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The month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, brings with it the memory of the sacrifice of Imam Husayn [a], the grandson of Prophet Muhammad [s], and his noble family and friends. This short text reflects the deep admiration of its aut

Imam Husain And His Martyrdom


By Abdullah Yusuf Ali
Renowned English translator and commentator of the Holy Qur'an
(Progressive Islam Pamphlet No. 7, September, 1931)

Introduction:

The month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, brings with it the memory of the sacrifice of Imam Husayn [a], the grandson of Prophet Muhammad [s], and his noble family and friends.  This short text reflects the deep admiration of its author towards Imam Husayn [a] and an insight into the tragedy of Karbala, its reasons and its consequences.  It is presented with the hope that it will foster the Islamic unity and the brotherly love that the author seeks in his preface.

The author, of course, is none other than the well-known Sunni English translator and commentator of the Qur'an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who died in 1952 in England.  Little would he have known that his English translation and commentary of the Qur'an would become so popular in the West and East alike, wherever English is read and understood.

And little would he have known that later editions of his Qur'an translation and commentary would undergo tampering such that favorable references to Imam Husayn [a] would be deleted, amongst other changes!(*)  Perhaps there are some out there who want to see the memory of Imam Husayn [a] wiped out.  Perhaps Karbala is not quite over yet.

The Shi'a Encyclopedia team

(*)  A detailed and documented case study is now available on Tahrif! Investigating Distortions in Islamic Texts. Imam Husain And His Martyrdom, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (d. 1952), 41 pages
Lahore: M Feroz-ud-Din & Sons, 1931.
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Preface

The following pages are based on a report of an Address which I delivered in London at an Ashura Majlis on Thursday the 28th May, 1931 (Muharram 1350 A.H.), at the Waldorf Hotel. The report was subsequently corrected and slightly expanded. The Majlis was a notable gathering, which met at the invitation of Mr. A. S. M. Anik. Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan, Tiwana, presided and members of all schools of thought in Islam, as well as non-Muslims, joined reverently in doing honour to the memory of the great Martyr of Islam. By its inclusion in the Progressive Islam Pamphlets series, it is hoped to reach a larger public than were able to be present in person. Perhaps, also, it may help to strengthen the bonds of brotherly love which unite all who hold sacred the ideals of brotherhood preached by the Prophet in his last Sermon.

A. Yusuf Ali.

Imam Husain And His Martyrdom

Sorrow as a Bond of Union

I am going to talk this afternoon about a very solemn subject, the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Kerbela, of which we are celebrating the anniversary. As the Chairman has very rightly pointed out, it is one of those wonderful events in our religious history about which all sects are agreed. More than that, in this room I have the honour of addressing some people who do not belong to our religious persuasion, but I venture to think that the view I put forward today may be of interest to them from its historical, its moral and its spiritual significance. Indeed, when we consider the background of that great tragedy, and all that has happened during the 1289 lunar years since, we cannot fail to be convinced that some events of sorrow and apparent defeat are really the very things which are calculated to bring about, or lead us towards, the union of humanity.

How Martyrdom healed divisions

When we invite strangers or guests and make them free of our family circle, that means the greatest outflowing of our hearts to them. The events that I am going to describe refer to some of the most touching incidents of our domestic history in their spiritual aspect. We ask our brethren of other faiths to come, and share with us some of the thoughts which are called forth by this event. As a matter of fact all students of history are aware that the horrors that are connected with the great event of Kerbela did more than anything else to unite together the various contending factions which had unfortunately appeared at that early stage of Muslim history. You know the old Persian saying applied to the Prophet:

Tu barae wasl kardan amadi;
Ni barae fasl kardan amadi.
"Thou camest to the world to unite, not to divide." 

That was wonderfully exemplified by the sorrows and sufferings and finally the martyrdom of Imam Husain.

Commemoration of great virtues

There has been in our history a tendency sometimes to celebrate the event merely by wailing and tribulation, or sometimes by symbols like the Tazias that you see in India, - Taboots as some people call them. Well, symbolism or visible emblems may sometimes be useful in certain circumstances as tending to crystallise ideas. But I think the Muslims of India of the present day are quite ready to adopt a more effective way of celebrating the martyrdom, and that is by contemplating the great virtues of the martyr, trying to understand the significance of the events in which he took part, and translating those great moral and spiritual lessons into their own lives. From that point of view I think you will agree that it is good that we should sit together, even people of different faiths, - sit together and consider the great historic event, in which were exemplified such soul-stirring virtues as those of unshaken faith, undaunted courage, thought for others, willing self-sacrifice, steadfastness in the right and unflinching war against the wrong. Islam has a history of beautiful domestic affections, of sufferings and of spiritual endeavour, second to none in the world. That side of Muslim history, although to me the most precious, is, I am sorry to say, often neglected. It is most important that we should call attention to it, reiterated attention, the attention of our own people as well as the attention of those who are interested in historical and religious truth. If there is anything precious in Islamic history it is not the wars, or the politics, or the brilliant expansion, or the glorious conquests, or even the intellectual spoils which our ancestors gathered. In these matters, our history, like all history, has its lights and shades. What we need especially to emphasise is the spirit of organisation, of brotherhood, of undaunted courage in moral and spiritual life.

Plan of discourse

I propose first to give you an idea of the geographical setting and the historical background. Then I want very briefly to refer to the actual events that happened in the Muharram, and finally to draw your attention to the great lessons which we can learn from them.

Geographical Picture

In placing before you a geographical picture of the tract of country in which the great tragedy was enacted, I consider myself fortunate in having my own personal memories to draw upon. They make the picture vivid to my mind, and they may help you also. When I visited those scenes in 1928, I remember going down from Baghdad through all that country watered by the Euphrates river. As I crossed the river by a bridge of boats at Al-Musaiyib on a fine April morning, my thoughts leapt over centuries and centuries. To the left of the main river you have the old classic ground of Babylonian history; you have the railway station of Hilla; you have the ruins of the city of Babylon, witnessing to one of the greatest civilisations of antiquity. It was so mingled with the dust that it is only in recent years that we have begun to understand its magnitude and magnificence. Then you have the great river system of the Euphrates, the Furat as it is called, a river unlike any other river we know. It takes its rise in many sources from the mountains of Eastern Armenia, and sweeping in great zig-zags through rocky country, it finally skirts the desert as we see it now. Wherever it or its interlacing branches or canals can reach, it has converted the desert into fruitful cultivated country; in the picturesque phrase, it has made the desert blossom as the rose. It skirts round the Eastern edge of the Syrian desert and then flows into marshy land. In a tract not far from Kerbela itself there are lakes which receive its waters, and act as reservoirs. Lower down it unites with the other river, the Tigris, and the united rivers flow in the name of the Shatt-al-Arab into the Persian Gulf.

Abundant water & tragedy of thirst

From the most ancient times this tract of the lower Euphrates has been a garden. It was a cradle of early civilisation, a meeting place between Sumer and Arab, and later between the Persians and Arabs. It is a rich, well watered country, with date-palms and pomegranate groves. Its fruitful fields can feed populous cities and its luscious pastures attract the nomad Arabs of the desert, with their great flocks and herds. It is of particularly tragic significance that on the border of such a well-watered land, should have been enacted the tragedy of great and good men dying of thirst and slaughtered because they refused to bend the knee to the forces of iniquity. The English poet's lines "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink" are brought home forcibly to you in this borderland between abundant water and desolate sands.

Kerbela and Its Great Dome

I remember the emotion with which I approached Kerbela from the East. The rays of the morning sun gilt the Gumbaz-i-Faiz, the great dome that crowns the building containing the tomb of Imam Husain. Kerbela actually stands on one of the great caravan routes of the desert. Today the river city of Kufa, once a Khilafat capital, is a mere village, and the city of Najaf is famous for the tomb of Hazrat Ali, but of little commercial importance. Kerbela, this outpost of the desert, is a mart and a meeting ground as well as a sacred place. It is the port of the desert, just as Basra, lower down, is a port for the Persian Gulf. Beautifully kept is the road to the mausoleum, to which all through the year come pilgrims from all parts of the world. Beautiful coloured enamelled tiles decorate the building. Inside, in the ceiling and upper walls, there is a great deal of glass mosaic. The glass seems to catch and reflect the light. The effect is that of rich coruscations of light combined with the solemnity of a closed building. The tomb itself is in a sort of inner grill, and below the ground is a sort of cave, where is shown the actual place where the Martyr fell. The city of Najaf is just about 40 miles to the South, with the tomb of Hazrat Ali on the high ground. You can see the golden dome for miles around. Just four miles from Najaf and connected with it by a tramway, is the deserted city of Kufa. The mosque is large, but bare and practically unused. The blue dome and the Mihrab of enamelled tiles bear witness to the ancient glory of the place.

Cities and their Cultural Meaning

The building of Kufa and Basra, the two great outposts of the Muslim Empire, in the 16th year of the Hijra, was a visible symbol that Islam was pushing its strength and building up a new civilisation, not only in a military sense, but in moral and social ideas and in the sciences and arts. The old effete cities did not content it, any more than the old and effete systems which it displaced. Nor was it content with the first steps it took. It was always examining, testing, discarding, re-fashioning its own handiwork. There was always a party that wanted to stand on old ways, to take cities like Damascus readymade, that loved ease and the path of least resistance. But the greater souls stretched out to new frontiers - of ideas as well as geography. They felt that old seats were like dead wood breeding worms and rottenness that were a danger to higher forms of life. The clash between them was part of the tragedy of Kerbela. Behind the building of new cities there is often the burgeoning of new ideas. Let us therefore examine the matter a little more closely. It will reveal the hidden springs of some very interesting history.

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