Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, the first month on the Islamic calendar, marks the annual commemoration of the revolution begun on the plains of Karbala, Iraq over 1,300 years ago by Imam Hussein ibn Ali (peace be upon him), the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him). In the year 680, Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) and his 72 companions were martyred in a heroic confrontation that not only became the defining moment for Shia Islam, but also the exemplar of valiant struggles against overwhelming forces of oppression and injustice for all time. Imam Husseinâ€™s timeless message was straightforward and sincere: â€œI wish that, through the strength of my suffering tyranny, I may root out the very foundation of oppression and cruelty.â€
Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) was also the canonical example for leadership, something terribly lacking in our times. With exceptions that one can count on one hand, there are no leaders today, only mere managers who, in the words of scholars Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis, â€œhave no gut stake in enterprise and no vision.â€ Hussein was a true leader: As the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the son of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) his â€œgut stakeâ€ was at the very heart of Islam, and his vision not only involved restoring and safeguarding the Islam of his grandfather, but also establishing a universal example for confronting tyrannical powers for all time by means of his selfless sacrifice. So powerful a leader was Hussein that he has been given the title of Sayyid al-Shuhada, the Leader of the Martyrs, and his gallant stand at Karbala has served as a beacon of inspiration and hope for oppressed peoples everywhere.
To appreciate the significance of the message of Imam Hussein (peace be upon him), we must briefly review the historical events in Islam that led to his tragic death. Despite a public declaration on March 16, 632 at Ghadir Khumm by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him), his cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima (peace be upon her), was to be the next leader, or khalifah (caliph), of the Islamic Ummah, the leaders of the powerful Ummayad clan, the Banu Ummayah, conspired at Saqifah to appoint Abu Bakr after the death of the Prophet (peace be upon him) on June 8, 632. Two years later, Abu Bakr named Umar ibn al-Khattab as the next khalifah, and following him, Uthman ibn Affan was chosen in 644 by six companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to finally return control of the Islamic Ummah to the wealthy Banu Ummayah.
By 656, discontent over the injustices, oppression and nepotism of the Ummayad rulers had become so great that some rightfully outraged Muslims killed Uthman. Acquiescing to widespread public demands, Ali accepted his rightful position of khalifah, causing the members and supporters of the disgruntled Banu Ummayah aristocracy to leave Medina and regroup in Syria, where they plotted to regain control of the Islamic Ummah. In Damascus, the most powerful of the Banu Ummayah, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, consolidated his power base and, defiantly denying the legitimacy of the Caliphate of Ali (peace be upon him), incited the Prophetâ€™s former companions Talha and al-Zubayr to stage a rebellion, which Ali (peace be upon him) was forced to suppress.
Despite the defeat of his rebels at the Battle of the Camel, Muawiyah continued his mutiny by not only refusing to swear allegiance to Imam Ali (peace be upon him), but also by accusing him of conspiring with the assassins of Uthman ibn Affan and demanding blood revenge. After an exchange of letters in each of which Ali (peace be upon him) tried to convince him to give up his rebellion, Muawiyah demanded that the Imam dissolve his legitimate government and subject himself to arbitration to determine the fate of the Islamic Ummah.
Knowing full well that Ali (peace be upon him) would refuse his demands, Muawiyah moved his mutinous army to Siffin, west of present day al-Riqqa in Iraq, and occupied the banks of the Euphrates, cutting off the Imamâ€™s forces from access to water, leaving him no choice but to fight. But once Ali (peace be upon him) had regained control of the river banks, he ordered his soldiers to allow Muawiyahâ€™s troops access to the water. A fierce battle ensued in which thousands of rebels were killed, and just when victory for Aliâ€™s side appeared imminent, Muawiyah resorted to chicanery by halting the hostilities and having his men place copies of the Holy Quran on the tips of their spears, thus forcing the Imam to stop fighting and accept arbitration. As a result of the decision of the arbitrators, Muawiyah was recognized as the khalifah almost everywhere except Iraq.
As Muawiyah used bribery and terror tactics to expand his domination over Iraq, Imam Ali (peace be upon him) was forced to withdraw to his last stronghold in al-Kufah. It was there that the Imam met his fate on January 25, 661 (19th of Ramadan 40AH) at the hands of Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljim, who struck his head with a poisoned sword while he was in prostration offering the dawn prayer. Ali (peace be upon him) died two days later on the 21st of Ramadan after which his son Hassan (peace be upon him), the older brother of Imam Hussein (peace be upon him), assumed the Imamate. Immediately, Muawiyah declared war on Imam Hassan, who, to avoid further bloodshed and maintain the fragile unity of the Islamic Ummah, entered into a peace treaty with the despot. Under the terms of the treaty, Imam Hassan temporarily transferred his political authority to Muawiyah, to be returned to him upon the latterâ€™s death, and then passed on by him to his younger brother, Imam Hussein.
Following Imam Hassanâ€™s death by poisoning at the hands of Muawiyah in 671, Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) assumed the leadership role. When in 680 before his death, Muawiyah chose his son Yazid as khalifah instead of returning the leadership to Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) as per the terms of the treaty made with his older brother, open revolt broke out among the Iraqis in al-Basra and al-Kufah against the tyrant. The people of al-Kufah had written numerous letters to Imam Hussein, who had already left Medina for Mecca to avoid swearing loyalty to Yazid, inviting him to come there to be their spiritual leader, so he left Mecca on September 8, 680 (8th DulHijjah)for Iraq, pursued by Yazidâ€™s forces which blocked any chance of his return.
The Imam had sent a letter with Qays bin Mashar Saidawi to notify the people of his impending arrival, but Ibn Ziyad, Yazidâ€™s appointed governor in al-Kufah, had Qays arrested, and when he lauded Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) and refused to curse Imam Ali (peace be upon him), Ibn Ziyad had him thrown off a roof, breaking all of his bones, in a deliberate attempt to terrorize the citizens of al-Kufah. The terror tactic worked, and when the news of Qaysâ€™s death and the peopleâ€™s reaction reached Imam Hussein, he lamented, â€œOur supporters have withdrawn their support from us. Whoever wishes to leave us and go his way should do so.â€
When Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) arrived with his band of 72 companions on the plains of Karbala, Iraq on October 2, 680 (2nd of Muharram 61AH), Yazid had already amassed a huge army of troops at al-Kufah, with 4,000 under the command of Amr ibn Hajjaj blocking access to the water of the Euphrates. By the 9th of Muharram, the day before Ashura, the Imamâ€™s camp was encircled by over 20,000 of Yazidâ€™s troops who had been ordered by Ibn Ziyad to either obtain the oath of loyalty from Hussein (peace be upon him) or kill him, and in spite of these terrifying circumstances, the Imam continued to speak to his companions with composure and confidence. Throughout the evening and night of the 10th of Muharram (October 9, 680), Imam Hussein and his followers prayed to Allah, sought forgiveness and prepared themselves for the battle the next day, Ashura, with Yazidâ€™s army, which by then numbered over 30,000.
On the morning of the 10th, Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) addressed Yazidâ€™s army at length, pointing out that he was the grandson of the Prophet; that he had neither killed anyone from among them giving cause for revenge, nor had he usurped anyoneâ€™s wealth. Concluding the Imam declared, â€œI will not swear allegiance to these people... I seek refuge in Allah from the mischief of you people and of every arrogant person who does not believe in the Day of Judgment.â€ When the Imam had finished speaking, Umar ibn Sad shot an arrow towards the Imamâ€™s followers and arrogantly announced, â€œI have started the battle before anyone else.â€
Heavy fighting continued until the time for noon prayers when the Imam (peace be upon him) offered Salatul-Khawf, a shortened prayer recited in such life-threatening situations as on a battlefield, after which the remaining brave young men were martyred by Yazidâ€™s forces, along with children and even infants. While the exact number of fatalities is not known, most narrators agree that at least 72 from the companions and family of the Imam embraced martyrdom and possibly as many as 122 were slaughtered. By the end of the day, the battle at Karbala was over and Yazidâ€™s army believed they were the victors, but were they really? Eventually, even Yazid himself realized he had made a grievous error. He was tormented by nightmares and guilt; often crying out and asking himself why had he ordered the killing of Hussein (peace be upon him).
This brings us to the central point: Since historically speaking, the battle at Karbala on Ashura appears similar to numerous other conflicts that have occurred before and since, what is it about this tragedy that made it unique in the annals of Islam? The answer is that the saga of Imam Husseinâ€™s valiant battle against the tyranny and oppression of the Banu Ummayah did not die after his martyrdom; rather the courageous surviving members of the Imamâ€™s Ahlul Bayt immediately, while still in captivity, began spreading the story of his heroic struggle for justice far and wide, inspiring others with their eloquence, dignified demeanor and determination in exposing the truth about the shameful nature and sinister acts of Yazidâ€™s debased regime.
Lady Zaynab, daughter of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), was especially eloquent. Condemning Yazid in his own court in Damascus, she asked him, â€œDo you think that by killing the godly persons you have become great and respectable and the Almighty looks at you with special grace and kindness?â€ Near the end of her brilliant oratory she swore to Yazid, â€œI swear by Allah that the shame and disgrace which you have earned by the treatment you meted out to us cannot be eradicated.â€
In short, the members of Ahlul Bayt and their loyal followers transformed the narrative of Imam Husseinâ€™s martyrdom at Karbala into a timeless message that has inspired oppressed people to revolt against tyranny and oppression over the course of history. As the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) himself said, â€œIndeed, Hussein is the lamp for guidance and the ark for salvation.â€