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Imam Husain(a.s) ( Grand son of Prophet Muhhamad(sas)) Martyrdom


The following pages are based on a report of an Address which I delivered
in London at an Ashura Majlis on Thursday the 28th May, 1931 (Muharram
1350 A.H.), at the Waldorf Hotel. The report was subsequently corrected
and slightly expanded. The Majlis was a notable gathering, which met at
the invitation of Mr. A. S. M. Anik. Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan, Tiwana,
presided and members of all schools of thought in Islam, as well as non-Muslims,
joined reverently in doing honour to the memory of the great Martyr of
Islam. By its inclusion in the Progressive Islam Pamphlets series, it is
hoped to reach a larger public than were able to be present in person.
Perhaps, also, it may help to strengthen the bonds of brotherly love which
unite all who hold sacred the ideals of brotherhood preached by the Prophet
in his last Sermon.

A. Yusuf Ali.

Imam Husain And His Martyrdom

Sorrow as a Bond of Union

I am going to talk this afternoon about a very solemn subject, the martyrdom
of Imam Husain at Kerbela, of which we are celebrating the anniversary.
As the Chairman has very rightly pointed out, it is one of those wonderful
events in our religious history about which all sects are agreed. More
than that, in this room I have the honour of addressing some people who
do not belong to our religious persuasion, but I venture to think that
the view I put forward today may be of interest to them from its historical,
its moral and its spiritual significance. Indeed, when we consider the
background of that great tragedy, and all that has happened during the
1289 lunar years since, we cannot fail to be convinced that some events
of sorrow and apparent defeat are really the very things which are calculated
to bring about, or lead us towards, the union of humanity.

How Martyrdom healed divisions

When we invite strangers or guests and make them free of our family
circle, that means the greatest outflowing of our hearts to them. The events
that I am going to describe refer to some of the most touching incidents
of our domestic history in their spiritual aspect. We ask our brethren
of other faiths to come, and share with us some of the thoughts which are
called forth by this event. As a matter of fact all students of history
are aware that the horrors that are connected with the great event of Kerbela
did more than anything else to unite together the various contending factions
which had unfortunately appeared at that early stage of Muslim history.
You know the old Persian saying applied to the Prophet:

Tu barae wasl kardan amadi;

Ni barae fasl kardan amadi.

“Thou camest to the world to unite, not to divide.” 
That was wonderfully exemplified by the sorrows and sufferings and finally
the martyrdom of Imam Husain.

Commemoration of great virtues

There has been in our history a tendency sometimes to celebrate the
event merely by wailing and tribulation, or sometimes by symbols like the
that you see in India, – Taboots as some people call them. Well,
symbolism or visible emblems may sometimes be useful in certain circumstances
as tending to crystallize ideas. But I think the Muslims of India of the
present day are quite ready to adopt a more effective way of celebrating
the martyrdom, and that is by contemplating the great virtues of the martyr,
trying to understand the significance of the events in which he took part,
and translating those great moral and spiritual lessons into their own
lives. From that point of view I think you will agree that it is good that
we should sit together, even people of different faiths, – sit together
and consider the great historic event, in which were exemplified such soul-stirring
virtues as those of unshaken faith, undaunted courage, thought for others,
willing self-sacrifice, steadfastness in the right and unflinching war
against the wrong. Islam has a history of beautiful domestic affections,
of sufferings and of spiritual endeavor, second to none in the world.
That side of Muslim history, although to me the most precious, is, I am
sorry to say, often neglected. It is most important that we should call
attention to it, reiterated attention, the attention of our own people
as well as the attention of those who are interested in historical and
religious truth. If there is anything precious in Islamic history it is
not the wars, or the politics, or the brilliant expansion, or the glorious
conquests, or even the intellectual spoils which our ancestors gathered.
In these matters, our history, like all history, has its lights and shades.
What we need especially to emphasise is the spirit of organisation, of
brotherhood, of undaunted courage in moral and spiritual life.

Plan of discourse

I propose first to give you an idea of the geographical setting and
the historical background. Then I want very briefly to refer to the actual
events that happened in the Muharram, and finally to draw your attention
to the great lessons which we can learn from them.

Geographical Picture

In placing before you a geographical picture of the tract of country
in which the great tragedy was enacted, I consider myself fortunate in
having my own personal memories to draw upon. They make the picture vivid
to my mind, and they may help you also. When I visited those scenes in
1928, I remember going down from Baghdad through all that country watered
by the Euphrates river. As I crossed the river by a bridge of boats at
Al-Musaiyib on a fine April morning, my thoughts leapt over centuries and
centuries. To the left of the main river you have the old classic ground
of Babylonian history; you have the railway station of Hilla; you have
the ruins of the city of Babylon, witnessing to one of the greatest civilisations
of antiquity. It was so mingled with the dust that it is only in recent
years that we have begun to understand its magnitude and magnificence.
Then you have the great river system of the Euphrates, the Furat
as it is called, a river unlike any other river we know. It takes its rise
in many sources from the mountains of Eastern Armenia, and sweeping in
great zig-zags through rocky country, it finally skirts the desert as we
see it now. Wherever it or its interlacing branches or canals can reach,
it has converted the desert into fruitful cultivated country; in the picturesque
phrase, it has made the desert blossom as the rose. It skirts round the
Eastern edge of the Syrian desert and then flows into marshy land. In a
tract not far from Kerbela itself there are lakes which receive its waters,
and act as reservoirs. Lower down it unites with the other river, the Tigris,
and the united rivers flow in the name of the Shatt-al-Arab into
the Persian Gulf.

Abundant water & tragedy of thirst

From the most ancient times this tract of the lower Euphrates has been
a garden. It was a cradle of early civilization, a meeting place between
Sumer and Arab, and later between the Persians and Arabs. It is a rich,
well watered country, with date-palms and pomegranate groves. Its fruitful
fields can feed populous cities and its luscious pastures attract the nomad
Arabs of the desert, with their great flocks and herds. It is of particularly
tragic significance that on the border of such a well-watered land, should
have been enacted the tragedy of great and good men dying of thirst and
slaughtered because they refused to bend the knee to the forces of iniquity.
The English poet’s lines “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”
are brought home forcibly to you in this borderland between abundant water
and desolate sands.

Kerbela and Its Great Dome

I remember the emotion with which I approached Kerbela from the East.
The rays of the morning sun gilt the Gumbaz-i-Faiz, the great dome
that crowns the building containing the tomb of Imam Husain. Kerbela actually
stands on one of the great caravan routes of the desert. Today the river
city of Kufa, once a Khilafat capital, is a mere village, and the city
of Najaf is famous for the tomb of Hazrat Ali, but of little commercial
importance. Kerbela, this outpost of the desert, is a mart and a meeting
ground as well as a sacred place. It is the port of the desert, just as
Basra, lower down, is a port for the Persian Gulf. Beautifully kept is
the road to the mausoleum, to which all through the year come pilgrims
from all parts of the world. Beautiful coloured enamelled tiles decorate
the building. Inside, in the ceiling and upper walls, there is a great
deal of glass mosaic. The glass seems to catch and reflect the light. The
effect is that of rich coruscations of light combined with the solemnity
of a closed building. The tomb itself is in a sort of inner grill, and
below the ground is a sort of cave, where is shown the actual place where
the Martyr fell. The city of Najaf is just about 40 miles to the South,
with the tomb of Hazrat Ali on the high ground. You can see the golden
dome for miles around. Just four miles from Najaf and connected with it
by a tramway, is the deserted city of Kufa. The mosque is large, but bare
and practically unused. The blue dome and the Mihrab of enamelled
tiles bear witness to the ancient glory of the place.

Cities and their Cultural Meaning

The building of Kufa and Basra, the two great outposts of the Muslim
Empire, in the 16th year of the Hijra, was a visible symbol that Islam
was pushing its strength and building up a new civilisation, not only in
a military sense, but in moral and social ideas and in the sciences and
arts. The old effete cities did not content it, any more than the old and
effete systems which it displaced. Nor was it content with the first steps
it took. It was always examining, testing, discarding, re-fashioning its
own handiwork. There was always a party that wanted to stand on old ways,
to take cities like Damascus readymade, that loved ease and the path of
least resistance. But the greater souls stretched out to new frontiers
– of ideas as well as geography. They felt that old seats were like dead
wood breeding worms and rottenness that were a danger to higher forms of
life. The clash between them was part of the tragedy of Kerbela. Behind
the building of new cities there is often the burgeoning of new ideas.
Let us therefore examine the matter a little more closely. It will reveal
the hidden springs of some very interesting history.

Vicissitudes of Mecca and Medina

The great cities of Islam at its birth were Mecca and Medina. Mecca,
the center of old Arabian pilgrimage, the birthplace of the Prophet, rejected
the Prophet’s teaching, and cast him off. Its idolatry was effete; its
tribal exclusiveness was effete; its ferocity against the Teacher of the
New Light was effete. The Prophet shook its dust off his feet, and went
to Medina. It was the well-watered city of Yathrib, with a considerable
Jewish population. It received with eagerness the teaching of the Prophet;
it gave asylum to him and his Companions and Helpers. He reconstituted
it and it became the new City of Light. Mecca, with its old gods and its
old superstitions, tried to subdue this new Light and destroy it. The human
odds were in favour of Mecca. But God’s purpose upheld the Light, and subdued
the old Mecca. But the Prophet came to build as well as to destroy. He
destroyed the old paganism, and lighted a new beacon in Mecca – the beacon
of Arab unity and human brotherhood. When the Prophet’s life ended on this
earth, his spirit remained. It inspired his people and led them from victory
to victory. Where moral or spiritual and material victories go hand in
hand, the spirit of man advances all along the line. But sometimes there
is a material victory, with a spiritual fall, and sometimes there is a
spiritual victory with a material fall, and then we have tragedy.

Spirit of Damascus

Islam’s first extension was towards Syria, where the power was centred
in the city of Damascus. Among living cities it is probably the oldest
city in the world. Its bazaars are thronged with men of all nations, and
the luxuries of all nations find ready welcome there. If you come to it
westward from the Syrian desert, as I did, the contrast is complete, both
in the country and in the people. From the parched desert sands you come
to fountains and vineyards, orchards and the hum of traffic. From the simple,
sturdy, independent, frank Arab, you come to the soft, luxurious, sophisticated
Syrian. That contrast was forced on the Muslims when Damascus became a
Muslim city. They were in a different moral and spiritual atmosphere. Some
succumbed to the softening influences of ambition, luxury, wealth pride
of race, love of ease, and so on. Islam stood always as the champion of
the great rugged moral virtues. It wanted no compromise with evil in any
shape or form, with luxury, with idleness, with the seductions of this
world. It was a protest against these things. And yet the representatives
of that protest got softened at Damascus. They aped the decadent princes
of the world instead of striving to be leaders of spiritual thought. Discipline
was relaxed, and governors aspired to be greater than the Khalifas. This
bore bitter fruit later.

Snare of Riches

Meanwhile Persia came within the Muslim orbit. When Medain was captured
in the year 16 of the Hijra, and the battle of Jalula broke the Persian
resistance, some military booty was brought to Medina – gems, pearls, rubies,
diamonds, swords of gold and silver. A great celebration was held in honour
of the splendid victory and the valour of the Arab army. In the midst of
the celebration they found the Caliph of the day actually weeping. One
said to him, “What! a time of joy and thou sheddest tears?” “Yes”, he said,
“I foresee that the riches will become a snare, a spring of worldliness
and envy, and in the end a calamity to my people.” For the Arab valued,
above all, simplicity of life, openness of character, and bravery in face
of danger. Their women fought with them and shared their dangers. They
were not caged creatures for the pleasures of the senses. They showed their
mettle in the early fighting round the head of the Persian Gulf. When the
Muslims were hard pressed, their women turned the scale in their favour.
They made their veils into flags, and marched in battle array. The enemy
mistook them for reinforcements and abandoned the field. Thus an impending
defeat was turned into a victory.

Basra and Kufa: town-planning

In Mesopotamia the Muslims did not base their power on old and effete
Persian cities, but built new outposts for themselves. The first they built
was Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf, in the 17th year of the Hijra.
And what a great city it became! Not great in war and conquest, not great
in trade and commerce, but great in learning and culture in its best day,
– alas! also great in its spirit of faction and degeneracy in the days
of its decline! But its situation and climate were not at all suited to
the Arab character. It was low and moist, damp and enervating. In the same
year the Arabs built another city not far off from the Gulf and yet well
suited to be a port of the desert, as Kerbela became afterwards. This was
the city of Kufa, built in the same year as Basra, but in a more bracing
climate. It was the first experiment in town-planning in Islam. In the
centre was a square for the principal mosque. That square was adorned with
shady avenues. Another square was set apart for the trafficking of the
market. The streets were all laid out intersecting and their width was
fixed. The main thoroughfares for such traffic as they had (we must not
imagine the sort of traffic we see in Charing Cross) were made 60 feet
wide; the cross streets were 30 feet wide; and even the little lanes for
pedestrians were regulated to a width of 10.5 feet. Kufa became a centre
of light and learning. The Khalifa Hazrat Ali lived and died there.

Rivalry and poison of Damascus

But its rival, the city of Damascus, fattened on luxury and Byzantine
magnificence. Its tinsel glory sapped the foundations of loyalty and the
soldierly virtues. Its poison spread through the Muslim world. Governors
wanted to be kings. Pomp and selfishness, ease and idleness and dissipation
grew as a canker; wines and spirituous liquors, scepticism, cynicism and
social vices became so rampant that the protests of the men of God were
drowned in mockery. Mecca, which was to have been a symbolical spiritual
centre, was neglected or dishonoured. Damascus and Syria became centres
of a worldliness and arrogance which cut at the basic roots of Islam.

Husain the Righteous refused to bow to worldliness and power

We have brought the story down to the 60th year of the Hijra. Yazid
assumed the power at Damascus. He cared nothing for the most sacred ideals
of the people. He was not even interested in the ordinary business affairs
of administration. His passion was hunting, and he sought power for self-gratification.
The discipline and self-abnegation, the strong faith and earnest endeavour,
the freedom and sense of social equality which had been the motive forces
of Islam, were divorced from power. The throne at Damascus had become a
worldly throne based on the most selfish ideas of personal and family aggrandisement,
instead of a spiritual office, with a sense of God-given responsibility.
The decay of morals spread among the people. There was one man who could
stem the tide. That was Imam Husain. He, the grandson of the Prophet, could
speak without fear, for fear was foreign to his nature. But his blameless
and irreproachable life was in itself a reproach to those who had other
standards. They sought to silence him, but he could not be silenced. They
sought to bribe him, but he could not be bribed. They sought to waylay
him and get him into their Power. What is more, they wanted him to recognise
the tyranny and expressly to support it. For they knew that the conscience
of the people might awaken at any time, and sweep them away unless the
holy man supported their cause. The holy man was prepared to die rather
than surrender the principles for which he stood.

Driven from city to city

Medina was the centre of Husain’s teaching. They made Medina impossible
for him. He left Medina and went to Mecca, hoping that he would be left
alone. But he was not left alone. The Syrian forces invaded Mecca. The
invasion was repelled, not by Husain but by other people. For Husain, though
the bravest of the brave, had no army and no worldly weapons. His existence
itself was an offence in the eyes of his enemies. His life was in danger,
and the lives of all those nearest and dearest to him. He had friends everywhere,
but they were afraid to speak out. They were not as brave as he was. But
in distant Kufa, a party grew up which said: “We are disgusted with these
events, and we must have Imam Husain to take asylum with us.” So they sent
and invited the Imam to leave Mecca, come to them, live in their midst,
and be their honoured teacher and guide. His father’s memory was held in
reverence in Kufa. The Governor of Kufa was friendly, and the people eager
to welcome him. But alas, Kufa had neither strength, nor courage, nor constancy.
Kufa, geographically only 40 miles from Kerbela, was the occasion of the
tragedy of Kerbela. And now Kufa is nearly gone, and Kerbela remains as
the lasting memorial of the martyrdom.

Invitation from Kufa

When the Kufa invitation reached the Imam, he pondered over it, weighed
its possibilities, and consulted his friends. He sent over his cousin Muslim
to study the situation on the spot and report to him. The report was favourable,
and he decided to go. He had a strong presentiment of danger. Many of his
friends in Mecca advised him against it. But could he abandon his mission
Kufa was calling for it? Was he the man to be deterred, because his enemies
were laying their plots for him, at Damascus and at Kufa? At least, it
was suggested, he might leave his family behind. But his family and his
immediate dependants would not hear of it. It was a united family, pre-eminent
in the purity of its life and in its domestic virtues and domestic affections.
If there was danger for its head, they would share it. The Imam was not
going on a mere ceremonial visit. There was responsible work to do, and
they must be by his side, to support him in spite of all its perils and
consequences. Shallow critics scent political ambition in the Imam’s act.
But would a man with political ambitions march without an army against
what might be called the enemy country, scheming to get him into its power,
and prepared to use all their resources, military, political and financial,
against him?

Journey through the desert

Imam Husain left Mecca for Kufa with all his family including his little
children. Later news from Kufa itself was disconcerting. The friendly governor
had been displaced by one prepared more ruthlessly to carry out Yazid’s
plans. If Husain was to go there at all, he must go there quickly, or his
friends themselves would be in danger. On the other hand, Mecca itself
was no less dangerous to him and his family. It was the month of September
by the solar calendar, and no one would take a long desert journey in that
heat, except under a sense of duty. By the lunar calendar it was the month
of pilgrimage at Mecca. But he did not stop for the pilgrimage. He pushed
on, with his family and dependants, in all numbering about 90 or 100 people,
men, women and children. They must have gone by forced marches through
the desert. They covered the 900 miles of the desert in little over three
weeks. When they came within a few miles of Kufa, at the edge of the desert,
they met people from Kufa. It was then that they heard of the terrible
murder of Husain’s cousin Muslim, who had been sent on in advance. A poet
that came by dissuaded the Imam from going further. “For,” he said epigramatically,
“the heart of the city is with thee but its sword is with thine enemies,
and the issue is with God.” What was to be done? They were three weeks’
journey from the city they had left. In the city to which they were going
their own messenger had been foully murdered as well as his children. They
did not know what the actual situation was then in Kufa. But they were
determined not to desert their friends.

Call to Surrender or Die

Presently messengers came from Kufa, and Imam Husain was asked to surrender.
Imam Husain offered to take one of three alternatives. He wanted no political
power and no revenge. He said “I came to defend my own people. If I am
too late, give me the choice of three alternatives: either to return to
Mecca; or to face Yazid himself at Damascus; or if my very presence is
distasteful to him and you, I do not wish to cause more divisions among
the Muslims. Let me at least go to a distant frontier, where, if fighting
must be done, I will fight against the enemies of Islam.” Every one of
these alternatives was refused. What they wanted was to destroy his life,
or better still, to get him to surrender, to surrender to the very forces
against which he was protesting, to declare his adherence to those who
were defying the law of God and man, and to tolerate all the abuses which
were bringing the name of Islam into disgrace. Of course he did not surrender.
But what was he to do? He had no army. He had reasons to suppose that many
of his friends from distant parts would rally round him, and come and defend
him with their swords and bodies. But time was necessary, and he was not
going to gain time by feigned compliance. He turned a little round to the
left, the way that would have led him to Yazid himself, at Damascus. He
camped in the plain of Kerbela.

Water cut off; Inflexible will, Devotion and Chivalry

For ten days messages passed backwards and forwards between Kerbela
and Kufa. Kufa wanted surrender and recognition. That was the one thing
the Imam could not consent to. Every other alternative was refused by Kufa,
under the instructions from Damascus. Those fateful ten days were the first
ten days of the month of Muharram, of the year 61 of the Hijra. The final
crisis was on the 10th day, the Ashura day, which we are commemorating.
During the first seven days various kinds of pressure were brought to bear
on the Imam, but his will was inflexible. It was not a question of a fight,
for there were but 70 men against 4,000. The little band was surrounded
and insulted, but they held together so firmly that they could not be harmed.
On the 8th day the water supply was cut off. The Euphrates and its abundant
streams were within sight, but the way was barred. Prodigies of valour
were performed in getting water. Challenges were made for single combat
according to Arab custom. And the enemy were half-hearted, while the Imam’s
men fought in contempt of death, and always accounted for more men than
they lost. On the evening of the 9th day, the little son of the Imam was
ill. He had fever and was dying of thirst. They tried to get a drop of
water. But that was refused point blank and so they made the resolve that
they would, rather than surrender, die to the last man in the cause for
which they had come. Imam Husain offered to send away his people. He said,
“They are after my person; my family and my people can go back.” But everyone
refused to go. They said they would stand by him to the last, and they
did. They were not cowards; they were soldiers born and bred; and they
fought as heroes, with devotion and with chivalry.

The Final Agony; placid face of the man of God

On the day of Ashura, the 10th day, Imam Husain’s own person was surrounded
by his enemies. He was brave to the last. He was cruelly mutilated. His
sacred head was cut off while in the act of prayer. A mad orgy of triumph
was celebrated over his body. In this crisis we have details of what took
place hour by hour. He had 45 wounds from the enemies’ swords and javelins,
and 35 arrows pierced his body. His left arm was cut off, and a javelin
pierced through his breast. After all that agony, when his head was lifted
up on a spear, his face was the placid face of a man of God. All the men
of that gallant band were exterminated and their bodies trampled under
foot by the horses. The only male survivor was a child, Husain’s son Ali,
surnamed Zain-ul-‘Abidin – “The Glory of the Devout.” He lived in retirement,
studying, interpreting, and teaching his father’s high spiritual principles
for the rest of his life.

Heroism of the Women

There were women: for example, Zainab the sister of the Imam, Sakina
his little daughter, and Shahr-i-Banu, his wife, at Kerbela. A great deal
of poetic literature has sprung up in Muslim languages, describing the
touching scenes in which they figure. Even in their grief and their tears
they are heroic. They lament the tragedy in simple, loving, human terms.
But they are also conscious of the noble dignity of their nearness to a
life of truth reaching its goal in the precious crown of martyrdom. One
of the best-known poets of this kind is the Urdu poet Anis, who lived in
Lucknow, and died in 1874.

Lesson of the Tragedy

That briefly is the story. What is the lesson? There is of course the
physical suffering in martyrdom, and all sorrow and suffering claim our
sympathy, —- the dearest, purest, most outflowing sympathy that we can
give. But there is a greater suffering than physical suffering. That is
when a valiant soul seems to stand against the world; when the noblest
motives are reviled and mocked; when truth seems to suffer an eclipse.
It may even seem that the martyr has but to say a word of compliance, do
a little deed of non-resistance; and much sorrow and suffering would be
saved; and the insidious whisper comes: “Truth after all can never die.”
That is perfectly true. Abstract truth can never die. It is independent
of man’s cognition. But the whole battle is for man’s keeping hold of truth
and righteousness. And that can only be done by the highest examples of
man’s conduct – spiritual striving and suffering enduring firmness of faith
and purpose, patience and courage where ordinary mortals would give in
or be cowed down, the sacrifice of ordinary motives to supreme truth in
scorn of consequence. The martyr bears witness, and the witness redeems
what would otherwise be called failure. It so happened with Husain. For
all were touched by the story of his martyrdom, and it gave the deathblow
to the politics of Damascus and all it stood for. And Muharram has still
the power to unite the different schools of thought in Islam, and make
a powerful appeal to non-Muslims also.

Explorers of Spiritual Territory

That, to my mind, is the supreme significance of martyrdom. All human
history shows that the human spirit strives in many directions, deriving
strength and sustenance from many sources. Our bodies, our physical powers,
have developed or evolved from earlier forms, after many struggles and
defeats. Our intellect has had its martyrs, and our great explorers have
often gone forth with the martyrs’ spirit. All honor to them. But the
highest honor must still lie with the great explorers of spiritual territory,
those who faced fearful odds and refused to surrender to evil. Rather than
allow a stigma to attach to sacred things, they paid with their own lives
the penalty of resistance. The first kind of resistance offered by the
Imam was when he went from city to city, hunted about from place to place,
but making no compromise with evil. Then was offered the choice of an effectual
but dangerous attempt at clearing the house of God, or living at ease for
himself by tacit abandonment of his striving friends. He chose the path
of danger with duty and honor, and never swerved from it giving up his
life freely and bravely. His story purifies our emotions. We can best honor
his memory by allowing it to teach us courage and constancy.

The End


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