Martyrdom in various cultures

By: Dr.  S. Manzoor Rizvi

The purpose of this essay is to share with our fellow human beings, what we consider one of the ultimate and unique sacrifices in the history of civilization, which is the martyrdom of a man known as Hussain. Thomas Carlyle says this about Imam Hussain who was the grandson of the last Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, “The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Hussain and his companions were the rigid believers of God. They illustrated that numerical superiority does not count when it comes to truth and falsehood. The victory of Hussain despite his minority marvels me!”

The term martyrdom is defined as someone who suffers persecution and death for advocating a cause or refusing to renounce a personal belief as demanded by an external party. In the case of Imam Hussain, as we will explain further later, the tyrant of his time Yazid wanted the basic human rights of speech, religion and action to be trampled by force, coercion, bribery or murder so that the person becomes a mere slave, void of any emotions or desires, instead of a free human being with the free will to do as he or she pleases.

In the State of New Hampshire, the official motto is ‘Live Free or Die’ which you will also find on their license plates as well.  This perhaps best conveys the foundation of the American political philosophy on which this nation was founded. Man has always sought the freedom to live, to choose, to say what he wishes to say and adhere to the religious teachings that he or she is comfortable with. And from a religious point, this freedom is a gift from God that no mortal can snatch away legally, morally or religiously.

During a General Audience on August 11th, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI stated, “I would then like to reflect briefly on martyrdom, a form of total love for God. On what is martyrdom founded? Where does the strength to face martyrdom come from? From a deep and intimate union with Christ, because martyrdom and vocation are not a result of human effort but a response to a project and to a call of God. They are a gift of His Grace that enables a person, out of love, to give his life for the church hence for the world.” And this is exactly what Imam Hussain stood for. He sacrificed everything for the love of God and His creation, and to remind the community that freedom – freedom of all be it speech or religion — is their birthright regardless.

We find the concept of Martyrdom in every religion, be it Hinduism, Judaism, the Baha’i faith, Christianity, Sikhism or the Chinese culture.

In Islam, a martyr is termed with the Arabic word Shaheed or the one who performed or experienced martyrdom. This word appears in the Quran in a variety of contexts, including witnessing to righteousness, witnessing a financial transaction and being killed in the way of Islam, for the sake of God. Islam views a martyr as a man or woman who dies while engaging in a self-defense struggle or jihad whether it is on battlefield which is known as the lesser struggle. The other fight or struggle is the one from within or internally where one struggles with his or her own desires to improve him or herself. This last one is called the greater struggle and holds more weight than the one fought on the battle. Islam has placed great emphasis on this internal jihad.

Some notable martyrs besides Hussain (c. 680) that we will find in history include St. Stephen (c. 34) who is considered to be the first Christian martyr; the Ten Martyrs of Judaism (c.2nd CE); St. Sebastian (c. 288AD), the subject of many works of art; St. Agnes of Rome (c. 304) beheaded for refusing to forsake her devotion to Christ and for Roman paganism; Jan Hus (1415), a Christian reformer burned at the stake for heresy; Thomas More (1535), beheaded for refusing to acknowledge Henry V111 as the supreme head of the Church of England; Guru Arjan. Dev (1606), the fifth leader of Sikhism, Guru Tej Bahadur (1675), the ninth guru of Sikhism, for the religious freedom of the Hindus among many – many others who have made their marks on the annals of history.

Let us now reflect upon some of these martyrs and their courageous words that still echo today and resonate with the human mind and soul.

The final words of Nathan Hale, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country!” One will also find these words ringing from the companions of Imam Hussain who bravely committed themselves for the cause valiantly stating to Hussain that even if they are killed, brought alive, and killed again 70 times, they still would not forsake him or their pledge to truth.

The Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Archbishop of Mosul in northern Iraq was kidnapped and executed by terrorist who claim to be representatives of Islam. These barbarians do not seem to be aware of the law that Prophet Muhammad had strictly laid down, i.e. specifically prohibiting for any reason, the killing or even the inuring of children, women, the elderly and priests. Along with this law, the burning of trees and the poisoning of water was strongly condemned by Prophet Muhammad.

If we compare this, as the legend goes, with when the beheaded body of Imam Hussain was passing through a certain town, one of the Priests from a road-side church noted some brightness emerging from his face. Upon inquiry, he understood it to be the head of a Prophet’s grandson. As a result, he carefully took it with great honor and prayed all night. He returned the severed head to the army the next morning.

The girl known as Manche Masemola from Pedi Tribe of South Africa, was martyred due to her beliefs at the tender age of 14 or 15 by burying her under a granite rock.

Comparing this to Imam Hussain, he took his family with him when he was compelled to leave his hometown. There were about forty children in the beginning. But when the caravan returned to Medina about a year later, it is said that no children were left.

Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople who was from a small village in Greece, became the Patriarch, and during his third reign, the Greek Revolution of 1821 broke out. After the first mass of Easter Day ended, Patriarch Gregory was arrested, declared ousted, arrested and hung in front of the main gate of the Patriarchate where he remained there for three days as sign of humiliation.

Imam Hussain dispatched his cousin to Koofa a city in Iraq, to determine a safe haven. However, his cousin was arrested and murdered with his body hung at the main market for months. After Imam Hussain and his 72 comrades were murdered in Karbala, Iraq, all the bodies were trampled under the hooves of horses to be humiliated, and then left under the scorching sun on the hot sand. Their heads were then severed and raised on spears, and finally taken to Damascus which was then the capital of Yazid where it was paraded through the market.

Athanasios Diakos was a Greek hero from the Greek War of Independence, fought with the Turks with his 1500 soldiers. He was eventually defeated and captured by the Ottomans. He was offered a high position in the Ottoman Army. But he refused saying, “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek”.

After Yazid became the unlawful Caliph, he decreed to the Governor of Medina where Hussain was residing to ask him for allegiance, otherwise simply send his head. Imam Hussain famous words in response were, “People like me do not pay allegiance to a person like Yazid”. There is general acceptance amongst the historians that had Imam Hussain paid allegiance to Yazid, he would as a result have lived a very peaceful and luxurious life. But it would come at a great price and a human cost to it. Allegiance at that time meant the total sale of one’s soul and existence, the total surrender to the actions and whims of the ruler. Imam Hussain was a religious leader abiding by morality and human conscience. His consent and allegiance was desperately needed by Yazid to legitimize his rule of law. Yazid on the other hand represented the suppression of human rights and the human soul.

What were some of the major atrocities of Yazid? Yazid did not have any sense of good versus evil, morality versus impiety. Incest was common, unlawful arrests and harassment on whims was common while cold-blooded killings based only on hearsay and suspicion was the rule of the day with the promotion of state terrorism being a daily affair. It was entirely a rule of the jungle that Imam Hussain had to stand up against as Yazid was misinterpreting and maligning what true Islam really stood for. There was no human dignity, no honor of life and no freedom of speech or action left for any citizens. What the ruler said, despite clearly going against religion and humanity, was what formed the basis of the law. In fact, it is safe to compare the rule of Yazid with the rule of the so-called Islamic State by ISIS today which has nothing to do with humanity let alone any religion.

Bhagat Singh was one of the great freedom fighters in India against the British Empire. At first, Bhagat Singh was involved in the peaceful movement of Gandhi. But later, witnessing some of the tactics by the Empire, he rejected the philosophy of non-violence, and joined the youth movement. He was arrested and sentenced to death for the alleged bombing of the General Legislative Assembly.

Imam Hussain based on his religious principles and ideas, also avoided to engage in any fight as much as possible. On his way to Karbala, his caravan was finally stopped by a commander Hurr with a 1000 strong men who were sent by Yazid. Imam Hussain’s men urged him to fight this small group. But his reply was strong, clear and convincing, “We do not and will not start any war.” On the day of his martyrdom, when the fighting commenced, a Commander of Yazid threw the first arrow, saying to his army “Bear witness that I am the first to throw the arrow at Hussain.’

Socrates was one of the greatest philosopher and also one of the most glorious martyrs of his time. Socrates was accused of openly disrespecting God and corrupting the Greek youths. He was sentenced to death as a result but remained in jail since the law did not allow any death penalty to take place before the ending of the sacred celebrations of Dilos. During this time, his students offered him opportunities to escape but he refused and waited for his death by drinking some poison.

When Imam Hussain made his decision to leave Medina to avoid any bloodshed, after refusing the allegiance of Yazid, people pleaded to him not to leave Medina. He was also offered to hide in the mountains till the time changed. But Hussain left Medina telling the people that he is reluctantly leaving behind his hometown to establish the goodness and truth, and to denounce the evil for the sake of God.

Vladimir Bogoyavlensky became the Archbishop of Kartalin and Kahetin, and later selected for Metropolita of Moscow & Kolomna. He was loved by everyone because of his notable concern for the widows, orphans, the poor and the alcoholics. He was the first bishop to be tortured and murdered by the Communists during Bolshevik Revolution. His last words were, “May God forgive you.”

During the eight days that Imam Hussain was blocked in Karbala, he would set out to meet Yazid’s Commander in the opposing tents to come up with an amicable solution and to avoid any bloodshed. On the last day, the day when he was surrounded and murdered, Hussain once again as a final resort went towards the enemy army on his horse, after the morning prayers. He questioned them directly, asking them why they were after his blood, if he had ever harmed them, hurt them or deceived them, or caused any discomfort. The army of course was dumbfounded as they could not come up with a single legitimate reason. When the soldier wanted to severe Hussain’s head, he heard him whispering, “Oh God, I have fulfilled my promise you, please fulfill yours (i.e. save my community).

The Souliot Women. On top of the hills of Zalongo Mountains, there was a desperate mass suicide of Souliot women, during the Battles of the Ottoman forces against the Greek rebellion of Souli. They died through the Dance of Zalongo to avoid being captured and enslavement. This is a very sad story of these brave and self-respecting women, and we don’t have the heart to compare it with anything. We are reminded of the unfortunate incident with the Kurdish females who are forced to be sex slaves by the ISIS militants that is taking place in today’s advanced times. There is no moral, religious or legal basis to any ill-treatment whatsoever towards women in any way regardless.

Imam Hussain was a statesman in addition to being a religious leader. He knew well that similar to how the Message of God was being blatantly distorted while he was alive, the reasons for his revolution and stand would too, be deliberately distorted by these barbarians after he was killed who claimed to be the representatives of Islam which could not be farther from the truth.

That is the reason, he took his family and children with him, and just as he predicted, the reasons were indeed distorted. After all of his companion were murdered including his six month old son who he took to battlefield to ask for some water as he was dying of hunger and thirst, but instead they silenced the baby with an arrow, the camps were put on fire. There was one male survivor who could not fight as he was ill. The enemy did not realize this until it was too late. The next morning, the tortured, thirsty and hungry family were arrested, shackled and marched to Damascus, the capital of Syria to the Court of Yazid, a painful and devastating journey of many miles. Upon arriving at the City, they waited for hours at the main gate, till they were finally presented in the court.

Yazid had a very vast empire extending to the borders of India and Rome, with the entire middle area including Persia, Afghanistan and present day parts of Russia. His court was decorated with silver, gold and diamonds. There were, as history indicates some 700 dignitaries. The prisoners were summoned. Yazid demanded to know where the sister of Hussain was in the group of prisoners. She slowly stood up. Yazid asked her if she realized what happened to her brother for not listening to him. She was defiant as she too was from the same family raised with ethics and principles, boldly replied, “Nothing has happened to my brother. He was a righteous man, he fought for his God, for the rights of human beings, fought splendidly like a man, defending his ideals and religion and was martyred. He is glorified while you are a murderer, now waiting for your own fate.” Yazid realized he was insulted by a woman in front of these dignitaries. Yazid then turned his attention to the young man he noticed, and who was her nephew. He was handcuffed and shackled. Yazid asked him as to who won. Was it his father or he? The son replied to wait and see if God’s name reigned in the world, if human dignity was maintained with human rights, then his father had won. Otherwise, if not, then Yazid won.

Now let us turn to the great John the Baptist. He of course, is one of the most distinctive individuals in the New Testament. People could not resist the overpowering truth of his words, as they flocked just to hear him. Is spite of this attention from the crowd, he never lost sight of his mission to call for God. He was eventually beheaded by the king. As the legend goes, the king wanted to marry his own niece. She was also in love with him. She placed the condition of marriage with the head of John the Baptist.

Yazid was also changing the law of God, the law of nature. For him, nothing was forbidden in his religion. He could marry a sister if he so desired or any immoral acts for that matter. Imam Hussain gave his life to preserve the law of nature, the laws of God and the norms of life while ensuring the free will of man. The story of Hussain, his martyrdom along with the martyrdom of his companions, and even his children and his friends displays a glorious example of righteousness against evil. He was a light in the darkness, a voice of God for all God-fearing human being, and a beacon of morality. Hussain set about an example of sacrifice for God and in the name of God for the betterment of humanity at large. He showed his immense love for God and his care for the human beings. He dedicated his life for the self-respect and dignity of life. He showed the world, the road to benevolence and nonviolence. He showed the world how a small army may lose the battle but over time, win the war in the long run. His honesty, truthfulness and dedication has amazed and inspired people over time.

During his journey to Karbala, Hussain woke up suddenly one day. His 18 years old son noticed this and asked if he was okay. Hussain replied that he dreamt someone announcing that this caravan is going forward while death was following them. The son asked his father if they were on the right path. Imam Hussain replied affirmatively.  His son said then replied back that then it does not matter if death comes to us or we go towards death. This was the training of Imam Hussain. Hurr who intercepted Hussain on his way and forced him to Karbala, was aware of who Hussain was and his family. Though he was a commander in Yazid’s army, he did not realize till later that Yazid’s intention was to eliminate Hussain and his mission. Upon finding out, Hurr along with his son and brother immediately left Yazid’s Army, and went over to the side of Hussain. Hur repented and was pardoned by Hussain, and ended up fighting for him.

Hussain’s passion, ethics and truthfulness of purpose was evident from his every gesture and words. After he reached Karbala, a small caravan of Christians was passing by which included a mother, her son and his newly-wedded wife. The mother noticed Imam Hussain was attracted by his personality. She asked his son to go find out as to what was going on. The son came back and reported what he found out. She was so moved that she asked her son to fight for Imam Hussain. He did and he too was killed. The inhumane nature and brutality of Yazid’s army can further be assessed by the fact that they eventually killed his wife too. When you are on the right path, God sends you an inspiration. Imam Hussain asked his 13 years old nephew, as to how he felt about death. He replied, “It’s sweeter than honey.”

Hussain also had a brother with him, Abbas. The Army of Yazid ceased the supply of food and water for this small band despite knowing well there were women and children there as well. Hussain sent his brother to see if he could at least get some water for the children. Even this was unacceptable for Yazid’s army as they surrounded him, severed his arms and attacked him from all sides, despite Abbas who was also the standard bearer, putting up a brave fight.

Sitting in the comforts of our living room, at times we wonder as to how evil takes shape and sets the precedence as it unfolds right in front of us. We promised ourselves that never again after the horrific Holocaust. Yet, in today’s day and age, we find Al-Qaida and ISIS raising its ugly heads, once again establishing and laying stake to evil on this pure earth, while we are all confused and left wondering as to what just happened.

We will leave it to the intellectuals and historians to deeply analyze the cause and effect over time. But for now, we have two reasons. One, some corrupted and malevolent individual manages to rise, create a following, and establish his base. Sadly, the majority of the decent law-abiding citizens of the world are in a deep slumber until it’s just too late. The killing of 6 million Jews is one of the worst crimes of the century without a doubt. Whatever happened, whatever took place, ultimately we will all be held responsible in front of God. It us who have to face our conscience and look ourselves in the mirror.

We can ask the question as to why Muslims allowed Islam to deviate from its track, why a power-struggle arose and why the original teachings were forsaken? These issues are common in many situations from where we can derive various lessons. For example, how did someone like Hitler rise to power? Many lessons can also be taken from the atmosphere of today’s US presidential elections.

It is not about any deficiency in any religious or the concept of democracy especially when it comes to dealing with a progressive society. This can narrow down to a few things. The people becoming immune to how the system is working and as a result, simply look the other way. Another reason, is how things are bankrolled.

Why are the teachings of Wahabism flourishing the madressahs when the majority of Muslims do not adhere to these teachings as it’s in complete opposite of the original teachings? The fact of the matter is that petro-dollars goes a long way and has a huge impact even at the expense of truth and decency. After the death of the last Prophet, the majority of Muslims forgot the true concept of Islam, that being a complete package to stabilize the society in all aspects, be it religiously, politically,  economically and socially.

For example, as mentioned, if we take the two concepts of Jihad or struggle in Islam. The Prophet during his life always emphasized on the greater struggle which was to first improve yourself from within before anything else. Once you can bring about a change in your own self, then can you make a difference in society. However, sadly after the Prophet’s demise, there was a change where the smaller struggle gained a prominence that the majority swayed towards. And that’s when the spiritual aspect was put aside for the worldly affairs gaining booty in response to the struggle.

The Muslims at large forgot the essence of the Message that the last Prophet of Islam had painstakingly taught and established, as self-proclaimed leaders with wealth, resources and connections came to the forefront emphasizing their own personal agenda and path, that had nothing to do with any religion, ethics or society, misusing Islam for their own selfish reasons and worldly gains.

The last Prophet like the other Prophets before him, conveyed the Message that politics and other social affairs are to be controlled by spirituality, morality and justice. Those who dared to say something and stand up to the atrocities after the Prophet were either bought or silenced. Some thought there was no point in doing anything while some just looked the other way.

The atrocities of the Ummaiyads had reached such a boiling point where people were getting confused with the real Islam and their version, that Imam Hussain was compelled to rise and clearly draw the line between good and evil. Of course, in that process, he lost and sacrificed everything something which many people were dreading before and that fear suppressed any prior revolution.

Today, its ISIS is wreaking havoc, causing destruction, instilling fear and on whose dirty hands are the blood of many innocent lives. We can find a link in Pakistan somewhere in 80s. It has been a band of killers who were selectively killing Shia elites, be it the doctors, engineers, lawyers and academia, unabatedly. Since, this genocide was limited to one country with the killing of one group of people, the Shias and other minorities the rest of the world, were quiet and looked the other way as it did not concern us.

Now as ISIS has become a world danger, has come out of its den, has attacked us in our backyard, we have finally awoken to the truth and realized the threats. But now though we are awake, we are quite behind and we are helpless. It is too late, so help us God. There may still be time by looking at the source of the problem, the funders in the background who are the real culprit behind the curtain. ISIS is the mask, the real face, if you dare to see, will be seen only after the mask is removed. The sooner we realize the sooner we will be able to kill the snake.

In summary, here are a few lessons to take heed. When the going gets tough, get together to solve it.  Assistance will come. Human beings are born free, with freedom of speech and action a birth right. We are to use it wisely. Love, respect, fairness and justice are for everyone. Everyone deserves that. Non-violence is the best avenue. Life has no value when it comes to saving the community, your belief in God, and if you think you are on the right path. God’s help is sure to come as life is temporary but humanity is forever.