When I was in college there was a very popular joke on Muharram:
A man passing by a procession of mourners of Imam Husain asked what was happening. One of the mourners explained the story of Imam Husain’s sacrifice. The man asked when it had happened. The mourner replied, “in the year 680 AD.”
“Has the news just arrived?” asked the man.
Though this was being repeated as a joke, it had a profound impact on me, for I too mourned the sacrifice of Imam Husain every year with my family. I had been doing it unquestioningly since I was a baby, as had my parents and their parents before them. In fact my grandmother would start crying just at the mention of his name.
The news had just not arrived, it had been known from 680 AD itself yet, and the fervour with which those who loved Imam Husain cried was as new every year.
So why do we mourn Hussain?
On the fateful day of 10th Muharram, 61 AH/ 10th October, 680 CE a battle was fought which was to change the history of Islam. It was fought between the small, determined band of followers of Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson and the mighty army of Yazeed the ruler of Syria.
Yezid wanted Husain to accept him as his spiritual leader and pledge allegiance to him.
Imam Husain, the son of Ali (the fourth Caliph and first Shia Imam) and Fatima daughter of the Prophet, said: “The likes of me will never pledge allegiance to the likes of Yazeed”.
Yezid flouted almost every norm that had been preached and followed by Husain’s grandfather, the Prophet of Islam, Mohammad pbuh and was unacceptable as a spiritual leader to Husain. Yezid kept sending emissaries for he knew that it was vital for his ambitions to be accepted as the spiritual and temporal ruler by the progeny of the Prophet.
Husain did not want a confrontation and so to avoid confrontation Husain left Medina for Mecca to perform Haj. While in Mecca he received many letters of support from friends of Ali ( the name Shia came up thus as it means friends) invited him to Kufa, a governate of Syria. Ali as the fourth caliph of Islam had shifted his capital there and ruled from it he had many friends who were ready to support Husain.
However, Husain had to leave before performing Hajj and content himself with the minor pilgrimage- the umrah, as Yezid’s pressure on him mounted and he didn’t want bloodshed in the sanctuary of Islam, the Holy Kaaba. He resolved to leave for Kufa where he was assured of a welcome from the letters he was getting. He had already sent his emissay his cousin Muslim bin Aqil to Kufa to pave the way.
He was accompanied by his family which included his wives and children and his sisters and nephews and nices and brothers and cousins.
On the way news came that the fickle Kufians had got swayed by Obaidullah Ibn Ziyad, Yezid’s governor in Iraq, and Muslim had been assasinated. They were already in Iraq so the caravan continued.
They were not allowed to reach Kufa by the governor of Kufa, Obaidullah Ibn Ziyad and were forced to pitch their tents in the hot sands of Karbala. This village was called Nainawa but was renamed Karb o bala (karbala) as karb means anguish and bala is calamity. Husain called the tribal leaders of the Banu Asad tribe who owned the land and pitched his tent there.
Initially their camp was near the river Euphrates but after a few days Yezid’s commanders forced them to leave the river. Husain did not want to start a war and be branded a rebel so on 6th Muharram they shifted their camp. From 7th Muharram, once their supply of water was finished there was no water in the camp even for the children as Yezid’s soldiers had blocked all the ways to the river. Husain and his family and friends bore everything uncomplainingly. His was a righteous fight and he was willing to lose his all in his effort to preserve the religion his grandfather had preached.
On 9th Muharram, Omar ibn S’ad the military commander of ibn Ziyad finally gave an ultimatum: either agree to take an oath of allegiance with Yezid or be ready to battle. Husain asked for one night’s reprieve so that their last night on earth could be spent in prayers. Husain dimmed the lights and announced that any one who wants to leave him and his cause was welcome to do so without any rancour or anger from his side, for on the morrow was certain death. He absolved them of all obligation towards himself. But none left. In fact everyone reaffirmed their faith in him and his war against evil.
Morning of 10th Muharram – Ashura
On the morning of 10th of Muharram, Yezid’s commander Umar ibn Sa’d ordered opening of hostility and the soldiers started shooting arrows at their tents and the battle began.
One by one the male members went out to the battlefield and were martyred. Some like Husain’s nephews: Aun , Mohammad were not even in their teens. Some like Habib ibn Mazahir, a companion of Husain was 75. The youngest to be martyred was Ali Asghar, Husain’s six month old son, who was killed by a soldier named Hurmula when Husain asked Yezid’s troops to give some water for the thirsty infant.
The commander of Husain’s army was the Lion of Arabia, Abbas ibn Ali. Since in those days combat was one to one, he could have single handedly wiped out the army and so he wasn’t given permission to go to war. He was martyred while bringing water from the river for the thirsty children, who hadn’t had a drop of water for three days.
All the males members of the family and friends, except his sick eldest son Zainul Abidin, had been martyred by late afternoon.
Martyrdom of Husain
Husain was the last to be martyred He had earlier helped his friends, followers, nephews, brothers and sons to mount their steeds and go to battle. He had gone to collect their bodies and bring it back to the camp where the ladies could mourn over their dead. By the late afternoon he was the only male member left who could go to battle. As Husain stood there before his faithful steed Zuljana, his cloak, beard and face splattered and spotted with blood of his loved ones, he thought had no one to help him mount. But he was wrong. His loving and devoted sister Zainab came running out and with her heart in her mouth she helped her brother mount to what she knew was certain death. Husain had already bid farewell to his family and eldest son, appointing him the Imam after his death. He now kissed her on her forehead and said, “Zainab, Zain-ul Abidin is sick, I leave the responsibility of this caravan on your shoulders. You are now in charge of this group of orphans and widows and my ailing son.”
Role of Zainab
A lesser mortal may have baulked at this task but she was Ali’s daughter. Ali had been famed for his bravery and was called the Lion of Allah. If Ali was the Lion of Allah then Zainab was the Lion of Karbala. She watched her brother ride to the battlefield but she did not have the time to stand there and watch him and pray for him. The responsibility of the thirsty children, wailing widowed women was now hers. The children had not had water or milk for three days and the cries of the thirsty, hungry children was filling the air.
The camp was a little distance from the battlefield.
Zainab would run to the camp and then onto a mound known as Tila e Zainabiya or Zainab’s mound.
This is the high point between the camp and the battlefield , where on 10th Moharrum, the day we commemorate as Aashura , Zainab stood to gain a vantage point. From here she could see what was happening on the battle field.
She ran several times between the camp and the Tila in anguish to see her beloved brother for one last time.
Today that mound has been made into a shrine and when I visited it in 2010 I felt my heart would break. She had earlier in the day sacrificed her two sons, Aun (12 years old) and Mohammad (11 years old) on her brother and rejoiced at their martyrdom for that meant her brother was safe that much longer.
She had stood on the mound watched Yezid’s soldiers cut his dry and thirsty throat with their daggers. Now that brother had gone. As I stood there I too, like the thousands there with me, could feel her anguish.
It was from there that she also watched the jubilation of Yezid’s army as they celebrated the beheading of Husain.
But was this their victory? Not as long as Zainab-binte-Ali was alive!
She singlehandedly carried the message of Karbala forward.
Sham e Gariban- evening of 10th Muharram
The battle of Karbala was a fight of right over wrong and she was the RIGHT.
She fled back to her camp to tell her nephew, sisters, widowed sisters in law, nieces and the children.
She went first to her nephew’s tent and helped him revive from his fainting spell, then put his father’s amama (turban) and qaba (cloak) and took the oath of allegiance to him as her Imam. Imam Zain-ul Abidin knew what had happened but was too weak to do anything but weep silent tears, which were flowing freely.
Zainab then came out of his tent and informed the others. There was a flood of tears, a sea of wails by the thirsty inmates of that camp. But there was no respite for them as a swarm of victorious soldiers came towards their camps with lit torches in their hands. As was the custom of armies they first looted the jewelry from the women and children, took their valuables and then set fire to the tents.
Zainab with the help of her sister Umme Kulsum took charge and first ran into Imam Zain-ul Abidin’s tent and supported him out of the burning tent and into safety. They then shepherded all the children into a group away from the burning tents and comforted the small girls with torn ear lobes from where the soldiers had snatched their earrings.
Husain’s war over evil was over and he had not bowed before it. He went victorious to heaven. Now it was Zainab’s war and it was not a ten-day war but a prolonged one and she was destined to triumph.
Lessons from Karbala
There are many lessons to be learnt from Karbala. A few are : how to treat your enemy with mercy and justice – Imam Hussain offering of water to Hurr’s army.
Sabr and tawakkul – patience and faith in God.
Avoidance of confrontation and at every step trying for peace.
However, the biggest lesson from Karbala is the power of right, and to stand steadfast in the battle of right and not bow down to a tyrannical ruler, even if martyrdom was the end.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I learned from Hussain how to be wronged and be a winner, I learnt from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed.”
And on a personal note as a ardent lover of the Ahle Bait I feel that we cry because in Karbala in 61 Hijri, Zainab and Kulsum, Sakina and Sajjad, Rabab and Bano and all the other widows, orphans, grieving mothers, sisters and daughters were not allowed to mourn.
Yezid’s army put severe restrictions on them as far as mourning was concerned and as they were knew that they were in the wrong and it was the Prophet’s progeny that they were oppressing kept them segregated, imprisoned and repressed them to prevent a backlash from the people.