Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
I want to take a different route than usual in this brief talk and relate a children’s story that I wrote a long time ago (in the 1990s) in order to try and convey in a simple manner some essential, existential truths about religion and about our existence and purpose. And these truths relate to and resonate strongly in Karbala.
The story goes like this.
There was once a King with a vast kingdom. - He was a very great King, good, fair, just, merciful, loved deeply by all his subjects, by all the creatures in His kingdom.
His was not an ordinary kingdom. He ruled over all of nature, the mountains, streams, skies, and the wide earth whose strength supported all of these.
The King was loved deeply by all His subjects who knew well his continuous kindness and mercy.
One day the King called all of His subjects to come before Him. They all came willingly and from among their numbers each group chose a representative to stand before the King. The mountains chose the firmest and mightiest among them to go forward as their representative. The skies chose the strongest wind and in like manner each group sent forward their chosen representative.
The King said He had a task, a test, “a trust”, a difficult undertaking, and He wanted to see who among His subjects would undertake this task.
The task was to journey through a faraway land known as the land of forgetfulness.
Anyone who entered this land forgot who they were, where they came from, even why they came to that land.
And even though that land was also part of the kingdom, the visible signs of the King were concealed and disguised in that land. Those who entered there became so forgetful and distracted that they forgot their beloved King and forgot that He had set them a task.
Only those who were able to look deep into their hearts would be able to remember their King and their task, because the forgetfulness was like a thick fog that clouded their minds.
And only those with a firm and deep love for the King would be able to journey safely through the midst of this land of forgetfulness.
The King asked the mighty mountains if they would accept but the mountains trembled and said they would accept any other task but this task was too difficult - how could they bear the separation.
The King asked the skies which enveloped the mountains and rose high above them, but the skies refused, sighing fearfully at the thought of such forgetfulness and what it might lead to.
The King asked the ground, the firm earth which supported the mountains and the sky, but the ground shook with a “mighty shaking” for it feared that if it was able to forget its beloved King, then it may even forget its own self.
Amidst all the creatures who refused this task, only one came forward. The other creatures turned...and looked at the human being. It was insignificant compared to the mountains, the sky, and the earth but on its face was the look of one who was consumed with a burning love for the King. I will undertake this task, it said.
The King said this task is so monumental, so difficult that it is not enough that you alone agree to it but that all human beings must agree to it. And He ordered all the humans brought before him. As far as could be discerned, there were rows upon rows of people, covering all the land in unimaginably vast numbers.
Then He made a covenant (a pledge) with them, asking them, “Am I not your Lord?” In one voice they answered, “Yes!”
As the King knew the difficulty they would face, He told them a secret before they began their journey....
And then he caused them to descend into the land of forgetfulness, a few at a time, for their numbers were vast. And as they entered the land it was as if they became newborn babies who did not remember where they came from, why they were there, or that they even had a King.
Now some have finished with this journey in the land of forgetfulness, and some are still on the journey, and others have not yet entered the land. Some few remember their King, many have forgotten, some have forgotten so completely that they do not believe there even is a King.
Those who are still on the journey are those who are alive today, and the story which you have heard is one which is true. It is our story - a story which begins with our birth and ends with our death.
The King is God. The land of forgetfulness is this world we live in. The journey is our life from birth to death.
The trust that was offered is the trust spoken of in the Qur'an:
“We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it....” (Qur'an 33:72)
The covenant is the covenant spoken of in the Qur'an, which God made with the souls of all the descendants of Adam - that is, all of us.
“When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam all their descendants, and asked them to bear witness concerning themselves (concerning their own souls): ‘Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?’ - They responded: ‘Yes! To this we bear witness!’ (This), lest you say on the Day of Return: ‘Of this we were ignorant’” (Qur'an 7:172)
The King's secret is “He (Allah) is with you wherever you are.” (Qur'an 57:4) He is not absent, He is not missing, rather our consciousness, our awareness of Him is absent, missing, lost in a fog of distraction, and concealed behind the veils thrown up by our minds. He is with us but we are blind to this fact. So the Prophets and the Qur’an were sent as a reminder to us, saying:
“Remember your Lord within Yourself humbly....” (Qur'an 7:205) “Remember Allah’s favour upon you and the covenant He made with you when you said, ‘We hear and give ourselves to you.’ And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah knows best what is hidden (so very deep) in the heart.” (Qur’an 5:7)
This is the situation we are all in. We are on the surface of life, unaware of or ignoring the depths within our souls, within our hearts, and the depths underlying the world. We give ourselves, sometimes without realizing it or sometimes with enthusiasm to the ideas and societal fashions, and political spectacle of our time.
And this was the situation at the time of Imam Hussain. When the majority of the people had forgotten their Lord, forgotten their God, forgotten the rights and guidance of their Prophet, forgotten the blessings of his family, and had accepted a corrupt and decadent individual (Yazid) as their Caliph. They gave their bayat, their allegiance, their obedience, to corruption, to a system bent upon destruction of the Prophet’s legacy and of his progeny. They were in a state of such overwhelming forgetfulness that they assisted or acquiesced to the authority of those who aimed unswervingly at the annihilation of the Ahl Al-Bayt, of the family of the Prophet.
An archetypal moment in history, when the veil of forgetfulness had become a black caul pulled over the heads and tied oppressively around the necks of the people - this was the situation at the time of Karbala.
On one side, the people of remembrance, the people of the Divine Covenant, the people of the Divine Trust. On the other, a government and a people with hearts cloaked in forgetfulness and disobedience and immersed in this world. And hovering between the two groups was one whose sleeping heart was awakening to remembrance of the covenant, to remembrance of the trust, startled awake in the crucible of Karbala by the beauty of those who were the people of the trust.
Hur looked at the army in whose service he was acting and saw worldly victory but at the cost of the complete and total betrayal of the Divine trust and covenant - he saw only spiritual destruction and the beauty of the human heart distorted into ugliness.
Then he looked across at Husayn and saw in him the heart opening beauty and exalted station of the Qur’anic verse “He loves them and they love Him...for this is Allah's Face, He gives of it to whom He pleases....” (Qur'an 5:54)
With an awakening heart, in a single moment, Hur overthrew the veil of forgetfulness that had clouded his mind, and with an illuminated consciousness he partook in the beauty of Husayn’s fulfillment of God’s trust even to death. Together, they became the archetype of those who are faithful to God's covenant, of those who fulfil, with beauty, the difficulty of the Divine trust, and who carry out, for all future times to witness, the verse:
“I have set my face to Him Who created the heavens and the earth, in all exclusivity. My prayer, my sacrifice, my life, and my death are for God, the Lord of all the Worlds....” (Qur'an 6:162)
The killers of Hur and of the family of Husayn faced, through their actions, the hard truth of the verse: “We… (took them and) reduced them to the absolute lowest of the low....” (Qur'an 95:4)
But Hur and the martyrs of Karbala rose to the most exemplary heights demonstrating the elevating beauty of the verse, “We created them in the (most exalted) highest stature....” (Qur'an 95:4)
May the peace and blessings of God be upon the blessed martyrs of Karbala and may our spirits awaken to the remembrance of the covenant and strive towards fulfillment of the Divine trust.
1 – This article (A Children's Story) is a quick little story I put together when I was asked to speak to a group of children about Islam. Rather than focus on the actions, duties, and rituals of the religion, I wanted to try and convey some more essential, existential truths about the religion and our existence and purpose, and only then lead into the more visible and better known aspects of the religion such as it's ritual dimensions. The problem was how to convey such “heavy” information to children. The end result was this attempt at recasting Qur'anic verses in the form of a parable - although the version presented to the children was even simpler than the one presented here (especially the explanation of the verses) The story was used as a lead-in to talking about other aspects of Islam.