Why do we commemorate Imam Hussain?

By Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub

Human history can be seen either as a purposeful process of events having a meaningful beginning and end or as a meaningless flow of events having no purpose or end and depending on a blind and incomprehensible fate. From an Islamic point of view history is God’s dealings with humanity from the time of its beginning in Him to the time of its consummation and return to Him. God’s words to human communities which directed their lives and judged them were uttered through His elect, the Prophets, from Adam to Muhammad. History, therefore, is prophetic history directed by God through the process of revelation.

The prophets, from the point of view of an Islamic philosophy of history, are the landmarks in the long process of the human journey to God. In the long process, Prophets and their families – the house of Ibrahim, the house of Imran and the house of Muhammad. Have been elected by God for specific mission. They provide the model for the ‘righteous life of human individuals and societies.

Among these men and women of faith, the descendants of Prophets, Imam Hussain has played a unique role in Muslim history. His life was at one and the same time a life of devotion of sacrifice, and a school for martyrs, His career of opposition to oppression and wrong-doing, crowned with the greatest gift any man can give, the gift of life, set once and for all the standard of true Islamic rule. Henceforth, even though a righteous Caliphate was never established in the Muslim community, it remains an ideal for Muslims to strive for. This ideal has been powerfully expressed in the appearance or return of a rightly guided individual, the Mahdi, who ‘shall fill the earth with equity and justice as it has been filled with inequity and injustice’ with the Mahdi, history will return once again to its pristine purity.

From the very beginning, indeed, immediately after Imam Hussain’s martyrdom in Karbala it became clear that only remorse, repentance, and tears, in a continuous memorial to the life and heroic martyrdom of the grandson of Muhammad, would keep message alive. Imam Hussain’s memory has in itself become a great teacher for Muslims and a source of creativity. Poetry, drama, devotion, and a time of serene or violent manifestation of grief have been the elements which came to direct Muslim history from the first Repenters to the present.

Imam Hussain died in order that the integrity of Islam and the unity of Muslim community might be safeguarded. His death taught us that the day of every martyrdom in the way of God is a day of Ashura and every place a Karbala. The lesson for Muslims today is to honor the memory of the Prince of Martyrs not only through tears and dramatic manifestations of grief, necessary though these were in time of oppression and injustice during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, but also through living the motives and principles which led him to accept the challenge of sacrifice in the Way of God:

Allah has exchanged with the people of faith their life and wealth in that they shall have Paradise, they fight in the way of Allah, are slain, and slay others (9:111).

The lesson of Imam Hussain’s life and martyrdom is as relevant today as it was when he and a small group of devoted relatives and friends rose up to face the large army of Yazid. Today too, individuals and groups within the Muslim community are called upon to raise their voices and hands if need be in the face of the Yazid’s and their armies. To the last moments of his life, Imam Hussain continued to be the teacher and guide of the followers of his grandfather. Both his motives and challenges were expressed in his powerful reminder of the words of the Prophet:

If anyone sees an oppressive ruler trampling the rights of Muslims and using them as slaves and yet does not oppose him by world or deed, let him expect his place in hellfire.

It was not violence or the love of power, not even the staging of a revolution that motivated Imam Hussain. Rather, he answered the call of God to wage jihad against the powers of oppression and injustice. Today, we must remember Imam Hussain the righteous man, Imam Hussain the teacher, and Imam Hussain the great mujahid in God’s cause. We must listen anew to his words calling us to unity and righteous living. We must honor his call to strive for the preservation of our integrity as a community of total submission- Islam- to God’s will, but above all, we must remember his call to obedience to God’s command. His was a faith so brilliantly luminous which neither blood nor the dust of long centuries could obscure. Let our faith through his memory be unshakeable, for the promise is clear and God will not revoke his promise:

Do not reckon those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead, rather they are alive, with their Lord sustained. (3:169).