Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
As it does each year, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn once again strikes me as a marvellous and mysterious occasion, a community remembrance of striking earnestness and power. Each year, sitting in the majlis of Husayn, I watch men, women, and children weep with abandon as the events of Karbala are recited - as if some heartbreaking calamity had struck them right there at that very instant and their hearts are unable to contain the burden of sorrow which afflicts it.
A perplexing kind of power lies in this commemoration of Karbala, in this mention of events and names that effortlessly cause unfeigned tears to stream forth from young and old alike. But the more I observe these gatherings the more I realize that it is not the narration delivered by the lecturer that is the primary cause - for some may speak powerfully and beautifully of Karbala but others only manage speeches of doubtful authenticity and content.
Yet the audience weeps freely at the majlis irrespective of the inadequacy or accomplishment of the speaker. They are there to attend the majlis of Husayn, to participate in a dhikr of Allah through the crucible of Karbala, to engage in a remembrance of the nature and quality of Husayn's actions in Karbala. If I were in a war-torn nation where tanks and planes fire ferocious projectiles which level buildings and tear open the hearts of mothers wailing over the bodies of children buried in rubble - if I was witness in person to such terrible tragedies and to the devastated hearts of the survivors - the grief for Husayn at Karbala appears no less than this.
It is as if each personal tragedy and loss, each unjust action that tears open hearts with it's hostility and brutal senselessness, is mourned and commemorated through Husayn. He becomes the prism through which injustice (wherever it occurs) is viewed and decried, through which those who have suffered and those who presently suffer are remembered, and he becomes the archetype of a principled stand against the perpetrators and instigators, the callous conveyers and couriers of injustice, the betrayers of human trust.
There are in every generation those who betray a double trust. They betray the bonds of humanity to which Ali ibn Abu Talib alluded when he said “people are of two kinds, either they are your partners in faith, or they are your partners in humanity, so behave accordingly.” And they betray the archetypal “trust” infused (in potentia) in human nature at the beginning of creation, the turning away from which results in the spreading of injustice and unnecessary bloodshed, repeated in an ever compounding generational loop as new technologies emerge that exponentially allow us to leverage our reach and killing power. Since the trust is placed within our nature, any betrayal of the trust is, in reality, a betrayal of our own selves. And once this inner betrayal is initiated, the outer betrayal signified by the violation of the rights of others and of the wider world becomes inevitable.
“Indeed, we offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it. Indeed, he (has proven to be) unjust and ignorant.” (Qur'an 33:72) “The angels said: ‘Wilt Thou place therein (into this universe) one who will make mischief (and act unjustly) therein and shed blood?....’ ” (Qur'an 2:30)
Our treatment of others either reflects a striving towards fulfillment of the trust or a falling away from the trust. Where is the room for justification of or exercise of injustice, or for the unjust shedding of blood once this trust is acknowledged? Movement towards fulfillment of the trust must be accompanied by a diminishment of injustice and bloodshed. Movement away from the trust will only be accompanied by a divestment of one's own humanity, a sliding descent downwards away from the station of “insaan” (being truly human), and increased callousness towards others.
Once a threshold is passed, once an inner declination opens the path to acceptance of corruption and the inmost barriers of conscience are breached and self-violation of one's soul is accomplished, the path to tyranny opens as a smooth, wide, and irresistible road. And the corruption and the violation of the lives and rights of others flows easily and naturally from those tyrants and tyrannical systems that rise in each era.
Whoever calls people to that which leads to injustice, calls through his lower soul (nafs al-amarra) to the lower soul in others. Those that respond to this call betray their own better selves and fall away from the trust, for it is their lower self that moves them. “For the caller who invites through his lower soul, invites to error no matter what he is calling people to.” (Jafar al-Sadiq) This is why Husayn refused to respond to the call of Yazid to give his bayat (allegiance) no matter what the incentive or threat, or the cost of refusal.
Husayn's status is that of one who attains the deepest truths, since God “guides to Himself the one who seeks Him” only through Him. (Qur'an 13:38) How can this compare with the one whose call to others and whose authority originates in his lower nafs and calls out to the lower nafs of others for support, no matter what “religious” disguise cloaks the call. A person like Husayn is the polar opposite of someone like Yazid, and Husayn's existence is a threat to tyranny - not because of any possibility of revolt against Yazid, but because someone who so clearly manifests truth is a dangerous affront to a hegemonic system that has traded truth for power, for the malakut (kingdom) of this world.
So the battlefield of Karbala becomes a template, representative of a metaphysical drama - a drama that involves the inner nature of every human being, that involves the paradigmatic “trust” that humanity (in its highest meaning) had agreed to bear, which the Prophet had exemplified and clarified, and for which Husayn and his companions became a focal point. They lifted up events and ideas out of historical time and into an archetypal time since they became permanent paradigms which channel and guide human contemplation and action through all times - they became standards, exemplars, touchstones, measuring sticks.
In the Qur'anic verse on mankind's creation, the angels protest to God: “Will You (God) place therein (into this universe) one who will make mischief (and act unjustly) therein and shed blood?”, God replies, “I know that which you do not know.” (Qur'an 2:30) That is, he knows of those exemplars who open paths for humanity, who guide to the trust. He knows that those like Husayn and his companions will emerge in history and illuminate for future generations the true meaning of khilifat-ul-Allah (vicegerency). They are those who fulfill the Divine trust and who stand firmly, in the face of extreme power, against injustice.
Although Husayn's example has shaped us, and the history of Karbala is part of us, yet our internal connection to these continually needs to be reset, reflected upon, and reaffirmed. The commemoration of his martyrdom is a reminder, a chance to contemplate the weighty lessons of Karbala, to absorb them more fully through the softening of hearts, through tears of attachment, through aligning ourselves with those noble ones who took a principled and profound stand against architects and emissaries of injustice, betrayers of human trust. And ultimately to embody these lessons in the manner in which we live, in how we relate to others, in transforming inner acknowledgement into action. The beginning is through “relating the narrative, so as to reflect deeply.” (Qur'an 7:176) But that is only the beginning.
The puzzle of religion is how to raise ourselves to that height at which we were created - “We created man in the highest stature, then reduced him to the lowest of the low....” (Qur'an 95:4) - how to realize the potential that has been placed as a gift within us. In Husayn's time people were ensnared in a political system which tied livelihood, status, and behaviour into corrupted economic and religious power structures. Custom, dogma, economic pressure, military power, were all leveraged to this end. And the most dangerous of all traps, as it has always been, was the acceptance of the structures that set the governing parameters of their lives, the mental acquiescence to and dependance on these systems. It bespoke in many, an inability to think beyond, to think outside the systemic environments in which they dwelt. Not simply political and economic environments, but religious environments that limit minds rather than grow them - this last is perhaps the most difficult to navigate since it is so deeply ingrained within us as individuals and within the structures of our religious communities, within our very approach to religion itself.
When people came to Husayn, weary of the shape, the mis-direction, the barrenness of their life, Husayn warned them of the difficulty and the necessity of adhering to the trust, of the steep cost of accompanying him on his journey. This cost has been on display to us through the centuries such that awareness of our attachment, our mental dependance on the systems which shape us and the price to be paid for differing from them should immediately rise to the forefront of our consciousness whenever we consider the events of Karbala. So our commemoration should not be merely to comfort ourselves, so that we can then settle into complacency till the following year's majlis. It should be immediately manifest to us that the commemoration of Husayn should only be a beginning, a small initial step along the road of the myriad transformations required within us, within our religious communities, and within the world in which we dwell. When the majlis of Husayn become a catalyst for deep change then they will become a forum worthy of his name.