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Ashura - History and Popular Legend

'Ashura - History and Popular Legend

First Sermon 


Martyr Murtada Mutahhari

Translated from the Persian by 'Ali Quli Qara'i

Vol XIII No. 3 (Fall 1996)

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

All Praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the worlds and the Maker of all creation, and may Peace and benedictions be upon His servant and messenger, His beloved and elect, our master, our prophet, and our sire, Abul Qasim Muhammad, may Allah bless him and his pure, immaculate, and infallible Progeny.

I seek the refuge of Allah from the accursed Satan

So for their breaking their compact We cursed them and made their hearts hard; they would pervert the words from their meanings. and they forgot a portion of what they were reminded of. (5:13) 

Our discussion here concerns the misrepresentations (tahrifat) relating to the historic event of Karbala'. There have occurred various kinds of distortions in recounting the details of this great event. We shall carry out this discussion in four parts. The first will deal with the meaning of tahrif and its various existing forms, while pointing out that such misrepresentations have occurred in the [popular] accounts of the historic episode of 'Ashura'. The second part deals with the general factors responsible for tahrif, that is, the causes which commonly lead to the distortion of events and issues in the world. Why do men misrepresent and distort events, issues, and, occasionally, personalities? In particular, what factors have played a distorting role in the narrative of the episode of Karbala'? The third part consists of an explanation concerning the distortions that have crept into the narratives of this historic event. The fourth part deals with our duty, that of the scholars and the Muslim masses, in this regard. 

The first part of this discussion is about the meaning of tahrif: What does tahrif mean? The Arabic word tahrif is derived from harrafa meaning, to slant, incline, alter, distort, misconstrue which means to make something depart from its original or proper course and position. In other words, tahrif is a kind of change and alteration, though it includes a sense not possessed by mere change and alteration. If you do something that prevents a sentence, message, verse, or passage from conveying the meaning that it ought to convey and gives it some other sense, you have subjected it to tahrif. For instance, you make a statement before someone. Elsewhere he quotes you, and later on you are told that so-and-so has reported that you have made such a statement. You find out that what you had said was very different from what he has reported. He has interpolated your statement, deleting words which conveyed your intent and adding others on his own account, with the result that your statements have been distorted and totally altered. Then you would say that this person has misrepresented your statements Especially, if someone tampers with an official document, he is said be guilty of causing tahrif in it These examples were meant to elucidate the meaning of the term tahrif, and it does not need any further explanation or clarification. Now we shall take up the different forms of tahrif

There are various kinds of tahrif, the most important of which are tahrif in words and tahrif of meaning. Tahrif of wording occurs when the literal form of a statement is changed. For instance, when words and phrases are deleted or added to a statement or the sequence of sentences is altered in such a manner as to change its meaning. In this case tahrif occurs in the outward form and wording of a statement 

Tahrif of meaning occurs when one does not change the words, which remain in their original form, but the statement is interpreted in a manner that is contrary to the intent of its speaker. It is interpreted in such a manner as to express one's own intent, not that of its author. 

The Noble Qur'an employs the term tahrif specifically in relation to the Jews. A study of history shows that they have been the champions of tahrif throughout the course of history. I don't know what kind of race this is that has such an amazing penchant for misrepresenting facts! Accordingly they always take up professions in which they can distort and misrepresent events. From what I have heard, the world's well-known news agencies, which are perpetually quoted by the radios and newspapers, are exclusively in the hands of the Jews. Why? Because they can report the events as they wish. How amazing is the Qur'an's statement about them! This characteristic of the Jews, the tendency for tahrif, is considered a racial trait by the Qur'an. In one of the verses of the Sura al-baqarah, the Qur'an declares: 

Are you then eager that they (i.e. the Jews) should believe in you, while a party of them had heard Allah's word, and then consciously misinterpreted it, after they had understood it, and did that knowingly? (2:75) [1] 

This means, 'O Muslims, have you pinned your hopes on their telling you the truth? They are the same people who would go along with Moses, and hear God's pronouncements. But by the time they returned to their people's midst to recount what they had heard, they would twist it out of shape.' The tahrif that they would carry out was not for the reason that they did not understand and so altered what they reported. No! They are an intelligent people and they understand matters the issues very well. But despite the fact that they understand what they have heard they would recount them in a distorted manner for the people. This is what tahrif is, that is, distorting and twisting things out of their original shape-and they carried out tahrif even in Divine scriptures! 

In this context, in most of the cases the Qur'an uses the very term tahrif or expresses the matter in some other manner. However, the exegetes have pointed out that the Qur'anic reference to tahrif in this context includes tahrif in wording as well as in meaning. That is, some of the instances of corruption that have occurred [in the scriptures at the hands of the Jews] relating to the wording and some of them relate to the meanings and interpretation. As this involves a digression from my main topic, I do not wish to discuss this matter any further. 

There is a story which would not out of place here. One of the scholars used to recount that once during the day of his youth a maddah [2] from Tehran was visiting Mashhad. During the day he would stand in the Gawharshad Mosque or in the courtyard of the shrine and recite verses and eulogies. Among things that he recited was the famous ghazal ascribed to Hafiz: 

O heart! Be slave of the world's King and rejoice!
Forever dwell in the shelter of God's grace!
Embrace the tomb of Rida, the Eighth Imam,
From the heart's depth, and cling to the threshold of his shrine (bargah). 

This gentleman, in order to have some fun with him, had approached him and said to him, "Why do you recite this verse wrongly? It should be read like this, which means, as soon as you reach the shrine you must throw yourself down in the manner a bundle of straw (barekah) is rolled off the back of an ass. Thereafter, whenever the poor maddah recited these verses, he would say bar-e kah instead of bargah and at the same time throw himself down on the ground! This is what tahrif does! 

Here I must point out that tahrif also differs in respect of the subject involved. There is a time when tahrif occurs in an ordinary speech, as when two persons misrepresent each other's words. But there are times when tahrif takes place in a matter of great significance to society, such as when there is misrepresentation of eminent personalities. There are personalities whose words and deeds represent a sacred authority for the people and whose character and conduct is a model for mankind. For instance, if someone were to ascribe to Imam 'Ali (a) a statement that he did not make or something that he had not meant to say, that is very dangerous. The same is true if a characteristic or trait is ascribed to the Prophet (S) or one of the Imams ('a) when in fact they had some other qualities, or when tahrif occurs in a great historic event which serves as a moral and religious authority and as a momentous document from the viewpoint of society's norms and is a criterion in matters of morality and education. It is a matter of incalculable ,importance and entails a crucial danger when tahrif-whether in respect of words or meaning-occurs in subjects which are not of the ordinary kind. 

There is a time when someone tampers with a verse of Hafiz or makes interpolations in an animal fable. This is not so important, though, of course one should not tamper with books of literary value.

 One professor wrote a paper about Mush-o gorbeh ("The Cat and the Mouse"), which is a book of considerable literary value. He had found that it had been victim of so many interpolations, changes of wording, addition and deletion of verses, as to be beyond reckoning. There, he remarks that in his opinion no nation in the whole world is so untrustworthy as the Iranians who have made such extensive unauthorized interpolations in works belonging to their literary heritage. The same is true of Rumi's Mathnavi. God knows how many verses have been appended to the Mathnawi! For instance, there is a fine couplet in the original versions of the Mathnawi about the power of love. It says: 

Love sweetens matters bitter,
Love turns bronzes into gold.

That is a sensible thing to say: love is something that turns even the bitter aspects of life into ones that are sweet and pleasant. Love, like an elixir, transforms the bronze of man's being into gold. Then others came and added verses to this one, without bothering for pertinence or aptness in respect of analogy. For instance, they said: 'Love turns a serpent into an ant,' or that 'love turns the roof into a wall,' or 'love turns a musk-melon into a water-melon'! These analogies have no relation at all to the theme. Of course such a thing should not happen, but these interpolations do not harm a society's life and felicity and do not cause deviance in its course. But when tahrif occurs in things that relate to the people's morality and religion, it is dangerous, and this danger is incalculable when it occurs in documents and matters that constitute the foundations of human life. 

The event of Karbala' is, inevitably, an event possessing great social meaning for us, and it has a direct impact on our morality and character. 

It is an event that prompts our people, without anyone compelling them, to devote millions of man-hours to listening to the related episodes and to spend millions of tumans for this purpose. This event must be retold exactly as it occurred and without the least amount of interpolation. For if the smallest amount of interpolation takes place at our hands in this event, that would distort it, and instead of benefiting from it we would definitely suffer harm.

 Now my point is that we have introduced thousands of distortions in retelling the narrative of Ashura, both in its outward form, that is, in respect of the very episodes and issues relating to the major events and the minor details, as well as in respect of their interpretation and meaning. Most regrettably, this event has been distorted both in its form and content. 

At times a distorted version has at least some resemblance to the original. But there are times when distortion is so thorough that the corrupted version has not the least resemblance to the original: the matter is not only distorted, but it is inverted and turned into its antithesis. Again I must say with utmost regret that the misrepresentations that have been carried out by us have all been in the direction of degrading and distorting the event and making it ineffective and inert in our lives. In this regard both the orators and scholars of the ummah as well as the people have been guilty, and, God willing, we will elucidate all these matters. 

Here I will cite examples of some of the distortions that have occurred in the outer form of this event and the concoctions that have grown around it. The topic is so vast as to be beyond expression. It is so vast that should we attempt to collect all the unfounded narratives it will perhaps take several volumes of 500 pages each.

 Marhum Hajji Mirza Husayn Nuri, may God elevate his station, was the teacher of such figures as marhum Hajj Shaykh 'Abbas Qummi, marhum Haji Shaykh 'Ali Akbar Nehawandi and marhum Hajj Shaykh Muhammad Baqir Birjandi. He was a very extraordinary man and a muhaddith (scholar of hadith) with an unparalleled command of his field and a prodigious memory. He was a man of fine spirituality with a highly fervent and passionate faith. Although some of the books that he wrote were not worthy of his station [3] -and for this reason he earned the reproach of his contemporary scholars - but in general his books are good, especially the one that he wrote on the topic of the minbar (pulpit), entitled Lu'lu' wa marjan. Though a small book, it is an excellent work in which he speaks about the duties of those who deliver sermons and recount for the mourners the narrative of Karbala' from the minbar. The entire book consists of two parts. 

One part is about the sincerity of intention and purpose, as one of the requirement for a speaker, orator, sermonizer, and rawdeh-khwan [4] is that the motive of someone who relates the narrative of 'Ashura' should not be greed or attainment of pecuniary gain. How well he has discussed this topic! 

The second requirement is honesty and truthfulness. Here, he elaborates on the topic of false and true narration, discussing various forms of lying in such a thorough-going manner that I do not think there is any other book which deals with Iying and its various form in the way that it does, and perhaps there is no such other book in the whole world. In it he exhibits a marvelous learning and scholarship. 

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