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The Eternal Karbala and Remembering Imam Husayn's Sacrifice

"Karbala witnessed the last manifestation of the pure revolutionary faith of Islam."
~ Sheikh Imran Hossein

The 10th day of Muharram, the Day of Ashura for Muslims around the world is a day to remember the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the anniversary of his sacrifice for truth and justice as a day of solemn mourning. But what is the use of the wailing and beating of chests if the memory of Imam Husayn is buried in emotionalism conveniently separate form our lives in a world where daily the heirs of Imam Husayn struggle against the modern Yazids? If his sacrifice is to have any meaning for us today we must ask ourselves, who was this man? Why did he die? What did he teach us?

... for this day represents

complete surrender of the self,

annihilation in the One,

and thus the return 
to the Divine Presence of God.
~ Emil Ihsan - Alexander Torabi

On the 10th Muharram 61 A.H (9th October 680 AD) at Karbala, Iraq, Husayn, beloved grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, second son of Ali ibn Abu Talib and Fatima Zahra, was slaughtered along with many of his family and close followers by the armies of Yazid b. Mu’awiyah, self-styled Caliph of Islam. The reason for Husayn’s death was his refusal to acknowledge and pay homage to Yazid, a notorious debauchee who openly flaunted the limits of God (sacred law), as the leader of the Muslim world.

When the Prophet addressed the people at Ghadir al-Khumm on the return journey from his only pilgrimage, it is recorded that he said: “I leave behind amidst you two great things, the Book of Allah and my Ahl al-Bayt (the Holy Family). Should you be attached to these two, never will you go astray from me for verily these two will never part company until they both meet me at the Spring of Kawthar (Paradise).” Then he continued, “The Lord Allah Almighty is my Master and I am the master of every true believer.” And taking the hand of Hazrat Ali in his, he raised him high over the vast assembly and declared, “He is the master of all those whose master I have been. O Allah love those who love Ali and hate those who hate him.”

The love of the Prophet for Hazrat Ali is illustrated by many hadiths, chief among are the following:

‘I and Ali are of one and the same Divine Light.’

‘I am the City of Knowledge and ‘Ali is its Gate.’

‘O Ali! You are my brother in this world and the next.’

‘O Ali! You are to me as Aaron was to Moses, save that there is no apostleship after me.’

What the beloved Prophet gave to Ali who grew up with the Prophet himself, so did Ali transmit those adab (way of proper behavior), knowledge, training of the true spirit of Islam to his family, his sons and daughters and chief among them were Hasan and Husayn. They are known to be 'Chief among the youths of Paradise'.

The most honourable Prophet is reported to have said, “Husayn is of me and I am of Husayn.” Shaykh Saduq reports from Huzayfi Yamani, “I saw the holy Prophet holding the hand of Husayn and saying, “O people! Know this Husayn son of ‘Ali and Fatimah, know that by the One in whose hand is my soul, that he (Husayn) is of heaven, and his friends will be the inmates of heaven.”

Husain ibn Ali - here was a man raised in the very cradle of Islam; his life dedicated from birth to Allah, knowing nothing but the path of service. Various Hadiths corroborate that the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt, including Imam Husayn himself, were aware of his future martyrdom. His whole life was but a preparation for the appointed time when it was incumbent upon him to make the supreme sacrifice of the lives of himself, his family and friends.

With the death of Mu’awiyah this had arrived. On Mu’awiyah’s death his son Yazid was proclaimed caliph thanks to the former’s strong military control of the Muslim world and the carefully placed bribes by which he attempted to secure Yazid’s succession.

(.. as events unfold, Imam Husayn had to leave Medina due to imminent threat on his life by the agents of Yazid.) Once in Mecca Imam Husayn was inundated by requests from Shi’ah groups to take up an active role as their leader and overthrow the tyrannical rule of Yazid. Chief among the petitioners were the Shi’as of Kufah who had also been the first to acclaim the caliphate of Imam Hasan.

The role of the Imam is fully described by Imam Husayn in his letter to the Shi’ahs of Basrah:

“Allah chose Muhammad from among the people, honoured him with His Prophethood and selected him for His message. After he warns the people and conveyed His message to them, Allah took him back unto Himself. We, being his family, his close associates endowed with the quality of guardianship (walayat), his trustees (wakeel) and vicegerents (khalifa), and his heirs (waris) and legatees are the most deserving among all the people to succeed him. But people preferred themselves over us for this. We became contented, disliking dissension and anxious to preserve the peace and well-being (of the community), through we were fully aware that we were more entitled to this (leadership) than those who had taken it for themselves… I have sent my messenger to you and I call you to the Book of Allah, and the Sunnah of His Prophet, the Sunnah which has become obliterated by innovations. If you listen to me and obey my instructions I will guide you to the right path. May the Peace and Mercy of Allah be upon you.”

Could the man who wrote this letter have acknowledged the rule of one who openly mocked the message of the Prophet? The very purity of his being rendered martyrdom inevitable.

As Imam Husayn and his party traveled towards Kufah, Ibn Ziyad (the ruthless governor of Basrah at that time) was enforcing the most stringent restrictions on the Kufans. He blocked all roads leading to Kufah from the Hijaz and set up strong military surveillance of all border areas. At Tha’libiya Imam Husayn received word of the murder of his ambassador to Kufah. Then at Zubala he heard that his messenger, Qays who had been carrying a letter to the Kufans informing them of the Imam’s imminent arrival, had been captured and killed. Qays had been thrown from the rooftop of the Ibn Ziyad’s palace in Kufah she he refused to curse Imam Husayn to save his own life.

On hearing of his faithful follower’s death, Imam Husayn is reported to have quoted a verse from the Quran,

“Among the believers are men who have been true to their covenant with Allah. Some of them have completed their vow (sacrificed their lives) and some others are waiting (to die) but they have never changed (their intent) in the least.” (Quran 33:23)
O Allah make paradise an abode for us and for them, and unite us all in a resting place under your mercy, and make your reward our only object of desire and our treasure. 

He then warned his followers that they were marching towards certain death and that any who had joined him in search of worldly gain should leave him. Many who had joined him as he traveled did leave him at this juncture.

As Imam Husayn drew close to Kufah, he learnt of the strong military presence at al-Qadisiya and changed his route. The enemy, however, soon realised his change of plan and sent a contingent of 1000 soldiers under the command of Hurr b. Yazid to intercept Imam Husayn. By the time Hurr’s troop reached Imam Husayn they had run out of water and were dying of thirst in the savage desert sun. Imam Husayn, on hearing their plaintive cries for water, ordered that all his camp’s reserve be distributed to the enemy force; he himself served the Umayyad soldiers with the precious supplies of water.

Hurr an honourable man, had no wish to harm the grandson of the Prophet, and although he and his forces marched close by the Imam’s keeping them under close surveillance, he used no force against him. Such was his respect for Imam Husayn that he prayed behind him at the hours of prayer.

On the 2nd Muharram 61 AH (2nd October 680) Imam Husayn reached the plains of Karbala and ordered they pitch camp there.

He summoned the owners of the plain and purchased the area from them. He then gifted it back to the local people, informing them that on the tenth of the month they would see the headless corpses of himself and his followers lying on the ground. He begged them to take the bodies and give them proper burial. he also entrusted to them the responsibility of acting as hosts to the many pilgrims who would in future years visit their tombs.

With every step he took Imam Husayn seemed to be conscious of his tryst with destiny. Before he reached Karbala four leading Shi’ah of Kufah managed to reach him to warn that certain death awaited him there. Their guide Tirimmah b. Adi offered to lead him to safety in the mountains from where, reinforced by twenty thousand warriors from the local tribes, he would be able to amount an attack on his enemies. He refused to do this although to continue as he was doing meant certain death.

On the 3rd Muharram Umar b. Sad arrived with an army of 4000 men with instructions from Ibn Ziyad to blockade the road to the river cutting off the Imam’s water supplies. By the 7th of Muharram the little band was without water, women and babies grasping in the desert sands. Ibn Sad afraid marched on the camp. Imam Husayn sent his half brother Abbas and a handful of men to ask the commander for a night’s respite. This was granted.

Thus on the eve of the 10th day of Muharram Husayn assembled his family and supporters and spoke to them accordingly.

“I give praise to Allah who has honoured us with the Prophet, has taught us the Qur’an and favoured us with His religion I know of no worthier companions than mine. May Allah reward you with all the best of His regard. I believe tomorrow our end will come… I ask you all to leave me alone and to go away to safety. I free you from your allegiance to me and I don’t bold you back. Night will provide you with a cover, use it as a steed.”

Soon only a few remained in the camp. They spend the night reading the Qur’an and in prayer and supplication preparing for their assured end.

On the morning of the Ashura (10th Muharram) Imam Husayn drew up his army of 72 men, who ranged in age from the seventy year old Muslim b. Awaja to Qasim the fourteen year old son of Imam Husayn. Dressed in the cloak of the Prophet, perfumed with musk, the Qur’an raised in his hand, the Imam rode alongside his men addressing them this:

“O Allah You are my only Trust in every calamity, You are my only hope in every hardship, You are the only promise in the anxiety and distress in which hearts become weak and action become slight, in which one is deserted and forsaken by one’s own friends, and in which the enemies take malicious pleasure and rejoice at one’s misfortunes. O Allah, I submit myself to You, my complaints is to You alone against my enemies and to You alone is my desire and request. Who else other than You can relieve me from grief. You alone are the custodian of every blessing and the Master of every excellence and the last resort for every desire.”

The enemy, on hearing his words, resorted with vile insults. Still Imam Husayn would not let his companions fire a single arrow. For according to old Arab custom, it was prohibited to fight in the month of Muharram in addition to three other months in the lunar calendar. Hence the Imam would not allow his men to act as the aggressors.

As the heat of the day grew, Imam Husayn came forward again and again to remind them in the name of Allah and His Messenger of the heinous crime they were about to commit, of his own relationship to the Prophet and the merits of his family. Each time their only retort was that he must pay homage / give allegiance to Yazid.

A few however, in the enemy camp had not been indifferent to the words of Imam Husayn for on the morning of Ahura thirty nobles of Kufah, who were with Ibn Sad, had come over to Imam Husayn’s side electing to die with him rather than face eternal damnation. Hur, the commander who had obstructed the Imam’s way as he neared Karbala, had also been brooding over the situation and finally chose to join Imam Husayn bringing with him his son, brother and a slave. Throwing himself at the feet of the Imam, he begged to be allowed to give his life for him in redemption of the crime he had committed by waylaying Imam Husayn’s path. To this Imam Husayn gladly agreed and Hur was one of the first to die in the battle.

As afternoon approached the fighting became fierce and soon only the Imam’s family remained alive. Then one by one they gave up their precious lives. First was Ali al-Akbar, the son of Imam Husayn, who was said to look so like the Prophet that when he went into battle the enemy force were temporarily stunned, believing that the Prophet himself had risen again to aid his beloved son. Yet they stopped only for a moment and the boy was attacked from all sides and fell with a lance pierced through his breast. He died before his father’s eyes even as Imam Husayn prayed to Allah that this sacrifice of his dearest son would be acceptable in His eyes.

Qasim, the son of Imam Hasan, begged his uncle that he too might join the fight presenting him with a closed letter that had been written by his father with instructions that he should open it only when the worst calamity befell him. The note instructed Qasim that when a time came that his uncle Husayn was besieged by his enemies on all sides and when every true lover of Allah and the Holy Prophet laid down his life defending the cause of truth, Qasim must sacrifice his own life on behalf of his father.

.. Qasim departed for the battle fray and after killing five famous warriors from the enemy forces fell from his horse and his uncle watched helplessly as the cavalry trampled his body to death. Even Aun and Muhammad, the ten and nine years old sons of Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn, on their mother’s instruction entered the battle ground giving up their young lives with the other martyrs of their family.

‘Abbas, the half brother of Imam Husayn, his steadfast comfort and support throughout all these events, was dust down after valiant dash to the river to obtain water for the thirsty children. Imam Husayn, answering the call of their sister, Zaynab, went to the women’s tent where he found his six month son, Ali al-Asghar, whose mother milk has run dry, drying of thirst. Taking the baby in his arms he went towards the enemy forces begging them to bring water for it. Fearing that this piteous sight would cause his soldiers to mutiny, Ibn Sad ordered one of his men to fire on the Imam. The arrow pierced through Imam Husayn’s arm cutting the infant through the neck. The baby died in his father’s arms.

Wounded, exhausted from thirst, this body smattered with the blood of his baby on, Imam Husayn returned to the women’s tents to bid them a last farewell and warn them of the trials and tribulations that would befall them after his death. To Zaynab, his beloved sister and close companion since childhood, he entrusted the care of the women and children, particularly his young daughter Sakinah, who was know for her strong attachment to her father. Ali Zayan al-Abidin his only surviving son, was lying helpless on his sick bed unable to join the battle. Imam Husayn went to his bedside to appoint him as his successor, entrusting him to carry on the Light of Muhammad to mankind. The young man, who was too weak to stand unaided, struggle to be to his feet, begging his father that he might be with him in the final fight. Imam Husayn restrained him, reminding him of his sacred duties and of the blessed progeny that were destined to be his issue - the future of Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt.

All through that day, Imam Husayn had gathered the dead bodies of his companions and brought them to his tent, laying them carefully side by side to await burial. It was to this solemn task he returned during the last minutes of his life. And there, by the side of his tent, a group of enemy soldiers led by Shimr found him. Attacking Imam Husayn from every side, they hacked his pure body to the ground.

All the while, the women and children watched horror struck. Abdullah, the youngest son of Imam Hasan, threw himself across the path of the soldiers trying to protect his uncle with his own body, and was thus martyred. Finally, Sinan severed the head from the body of the mutilated Imam.

The mortal life of Imam Husayn had ended but his memory lives on eternally. By his sacrifice, he had revitalised islam, saving it from corruption and decay. Men had called into easeful sloth when the great light of Muhammad had been closely followed by the darkness of Muawiah and Yazid. The shock of Karbala forced many to reconsider the meaning of true Islam and to question the extent of their commitment to Allah. The martyrs of Karbala had left for posterity the highest example of living Islam. The majority of Muslims who followed them might remain subservient to corrupt rulers and fall short of this ideal, but a standard behavior had been set. None could deny that the way of Imam Husayn was the way of Muhammad, the perfect man.

Tyrants might come and go; indeed Yazid lived on to oder the pillage of Mecca and Medina, but never again did a caliph of either the Umayyad or Abbasid Houses attempt to extract an oath of allegiance from the Ahl al-Bayt. The defeat of the body was the victory of the spirit for the light of Karbala guides us still.

The battle of Imam Husayn and Yazid is the relentless battle between the higher and the lower nafs waged daily in the hearts of men, the eternal Karbala of the self.

~ Quoted from "Leaves from a Sufi Journal" - article titled "Eternal Karbala" by Umm Hussain

Lessons for us:

The thread of pure Islam was preserved by the holy family of the Prophet, those who received transmission most directly. Unfortunately who defeated them, killed them one after another - Sunni Islam formalized partially under their corrupt leadership. That's why if someone wants to learn how Islam was lived, they must study the life of the Ahl-Bayt, the people of the household of the Prophet of Allah.

Walayat (Guardianship) both spiritual and worldly affairs (one can not be separated from the other) was best entrusted to the people of the household, beginning from Ali and Fatima that continue through Hasan and Husayn. The door of Prophethood (Nubuyat) closed and door of Spiritual Guardianship (Walayat) was opened. Husayn was an upholder of the office of Walayat and Imamiyat.

One of the characteristics of Wali is their adherence to truth and the must never compromise with falsehood. They can never give their hand (allegiance) to falsehood, even at the price of their own life. Falsehood must perish and truth will prevail and it does.

One of the characteristic of Wali is that they come empty from God and return back to God with their hand and pocket empty, no attachment is kept before death. Its worth noting how Husayn distributed the reserve food and water to his enemy soldiers and how he purchased the land of Karbala and then distributed among the locals there. This is a Sunnah of the Wali, they must empty themselves of any worldly possessions before they return to the Lord.

Husayn is full concern for the well being of others, that is the sign of a true human being, sign of a true Muslim, true faithful. This was a Sunnah of his grandfather who was rahmatallil alamin (mercy to the worlds), Husayn was true to this up to his last breath. His concern was the proper burial of his companions, his concern was those future pilgrims who will come to say salaam to his tomb and those with him. That is the mercy flowing not only in his time but to many ages and time to come, that is many worlds (characteristics of rahmatallil alamin). This is how love of a fully awakened human being flows towards infinity.

May Allah send his peace and blessings upon the Master Muhammad and his holy family and specially to the Ahl e Bayt, Ali, Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn. May those who have shed a single tear out of love and compassion for the Ahl e Bayt be united with them in the paradise. Ameen.

# Further:
* Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
* Life of Imam Hussain
* Imam Hussain 3rd Imam
* Tragedies of Karbala



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Technology of the Heart: The Eternal Karbala and Remembering Imam Husayn's Sacrifice
The Eternal Karbala and Remembering Imam Husayn's Sacrifice
The Historical Context of Karbala, a brief history and what message it has for us
Technology of the Heart
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