Every once in a while, the world bears witness to appalling atrocities and crimes against humanity: genocides, the killing of innocent civilians in war-torn regions, and the denial of human rights. These bitter incidents call to mind examples and lessons from the past that have clearly not been heeded. But history contains within it a universal message, conveyed almost 1400 years ago, which continues to ring out through humanity even today.
Every year on the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram, known as the day of Ashura, millions of Muslims worldwide take to the mosques and to the streets, crying out their dedication to a man known as Husayn (peace be upon him) – the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him). They march in unison in commemorating his martyrdom and the sacrifice made by him, his family, and his companions in the year 680 C.E. in Karbala, Iraq.
This historical incident is not merely one example among many that the world has unfortunately seen time and again. Husayn is hailed as a hero of all times and the quintessence of truth, morality, and resoluteness. His ideals sharply contrasted a society where corruption was rampant; where the elite, deeply engrossed in fleeting hedonistic pursuits, openly neglected the rights of the oppressed. Husayn stood against a society where justice was being effaced at the hands of a tyrant regime headed by a man named Yazid.
Although centuries have passed and several generations have replaced these personalities, the context in which they lived remains the same today. Undoubtedly, nations around us are plagued by corruption, the oppressed and destitute are neglected, justice is not upheld, and the morality that underlies all these principles is weakening.
So when the lovers of Husayn and the supporters of all that he stood for take to the streets and unite in a procession to promote these very principles, it comes as a shock when these people, and particularly these principles, are attacked, terrorized, and suppressed. On December 28th, 2009, in such an Ashura day procession in Karachi, Pakistan, over 40 people were murdered in what was allegedly a suicide bomb blast. The media may emphasize sectarian rifts of the past in ascribing the “cause”, but anyone who analyzes the news and the world today with a critical eye would immediately recognize that the issue at hand surpasses sectarian violence. On the contrary, the reality of it is often distorted, and the media, time and again, fuels sectarian violence as an aftermath of such tragic events.
This universal message is not bound by sect or faith. Husayn (as) did not defend a faction; he and his family and companions on the day of Ashura defended an ideology in the name of all of humanity. Those who love Husayn and his courageous stand come from all walks of life, Sunni or Shia, Muslim or not. His message has been embraced by well-known and admirable figures, including Mahatma Ghandi (1869 – 1948), who said, “I have learnt from Husayn how to be oppressed yet victorious.”
Although the tragedy of Ashura lies within the context of Islamic history, its lessons and impact on society are far-reaching. In light of recent events of hostility at the behest of the Taliban and al Qaeda, such as the Ashura day procession bombing in Karachi; the blast that killed up to 100 in a volleyball game in Lakki Marwat, Pakistan; the very recent blast in Karbala on February 1, 2010 that killed over 50 pilgrims commemorating Arba’een (the 40th day after Ashura); and other acts of hate incited around the world, it is clear that the instigators of violence are hard at work against peace, unity, and justice — the values that represent the beautiful religion of Islam. Now, these heinous acts do not seem unlike those of Yazid in 680 C.E.
When digging beneath the rubble and remnants of chaos, tears, anger, and needless loss of life, one can appreciate the reality that whosoever opposes the message of peace and justice over oppression and corruption, the message of Husayn, is the common adversary and does not stand for humanity. Those who advocate violence may call themselves Muslims, but by simple definition have nothing to do with Islam. It is disappointing that these acts are being generalized to a faith, and their portrayal in the media today are overshadowing the message that Husayn (as) upheld centuries ago. Let alone being Muslims, their actions are apart even from humans.
Even if you strip away the names, dates, and details, understanding the commemoration of Ashura as a testament of devotion to universal and essentially humanitarian values may be better appreciated. Let us not be deceived into feeding the vicious cycle of blame and hate over and over again. Let us learn from Husayn’s real message, and from the tragedies of history. Let us stand for humanity.
Zehra Kamani is an undergraduate from the University of Toronto with a double major in Neuroscience & Psychology and will soon be pursuing her masters at York University.