This post was originally published in December 2011.
It seems impossible to talk about the events of Karbala without also acknowledging the spiritual diversity within Islam. Unfortunately, Orientalist discourse on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims have produced many misconceptions and distortions about Islam. It is also disheartening when Muslims internalize these stereotypes and reproduce Orientalist narratives which create barriers towards intra-community dialogue, understanding, and respect. For instance, whenever discussions arise about “different sects” in Islam, it is often code for anything that is not Sunni. Sunni Islam, which represents the majority of Muslims worldwide, is not only the dominant and central focus of discourse, but also regarded as “true” or “authentic” Islam. The implication, whether intended or unintended, becomes about casting non-Sunni Muslims as the groups that “deviated” and splintered off into “their own version” of Islam.
While I was raised Sunni, there was a point in my spiritual journey when my interest in Sufism intersected with Shi’ism. Since about 2007, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet (peace be upon them both). I also believe in following the example of the Panjtan Paak (The Holy Five, or Ahl-ul-Bayt/People of the House), the latter being (1) Prophet Muhammad, (2) his daughter Fatima, (3) his cousin and son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons (4) Hassan and (5) Hussain (peace and blessings upon them all). As with Sufism, I didn’t see Shi’ism as a “separate religion,” but rather as an expansion of my knowledge of Islam. Sufism, for example, is a term I use to identify the deeper and mystical teachings in Islam, not something “outside” of Islam (Sufis can be either Sunni or Shia, though there tends to be a lot of overlapping with Shi’ism).
Differences in theology and practice does not stop me from seeing Sunni Muslims, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and others as my brothers and sisters in Islam. I don’t look at issues confronting Sunni-majority communities or countries and think to myself, “Well, that’s a Sunni issue, I don’t have to worry about.” I believe in real unity of Muslims. That is, unity based upon understanding, respect, and appreciation of spiritual diversity, not “unity” based on conformity to one monolithic school of thought. I strongly believe that Faith is very personal, so rather than endlessly debate about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” I believe our communities should not only have discussions rooted in the Islamic teachings of compassion and brother/sisterhood, but also put those teachings of compassion into practice by respecting one another. As Prophet Muhammad once said, “One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God)” (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari & Muslim).
Despite my not seeing Shi’ism separate from so-called “mainstream Islam,” I also have to understand my privileges because I come from a Sunni family. That is, since my family is Sunni, people assume that I, too, must be Sunni. Orientalists perpetuate misconceptions about Sunnis and Shias by framing the “Sunni and Shia” divide within the context of “sectarian violence.” It is equally important to critique this narrative while not glossing over the way Twelver Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups are stigmatized and persecuted by Sunni-majority governments and militant groups (many of which adopt or are influenced by Wahhabi ideology, not to mention being simultaneously backed and exploited by western imperialist powers). Furthermore, it is easy to say, “All Muslims should just call themselves ‘Muslim,’” when one has never had to deal with the struggles faced by non-Sunni Muslims. Of course all Muslims self-identify as Muslim, but it is important to not ignore the reality in which non-Sunni Muslims are treated differently due to their beliefs. Rather than calling on Muslims to their erase their diverse identities for the sake of a problematic “melting pot” and assimilationist ideal, we should be respectful and appreciative of these differences.
There are a lot of great books and resources available to learn more about spiritual diversity in Islam, so instead of delving into those rich and complex histories, I will focus on the events of Karbala and the lessons all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can learn from Imam Hussain’s stand against the tyrant Yazid. Regardless of theological differences, all Muslims recognize that Imam Hussain and his 72 soldiers were brutally massacred by Yazid’s army of 5,000 (some sources report 30,000) on the tenth day of Muharram, known as “The Day of Ashura.” Differences surface in the way Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is commemorated or observed by various Muslim groups, but the stand against Yazid, a man who appointed himself as Caliph without council or election, is remembered as resistance against corruption and oppression. Despite the insurmountable odds, Imam Hussain stood firmly in the face of tyranny for the sake of reviving the message of Islam and spiritual leadership for all Muslims. In a beautiful manqabat (Sufi devotional poem) written by Pakistani poet Hafeez Jalandhari and sung by the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imam Hussain’s defiance is expressed in vivid detail:
Libaas hai phata hua, ghubaar mein ata hua
Tamaam jism-e-nazneen, chida hua, kata hua
Yeh kon ziwiqaar hai, bala ka shahsawaar hai
Ke hai hazaar qaatilon ke samne data hua
Yeh bilyaqeen Hussain hai
Nabi ka noor-e-ain hai
(Translated from Urdu)
His dress is torn, with mud it is worn
His splendid, delicate body is cut, slashed, and torn
Who is this dignified, master horseman?
Who is standing his ground in front of an army of thousands?
Indeed it is Hussain, it is Hussain
The Light of the Prophet’s eyes, it is Hussain
The poem describes the violent wounds inflicted upon Imam Hussain’s body, yet emerging from all of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of Karbala is praise for the Prophet’s grandson and his unwavering spirit of resistance. Even though Imam Hussain and his army of 72 were slaughtered, it is their stand against injustice that remains eternal and serves as a reminder for the oppression that exists in our present world. As it is stated in the Qur’an: “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (3:169). Indeed, the physical body dies, but it is the soul that lives on. The message of what those individuals stood for lives through the people who follow their example. In fact, Imam Hussain’s famous quote on the day of Ashura powerfully captures the call for social justice: “Kul yawm ʿĀshūrāʾ wa kul arḍ Karbalā/Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.” The narration reminds Muslims that injustice is everywhere and that every day must be lived with consciousness of our responsibilities in the constant struggle to end all forms of oppression. Values such as selflessness, serving humanity, aiding those in need, and trusting in a higher power are integral to Islam. Prior to the Battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain asked fellow Muslims for solidarity, but many of them did not help or speak out. We learn about the importance of being mindful of our privileges and not being complicit in the oppression of others.
Since Prophet Muhammad is taught to be the role model for all Muslims, it is interesting to explore how poetic praise of Imam Hussain symbolizes the way he followed the example of the Prophet. In the poem above, Jalandhari illuminates the intimate relationship between Hussain and his grandfather by referring to the former as the noor (light) of “the Prophet’s eyes.” This special praise for Imam Hussain is not uncommon in Sufi poetry, but there is often a perception that such expressions of Love are shirk (generally translated as idolatry or polytheism). To overcome such unfortunate misunderstandings, which tend to cause judgmental attitudes among Muslims, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that there are infinite ways to show Love and devotion for God. Because someone glorifies the Prophet’s grandson does not mean they are worshiping Hussain. Commemoration should not be mistaken for worship. So, while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation. This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.
According to Syed Akbar Hyder, author of “Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory,” the following is probably the most recited Persian quatrain in South Asia, even by those who do not speak or understand the language:
Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, Deen panah ast Hussain
Sar dad na dad dast dar dast-e-Yazid,
Haqqa key bina-e la ilah ast Hussain
King is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain
Religion is Hussain, the refuge for religion is Hussain
(He) gave up his head, but did not give his hands in the hands of Yazid
The truth is that the foundation of la ilaha (negation of all gods except God) is Hussain
This poem, written by Indian Sufi master (khwaja/pir) Muinuddin Chisti (d. 1236 C.E.), was also popularized in a Qawwali (South Asian Sufi devotional songs) by the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As Hyder illustrates:
The truth, according to this thirteenth-century Sufi (Chisti), is that the very core of Islam, its essential creed of tawhid, or Divine Unity, ‘la ilaha illa lah Muhammadan rasul Allah,’ or ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger,’ is Hussain. Since Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, in spite of having to make innumerable sacrifices, he is projected as an embodiment of Islam’s creed that refuses to acknowledge any power other than that of God. (emphasis added)
Related is how philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) centered on Karbala’s religious symbolism in conjunction with the “political project to unite and mobilize Muslims, especially the Muslim minorities in the South Asian subcontinent.” Iqbal not only connected his “evocations of Karbala and martyrdom” to the “subsequent discourses of anti-colonialism and nationalism,” but he also saw the spiritual and political message of the Qur’an in Imam Hussain himself. As he passionately articulates in Farsi:
Ramz-e-Qur’an az Hussain amukhtim
za-atish-e-ou shola ha andukhtim
I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain
In his fire, like a flame, I burn
Since the beginning of Muharram this year, I have been reflecting on these words, which I feel prompt the question: “Well, what is the lesson of the Qur’an?” Much of what Imam Hussain’s martyrdom means in the context of anti-oppression has been written above, but I also think there needs to be a critical analysis of how we discuss religion and religious symbolism, especially as it pertains to social justice. For example, when we talk about Islamophobia, racism, and military occupation of Muslim-majority lands, we often think exclusively about male experiences. An article on anti-Muslim violence against Muslim women published on AltMuslimah highlighted on this point of male-centrism, not to diminish or negate male experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but rather to address the way racist and violent attacks on Muslim women have been remarkably ignored by Muslim civil rights groups, mainstream western media, and American women’s rights organizations. When the Qur’an says, “There is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice” (42:42), it is not only relevant to struggles against racism, classism, and war, but also sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence because all of these forms of oppression intersect. Racism, classism, and war produce distinct forms of oppression against women, specifically women of color, as misogyny and sexual violence are integral to the larger structures of white supremacist power, heteropatriarchal domination, and state violence.
When we talk about Imam Hussain’s commitment to justice, equality, and liberation — all of which mirrors the Qur’an — we must think of ending all forms of oppression, whether they be racism, sexism, classism, abliesm, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Without centering intersectionality politics in social justice struggles and honestly examining the problems that exist in our own communities, we undermine the values we claim to be standing for. We look very hypocritical when some of us are commemorating the memory of Imam Hussain, but then participate in rape culture by blaming rape victims. We perpetuate victim blaming logic when we, on the one hand, claim Islam is about brotherhood/sisterhood, but then, on the other hand, accuse the Muslim men and women beaten by police officers at an American theme park of “victimizing themselves” or “being at fault.” We demonstrate failure in understanding of our spiritual teachings when we exalt Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), but then deny women equal rights in Mosques, schools, workplaces, etc. Although it is crucial to fight Islamophobia and demand for our rights in non-Muslim majority countries like the United States, Muslim activists who voiced outrage against the Obama administration’s imperialist policies and drone strikes were met with ridicule and largely ignored by mainstream Muslim civil rights groups. Religious context or not, how do fully understand what interconnectedness of humanity means when some of us are talking about unity, acceptance, and respect only within the United States (as if U.S. aggression and violence against Muslim-majority countries doesn’t matter)?
As previously mentioned, sacrificing one’s self for justice is not the only expression of resistance or activism, even though bell hooks’ reminder about struggle comes to mind: “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.” Prophet Muhammad once said, “If you see a wrong, you should stop it with your hand; if you cannot, then you should speak out against it; if not that, then at least condemn it in your heart, that being the weakest form of faith” (Sahih Muslim). It is easy to see how Imam Hussain exemplified this Hadith in his life, but also worth examining is the internal struggle. That is, Imam Hussain spoke out against injustice, even if it was in his own community. In our present reality, Muslim communities, like all communities, are no exception to sexism and misogyny. Muslim men obsessing over the way Muslim women dress, for example, comes from patriarchal entitlement and sense of male “ownership” of women’s bodies. Denying women prayer space or refusing to recognize discourse or scholarship of Muslim women not only perpetuates sexism, but also seeks to marginalize and silence critiques of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an. Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,” asserts that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal. Misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, argues Barlas, do not stem from the teachings of the Qur’an, but rather from history of Muslim men who have interpreted the text to speak to their own realities while excluding or interpreting experiences of Muslim women.
Some of the poems I shared above can probably be read as patriarchal, but if we critique them with Asma Barlas’ thesis in mind, we can reinterpret them as expressions of Love for Imam Hussain rather than “evidence” that somehow only male figures in Islam carry such importance. Shia scholars have written that one cannot mention Imam Ali without mentioning Hazrat Fatima (Prophet Muhammad’s daughter) because she was “his companion in life and suffering.” They also contend that one cannot mention her children Hassan, Hussain, and Zainab without mentioning Hazrat Fatima because she was “the secret of their personalities throughout their lives.” The Prophet Muhammad once said of Hazrat Fatima:
Fatima is part of me; whoever angers her, angers me and whoever harms her, harms me (Sahih al-Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmadhi, Musnad Ahmad: v.4, p. 328., Khasaes An-Nisaee: p.35)
Elsewhere, the Prophet said:
Surely, God is angered when you (Fatima) are angered, and is pleased when you are pleased. (Mustadrak al-Hakim: v.3, p.154., Tadhkirat al-Bast: p.175., Maqtal al-Khawarazmi: v.1, p.54., Kefayat At-Talib: p.219., Kanz al-Umal: v.7, p.111., Sawiq: p.105)
This link between Hazrat Fatima and Prophet Muhammad and God is quite remarkable when read within the context of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and external perceptions that Islam is “inherently sexist.” I remember when I first started reading Shia works about Hazrat Fatima, I was surprised to learn that she is a role model for both women and men. As one scholar writes:
When we present Fatima as a role model, we are not talking about women only. We present her as a role model for both men and women because she is a constituent element of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole, not just of women.
Another scholar writes of Asma bint Omais, the wife of Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who asked the Prophet if any verses of the Qur’an were revealed in regard to women. She asked the Prophet if women were “caught with loss and detriment,” to which the Prophet asked, “Why?” Asma replied, “Because in Islam and the Qur’an no virtue has been announced in relation to them as there has been for men.” The Prophet replied with this verse from the Qur’an:
Surely, the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, And the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their modesty and the women who guard, and the men who remember God much and the women who remember God much: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)
In respect to this verse, many male scholars agree that the Qur’an stresses on equal values for women and men. Of course, this is not to gloss over how many of these scholars assert sexist attitudes towards women’s roles in society, but it is interesting to read their own words against them! Having said that, if women and men are equal, as the Qur’an teaches, then we must see violations against gender equality as injustice. Similarly, if Muhammad is to be the role model for all Muslims, then so should Fatima, whether one believes both of them to be infallible or not.
Indeed, Fatima and her daughter Zainab endured hardship throughout their lives and played immensely active political roles that not only challenged tyranny, but preserved Islam as we know it. Hazrat Fatima questioned authority up until her death, while Hazrat Zainab was taken prisoner by Yazid, but never submitted to his rule. In fact, Hazrat Zainab’s sermons in sparked a movement in Kufa and Damascus that disrupted Yazid’s rule. As numerous Shia scholars point out, the story of Karbala is incomplete without highlighting Hazrat Zainab’s defiance against Yazid. Without her, we would not have known about the story of Karbala and Imam Hussain’s sacrifice.
Lastly, I think there needs to be a critique of Love and the way it is presented in relation to Islam and the Qur’an. If Love is equality for all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., then Love is foundational to Islam. Orientalists offer a very simplistic understanding of mourning in the Twelver Shia tradition and fail to highlight on the multiple ways people express their grief and sorrow during Muharram. What they also fail to emphasize is that Imam Hussain’s martyrdom was one of Love, i.e. Love for the Divine and Love for humanity. Sufism is not immune to Orientalist misrepresentations either, as we find many western New Age writers, poets, and musicians participate in spiritual appropriation. For example, poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi are shamelessly mistranslated and distorted by Coleman Barks and others who do not speak Farsi and go as far as deliberately omitting Rumi’s Islamic references. When one reads these New Age “translations,” one might think of Sufi poetry as merely “universal” and “inspirational” quotes with an “exotic flare.” Of course Sufi poems are inspiring and passionate, but their cultural, religious, and literary themes are lost in western New Age romanticism and appropriation. For instance, the way the poems I shared earlier shift so fluidly from the grief of Karbala to praise of Imam Hussain reflect the larger Sufi theme of joy and sorrow mirroring one another. This theme is rooted in the Qur’anic verses: “God will grant after hardship, ease” and “truly, with every hardship, there is ease/relief” (65:7, 94:5–6).
These verses are proven by the struggles of Muhammad, Khadijah, Ali, Fatima, Hussain, Hassan, and Zainab. Further, we are reminded that Love is not without struggle through hardship. Interestingly, I’ve noticed in some casual conversations that there is a general misinterpretation of the relationship between joy and sorrow. Some say such poetry is “too depressing,” while others say it “idealizes” suffering. On the contrary, poems that speak of struggle on the path of Love are deeper expressions of the human soul; it’s longings, desires, sorrows, joys, uncertainties, etc. Zeb-un-Nisa (d. 1702 C.E.), who is reported to have participated in the mourning of Muharram, writes the following about Love:
Here is the path of Love — how dark and long
Its winding ways, with many snares beset!
Yet crowds of eager pilgrims onward throng
And fall like doves into the fowler’s net.
Despite the “winding ways” on the “path of Love,” she illustrates how the seekers/Lovers persist, even if the end result is doom. Like many Sufi poets, Zeb-un-Nisa refers to Love in her poetry as Love for God, so there is a fitting analogy that can apply to Imam Hussain’s struggle in the way of God. One of my personal favorite verses from Zeb-un-Nisa beautifully captures God’s assurance of relief after hardship:
And see the thorny waste
Whereon your bruised feet their pathway traced,
This wilderness, touched by your blood that flows,
Blooms fragrant as the rose.
I don’t interpret the verses as merely romanticizing pain or suffering, but rather as acknowledging that struggle exists in our lives. Struggle manifests itself differently for everyone, which underlines the importance of being aware of our privileges and responsibilities. As we reflect on Ashura, we can also use this time to bring our communities closer to one another. If we believe the Qur’an’s message of peace, Love, respect, and liberation for all human beings is represented in Imam Hussain’s stand against tyranny, we must recognize the Karbalas that exist in the present world — Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Native American land that we non-Natives occupy, everywhere. Love within the context of social justice eliminates domination and establishes commitment to others, no matter where the oppressed are found, as Paulo Freire writes. bell hooks adds that Love is also about understanding that all of us, irrespective of race, class, gender, etc. have “acted in complicity with the existing oppressive system.”
Understanding our complicity serves as a reminder to keep ourselves in check and not recreate oppressive hierarchies in social justice movements. Our commitment to interconnectedness with others and fighting all forms of oppression everywhere is, like the struggles of the Prophet and his family, rooted in Love.
Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala. May Allah protect and give strength and justice to all of the Hussains and Zainabs struggling against the Yazids of the world.