Karbala’s Message Of Defiance Remains A Legacy For The Oppressed Everywhere

Karbala’s Message Of Defiance Remains A Legacy For The Oppressed Everywhere
By laying down his life at the plains of Karbala, Imam Hussain (A.S) taught mankind that tyranny of an unjust ruler should be resisted at all costs, writes Ammar Ali Qureshi.

Explaining the significance of Karbala in Islamic history, noted historian Eqbal Ahmad wrote: “No event in Islamic history captured the collective Muslim imagination as did the final confrontation between the usurper Caliph Yazid and the family of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). For a millennium and four centuries, the tragedy of Karbala has symbolised for all Muslims the world over the battle of good and evil, piety and power, coercion and consent, the crime of tyranny-Jurm-e-Yazid- and the virtue of suffering-Shahadat-e-Hussain- in resistance.”

Imam Hussain (A.S) was born in Medina in 626 AD and grew up in the lap of his grandfather, Holy Prophet (PBUH), who passed away when Imam Hussain (A.S) was six-years-old. He was brought up in the household of the Prophet and witnessed momentous events and vicissitudes during his life.

He saw Islam – which started as a revolutionary reform movement – transformed by Umayyads into an absolute autocratic monarchism, a complete negation of the original message of Islamic reform movement that his grandfather had led.

By laying down his life at the plains of Karbala along with his 71 faithful companions which also included his kith and kin, Imam Hussain (A.S) taught mankind that allegiance to a corrupt and unjust ruler (an iniquitous social order or an unjust ruling class) is not binding on oppressed beings. Only by refusing to surrender can they avoid a life of servility and humiliation. As Hussain explained, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

Imam Hussain (AS) decided to reform the society, which was suffering. From the palace of Ummayad rulers and moral depravity to spiritual degradation, everything was in shambles.

He explicitly explained his objectives in his testament to his brother Muhammad Bin Hanafia when he, after testifying to the unity of God, Holy Prophet’s mission and existence of hell and heaven- wrote: “This movement of mine is not on account of stubbornness, rebellion, worldly passion or instigation by Satan.

The only thing which invites me to this movement is that I should reform the followers of my grandfather (PBUH), eradicate corruption, enjoin good deeds and ask for refraining from evil and following the tradition of my grandfather (PBUH) and my father Ali (A.S). If the people respond to my call and accept the truth from me, well and good. And if they do not do so I shall observe patience. I am not afraid of unpleasant events, hardship and suffering.”

He further explained: “I shall pursue this path till Allah decides between me and these people, as He is the most wise and most powerful of the judges. Oh my brother, this is my testament for you. I do not seek assistance from anyone except Allah. I depend on Him alone and have to return to Him.”

It is clear that the Prophet’s family underwent inhuman privations for the sake of ensuring the survival of the Holy Prophet’s message. Hussain’s companions and family fought valiantly and died as free men. His apparent death and defeat was a moral victory as it vindicated his stand for revolutionary and non-conformist Islam (characterised by his submission to Divine Will) and also affirmed his devotion to his cause of higher human principles and ideals.


The inhuman treatment meted out by Yazid’s army to Imam Hussain (A.S) and his companion has shaken not only the conscience of Muslims but also non-Muslims. In his masterpiece Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, one of the greatest historians, wrote in his chapter on Islam; “In a distant age and clime, the tragic scene of the death of Hussain will awake the sympathy of the coldest reader.”

Imam Hussain’s example has inspired Muslims for generations over the centuries. Karbala’s enduring message of patience and defiance remains a powerful legacy for the oppressed and persecuted groups across the trouble spots in the world.

Undoubtedly, the tragedy of Karbala has been pivotal to the development of humanist thought and tradition in Islamic civilisation. Every poet of note in Arabic, Persian or Urdu has written on the message of Karbala. One of the most moving elegies on the tragedy of Karbala has been penned by the celebrated Iranian poet of the nineteenth century – Mirza Habibullah Qa’ani Shirazi. This heart-rending tribute in Persian to Imam Hussain by Qa’ani is inscribed on the walls of the holy shrine of Imam Ali Reza (A.S) in Mashhad in Iran. It has been translated into English by the distinguished Persian scholar Edward G Browne and is included in his magisterial and monumental survey titled A Literary History of Persia (in four volumes).

This elegy, in its marvelous style of question and answer, conveys much of the dramatic events and the feelings a pious Muslim experiences when thinking of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s (PBUH) beloved grandson at the hands of the Umayyad troops.

What rains down? Blood!
Who? The Eye!
How? Day and Night.
Why? From grief.
What grief?
The grief of the Monarch of Karbala.

What was his name? Hussein!
Of whose race? Ali’s.
Who was his mother? Fatima.
Who was his grandfather? Mustafa (PBUH).
How was it with him? He fell a martyr!
Where? In the Plain of Mariya/Karbala.
When? On the tenth of Muharram.
Secretly? No, in public!
Was he slain by night? No, by day!
At what time? At noontide!

Was his head severed from the throat? No, from the nape of the neck.
Was he slain unthirsting? No.
Did none give him to drink? They did.
Who? Shimr!
From what source? From the source of Death.
Was he an innocent martyr? Yes!
Had he committed any fault? Not.

What was his work? Guidance!
Who was his friend? God!
Who wrought this wrong? Yazid.
Who is this Yazid? One of the children of Hind.
Did he himself do this deed? No, he sent a letter.
To whom? To the false son of Marjana.
Was Ibn-e-Ziyad the son of Marjana? Yes!
Did he not withstand the words of Yazid? No!
Did this wretch slay Hussein with his own hand?
No, he despatched an army to Karbala.
Who was the chief of the army? ‘Umar ibn Saad.
Did he cut down Fatima’s dear folk? No, shameless Shimr.
Was not the dagger ashamed to cut his throat? It was.
Why then did it do so? Destiny would not excuse it.
Wherefore? In order that he might become an intercessor for mankind!
What is the condition of his intercession? Lamentation and weeping.

Were any of his sons also slain? Yes, two.
Who else? Nine brothers.
Who else? Kinsmen.
Had he no other son? Yes, he had.
Who was that? ‘The Worshipper’ (Sajjad).
How fared he? Overwhelmed with grief and sorrow.

Did he remain at his father’s Karbala? No, he went to Syria.
In glory and honour? No, in abasement and distress.
Alone? No, with the women of the household.
What were their names?
Zainab, Sakina, Fatima, and poor portionless Kulthum.
Had he garments on his body? Yes, the dust of the road.
Had he a turban on his head? Yes, the staves of the wicked ones!
Was he sick? Yes!
What medicine had he? The tears of his eyes.
What was his food after medicine? His food was heart’s blood.
Did any bear him company? Yes, the fatherless children.
Who else was there? The fever which never left him.
What was left of the women’s ornaments? Two things.
The collar of tyranny on their necks, and the anklet of grief on their feet!

Would a pagan practise such cruelty? No.
A Magian or a Jew? Not.
A Hindu? No.
An idolater? No.
Alas for this harshness.

Is Qa’ani capable of such verses? Yes!
What seeks he? Mercy!
From whom? From God.
When? In the ranks of recompense.

The writer is an Islamabad-based independent researcher. He tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be reached at ammar_ali@yahoo.com