Hesitating on the Issue of Ashura

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By: Dr. Muhammad Masjid-Jame‘i
This mentality and this way of thinking on their part is so strong and deeply rooted that many of them hesitated and chose to be silent on the issue of ‘Ashura. If there are some who fail to do so, it is because of certain reasons that they consider as valid, i.e. they resort to certain sayings from the Prophet (S) on the virtues of Imam Husayn (‘a) and to other sayings that explicitly or implicitly mention ‘Ashura to say Husayn was right and Yazid wrong. It means that, without considering such sayings, they cannot judge even this case in order to say who was wrong and who was right. Why is this so? The answer is the same reasons that were mentioned. It also has other jurisprudential and theological reasons.
Let’s put it more clearly. If we ignore all the sayings that are directly or indirectly related to the story of ‘Ashura and the position of the Prophet’s (S) Family and the Pure Five [khamsih-ye tayyibah] and the vices of the Umayyad, the Sunni religious structure in its entirety and the resulting religious and doctrinal psychology is so that they will hesitate on such an apparent and clear issue as that of ‘Ashura. And they did so. Because of the reasons and criteria that they had accepted, they could not say which one was right and which wrong, and failed to say why it was so.
The strange thing is that some even go beyond this and condemn Imam Husayn (‘a) in their own view according to religious and jurisprudential criteria and acquit and support Yazid. Abu Bakr Bin al-‘Arabi and his fellow thinkers, whether in the past or in the present, are among them. He openly praises Yazid and considers rising to be a mistake. He says, “He did not accept the advice of the most knowledgeable person of his time, ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas, and deviated from the opinion of the Shaykh of the Companions, ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar. He sought the end at the beginning and the truth in the deviated way. While caliphate was lost by his brother, who was accompanied by a large army and the senior men of the tribe, how could he return it with the help of the rabble of Kufah? The senior Companions disapproved of what he wanted to do. He should have obeyed what his ancestor said, “Corruption and disturbance will soon rise. Then, you shall kill the one who wants to create discord among this ummah while it is united, no matter who he is.” Husayn had to show further patience and to pledge allegiance to Yazid. It was not Yazid and his governor, ‘Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad who killed him. Those killed him who asked him to go to Kufah and then gave him to the rabble of Kufah.”19
Here it is not important what the purpose and motivation of Ibn al-‘Arabi is in such criticism from a sympathetic religious stance. More important is that his words are ultimately compatible with the accepted Sunni jurisprudential and theological principles. In fact, it is the dignity of Imam Husayn (‘a) and corruption of Yazid that stops such an explicit expression of opinion by Sunni clerics in general. In other words, the secondary necessities had a greater share in their disagreement with Ibn ‘Arabi than difference in the primary fundamentals. If there is a difference here, it is secondary and probably pertinent to the past rather than principal and fundamental.20
It is exactly because of this reason that many Sunni scholars had hesitated and have chosen to be silent in this respect. Now one has to see why they hesitated. Why did many Sunni clerics hesitate in condemning Yazid and some of them principally consider it to be the wrong thing to do? The fact is that some of those who hesitate or prohibit such condemnation were not people who would give up the afterworld for this world and express such opinions to the pleasure of the rulers. Some of them basically expressed such an opinion when it was contrary to the public opinion or even the ruling power, yet they insisted on their opinion as a religious duty. In the conflict between their jurisprudential and theological fundamentals and the secondary obligations resulting from validating the sayings regarding Imam Husayn’s (‘a) dignity and the vices of Yazid or even the sayings that directly or indirectly mentioned the story of ‘Ashura and the innocent martyrdom of the Imam, they chose to be silent. In such circumstances, the right way was caution and caution meant hesitation and silence.21
Anyhow, the answer has to be sought in the same cautious religious psychology that was the product of sanctifying the early history of Islam and its characters.
It has to be mentioned that Shi‘ites and Sunnis, despite some similarities, differ in their applications and, to some extent, concept of caution, whether doctrinal cautions that relate to the principles of the beliefs or the jurisprudential cautions that concern practical orders. This shall be further elaborated on later. When the general certain principle is that all those characters are holy and even at the same level religiously or spiritually while they may have fought each other, commitment to such a principle would lead one to caution in his later judgments. This would be a crippling caution that would not let them judge an incident where both parties are well-known, such as that of ‘Ashura, and they would prefer to hesitate on this and equally acquit the parties while stopping the exploration or judgment by others as a religious duty and in order to call to the good and stop the bad.
For example, Mahmud Subhi thus talks about the theological and ideological consequences of Imam Husayn’s (‘a) martyrdom among Sunnis who, in his words, would rather choose intermediate and indirect solutions, “The Sunni reaction to Imam Husayn’s (‘a) martyrdom was very difficult and painful because any attempt to find an intermediate solution that would be favorable to Sunnis based on which they could approve of the Imam’s uprisings and express friendship to his enemies would fail. It was the story of ‘Ashura that made such an attempt fail.” Then, he goes on to mention some evidence about his theory.22
The story of such a way of thinking is as old as Islam itself. It has always been, now is and will later be an issue. There is almost no great Sunni cleric who did not say a word about this. Ibn Abi’l-Hadid quotes such views under different titles in the different parts of his book, which is in fact a great encyclopedia of all that relates to early Islam. An important part of the last volume of his book is dedicated to such discussions. It would be appropriate here to mention the theory of Ghazali on the Companions and then Yazid. He is selected here because of his comprehensiveness, his scientific credibility, his public acceptance, his piety and his waiver of this world’s benefits, so that it would not be presumed that such words are because of ignorance or for serving the rulers of the time or for public acceptance.23
Expressing how our belief about the Companions should be, he says, “Take the middle path rather than any of the extremes in this respect and know that, in this respect, you can be suspicious or make sarcastic remarks about a Muslim on no realistic basic, then you will be a liar, or you can have good intentions about a Muslim and avoid being bitter to him without your lack of suspicion being realistic. In the meanwhile, an error accompanied by good intentions about a Muslim is closer to the right path than blaming him. For example, if someone avoids cursing Lucifer, Abu Jahl or Abu Lahab or any other mean person during his life, such avoidance will not harm him. However, if one is sarcastic to an innocent Muslim, he has put himself in hell.”24 Such a think is also said by Imam al-Haramayn Juwayni more elaborately, which is quoted by Ibn Abi’l-Hadid in the 20th volume of his book.
In his most elaborate and reputable book Ihya’ al-‘Ulum, Ghazali discusses if it is allowed to curse Yazid or not, which is summarized as follows, “Cursing Yazid and his likes is not jurisprudentially permissible. So long as it is not certain that Yazid ordered the killing of Imam Husayn (‘a) and was content to this and so long as his belief in Islam is certain, it is not permissible to curse him because, according to authentic documents and sayings of the Prophet, cursing a Muslim is forbidden.”25
What is all this the result of? It is the result of what has been said already, i.e. a national and logical result of the doctrinal and psychological structure that was initially formed on such a basis. The problem is not what the external factors are. The problem is what kind of thought and mentality we use when setting out to know them. Such a mentality and thought also views and evaluates the story of ‘Ashura according to their own standards and criteria. This is a natural current.
It is interesting that such a view is so acceptable and certain to some Sunni clergies that they have expressed doubts about the sayings that directly mention the event of ‘Ashura and the vices of Yazid. It is certain that a group of them were hired by the sultans and preached for them, and they still are doing so. However, there were certain of them that really thought and believed so.26
We see that how far the psychological backgrounds and the mental and doctrinal structures of the followers of these two schools differ, at least in this part. In one, the mental structure has been formed so that it loses the power to judge differently two Muslims or two groups of Muslims that have stood up to fight each other while, in the other, the intellectual and psychological structure is so that it can make only differing judgments, i.e. it can consider one side to be the absolute truth while the other to be the absolute falsehood. Certainly, this fine and at the same time critical and important difference will create two different social and cultural backgrounds for sociopolitical developments.
The strength and severity of revolutionary passion in a society that, while confronting harsh events, considers a group to be of the Husyan-type and the opposite group as of the Yazid-type are certainly much different than the revolutionary passion of a society according to which the history, or at least the history of Islam, is neither absolutely Yazidi nor absolutely Husyani (if he assumes that Yazid was absolutely wrong and Husyan was absolutely right). Here, it is not a talk about which of them is a good thought and which a bad one. What we mean is to express the characteristics of each of them. They have different spirits and mentalities and they look at issues differently.
Therefore, they can understand each other with difficulty because of having two different views about a single issue; two views that are based on absolutely different preliminaries. If a Sunni can probably comprehend a Shi‘ite on these issues and can understand historical and political currents the way the Shi‘ite does, it is because he has adopted a Shi‘ite mentality and a Shi‘ite spirit rather than because he has been able to view issues like a Shi‘ite by having the spirit, mentality and psychology of his own and his school. What Ba‘inah says about Shi‘ites is also true. They cannot look at the historical and social events like a Sunni. Their mental and doctrinal structures are different and, naturally, they cannot view and evaluate issues similarly.27
18. Al-Qawanin al-Fiqhiyyah, p. 18.
19. Al-‘Awasim min al-Qawasim, pp. 231-2. Mahmud Subhi says in respect of the sharp criticism by Ibn ‘Arabi and his likes, “Despite the fact that the theory of those looking at the appearances and the predecessors regarding Imam Husayn originated in the religious beliefs, the fact is that their view was not merely religious. Most of them were from Syria, like Ibn Taymiyyah, or from Andalusia, like Ibn Hazm or Ibn ‘Arabi, and their theories were not void of tribal elements or Umayyad fanaticism. Principally, their views had been formed in conflict with the views of the Shi‘ites… and whereas the martyrdom of Imam Husayn was one of the basic sources of Shi‘ite belief and the continuation of the various branches of Shi‘ism were indebted to it, blaming the event or showing it as unimportant or attributing the crime to the Kufis was an attempt to ruin the image of Shi‘ism.” Nazariyyah al-Imamah, p. 337.
20. Concerning the other criticisms of Imam Husain, see Nazariyyah al-Imamah, pp. 338-9.
21. The strange thing is that Ibn Hanbal, quoting Ibn ‘Arabi, just by relying on what he says from Yazid, considers him to be a highly respected person of a high position so much so that in his book, Kitab az-Zuhd, names him among the pious people, the Companions and the Followers. Find the elaboration in Al-‘Awasim min al-Qawasim, pp. 232-3. Concerning defending Yazid, with a religious motivation at that, see also the footnotes of Muhibb ad-Din Khatib on the same book, pp. 227-8. Concerning defending Mu‘awiyah’s action in appointing Yazid as crown prince, see also his footnotes in the same book, pp. 215-6.
22. Nazariyyah al-Imamah ladi ash-Shi‘ah al-Ithna-‘ashariyyah, pp. 347-8.
23. Sharh Ibn Abi’l-Hadid, vol. 2, pp. 8-35.
24. Al-Iqtisad fi’l-I‘tiqad, pp. 203-5; the theories of Imam al-Haramayn Juwayni in Sharh Ibn Abi’l-Hadid, vol. 20, pp.10-12. The critique of his views, which is one of the best and most impartial critiques, can be found Ibid., pp. 13-34.
25. Ayyuha’l-Walad, Persian translation, p. 30, quoting from Ghazalinameh, pp. 419-36. Ghazali’s argument saying “Because, according to the sayings of the Prophet and other proper documents, it is prohibited to curse Muslims” is explained with better arguments and more comprehensively by his master, Imam al-Haramayn. See Sharh Ibn Abi’l-Hadid, vol. 20, p. 11.
26. Concerning the views of the advocates and opponents of cursing Yazid and the sayings for each and the arguments of the two parties, see Ibn al-Jawzi’s Ar-Radd ‘ala’l-Muta‘assib al-‘Anid, which is one of the best and the well-documented books.
27. The historical views and perceptions of Shi‘ites and Sunnis were different from the very beginning. The difference was limited in the past mainly to the early history of Islam while nowadays it encompasses the entire history of Islam and rather the history in its general sense. Concerning the difference of the views and perceptions of the early history of Islam, compare Al-‘Awasim min al-Qawasim and the introduction and footnotes of Muhibb ad-Din Khatib on the same with, for example, An-Nass wa’l-Ijtihad, and Al-Ghadir, especially vols. 4, 6, 7.
However, now a development has occurred, in the sense that the historical perception of Sunni intellectuals, especially to the early history of Islam has become closer to that of Shi‘ites for certain reasons. The first reason is the reduced religious fanaticism; the second is their approach towards the new rules of historical critique.
Perhaps the best representative of this group is Taha Husayn in his book Al-Fitnah al-Kubra, in which his views and analyses both in the first and the second volumes are close and rather in agreement with Shi‘ite views on many issues although the Late Amini in Al-Ghadir, vol. 9, pp. 251-4, and Anwar al-Jundi in Mu’allifat fi’l-Mizan, pp. 6-19, criticize this book. Nevertheless, numerous other examples like his can be provided. For example, see Andisheh-ye Siyasi dar Islam-e Mu’asir (Political Thought in Contemporary Islam), pp. 308-32, where it explains the method of study and analysis of contemporary Sunni writers about the episode of ‘Ashura.
However, there are still many among the religious scholars as well as intellectuals who follow the fanatic method of the predecessors. For example, see the footnotes of Muhammad Hamid al-Faqi, the editor of the book Iqtida’ as-Sirat al-Mustaqim by Ibn Taymiyyah, who also heads the group Ansar as-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyyah, especially pp. 165-6, and the book Al-Tarikh al-Islami wa Fikr al-Qarn al-‘Ishrin, especially the introduction and pp. 87-106, authored by Faruq ‘Umar, who is an intellectual.

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