Karbala: In the Shadow of Grief or in the Radiance of Glory?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is an article by Shaykh Harun Riedinger (q.s.), also known as Shaykh Abu Faydan Faridi.

It is not my aim, nor does my reading in Muslim history qualify me, to present here a historical portrait, or a socio-political analysis of the forces that were prevalent within the ummah after the fourth and last of the Rightly-Guided caliphs, ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.), had been assassinated, which brought about the situation and developments that led to the confrontation at Karbala in the early second half of the first hijri century.  There is also hardly any need for it either, since there is ample material of that sort available, compiled by more learned persons than myself, and, moreover, those aspects of the event, which are relevant for us and ought to have a bearing on our lives today, in the 21st, respectively the 1st hijri century are not a concern of history, but a matter of spiritual grooming: iman and taqwa.

One of the strongest traits in human nature is to give great importance to outward appearances and manifestations at the cost of neglecting the inward qualities and realities, which are their real source and raison d’être, and this is perhaps the reason why the martyrdom of Husayn (r.a.) is commemorated the way it is being done, portraying and emphasising it as a historical tragedy and humanitarian failure, neglecting its underlying reality, being an event of supreme spiritual splendour and glory.  Indeed, if this underlying reality was not there, Islam as a creed would have lost a great deal of its credibility.

Having feelings of devotion and love for the illustrious grandson of our Noble Prophet (s.a.w.) and the martyrs of Karbala who laid down their lives in the defense of the Truth and that, which is right, against an onslaught of falsehood and evil in the form of despotism, is not a prerogative of the Shi’ite Muslims.  As a matter of fact, any Muslim who does not share such feelings of veneration and adoration for those noble warriors of Haqq must be considered spiritually crippled.  It is only human to be temporarily veiled from the glorious reality of their martyrdom by evoking its tragic scenario on the plain of Karbala, and experiencing a feeling of sorrow, to get stuck in such gloom, however, or even intentionally clinging to it and seeking to increase it in a public display of grief and self-castigation, is hardly convincing as a sincere expression of love and devoutness.  Love, devotion and adoration are notions of an extremely positive nature, and the response of the Real to the pursuit of goodness is invariably happiness and serenity; this is the established Sunnah of Allah (s.w.t.).  Not allowing that veil of sorrow to be lifted by this Sunnah of Allah (s.w.t.), and insisting on focusing on the atrocities of the tyrants and oppressors instead is not only a denial of the Goodness that our Generous Rabb Brought Forth from their very wrongdoing and cruelty, but a denial and denigration of the supreme victory that Husayn (r.a.) and his valiant companions in the Scales of the Real, which they achieved by their sacrifice.  One may grieve over something one loses, but one cannot lose something that one does not have!  We are talking about the physical presence, respectively the dreadful manner in which the physical life of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) beloved grandson came to its glorious conclusion, martyrdom, because if it were his spirit or his spiritual reality that is at issue, the question of loss, or the grief about the circumstances of his physical death would not be relevant at all.

The only thing, of what transpired on the plain of Karbala on that fateful day, which has relevance for us, in our present-day lives, is the glorious example of taqwa, steadfastness and uncompromising upholding of what is just, right and true, that Husayn (r.a.) and the martyrs of Karbala have left behind for us as a legacy to follow, or at least to aspire to follow, everything else is pathetic self-indulgence.  Martyrdom in Islam is the greatest honour that any believing Muslim can wish for, and there are many ahadits to that effect.  In one of them, it is stated that, after seeing the reward their Lord Bestows on the martyr for the ultimate sacrifice he has made for Him, the martyr wants to go back, and go through the agony of death again and again, because it is a trifle in comparison to the Reward and Honour he Received for it.  The Noble Prophet (s.a.w.) called Husayn (r.a.), “the Prince of the Youth of Paradise”, from which we can conclude that he knew that his noble grandson would die in the prime of youth, and what fate had been ordained for him, and yet, he did not do anything to avert it, although his station with Allah (s.w.t.) was certainly such that his intersession would surely have had some weight but Allah (s.w.t.) Knows Best.  Lastly, and most importantly, Allah (s.w.t.) Himself States in the Qur’an, that the people who are slain in the way of Allah (s.w.t.) are not to be considered dead, but they are alive and sustained by their Lord.  Would we, who claim to be his lovers and devotees deprive our hero of all this by having the events at Karbala having taken a different turn?

So, what are those people mourning, and why are they not celebrating instead?  Celebrating the eternal – and that means ever, even at this very moment present – bliss, which keeps descending upon those noble souls, instead of lamenting their long passed physical suffering, which lasted but an instant in comparison with the eternal bliss they have been enjoying since, and although that suffering might have lived on as an agony of grievous memories with those, who witnessed it, it could not have lasted as a living memory longer than a generation.  Is it a lack of faith in the reality of all those glad tidings that have been given about the status and condition of martyrs, or do those people seek to derive some kind of gratification in the sensation of grief and pain?  It certainly must appear like that, if one observes those mass gatherings where people listen to passionate speeches by religious demagogues, under the influence of which they work themselves emotionally up into some sort of an ecstasy of ‘religious masochism’.

The last thing, I intend with saying all this, is to stir up sectarian strife.  I have Shi’ah friends, and I have prayed with Shi’ah jama’ah in their mosques, and I did not and do not feel a lesser Muslim on account of that, but the ‘Muharram cult’, as it can be observed, particularly in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, appears to be more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious one, like a lot of other traditions that have somehow found their way into the religious observances of the Muslims – Shi’ahs and Sunnis alike – and that have resulted in the emergence of a religious culture, separate from, or additional to the pristine simplicity of the Diyn.  If such traditions that are observed by one fraction of the Muslim community, while another fraction is opposed to them, pose a conflict of such dimensions that it has become a security concern for the authorities, so that anti-riot precautions have to be taken, then obviously something has gone very wrong.  It is utterly futile trying to judge, which of the fractions is right, and which is wrong.  The Noble Prophet (s.a.w.) has said words to the effect, “The difference of opinion among the men of knowledge of my ummah is a Mercy”.  These words of wisdom however must not be taken as a license to neglect or undermine the intended cohesiveness of the teachings of the Noble Prophet (s.a.w.), which is a very important issue in this context.  Allah (s.w.t.) has Ordered us in His Holy Word, to get firm hold of the ‘Rope of Allah’, and not to fall into schism.  The metaphor, used here, obviously emphasises the vital necessity of unity within the ranks of the ummah, and what is clearly expressed thereby, is the need to cling to the essentials of the Diyn, on which all Muslims are in agreement, and to refrain from falling into extremes, which do not constitute a common ground, and therefore, of necessity, must create splits, dissent and tension among the Muslims.

The Diyn is primarily an affair between every individual person and his or her Maker, Who is Closer to us than our jugular vein, and Who is the One to Whom we are ultimately answerable for our actions.  Nobody, not even our closest companion, is on such intimate terms with us, and this means that everyone else is ‘an outsider’ to this relationship, and we are basically alone with Allah (s.w.t.).  Nevertheless, our Generous Rabb has Placed us into a virtually real context with His Creation, and in this context our lives are linked outwardly with our fellow creatures in general, and more particularly and intensely with our brothers and sisters in Islam, and these links impose upon us a share in some collective responsibilities.  Hence, if we bring any aspect of this very intimate affair, which we have with our Rabb, out into the open, then we enter it into this common realm, and are responsible for any effects and consequences it may have there. In the privacy of our solitude, we can go to any extremes in our relationship with Allah (s.w.t.), but in public, the general consensus on what is appropriate of religious practices should be respected.  This is the conduct that has been enjoined on us by our a’immah, scholars and sages, irrespective of their madzahib, persuasions and schools of thought, and that was adhered to by them as a living example, with but a very few rare exceptions, where they experienced states in which they had no control over their actions.


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