Unfortunately, the forces of darkness and those who want to keep mankind in thrall to their political and cultural domination have always tried to ignore the importance of this epic battle between truth and falsehood. Here we present excerpts from a thought-provoking article by Abbas Rattani, creator of MIPSTERZ – short for Muslim Hipsters in their 20s and 30s who have evolving views on religion, identity, and culture. He is also the host on the talkshow "Hot Sauce x White Sauce".
The Islamic month of Moharram affords us the opportunity to implore Muslims (and whomever might be interested) to check out some of the events happening in their localities on the remembrance of the Battle of Karbala. I will not talk about the battle itself; rather I would like to provide a few reasons as to why learning about this battle is vital for all Muslims. Regardless of the accuracy of the content of the lectures that happen in your area, I still implore you all to attend these events in order to gain knowledge of the incidents. Go read a book or two about the Battle of Karbala – academic presses tend to publish the most historically verified recounts.
Here are three reasons to learn about the battle of Karbala.
The first is: Benefits taken for granted
Many of us take Islam for granted and rarely, if ever, question its historical development to what we have come to know of it in the modern day. Very few of us can articulate the history of the formation of the Sunni sect that many Muslims subscribe to. However, it is important to point out that the concepts of justice, passion, martyrdom/sacrifice, preservation, guardianship, and patron ship that we have come to know and love can all trace their theoretical roots back to the epic battle of Karbala. We have come to take ideas and concepts within Islam for granted, and we have reaped the benefits of those ideas in our daily practice of lived religion without being self-aware of why we believe what we believe. We can continue to reap the benefits that these concepts provide us without ever questioning or exploring their originations in the Battle of Karbala. In doing so, we are discussing and living ideas that are devoid of any knowledge through which these ideas/concepts are supported and constructed. Hence, I urge us all to become more self-aware of the faith that we practice and subscribe to with such pride.
The second reason is: Preserving historical narratives
Since the waning influence of the Safavid Dynasty of Iran at the turn of the 18th century to present day, Sunni ulema, on the claim of orthodoxy, have dominated the retelling and interpretation of Islam’s history. To draw some sort of comparison, what we learn about the history of blacks in America or the legacy of Native Americans is controlled by whites in that country. Any middle school or high school social studies teacher with a rounded education in American history will tell you that our American history is seriously skewed in favour of a privileged white-retelling of history. It’s easier for some whites to say, “Let’s put racism aside” when ‘racism’ is a socio-political construct that oppresses minorities. It’s a position of privilege that is afforded to them that allows for the dictation of how we remember and know our history and legacy. More importantly, these positions have grave consequences for human beings when a skewed awareness of other peoples’ narratives is missing from legal and policy development. A Daily Show clip highlights this.
Similarly, many Muslims today will rhetorically ponder “why do we have to create divisions of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’, and why we can’t all identify simply as Muslims?” Though I acknowledge that the Sunni-Shia discussion is beyond the scope of this explanation, the ability to do away with ‘labels’, is something afforded to a person of privilege. As the poet Omid Safi puts it: “It is vital that mutual respect and coexistence not be a license for eradicating real historical grievances and particularities.”
Every Moharram, if not at every discourse at a mourning assembly, Shias remind each other of the commitment to justice of the Prophet of Islam’s beloved grandson Imam Husain, granddaughter Zainab (peace upon them), and about 100 other close family and friends made in Karbala. They remind each other so as to preserve this important historical narrative that could one day be extinct like the number of other developments in our religion that have escaped preservation. These historical narratives have serious implications for the modern day. Shias must preserve and maintain their identity, legacy, and historical narrative among the eclipsing dominant non-Shia or non-Muslim traditions.
Reflecting on the Battle of Karbala is also a way for many to call attention to the on-going oppression of Shias around the world – e.g. Persian Gulf States, pre-war Iraq, Bahrain, etc. Shias have never regarded Sunnis as outside the pale of Islam, and neither have real Sunnis viewed Shias as “heretics” – as the Takfiri terrorists, backed by Zionism and US imperialism do. On the contrary, Shias believe in Islamic unity and maintain that both Shias and Sunnis can get together to make the absolute truth of Islam prevail, since together, and within each respective tradition, Muslims are able to achieve a more holistic picture of truth.
Thus, being completely unaware of events such as the Battle of Karbala causes us to sacrifice a comprehensive understanding of our religion and tradition.
I implore you to study the religion to which you subscribe, and fight for a more robust, anti-hegemonic retelling of Islamic history. Historical narratives shape a lot of our belief in Islam, ritualistic practice, memories of our Prophet Mohammad (blessings of God upon him and his progeny), and Qur’anic interpretation, which in some countries results in oppressive policies and laws. Familiarity with what is out there will inform our understanding of what we believe and why we believe it. The way learned people fight for accurate retellings of American history in classrooms, this should serve as inspiration for us to become more aware and socially conscious of the narratives being cut out of our retelling of history.
The third reason is: Learned lessons from epic cosmic historical events
Certain historical events transcend being a moment that took place in a given time and space. They become cosmic events that still remain impactful and influential in our lives across time and space today. These include events like the Battle of Karbala. These events are remembered by scores of people in many different ways. Both Sunnis (e.g. Turkey) and Shia Muslims reflect on the Battle of Karbala in many different ways. Events in New York like ‘Moharram in Manhattan’ showcase one way in which Muslims remember and reflect on the cosmic event of Karbala and how it has shaped much of Islam’s legal, juridical, ethical, and overall normative frameworks overtime. These events can be inspiring or they can turn someone away, regardless of what happens, the rich and meaningful wisdom found in this cosmic event is waiting to be tapped by active, not via passive efforts – e.g., such as attending an event or two. It must be sought after and discovered.
One lesson that I have retained from a Turkish Sufi teacher, Jemal Nour Sargut, is that Karbala teaches us that we are Imam Husain (PuH). We are also Yazid. We must overcome the destructive ego called Yazid within us and establish the humility and social consciousness of Imam Husain (PuH). We must engage in a constant battle with ourselves. Another interpretation that has also stuck with me is to recognise the fundamental fight against systematic oppression, to stand up for justice even when it is against one’s own community. The events at Karbala teach us to stand up for all the Husains of the world.
The tragedy reminds us that evil succeeds when the good remain silent and are not actively addressing evil. There is a lot of thematic and symbolic meaning, waiting to be extrapolated for those interested in deepening their spiritual sensibilities. Thus, I argue that attending events on Karbala during the month of Muharram with an open mind, open heart, and a willingness to learn, will provide you with insights into lived religion, and hopefully it will also inspire you to explore, discover, and learn more about yourself and your belief system.