Human history is not only a story of the rise and fall of glorious civilisations, achievements and social evolution, it is also the story of ruthless suppressions, human tragedies and sacrifices. And yet, there seem to be some relatively permanent and universal human values which emerge in every age and society in the form of such concepts as truth, justice, liberty, equality, sympathy, humanity, understanding, realisation, perception, and so on. The great tragedies and sacrifices of human history, whether solitary like that of Jesus or collective like that of Spartacus and his comrades, have always been motivated by these values.
If a society fails to benefit from the literary narration of human tragedies in history, it only proves lack of sensitivity on the part of the individuals of that society. Refined and deeply sensitive narrations of sorrow have always enriched humanity.
Tragedy reflects a characteristically human situation which evokes the most profound responses at the intellectual and emotional levels. Tragedies arouse such feelings as sympathy and understanding, love and compassion.
If we look closely at history we find that the tragedy of Karbala infused in the social milieu of Islam such deep revolutionary spirit that insurrections, revolts, uprising and revolutions never ceased to occur against despotic rulers, because Karbala cast its long shadow across the ages. The following words of Imam Hussain, in which he addressed the people of Iraq before his martyrdom, continue to haunt the memory of mankind and to goad people’s conscience into action: “O people! The Prophet has said that he who sees a tyrannical potentate transgressing against God and His Prophet and oppressing and wronging the people, and he still remains apathetic and does nothing, by word or by action, to alter the situation, then it will be just on the part of God to place him where he deservingly belongs. Your letters and messages reached me in regard to your allegiance (baiat) to me, stating that you will not forsake me. So if we have come to a final decision in this regard (but persist) your previous behaviours with my father and my brother and my cousin Muslim, (then remember that)…you yourselves will be the cause of you misfortunes and you yourselves will ruin your lot, for whoever breaks a pledge only harms himself.” (Tareekh-ul-Umam-waal-Mulook by Tabari.) On another occasion, Imam Hussain addressed the people thus: “You see to what a low level the affairs have come… Do you not observe that truth is not adhered to and that falsehood has no limit…? And, as for me, I look upon death as a means of attaining martyrdom and I consider life among transgressors and oppressors as nothing but agony and affliction.” (Ibid.)
When someone faces unendurable trials, these trials sometimes cause such intense feelings as hatred and revenge. But while these, due to their very intensity, are transitory, feelings such as love and compassion are more permanent and they give rise to all human values that are essential at the individual and social plane.
Tragedies are a highly effective means of humanity’s elevation. But if they occur in connection with a human cause and in defence of a great moral principle, they become powerful agents of progress and sublimation. Such tragedies are transformed into the glory of martyrdom and evolve into the collective conscience of human society, forming a permanent feature of a highly refined culture.
In Muslim history, the essentially moral message of martyrdom is conveyed most forcefully by the martyrdom of Hussain and his comrades on the battlefield of Karbala. Through the ages it has served as the nucleus of our moral and cultural concepts.
It is a peculiarity of martyrdom that it converts political failure and military defeat into a moral success and a spiritual victory. Thus, the message of martyrdom influences the human mind more at the moral and spiritual plane than at any other level.
But morality and spirit are common to all levels of human thoughts and action, whether religious or political. And not only are morality and spirit all-pervasive but are far more permanent in influence than either religion or politics.
Without spirit and morality, religion would be reduced to mere ritual and politics to sheer tyranny. Thus, spirit and morality not only impart purpose to politics and meaning to religion, they also oppose the tyranny of the former and the meaningless ritualism of the latter.
The permanence and pervasiveness of both a political programme and a religious system lies in the quality of their moral and spiritual content.
In Karbala, one of the thoughts which provided Hussain with amazing fortitude and the courage to raise above all those mental and physical agonies must have been the ideas expressed in the following verses of the Quran which almost appear to predict the martyrdom of Hussain and the tragedy of Karbala:
“Surely We will try you with something of fear and hunger and diminution of goods and lives and fruits: yet thou give tidings unto the patients who, when they are visited by an affliction, say, ‘Surely we belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ “ The Quran also says: “Think not those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are living.” Hussain knew from the authority of the Quran that martyrs die only physically, but spiritually they can revive the dying.