Source: transcript provided by the author, November 2006

Talking about Muharram in Chicago

by C. M. Naim

This is the revised text of a talk given at Chicago in Muharram 1998 before a group of concerned young Muslims who call themselves South Asian-American Professionals (SAMP). It is heartening to note in 2006 that it is not the only association of its kind in the United States. The horrific sectarian violence that rages in Pakistan and Afghanistan and has reached its worst form in Iraq impelled me to revise and share these remarks now (November 2006).

When I accepted your kind invitation, I had no intention of going into the ‘facts’ of Muharram—the whys and wherefores of the martyrdom at Karbala. I did not feel any useful purpose would be served by re-hashing the political/theological issues that for centuries have engaged historians and rogues alike. Arguments on ‘facts’ only too often lead to sectarian conflict, particularly in South Asia. I was going to stick to the cultural and literary aspects of Muharram. However, as I began to prepare my remarks, my mind gradually changed, influenced by what was happening around me. I had not been unaware of the long-enduring tensions between the Shi’ahs and the Sunnis in South Asia, which have resulted in recent years in some most horrific incidents in Pakistan. But what really triggered the shift was a different recent incident, as I shall explain in conclusion. The bulk of my remarks will be in two parts. In the first, I briefly offer my own narrative of the events that led to the tragedy at Karbala; in the second, I present the way some important Urdu writers idealize Imam Husain, perceiving in his martyrdom the optimum expression of human courage and virtue.

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar, and its first day should be a day of rejoicing for Muslims. The advent of Muharram in the pre-Islamic days marked a period of peace, bringing a temporary closure to internecine warfare among the tribes of Arabia. Presumably it was also a time for celebration and joy. But now, for devout Muslims, Muharram is the month for a profoundly sombre engagement with what happened at Karbala—in present-day Iraq—on the tenth day of the 61st year of Hijra (10 October 680 CE). On that day, barely fifty years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, his beloved grandson, Husain, was killed on the battlefield, together with several members of his own family, and the killers were none other than some members of the Prophet’s own ummah, the community of the Faithful.

Just before the Prophet’s death in 632 CE at Madinah, the dín (religion) named Islam had been explicitly declared ‘complete’ in a divine revelation, but the shape that the polity of the Faithful was expected to take after his death was left undefined. Who was to succeed the Prophet within the newly formed and constantly expanding community of the Believers, not in his prophetic role, for that ended with him, but as his khalífa, his representative or viceroy, in worldly affairs? The Prophet had brought together the tribally divided people of Arabia into a single polity, whose binding power lay as much in his own person as in the shared faith in Allah. Now that his person was going to be no more, would the faith in One God be enough to hold all the Faithful together?

Soon after the Prophet breathed his last, and even before his body could be prepared for burial, a group of Ansars, the original people of Madinah, met and started discussing as to who should be the new amír,‘the commander.’ They discussed names only from among themselves. When the word reached the Mosque of the Prophet, Umar and Abu Bakr rushed over to the meeting place, and presented a counter-claim as exclusive in nature. They privileged the people from Mecca as those who had been the longest in Islam, and thus closest to the Prophet. Their argument won the day when Umar offered his hand in allegiance to Abu Bakr, and the leader of one of the Ansar factions followed suit. The small ad hoc gathering of a few prominent figures in Madinah ended with Abu Bakr’s elevation as the first Caliph and ‘Commander’ of all Muslims. Notably absent at the meeting was Ali, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, who claimed to have been the first male to accept Islam. Soon, most of the people then present in Madinah offered Abu Bakr their allegiance. Ali, however, did not do so, nor did a number of other people, including a prominent Ansar. The important thing for us to note is that those who refused to sign up in Madinah—the first ‘refuseniks’ in Islam—were left alone. Any dissenter elsewhere met a different fate. Two simultaneously-waged processes marked the first caliph’s brief rule of two years: a highly centralized consolidation of Muslim temporal authority, and the suppression of an assortment of political and religious breakaways in other places.

Abu Bakr, on his deathbed, obtained oaths of allegiance and loyalty—from only a select cohort of prominent people in Madinah—in favour of the person of his choice, who subsequently turned out to be Umar. During the second caliph’s rule, the temporal authority of Madinah spread far into what earlier had been two powerful empires, the Byzantine and the Persian, bringing under the rule of the Arabs a variety of other people, who had political and social traditions quite different from the Arabs.

Umar was assassinated. Before he died he nominated six select ‘Companions of the Prophet,’ including Ali and Usman, to choose a person from among themselves. This time Ali made his claim known, but the person appointed by the group to make the decisive choice named Usman as the third caliph.

During Usman’s rule, Arab/Muslim armies further extended the borders of the Madinan state, but there also occurred (1) the rise to prominence of several members of Usman’s own clan, and (2) an increasing rift between Damascus and Kufa, the eastern and western regional centers of political power. Usman was killed in his house by his political opponents, many of whom then swore allegiance to Ali, who eventually also obtained the support of some other factions.

The barely five years of Ali’s rule were filled with turmoil. He had to do battle with those who felt he had failed to seek sufficient revenge from the assassins of the third caliph, and then also with those who felt he had not been resolute enough against his opponents’ demands. While Ali moved from Madinah to Kufa in Iraq, where lay most of his support, Mu’awiyah, the governor in Damascus, not only expanded his power into Egypt but also set himself up as a rival caliph. Thus for some months, there were two Muslim caliphs, each separately acknowledged by factions within the Faithfuls.

Ali too died at an assassin’s hands. Some of Ali’s supporters wanted his eldest son Hasan to make a claim, but Hasan withdrew in favour of Mu’awiyah, received a generous annuity in return, and retired to live in luxury in Madinah, where he died of poisoning.
That brings us to the year 661 AD, barely thirty years since the Prophet’s death. And a pause for some retrospection would be useful. During those years, three Muslim caliphs were assassinated—two by Muslims themselves, and one by a Christian slave—and countless other Muslims had died violent deaths at the hands of other Muslims. Meanwhile the Muslim/Arab state had ceaselessly spread over the entire Arabian Peninsula, across the Nile delta in the west, to the borders of Anatolia and Armenia in the north, and all the way to the eastern borders of present day Iran in the east. In merely three decades it had become an imperial power of a size that dwarfed all previous imperial powers in human history.

The preceding narrative was not to cast aspersion on extraordinary individuals. They had acted in the spirit of their times, and quite often for what they saw as a selfless cause. What I wished to bring to your attention is the trajectory—as I see it—taken by the consequence of their actions: the emergence of a despotic polity, in which no systemic allowance was made to accommodate political dissension or opposition. It was a polity wherein a litany—‘Obey God, obey the Prophet, and obey those who hold command over you’—became the governing principle.

Later, a vast majority of Muslims down the centuries began to refer to the reign of the first four caliphs as the period of the rashidun, the 'rightly-guided' caliphs. That descriptive phrase, to my mind, was a useful device. It saved Muslims from making rigidly factional decisions about the four elder statesmen, about one being exclusively right compared to another. And as such, it also served them as a psychological crutch, a way for their collective self to protect itself from being overwhelmed by a specific past that should have been anything but so bloodstained. That so many of the elders, all ‘Companions of the Prophet,’ disagreed, fought, and killed each other over issues related to temporal power had to be somehow reconciled with the natural urge of the larger community to get on with life more peaceably. And so the first four caliphs and their actions were declared to be ‘rightly guided’ by God, who alone judged what they did and who alone knew why they did it. It was not for the posterity to say who was right and who was wrong. That they were declared to be ‘rightly guided’ also implied, I would assert, that they were not necessarily always ‘rightly guiding.’ In other words, the Muslims’ natural desire to honor those elders did not inevitably require regarding the time of those elders as ‘the best of days,’ and a model for all times. Perniciously, that exactly is what happened, and only because it was also the time when an Arab imperium emerged. The period of the temporal rise of the Arabs—a people—came to be known as the exemplary years of Islam—a faith.

Returning to our historical narrative, Mu’awiyah, the parallel caliph, not only further expanded the Arab empire, but by nominating his son Yazid as his rightful successor he also set the precedent for hereditary rule in Islam. The caliphate that began as the exclusive privilege of the people of a particular place and tribe now became more narrowly confined to just one family.

Mu’awiyah, during his life, made sure of Yazid’s succession by obtaining declarations of allegiance to Yazid from various parts of the empire. However, at his death, some resistance to Yazid’s claim appeared in both Madinah and Kufa. The resistance eventually consolidated itself around the person of Husain, son of Ali, who left Madinah for Kufa, expecting support from the former allies of his father. Yazid’s forces, however, easily put an end to Husain’s Kufan support while the latter was still on the way. Thus it was that with only a small number of supporters Husain had to face a far larger imperial force at Karbala. When his opponents demanded that he should immediately surrender, and formally swear allegiance to Yazid, Husain countered with three options. He asked that they should allow him to return to Madinah and a life of quietude, let him proceed to some frontier of the Islamic/Arab Empire and fight there for Islam’s cause, or, as the last resort, take him to Yazid so that he could put the matter directly before him. Some say that Husain’s opponents refused to budge from their position and launched an attack, while other traditions claim that some members of his own party, seeking to avenge the murder at Kufa of one of their kinsmen, precipitated the battle. In any case, the end was swift. Husain and those of his companions who took part in the battle were killed; the surviving women and children, and the sick were first taken to Damascus, and then sent back to Madinah. The dynastic rule launched by Mu’awiyah and Yazid continued for several decades, only to be replaced by an endless series of dynastic rules and a more imperious caliphate—all now forgotten except by the specialists. On the other hand, the deaths of Husain and his companions are mourned every year by millions of people worldwide, and their lives are still regarded exemplary by many more.

* * * * * * *

What is there in that brief and tragic stand taken by Husain at Karbala that has so gripped the hearts and minds of countless generations of Muslims? There are of course those who are known as the Shi’ahs, the partisans of Ali, who believe that Ali had been the Prophet’s chosen successor, and who also believe in the concept of Imamate, which they consider to be exclusive to the male descendents of Ali through Husain. For them, of course, Husain is and should be a luminescent figure. But why should it be true also for the non-Shi’ahs, particularly after so many centuries, and even after so much sectarian accretion around the events? I find some answers in the imaginative literature I know most about, for literature arises out of the power of the metaphor, and its simple words often stand for complexities of thoughts and actions that most of us may find almost ineffable.

Muhammad Ali (d. 1931), a prominent leader of the anti-colonial movement in India and the most important leader of the so-called Khilafat Movement in the Twenties, is also famous for a couplet which he wrote while he was a political prisoner. It has since become proverbial in Urdu.

qatl-i husain asl meñ marg-i yazíd hai
islám zinda hotá hai har karbalá ke bád

Husain’s murder is in fact Yazid’s [own] death;
[For] Islam comes alive again after every Karbala.

For Muhammad Ali and millions of his compatriots, Husain stood for Truth and Freedom, and Yazid for everything opposite. In their view, every Yazid was bound to lose finally, even if he appeared to succeed for the moment. And Husain’s name invoked a sense of hope among those who were confident only in the righteousness of their cause. But we should not ignore the words that the poet used: it is Islam that comes to life again after every Karbala.

What was the Islam that Husain symbolized for the Indian poet/politician? Here we can do no better than to seek guidance from a greater poet, Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), from a section in his poem, Rumúz-i Bekhudí, ‘The Mysteries of Selflessness.’ The section is titled, ‘Concerning Muslim Freedom [hurriya], and the Secret of the Tragedy of Karbala.’ After briefly setting up an opposition between Passion and Reason—one bold, the other crafty, one empyrean in flight, the other earthbound—the poet goes on to declare: ‘I would speak / Of that great leader of all men who love / Truly the Lord, that upright cypress-tree / Of the Apostle’s garden, Ali’s son, / Whose father led the sacrificial feast / That he might prove a mighty offering; / And for that prince of the best race of men / The Last of the Apostles gave his back / To ride upon, a camel passing fair. ......... Moses and Pharaoh, Shabbir and Yazid— / From Life [hayát] spring these conflicting potencies; / Truth lives in Shabbir’s strength; Untruth is that / Fierce, final anguish of regretful death. / And when Caliphate first snapped its thread / From the Koran, in Freedom’s throat was poured / A fatal poison; like a rain-charged cloud / The effulgence of the best of peoples rose / Out of the West, to spill on Karbala, / And in that soil, that desert was before, / Sowed, as he died, a field of tulip blood. / There, till the Resurrection, tyranny / Was evermore cut off; a garden fair immortalizes where his lifeblood surged.’

Iqbal then goes on to call Husain ‘the edifice of La Ilaha, of faith in God’s pure Unity,’ echoing a quatrain ascribed to Mu’inuddin Chishti of Ajmer (d. 1325), the pivotal sufi saint of South Asia. Had Husain been pursuing a selfish goal, Iqbal continues, he would not have provisioned himself the way he did—his sword was for the glory of the Faith, and he unsheathed it only to defend the Law. The poet concludes by saying: ‘Though Damascus’ might, Baghdad’s splendour and Granada’s majesty have all vanished, all lost to mind, / Yet still vibrate the strings Husain struck within our soul, for still ever new our faith abides in his cry: Allahu Akbar.’ For Iqbal, Husain epitomizes the original mission of Islam, which, as he puts it, was ‘to found Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood among all Mankind.’ Those who oppose these goals belong to Yazid’s ranks, while those who strive to bring them about stand tall beside Husain.

Munshi Prem Chand (d. 1936), a Hindu, is considered one of the foremost writers of prose fiction in both Hindi and Urdu. His only play, Karbala, was written during the time when after the collapse of the Khilafat Movement in India much communal enmity had erupted between Hindus and Muslims. Using the lore and legend of a very small Hindu community known as the Mohyals (also often called the ‘Husaini Brahmins’), he placed a group of Hindu warriors in southern Hejaz, who, upon hearing the news of Husain’s opposition to the despotic rule of Yazid, rush to Karbala and die fighting on Husain’s behalf. The Hindu party, led by Raja Sahas Rai, arrives at the battlefield just when Husain and his few remaining companions begin their obligatory afternoon prayers. The Hindus immediately take up defensive positions, and shield the praying Muslims from their enemy’s arrows. After the prayers, Husain speaks:

Husain: ‘My dear friends who share my grief, these prayers will ever be remembered in Islam’s history. We couldn’t have completed them without these brave servants of God standing behind us to protect us from the arrows of the enemy. O Worshippers of Truth, we greet you. Though you’re not of the Believers [momin], your religion must be true and God-given if its followers are such defenders of Truth and Justice, and if they think so little of their own lives in order to support the persecuted. Such a religion will always remain in this world, and its light will spread worldwide together with the glory of Islam.’
Sahas Rai: ‘Hazrat, we thank you for the blessings you have just cast upon us. I too pray to Almighty God that whenever Islam needs our blood there should be plenty of my people to bare their breasts for its cause. Please give us now your permission to go into the battlefield, and lay down our lives for the cause of Truth.’
Husain: ‘No, my friends. So long as we are alive we cannot let any guest face the battle.’
Sahas Rai: ‘Hazrat, we are not guests, we are your humble servants. To die for Truth and Justice is the fundamental principle of our life. It is our obligation and duty.’
The seven brothers then go singing into the battlefield, and die fighting on Husain’s behalf. Their bodies are then properly cremated at Husain’s instruction. (Further information on Prem Chand's play and much more may be found in a recent excellent monograph, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory, by Syed Akbar Hyder of the University of Texas, Austin.)

* * * * * * *

As I said at the beginning, I originally wished to present some remarks far removed from history and politics, but when I sat down to prepare them, my mind changed. Now I must explain why. It was mainly for two reasons. First, I could not help noting the commemorations around me of the calamity that befell the people of Palestine exactly fifty years ago. In April 1948, the Palestinians—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—fell victim to a western imperialist conspiracy, and were equally betrayed by some Arabs of the same ilk. The newly created state of Israel, incrementally oppressive and intolerant, has now reached a stage where it could either transform itself radically at some cost to itself—as was perhaps in the mind of the prime minister who was killed by one of his own compatriots and co-religionists—or go down the way of other tyrannies and eventually collapse one day at much greater human cost.

My second reason was a terrible incident that occurred just a few days ago in Pakistan, and possibly did not come to your attention. The young Bishop of Faisalabad, Pakistan, killed himself in the corridor of a law court; he was protesting against a law that has repeatedly been used to victimize the tiny Christian and Hindu minority populations in Pakistan. That law assigns a sentence of death to anyone convicted of insulting the Prophet of Islam in any manner. It has been used by many unscrupulous Muslims to harass members of minority communities, and extort money and land from them. All judicial and human rights organizations in Pakistan have asked for a repeal of that draconian law, and yet the people in power have persistently refused, invoking the name of Islam. In a similar fashion, the same people have failed to curb the rapidly expanding sectarian, Shi’ah-Sunni violence in Pakistan. I could not help but see some significance in the fact that the Bishop killed himself only a day before the ‘Ashurah’, the tenth of Muharram, the day of Husain’s martyrdom. No doubt Christianity strongly disapproves of suicide—as does Islam too—but I must conclude that for the late Bishop his suicide was the ultimate, ethically proper gesture he could make for a just cause. Sadly, given the emergence of ‘suicide bombers,’ I must also add that it is one thing to give one’s own life for a just cause, and quite another to take down others indiscriminately with you. That is not the message of Husain’s martyrdom.

At Muharram we focus our minds on the tragedy of Karbala. We shed tears for the ‘innocent’ few who were killed by the ‘evil’ many. We celebrate ‘heroes’ and denounce ‘villains.’ Unfortunately, only too often we do it only within our ‘Muslim’ context and experience, focusing only on the events of Karbala. The spirit of Karbala, however, demands that we must also strive to perceive the oppression being done around us—by us as well as by others—to those who are different and helpless. It is possible that we might fail to ameliorate their pain, but we will have at least shed a few tears with them. And that alone may make us all a little less heartless.

-- C. M. NAIM index page -- fwp's main page --