Imam Hussain at Ashura: victory in defeat


Ashura and the Martyrdom of Imam Hussain is perhaps one of the most outstanding incidents of the history of Islam. The importance of the occasion does not seem so much from the incident itself, but from its significance regarding the principle beliefs and practices of Islam as demonstrated by none other than the most noble and devout of all Muslims, Hussain ibne Ali.

In order to comprehend fully the significance and righteousness of Imam Hussain’s struggle, it is necessary to take a brief look at the prevailing circumstances and the chain of events that culminated in the epic of Karbala.

The root of the differences between Imam Hussain and Yazid ibne Muawiyah can be traced back several generations, to their great-grandfathers dispute over the guardianship of the Ka’ba.

With the prophetic appointment of Muhammad (SAW) and the spreading of his message throughout the Arabian peninsula, the jealousy of the Bani Umayyad clan towards the Bani Hashem, the Prophet’s descendants, found new dimensions, and Abu Sufyan, the elder of the Umayyad clan, after years of enmity and animosity, finally embraced Islam; yet not as a matter of faith so much as on the basis of political considerations. Islam had gained so much power and acceptance that opposing it would have meant nothing less than the annihilation of the Umayyad’s. The alternative was to join the faith and divert the movement from within towards their personal goals and ambitions. To this end the Bani Hashem were a continuous obstacle to the power schemes of the Umayyad’s.

By the time Muawiyah, the son of Abu Sufyan and the father of Yazid died, he had secured his clan and his son relatively stable and elaborate power structure. Yazid inherited a structure that was diametrically opposed to the preaching’s and practices of Islam, and led the way towards the re-establishment of ignorance. The very fact that the leadership was inherited was contrary to Islamic belief and principles, be it Sunni or Shia. The re-establishment of a court modeled along the lines of the Roman or Persian empires, accumulation of wealth by individuals and their followers of what belonged to the Muslim nation and total disregard for the principles of Islam in search of worldly pleasures were characteristics of the structure left by Muawiyah.

Yazid the Dishonorable

Yazid himself was a man of low morals standards: a drunkard, womanizer, and a slave to worldly pleasures, he was not the person to guide the faith of Muhammad and the words of Allah to the four corners of the world. It is said that Yazid said: “If drinking wine is prohibited in the religion of Muhammad, then I drink it in the name of Christianity.” The son did not even have the father’s foresight. Though Muawiyah committed many atrocities and murdered many of the great Islamic leaders, he always maintained a pious façade. Yazid, confident of his inheritance, did away with pretensions and clearly demonstrate the un-godly nature of Abu Sufyan’s descendants.


Ashura and the Martyrdom of Imam Hussain is perhaps one

of the mostoutstanding incidents of thehistory of Islam.

The only obstacles to Yazid’s total domination were a few governors and leaders who had not pledged allegiance to his domain, the greatest of whom was Hussain, the son of Ali and Fatima, the grandson of the Messenger himself, What distinguished Imam Hussain’s refusal to pledge fealty with Yazid from the others was not jealousy for power or the desire for leader ship; rather it was to stop the diversion of Islam and reinvigorate all the principles propagated by the Prophet Muhammad and Ali in his footsteps.

In the year 60 after Hijra, Yazid decided to force an oath allegiance upon those who had not pledged fealty to him. He wrote a letter to Walid ibne Atbah, governor of Medina to obtain this covenant from Hussain ibne Ali, Abdullah ibne Umar, and Abdullah ibne Zubair. He was to kill them if they refused. The governor sent for the Imam and ibne Zubair, and asked for their, compliance. The request was not accepted by Imam Hussain on several grounds. He said he would not make such a pledge secretly, and if they were to hold such a meeting, it had to be in public and participated in by all. Right after this incident, he repeated his refusal to Marwan ibne Hakam that: “One has to forget about Islam whenever a person such as Yazid is to be its leader; beside, I have heard my grandfather, Muhammad (SAW) say: “The caliphate is forbidden to the descendants of Abu Sufyan.””

As a result of pressures and the mounting tensions, the Imam could not remain in Medina without taking a pledge contrary to his beliefs. He therefore left Medina and arrived in Mecca at Sha’ban 3 of the year 60 AH. The news of Imam Hussain’s resistance spread to other cities and the people of Kufa wrote him many letters inviting him to their city, promising allegiance to him.

Hussain’s Presence a Threat

In the meantime, Yazid dispatched another group to Medina to either capture the Imam and take him to Yazid’s court or murder him. Yazid was fearful of Imam Hussain traveling from one city to another. Darkness reigns where there is no light and ignorance prevails where no guidance can wake the consciousness of the people. Imam Hussain was the guiding light of Islam and his presence in the cities would seriously endanger the reign of Yazid.

Having received the invitation from Kufa, the Imam sent Muslim Ibne Aqeel, his trusted cousin, to Kufa on a fact-finding mission; after Muslim’s letter of assurance, he decided to depart Mecca for Kufa. The Imam knew of Yazid’s plans to capture or murder him during the hajj ceremonies; thus he performed the ceremonies of umrah (lesser pilgrimage) and started towards Kufa, a city in Iraq.

Many friends and relatives of Hussain pleaded with him not to go to Kufa, and instead stay away from the major cities and issue messages, His brother Muhammad ibne Hanafiyah had advised him to travel to Yemen, where the people were hospitable and the surroundings safe. Many warned the Imam that Ibne Ziyad (the governor of Kufa) would instigate strife against him, and that the people of Kufa would change their position and conspire against him. Yet so many letters had arrived and so many pledges had been made that the Imam had no alternative but to rush to their aid. Although he could have gone to Yemen, as Martyr Motahhari says: “If Imam Hussain had disregarded the invitation of Kufa, the same people who are here now would question his action.” Imam Hussain must have felt a responsibility to history. How could the rejection of a people’s invitation be justified in the face of a suspicion?

Imam’s Premonition

According to some hadiths, the Imam already knew of his fate, and was aware of his own martyrdom. In fact, not pledging an oath with Yazid would mean his death, and going to Kufa also meant the clears possibility of martyrdom. The counsel of his advisors was meant to save his life without compelling him to take the oath. But survival was never a factor in the Imam’s decisions, as martyrdom meant eternal bliss next to his holy ancestors. The question was one of inspiration. What was required was to motivate the Muslims to rise and not fear repression, to set an example, to light a fire whose blaze would burn the structure of oppression that was instituted by Muawiyah and his son Yazid, and was contrary to every Islamic belief. Life was not more significant than the inspiration that the death of Hussain would bring to those living. A holy decision, free of the ambition of heroism, considering only the welfare of Islam and salvation of the Muslim people.

Shortly after the Imam began his journey towards Kufa, he was informed of Muslim ibne Aqeel’s murder by Abdullah ibne Ziyad. Other messengers were telling him that, “You own the people’s heart and the Umayyad’s their swords.” The Imam, however, was resolute in his mission.

Ibne Ziyad Knew of Imam Hussain’s nearing Kufa, and sent an army of 1,000 to stop him. The army reached the Imam, hungry and thirsty. Imam Hussain gave them water and, knowing fully well the reason for their presence, once again proved his holiness.

In the arguments that followed between the Imam and Hurr ibne Yazid Riyahi, commander of the army, Hurr refused to allow the Imam passage, The Imam, in response, proposed death or the right to passage because of the invitations from the people of Kufa. Hurr, reluctant to murder the descendant of the Prophet, proposed moving to a third destination until he could consult his superiors. The Imam’s caravan, closely pursued by Hurr’s army, began towards a destination known as Karbala, where the epic was to reach its tragic end. A day later, 4,000 new troops, led by Omar Sa’ad, arrived and once again the proposal for an oath was put forward to the Imam. The reply was: “My capitulation is impossible. The worst they can inflict upon me is death, glory be upon death.” This heavy response cause an uproar and Ibne Ziyad ordered Omar Sa’ad to deny the Imam access to water.

Shimar Appears

In the meantime, Omar Sa’ad and the Imam held nightly discussions, the result of which was a letter to Ziyad from Omar asking for some sort of concession to prevent bloodshed. Although Ziyad at first accepted the proposal, Shimar ibne Zil Joshan convinced him that once Hussain had gone, Yazid would never again be able to set hands on him. Yazid had to obtain the oath of fealty or else kill Hussain and free himself of his opposition.

Shimar was dispatched to the scene and following talks with Omar Sa’ad, their army, began to advance towards the Imam’s camp. The Imam requested one day of grace to pray to Allah and ask for forgiveness and salvation. During this time, as the Imam had made it clear, none of the companions were forced to stay. They were given the alternative to leave, as only Hussain was the subject of concern and the rest were not to be harmed. Yet all chose to stay.

On the day of Ashura, the Imam and his seventy two companions face an army that was several thousand strong, and a battle that should have ended within an hour took a day, at the end, the Imam and all his companions were martyred; a momentary victory for Yazid, yet not total victory. Having heard of the Imam’s martyrdom, it was not long before the people of Medina revolted.

The martyrdom of the Imam proved what he had advocated all along, that Islam under Yazid’s guidance was only good to be forgotten. No one could imagine the extent of ignorance and revision that was brought into Islam by Abu Sufyan’s children Hussain martyrdom tore into the fabric of doubt, it revealed the very essence of what Islam was not, and where it would be heading under Yazid. Hussain’s martyrdom, his death at Karbala, was a victory for Islam. It was the proof that righteousness prevails and martyrdom is the path to triumph. It set a historical precedent for the Muslims to come and paved the way for selflessness and sacrifice to turn defeat into victory.