be a common ground. Abraham’s (as) covenant began before Judaism, before Christianity, before the life of Prophet Muhammad (saw) and Imam Husain (as), and today the message and sacrifice of his progeny is for all of us, all of humanity.

In the 1930’s Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the noted translator of Qur’an delivered a speech on the occasion of Ashura. In it he said, “I think you will agree that it is good that we should sit together, even people of different faiths, – sit together and consider the great historic event, in which were exemplified such soul-stirring virtues as those of unshaken faith, undaunted courage, thought for others, willing self-sacrifice, steadfastness in the right and unflinching war against the wrong. And Muharram has still the power to unite the different schools of thought in Islam, and make a powerful appeal to non-Muslims also.

Here are a few more recent and personal examples of the universal appeal of Imam Husain (as):

Shaikh Saleem Bhimji, writing about a conference on Imam Husain (as), said,
“If Imam Hussain’s (as) movement was to free humanity from the shackles of servitude to others and to restore ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and the noble moral traits which everyone seek in their lives, then where are the ‘non-Muslims’ during these life-changing lectures?” Undoubtedly, the Qur’an, the Prophet (SAW) and the Ahlul Bayt (as) are not the property of the Muslims alone! When introducing His Book, Allah (Glory and Greatness be to Him) states: “…guidance to mankind, with manifest proofs of guidance and the Distinguisher.” (2:185) The Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) is introduced as being the one who: “…Relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them…” (7:157). The Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) are compared to the Ark of Prophet Noah (peace be upon him) and that “…Whoever accepts them shall be saved while those who reject them shall perish.”
Then he related a telling incident: “When lecturing in South Africa during the month of Muharram some years ago, an elderly man approached me after my talk, and with tears in his eyes, ‘protested’ to me about the fact that for over 50 years of his life, he never “knew” Imam Hussain (as) and the Ahlul Bayt (as), and that from birth, he had “wasted” his life following “others” who were considered as ‘leaders’ of Islam. He had now formally accepted the Ahlul Bayt (as) into his life and taken them as his guides and intercessors with Allah and was struggling to capture as much of the Hussaini (as) spirit that he could in the little time he had left. In essence, he was complaining to “us” for not introducing the message of Kerbala to him and others like him.

Imam Muhammad Shirazi related a similar incident, when a Christian Italian tourist visited him to complain of not being allowed to enter the Tomb of Husain (as) in Kerbala. They had a lengthy discussion about Islam and Christianity, during which the scholar explained in detail the high character of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), his splendid virtues, and deep and extensive knowledge, as well as his battles, which were for the sake of Allah and for the betterment of humanity. In the process he was so moved by the noble character of prophet Muhammad (SAW) as well as his words and teachings, that drops of tears rolled down his face. Ultimately the tourist, attracted by the sublime character and ethics of the Prophet (saw) and Ahlulbayt (as) and convinced of the Prophethood of Muhammad (saw), declared his belief in Islam and immediately returned to the tomb of Husain (as) to pay his sincere respects.

Some Christians may feel special connection to Karbala through the reported martyrdom of Wahb, a newly wed Christian whose elderly mother was helped by Imam Husain’s (as) as his caravan passed and who then joined him in his mission to the end, as mentioned in a book by Shaykh Muhammad Ishtihardi.

There have also been scholarly works on the history of several Hindu communities who have venerated Imam Husain (as), and many events of Sunnis joining with Shias to commemorate the tragedy as well. Many of you are aware that many Sunnis have written works and delivered speeches about Kerbala and participated in Moharram processions and events and a few continue to do so today.

The current era is one of division, one in which the universal message of Imam Husain (as) is in some instances being drowned out by noise of conflicts and persistence of ignorance. But there are always some people who are ready to sit and listen and will hear and respond to the call of Imam Husain (as) at some level along with us.
In the 1960’s the American Civil Rights movement turned to lessons of the past to achieve success, learning from Gandhi and indirectly also from Imam Husain (as) to help plan a successful resistance against injustice. This was a great victory, but even greater things are possible. The modern world can benefit from Imam Husain (as) by heeding the message and acting on it, and by sharing it with others.

Some steps are being taken to help include non-Muslims or non-Shias so that they can learn about Imam Husayn (as). Some communities hold an event called Husayn (as) Day, usually after Muharram sometime, when they specifically invite non-Muslim community leaders or members of churches they may have been building relationships with, or non-Muslim neighbors to come and learn about Husain (as) – usually this is in the form of a conference with lectures, but they could have activities presented by children and other activities as well. Communities have been doing processions in busy downtown areas in such a way that they give out pamphlets and make it informative and friendly for the viewers and passers-by. Also, communities have been doing blood drives at which they give out information about Imam Husain (as) to explain the reason for the drive – I think that was even talked about amongst the youth here. So there is room for creativity to share our love for Imam Husain (as) and the lessons we are supposed to learn and apply. And no matter what we do, the most important aspect of anything we do is that take the lessons to heart ourselves and do our very best to reform our own characters, obeying the mottos Live Like ‘Ali (as), Die Like Husayn (as), and Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala. People will be attracted to us if we are truly following Islam and emulating our Imams (sa) and that attraction may lead more and more people to follow Husayn (as).

In summation, the covenant of Abraham (as) mentioned in the Torah, Bible and Qur’an held a promise of upright progeny from his seed who would deliver and protect God’s religion for all of humanity. Imam Husain (as) and his camp fulfilled what was foretold about them with acceptance and courage, making a great sacrifice to preserve truth for every human being. If given the opportunity to know about the Tragedy of Karbala, people of all faiths can relate to this great sacrifice and its altruistic aims, and it can be a common ground for people to work together for good causes.

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