Who is Imam Hussain and why he matters now more than ever

In the current Middle-Eastern climate of popular “Arab Spring” revolutions, with the people rising up against unjust, despotic and tyrannical dictatorships, understanding who Imam Hussain (AS) is and what happened to him is more important than ever.

Just like he was nearly 1300 years ago – in this day and age, Imam Hussain could be the inspiration for more than just a typical popular uprising, the seeking of democratic rights, but far beyond that to the seeking of social, judicial, economic, human and personal justice. And not just and inspiration for Muslims, but for everyone. You may have never heard of Imam Hussain, or, if you are Muslim, you may have heard of him but know next to nothing about him – please allow me to fill in some gaps in your knowledge of Islamic history.

The word “Imam” is a respectable title given to spiritual leaders and/or religious scholars. Imam Hussain was the second boy born to Fatima (AS), the Prophet Muhammed’s daughter, and Imam Ali (AS), the Prophet’s cousin. In many cultures, people are known by their first name and their father’s name, so Imam Hussain is known as Hussain Ibn Ali (Hussain son of Ali). This makes Hussain the grandson of Prophet Muhammed (SAW) and the Prophet used to call Hussain and his older brother Hassen “my sons” and he loved them dearly. In fact, the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) taught of their special status, a status given by God, calling them Masters of the Youth of Heaven – Sayyeda Shabab ahl-al Jannah – and he enjoined obedience and love for them and the rest of his family as an ordinance of Islam. Who would have thought that not 50 years after his death, people who identified themselves as “Muslims” would murder the Prophet’s grandsons and in the most horrific of ways.

Following the death of the Prophet Muhammed (SAW), four khalifs or successors, came to become leaders of the Muslims and were later referred to as Al-Khulafa’ al-Rashidoon – “The Rightly-Guided Successors”. During their khalifates spanning some 40 years, three of the four khalifs were assassinated by their citizens, the third of them by a violent mob that accused him of corruption. And there were political murders and civil wars during their khalifates too. One of the governors, Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, installed by the third khalif (who was his relative), decided he didn’t want to leave his position and began to wage war against the fourth rightly guided khalif, Ali, the father of Hussain. Basically, a whole political, social and religious mess occurred after the death of the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) and this laid down the tracks for what was to follow.

Following the assassination of Imam Ali (AS), his son Imam Hassen (AS), became the next khalif but his leadership was short lived as the war-weary and corrupted citizens failed to support him and he was left with no choice but to make a truce with Mu’awiyah, his father’s arch-enemy in order to keep the peace and make sure the citizens of both parties were not harmed. Part of the agreement was that after the death of Mu’awiyah, his offspring could not rule. The contract was agreed upon and signed, but Mu’awiyah failed to honour his promise. Not long after the signing of the truce Imam Hassen (AS) was assassinated, though it was not clear by whom, by being poisoned and he died a slow and agonizing death. Mu’awiyah ruled for many years and with an iron fist. He attacked and imprisoned the supporters of Imam Ali and he established a culture of hatred in the people for Ali and his family, so much so that the preachers in the mosques would send curses upon them, notwithstanding the fact that they were members of the family of the Prophet and had been given lofty titles by God! Such is the power of propaganda in a dictatorship that even religion cannot bring sense to the people and corruption and ignorance is rife even amongst religious leaders. The seeds of sectarianism in Islam were also planted in this time leading to many fractures in Islamic unity which last to this day. 

Following the death of Mu’awiyah, his son Yazid, by his father’s wishes, declared himself the next leader. Yazid was something altogether different – he was a shameless drunkard, gambler, adulterer and did not respect or keep any of the Islamic laws nor public sensibilities that the leader of an Islamic government should observe. Furthermore, he began to hunt down any potential enemies. Thousands of people including women and children were systematically imprisoned, tortured and a large number of those were murdered. He sent assassins after his enemies including Imam Hussain (AS). Imam Hussain was in the middle of the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, when he was informed that his life was in danger and he would even be murdered in the vicinity of Islam’s holiest place of worship, the Kaaba. Imam Hussain’s followers began to send him letters to come and help them and there was an overflow of requests for him to come so he vowed to initiate a popular uprising to demand the illegitimate khalif Yazid to stand down and grant the people their rights and freedoms and set off northwards with his family and companions to Kufa, Iraq.

Arguably, the most important asset of a dictator is their intelligence apparatus and Yazid’s was very powerful. Yazid managed to find out the plans of Imam Hussain and closed down Kufa before the Imam arrived and he also assimilated the weak-willed amongst them into his army by threatening them. The tens-of-thousands-strong army of Yazid marched south and soon caught up with Imam Hussain’s family in a desert plain called Karbala and surrounded them. For three days they denied the men, women and children including babies access to food or water in the searing hot desert and they attacked them day and night until 72 of the companions, relatives both male and female and even children, including Imam Hussain’s 6 month old baby, were slaughtered brutally one after the other. Finally, after having fought his hardest, on the 10th day of the holy Islamic month of Muharram, which is known as Ashura’, Imam Hussain was martyred. The soldiers then began to desecrate the bodies with such brutality that it would make any normal person sick to their stomach. They cut off the heads of the corpses and stuck them on the ends of spears, then they slashed the bodies with their swords and rode their horses over them. And they did this in front of the womenfolk and children who had managed to survive. They beat and bound the women and children and marched them through the hot desert, parading the prisoners and the heads through towns and villages, all the way back to Yazid’s palace with the head of Imam Hussain and the other companions swinging above them on spears. It was truly a horrible and gruesome end to the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed and his companions.

What is mind-blowing about this whole ordeal is that the people who murdered Hussain called themselves Muslims. They believed in God and his messenger, they prayed, fasted, paid alms and went on pilgrimage, but yet they saw fit to murder the grandson of the Prophet and kill women and children, to attack his followers during their prayers and to desecrate their bodies after murdering them. Before the massacre, when Imam Hussain called for support in his uprising the people of the Muslim community did not rise up against the injustices of Yazid and they left him to face Yazid alone and let him die in such a horrible way. It took the killing of Imam Hussain and an attack by Yazid’s army on the holiest shrine in Islam, the Kaaba, for the people to wake up and begin resisting. While Imam Hussain had been martyred, his message and legacy lived on and inspired people to rise up and seek justice. 

Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah ruled for three years and died of illness before anyone managed to assassinate him for his crimes and his son became the next khalif and continued his dynasty for a short while. But after that, the Ummayad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty who were inspired by the plight of Imam Hussain to bring back justice and order to the Muslim empire. Peace and justice prevailed thereafter… well, until it started going sour again as history informs us.

In this day and age, the story of Imam Hussain, though very briefly mentioned in this article (and I assure you it is worthwhile to research it in depth), resonates in what is happening in the Middle-East. People are rising up against tyrants and lest we forget the meaning of Imam Hussain’s struggle, history will be doomed to repeat itself. The people in countries that have been blessed with new governments must make sure it doesn’t go down the same pathway again otherwise when the brave rise up it will be too late and no-one will stand up to support them.

Imam Hussain may have been martyred on the plains of Karbala but in the end he won because the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown and numerous dictators have found the inspiration that Imam Hussain brings to the people to be a big thorn in their side and some have even seen their own downfall because of him. Many lessons can be learnt from Imam Hussain – we learn to be brave and resilient just as Imam Hussain and his companions never backed down, and that it is better to die with dignity than to live in humiliation, and from him we also learn never to give up our rights even in the face of death, and also to keep faith in the hardest of adversities, and that sacrificing your life for a better cause is a worthwhile trade. One of the most influential peace makers in recent history, Mahatma Ghandi, said this about Imam Hussain:

“I learnt from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed”

And India’s first democratic Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, once said:

“Imam Hussain’s sacrifice is for all groups and communities, an example of the path of righteousness”

In inspiring prominent non-Muslims, you can see that Imam Hussain’s message transcends religion and culture. His movement was an enlightened one – one that we all yearn for when we seek our most basic and important of rights – human rights. And, if you learn more about the man, you will find his teachings span well beyond the essentials.