Lessons in politics

For every Yazidic act of despotism it calls for a Hussaini act of sacrifice and a Zainabic act of resistance

Plato and many other philosophers of the Socratic tradition maintained that politics was the medical science of governance—very pertinent and hard to ignore. This centrality made politics an eager seeker of ethics. Yet the bane of classical Greek political philosophy was in its ‘mere speculative nature’ or ‘preoccupation with just idea’ and ‘neglectfulness of fact/action/deed’. The coming of Islam into picture, with the spirit of Quran being ‘essentially anti-classic’, Greek philosophy had an amorphous interaction with it. Islam demonstrated that an objective state (in its ideal sense) was not supposed to be an abstract or futuristic utopia but one which could be constituted with ‘mud, clay, law and people’ (at least during Prophet’s time). Thus it was there at Yathrib (Medina) that ideal and real embraced each other for the first time in politics—though momentarily—for ‘practical politics’ came a full circle at Karbala where the seeds of its degeneration were sown, seemingly, once and for all. 

Karbala wasn’t a battle between two aspiring rulers but between two dialectical principles of politics: one representing Tauhid and the other Taghut, one with potential to change destinies and the other lurching in materialistic finitude. The hideous cruelty unleashed on the household of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in Karbala was emblematic of the nadirs that the fantasy for power can touch. Karbala thus raised questions on appropriateness, deservedness, responsibility, trust and sacrifice in politics. These questions are as much relevant today as they were in 680 AD, more so because Islam being a politico-religious system has seen a recurrent turbulence at the horizon of religion and politics. Is ‘ideal’ possible in politics? If yes, how can it be realised? Can political morality claim an autonomous status in overall moral template? These are some of the interesting questions. In this perspective, the political narrative of Karbala can be analysed in the backdrop of three conceptual frameworks: Machiavellian dichotomy, Ibn Khaldun’s compartmentalized-simultaneousness and Iqbal’s seamlessness.

It goes without saying that the combination of ethics and politics was quite easy and natural during Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time. After Him Islamic society saw a slow transition from being primary to secondary (in the words of Ferdinand Tonnies from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft). Realpolitik made its way into politics and gradually political morality was separated from personal morality. Karbala was an attempt at reconciliation of these two moralities and Hussain (as) sacrificed his family for upholding the divine in politics. Yazid won the physical battle but Hussain won the moral one. Dichotomy in politics accordingly started which found theoretical underpinnings in Machiavelli’s work around 800 years later.           

Machiavelli was born during harsh times in Italy. His views about politics were shaped consequently: pessimistic, skeptic and instrumental. According to him one who sacrifices ‘what is’ for the sake of ‘what ought to’ will ruin himself. Machiavellianism has become a leitmotif of today’s politics but it is not only incompatible but also irrelevant to the political message of Karbala. Sacrificing oneself for ideal cannot be called ruining oneself. Karbala as a lesson in politics assimilates time and space and entails those dimensions of human thought which Machiavellianism, owing to its limited scope, can never appreciate.

Coming to Ibn Khaldun, he lived in a society greatly similar to one which produced Machiavelli. In him we get an impression that ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ are both important but ought to be separated: compartmentalized-simultaneousness. He has written with special focus on rivalries between Ali (as) and Muawya (ra), Hussain (as) and Yazid. From his writings it seems that we can bifurcate Syasat-al-Sharia and Siyasat-al-Aqliya and make sure that these two don’t influence each other. It can thus be deduced that Yazid was not at fault in the political sense of the term though in moral sense he could be deemed guilty. Again this observation is squarely at odds with the potentialities espoused by Islam and seeks to entrench the same binary as done by Machiavelli though in a disguised form. It also sneers at all the possibilities for improvement and edification in politics.

Finally, it is Iqbal who comes with the message of hope and true essence of politics in Islam. Karbala fits into his notion of politics. According to Iqbal Islam is not satisfied with mere ‘conception’ rather it seeks more intimate knowledge and association with the object of its pursuit i.e. ‘ideal’. Therefore there is a perpetual endeavoring of the ‘ideal’ to appropriate the ‘real’ with a view eventually to absorb it: seamlessness. It is this ‘striving for perfection’ in the ‘domain of love’ (dayar-i-ishq) that makes Machiavellianism irrelevant to the political imagination of Islam. Hussain (as) lived indefatigably and died valorously for this type of political imagination.