30 AUGUST 2020


 إِنَّ عِدَّةَ الشُّهُورِ عِندَ اللَّهِ اثْنَا عَشَرَ شَهْرًا فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ يَوْمَ خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ مِنْهَا أَرْبَعَةٌ حُرُمٌ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ ۚ فَلَا تَظْلِمُوا فِيهِنَّ أَنفُسَكُمْ ۚ وَقَاتِلُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ كَافَّةً كَمَا يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ كَافَّةً ۚ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الْمُتَّقِينَ

  1. The Muslim calendar is dotted with events worthy of celebration, commemoration or observance. The events include the ‘Eidayn, the days of Wuquf, the nights of Ascension and Power, or the day of Arafā Most, if not all of these are imbued with an overt religious significance. Events of historical significance are relegated to the margins, and increasingly attract lesser celebration, except among select groups. This includes events such as the birth of the Prophet (Melad un Nabi), the various battles, the migration (marking the beginning of a new year) and other such events.  In this we relegate parts of our history and separate the religious from the historical. This sadly is a missed opportunity to keep alive those historical events in the imagination of future generations, but also to draw inspiration, and learn critical lessons, from our history. Whether this is the result of the influence of a rigid Salafism or an attempt to deliberately erase parts of this history is debatable.
  2. The 10th of Muharram, or Ashura (meaning 10th) which we celebrate today, is different in that the celebration or commemoration is of purely historical events. Two profound events coincide on this day. Of course, there are others also invoked – which include the forgiveness of Adam (as), the landing of Noah’s Ark, and the forgiveness of the people of Yunus. However two authenticated events symbolize on the one hand the victory of liberation, and the other that of tyranny. One event occurred before the advent of the Prophet and the other after his death.
    1. The liberation of the people of Musa, the Bani Israel, from the tyranny of Pharoah is said to have occurred on this day. The Jews refer to it as the Exodus which marks the celebration of Passover. The Prophet on becoming aware of the fast of the Jews on this day, encouraged Muslims to do the same, claiming a greater right on Musa.
    2. The second historical event, which is our focus today, is the battle of Karbala which resulted in the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the beloved grandson of the Nabi. In Sunni Islam this historical event is often relegated to the margins – again, except for some groups within Sunni Islam. However, among the Shia it marks a watershed event, and plays a prominent role in their religious imagination.


  1. The violent murder of Hussein by the forces of Yazid bin Muawiyya, on the plains of Karbala, was indeed a defining moment in Islamic history. Hussein had gone to Iraq to challenge the usurpation of the Caliphate by Yazid, the son of Muawwiya. He followed in the footsteps of his brother Hasan who had challenged Muawiyya for a similar deed. However, Hasan who was inclined to peace and the unity of the Ummah eventually relented and allowed Muawiyya to rule. He did so because of the capitulation of senior leaders whose support he expected, and through Muawiya’s assurance that upon his demise, there would be a council to appoint his successor. When Muawiyya handed the mantle over to his son, Hussein and many of his companions opposed this move as a violation. Hussein, who was based in Makkah, had gone to Iraq to physically challenge Muawiya on the prompting of the people of Kufa who invited him to challenge Muawiyya, pledged allegiance to him, and then abandoned him. Karbala is thus an inflection point in our history not only for its barbarity, but because it set the scene for dynastic rule, for brutal suppression of opposition, and for betrayal.  Of course, the chaos began well before, during the rule of another Umayyad ruler, Uthman, and got thereafter progressively worse. But Karbala was an inflection point where after (except for brief periods) there never was a united leadership in the Islamic world; and which was characterized by a disunited polity who gave in easily to bullying and bribes; and where military and financial power ensured absolute authority.
  2. Imam Hussein and his followers, including 72 men were, en route to challenge Yazid, blocked at Karbala where they had to encamp in the fierce heat. Yazid’s forces blocked them from accessing the abundant water sources near them and they suffered severe thirst. Yazid’s forces thereafter attacked them. Hussein’s men fought gallantly against Yazid’s army of 20 000 men in what eventually was a hopeless cause. Before the prayers of Asr on that fateful day in October in the year 680 AD, the Battle of Karbala was over. The 72 male companions of Imam Hussain were martyred along with Imam Hussain’s six-month-old son, Ali Asghar.  This baby was also denied water and met his end through a three-pronged arrow meant to hunt wild animals. Hussein was decapitated and his head paraded in public.  Their encampment was looted, the bodies of the dead desecrated, and the women and children taken prisoner. Zeinul Abidin, Hussein’s other son was taken prisoner. The prisoners were made to walk from Iraq to Damascus to a jeering public, and many succumbed along the way.
  3. While Karbala was the inflection point, the murder of Hussein was not an unrelated singular event but had its genesis in chaos that reined in the Islamic lands which was characterized by murder, betrayal, bribes, threats, and political shenanigans by those who had usurped power. This was merely the apotheosis of what began with opposition to, and eventual murder of Uthman. It continued in the mutinous behaviour against Ali and his eventual murder.  It persisted in the usurpation of power by Muawiyya and the suspected murder of Hasan, brother of Hussein. And it continued with Muawiyya nominating his son Yazid to succeed him.
  4. The murder of Uthman had a created a mutinous environment in the Hijaz, Egypt and then spread elsewhere. The community was deeply split. Ali’s short reign was the period of intense fitnah – in his five odd years as Caliph he fought three battles – The battle of the Camel (against A’isha, Talha and Zubayr), and the battles of Siffin and Nahrawan against Mu’awiyya. Ali was eventually murdered by the Kharijites. Muawiyya and his ilk had accused Ali of not avenging the murderers of Uthman. And the Kharijites had accused him of subjecting the Quran to human interpretation. Ali’s son Hassan was appointed Caliph but was overshadowed by Muawiyyah’s superior military strength, drawn largely from his power over Syria, and retreated. It is believed he was poisoned on the instructions of Muawiyya.
  5. In these conflicts and chaos one can broadly identify four different representations contesting for power.
    1. They were firstly the Umayyads/Sufyanids – the progeny of Abu Sufyan, who had great political skill, acumen and opportunism, which substituted for a lack of religious authority or piety.
    2. The second grouping was the Alides/Ahlul Bayt, the progeny of the Prophet and of Ali, who had the religious authority, pedigree and piety, but often poor political nous.
    3. The third were those with great ambition, little political strategy except rebellion, but fanatical and literalist in their Islamic worldview, and quick to invoke takfir as a tool to excommunicate and kill. These were the Kharijites.

These three parties essentially were contesting for political power which was fused with religious authority. In fact, one may argue that this was the beginning of the schism between religious and political authority, only re-established briefly during the khilafat of Umar II.  It also marked the permanent schism that gave rise to the schism between Sunni and Shia.

  1. The fourth grouping were those with different levels of authority and shifting alliances. May of those were the sons of prominent Sahabah.


  1. Those in power used murder and treachery as everyday currency. Muawiya used murder too easily as a weapon. He murdered those among his allies, those who blocked his ambition, and those who opposed him. An interesting exchange between Muawiyya and Qays bin Sa’ad is illustrative. Qays had taken over command of the army of Hasan from Ubaydallah bin Abbas, who had deserted his position. Muawiyya attempted to bribe Qays who was steadfast in his cause and was not to be swayed or bribed. Qays responded that he will only meet Muawiyya with a lance between them. Muawiyya then resorted to insult and questioned Qays’s heritage by calling him a Jew, and the son of a Jew. Qays responded by calling Muawiyya an idol and the son of a Makkan idol (Abu Sufyan). He continued taunting Muawiyya by stating: “O Muawiyya, you entered Islam under duress, stayed in it out of fear, and left it voluntarily without faith preceding, or hypocrisy occurring as a novelty on your part”.
  2. The Muslim world was to never recover from this treachery, despite Sunni efforts to sanitize it. Even Muawiya’s military and political acumen does not remedy this. With the advent of Turkish historical dramas – one can only but get a sense that betrayal, opportunism, and brutal contestation for power is deeply etched in Muslim history.
  • The struggle for the heart of Islam today is no different. I am not going to draw direct parallels but leave it to you to decide who the modern usurpers of power are, who represents the Kharijites, who embodies the nobility of the Prophet’s lineage, and those who are the betrayers of truth and justice. Those who murder the innocent, not only on battlefields, but in their own homes.
  • Finally, let me add the disclaimer that the history of this period is written about important men, the stories of women still has yet to be written. For example, Hussein’s sister Zainub lead the resistance against Yazid after his death


The events of Karbala are painted as the struggle between truth and falsehood; between faith and treachery; between bravery and cowardice; between corruption and honesty; between truth and evil. Between David and Goliath.

History remembers Hussein; Yazid is footnote.  The bravery of Hussein’s soldiers is there of us all to emulate and has been evoked by none other than Gandhi who famously proclaimed that if he had 72 soldiers like Hussein’s, he would have defeated the British in India earlier.  Small as his army was, Hussein stood up to power for truth and justice. Hussein realized that if he did not stand up, the history of Islam would have been written by the likes of Yazid. Of course, some may have accused Hussein of causing fitnah, but that did not deter his quest for the truth.

In the words of the great Sufi saint Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti, (known as Khwājā Ghareeb Nawaz), “Hussain gave his head but not his hand (allegiance) to Yazid, Maintainer of the truth is not anyone but Hussain.”

I will end by stating that Muharram is considered one of the four sacred months referred to in the verse I recited at the beginning, which is verse 37 of Surah Tauba:

Indeed, the number of months in the register of Allah is twelve lunar months from the day He created the heavens and the earth; of these, four are sacred. That is the correct religion, so do not wrong yourselves during them. And fight against the disbelievers collectively as they fight against you collectively. And know that Allah is with the righteous.



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