Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
What a calamity happened in Karbala. Yet not every calamity is equal. Some occur at such a crux in time and at such an intersection of destinies, that their reverberation impacts every succeeding generation with its shockwaves. So it was with Karbala.
From the throne of luxury in Damascus, corruption carelessly but remorselessly issued forth and enveloped the lands of Muhammad like a stifling blanket, suppressing the good. Arrogance sat casually on the throne, heedless of the Prophet’s ethics, reckless in expansion and consolidation of power, demonstrating the truth of the verse “Have you seen the (ignorant) one who makes his desire his god.”
And so, arrogance and misguidance from the throne in Damascus commanded the marifa (the beautiful knowledge, exemplified in Husayn) of the Prophet to be trampled into the dust in Karbala, then beheaded and paraded in boastful display by those who were proud of their destruction of the most sacred and beautiful elements of Islam. They sought to bring to an end the sacredness of the Imam, his family, and thereby of the Prophet, and to bring about instead, an empire of this world. By closing their minds to what is above them, they opened themselves to the darkness below them. But the light, the hima (the deep spiritual presence) of the Imam is “lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil shines forth, untouched, on its own accord....” (Qur’an 24:35) such a presence is not so easily extinguished.
In an unusually worded verse, the Qur’an says about the Prophet, the Imams and those truly near to God, “They are degrees/or ranks with God.” (Qur’an 3:163) It doesn’t say they have degrees with God, but rather that they are degrees with God. That is, they reflect different degrees or aspects of the universal realities of the Divine names and relationships. They have spiritual functions connected with manifesting the names of God here on earth, and a status that gives them a presence in the highest heavens. They manifest the realities of the Qur’an in the crucible of the world.
The Imam is the one connected with the cosmos and with unseen levels of reality. He is the axis of his time, the person who stabilizes the world through his continuous connection with the vertical dimension of reality. He is the dwelling place of truth in the realm of human beings. If the material world is the horizontal dimension of reality, the world of time, space, matter, and limitation - then the vertical dimension is the immaterial spiritual dimension of reality, the world of angels, heaven, the Divine treasuries from which the material creation descends, the mother of the Book, the Throne, and the endless unseen realm, all governed by God.
So when the Imam is killed and desecrated at Karbala, the entire vertical reality feels the reverberation caused by his loss and responds to it. Even the angels and the totality of the unseen world feel the loss and mourn his death. It is said, “All the prophets of history bore witness to the ordeals (at Karbala) from behind the veil of the heavens — Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and all the other prophets from times long past bore witness to Husayn’s tribulations.” (Bihar al-Anwar, Majlisi)
That the Imam, who upheld and represented the sacredness of the religion, of the Prophet and the Qur’an, is not just killed but that he is trampled and his body humiliated, his head raised on a spear, his face disrespected, causes the very cosmos to react in shock and sorrow to this blatant attempt to degrade the sacred by dishonouring the representative of the sacred on earth.
It is in the domain of the eternal sacred which is not bound by the limitations of time and space that the killing of the Imam and the desecration of the sacred registers. This is an eternal present which stands over all times and places, and the merciless slaughter of the Imam of the time is like an attempt to eclipse his sacred light, a light which is a reflection of the light of God and the Prophet within the domain of the material world. The Imam dwells in this world but his heart is connected to the deep realities of the higher worlds and it is there that the great sacrifice at Karabla is indelibly marked and written.
And so Karbala and Ashura will forever be an archetypal event that rises beyond the limits and confines of this world and descends from the unseen worlds to make its imprint again and again in every age and at every place. And for any in this lower contingent world of matter who remember Ashura with true, deep sincerity, and join their heart with the heart of the Imam by imbibing the principles he displayed into their hearts, they will be uplifted by the angels and by all those in the unseen realms who weep for Husayn.
And just as water descends from the skies and revives the dead earth, so too the remembrance of Karbala during Muharram is like water (that is, virtue and knowledge) descending from Heaven, giving life to the earth (that is, to the souls) of the mourners, so that nobility of spirit takes root and grows and flourishes within the earth of our souls. For God gave such a heart to Husayn, that through his heart and our connection to it, the ummah of Muhammad is able to rise again and again.
1 – A hadith from Imam Sadiq (a.s.) states: “The day of al-Husayn's murder is a greater calamity than all the rest of those days, for the reason that the Companions of the Cloak (ashab al-kisa), who were the most cherished creatures in God's eye, were five.
When the Prophet departed from them, there remained the Prince of Believers and Fatima and al-Hasan and al-Husayn, and they were a consolation and comfort for people. When Fatima passed away, there was a consolation and comfort for people in the persons of the Prince of Believers, Ali; then when the Prince of Believers passed away from them, there was a consolation and comfort for the people in al-Hasan and al-Husayn, and when al-Hasan passed away there was in al-Husayn a comfort and a consolation for people.
So when al-Husayn, may God cover him in glory, was killed, not one of the Companions of the Cloak remained to be a consolation and comfort for people after him. Thus, his passing was like the disappearance of all of them, just as his abiding had been like the continuation of them all. For that reason his day became the greatest day of calamity.” (Al-Shaykh al-Sadüq, 'Hal al-Shara’i, ed. Muhammad Sadiq Bahr al-'Ulum (Najaf, 1382) 1, 225-27, bab 162; quoted in Bihar Al Anwar, XLIV, 269-71.)
A hadith from Imam Husayn (a.s.) states: “The situation has become as you see it. The world has changed and taken on a false character, and true decency has departed from it, so that nothing beneficial is left of it but a meagre portion like the last few drops in the bottom of a vessel and a livelihood like that of no more than a poor pasturage. Do you not see what is obvious - that truth is not heeded and falsehood not forbidden? (And that people do not seek to and are not able to understand the truth of God’s Qur’an). Let the person of true faith therefore seek to meet God. I do not consider death anything less than a witnessing to truth through martyrdom, and life with these corrupt oppressors anything but hardship and spiritual decay. As for those of deep faith, ‘Some of them have completed their Divine covenant (the pre-eternal covenant) with God, while others await death still, and they do not waver in the least’ (Qur’an 33:23)”