The practical moral values of Karbala

By Dr. R. Marston Speight

I am sensitive to the honor bestowed upon me by the organizers of this event in that they invited me, a Christian, to speak about a subject that is of such particular and special significance to Muslims. As I go over with you some of the details of Karbala’s tragedy and the heroic life of Imam al-Hussain, I am aware that you know those facts for better than I do. And there may be some value in my calling attention to them as an outsider, since in that way we can reflect upon the values that bring us together. Unfortunately, Christians and Muslims do not always think about the things they have in common. In this modem world of conflict and polarity, we lend to think more often about what separates us, and to the degree that we dwell on our differences, to that degree we remain apart, misunderstanding each other, out of communication with each other.

To think about moral values is useful because the moral framework of our Islamic and Christian religions is essentially the same. We both believe that moral values come from God Almighty. Emphasis and details my vary from one regional culture to another, but Muslims and Christians everywhere recognize as divinely ordained the principles of integrity, humility, courage, honesty, purity and the like, to mention a few of the great moral values to which we hold.

Turning to the one whose moral example we uplift today, we find in the records testimony to the solid moral foundation that was laid in al-Hussain’s childhood and youth. The main fact that emerges is that he lived in quiet submission to the guidance of his father. Children’s obedience to their parents, and parents’ authority exercised in such a way as to deserve obedience; this is the pattern for a healthy and happy family. We live in a time when children are often rebellious and insolent. However, I do not blame them as much as I do parents who either impose their authority over children like tyrants or else are so easygoing and self-indulgent that they inspire no respect from the children. The family of Imam al Hussain stands as a solid witness to the value of parental authority and obedience.

With regard to al-Hussain’s model behavior in his family, the historian, al-Tabari[1], gives a brief glimpse of how his youthful attitude of courtesy showed itself in his relations as an adult with his half-brother, Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya. The brother advised al-Hussain, after the death of Muawiyah, to remain in Mecca and not to go out into the provinces for fear that he would come to harm. He called the Imam the “most lovable of people and the dearest “to him. This advice went against the course of al-Hussain’s life, as he was seeing it unfold. But, instead of rudely rejecting his brother’s counsel outright, he replied: “Brother, you have given good advice and shown your concern. I hope that your judgment is correct and appropriate.” Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya’s love for al-Hussain was the protective kind, perfectly understandable and laudable.

But there is another kind of love between believers that is sometimes called “tough love,” the love that holds another to the highest standards of moral behavior even if that behavior runs the risk of bringing harm to the person loved. al-Hussain showed this “tough love” toward his cousin, Muslim b. Aqil, when that individual set out for Kufa to try to prepare the way for what was intended to be a triumphant uprising of Al-Hussain’s followers against the tyrant, Yazid. Muslim perhaps had little idea of the difficulty of his task, and al-Hussain gave of a rough, domineering warrior who would force his way. Rather, Muslim was counseled in gentle terms: “When you get to Kufa be pious before God, discreet and courteous to all.”[2] No word reveals more clearly the high moral standards of al-Hussain that this exhortation so completely lacking in a domineering spirit. We could say that, in view of Muslim’s sad fate in Kufa, the “tough love” advice by al-Hussain was to no effect, but that is not true. Such advice abides as a moral standard for all the generations that have looked up to the one who showed such love. Another example of the Imam’s “tough love” toward Muslim b. Aqil is seen in the course of Muslim’s journey to Kufa. He had a disastrous time. His two guides perished from thirst, and he himself almost despaired of life. He wrote a pathetic latter to his cousin, begging to be relieved of his task. But Al-Hussain held Muslim to the highest standard of courageous behavior, refusing to accept his request. He wrote, “Press on, Muslim. Do not be a coward.”[3]

Of course the courage that Al-Hussain exhorted Muslim to show was exemplified by the Imam himself. He is a model of the courageous leader. Let us look at some of the elements that characterize his courage. I think that it might be called political courage, most of all. He was inspired to forge ahead in the course of resistance to oppression by the vision that he had of the ideal leader. He wrote:”… what is the Imam except one who acts according to the Book, one who upholds justice, one who professes the truth, and one who dedicates himself to God?”[4] and in another statement, he wrote the Kufan’s that the Imam should take his people’s money with honesty.[5]This is a pertinent word for us today, when so many public officials misuse the money that is put at their disposal.

Not only was his courage political, but it was also the courage of steadfastness. He held to his course regardless of efforts to turn him aside. In a lesser man, we might call this quality stubbornness or obstinacy. What is the difference between steadfastness and stubbornness? It is a question of who is in control of the life of the person under consideration. Is itself in control, or is it God? If a person sets out to accomplish a goal that he has set for himself, and he resolutely proceeds to do what he wants, from self-interest alone, we can call it obstinacy or stubbornness. On the other hand, when an individual is given entirely to God, his life is sacrificed to a higher value than self-interest. He goes forward toward a goal that God has set for him, and the measure of his courage is the measure of his courage is the measure of his steadfastness in continuing to follow the way set forth for him, not matter what happens.

As the fateful day of Karbala drew near, and as al-Hussain realized the full import of what about to happen, he spoke with courage and radiant faith. Here are some of his words as recorded by the historian, Al-Tabari:

“Everything that has been decreed will come to pass. We find satisfaction and recompense for ourselves and our corrupted community with God.[6]

“You have seen what this matter has come to. Indeed, the world has changed, and it has changed for the worse. Its goodness has retreated, and it regards good as bitter. Or, there remain only the dregs like the dregs in a Jar, sordid nourishment like unhealthy fodder. Can you not see that truth is no longer something that men practice and falsehood is no longer desisted from, so that the believer rightly desires to meet God I can only regard death as martyrdom and life with these oppressors as a tribulation.”[7]

So, in resume, these are some of the practical moral values that I see coming out of the drama of Karbala: the foundation of a life built on filial obedience in an atmosphere of faith in the almighty; courtesy and respect in interpersonal relations, even in the midst of almost unbearable tension and conflict; faithful love which holds the loved to the highest standard of moral behavior; and supremely, the courage of an ideal leader of the believing community.

Finally, with the shining example of Imam Al-Hussain in mind, I should like to point out what seems to me to be one of the great values of our two communities, Muslim and Christian, living close together, as we do in the USA, and engaging in mutual discourse, as we do occasionally, though not often enough. We are speaking for moral standards. It is good to have another religious community to encounter so that our moral choices can be tested by the ethical insights of the other group. We need to be a moral check on each other. An ethical apathy may come upon a people who will not accept criticism from those outside. What is unfortunate is that our two religious communities have for century’s simply hurled accusations of immoral and unethical behavior at one another, each one assuming a position of superiority toward the other. There is no benefit in such recrimination. For each moral or ethical defect in one community, there can always be found a corresponding defect in the other community. It is perfectly vain to make comparisons of our two groups in an attempt to prove the moral superiority of one over the other. But, the right kind of moral critique will come about as a result of our meeting together on a deeper level to discuss the issues of our day affecting our families, our children, our homes and our nation. We can bring the moral resources of our faith to bear upon these common concerns and thereby help in the building of life together.

[1]A Howard. Tr. The History of al-Tabari. Vol. XIX, The Caliphate of Yazid b. Muawiyah (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 8.

[2]Ibid. 27, paraphrased.

[3]Ibid. 28.

[4]Ibid, 26.

[5]The Encyclopedia of Islam. New Edition, s.v. “al-Hussain b. ‘Ali b. Abi Talib”.

[6]Ibid. 57.

[7]Ibid. 96.