The Imam Husayn's Concepts of Religion and Leadership
Vol XI No. 1
ONLY now and again does there arise above the common level some rare spirit, who, having looked upon God face to face [metaphorically speaking!], reflects more clearly the divine purpose, and puts into practice more courageously the divine guidances. The light of such a man shines like a strong beacon on a dark and disordered world. Our concepts of human values, human dignity and human freedom are better understood today because there has come into its life, among others, a personality that is a flame of God. His suffering embodies the pride of mankind, and in his sacrifice is reflected the eternal patience of man's greatness. An intrepid spirit, an impregnable will-power, and a superhuman passion for truth and justice are his main characteristics. And that man is Husayn b. 'Ali, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam. He presents to us the purest, the most elevating and the most inspiring ideal known to man. He is the one who taught man that death is not worse than a dishonourable life. He showed the world the real meaning of religion and the function of the leaders of mankind.
Religion as such is as old as man himself and is an inseparable part of his history, and therefore it has always been an object of deliberation, speculation, interpretation and also of rejection and criticism. From its earliest form of animism, nature-worship or totemism to that of its purest form of monotheism, religion in its broadest sense symbolizes and articulates society's most basic values and commitments. Moreover, there is the elemental urge in man not only to live, but to live nobly. When our passion for noble living receives cosmic backing, we have the peculiar ardour of religion. There is no one who does not raise at some time or other these fundamental questions: What am I? What is my origin? What is my destiny?
Religion is based on the discovery of the essential worth and dignity of the individual and his relation to a higher world of reality. When the human being perceives that he belongs to an order of reality higher than brute nature, he cannot be satisfied by worldly success or materialistic achievements. That he is capable of martyrdom for ideals shows that he lives in and for a world of eternal realities. Worship is man's reach out to the divine. Religion is the discipline which touches the conscience and helps us to struggle with evil and sordidness, saves us from greed, lust and hatred, releases moral power, and imparts courage in the enterprise of saving man from his inordinate desires. As a discipline of the mind, it contains the key and the essential means of coping with evil which threatens not only the dignity of man but his very existence. It implies the submission of our thinking and conduct to eternal truth. In its essence, religion is a summons to spiritual adventure. It is not theology, but practice and discipline. It is the only remedy for a pride of spirit which has divorced itself from the eternal; when the human spirit defies its sources and conditions and claims absolute self-sufficiency, it becomes insane and suicidal. To restore the lost relationship between the individual and the eternal is the purpose of religion. It is this basic and fundamental relationship which alone can bring ease and harmony in man's relationship with God, with himself, with his fellow man or with the society in which he lives, and with nature. If the relationship between the individual and the sole Creator is broken, the entire fabric of peaceful and meaningful human life will be broken. It is this harmony which religions serve to establish, Islam being the last of them.
Islam means peace as well as submission to the will of God and this is the essence of the Islamic concept of religion. The submission to God in Islam implies, in attitude and action, a regulation of our lives. God, according to Islam, is not a dogma but an ideal and a regulative force in life, and a guarantee of our highest values. Thus, the submission to God, the 'Ideal', with a firm belief in its reality, is a life both of virtue and inner happiness. A man who submits himself to God is true to his real self and, therefore, attains inner peace, which is real happiness, and quite different from worldly pleasures. This happiness more than compensates for any lack of material gain, or for physical pain and suffering.
It is with this concept of religion in general and Islam in particular that we should try to understand how the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, the Imam Husayn b. 'Ali, explains the meaning of religion and the function of religious leadership. The question of the leadership of mankind is the oft- repeated topic of the Qur'an. Whenever the Qur'an talks about divine guidance it also points out those who are entitled to guide. The Qur'anic terms for leaders of mankind are rasul, nabi and imam. The first two are specific terms, whereas the word imam is used in a rather general sense for those who are endowed with the special qualities with which they can lead others to righteousness and good deeds. Thus, for example, we read in the Qur'an that when Abraham, the patriarch of the prophets was told by God 'Behold, I make you an imam (leader) of the people', he asked: 'And what about my offspring?' God replied: 'My covenant will not go to evildoers.' Thus an imam, or leader, of the people is one who leads the people in all cases of conscience, keeps the covenant of God remembered and the teaching of the Prophets alive and effective. He is to protect the religio- ethical message delivered by the messenger of God from being corrupted and changed, and to save it from the reactionary forces which emerge from time to time.
The Message of the Prophet of Islam passed into the hands of the worldly Umayyads within thirty years of his death. After the death of 'Ali in 40/661, Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan appropriated the office of the leadership of the community for himself through the use of force and deceit and ruled the Muslims for twenty years. On Mu'awiya's death, his son Yazid assumed the role of the leadership of the Muslims as the caliph in accordance with the former's unprecedented testament. Yazid's anti-Islamic behaviour and openly irreligious practices were well known throughout the Muslim world and earned for him contempt and disfavour, especially among those who cared for Islamic religio-ethical values. An embodiment of all sorts of vice, tyranny, injustice, oppression and despotic rule, Yazid wanted Husayn to pay him homage as the leader of the Muslim community and submit himself to his authority. That was the crucial point in Islamic history when the meaning of religion had to be reasserted and the function of leadership redefined. This was done by Husayn b. 'Ali with the most effective method of sacrifice, suffering and martyrdom. In reply to the letters written by the people of Iraq inviting him to come to Kufa to take up their leadership, as they had no imam other than him, Husayn wrote to them:
From Husayn b. Ali to the believers and Muslims [of Iraq]: You have invited me to come to you because you have no imam to guide you, and that you hope my arrival there will unite you in the right path and in the truth. You must be clear about the fact that the imam can only be one who follows the Book of God, makes justice and honesty his conduct and behaviour, judges with truth, and devotes himself to the service of God.
In response to the invitation of the people of Basra, Husayn replied:
. . . I have sent my messenger to you and I call you to the Book of God, and the sunna of his Prophet, the sunna which has become obliterated; innovations have become active and energetic. If you listen to me and obey my orders, I will guide you to the right path. May the peace and mercy of God be upon you.
There is space here only to give these two quotations from numerous such statements which Husayn made from the time he left Medina till his martyrdom about six months later. These quotations are by themselves a complete explanation of Husayn's approach to the question of leadership as well as of the function of religion in society. They also explain the duties of an imeim and the nature of the Imamate which was so distorted at this point in Islamic history.
The main points which emerge from them are: (i) that an imam is one who unites the people; (ii) that he should lead them to the right path and to truth; (iii) that the Qur'an, as the Book of God, is an eternal truth, and the duty of the imam is to follow its model, and conduct his life according to the will of God; (iv) that the imam must make justice and honesty the cornerstones of his life; (v) that truth in its most universal and absolute form must be his only criterion; (vi) and that he must devote himself to the service of God.
The functions of the imam enumerated here are both particular and universal, descriptive and normative, and primary and evaluative; they can be applied in every society, time and epoch. They are particular, descriptive and normative when read strictly in the context of Islam, and are universal, primary and evaluative if read in their general meaning which embraces all religions and the whole of humanity. The key terms in Husayn's declarations are: the unity of people (which is basically a unity of purpose), the right path, truth, justice and honesty, and devotion to the service of God. These are in the essence of all religions as well as of Islam. Here religion is not separated from the well-being of society, and society is based on the eternal reality which creates consciousness in society.
An inseparably implied meaning of Husayn's declarations is that the leader of men need not take an active part in politics or in governmental affairs. His primary function is to serve humanity with ethical and normative integrity. He must create moral consciousness and a sense of responsibility which transcends the limits of the political community. He must serve social and spiritual values, but unfortunately totalitarian and despotic regimes subordinate spiritual and moral activities to their ends. It is at this point that Husayn rises up to set a new standard of leadership for challenging totalitarianism, despotism and the forces of evil. There were two ways open to him, one to mass his forces, gather strength, power, weapons and the military might to combat the despotic rule of Yazid. This would not have been difficult for the prestigious grandson of the Prophet, if he had wanted to resort to such action. But the actions of Husayn show that from the beginning to the end his strategy aimed at a much higher goal than simply accession to the caliphate, the term given to temporal authority in Islam. There is no evidence that he tried, while at Mecca, to enlist active supporters from among the people who gathered around him, or to propagate his cause among the great number of people who were coming to Mecca for the hajj; there is also no evidence that he attempted to send his emissaries to stir up any rebellion in the provinces such as the Yemen or Persia, which were sympathetic to his household, even though he was advised by some of his family members to do so. Above all, had he acted promptly on the invitation of the Kufans, while Umayyad control over the city was weak, he might have had a fair chance of success in grasping temporal power. In the six-month period before the battle of Karbala', Husayn did nothing to consolidate his strength and military power. Instead, throughout this period he was preparing himself for a different strategy of revolution.
Some of the writers on Karbala', looking at it from the common standards of war and victory, describe Husayn's action as an ambitious attempt to wrest political power and as an error of judgement. Husayn's numerous speeches, addresses, letters and statements bear testimony to the fact that he was fully aware of the situation and the consequences. Suffice it to point out that on the road from Medina to Mecca, then at the time when he was being the 'House of God' for Kufa, and finally throughout the journey from Mecca to Kufa he was informed and warned by dozens of people about the danger and that 'the hearts of the Iraqis were for him but their swords were for the Umayyads'. But Husayn's replies to all of those who attempted to deflect him from his purpose were always more or less in the same vein:
I leave it to God to choose what is best.... God is not hostile to him who proposes the just cause.
From these replies it is clear that Husayn was fully aware of the dangers he would encounter and that he had a certain strategy and plan in mind to bring about a revolution in the consciousness of the Muslim community. Furthermore, it is also very clear from the sources, as has been pointed out above, that Husayn did not try to organize or mobilize military support, which he easily could have done in the Hijaz, nor did he even try to exploit whatever physical strength was available to him. On the contrary, from the moment he left Mecca for Kufa, time and again he gathered those accompanying him and asked them to leave him alone and go to safety, the last of these requests being on the night of 'Ashura'. Is it conceivable that anyone striving for political ascendancy would ask his supporters to abandon him? No one can answer this question in the affirmative. What then did Husayn have in mind? Why was he still heading for Kufa?
A careful study and analysis of the events of Karbala' reveals that from the very beginning Husayn was planning for a complete revolution in the religious consciousness of Muslims. All of his actions show that he was aware of the fact that a victory achieved through military strength and might is always temporary, because another stronger power can, in the course of time, bring it down in ruins. But a victory achieved through suffering and sacrifice is everlasting and leaves permanent imprints on man's consciousness. Husayn was brought up in the lap of the founder of Islam and had inherited the love and devotion to the Islamic way of life from his father. As time went on, he noticed the great changes which were rapidly taking place in the community in regard to religious feelings and morality. The natural process of conflict and struggle between action and reaction was now at work. That is, Muhammad's progressive Islamic action had succeeded in suppressing Arab conservatism, embodied in heathen pre-Islamic practices and ways of thinking. But in less than thirty years' time this Arab conservatism had revitalized itself as a forceful reaction to challenge Muhammad's action once again. The forces of this reaction had already moved into motion with the rise of Mu'awiya, but the succession of Yazid was a clear sign that the reactionary forces had mobilized themselves and now re-emerged with full vigour. The strength of this reaction embodied in Yazid's character, was now powerful enough to suppress, or at least efface, the Prophet's action. His conduct amounted to open ridicule of Muhammad's sunna and the norms of the Qur'an. He openly defied the Prophethood of Muhammad and the revelation received by him. Now this same Yazid had become the head of the Muslim community and was asking Husayn to accept his authority. Husayn's acceptance of Yazid, with the latter's reactionary attitude against Islamic norms, would not have meant merely a political arrangement but an endorsement of Yazid's character and way of life as well. Thus the entire ethical and religious system of Islam, in the thinking of Husayn, was now in dire need of the reactivation of Muhammad's action against the old Arabian reaction and required a complete shaking up.
He realized that mere force of arms would not save Islamic action and consciousness. To him it needed a shaking and jolting of hearts and feelings. This, he decided, could only be achieved through sacrifice and suffering, and therefore, in order to save Islam and its values, and the freedom of man and his dignity, Husayn made one of the greatest sacrifices in human history. Eighteen male members of his family including a six- month-old son and 44 of his companions were killed in front of him and then he himself laid down his life at the altar of truth and human rights.
Husayn's body, already torn by numerous wounds, was trampled under the hooves of the horses, his tents were burnt and looted; the helpless women and children were shamelessly paraded through the streets of Iraq and Syria as captives, and were treated with humiliation at the crowded courts of Ibn Ziyad in Kufa, and Yazid in Damascus.
Husayn was fully aware of the extent of the brutal nature of the reactionary forces. He knew that after killing him the Umayyads would make his wife and children captives, and take them all the way from Kufa to Damascus. This caravan of the captives of the Prophet's immediate family would publicize Husayn's message and would force the Muslims' hearts to ponder on the tragedy. It would make the Muslims think over the whole affair and would awaken their consciousness. This is exactly what happened; Husayn succeeded in his purpose. It is difficult today to evaluate exactly the impact of Husayn's action on Islamic morality and way of thinking because it prevailed. Had Husayn not shaken and awakened Muslim consciousness by this method, can it be said that Yazid's way of life would not have become standard behaviour in the Muslim community, endorsed and accepted by the grandson of the Prophet. Even after Yazid, despotic rulers have held power in Islam, and the character and personal behaviour of these despotic rulers has not been very different from that of Yazid, but the change in thinking which prevailed after the sacrifice of Husayn always served as a criterion of distinction between the Islamic concept of leadership and the behaviour of totalitarian and despotic rulers. Husayn tells the world that it is no use destroying man; we must destroy man's anti-human actions and conduct. If rulers are overthrown but the system remains unaltered, nothing is gained.