By Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin
For hundreds of millions of Muslims, Saturday, 19 February, was Ashura. And nine days earlier they had celebrated the beginning of the Islamic month Muharram, the first day of the Islamic year. (These dates migrate through the Western calendar, since the Islamic lunar year is shorter than the West’s solar year.)
Ashura is celebrated on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram (ashura means “ten”) and its commemoration everywhere involves fasting and meditation. Traditionally, it is the day on which Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood, as well as the prophet Abraham’s birthday and the day that the great shrine of Mecca, the Kaaba, was completed.
But the most spectacular commemoration of Ashura occurs among Shi’ite Muslims – the majority in parts of the Muslim world such as Iran, southern Lebanon, and southern Iraq. Shi’ites are especially devoted to the family of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whom they believe to have been the rightful successor to the Prophet. It was also on Ashura, in 680 A.D., that Ali’s son, Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad, was martyred. For Shi’ite communities, Ashura is a day of deep mourning, and it is observed with emotional reenactments of the death of Husayn and his followers that, in many aspects, recall Christian passion plays depicting the death of Jesus.
Within a few decades of the Prophet’s death, the Umayyad dynasty – descendants of his old enemies now (at least nominally) converted to Islam – had seized control of the vast new Islamic empire. Subsequent historians (virtually all of them, it should be said, writing for the dynasty that overthrew the Umayyads) paint this group, by and large, as drunkards, tyrants, murderers, and brazen sinners. Of these, the second of the Umayyad rulers, Yazid, was perhaps the worst. In the meantime, with the death of his father and grandfather, the pious and otherworldly Husayn had become the leader of the Prophet’s family and, thus, to Shi’ites and others, Muhammad’s legitimate heir as ruler of the Islamic world. When he was asked to pledge his loyalty to Yazid, he refused.
But the Umayyad regime could not permit a person of such prestige and public stature to openly withhold his allegiance. Eventually, a large Umayyad army surrounded Husayn, along with most of his family and some of his faithful followers, at a place called Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates River in Iraq. Husayn was killed while he prayed. His head was mounted on a spear and displayed throughout Iraq and Syria until it arrived in Damascus and was presented at the feet of Yazid. His companions, fewer than seventy-five by most accounts, were butchered with him.
The Islamic world was horrified, then and now. Muslims felt deep shame that the head of the Prophet’s grandson, who had played on Muhammad’s back while his grandfather prayed, had been presented as a trophy to a triumphant worldling like Yazid. It was especially mortifying that thousands of devout but terrified believers had ignored Husayn’s pleas for help.
Today, Husayn is remembered as “the imam [leader] of the martyrs.” Reenactments of his brutal death whip devout Shi’ites to a high pitch of religious enthusiasm, reminding them of all the injustices and usurpations they have suffered over the centuries. Karbala is not mere history. With every new instance of perceived oppression – during the Iranian revolution against the Shah of Iran, for example, or in Iran’s various confrontations with the United States – Karbala happens again: The enemy is Yazid, and the righteous martyrs are Husayn and his family. The story of Karbala, according to one modern Shiite Muslim writer, “makes us aware of the people, then and now, who tried to destroy Islam and the family of the Prophet and all that they stood for – as well as those who watched, listened and did nothing.” “Every day is Ashura,” declared a ninth century Shi’ite leader, “and every land is Kerbela.”