Rise and bear witness Historic resonance of Imam Hussain’s stand for justice and morality

Rise and bear witness Historic resonance of Imam Hussain’s stand for justice and morality

- in Lectures

Open Discussions/ Gulf Cultural Club

Rise and bear witness
Historic resonance of Imam Hussain’s stand for justice and morality

Dr Yafa Shanneik*
Amir De Martino **
Father Frank Gelli***
In a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant, corrupt, unsafe and unstable, a revolution of human conscience is much needed. In 680 AD Imam Hussain, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson made history when he stood against tyranny, extremism and tribal political culture. He challenged the Umayyad ruler, Yazid, declaring him both illegitimate and corrupt. He paid the ultimate price. Together with 72 of his relatives and supporters they were slaughtered in a most sadistic way. His women and children were paraded for forty days before being allowed to return to Medina, the home of their ancestors. It was a significant revolt intended to re-enliven the morality of the community and end the tribal tyranny. What was Imam Hussain’s message? How did he make history and is his reformist movement as valid today as in the seventh century?
Tuesday 17th October 2017
Chairman: Shabbir Rizvi: Tonight’s programme is titled a message written in blood, or rise and bear witness. At times we all have to rise and bear witness to what is happening around us. The programme this evening deals with who is Imam Hussain and what is his particular message?
Hussain as matter of fact belongs to no particular sect or particular religious denomination. The intrepid spirit of Hussain is never to surrender to the wrong and continue a battle regardless of the consequences and the degree of danger.
That is why a great revolutionary modern Urdu poet from the subcontinent, Josh Mania Badi, felt impelled to say:” Let mankind awake. The human race shall respond. Hussain’s humanity is a bond.” So that encapsulates from a well known revolutionary poet from the subcontinent where Hussain fits in. I think the speakers will elaborate on the history and the background.
Suffice for me to say in a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant, corrupt, unsafe and unstable, a revolution of human conscience is much needed. In 680 AD Imam Hussain, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson made history when he stood against tyranny, extremism and tribal political culture. He challenged the Umayyad ruler, Yazid, declaring him both illegitimate and corrupt. He paid the ultimate price. Together with 72 of his relatives and supporters they were slaughtered in most sadistic way. His women and children were paraded for forty days before being allowed to return to Medina, the home of their ancestors. It was a significant revolt intended to re-enliven the morality of the community and end the tribal tyranny. What was Imam Hussain’s message? How did he make history and is his reformist movement as valid today as in the seventh century?
We see all around us tribalism, corruption and the leaders of the so-called free world getting their way whether it is in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, you name it – in all countries whether in South American starting from Mexico and Chile how the corrupt regimes have really tried to encapsulate and destroy human beings who have stood against the corruption of our time.
It is important to understand where to fit Imam Hussein in our times and to give his message which resonates with the people. And I think Imam Khomeini did a great justice almost forty years ago in 1997 when the Islamic Revolution began in Iran. He was able to identify the Yazid of his time who was the Shah of Iran. We have to adopt the narrative, we have to adopt the language which resonates with the people.
As I said in my introduction, Iman Hussain does not belong to any nation or to any religion. This is the key message. And just to close my comments when I was in Bahrain six years ago the movement to demand some reforms used some of the key messages from Imam Hussain when he spoke to the corrupt army of Yazid. This is the fundamental speech we need to understand. Imam Hussein said whether you believe in God, whether you believe in the day of judgement it does not matter. These two are the pillars of religion. If you do not believe in the creator, if you do not believe in the day of judgement it does not matter. Be a free human being. Freedom is what Imam Hussain wants us all to achieve because it is only through freedom that we liberate ourselves. It is through freedom that we stand up against corruption. It is through freedom that we are able to distinguish between what is right and wrong.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli: ‘The tragic scene of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader’ wrote historian Edward Gibbon. Why care about Karbala, unless you are a Muslim? A possible answer is : because of Wahab al-Kalbi the Nazarene, the Christian who, they say, bravely fought and fell with Imam Husayn at Karbala.

Four years ago an invitation reached me from the Khoja Shia’ people in Leicester to address their ‘Momentous Sacrifice’ interfaith event. Why should a Christian have fought alongside Husayn? Historian Hugh Kennedy describes the Imam’s enemies, the Damascus Umayyad Caliphate, as ‘forces of godless oppression’. Husayn thus ‘became the symbol for the sufferings of all the weak and the defenceless’.

That is a cause a good Christian would naturally have rallied to. Although St Paul in Romans commands obedience to legitimate authorities for the sake of the common good, some types of tyranny are so diabolical and corrupting that they forsake any claim to legitimacy. In the Book of Revelation, chapter 13, the state has clearly become demonic. Not too fanciful perhaps to see the repulsive beast arising out of the sea as an anticipation of Caliph Yazid, Imam Husayn’s deadly foe.

A doubt might arise concerning violence. Many early Christians inclined to pacifism. Because of Christ’s example, they refused to serve in the Roman army and kill, so they were martyred. Why didn’t Wahab follow their example?

It is unclear whether Christians shunned the army because of bloodshed or for reluctance to swear an oath to the deified emperor, something tantamount to idolatry. Be that as it may, by the second century AD there were Christian soldiers in Marcus Aurelius’ Thundering Legion, fighting on the German frontier. Moreover, by al-Wahab’s time the empire had long embraced the Cross. ‘Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ’, Nietzsche’s astounding phrase, had become a reality. Unless you were a monk, military service was no longer sinful. No reason then why al-Wahab could not have fought at Karbala.

Sunni writers have questioned the wisdom of Husayn’s expedition from his base in Medina across the desert to Kufa. The Kufans who had invited him were notoriously fickle, the Imam’s small party no match for Yazid’s powerful army and weren’t his opponents fellow Muslims after all? Hadn’t his brother Hasan accepted compromise with Yazid’s father, the cunning Mu’awiya? Why not follow suit?

I like to speculate that Wahab was a bit of a romantic, as well as a righteous Christian. Husayn’s charismatic persona would have attracted him. And lost, desperate causes always fascinate. The iconography offered at the Leicester conference actually bewildered me a bit. The Christian hero was shown as wearing the armour and sword, with red crosses on his breast and shield, all too reminiscent of a crusader! I wonder whether it was intended. Those who lose a battle or a war may still long linger in the popular imagination and indeed fire it. So Wahab in the end is portrayed by an actor as crucified on a rudimentary cross – another apposite but unlikely emblem.

To be tough-minded: no Christian narrative exists of al-Wahab at Karbala. Nonetheless, by the time of the rise of Islam the Middle East teemed with Nazarenes of all sects, hence it is not impossible. Anyway, does it matter? Al-Wahab’s person may have the force of a myth. A powerful image with its own meaning and momentum, regardless of historicity. Like in an old Western movie, a voice speaks: ‘Throw away the history and keep the legend’. Because the legend is better.

Does al-Wahab, this solitary follower of the cross laying down his life for Muhammad’s grandson, have a message for Christians and Muslims today? Al-Wahab: a forerunner of religious dialogue and friendship? Sounds a bit naff! The proud warrior of Karbala, the intrepid foe of tyranny, the martyr would hardly care for the weak soup that too often goes under the name of interfaith. I am interested in al-Wahab but not to boringly enlist him in the ranks of the lukewarm.

Al-Wahab fought like a lion. Worth recalling how Revelation calls Christ a lion too: the Lion of the tribe of Judah! An the title of tonight’s seminar is not just talk and be nice but ‘ arise and bear witness.’ Just conduct. Fairness. Social justice. Equality. But I want to hark back to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s great work, the Republic, describes a polity where just relations are understood chiefly not in economic egalitarian terms but based on moral virtue.

The inhabitants of the righteous city cannot be vicious people but must be virtuous, people with the right moral dispositions and practices. Just yes but also wise, brave and temperate. (The Muslim philosopher al-Farabi took his cue from Plato in his fine book: Al Madinat al Adila – the Just City) These are virtues constitutive of what Aristotle called the common good. The good of the whole city, the state, the whole community. To give a key example: that common good includes the good of the family: the fundamental unit of society. The family based on the procreation of children. In the context of marriage between a man and a woman. Service for Holy Matrimony of the C of E that is first ground, the first reason for marriage. Yes, the service speaks also of the mutual companionship, the help of a spouse for the other but the first reason is life, procreations. So, sexual activity must be of the generative kind. The legislation of Western states is at odds with that. Laws that totally undermine the nature of the family and of marriage. Today in Western societies we witness a relentless assault on the family, hence on human dignity: a dignity which consists in living virtuously, in ultimately following the will of the Creator. So in the West, not the virtuous city but the wicked, vicious city is promoted.

Lastly, what is to be done? Rise up and bear witness but how? I dream of a global revolutionary alliance between Muslims and Christians. Just a dream? Pie in the sky? Alas we are not united but divided. Such Alliance should support any country, movement, forces, centres and individuals acting against the Western liberal elites. The domination of the US, NATO, the EU and the world liberal financial system should be fought. Those opposed to it don’t need an organic alliance. We have enough enemies in common to unite around that goal: Arise and bear witness.
Dr Yafa Shanneik: Today I would like to talk about the Shia notion of women and motherhood taking the figure of Fatima as a role model particularly in women only majalis but also looking at the representation of Sayida Fatima in Hussein lamentation poetry.
Twelver Shia are known for mourning the death of Imam Hussein the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed who is believed to have been killed together with his family and supporters by the Ummayad Caliph’s troops in Kerbala on the plains of southern Iraq in 680.
A main element of these mourning rituals is composing and reciting plantiff and melancholic poetry mourning the death of Imam Hussein and his family – Ahy Al -Bayt. These mourning rituals are practised in religious gatherings called majalis.
For twelve Shia, Fatima as the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed, the wife of Imam Ali and the mother of Imam Hussein who occupies a special status as a member of the Ahl Al Bayt. She is also the central genealogical link between the Prophet and the twelve imams. She therefore occupies a particular space in mourning rituals.
Although Sayida Fatima died years before the Battle of Kerbala she is always related to the battle and to the loss of her son Imam Hussain and the displacement and suffering of her other family members including her daughter Zeinab. Generally speaking Fatima is remembered as a women who embodies Shia notions of women and motherhood. This notion however changes over time and space influenced by the religious political context of the majalis she is remembered in.
This paper examines the memory and compares the contemporary portrayal of the figure of Fatma in Hussain lamentation poetry presented in women’s only majlis in two different cities: London and Kuwait. The paper engages with the poetry and lectures I heard in both classic and dialectical Arabic as well as in Persian. I will start with the majlis I attended in London and will then move to Kuwait. In doing so I not only make the geographical shift from Europe to the Gulf but also I intend to demonstrate a shift in the way Fatima is portrayed in the diaspora as compared to Shia communities in the Gulf.
Recalling historical events relies on collective as well as individual remembering. Here there is a reciprocal relationship and influences between the individual and the collective are important. What to remember and how to remember is crucial in particular for Shia communities in understandings of their identities.
As Young Asterman argues: “The past is not simply perceived by the present. The past is modelled, invented and reconstructed by the present.” Power relations within the community influence the process of remembering and depend on the various social, political, religious and cultural contexts in which they are embedded.”
Recalling Shia history in general and remembering the events of Kerbala in particular serves not only a religious purpose but also gives meaning to political and social situations. The individual’s construction of meaning is supported by a collective confirmation expressed through the reconstruction of the past that mirrors similar circumstances.
The suffering of the Ahl Al Bayt by the Banaya Ummaya are described in Shia narratives and as recalled by the women I interviewed represent for Shia suffering and injustice. Drawing analogies between past and present political situations provides the women with a distinct Shia identity and confirms the Shia perspective of history as one of continuous suffering.
In other words the creation of historical analogies serves the purpose of sustaining and legitimizing Shia identity and historical experiences and making sense of the current positions and situations of Shia minorities in various geographical contexts.
Fatima is portrayed in some majalis in London as a victim of tyranny who sacrificed herself for the protection of her family. This is supported by remembering the incident of the attack on her house. This narrative is highly controversial not only between various Sunni and Shia groups but also among the various members of the Shia communities.
Some women in the majlis I attended in London reject the following narrative with the argument that Fatima is the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed who had a certain religious and social standing in the community and therefore could not have been treated in such a humiliating way.
Others argue that Imam Hussain the grandson of the Prophet and his family were humiliated, tortured and killed. Treating Fatima in such a way would therefore not to be to unlikely and in line with the patterns of the persecution of the Ahl Al Bayt and what they suffered.
So their particular narrative states that Omar Khatab a companion of the Prophet and later the second caliph stoned Fatima’s house to secure Ali’s pledge for allegiance to Abu Bakr as the first caliph. It is believed that Fatima was standing behind the door when Omar pushed it in order to enter. This led to her rib cage being crushed, the miscarriage of her unborn child and eventually to her own death.
In one of the majalis I attended in London this image of Fatima of being strong and protective in a situation of conflict was related to recent political events which a lot of women in the majlis had experienced during, for example, the Iraq war.
Some women highlight the maltreatment Fatima experienced and the sacrifices she made to protect her family linking them with their own biographies. As one of the women says: “Explosions were everywhere. My family and I hid under the beds. Some soldiers forced themselves onto our house. At this time I remembered that Fatima gave us protection and this gave me strength and courage.”
Remembering Fatima at religious gatherings entails both continuity and change in presenting her as a victim on the one hand and in presenting her as a strong woman who fought for her rights on the other. This reflects Ali Shayati’s plea in the 1970s for changing the way Fatima is portrayed as a role model.
Traditionally Fatima is portrayed as: “There she would sit and cry. She would cry and lament for others until she died.” He continues by presenting the new image of Fatima as being the source of inspiration and freedom. The desire of that which is right. A seeker of justice, a woman who resisted oppression, cruelty, crime and discrimination.
The image of Fatima portrayed by the women in the majalis in London oscillated between these two pictures. As the previous examples show, she is portrayed as a strong and active member of her society. But the image of a victim is part of the portrayal of Fatima as the following comment from the majalis illustrates: “O father I wish you were here and saw what they have done to your daughter. How many ribs were broken? How many memories were left in the orphans eyes?”
However the general portrayal in the majalis I visited in London presented her as a strong personality. Women take Fatima as a role model who stood for resistance and against oppression of any kind. The lectures delivered during the majalis illustrate Fatima as someone who fought for rights and stood up against injustice.
Such is the narrative in the battle of Kaiba during which the Prophet is believed to have bequeathed his property to Fatima. This was rejected by Abu Bakr on the grounds that prophets do not bequeath their property which should be given away to charity (sadaqa) after their demise.
By taking this particular example women present Fatima as courageously speaking out against this injustice committed against her, challenging the authorities and fighting for her land. Living in the diaspora some of the women in the majalis I attended in London were encouraged by the example of Fatima to think about their own land which they were forced to leave behind; land they believe was taken from another. This could be by Saddam Hussein as a lot of the Iraqis living in London had to leave their country in the 1980s or 1990s or due to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in 2003.
The narrative of Kerbala in general is presented by many Shia Muslim communities in Europe as a resistance movement against oppressive regimes of all kinds. Taking historical Shia female figures as role models and constructing a narrative that portrays these figures in similar historical situations of religious conflict provides women with a confirmation of a distinct Shia identity that contains the message of being rewarded in heaven in the after life.
It is also used by some malajis in London to encourage a pro active attitude against injustice in general. One very interesting statement was mentioned in one of the majalis I attended: “Whoever has been attacked is Shia in identity.”
In the Gulf this social and political message associated with the memory of Shia figures such as Fatima in the majalis is not so common. In the majalis I attended in Kuwait, Fatima’s virtues of being a good daughter to her father, a supporting wife to her husband and a caring mother to her children is emphasised as the following comments illustrate: “She is the mother – who will comfort her in her sorrows? If your place is in the tents was empty, no one would be more affectionate to you. If you were on the plains of Kerbala with your child you would have shown endurance and patience but who would comfort your pain?”
The general image of Sayida Fatima in these majalis in these regions is derived from the known description of her as being the mother of her father as the Prophet used to call her. The high status of the mother was repeatedly highlighted in the majalis in the Gulf I attended. “With each heart beat remember your mother, your mother is your soul. I do not need to tell you the importance of mothers. If you have a mother take good care of her, if you have lost her pray for her.”
The word um in Arabic (mother) is also used to refer to the root or to the source. The description of Fatima as the mother of her father was also used to portray her as the source or root of the Muslim community and the unique status of being the mother i.e. the genealogical link between the Prophet and the imams. She is portrayed as the root of the tree of Islam and the origin of prophet hood.”
It is also argued that Hassan Al Hussein’s root is also Fatima as their mother delivered the progeny. One of the lectures in Kuwait described Hassan and Zeinab Al Hussein who lost their mother as young children saying: “ After you who will give us affection and take care of us. The mother is a tent to her children.”
The imagery of tent which gives shelter and protection from hot and cold weather has been used to describe the importance of the mother to her children. The malayi would oscillate between the portrayal of motherhood as the person of Fatima and the portrayal of any other woman in the majlis. This I found fascinating and very empowering.
By doing so the malayi personalised Fatima’s experience of motherhood as having a higher emotional attachment and engagement in Shia ritual practices when she reached salvation. The weeping in Shia rituals is a source of salvation.
Fatima died before the battle of Kerbala. Some narratives recall her visiting the plains of Kerbala after her son Imam Hussein was killed. The description of this particular incident is very emotional and focuses on the relationship between a mother and her child generally. Very often the death of Imam Hussein’s baby child Asra and his mother’s cry of her loss is related to Fatima and her loss of her two sons.
To connect the women in the majlis emotionally even closer to these incidents, a link is again made between Shia historical figures and their loss of their own children and the resulting sorrow and pain in motherhood in general which a lot of the women in the majlis who are mothers themselves can relate to.
In one of the majlis I visited in Kuwait the mother of a very well known mullalia who is a Kuwaiti of Iranian descent gave a lecture and recited lamentation poetry both in Arabic and Persian. It was a private majlis where the majority were Kuwaiti who understood Persian and were familiar with Iranian culture.
The malai had the melody and the rhythm of a well known Persian lullaby which changed to match the killing of Imam Hussein’s baby son in Asra during the battle of Kerbala and was performed by the women in the majlis and this was the best majlis I attended in my life. It was very powerful.
The poem says: “Sleep tight o my rose bud. Sleep tight my mother’s child. My dear why are you not sleeping. Why aren’t you sleeping? [addressing the baby] I presume you are thirsty for water. Fruit of your mother’s womb don’t cry. What causes your unrest son? Are you going on a journey [here referring to death].
In between these Persian lines the mullaia added further descriptions in Arabic and encouraged the women to interact with the narrative. This particular narrative is about the torture and ultimate killing of the imam’s son Ali Al Asra who is often referred to as the breast feeding infant. The narrative states that because the mother’s breast milk had dried up he was dying from thirst Imam Hussein therefore took the baby to the enemy asking them to spare the baby.
One of the Ummayad’s archers is believed to have shot the infant with the arrow cutting his throat from the vein to the vein. According to the narrative when the infant felt the arrow piecing his flesh he reached out to hug his father while his was body was shaking like a fluttering bird. The mulaiya described how Ali Asra’s mother came to the scene looking at her baby boy. She kneels down to kiss her baby boy. At this stage the mulaiya asks those women in the majlis who brought their children with them to hug and kiss their own children and to feel the pain she must have felt in loosing her own child and saying goodbye.
The mulaiya says: “You are holding at the moment your soul in your hands. Just imagine your baby being taken from you. What would have happened? How did Rabat feel? How did Sayida Fatima feel when holding her child beheaded in her arms?”
The mulaiya asked everyone to say loudly ‘mother’ in Persian and repeat the rhythmic song of the lullaby. It was the strongest majlis I have ever participated in and I attended a lot of majalis. That particular one was really really strong.
To conclude: Shia communities can be regarded as memory communities as remembering Shia historical events and figures who form a distinctive part of their historical identity particularly in Shia ritual practices performed in private and public majalis Shia narratives of the past in rituals and lamentation poetry recall certain events or highlight the virtues of certain historical figures.
Sayida Fatima occupies a special place in these majalis among others. As we have seen in this paper, Fatima is remembered differently in various Shia communities in and outside the Middle East. As a first impression one would assume that presenting Fatima in the Middle East as a symbol for motherhood would go back to the traditional portrayal which reflects the more patrichial social structures in the Gulf that this particular depiction of Fatima also affirms.
This might be the case to a certain extent also among Shia communities in the diaspora. However it also shows the political positionality of Shia minority communities in Europe. Remembering Fatima as a revolutionary figure in the diaspora serves the purpose of sustaining and legitamising Shia identity highlighted through historical experiences through the reconstruction of past memories and recalling of historical figures meaning is given to current political situations.
Most of the majalis I attended in London were organised by Iraqi Shia having to leave Iraq. Living now in Europe they reconstruct their history in a way to provide a shared past which mirrors certain political circumstances of separation and exclusion and displacement.
Portraying Fatima as a symbol of resistance reflecting their resistance of the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein the power of resistance expressed through the memory of Fatima unites Shia communities in the diaspora with the hope of justice on the one hand and the confirmation of their distinct Shia identity with the notion of martyrdom which will be rewarded in the afterlife.
Amir De Martino: There is a lot that can be said of a society by looking at their heroes and role models. We could almost say ‘tell me who your role model is and I’ll tell you who you are?’ To have a role model to look up to can be a good way to survive in difficult and confusing times. The problem is that as society’s ethical values change so do its heroes. Yesterday’s heroes are not necessarily today’s.
If I was a Mongolian I might consider Genghis Khan as my hero and this would be a subjective consideration. Many imitate or take as their heroes ephemeral characters who briefly make the headlines, people who have nothing to teach, and contrary to what they believe are nothing more than insignificant extras on the world scene.
With society having pushed out from its heart and intellect the last residues of belief in a divine dimension, the heroes of today’s humanity are worldly individuals valued for their economic success, achievement of power or tabloid fame. In short, they are secularised like the society that has produced them.
Modern society has little room for ‘sacred heroes’ and broadly struggles to admit the concept of ‘sacredness’. Accepting the existence of the sacred is to accept that which transcends, that goes beyond man, time and space, towards the eternal. Sacred is what reconnects our worldly life to the invisible forces of the supernatural world, where things are kept in order by laws that are for man but orientated towards the divine. True heroes are an effusion of the sacred that is why they really and truly exist in the sacred dimension. Their task is to remind us of our real purpose in life and as such operate in the domain of faith and belief.
The nearest possible term that can be used to describe them in our contemporary language is saints. Endowed with the exceptional faith they perform exceptional acts of sacrifice. They live in the realm of certainty. It is their certainty that gives us certainty. They don’t ask to be followed; we follow them instinctively when we achieve awareness. Even those who hate them acknowledge their praiseworthiness and moral superiority; they cannot be mistaken, confused or compared to others no matter how powerful others are in this world. They are true historical personalities that cry out for the faith of humanity, easily distinguishable from imposters and charlatans. Their example is not time related and their remembrance becomes a duty for future generations that evoke their epic lives.
They have ranks and the highest of them are the closest to God, whose pleasure they see as the ultimate objective. They belong to whoever recognises them and the love for them is ever expanding. They come from a line of purity whose covenant with God was signed in the world of pre-existence.
God has granted them a master and his name is Husayn ibn Ali(a) the grandson of Prophet Muhammad(s) known simply by his followers as Imam Husayn(a). Among the heroes of history he has undoubtedly the largest number of followers. Last year more than two million people visited his grave at a single moment in Karbala, Iraq, with a constant flow of pilgrims throughout the year. It is not by chance that this Master of Heroes is from the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad(s). Like his grandfather, who completes the cycle of prophets, Imam Husayn(a) can be said to complete the cycle of heroes. He is the archetype of the martyred heroes.
The story of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn(a) with his followers on the plane of Karbala in the year 61AH / 680CE, may be related to Islamic history, but in reality it has cosmic significance. If the Imam represents the custodian of Prophet Muhammad’s(s) true message, his killers, who obeyed the infamous Yazid ibn Muawiya, represent the trend within human history intent on desecrating the sacred. Their objective is to slow down or destroy the generating power of the spiritual force, to remove the dynamic presence, capable of generating via institutions, cultures, laws, religion…, spiritual values that are above the individual, constant and unchangeable.
Today the followers of the Prophet Muhammad(s) are occupying the front lines of the struggle against selfishness and utilitarianism and in this the example of Imam Husayn(a) provides us with clear lessons of intent and purpose.
Bravery and courage are virtues appreciated universally but they are wasted if not placed at the service of the highest ideals, worse still if put at the service of those who oppress and massacre humanity (this applies to Muslims too). This is why the heroic struggle of Imam Husayn(a) is incomparable with any other struggle of the past and of the future.
His discerning followers understand this. His story/struggle is not about rivalry between two ancient families of the Arab Qureshi tribe, these are just details of history. The real picture is much broader with implications in all aspects of daily life. It has to do with the historical corruption of true Prophetic Islam, and the failure of a community to bring forward the Prophet’s vision of Islam rather than a caliphal, monarchical and dynastical interpretation embodied by those who came to rule the Muslim world.
Historians are quick to point out that less than 50 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad(s) his community had allowed the structure of the Islamic political system to turn into a dynastical family with Muawiya ibn Abu Sufian at its head. This system is not to be confused with the wise, pious, just prophets/kings of the Old Testament.
There is no doubt that today there is much confusion in the world of Islam as it is outside. What is right? What is wrong? Who is just or unjust? Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor?…….. In the absence of such clarity we take comfort in the words of Prophet Muhammad(s) who said about his grandson; ‘Indeed Husayn is the Beacon of Guidance and the Ark of Salvation.’
For the lover of the Prophet and his family, Imam Husayn(a) is the ultimate hero. The beacon of his light is guiding generations after generations and will continue to do so. No special features are needed to see it and be guided by it except humbleness and the acknowledgment of the sacred.
I am sure that in a world that has confined the sacred to hidden corners there are still people capable of being moved by the guiding light of true heroes. We will do our best to help Imam Husayn’s(a) light to reflect in all directions by living by example and honouring him with perpetual remembrance.
Yazid I’s ascension to power in 680CE through the machinations of his father Muawiya was not complete. The grandson of the Prophet Muhammad(s), Husayn ibn Ali(a), highly respected by the community and whose opinions and actions were important, rejected legitimising Muawiya’s plan. His famous reply that ‘a person like me can never give allegiance to someone like Yazid’ is an exhortation for us to analyse the characteristics of the two personalities to realise that they represent two opposing realities, two parallel dimensions, one carnal and soulless represented by Yazid, and the other spiritual, soul-edifying, hope-giving, despair-removing and heroic represented by Imam Husayn(a).
*Dr Yafa Shanneik is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Birmingham, specialising in Islam and Christianity. Her research is focusing on Sunni and Shia women in Europe and their transnational networks to the Middle East. She is also interested in Muslim women’s leadership and authority in private and public spheres. Yafa is examining the changing nature of women’s participation in religious practices in Europe as well as in the Middle East. In addition, she works intensively on religious conversion and focuses on women’s narratives of identity and belonging. She has BA (Hons) (Yarmouk University, Jordan), M.A. and Ph.D. (University of Würzburg, Germany).
**Amir De Martino is Italian-born holding an MA in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College and a combined BA degree in Persian Language and Studies of Religion from SOAS University, London. His Master’s dissertation was on The development of ʿĀshūrāʾ rituals in Shiʿa Islam. Amir De Martino was trained in Islamic classical studies at the Hawzah Imam Hussein – London (prior to its merger with the Islamic College for Advanced Studies). In 2010 he obtained a PGCE in Social Research Methods from the Department of Education at Roehampton University as part of his preparation for doctoral studies. He has taught Islamic History modules and other various modules at the Islamic College for over a decade. At present, he is the Programme Leader of the BA (Honours) in Islamic Studies, a programme offered in partnership with Middlesex University. Amir De Martino is also a member of the Westminster’s SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education).
***The Revd Frank Julian Gelli obtained a BA in Philosophy from Birkbeck College, London, an MA in Christian Ethics as well as a PGCE, both from Kings College, London. He also holds an Oxford University Certificate in Theology. Three years ago he obtained an MA in Islamic Studies from the Muslim College, London. In 1986 he was ordained as Anglican priest. He served in London parishes, as well as a chaplain to the Church of St Nicholas, British Embassy, Ankara, Turkey. From 1999, Father Frank has devoted himself to writing and to interfaith dialogue. He has lectured on interfaith in the US, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Qatar, where he was Visiting Fellow at the Family Institute, Qatar University. He often takes part in interviews and discussions on TV Channels like Press TV, Ahlulbayt TV and Islam Channel. He has two books available online. ‘Julius Evola, the Sufi of Rome’ and ‘The Dark Side of Britain’. His next book will be ‘The Qur’an and the Art of Problem-Solving’.

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