by Abu Dharr (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 7, Muharram, 1441)
Another year, another ‘Ashura’, another “here we go again.” For 1,400 years Muslims have been stuck in two unbalanced positions concerning the calamity of Karbala’ and the martyrdom of Imam Husayn and the brave souls with him. Let us take off our velvet gloves and throw some punches. Many lackadaisical Muslims who are calcified in their own fossilized traditions need a wakeup call. No insults intended.
First, the “Sunni” Muslims, generally speaking, are instinctively ignorant about ‘Ashura’ and Karbala’. This ignorance does not excuse them from asking questions or learning the truth and familiarizing themselves with the facts. Most of them inherited a passive or unresponsive mentality that justifies its ignorance by saying, in so many words, that an inquiry or examination of such a contentious issue will eventually awaken the demons of conflict and divisions (as if there are no conflicts and divisions today) and even war and bloodshed (as if we don’t have any wars or bloodshed)! And, therefore, it is better to forget and forgive. This line of rationalization can be traced back to the Umayyad usurpation of power and authority. This “Sunni” line of rationalization is not Sunni at all. It runs contrary to the word and spirit of the Qur’an and the Prophet (pbuh) where we are taught to learn from the past, study history, and avoid the mistakes of powerful empires and the deviations of tyrannical rulers. The inference of this line of rationalization is that our God-given human intellect, with our God-given divine guidance, are incapable of understanding our own past.
One of the major components of this “Sunni” excuse is the surreptitious implication that the sahabah are above reproach. There is no basis for this, especially when the word sahabah, as it is promoted by today’s status-quo regimes, was defined by the pro-Umayyad scholars. It remains in vogue to this day. Most of those who say they are Sunnis subliminally sidestep the immense lessons of ‘Ashura’ by falling into the Umayyad trap of identifying with the people of Prophet Musa (a) in their exodus from Egypt: hence they fast on the 10th of al-Muharram because Bani Isra’il fasted on that day, and, as the Umayyad tradition has it, Muslims are more worthy of Prophet Musa than Bani Isra’il! The Umayyad monkeyshines are to be expected; what is not to be expected is for billions of Muslims to remain in that Umayyad diversion for hundreds of years up to this disturbing day of ours.
Another issue that complicates this “Sunni” context is the general impression that “Sunnis” are in favor of whichever government rules over them. This general impression is made more confusing by the fact that the Saudi-Wahhabis have/had all the money in the world to promote the notion that “Sunnis” are always in favor of their rulers! This brings us to one of the most important lessons of ‘Ashura’ and Karbala’ as far as the “Sunnis” are concerned and that is a question that needs a lively answer: am I a Sunni or an Umayyad? The moment a “Sunni” distinguishes himself/herself from the Umayyads is the moment he will identify wholeheartedly with Imam Husayn; that will also be the moment when the Sunni will be able to see the similarities between Umayyad Arabians then and Saudi Arabians now. Within this “Sunni” psychology it does not help at all when some “Shi‘is” join the fray and, knowingly or unknowingly, point the finger at the Sunnis for being pro-dynasties, pro-regimes, and pro-anyone in power — and in doing so these “Shi‘is” amplify the Saudi-salafi propaganda that says the same thing.
Secondly, the “Shi‘i” Muslims, probably because of the harsh historical conditions that they were subjected to throughout hundreds of years, consider ‘Ashura’ and Karbala’ to be a “Shi‘i” occasion! The edge that these emotional Shi‘is have on this occasion is that they are keenly aware of justice and injustice, fairness and tyranny, equality and discrimination. OK. They rightly point to the bias and prejudice of the Umayyad clan, the despotism of Mu‘awiyah, and the dictatorship of Yazid. But that emotional familiarity has not been presented in a rational and up-to-date ideological and political manifesto. The exception to that is the belief system of Walayah al-Faqih, which is considered a breakthrough in the overall quietist and traditional Shi‘i milieu. And even with this Islamic breakthrough, the concept of Walayah al-Faqih is gradually and internally being corroded by the atavistic beliefs of those whose historical sense of defeat at Karbala’ can only be redressed by the appearance of Imam Mahdi and no one else! In the middle of all this, the ignorant “Sunnis” are not helping out by their inability to distinguish between outmoded Shi‘is who have no interest in politics, or are not concerned with ideology on one side, and the Shi‘is of Walayah al-Faqih who have surmounted sectarian issues and are on their way to liberating al-Quds and Palestine while the sectarians on both sides are busy shooting themselves in the foot.
Someone may ask, so what is to be done on the 10th of al-Muharram, the day on which Imam Husayn was honored with the shahadah and the precedent of civil revolt was set? And the answer is not very difficult to understand. The 10th of al-Muharram (‘Ashura’) should be a day in which there is a substantial congregation of Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims along with the underclasses of society — at a masjid, at an Islamic center, at a university, at a community center, etc… it doesn’t matter. Of course the expectation is that those who are Shi‘is are expected to call for this all-inclusive meeting. If such Shi‘is are incapable of building fraternal relations with their Sunni co-religionists and their underclass fellow citizens then that proves they are still under the influence of Mu‘awiyah and Yazid, etc… This gathering in and of itself, if and when it happens, is a tremendous step forward. The artificial barrier set up by the Umayyads will have, at long last, been scaled and demolished. In the beginning, this mass of Muslims and disenfranchised people should build a sense of trust between themselves, and it can all begin with what you may call “‘Ashura’ lite.” The objective would be to have an understanding of what constitutes a legitimate leadership or a legitimate government. Obviously, there will be a range of opinions… Fine. But in the long run (meaning years and years of intra-faith and inter-societal observance of ‘Ashura’) the Sunnis (from their own references) will discover that the Umayyad and subsequent dynasties were not legitimate. And the oppressed segments of society will appreciate the fact that Muslims stand for social justice. That does not mean that there were no Islamic societies in our history. There were Islamic societies that were ruled by dishonest and improper rulers, with a few exceptions.
Likewise, the Shi‘is (from their own references) will discover that the khulafa’ (Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman) were popularly endorsed rulers, even though Imam ‘Ali was more eligible to lead. In the honest “give and take” between transparent and trustworthy Sunnis and Shi‘is with the underprivileged class in attendance, they will mutually agree that Mu‘awiyah was the first king in Islam, a king who acted like any other autocrat. If the commemoration of ‘Ashura’ results in both Sunnis and Shi‘is identifying Mu‘awiyah as a monarch akin to an emperor and the underprivileged classes chiming in with their longing for equality and justice, then we all will understand together the heroic stand of Imam Husayn at Karbala’.
Today, we Muslims, Sunnis and Shi‘is, are still not sufficiently aware of who Mu‘awiyah was and the terrible damage that he has done to all Muslims. He gave himself the title of “khalifah” and because of our common ignorance, everyone — Sunni and Shi‘i — calls him “khalifah”.
If we understood the lessons of Karbala’ we would see the similarities between the ruling families 1,400 years ago and the ruling families in Arabia today. The ruling families in Arabia nowadays depend upon Zionists and imperialists for their survival. Does anyone doubt that? Would it be stretching anyone’s imagination to say that the Umayyads depended upon the equivalents of Zionists and imperialists, in their time, for their survival?
Why can’t the remembrance of Karbala’ shed light on the military behavior of tyrannical rulers whenever and wherever they may be? The answer: Mu‘awiyah and Yazid, in their rapacious greed for power and wealth, and their superpower enablers were the first to drive a wedge between what is religious and what is ideological, lunging their swords into the flesh and bones of those who stood their combined religious-ideological Islamic grounds. They killed Imam Husayn.
Of a certainty, those who defy Allah’s illustrations of power and authority, and kill the prophets erroneously, and kill people who demand social justice — announce to them a grievous infliction… (3:21).