Certain names bear a significance that far transcends the particular persons, places, or objects they denote. A prime example of such a name—arguably, the most outstanding example—is Husayn.
An imam is a divine leader appointed specifically by God as the guardian of the true religion and the living exemplar of righteousness who is responsible for guiding human society.
Shedding tears for Imam Husayn is given such spiritual value that a single drop of tear that rolls down one’s face out of grief for Imam Husayn bears an atoning power capable of erasing the entire record of one’s sins and suffices to ensure one’s eternally blissful residence in Heaven. A yet separate set of reports in the corpus of Shia religious literature bearing on Imam Husayn’s unique status consists of narrations that describe how all of God’s prophets, beginning with Adam himself, grieved for Husayn after learning of the story of his life and his martyrdom as told by God and His angels. See Ibn Qulawayh al-Qummi, Kamil al-ziarat (Najaf: Dar al-Murtadawiyyah, 1356 AHsolar), pp. 223-250.
The story of Husayn’s birth is another indication of his singular status. Ibn Qulawayh al-Qummi relates in his Kamil al-ziarat that Gabriel descended upon Prophet Muhammad, saying,
“Verily God salutes you and gives you the good tidings of a son that will be born to Fatimah and that will be killed by your people after you[r death].”
“O Gabriel, and I salute my Lord,” the Prophet of God responded. “I have no wish to have a son that will be killed by my people after me.”
Gabriel ascended and then returned and repeated to the Prophet the same news he had formerly divulged, and the Prophet gave the same response as he had previously given. Gabriel then ascended back to his Lord and returned for a third time, saying, “Verily, your Lord salutes you and gives you the good tidings that He will place in his offspring leadership [imamah], authority [wilayah], and successorship [wisayah].”
This satisfied the Prophet, and so he sent word to his daughter informing her of the news Gabriel had brought him. She was initially distraught, but then when she learned of the honor and grace with which God would bless Husayn’s offspring, she was satisfied. She bore Husayn and gave birth to him (after only six months of pregnancy) with grief and sorrow, and she wept as Husayn was born, knowing the tragic but universally reformative fate to which God had destined him.
What is it that sets Husayn apart from the rest of the imams and the Fourteen Infallibles? If the Fourteen Infallibles are of the same luminous essence, as the reports in the corpus of Shia tradition point out, and if there are among the corporeally differentiated beings of the Infallibles individuals who are of a higher spiritual rank than Husayn, as clearly indicated by reports in the corpus of tradition, why is he singled out as the one whose grief is to be remembered and commemorated? Why is he the one imam the faithful are encouraged to honor and weep for on every devotionally significant occasion?
The reason for Husayn’s special status may be partially inferred from a short but touching account, recorded in Sunni as well as Shia sources, from the life of the Prophet. As the Prophet was once walking through the streets of Medina, he came across Husayn, who was then a young boy, as he was playing with children of his own age. The Prophet went toward him and tried to playfully grab him. Husayn ran about as he giggled in reaction to his grandfather’s playing motions. The Prophet finally managed to bring Husayn into his embrace, and, putting one hand under his chin and one hand behind his neck, he kissed Husayn on his lips. He then raised his head and said to those around him, “Husayn is from me, and I am from Husayn.”
It is the latter part of the phrase that pertains to the question at hand, very succinctly and beautifully alluding to Husayn’s pivotal role in preserving the very existence of Islam. The religion of Islam owes its continued existence to Husayn. Were it not for Husayn, Islam would have been utterly lost. Not only would the truest form of Islam as represented by the Shia faith have been lost, but Islam as a legitimate faith resembling even vaguely its original form would have been entirely expunged, being replaced by a caricature of a faith wholly inconsonant with its divine origins. Unfortunately, this aspect of Imam Husayn’s movement is often neglected.
With the death of Muawiyah, however, this tolerable, albeit difficult, period came to an end. Shortly prior to his death, Muawiyah anointed his son, Yazid, as the next caliph. Muawiyah was determined to irrevocably seal his son’s succession to the throne. He even went to Medina to ensure that all the influential figures in this first and most prominent city of Islam were fully persuaded to accept Yazid’s succession.
Muawiyah’s decision to proclaim his son as his successor, which he no doubt had secretively planned for a long time, was a dangerous and unprecedented development in two different respects. On the one hand, Muawiyah was turning the caliphate, which to that day had been considered not only a temporal position but also a divine one in which capacity the caliph represented God Himself, into a hereditary dynasty. The second and more destructive danger lay in Yazid’s personality and temperament.
Yazid was a debauched man who had no regard for religious rules and restraints. Furthermore, he lacked his father’s tact and political sensibility and acumen. To understand the extent of Yazid’s depravity and ruthlessness and his utter disregard for the religious and cultural sensibilities of the Muslims, it suffices to consider the Incident of Harrah (waq‘at al-harrah), a truly horrific and bloody incident that took place in the year 63 AH, roughly two years after the murder of Imam Husayn.
That year, the governor of Medina, Uthman ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Sufyan, who was young and inexperienced, arranged a trip to Damascus for a number of the eminent figures of Medina, including Abd Allah ibn Hanzalah. The governor’s objective in arranging this trip was that, after enjoying Yazid’s stately hospitality and receiving his lavish gifts, the hearts of the guests would be won over and their loyalties firmly secured for the Umayyad king. This was especially necessary at that juncture as tensions were rising in Medina and people, especially the influential personages, were growing increasingly disaffected.
The governor’s plan, however, turned out to be a grave miscalculation. Yazid’s guests did indeed receive lavish gifts, but rather than promoting Yazid upon their return to Medina, they vehemently denounced him. Asked why they denounced such a generous host, they pointed to his unabashed sinfulness and debauchery and his flagrant flouting of the most basic rules of Islamic conduct to the extent that he would flaunt his acts of fornication, adultery, and incest and he would get drunk in the presence of his guests and remain intoxicated so long as to miss his obligatory diurnal prayers. Thus, they retracted their pledges of allegiance to him, swore allegiance instead to Abd Allah ibn Hanzalah as their ruler, and declared war on Yazid.
To quell this uprising, Yazid prepared a large army headed by an old, ruthless commander—namely, Muslim ibn Uqbah. Muslim allowed the people of Medina three days to surrender. They resisted, and so after three days, he attacked the birthplace of the nation of Islam. He allowed his soldiers to commit any atrocity they wished absolute impunity for a period of three days: they massacred tens of thousands of men, raped tens of thousands of women, and perpetrated countless other heinous crimes.
Imam Husayn knew Yazid’s personality and clearly predicted what would become of Islam and the Muslim world should Yazid have his way in governance. Thus, in the very first days of Yazid’s rule prior to leaving Medina, Imam Husayn—when accosted by Marwan ibn Hakam, who suggested that he should pledge allegiance to Yazid—said,
“Farewell to Islam should the nation [of Islam] be plagued by a ruler such as Yazid.”
The only way Imam Husayn could save Islam from sinking further into the spiral of corruption that had begun after the Prophet’s death and was now rapidly intensifying under Yazid’s rule was to either mount a revolution that would upend the ruling establishment or to create such a shock in the Muslim world as to render the continuation of the status quo practically impossible. And so it was that he left Medina with little advance notice and, taking his family and closest relatives with him, set out for Mecca on the 27th or 28th of the month of Rajab in the year 60 AH (3rd or 4th of May, 680 CE), arriving on the 3rd of the month of Sha’ban (9th of May). In Mecca, Imam Husayn pursued a relentless campaign aimed at informing and educating the Muslims that converged on this most holy of Islam’s cities of the dire situation the Muslim world was in and the dark future that awaited it should a ruler such as Yazid succeed in implementing his evil designs.
Husayn had to make a move. Returning to Medina was not an option. That would require conceding defeat and acknowledging allegiance to Yazid. Moving to a Muslim region far removed from the major areas of power—such as Yemen or Egypt, both of whose populations were strongly sympathetic to Imam Husayn—would likely have saved Husayn’s life. It would, however, have left the Muslim world vulnerable to the cultural and religious exploitations of the Umayyad regime. And Imam Husayn was not one who feared death. In him, he had the blood and spirit of Ali, who famously proclaimed,
«وَ اللّهِ لَابْنُ أَبي طالِب آنَسُ بِالمَوْتِ مِنَ الطِّفْلِ بِثَدْي أُمِّهِ»
“By God, the Son of Abu Talib is more drawn to death than an infant is to the bosom of his mother.”
Husayn has no fear of death. His only concern is pleasing his Lord and safeguarding the wellbeing of the Muslim nation. So, considering the available options, his only viable route was to go to Kufah. In so doing, he would either accomplish his short-term political objectives as well, thus overthrowing the Umayyad rule, or he would die trying, in which case he was determined to create a shockwave with his death that would shake the foundations of the ruling establishment, thus preventing it from succeeding to undermine the religious identity of the Muslim community and also ensuring its eventual downfall. Husayn was fully aware of the strong likelihood that the people of Kufah might abandon him once pressure came to bear. Yet, he had no other choice, given his personality, the nature of his divine ministry, and the circumstances on the ground.
Sure enough, the majority of the people of Kufah abandoned him. Ibn Ziyad—the new governor of Kufah, whom Yazid had appointed in haste and charged in desperation with handling the volatile situation unfolding in Kufah—was an experienced and ruthless politician, expert at deception and intimidation. Not only did he succeed in preventing the people of Kufah from joining the cause of Imam Husayn, but he managed to assemble a large army to fight Husayn partially from the very same people who had written letters of invitation to him.
Imam Husayn sacrificed everything for his Lord—not only his life, but that of his brothers, cousins, and children as well. In the very early stages of his movement, prior to leaving Medina, Umm Salamah, one of the wives of the Prophet who loved and adored Husayn, asked him why he was taking women and children along with him.
He replied, “Mother, God has wished to see me slain and slaughtered due to injustice and enmity and He has wished to see my family, my kinsfolk, and my women dispersed and my children slaughtered, oppressed, captured, and chained, such that when they call out for help, they find no one willing to help and assist.”
It is not as though God feels some inherent satisfaction in seeing one of His greatest servants suffer. Husayn had to suffer and to sacrifice all that was dear to him in order to save Islam and humankind from falling into a fathomless abyss of corruption. Any sacrifice less than that which Husayn offered would have lacked the sufficient impetus to jolt the consciousness of the Muslim world and persuade the Muslims to set aside the destructive state of complacency and apathy to which they had become accustomed. In so doing, Imam Husayn ensured the very survival of Islam as a whole. Had he refused to undergo this great and unprecedented tribulation, the ruling establishment would undoubtedly have succeeded in turning Islam into a profoundly disfigured falsehood lacking any affinity to its original form.
That is what makes Husayn unique. No other imam lived in a time or situation that required this level of sacrifice. Husayn, thus, is the only Imam who epitomizes the most conspicuous confrontation between good and evil, and as such he serves as the beacon that all people of all times and all walks of life can see and follow. The lives and examples of the other imams are just as pure and Godly as that of Husayn’s, but their times were such as to lack the adequate context within which the fullest manifestation of the opposition of good to evil could come to light. For this reason, the corpus of Shia devotional literature singles out Husayn as the personification par excellence of tawalli and tabarri—love for the sake of God and hatred for the sake of God.
By securing the survival of Islam, Husayn also facilitated the ultimate global revolution that will unseat all injustice and evil rulers and governments and inaugurate the lasting dominion of God’s loving and compassionate rule over all humankind. After all, the final objective that Prophet Muhammad and all the imams sought and pursued was the rule of God over humankind. Separation of state and church is the evil creation of the secular human mind, which is to say, human mind that is deprived of the illumination of divine guidance. The ultimate rule of God can only come about through the vehicle of the religion of Islam. Had Yazid and the Umayyad rule had their way in distorting Islam, the revolution that will be championed by Imam Mahdi, the twelfth imam of the Shia faith and the ninth imam to be descended from Husayn’s lineage, would not have had a chance.
This brings us to the close correlation between Husayn and Mahdi. All the imams are equally related, for they are all “of one light”; nevertheless, there is a special correlation between Husayn and Mahdi. A key report in the corpus of tradition that very effectively, albeit succinctly, indicates this correlation is the following, which is recorded in Ibn Qulawayh’s Kamil al-ziarat.
One day, as she entered her father’s house, Fatimah noticed that he was weeping. “What is the problem,” she inquired.
“Gabriel informed me that my people will kill Husayn,” he answered.
Fatimah was perturbed and upset on hearing this, but then the Prophet told her about the one from his offspring—Imam Mahdi—who will rule the earth and bring justice to all the world. She was then pleased and calmed.
This report points to two important truths. For one thing, the Prophet, his daughter, and the imams wept for Husayn and encouraged us to grieve Husayn’s martyrdom on account of the elevated and profound truth that he represents. It is true that on a personal level his story is very tragic and moving, but that is insufficient for this level of grief and sorrow. As such, when Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet and Husayn’s mother, learns that someone from Husayn’s offspring will complete the task initiated by Husayn with his great sacrifice, she finds solace and comfort and is no longer anguished.
The second point, and the one pertinent to the topic at hand, that the above report expresses is the correlation between Husayn and Mahdi as two prominent divine viceroys. That Mahdi is of Husayn’s offspring is not merely a biological fact. To be a divine viceroy, it is unnecessary to be descended from one, though that is the state of affairs God has chosen for the fourteen infallible saints of Islam. Moreover, the imams had numerous sons, and only one—namely, Muhammad (Imam Mahdi), son of Hasan, son of Ali, son of Muhammad, son of Ali, son of Musa, son of Jafar, son of Muhammad, son of Ali, son of Husayn—is heir to Husayn’s legacy.
Husayn saved Islam from certain annihilation and initiated a process of transformation that weakened and eventually subverted the Ummayad dynasty, ensured the continuation of the truest form of Islam as represented by the Shia faith, and inspired many martyrs and religious heroes—a truth that persists to this very day. The Islamic Revolution of Iran led by Imam Khomeini is one of the most consequential movements inspired by Husayn. Imam Khomeini famously said, “Whatever we have [accomplished] is on account of [commemorating and mourning Imam Husayn during] Muharram.” The pious and faithful youth from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of the world fighting Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) and the other Saudi- and Qatari-funded pawns of the global hegemonic powers led by the United States of America in the fierce and bloody battlefields of Iraq and Syria draw their sole inspiration from Imam Husayn. Nevertheless, more important than all of the above is that Husayn made the revolution of Imam Mahdi possible, for without Islam, Imam Mahdi’s global revolution would be meaningless.
How can anyone with a clear conscience and a sound mind ignore Husayn’s memory? How can we possibly forget our savior, the one who in the history of humankind offered the greatest sacrifice to secure our spiritual and eternal wellbeing and ensure the global rule of divine justice, peace, and love over the entire world? Commemorating Imam Husayn is an obligation.
The most spiritually effective and socially productive form of commemorating Husayn’s sacrifice is pilgrimage—to embark on a journey to Karbala to visit Imam Husayn’s shrine so as to pay homage to him and to benefit from the illuminating rays of spiritual transformation and catharsis emanating from his holy grave. The corpus of Shia tradition abounds in reports underscoring the critical importance of pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn. There are multiple reports that explain that the believer who fails to undertake a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Husayn is deficient in faith.
Imam Baqir is related as having said, “He from among our followers who does not visit the grave of Husayn is deficient in faith and deficient in religiosity. Should he succeed to enter Heaven, he would be below [the level of] the believers.”
Pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn carries two distinct but interconnected benefits: one divine and subliminal, the other meditative and cerebral. Like all other acts of devotion prescribed by faith, the first and most effective benefit of pilgrimage is the process of inner transformation that it induces in the pilgrim. With the proper mindset and the correct intention, journeying toward the shrine of Husayn and taking steps to visit his holy grave exerts an undeniable and profound power on one’s soul. Pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn is a cathartic exercise that can cleanse the soul of the layers of spiritual muck that accumulate as a result of sin and material attachments and that can empower it to ascend to spiritual heights otherwise difficult or even impossible to attain. This fact is confirmed by reports that state that pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn can purge one’s soul of all the sins one has committed in a lifetime.Such is the divine and subliminal benefit of pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn.
The second benefit that the pilgrim visiting Husayn’s shrine can reap is the opportunity that this trip affords him to reflect on the meaning of the tragedy of Karbala and the tribulation Imam Husayn underwent and the sacrifices that he made. A very worthwhile activity that we can carry out as we prepare to embark on our pilgrimage is to read a credible account of Imam Husayn’s life and especially the story of his fateful movement that ultimately led to his martyrdom. (Sayyid ibn Tawus’s al-Luhuf fi qatla al-tufufis an especially good read; it is brief yet comprehensive, and the literature, being written by a knowledgeable and spiritually elevated author, conveys a personal engagement with the story that can leave a profound and enduring effect on the reader.) By reviewing the story of the tragedy of Karbala and actually visiting the grave of Husayn and those martyred by his side, we can reevaluate our direction in life and gauge to what extent our lives conform to the standards set by Husayn.
It is very important that we engage in this act of self-evaluation. Simply to cry for Husayn and to visit his shrine as a healthy trip with certain religious benefits is scarcely appropriate and is even an affront to Husayn and the cause for which he made his great sacrifice. The primary objective in a pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn should be to try to envisage what Husayn experienced (to the extent this is possible for us) and then realize that it was done for our sake and then determine how successful we have been in shaping our lives in light of this truth.
Imam Husayn is a hospitable and gracious host, and whenever we choose to visit him, he will surely receive us with utmost generosity. Yet, a very opportune occasion for visiting Husayn is Arba’een, the twentieth of the month of Safar, which marks the passing of forty days from Ashura, the day Husayn was slain. This is a very special occasion for travelling to Karbala, preferably on foot, and visiting the shrine of Imam Husayn. According to a report related from Imam Hasan al-Askari (the eleventh Imam and the father of Imam Mahdi), there are five indicators that distinguish a Shia believer. One of these factors is the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala.
The Arba’een pilgrimage to the shrine of Husayn is a very old and well-established ritual. The first person to practice this ritual was Jabir ibn Abd Allah al-Ansari, a companion of the Prophet and a devout follower of his true successors from the Household of the Prophet. According to authentic historical records, he visited the grave of Husayn forty days after his martyrdom. He made this trip with a heart heavy with grief, as his old age and his being blind deprived him of the honor of accompanying Husayn and being by his side on the day of Ashura. Jabir ibn Abd Allah al-Ansari was the first believer to make the journey to the grave of Husayn, and so the credit for setting this precedent goes to him.
Today, the Arba’een pilgrimage has turned into arguably the most crowded multinational gathering of people throughout the world. According to official estimates, close to twenty million people from within Iraq and from all over the world converge on Karbala to visit the shrine of Husayn on the twentieth of Safar. The crowd is so enormous and overwhelming that many pilgrims are unable to even enter the city of Karbala.
Anyone who is aware of the geopolitical circumstances in the region—specifically in Iraq and Syria—will acknowledge that the terrifying advance of the terrorist groups that have been destabilizing the region and harassing the innocent populations of vast areas of Western Asia (the correct name for the “Middle East,” which is nothing but a condescending misnomer coined by Western imperialists) came to a halt (or very close thereto) only when vast crowds of pilgrims from inside Iraq and other regional countries with a Shia population showed an increased interest in the Arba’een pilgrimage.
The Arba’een pilgrimage has now evolved into a multinational congregation of the faithful that has the potential to drastically alter the conventional geopolitical calculations of the oppressive hegemonic powers. This rare religious sociopolitical phenomenon has grown into a mesmerizing manifestation of the mobilizing power that the true Islam can unleash. It dwarfs the second largest—also Islamic—multinational congregation, which is the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (the holy city of Islam, situated in what is now, but not for long, referred to as Saudi Arabia), in spite of the fact that the latter is attended by all Muslims while the Arba’een pilgrimage is undertaken mainly by Shia Muslims.
There is good reason for this. No doubt, divine guidance is playing the primary—or arguably, the sole—role. The once strong clout that Western powers—mainly the USA in the past several decades—exerted over the world and particularly Western Asia and the Muslim countries is rapidly waning. The power of the Muslim populations, especially in Shia regions, is on the rise. The regional pawns of the Western powers see before them a precarious landscape whose future is looking increasingly bleak.
The Arba’een pilgrimage has become the focal point of all these sociopolitical and geopolitical developments. It is the religious engine, so to speak, that is fueling the rise of increasingly assertive Shia organizations that have been the only political entities in recent decades to effectively counter the dominance of Western-Zionist hegemony. Karbala is the heart of this rising power, and the mind, as all Western intelligence analysts acknowledge, is—at least in the overt political sense—Tehran, the capital of the countrymen of Salman al-Muhammadi, the people whom the Prophet of God predicted as playing a singular role—alongside the people of Yemen—in facilitating the reemergence of the final Imam and, hence, the rule of God over the entire world.
May God hasten the reemergence of our Master, Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi, thereby avenging the murder of Husayn and all those loyal followers and kinsmen who firmly stood by him to the very end. Amen.