Written by Syed-Mohsin Naquvi Thursday, 30 September 2010 04:26
1 Â February 2006
This is the seventh article in the series on Muharram and its significance.We began this series with an introduction to the concept of Imamat in Islam. The first article in this series introduced that concept from the holy Qurâ€™an. The second article presented a view of the same concept from Hadeeth by way of a book review.
In the third of the series we looked at the historical background of the ceremony of Hajj and its connection to the event of Karbala.
In the fourth article of the series we came back to the direct historical background of the Karbala story itself. We quoted a passage from a Ph.D. thesis on Islamic history and presented to our readers the background of how Yazeed came to power in the month of Rajab of the 60th year of Hijra and he commanded the governor of Madinah to send for Husayn and insist on his Baâ€™yat. Husayn left Madinah on the 28th of Rajab for Makkah after having refused to that demand.
Husayn stays in Makkah until the month of Zil-Qâ€™adah. During that stay he receives a number of letters from the people of Iraq who were asking him to come to Iraq and free them from the oppressive rule of the Umayyads. Husayn does not respond to those letters for a while. His friends exhort him not to go to Iraq.
In the fifth of this series we discussed how the event of Karbala has been viewed in history. In that we quoted some of the opinions expressed by great scholars in the past both Muslim as well as non Muslim. We ended that discussion with a question. The question posed was: How could different people view Karbala with such different opinions? How could one person view Karbala as the epitome of supreme human sacrifice in a great cause, another would look at it simply as a struggle for power between two parties and yet another would rule that Imam Husayn was killed quite legitimately because he had raised the banner of revolt against a legitimate Muslim government?
In the sixth article we discussed the question as to whether it was Allahâ€™s Will that the murderers of Imam Husayn and his companion would killed him. If that was the case then there is no reason to curse the murderers because they were acting on Allahâ€™s Will.
In this article we would go back to the various opinions recorded about Karbala and take them one at a time to explore those issues.
Was the Event of Karbala a power struggle between two parties?
To answer this question fully, let us look at the social, political and economic situation in the Muslim kingdom in the 60th year of Hijra:
Makkah and Madinah were still inhabited by a large number of those people who had seen the Prophet and had been able to spend some time with him.
People who were born after the passing away of the Prophet, were in their 20â€™s, 30â€™s, 40,â€™s and 50â€™s. That means two new generations of Muslims had grown up who had had no contact with the Prophet.
Islam had spread beyond the confines of Arabia. There was a large number of Muslims who did not speak Arabic and many new Muslims lived in places such as Iraq, Iran and Egypt, as well as other places.
The civil war which had begun as a protest against the high-handed policies of the third Khaleefa Uthman had taken its toll on the community. The community had split in groups â€“ There were the main stream populace who were bewildered and forced to follow the party in power without much consideration to morals, ethics and the basic principles of Islam; they were more concerned with their daily bread. Then there were the special interest groups, the family of the Prophet of Islam who were basically ghettoized inside the city of Madinah. The family and the adherents of Banu Umayya, who were in power and they had concentrated on Damascus as their base. There were other groups, who were though unhappy with Banu Umayya, but lacked the wherewithal to do anything about it. Â There were the Kharijees, who had, though, been subdued by Imam Ali during his rule, their remnants were still lurking in the wilderness and they would make raids here and there. The tribes of Bedouins, who had been defeated by Islam and Muslims and they had accepted Islam as a last resort â€“ in the process of their defeat at the hands of the Muslims in the early years, a great number of their warriors had been killed in battlefields, mainly at the Battles of Uhud, Khandaq and Hunayn. Most of those fighters were killed by Imam Ali or by other Muslims led by Imam Ali.
Yazeed son of Muâ€™awiyya was born some 20 years after the passing away of the Prophet. He had now become the ruler of the kingdom on his fatherâ€™s will. Yazeedâ€™s mother was a Syrian Christian Bedouin woman. Yazeed had grown up reciting poetry, drinking, dancing, hunting, riding, and just playing around in the wilderness of the Syrian countryside.
Husayn son of Ali, was the youngest grandson of the Prophet of Islam, being the son of his daughter Fatima. He was 57 years old at this time. Husayn had seen Islam taking shape in his own house. He had seen how diligently and faithfully his own father Ali had served Islam and Muslims under the leadership of the Prophet. He had also seen how his father sat quietly and patiently waiting on the sidelines while other insignificant people took over power and ruled the community. Husayn had also seen how the community had betrayed his brother Hasan.
If anyone had visited Madinah in those days, he would not see any pomp and circumstance associated with the family of the Prophet. They were not poor but neither were they powerful people in the community by any stretch of the imagination. The seat of the government lay some thousand miles away in Damascus where major governmental decisions were made. Husayn was not in a position to have been able to exert any influence on the government of the time.
Yazeed was the most powerful despot in the Muslim world.
The question is: Why did Yazeed bother to exert pressure on Husayn to acknowledge his Bâ€™ayat? Husayn was one man, and he was without much power of any kind or even tribal loyalties in the city of Madinah or around it. Ever since his elder brother Hasan had died of poisoning in the 49th year of Hijra, he had been living in Madinah very quietly.
Usually, historians write that because of his father Ali, there were a lot of people in Koofa, Iraq, who looked up to Husayn as their leader (Imam). So, Yazeedâ€™s asking for bâ€™ayat was actually a pre-emptive action to subdue the people of Koofa.
But the point is, the people of Koofa were already subdued to a great extent. During Muawiyyaâ€™s rule, Koofa was identified as a stronghold of pro-Ali sympathies. To counter that, Muawiyya had let a free reign of terror against the people of Koofa. He would send his spies and henchmen and they would hunt for any sympathies for Ali and the Prophetâ€™s family. If such sympathies were found, those families would be tortured and killed. The killing of Â Hujr bin Adee and his companions at a place called Azra is a very clear evidence to that policy and those actions.
Not only that, Muâ€™awiyyah had sent out one of his generals named Busr bin Abi Artah, on an expedition of the Arab lands to establish a reign of terror. The whole idea in that expedition was to subdue people generally and terrorize them for a long time to come.
How can then, we explain Yazeedâ€™s step?
To answer that question fully, we will have to go back a little in the early history of Islam. If we go back to the time when Uthman had been lynched by an angry mob, Imam Ali had been acclaimed as the fourth Khaleefa of the Muslims, and he had taken charge, we come to the point where he orders Muawiyya deposed from his position as the governor in Damascus, Muâ€™awiyyah in turn, refuses to give in to that Caliphal command and the Battle of Siffeen takes place.
Muaâ€™wiyya and his people are thoroughly routed in the battle and they ask for arbitration. The battle is stopped. Muâ€™awiyya writes a letter to Imam Ali. In that letter Muâ€™waiyya makes some points as follows:
- Â Â Â Â Â If both parties had known the extent of destruction, both may have desisted from war
- Â Â Â Â Â Both had been deprived of their sound minds when they started the war
- Â Â Â Â Â He asked Ali once again to leave Syria to him, in which case he would leave the rest of the Muslim world to Ali
- Â Â Â Â Â They were both from Abd Munaf, so neither of them could claim any merit over the other
Imam Ali replied to that letter point by point as follows:
- Â Â Â Â Â If he (Ali) was killed in the cause of God and brought to life seventy times, he would not falter in his strength on behalf of God and the jihad against the enemies of God
- Â Â Â Â Â He (Ali) was not deficient in his sound mind and did not repent for what he had done
- Â Â Â Â Â As for Muâ€™awiyyaâ€™s demand for Syria, he would not give him today what he refused him yesterday
- Â Â Â Â Â As for their equality in fear and hope, Muâ€™awiyya was as deep in doubt as he, Ali, was in certitude
- Â Â Â Â Â And the Syrians were not more eager in pursuit of this world than the people of Iraq were in pursuit of the other world
- Â Â Â Â Â They were indeed both descended from the same forefather, Abd Munaf, but Umayya was not like Hashim, Harb not like Abdul Muttalib, Abu Sufyan not like Abu Talib, nor was a Muhajir like a Taâ€™aleeq, or a rightful claimant like a false pretender.
- Â Â Â Â Â â€œIn our hands is the superior merit of prophethood through which we have humbled the proud and given pride to the humble.â€
We can see from this exchange that while Muâ€™awiyya considered the worldly rule of the part of the Muslim kingdom as his right only because he claimed ancestry from the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet of Islam, Imam Ali considered it as a divinely appointed office for which TAQWA and devotion to the Islamic principles were the sole required elements without any consideration to the ancestry. Moreover, in that pursuit, Imam Ali was willing to sacrifice the temporal power over the preservation of the basic principles of Islam.
If Imam Ali had conceded to relinquish control of the Syrian province to Muâ€™awiyya as he had desired from the very beginning, there would be no fighting and Imam Ali would be able to rule as the fourth Khaleefa not only in Hijaz and Iraq but also in Egypt and Iran. Muâ€™awiyya saw the whole Muslim kingdom as the property of the children of Abd Munaf (both Banu Umayya and Banu Hashim as well as some other small tribes). In his opinion it would have been a legitimate division of the kingdom between two cousins.
Imam Ali saw the Muslim kingdom as the Kingdom of Allah, to which he was the heir according to the holy Qurâ€™an and the Prophetâ€™s hadeeth as the Imam of the time. He considered it both, his duty as well as right to preserve and protect that kingdom and work for its solidarity to establish justice in the earth. Muâ€™awiyyaâ€™s claim to any part of that kingdom was frivolous, illegitimate and preposterous.
With that background, let us look at Yazeedâ€™s state of mind in the 60th year of Hijra.
The foremost driving force in creating Yazeedâ€™s state of mind in this context, was his father Muâ€™awiyyahâ€™s statement to him on his deathbed. We quote from Tabari:
â€œ O my son, I have spared you the effort, made things smooth for you, subdued enemies for you, subjected the necks of the Arabs for you, and created unity for you. I am only afraid that four individuals of Quraysh might challenge you for this matter which was established for you --- al-Husayn bin Ali, Abdullah bin Umar, Abdullah bin al-Zubayr, and Abdur-Rahman b. Abi Bakr. Â As far as Abdullah bin Umar is concerned, he is a man whom righteousness has overwhelmed, and if no one else were left, he would acknowledge you. As far as al-Husayn is concerned, the people of Iraq will not leave him alone until they make him rebel. If he rebels against you, and you should defeat him, then pardon him, because he has close kinship and a great claim. As far as Ibn Abi Bakr is concerned, he is a man, who, if he should see his companions doing something, he would do likewise. He is only interested in women and pleasure. As for the one who crouches for you as a crouching lion and tricks you as a sly fox, and if an opportunity enables (him) he would spring, that is Ibn al-Zubayr. If he does that to you, and you are able to overpower him, then tear him limb from limb.â€
In addition to this deathbed-statement, it was the whole life of Muâ€™awiyya for Yazeed to take lessons from. While Muâ€™awiyya had wished to divide the Muslim kingdom between Imam Ali and himself, Yazeed moved one step ahead and he claimed the entire kingdom for himself. He could not bear to see a single prominent person in the kingdom living without acknowledging him as the sole power. True to his fatherâ€™s advice, he sent a messengers to Madinah commanding the governor Waleed to summon all those four people and ask them to acknowledge Yazeed as the legitimate Khaleefa. Were they to refuse that, they were all to be killed. Â He could not get hold of Abdulalh bin Zubayr, who escaped to Makka in the middle fo the night and lasted until some twelve years after the death of Yazeed. There is a very clear trace of sarcasm in Muâ€™awiyyaâ€™s comment about Abdullah bin Umar. True to his prediction, he accepted Yazeed without any qualms and actually exhorted other people in Madina to do the same.
In Husaynâ€™s refusal to do his Bâ€™ayat, Yazeed saw an intransigent rebel, even though Husayn was actively moving away from any violent confrontation with the government. Sure enough, the people of Koofa had been writing to him ever since the passing away of his own brother Hasan bin Ali. But Husayn himself never responded to those letters.
Even when he left Madina on the 28th of Rajab, he proceeded to Makka and he lived there for six months. Â During those six months, he did not approach a single person from the point-of-view of raising an army against the government. There was no open call for a political movement against Yazeed from him. He did not start a fund-raising campaign either.
When things really got very active from the Koofan side, the only thing he did was to send his cousin, Muslim bin Aqeel, to Koofa on a fact-finding mission. He was to meet people in Koofa and write back to Husayn. Once again, there was no design to show any preparation of an armed action against the government.
In actual fact, Abdullah bin Zubayr was staying in Makka at the same time as Husayn. The two of them met several times during that period. In one meeting, Ibn Zubayr offers Husayn military and strategic help to take his stand. Here is how Husayn replied to that offer of help:
â€œ Ima Husayn explains to his companions â€“ He (Ibn Zubayr) told me, â€˜stand up in this mosque, and I shall gather the people around you.â€™ By God! I would prefer to be killed a few inches (shibr) outside the sanctuary of Makka than to be killed a few inches within it. I swear by God, even if I were in a deep snakeâ€™s hole, they would pull me out in order to carry out their will. By God! They would violate me just as the Jews violated the Sabbath.â€
So, we can see that Husayn had foreseen his own murder at the hands of the Umayyad government. But he did not want to be killed inside the holy precincts.
Hardly any more evidence is needed to show that Karbala was an unequal duel. It was nowhere near in Husaynâ€™s mind that he was going to rise against the government of the time militarily.
The question is, why did he then proceed to Koofa? Why did he not turn away from that journey when he heard of the news of Muslim bin Aqeelâ€™s killing?
The only logical answer is that Husayn had never planned a military strike against the government. Husayn had a democratic streak in him, very much like his father, Ali, had in him and very much like his grandfather, the Prophet of Islam had. History has seen that the Prophet of Islam lived in Makka for twelve years â€“ he took abuse, torture and even a death threat. But he moved to Madina only when he found public support in Madina. Within a period of ten years he was able to establish a full-fledged city state due to that overwhelming public support. Very similar to that, Imam Ali did not take any action for himself during the first three Khilafat periods. That was because he saw that there was no public support for his cause in the Muslim community. He accepted Khilafat only when he saw that the Muslims wanted him overwhelmingly. Very much like that, Imam Husayn lived in Madina for a period of eleven years without responding to the call from the Koofans. However, when he was pressured by Yazeed for Bâ€™ayat, he first left Madinah. When he continued to be hounded, he looked to those areas where there was likely to be some kind of public support for him. That is why he proceeded towards Koofa. His plan was that if there was sufficient public support found in Iraq against Yazeed, then, perhaps, under his leadership, a movement might take shape on democratic lines to influence other parts of the Muslim world thus Yazeed could be deposed on religious grounds without any military action. That is the only conclusion we can draw from the fact that Husayn had taken his women and children with him. No one takes along women and children while on a war path.
Thank you for reading.
 Â Abul Fida Isnaâ€™eel, Kitab al-Mukhtasar Fi Akhbar al-Bashar , also known as Tareekh Abul Fida; Tabari has dedicated one whole chapter in his book, on this one topic, see Tabari, Vol.XVIII, translated into English by Michael G. Morony, SUNY Press, 1987, pages 122-164
 Â See for example, Madelung, Wilfred; The Succession to Muhammad, Canbridge University Press, 1997, page 287; Madelung has used the term â€˜terrorizingâ€™ describing those stories and he has quoted Tabarai and other ancient Muslim historians as reference.
 Â Quoted from Madelung, page 241, he quotes Minqari from Waq-e-at Siffeen, Masâ€™oodi from his Murooj az-Zahb, and Ibn Qutayba
 Â The History of al-Tabari, vol. XVIII, translated into English by Michael G.Morony, SUNY Press, 1987, pages 208-209
 Â The History of al-Tabari, vol.XIX, translated into English by I.K.A. Howard, SUNY Press, 1990, page 69
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