In thinking about Imam Hussain’s (p) revival and its resulting tragedy, let us begin with this important question: why do some people in the Muslim community persist in remembering Imam Hussain’s (p) death? Every year they recall his movements and the tragic way he and some of his family and followers were brutally killed. Is remembering his murder a part of their culture and tradition like many other communities who celebrate their culture regardless of its connection to any set of values? In fact, remembering Imam Hussain’s murder is not a valueless cultural celebration, but is directly connected to human dignity and the battle between good and evil. His movement is also based on the Islamic philosophy of God’s vicegerent on earth. His revival represents the mission of the prophets to humankind and the battle with evil. He inherited Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) mission to save people from oppression and enslavement. His duty was to rescue the community of his grandfather from enslavement by Yazid and to rescue the principles of the religion of the Prophet from deviation and distortion. For this reason, Imam Hussain (p) was described as the heir (warith) of the Prophets.

Rejection of Yazid and humiliation

The reasons for Imam Hussain’s (p) refusal to acknowledge Yazid’s claim to the caliphate were twofold: 1) that Yazid was not qualified for such a sacred (and divinely appointed) office, and 2) that he (Imam Hussain) belonged to the family of the Prophet and would not pay homage to an impious man like Yazid. He explained his opposition to Yazid’s caliphate by stating: “We are the household of the Prophet, frequented by angels and are the heart of the descent of divine mercy. Yazid, on the other hand, is a reprobate, a drinker of wine and a killer of the innocent and openly practices all means of corruption. A man of my status, therefore, cannot pay homage (bay’a) to a man like Yazid.”[i]

The cornerstone of Imam Hussain’s (p) revival and his subsequent fate was that he refused to acknowledge Yazid’s caliphate when Yazid threatened him with death. The Imam’s refusal to acknowledge this caliphate was not based on personal reasons, but was based on religious grounds. He knew that Yazid was not qualified for the caliphate, and that he, (the Imam), was entitled to it because of his divine authority. Imam Hussain (p) intended to protect the values of religion and of human dignity and freedom. Therefore, he would have rather been killed as a free man than live in humiliation under the rule of the Umayyads.

The vital question that needs to be answered is on what basis Yazid became a caliph. How did he assume the caliphate while among the Muslims there were sons of prominent companions (Sahaba), such as Imam Hussain (p), who were more qualified for the caliphate than he? Yazid became caliph only when Muawiya, who was aware of Yazid’s misconduct and lack of qualifications, nominated him and imposed his caliphate on the people. Wanting to remove the real meaning of the caliphate and intending to transform it into a kingship (mulk) inherited by his offspring, Mu’awiya rejected the principle of the early Companions of the Prophet by choosing the caliph himself, as he articulated clearly in his letter to Hassan.[ii] The most important and effective measure employed by Muawiya was the imposition of pledging allegiance to Yazid on the people. In fact, it was the only way to secure Yazid’s caliphate. Once the people had sworn allegiance, they would have no chance to revoke it. With his Syrian troops and using threats, Muawiya succeeded in securing allegiance for Yazid from the people of the two cities [Mecca and Medina].[iii]

As soon as he assumed the caliphate, Yazid wasted no time in asking Imam Hussain (p) to pay homage to him and ordered the governor of Medina to obtain allegiance from him. Because of the Umayyad officials’ harassment, the Imam decided to leave Medina, declaring that he would never recognize Yazid.

The religion of Islam at risk

In Yazid’s caliphate, Mu’awiya had created a new system, destroying the principles acknowledged by the early Companions of the Prophet and transforming it into a kingship for his family.[iv] Through his refusal to recognize Yazid’s caliphate, Imam Hussain (p) intended to stand against this new system, which required no qualifications of the caliph, and to revive the true Islamic principles of the Prophet. In the Imam’s eyes, the rule of the Umayyads would lead to the destruction of Islamic norms and the corruption of the community. He believed that the caliph was endowed with the duty, specific to his status, of protecting Islamic principles from violation. The Imam of the community is the one who “acts according to the Book of God and the Traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet; the one who upholds justice; devoting himself to the religion of the truth (deen al-haqq); and the one who dedicates himself to the service of God.”[v]

Yazid’s caliphate, in the Imam’s eyes, was a deviation from the principles of the Qur’an and the Traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet (pbuh) and represented corruption in his grandfather’s community. He announced that the reason for his refusal to recognize Yazid and for his revival was to prevent this corruption and to establish justice in the community. As the only living person with divine authority from God, Imam Hussain (p) believed that he was committed to following in the footsteps of his grandfather and was more responsible than anyone else for preventing corruption. Because of Yazid’s irreligious conduct, the Imam was not willing to lend legitimacy to Yazid’s caliphate by paying homage to him.

For this reason, Imam Hussain (p) did not listen to those who advised him to submit to the de facto established authority and to agree with whatever the community had acquiesced to. The community was fully aware of Yazid’s unsuitability for the caliphate and had opposed Mu’awiya’s desire to nominate him as his successor. Nevertheless, when the allegiance to Yazid was imposed on them, they asked the Imam to compromise and to follow the community (al-jama’a). They believed that paying homage to Yazid would be better than an uprising which might lead to the division of the community. Imam Hussain (p) rejected their advice, explaining that their obligation was not to accept an unjust ruler, but to rise against him. For this reason, the Imam told Ibn Umar, the pioneer of the opinion supporting compromise, that Ibn Umar’s duty was to support him (the Imam) against the illegitimate caliph.[vi]

A stand against tyranny

Even when he received the news of the killing of his envoys and the failure of the Kufans to defend Muslim ibn Aqil and learned that their swords had turned against him, Imam Hussain (p) did not change his plans, and he continued his journey to Kufa. On many occasions, the Imam told those who had written to him that he came to Kufa only because of their appeal and asked them to fulfill their promises. When he became convinced of their failure to stand with him, he asked them to allow him to go back to Medina or to any other place. Did the Imam prepare to withdraw from his duty to rise against Yazid and decide instead to recognize him? If so, why did Imam Hussain (p) take his family with him and expose them to jeopardy? Even when he received the news of the killing of Muslim ibn Aqil and his other envoys in Kufa, of the Kufans’ failure to keep their commitments, and when he became aware that a confrontation with the Umayyads was unavoidable, he did not send his family back to Medina. This leaves us with the impression that this decision was part of a divine plan and that his family would play a significant role after his death in exposing the Kufans for their failure to stand with him and in agitating the masses against the Umayyads for their treatment of the family of the Prophet. The role of his family was to testify to the ongoing illegitimacy of Yazid’s caliphate after the death of Imam Hussain (p) and to clarify the circumstances of his death for the people.

Because of the Imam’s sacred mission, which was based on the Traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet and the principles of the Qur’an, he became the representative of the Prophets and paved the way for all those who seek salvation and to protect their dignity. Muslim communities regard the killing of the Imam (p) at the hands of the Umayyads as an immoral massacre of the divinely appointed leader at the hands of a usurper. Thus, remembering Imam Hussain’s (p) death combines grief over his death with a strong condemnation of tyranny and injustice. Hussain ibn Ali (p) became a historical figure and his martyrdom became a singular event in human history. The slogan “O avengers of Hussain,” which played a significant role in the downfall of the Umayyads, became a symbol for the future of many movements.

[i] Ahmad ibn A’tham al-Kufi, Kitab al-futuh, 4 vols. Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-ilmiyya, (1406/1986), 3: 14.

[ii] Al-Isfahani, Maqatil, pp.66-7. Al-Baladhuri, Ansab al-ashraf, 3: 280.

[iii] Ibn A’tham, Futuh, p. 2: 351-2. Khalifa, Ta’rikh, p. 164. Ibn Qutayba, al-Imama, 1: 190.

[iv] According to Ibn A’tham. the Syrians gave homage to Yazid as the new caliph and Mu’awiya’s successor. Futuh, 3: 7-8.

[v] Ibid., 3: 35-6. Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, 4: 262.

[vi] Ibn A’tham, Futuh, 3: 29.

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