By Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina — George Mason University —
“The Soul of Islam” was in danger. This was just a few decades after the Prophet’s departure from this world in 632 C.E. Muslims had become complacent about the inner dimension of their faith commitment – a dimension that demanded constant vigilance to maintain its moral-spiritual (taqwa) capacity. Muslim conscience had become insensitive with the coming of enormous prosperity and wealth that had been acquired through territorial conquests of the regions between the rivers of Nile and Oxus. The ethical numbness had reached the very soul of Islam – the Holy Book of God, al-Qur’an, and the Prophetic practice, the Sunnah. A number of the Prophet’s pious followers perceived the crisis coming and even warned the rulers about the impending disaster that could wipe away the soul of Islam. But, it is worth keeping in mind that the first century of Hijra was a period of great worldly success for the Ummah. This manifest success in expanding the territorial gains had an intoxicating impact on the early political leaders of the Muslim empire. As years went by, Islam began to be conceived in terms of its worldly success at the expense of its soul. The more Muslims equated Islam with material success, the more it undermined its spiritual and ethical foundation. A number of hadith-reports were now fabricated and put into circulation to justify this tilt towards materialism of the jahiliyya – that Age of Ignorance, which was the main target of the Prophet’s mission in Mekkah and Madina.
In many ways that first century was the formative period of Islamic history. It set the tone of subsequent developments in law and human relations. It is not an exaggeration to say that historically it was the critical period of severe testing and careful sifting in order to distinguish between the form and the meaning of life as taught by the Prophet. To be sure, ‘form’ is a thing’s outward appearance; `meaning’ is its inward and unseen reality. The unseen reality of Islam needs the faithful `heart’ – the conscience, to witness its true essence – its soul. The Qur’an criticizes people for not using their `hearts’, that is their conscience, to understand the meaning of `submission’ to the Will of God (al-islam). “It is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are their hearts within their breasts.” (Surat al-Hajj, 46). The Qur’an detects a major flaw in the generality of the people who do not understand that what they are seeing is a veil over reality. The world is not what it appears to be. One must develop penetrating vision to cry out like the Prophet did: “Oh Lord, show us things as they are!” Muslims were habitually performing the devotional acts without pondering about their spiritual and ethical consequences. Such neglect also created insensitivity towards political and social injustices in the society. The culmination of this depressing development was the year 61 of Hijra (680 C.E.).
The Prophet’s grandson, al-Husayn b. `Ali, was brought up in the Prophetic household where attention was paid to the form and its meaning. Things were seen as they were. The prominent feature in nurturing the future leader of the Ummah was provided by the whole family composed of the parents, Imam `Ali and Fatima Zahra, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon all of them). History has recorded many instances that show the pains that were taken by the elderly to develop the inner dimensions of faith – the soul of Islam as embedded in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s perfect paradigm, the Sunnah.
The process of endangering the soul of Islam had already begun, following the death of the Prophet. The early community paid little attention to the living examples of the Ahlul-Bayt – the conscience of Islam. As years went by the conscientious mirror of Islam started getting rusted. Imam Husayn was endowed with that sensitive vision and like his father, Imam `Ali and his brother Imam Hasan, who observed the critical situation faced by the community in the post-Prophetic period. By the year 60 of Hijra (679-80 C.E.), the danger had reached a level that could not be simply ignored by the Imam Husayn. This is reflected in one of his many speeches that he gave during his journey to Iraq until the last day of his life, the Day of `Ashura. In his speech to the army of Hurr, who had come to arrest the Imam, he commented on the situation that was faced by Islam:
“You might be aware the Umayyads have adopted the ways of Satan, renouncing submission to God’s commands, misappropriating what belongs to the Muslims, permitting what God had forbidden and prohibiting what God had permitted. In these circumstances, upon whom does the responsibility for correcting the matters rest more heavily than it does on me.” (Tabari, Ta’rikh, Vol. VI, p. 229)
Karbala in this way became the paradigm for the battle that one undertakes with the intention of awakening the Muslim conscience that had become disconnected from the Soul of Islam. Indeed, like today, in those days of the year 61, the Qur’an was in danger and the Prophetic practice had been abandoned in favor of the practices of jahiliyya. Let us not forget that just as Imam Husayn undertook to fight for the Soul of Islam in the year 61, it is now our turn to follow the example of Imam Husayn and fight against our indifference towards the ethical and spiritual goals of Islam.
“Islam comes to life with every renewal of Karbala.”