Here's Why Hussain Ibn Ali's Call For Help In Karbala Is Still Relevant Today

Here's Why Hussain Ibn Ali's Call For Help In Karbala Is Still Relevant Today
When Hussain ibn e Ali was left all alone on the battlefield on the afternoon of the 10th of Muharram 61 AH, gravely wounded, his small army of 72 decimated at the hands of the Umayyad forces arrayed against him, he issued a call that reverberates across the centuries: “Is there anyone who will help me at this hour?” Mourning traditions say all the elements of the earth, the flora and the fauna, the angels from heaven and the jinn of the earth, rallied to the Prophet’s grandson, but were all instructed to keep their peace.

For this call was one last challenge – one last chance – given to those intent on his murder, to see the light, to choose redemption. And every “Labbaik Ya Hussain” that has gone up since is in response to that call which was only met with arrows, spears and daggers in that moment of truth, on that fateful day in Karbala.

It is that time of the year again, when large sections of the Islamic community the world over, will mourn the calamity visited upon the Prophet’s family in Karbala so many centuries ago. Expressions of grief will vary, region by region, culture by culture. For the most part, people engaging in these mourning rites and rituals will do so in accordance with the underlying principle of all religion: give unto the deity, secure favorable terms in this world and the next, find some measure of spiritual fulfillment.

Some will ponder on the meaning and historical implications of the event of Karbala and how to situate its enduring relevance within contemporary theosophy. Others will criticise these mourning practices altogether as having no basis in religion, as being an affront to majoritarian orthodoxy. Some go a step ahead and say that Karbala was nothing but a “battle between two princes,” to quote a world-renowned contemporary scholar of Islam.

It is the exploration of this latter premise, entirely temporal in its formulation, which can explain why the person of Hussain ibn Ali, who met an abject end along with his sons, brothers, nephews and a handful of companions, continues to command such attention – personal or dogmatic preferences notwithstanding.

Hussain was undoubtedly a prince, of the prestigious Hashemite clan of the Quraysh, further exalted by his blood relation with the Prophet. This piece is no place to delve into the long chain of events that culminated in the massacre at Karbala. However, it will be a grave omission to not note the following key factors that went into preparing the tragedy: the ancient Hashemite-Umayyad rivalry, the succession controversy after the Prophet, Umayyad ascension during the reign of Caliph Osman, Muawiyah bin Abu Sufyan’s political out-maneuvering of Ali ibn e Abi Talib, Hasan ibn Ali’s abdication in favor of Muawiyah under a treaty, and Muawiyah’s persistent flouting of the treaty.

Hasan bin Ali, whom the treaty designated as heir to Muawiyah, died by poisoning during Muawiyah’s reign. In another violation of the treaty terms, Muawiyah actively campaigned for his son Yazid’s succession after Hasan bin Ali’s convenient death, even attempting to secure the allegiances of key Muslim figures of that time: Hussain ibn e Ali, Abdullah ibn e Umar and Abdullah ibn e Zubayr.

All three resisted Muawiyah’s enticements and bluster. Greater details on the reign of Muawiyah I can be found in Abul Ala Maududi’s Caliphate and Kingship.

The story of Karbala begins in earnest when Muawiyah dies in 60 AH, and the Umayyad Governor of Medina demands Hussain’s oath of allegiance on behalf of Yazid bin Muawiyah, the new Caliph in Damascus. With the iconic “the likes of me cannot serve the likes of him,” Hussain rejects the demand and immediately leaves for Mecca with his family.

To Hussain, Yazid’s ascension is illegal, in violation of the treaty with Hasan bin Ali, and a sin against God because Yazid is a profoundly debased man by the standards of the day. It is telling that he does not immediately move towards his family’s political support base in Iraq, but towards the sanctuary of the holy city instead: leading a coup against the Umayyad regime is not his top priority, refusing allegiance is.

While in Mecca, he is inundated on one hand with letters from Iraqi tribes, inviting him to assume their leadership against the Umayyads. These tribes, all formerly loyal to Ali ibn e Abi Talib and Hasan ibn Ali, have been bearing the brunt of Umayyad retribution during Muawiyah’s 20-year reign.

On the other hand, demands and threats from Damascus are on the rise. There is a possibility that Yazid may desecrate Mecca itself to secure the allegiances he so desires to give his rule legitimacy, something he eventually would go on to do in his campaign against Abdullah ibn Zubayr. But Hussain does not rush to Kufa. He sends an emissary to test the waters first. The emissary reports a favorable political climate, and after a 4-month stay in Mecca, Hussain moves towards Iraq, accompanied by close family and a few loyal companions.

History will never satisfactorily answer whether his intention is to move towards war or away from it, to migrate towards sanctuary or away from it.

While Hussain and his small caravan are on the road to Kufa, the situation in Iraq takes a dramatic turn as the Umayyad governor reasserts control through intimidation and bribery. Hussain’s emissary is abandoned by the Kufans and is caught and executed by the Umayyads. An advance party is sent out to prevent Hussain from reaching Kufa and inciting the people to rebellion once again. On the 2nd of Muharram, 61AH, this party intercepts Hussain in the wasteland of Karbala. Hussain is forced to set up camp here.

Umayyad reinforcements keep pouring in from Kufa until the 9th of Muharram. On the 4th, Hussain’s small encampment is pushed away from the Alqama canal that feeds the region. On the 7th, access to water for Hussain’s camp, comprising mostly women and children, is totally cut off. On the 9th, his encampment is besieged on all sides.

During this entire period, the demand from the Umayyad side is singular: pay homage to Yazid. Hussain repeatedly refuses this demand, giving the Umayyad field commanders three options: 1) allow me to return to a quiet life in Medina, 2) allow me to choose exile away from Umayyad territories, or 3) take me to Yazid so I can speak directly with him.

By all accounts, the Umayyad field commanders are both powerless to grant these demands and reluctant to soil their hands with the blood of the Prophet’s progeny. By the 8th of Muharram, the verdict from the Umayyad governor in Kufa arrives: Hussain either submits, or dies. When Umayyad intentions become clear, Hussain asks his companions, even his immediate family members, to leave for safety for the Umayyads are after his head, not theirs. A few leave; the majority chooses to stay because they believe in the righteousness of their cause.

Then dawns the day of the 10th where 72 (or 130) face off against an army ranging between 12,000 and 30,000, and write themselves into history with their own blood.

Call it a pious fear of God, or just an inherently strong moral core, Hussain is not the kind of person to prioritise ends over means, gains over principles, your life as your enemy’s bequest over a noble death.

And in Hussain’s case, the principle was just. A usurper who bulldozes all covenants and the law of the land to get into power cannot be accepted as a just Lord. A tyrant cannot be submitted to.

Thus, Hussain is the guiding light, for all those who stand up to tyranny and are ground to dust under the heavy hand of oppression, but never submit. It is said that after Hussain had been beheaded on the 10th of Muharram, Ibn e Saad, the Umayyad commander ordered his headless body to be trampled by horses. I often wonder, why this gratuitous humiliation of his corpse when the objective had already been achieved? The only thing that makes sense to me is that Hussain imposed upon Ibn e Saad a choice: since Hussain was so steadfast in his decision to not give homage, the decision to kill him or to let him go was entirely Ibn e Saad’s. Ibn e Saad was loath to kill Hussain initially but on the other side of the scale was Umayyad favor, riches and the promise of a governorate in Rayy. Ibn e Saad made his choice, and so hated it that he could only vent his anger and frustration at the corpse of his fallen enemy.

Even in death, Hussain held sway over his killer’s psyche. And so it is, for all those who die for a just principle, buried in shallow graves, tortured, dismembered, shot to death before the eyes of their sisters and children, humiliated in every worldly interpretation of the word, Hussain is an example, a patron saint. For in annihilation, immortality can be achieved, a cause can become bigger than those who wish to suppress it.

The author is a public-sector economic development professional, and a part-time farmer in Multan. He tweets at @langahwhotweets