Karbala and the End of the True Islam
Ismail Butera
Every year, on the tenth of the Islamic month of Muharam, the first month of that lunar calendar, there is a commemoration throughout the Muslim ummah. On this day, it is believed that Moses led his people out of Egypt. Some say that the Ark came to rest on that day, and Noah gave thanks to God that the flood had subsided. This day, the tenth of Muharam known as Ashura, is and always was a day that commemorated God’s mercy to his people, delivering them from the hands of tyrants and danger alike.
But this day, which comes right after the Islamic New Year, is also a reminder of a far more tragic set of circumstances, a a token of a bloody and chaotic past that gradually became the condition of the Islamic state right after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.
The decision as to who would be the caliph of the revolutionary and progressive state that Muhammad founded was a problem indeed. The Meccans, led by Abu Sufyan and his family, former pagans and avowed enemies of Muhammad, didn’t take the loss of their power too lightly. Once persecutors of Muhammad and his message, keepers of the Kaaba and Lords of the Hejaz, they were now the conquered and vanquished losers of the struggle that lasted ever since Muhammad came down from that cave where he conversed with the angel Gabriel. Muhammad entered Mecca triumphant, showing mercy to the defeated Sufyans. He cleared the Kaaba of the idols and proclaimed ‘truthhood has come, and falsehood has vanished’. Then, in a demonstration of equality for all human beings, he sent Bilal, a former African slave who waited  and served the Meccan elite, to the top of the house that Abraham built, and ordered him to sound the azan, the call to prayer that is familiar in all Muslim countries, a call that one hears five times a day.
We should at this point stop and put ourselves into the shoes of the defeated Meccan families like the proud Sufyans who now had to bear the indignity of having a familiar former slave stand atop the building that gave Mecca it’s pride and wealth and see and hear him call all to the word of the God who commanded Abraham to build this house in the first place. ‘The lowest of the low’, they must have thought, now stands far above all of us.
This must have been a great blow to Meccan pride and tribal glory. Add to this Muhammad’s revolutionary changes towards women, minorities, ‘people of the book’, government, forcing the rich to share their wealth, and all the other drastic changes that Meccan society badly needed, and it is not surprising that the families did not voluntarily kill themselves outright. Islam’s blow to Meccan pride was, in the eyes of the Meccans, unforgivable and completely unacceptable.
It is often explained in Muslim circles that Muhammad entered Mecca, and his former enemies entered Islam, bringing about an end to the struggle between monotheism and paganism that was the hallmark of much of Muhammad’s career. Anyone who reads the Quran will read the verses that call for armed struggle against the unbelievers, and many of these verses seem to be right out of an Old Testament God’s command to destroy the Meccans as Joshua was willing and able to destroy the enemies of God in his time, or as when the prophet Nathan commanded Saul to ‘leave no polytheists alive in the land’. This was warfare of the desert at it’s most violent and bloody. No, jihad and it’s scriptural manifestation is not pretty, nor really good and inspiring reading. We could read the Illiad, the German Sagas, KIng Arthur or the Persian Shah Nameh for literature that describes bloodletting in detail. What does this have to do with faith? The struggle between Muhammad and his enemies was a struggle to the death in the semi barbaric atmosphere of 7th century Arabia. To bring about an improvement in the social and religious life of his people, Muhammad had to go up against some of history’s cruelest and tyrannical leaders who saw themselves as above any God or his messenger.
Not content with their new lowly position that made them equals to former slaves, women and other monotheists who were from other, formerly feuding tribes, the Meccan familes such as the Sufyans bided their time and waited for the inevitable to happen. They knew that the common denominator, the great equalizer called death took everyone, poet, peasnat and prophet. When Muhammad died, he need to replace him became priority. After Abu Bakr, the discontent began to grow, with the Sufyans as well as with Muhammad’s own family, with Ali ibn Abu Talib passed over time and again. There was none closer to Muhammad than Ali, but his election to the caliphate would not happen. What happened during these years reads like a political and criminal novel, with even Muhammad’s wives involved in the intrigue and political turmoil that was unfolding. Aisha, the youngest wife and daughter of Muhammad’s friend and first caliph Abu Bakr, had to struggle with the independent Khadija’s memory, as well, as with the other, older wives. She even commanded an army against the honorable Ali, such was the breakup of the household of Muhammad. Fatima, Muhammad’s beloved daughter, was killed when a burning door was broken down by Umar, the second caliph known for his temper, as he demanded  that Ali, her husband, open the door and let him in. This period of inner turmoil, too involved to go into here, is called the period of ‘al fitna’. It reads like a crime family story.
All the while, the Sufyans played their cards, and played them well.  Muawiya, the son of the cruel Hind, wife of Abu Sufyan, is one of history’s great deceivers and political tyrants. Centuries before Macchiavelli, he was an expert at dividing families and friends, and adept at causing people to hate one another. A relative of the Sufyans, Uthman, became the third caliph. An honest and hard working man, he ordered the compilation of the Quran, the version we have today, and collected the first ‘hadith’ the stories of Muhammad and his sayings, habits and doings according to his friends. Those Quranic verses and hadith that were seen as ‘not authentic’ were burned. Remember that Uthman was under the gun, so to speak. He was a relative of the Sufyans.
Uthman was assassinated under mysterious circumstances. Muawiya displayed his bloodied shirt, and the old man’s wife’s severed finger lost while trying to ward off Uthman’s attackers, in what was becoming the new Muslim capital of Damascus. Muawiya pit brother against brother, cousin against cousin, father against son, and started down the road to vengeance against Muhammad’s family. Ali ibn Abu Talib came to the relief of the faltering Islamic state, fought hard to preserve the essence of Muhammad’s original teachings, but was killed by an assassin as he prayed the morning prayer in the mosque.
Ali’s son Hasan was murdered, and it came to the honorable Hussein to take the reins of the state. Like his father Ali, Hussein preferred not to involve himself in this selfish turmoil. But, destiny had other plans for him. While the new Muslim state was becoming an empire that received wealth and revenues from afar, with Muawiya ruling from his capital in Damascus, Hussein’s noble countenance could not allow the self centered, imperialistic changes to become the norm for the society that his grandfather Muhammad had fought for.
He went, with 70 followers to a place in Iraq called Karbala, to secure a truce. The deceivers had other plans, however. Surrounded by a large force, the little group of dedicated Muslims, which included some Jewish and Christian allies who loved Hussein and the memory of his just and righteous father Ali, were beseiged on all fronts. Fighting like wolves, the followers of Hussein beat back the forces of  the Sufyan Yazid time and again. They heroically fought and held on.
Then, at one point, Hussein asked for a respite from the fighting to get water for his infant son. The forces of Yazid shot arrows at the two as they gathered the water. Hussein’s son was killed. Finally, on the tenth of Ashura, Yazid made his last attack. Unable to bring down the son of the noble Ali in hand to hand combat, again the archers shot at Hussein with their arrows, and ended the noble man’s life. Hussein was beheaded, the head brought as a trophy to Damascus. The Ummayads were now able to rule on their own, without any influential interference from their former enemy, Muhammad. Most of the people close to him and his family who loved him were now dead. Hind and Abu Sufyan had their vengeance. They conquered and ruled an empire that was more extensive than the Roman and Persian empire at their greatest heights combined. They ruled from Spain in the west to the wall of China in the east. And history will remember this as the ‘Arab Empire’, the civilization of Islam. An era of intellectual pursuit, science and education developed. And it was the Ummayads who spread this concept of what we would come to know as Islam. Just as the Romans first persecuted Christianity, then adopted it’s noble tenets and spread it, with the the sword where needed, the Ummayads would take a revolution and use that very revolution to rule and manipulate whole populations in the name of a religion that at first brought them down. Jesus’s sermon on the mount and Paul’s letters would prove useful to a dynasty that felt it had the right and duty to rule. So would Muhammad’s words and the actions of his person, whether authentic or fabricated. The essence of these teachings remain inspirational and uplifting, no matter who claims to uphold them. And while they find themselves in alternate positions, the teachings manifest themselves time and again, in the form of religious offshoots and orders, schisms and alternate protesting variations of the generally accepted faith. Shi’ism is the first split that plagued Islam, a political rather than a religious movement, that eventually developed into another faith with it’s own set of practices, beliefs and dogma that would be questioned today by Muhammad, Ali and Hussein in detail. It’s leaders in Iran would be held accountable for imitating the very style of Muawiya or Yazid, as the regime there is guilty of tyranny, falsehood and demonstrating a lack of compassion and tolerance.
Muhammad’s great innovations and social revolution could not be stifled. In fact, the Ummayads recognized this, and did what they could to undermine and usurp the great man’s philosophy for their own agenda. Non Muslims pay a tax rather than get force converted? A brilliant way to collect revenues for the state. But discrimination was the order of the day: you can practice your faith, but not too loudly, keep the bells at a minimum, and the chants of the monks quiet. Don’t repair churches and synagogues if they fall into disrepair. Other conquerors of the day forced everyone to adopt the faith of the conquerors. Muslims saw a chance to finance their conquests. While there were enlightened emirs who followed an equitable rule, based on the teahings of early Islam, most followed the way of the Ummayad conquerors.
But the real Islam, the living, practicing, and sharing Islam finally died at Karbala. The dream of the time died at Karbala. The tolerance of sharing with Christians and Jews rather than use them as revenue came to an end. The freedom and respect given and demonstrated to women too, died. The Ummayads would have no part of Muhammad’s feminism. Women were for the pleasure and service of man, period. Compassion, equality, the feeling of humbleness towards God and his creation died on that hot plain in Iraq centuries ago. The idea that a ‘religion is good for the soul, but good government for the people’, a saying of Ali ibn Abu Talib, remained in the books but not in the soulful practice, as the ulema became powerful and influential in Islamic civilization, causing it to crumble one day like a piece of halvah. The love for the people of the book, the deep mystical inderstanding and acknowledgement of their scriptures as coming from the same God, the equity towards one fellow beings, the dream that was Muhammad’s revelation from God to Man, was lost at Karbala. The secrets were lost, then found again through the centuries, as people such as the Sufis searched within the text of the Quran for meaning and inspiration, only to unveil more tyranny and injustice in the state, as the likes of Mansur al Hallaj and others were put to death for speaking their own secret and revealing the words of light that were extinguished on that hot, bloody Ashura day.
The human dignity demonstrated by the lives of Ali, Hussein and those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom and righteousness, their fight against religious extremism and hypocrisy, continues to inspire us to this day. When we begin to understand the tragedy of Karbala and it’s implications, we can begin to understand the problems we see within Islam today, and hopefully we will eventually find a way to separate the facts from the created fiction, much of which has come down to us as what we acknowledge as ‘religion’ and dogma. We must be ready to sacrifice our tendency to devotional beliefs that we, in our heart of hearts question. This is what Hussein had to do, and would advise us to do. He had to forfeit his life so that we would have an example of true bravery and courage. Is it too much to ask of us to stand up for the truth in our comfortable lives today?
On the plain so hot and dry
There died heroes who reasoned not, nor why
They were called to stand for truth
Though cut down in the prime of youth
A thought, a memory of the dream of a man
A return to mercy amid strife in the land
When evil takes a turn for worse
With greedy hands in wallet and purse
Making the claim to God’s own path
While deceiving masses with cruelty and wrath
Usurp the claim, lie through the teeth
A dynasty of hate they would bequeath
Lest one stands strong and oppose their way
To block the demon in his disguise, oh say…
Have you seen him lead the prayer and call
The faithful to believe in no faith at all?
Through his cunning and fearful cry
To this day we suffer that dreadful sigh
In a palace, Damascus, Satan’s own
Grinding men to dust and bone
But the son of Haidar would not be still
He knew it not his fate, but rather God’s very will
And so he went up to Karbala plain
The place where soil lacks the rain
And watered the Earth with blood and tears
And relieved us our tensions and delivered us our fears
Shown to us, evil must be fought
Whatever the cost, whatever is brought
Silence is servitude, action the rule
When fighting God’s enemy, who teaches the fool
That love, compassion and tolerance are meek
Mere words that flow from the tongues of the weak
But noble is the lover of the Lord
Who stands in the way of such dismal accord
And fights with his last ounce of courage and breath
To set example before his death
That those who lie may live some years
But how to live ‘mid slavery and fears
When the word of God has touch one’s soul
He expects of us to live up to that role
So honor the heroes of that Ashura day
Whom to manifest hypocrisy, they would cry ‘nay’!
Who died to honor a forgotten dream
The vision of a Prophet, to all would it seem
A message of hope, a stance we must take
Whenever confronted by liar and fake
So rise, oh Muslim, the enemy is within
Our house, our ummah, our leaders in sin
Who, like Yazid, call for our demise
By teaching us falsehood, deceit and lies
This can’t be Islam, this can’t be the way
This cannot be what the Prophet did say
So know this, heirs of Muawiya from afar
We stand against you, in our hands is ‘Zulfiqar’
United in love and faith, humanity will toil
To free all souls from hypocrisy’s spoil
Taking our lead from those who died that day
When righteousness was put to the sword
On that hot, dusty plain…Karbala