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Why Ashura and Yazid Were Unique in History

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28-January-2017

In our previous article, we took a brief look at some of the hadiths in our source texts that contradict the slogan “every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.” In this article, we’re going to explore some of the possible reasons why Ashura was so unique in history and why not every tyrant […]

In our previous article, we took a brief look at some of the hadiths in our source texts that contradict the slogan “every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.” In this article, we’re going to explore some of the possible reasons why Ashura was so unique in history and why not every tyrant was or is like Yazid (yes, the statement that every tyrant is Yazid is also a popular one).

The idea that not every day was Ashura and not every land was Karbala, or that not every tyrant was Yazīd (la) was something Twelver Shīʿah scholars throughout history knew too well.

What can we make out of these ḥadīths that say that there is no day like Ashura? Why may Yazīd be seen as unique in so many ways?

It is not possible to say that the level of violence exacted against Imam al-Ḥusayn (as) and his family was unique in history. If we only take the act of violence into account, there have been equal or greater acts of violence perpetrated against human beings throughout history even though the tragedy of Karbala may have been one of the most gruesome. One need only to think of modern warfare and the vicious brutalization and torture of innocent people. Yugoslavia, the Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, the eradication and torture of the Native Americans, Saddam Hussein, the list won’t end. What makes Ashura so unique is not its political tragedy (and it was a political tragedy a well,) but its metaphysical implications.

Many of the people who partook in the battle against Imām al-Ḥusayn (as) were people who had witnessed the Prophet Muhammad (s) or had been companions of people who were intimate with him. They were all aware of the veracity of the Prophet’s (s) message. Those who had seen the Prophet had experienced firsthand the miracles that he had performed. Above all, this had included Yazīd himself. He had met the Prophet himself, knew he was a Prophet, and witnessed his miracles. Yet despite the proof staring them down, they still chose to oppose the messenger of Allah and kill his grandson whom they knew very well was a righteous and divinely inspired leader.

This tragedy was not only the result of people who actively partook in the murder of Imam al-Ḥusayn (as), but the result of the carelessness, laziness, cowardice and heedlessness of the Muslim community who having seen the miracles of the Prophet (s), still decided to abandon him and Islam by letting Imām al-Ḥusayn (as) fend for himself; and hence Imām al-Ḥusayn’s (as) cry “is there anyone to come to my aid?” The calamity as such as a calamity of communal acedia, a sin which the early Persian mystic al-Junayd (d. 910) considered to be the worst and root of all sins.

Previous Prophets were also killed by people who knew the truth but fought their Prophetic guides because of their love of the world. Yet this calamity went further as this time the entire family of an appointee of God, including babies and children, were slaughtered. The degree of animosity and hatred was one that was unprecedented even in Prophetic history.

The day of Ashura and the land of Karbala was a calamity because it exposed the sham and façade of the so-called Muslim community, including those who claimed to love the Ahl al-Bayt (as). It showed that although the community may have had some outward Islamic conduct (such as praying, and saying Mashā Allāh,) but it was all pretentious; nice on the outside but completely empty within. In Karbala, it was not just Imām al-Ḥusayn (as), his family and friends that died, but it was the soul of the Muslim community. It was in a sense, the death of Islam.

This is what made Yazīd, his army and all those who stood by and did nothing so unique. It was not the degree of violence, nor the death per se, but the sickness at the deep level of Muslim community’s soul that let this happen. It was the transhistorical culmination of the failure of the project to reform human society. It was not a failure because Islam was deficient, but it was a failure as a result of the kinds of choices that humans as a social group made; it was the fullest and most unique manifestation of the Qur’anic discourse of human moral and salvific failure which permeates so much of its narrative from its beginning chapter to the end. If Yazīd was unique, it was because he was the leader and manifestation of communal failure when it reached its peak.

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