What the World can Learn from the Grandson of the Prophet

by Salma Hooshmand

Millions of Muslims around the world gather annually to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.  Hussain and his family were massacred on the plains of Karbala, modern-day Iraq, in the year 680 AD.  Mourning ceremonies vary from culture to culture.  They often include reenactments of the events leading to and including the final battle on the day of Ashura, recitations of song and poetry, and episodes of self-flagellation.  This last ritual ranges from a light, rhythmic beating of chests in unison, to, in extreme cases, the practice of incurring self-inflicted wounds.  The personality of Hussain is often obscured by these loud and highly ritualized ceremonies; actually, his story is a simple one with a universal message.

The tragedy of Hussain’s martyrdom is magnified by the sheer inequality of numbers.  In the manner of David and Goliath, Hussain was grossly outnumbered.  The aggressor, Yazid, had recently inherited the caliphate from his father.  He felt threatened by Hussain’s popularity and blood ties to the origins of Islam, and vowed to acquire either Hussain’s allegiance or his life.  In simple terms, Yazid was a bully, and Hussain stood up to him.  In the days leading up to the final battle, Yazid sent a force of 4000 troops to corner and surround Hussain’s caravan of 72 in the middle of the desert.  There, Yazid’s representatives attempted to extract Hussain’s endorsement with false promises, bribes, and threats; but Hussain stood his ground.  Soon, threats became acts of aggression and violence.  Access to the river was blocked on the day of Ashura, and Hussain and his family were left thirsty under the scorching desert sun.  Still Hussain did not give in; Yazid’s policies were oppressive and unjust, and Hussain would not join him.  A famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi states, “I learned from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”  Indeed, the millions who continue to honor Hussain across centuries consider his quiet dignity and his refusal to capitulate to corruption a noble triumph, not a defeat.

If Hussain’s story teaches us to stand up for what is right, it also teaches us to stand with family.  Hussain’s encampment consisted of women and children of all ages.  Many of the most poignant episodes narrate how adolescents bravely attempt to defend the family, only to be slaughtered.  The tragedy climaxes when Hussain carries his infant son to the frontline to request water for him.  Horrifically, the aggressors quench the baby’s thirst with an arrow that pierces his throat.  Throughout the narrative, the bond between Hussain and his sister Zainab is highlighted. The two are inseparable until Hussein’s death; then Zainab serves as head of the family as she is taken prisoner along with the other women and children.  Hussain’s story illustrates the love of a family, unified in purpose; each of its members willing to sacrifice all for their shared values.

Finally, the story of Hussain is a story of faith.  Yazid had begun to twist the message of Hussain’s grandfather, Prophet Mohammed, and to use religion to excuse his own corruption and oppression.   Yazid, like the leaders of today’s terrorists, interpreted scripture and Mohammed’s teachings in a manner that bolstered his own interests.  Hussain’s faith was his impetus to stand against someone like Yazid, who had the means and power to taint the true teachings of his grandfather.  Today, perhaps more than ever, we can appreciate Hussain’s desire to discern religious authority from the policies of a corrupt ruler.

So the story of Hussain is retold once a year.  On its surface are its rituals; the wearing of black, the laments of mourners, the busy street processions.  These huge, bustling ceremonies are a testament to the magnitude of Hussain’s personality; they serve to perpetuate his legend in a grand flurry of tradition.  Beyond these exotic ceremonies, at the core of Hussain’s story, are basic lessons of courage, family and faith.  Hussain’s devotion to his beliefs is worthy of remembrance, if only to help us define and fortify our own values.


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12 2011

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  1. 1

    Jazakallah Khair for this beautiful and very informative post!


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