Open Letter: The ma'ajjra of Karbala

By Zahir Ebrahim | Project
October 6, 2016, Muharram-ul Haram 1438 AH | Last updated October 30, 2016
AOA (as-salamu 'alaykum),
Many of you are already most knowledgeable about these matters, and of which I have no doubt. Therefore, I write this open letter not to presume to inform you about what may essentially be your own ancestral ethos as the "saadaat" (bloodline) of the noble Prophet of Islam. I write to just share with you what I humbly think about this entire "ma'ajjra" (mystery) of Imam Hussein's initiation of his final "naizat" (mission) against Yazid in 60 A.H. (680 A.D.), and the subsequent public "Gum-e-Hussein" (the public's sorrow of Hussein) some 1377 years later which, even in the year 2016 A.D., still brings even the most hardened hearts to spontaneous tears, Muslims' and non Muslims' alike, but often mainly as an act of religious piety for Shia Muslims; as the fast-path to Heaven in Afterlife.
Is that the purpose of Imam Hussein's ritualistic remembrance, to shed some genuine tears which, as one is informed from the mimbars (pulpits) year after year, will take one to Heaven after death?
This idea has evidently become an intimate part of the religious as well as cultural ethos of the followers of the Ahlul Bayt (see What does the Holy Qur'an say about the Ahlul Bayt). It drives the rank and file of Shia Muslims the world over. It keeps the tradition of Muharram alive to retell the story of Karbala, and to reenact its lament, so that the world of tyranny, at least symbolically, may never forget that there was Imam Hussein. More significantly however, it spontaneously gathers the flock without any central authority driving them.
Each year, wherever Shia Muslims live, this remembrance of Imam Hussein is spontaneously reenacted, from home to home, center to center, and street to street. The main raison d'être of the devotees themselves --- the fast path to Heaven. The remembrance of Karbala has become a ritualistic holy act with Heavenly blessings presumed to be attached it.
This de facto canonization into holy act also works well for governments, both good and bad, to keep a people culturally inclined towards the ideals of Imam Hussein, preoccupied in rituals seeking Heaven in their remembrance of Karbala, lest a group arise to actually reenact the act of Imam Hussein rather than just his ritual remembrance.
There are many deep questions buried in that entire epic journey of Imam Hussein, the noble grandson of the noble Prophet of Islam, where the Imam's "qayaam" (stance, to put a stake in the ground, to draw a line in the sand) took place in specific stages. From Medina to Mecca to Kufa, which was of course interdicted in Karbala at the beginning of 61 A.H before reaching Kufa, where, finally, on the 10th day of Muharram, the exemplar of Islam returned his soul back to his Creator at the zenith of nafs-e-mutmahinnah: “O soul that art at rest! Return to your Lord, well-pleased (with him), well-pleasing (Him)”, (Holy Qur'an, Surah Al-Fajr, 89:27, 89:28, يَٰٓأَيَّتُهَا ٱلنَّفْسُ ٱلْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ ٱرْجِعِىٓ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَّرْضِيَّةً ).
And at each stage there was a stay by the Imam, and an invitation to the "khawas" of the area to join his final mission, and his explanations of the mission to individual “khawas” who questioned him and tried to change his mind, or joined him. These conversations between the Imam and the “khawas” transpiring throughout the Imam's journey, and the letters he wrote to other “khawas”, are most interesting and hide a well-spring of lessons to be learnt.
Even its preliminary study reveals an ocean of insight into sociology, psychology, and perceptive capture of the forces that drive ordinary human beings, both “khawas” and “awam”, to the "banality of evil" that has become so well known as the primary sociological dysfunction of our own modern era.
The dysfunction of Imam Hussein's era, and our own modernity, is driven by exactly the same primal forces, as revealed from the perceptive words and conversations of Imam Hussein which become the mirror of history to examine one's own times in. This points to the real significance of the Imam's mission to Karbala – to convey to his own people, as well as to posterity, the clear demonstration of how to overcome their own “banality of evil” as per the clear purpose of the clear teachings of the Religion of Islam brought by the Noble Prophet of Islam.
The expression “banality of evil”, the ordinariness of those who easily become party to extreme evil, by either commission of the evil, or by their omission to stop the evil, is the neologism of the Jewish writer Hannah Arendth. It captures a behavioral as well as a spiritual truth which Islam has focussed on a great deal in the Holy Qur'an. Human beings are capable of extreme evil, and they don't have to be sociopaths, psychopaths and hardened criminals to do so.
The behavior of the largely virtuous and pious Muslims, and especially the Muslim “khawas” and respected elders, whom Imam Hussein met and addressed throughout his journey, from Medina to Mecca to places en route to Kufa, until its culmination in Karbala on the day of Ashura, exemplifies this truth. Only a tiny tiny handful joined the Imam in his “qayaam” against the tyrant of his day. The majority stayed aloof, busy in piety, and the people who had gathered in Mecca for the Haj season, chose to perform their Haj instead of pay heed to the Imam's call to overcome their “banality of evil”.
All their religious prayers, all their religious piety, and yet they had learnt to resist the temptation to join the noble grandson of the noble Prophet of Islam even as they saw him being only accompanied by his womenfolk and children, which clearly meant that there was an important principle at stake other than mere rebelling for power. The tens of thousands of pious Muslims of 60 A.H. had kept the outer shell of Islam and thrown away its fruit.
For the Muslims in Yazid's army who participated in the slaughter of the children of the Prophet of Islam in Karbala, and those Muslims who silently watched or profited from this evil, their “banality of evil” is captured in the following remarkable words of Hannah Arendth from her Report on the Banality of Evil, written in 1963. This passage captures the German public's behavior under the totalitarian Nazi Third Reich in 1940s with just as much veracity as it captures the Muslim public's behavior under the totalitarian Yazid's Ummayad Dynasty, arguably the Muslim First Reich, in that tragic epoch of 60 A.H. “Evil in the Third Reich had lost the outstanding quality by which most people recognize it -- the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors part towards their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew of course, even though many of them might not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices of all these crimes by benefitting from them. But God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.” (Hannah Arendth, Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963, ch VIII, last page, pg. 121)
The words and conversations of Imam Hussein demonstrate that Imam Hussein's Islam was not the Islam of the “khawas” (leading elites and prominent peoples) of his time, and nor was it the Islam of the virtuous rank and file “awam” busy performing the Haj pilgrimage. Nor is it the Islam that is culturalized, socialized, and adapted to the taste of the rulers. It is also not the Islam which Bernard Lewis, “a leading Western scholar of Islam”, argued: “It is difficult to generalize about Islam. To begin with, the word itself is commonly used with two related but distinct meanings, as the equivalents both of Christianity, and Christendom. In the one sense, it denotes a religion, as system of beliefs and worship; in the other, the civilization that grew up and flourished under the aegis of that religion. The word Islam thus denotes more than fourteen centuries of history, a billion and a third people, and a religious and cultural tradition of enormous diversity.” (Bernard Lewis, Crisis of Islam – Holy War and Unholy Terror, 2003, pg. 1)
The word Islam only denotes what the Religion of Islam itself defined it: “This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion; (Holy Qur'an, Surah Al-Maeda verse fragment 5:3, الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الْإِسْلَامَ دِينًا ۚ )
The lessons buried in that entire journey of the pious Imam, and not just the final ten days of it, or the last day of it called “Ashura”, are so profound, and transformative, that I have to lamentably observe that it remaining largely hidden among the ardent followers of the Ahlul Bayt throughout the ages since Karbala, is its own tragedy.
The truth of these words, that it has indeed remain hidden, is empirical. It is even explained by the very definition of "Gum-e-Hussein" that the rank and file followers of Ahlul Bayt typically live by.
This is where I am indebted to the inexplicable new rising scholar of Islam, Hujjatul Islam Allama Syed Jawad Naqvi, of the Shia Islamic Seminary named Jamea Orwathul Wuthqa, Lahore, Pakistan, [1] for his outstanding "tajziya" of the words, sentences, letters, speeches, khutbas, conversations – in full sociological context of that time – of the pious Imam himself to explain the Imam's own "Gum-e-Hussein".
What was Imam Hussein's "gum" that caused him to launch his “naizat” against the tyrant of his time?
We know what his adherents' "gum" is whenever we think of "Gum-e-Hussein". It has largely been the same ever since 61 A.H. It is the tragedy of Karbala, of what Yazid's forces did to the noble family of the noble Prophet of Islam and to the surviving women and children of Karbala. Muslims are sorrowful and sad because Yazid killed and tortured the Imam and his family. That is the public's "Gum-e-Hussein", their sorrow and anger over what Imam Hussein and his family were subjected to.
But what was Imam Hussein's own "gum"? His own anger? His own "Gum-e-Hussein"? Karbala and Ashura had not yet transpired when the Imam started his "naizat" in Medina in 60 A.H.
How, and indeed why, has Imam's Hussein's own "gum" become masked off from the pulpit by the paid narrators who mount the mimbars, and by the hundreds of thousands of devout and devoted elegy writers, poets, scholars, and khatibs throughout Muslim history?
Why has the Imam's own "gum" not become the common "gum" and shared ethos of his own steadfast adherents among both the “khawas” and the “awam” throughout history?
Had that been so, there would indeed have been Karbala every place and Ashura every day as per Imam Sadiq's explanation of the import of Karbala: “Qullo yomin Ashura, Qullo Ardin Karbala.”
Whereas, what has actually transpired is that the followers of Ahlul Bayt, worldwide, mainly only remember the Karbala of 61 A.H. They offer their sorrows and laments to the Imam for what happened to his family. And after having paid their full respects for ten days to the noble family of the Prophet of Islam, and having said their “al-widas” (goodbyes) and their “see you next year if life remaining”, return home to business as usual. The poignant pithy saying of the sixth Imam of the Ahlul Bayt has become relegated to mere poetry, elegies, posters, and fine art tee-shirts.
In the same way, many other religious concepts whose principal purpose is to induce voluntary transformation in every society in every day and age, such as “safina-tun-nijaat” (the ship of refuge, an allusion to Prophet Nuh's Ark that gave “nijaat” to all those who willingly came on board from the pestilence of the global floods; referring to the fundamental ideals and core principles of the religion of Islam that Imam Hussein is seen as the uncompromising exemplar of, the ship of refuge from all falsehoods and tyranny for anyone who willingly climbs aboard that exemplariness, in the words of the Prophet of Islam: “Innal Hussein misbah-ul-huda wa safina-tun-nijaat”), etc., have also become relegated to merely reciting in elegies. And to be worn on expensive silkscreened tee-shirts to display one's faith in the Imamate of the holy Imams of the Ahlul Bayt.
This is particularly felt important every time Shia Muslims are under assault, and rather than cower in intimidation, remembering the courage of Imam Hussein and his uncompromising stance at Karbala, put on a bold display of faith before the world with these holy sayings printed on posters and tee-shirts.
More Machiavellianly however, these slogans and the name of Imam Hussein is carried aloft for corralling the flock behind any agenda, to show any mission of self-interest as the mission of Hussein, no differently than how in the Battle of Siffin in 37 AH., Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan's forces at the brink of defeat, cunningly raised their copies of the Holy Qur'an on their spears as the ones on the righteous path, to confront Imam Ali's soldiers. Imam Ali's army, despite their Imam's effort in telling them that this was a diabolical ruse to get them to lay down their arms when the battle had reached a decisive stage in their favor, did precisely what Muawiyah had anticipated the simpletons in the Imam's army would do. That momentous event of Muslim history set the precedent for holding any holy flag of Islam over the public head when it serves a political agenda.
That exercise is not limited to Muslim states waging self-righteous holy wars in the name of Islam, both in offense as its own la mission civilisatrice, as well as in self-defence, internecine or otherwise.
It also encompasses the cunning of: a) deliberately keeping the public preoccupied in the fast-path to Heaven in the name of Imam Hussein by misdirecting attention to what Yazid did to Imam Hussein in the plains of Karbala, lest the public focus on what Imam Hussein did to Yazid and rise-up against their own oppressors; and b) rallying the public to senselessly lay down their own lives “united we stand” for what is propagandistically deemed holy mission, and holy defence, by rulers, in the name of what Imam Hussein did in the plains of Karbala with the same promise of Heaven awaiting. The dispensers of Heaven among Muslims throughout its short fourteen century history have arguably far surpassed the papacy at its peak influence.
The perceptive understanding of "Gum-e-Hussein" from the Imam's own point of view however, with sophistication and wherewithal, frees all these revolutionary constructs of Islam from the straight-jackets of gut-wrenching elegiac poetry, fine literature, scholarly humanities, and Machiavellian misdirection that they have become enshrined in over the ages.
Indeed, I do not see the Imam's own “gum” having become the “gum” of his most ardent matamis (self-flagellators), jooloosies (flock in processions), khatibs (mounters of pulpit), poets, scholars, mourners, and believers of his Imamat in general.
In fact, the Imam's most ardent devotees among the rank and file, in their exaggerated public expression of "Gum-e-Hussein", so transcend the bounds of human dignity in their ritualistic remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala that their blood-letting in the name of Imam Hussein, would surely be part of Imam's own "Gum-e-Hussein". The ubiquitous Shia pulpit that silently condones what has now become enshrined as the public face of Shia Islam, has occasionally been checked by the rare Shia jurist, but at best in advisory tones without categorically banning it by religious fatwa.
Thus we clearly evidence that the construct "Gum-e-Hussein" has come to have two distinct and separate meanings which have rarely coalesced throughout the fourteen centuries that it has been commemorated. There is the public's "Gum-e-Hussein", and there is Imam Hussein's own "Gum-e-Hussein".
In the age of universal tyranny, the public's "Gum-e-Hussein" is supposed to have led to adopting the Imam's own "Gum-e-Hussein" to strike at the very heart of tyrants and its systems of oppression.
Has that happened? Which meaning should one adopt in our own age of universal tyranny, 1377 years after Imam Hussein exemplified his own "Gum-e-Hussein"?
Is Imam Hussein the private property of Shia Muslims that its rank and file can do whatever it likes in his memory? The Imam is an exemplifier for all Muslims, nay, for all humanity, for wherever tyranny exists.
It is fortunate that rational people are inspired directly by the categorical imperative that Imam Hussein not only stood for, but equally demonstrated in his acts with the same uncompromising fervor, much like the Kantian categorical imperative that the West is likely more familiar with. And not turned off by the ritualistic excesses of his devoted followers who tend to largely ignore the categorical imperative of the Imam and focus on that one instance of the act itself.
What this means as a philosophical principle, is that every act of Imam Hussein underlies a principle which can become a general principle. When that is true, it is what Kant defined as the categorical imperative for moral existence based on reason. As a general principle therefore, anyone and everyone can adopt it for the same purposes in their own individual acts regardless of time and space, regardless of their caste, creed, national origin and religion –- and each of their individual acts in turn become a categorical imperative in the Kantian sense. Meaning, they do not act in a manner such that its underlying principle cannot be made into a general principle. Thus, to cut open one's head with a sword can hardly be made into a general principle of mourning.
That timeless power of Imam Hussein, to be the singular and unparalleled exemplar of Kant's categorical imperative principle for moral existence to this degree of belief and commitment a thousand years before German philosopher Immanuel Kant was even born; to offer his and his family's lives in ransom as a categorical imperative in the unflinching way that he did at Karbala, that he sacrificed everything including his children, for a principle that he held dearly, is presumably what attracts the thoughtful mind to Imam Hussein even fourteen centuries later.
Here, in the philosophical sense, it is arguably immaterial what specifically Imam Hussein believed, but only that his principled acts, driven by the courage of his convictions, is illustrative of the Kantian categorical imperative of moral existence. That is Imam Hussein's attraction to many thinking peoples, as the unsurpassed exemplar of having the courage of one's convictions.
It is this idea that inspires many to stand their ground against all odds even when they may not be Muslim, or even religious. Hindus are as inspired by Imam Hussein's categorical imperative for instance – when they do not even believe in the religion of Islam. So clearly the specific religious beliefs of Imam Hussein has no significance for them. This is why, as the poet said, let people be awakened and informed when all nations will say Hussein is ours!
The rank and file mind is of course least bothered with principles and philosophies, or perhaps fairer to say, is not as attracted to the underlying principles as to the act itself. Such a mindless public, by ignoring the principles underlying the Imam's acts, despoil the Imam's sacrifice. It was indeed the only raison d'être of the Imam's “qayaam” all the way to his supreme sacrifice at Karbala. The Imam did not then, nor surely now, want tears of sympathy. The Imam did not call people watching him depart at each stage of his “qayaam”, to shed tears for him or his family in lieu of their accompanying him. He called them to join him solely as a shared categorical imperative which he tried to educate them as their duty, as the moral exemplar of Islam. Imam Sadiq's statement quoted earlier, translated into English: Every day is Ashura, Every place is Karbala, reinforces this point that the Imam's acts is a timeless general principle; a categorical imperative against tyranny.
We see from this short discussion that Imam Hussein's "Gum-e-Hussein" is what drives the Imam to his categorical imperative, and the public's "Gum-e-Hussein" is what drives them to recall the act of Imam Hussein but not to his categorical imperative.
It also appears to me that it was indeed the Islamic Revolution in Iran that brought this distinction out on the surface in our own era --- but not from the lips of Qom trained ullema who have become professional pulpit occupiers worldwide, earning their livelihood in the name of the miseries of Ahlul Bayt. The "Gum-e-Hussein" the turbans have preached for centuries, and continue to rehearse today, is the public's variety. For it is the public that pays for their keep.
From homes to religious centers, a paid turban, whether trained in a seminary or self-taught with diligent practice, brings the devotees to tears as their fast path to Heaven, and charges a hefty fees for that service. This has become the de facto public face of Shiadom.
The wide chasm between the Imam's own "Gum-e-Hussein" and the public's "Gum-e-Hussein" cannot be more unbridgeable under the present system of ritualized, superstitious, fast-path driven, Shiadom. This serves the interests of the control systems of tyranny just fine.
Jawad Naqvi is the first exception I have seen to the typical Qom and Iraq trained religious scholars, khatibs, alims, and various and sundry Hujjatul Islams and Ayatollahs. And because of this exceptional find, I have spent hundreds of hours, literally, going through Jawad Naqvi's remarkable collection of speeches archived on his website,, to extract the gems, and to leave aside the shells.
This signal to noise ratio filtering is the prerequisite for intelligently parsing all narratives of history, as well as of current affairs, for every student of truth, be it a lowly student like myself, or the Grand scholar of the universe as captured in imposing titles like “Ayatollah Uzma”, “Grand Mufti”, etc.
What I personally think about this entire "ma'ajjra" is what Jawad Naqvi, evidently a fount of knowledge and understanding on this subject, explains in great lucidity as the "Gum-e-Hussein", Imam Hussein's own “gum” from Imam Hussein's own words, to unravel the entire “ma'ajjra” of Karbala. Jawad Naqvi points out some very interesting sociological questions and its import to our own times. Specifically, the principal point: the same sociological and psychological principles that characterized the role of the elites in making the public mind that eventually led to the acceptance of, or acquiescence to, a ruler like Yazid coming to power (which led to Karbala), whenever and wherever these principles shall exist, will beget the same conditions, the same “banality of evil”. It is virtually the timeless sociological law of civilizations. None can be soundly skeptical about that perceptive observation, for it is arguably a demonstrated truism. We see it around us even today.
I hold the same general view as exposited by Jawad Naqvi on this “ma'ajjra”. I just wish I had the depth of his knowledge and the depth of his eloquence to similarly express it in English directly from the books and sources that Jawad Naqvi has quoted the words, speeches, and conversations of the pious Imam from. That is necessary because these words of Imam Hussein themselves need a careful epistemological scrutiny. Where did these words of Imam Hussein come from, who compiled or documented them, what is its etiology, etc. We just assume these words to be Imam's own for now to understand its universal import – for the import is indeed empirical. In other words, for the stubborn academic or sectarian mind inclined to be easily misdirected by self-importance, just ignore its authorship and focus on what these words are in fact propounding. Return to the question of authorship later. Thus, given my limitations of not having direct access to the source material, I bring to you Jawad Naqvi in Urdu, for what its worth, to make up your own mind on this singular mystery of Muslim history:
Hamasa-e-Karbala 1438 Muharram-ul Haram: Qayam-e-Imam Hussain Ka Makki Marhala (the Meccan stage of Imam Hussein's stance), Khawas ka Kirdar (the role of Meccan elite),
Direct links to Jawad Naqvi's ten+ arduously long video lectures in Urdu (with thanks to the scholar for making the bold effort), and, when time permits, the English transcripts (of pertinent sections), for your convenience:
English Transcript
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In shared "Gum-e-Hussein" of the captain of “safinah-tun-nijaat” for all mankind,
as-salamu 'alayka ya Sayed-us-Shuhada
Yours sincerely,
Zahir Ebrahim | Project

[1] As some may already be familiar, I have had some principled difference of opinion on a couple of fundamental matters with Jawad Naqvi. Specifically, why he persistently chooses to ignore the title “Sir” as he makes “Sir” Allama Iqbal out to be the “alamabardar” of “deen-e-shabbiri” (the flag bearer of the religion of Hussein). From his silence to my letter of inquiry in my report: The Rise of Revolutionary Islam in Pakistan – A Report on Behavior Control, I have unfortunately concluded that Hujjatul Islam Allama Syed Jawad Naqvi, either carefully lies by omission when convenient or necessary to push his ideological doctrines through; or he is victim of both: data availability bias and confirmation bias, which permits him to weave his narrative to unwittingly only state what is consistent with his own theology. That is arguably not the hallmark of a student of truth (one who seeks truth in all matters regardless of what it is), but that of an ideological doctrinaire (one who expounds his own “truth”, his own beliefs, his own ideology). There is a marked difference between the two. The former when presented with a fact or analysis that goes against his presupposition or instincts, easily accepts the new fact. The latter discards that fact as inconvenient, or denies it, or minimizes it, or rationalizes it away as inconsequential. Secondly, Jawad Naqvi has never responded to my critical analysis of the entire concept of Taqlid, and Vilayat-i Faqih, in which I have tried to understand the matter directly from my meagre study of the Holy Qur'an, and asked the world of Islam scholars to find the flaw in it so that either I, a humble student of reality and not its master, may come to the right understanding of reality and stop being mistaken, or they change their mind. Since both cannot be true when they are opposites. See Preface: Hijacking The Holy Qur'an And Its Religion Islam. Obviously, no “khawas” is really interested in putting an ordinary fellow of the “awam” straight. I cast aside those differences of opinion for this topic. I find Jawad Naqvi's clear, lucid, and analytical deconstruction of this history both interesting and perceptive. It opens the door to further study for the curious minds. And it also opens the door to changing one's own perception of the “ma'ajjra” of Karbala for both Muslims and non Muslims.

First published October 06, 2016 | Last updated Sunday, October 30, 2016 06:00 pm 4795

Open Letter: The ma'ajjra of Karbala - What is it all about 1377 years later? By Zahir Ebrahim 11/11