Martyrdom: Arise and Bear Witness

We have always spoken about Hussain (AS) but we have rarely spoken about the purpose for which Hussain (AS) so generously sacrificed himself
Shia mourners during a procession on 9th Muharram at Gaw Kadal Srinagar, Monday 8 August 2022.
Shia mourners during a procession on 9th Muharram at Gaw Kadal Srinagar, Monday 8 August 2022.Haseeb Ibn Hameed for Greater Kashmir


Translated by: Ali Asghar Ghassemy

It is difficult for me to speak today about martyrdom as today marks the Shiites anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (‘a).

There has been much written and said and much continues to be written and said about Imam Hussain (‘a) and the role he played in history. The ancients have explained him one way and the innovating intellectuals in another. But as I realised recently, we cannot know what Imam Hussain (‘a) has done without understanding what the meaning of martyrdom really is.

The greatness of Hussain (‘a), on the one hand, and the individualistic views of him have caused that which is greater than Hussain (‘a) himself to be concealed by the radiance of his charisma.

That which is greater than Hussain (‘a) is that which Hussain (‘a) was sacrificed for. We have always spoken about Hussain (‘a) but we have rarely spoken about the purpose for which Hussain (‘a) so generously sacrificed himself.

Today I intended to speak about the concept of the sacrifice which Hussain (‘a) and those like him have made and the greatness of such self-sacrifices in the history of mankind and our religion.

And so, in the presence of the people, the created and of the Creator, I would like to cite that idea and say something of its meaning as it has been demonstrated by the sum total of their lives and deaths, that idea called ‘martyrdom’.

It is a difficult task. To begin with, my knowledge and my intellectual capability do not permit me to perform such a difficult assignment. The contradictory pattern which this issue follows (at least with respect to myself) makes my position even- more difficult.

On the one hand, I must present martyrdom from an intellectual, scientific and philosophical point of view. I can only use my head. Only science and logic can assist me.

On the other hand, the story of martyrdom and that which martyrdom challenges is so sensitive, so belovedly exciting that it pulls the spirit towards the fire. It paralyses logic. It weakens speech. It even makes thinking difficult. Martyrdom is a mixture of a refined love and a deep, complex wisdom. One cannot express these two at the same time and so, as a result, one cannot do them justice.

In particular, for a person such as myself, who is emotionally and spiritually weak, it is even more difficult. But I will try my best and 1 hope to succeed in communicating some of the things which it is my intention to express.

In order to understand the meaning of martyrdom, the ideological school from which it takes its meaning, its expression and its value should be clarified.

In European and Western languages, a martyr is one who chooses ‘death’ in the defence of his beliefs against his enemy where the only way for him is to die. But the words, martyrdom: arise and bear witness, which exist in Islamic culture to express or name the one who has chosen ‘death’ has quite a different meaning from that of the western word, martyrdom. This shows one of the differences between Islamic and non-Islamic rites.

In European countries, the word martyr stems from ‘mortal’ which means ‘death’ or ‘to die’. One of the basic principles in Islam and in particular in Shiite culture, however is ‘sacrifice and bear witness’.

So instead of martyrdom, i.e. death, it essentially means ‘life’, ‘evidence’, ‘testify’, ‘certify’. These words: martyrdom and bearing witness show the differences which exist between the vision of Shi’ite Islamic culture and the other cultures of the world.

Its School of Thought

[Therefore] in order to understand the concept of martyrdom, we should study it within the context of the school of thought and action which it is based upon, and in the school of thought of which Hussain (‘a) is the manifestation par excellence. In the flow and struggle of history in the story of mankind, Hussain (‘a) is the standard bearer of this struggle and his Karbala, a battlefield among battlefields, is the only link uniting the various fronts, the various generations and the various ages, throughout history from the beginning until the present moment and flowing on into the future.

Hussain’s (‘a) meaning becomes clear when we understand his relationship to that flow of movements which we have discussed in earlier lectures which historically begins with Abraham. This meaning should be made clear and Hussain (‘a)’s revolution must be interpreted. To view Hussain (‘a) and the battle of Karbala as isolated from historical and social circumstances would force us, as indeed it has for many of us, to view the man and the event purely as an unfortunate, if not tragic occurrence in the past and something for us to merely cry about (and we certainly do continue to cry) rather than as an eternal and transcendent phenomenon. To separate Karbala and Hussain (‘a) from their historical and ideological context is to dissect a living body, to remove only a part of it and to examine it in exclusion of the living system of the body.

Two Classes of Prophets

As I have mentioned in my previous lectures, throughout the whole history of humanity, religious movements, whether related to the contents of the religions, and conduct of the prophets and founders of the religion or to the social class connections of the leaders of the religion and to what they were calling the people to, are divided into two classes.

According to this classification, all of the historical prophets, whether true or false, as well as anyone who has begun a religious movement, are divided into two different classes:

The first group belongs to the religious chain founded by Abraham. These chains of prophets, from the historical point of view, are nearer to us and therefore we know them better.

They consist of prophets whose view of society arose from the most deprived social and economic class of a society. As Muhammad (s.a.w) said, all of these prophets were either shepherds, as history shows us, they grazed sheep, or a few were simple hungry artisans or workers.

These prophets stand in contrast with the messengers of the other group or founders of intellectual and moral schools of thoughts such as those in China, India, Iran and the founders of the scientific and ethical schools of Athens. These latter groups, without a single exception, were aristocrats. They arose from the noble, powerful, comfortable classes of their society.

Throughout history, the powerful rulers of society have been one of three groups: the powerful, the wealthy and the clergy. They exercised political and economic power with each other and control over the faith of the people.

They co-operated with each other in ruling the people. Their collaboration, whether or not they shared the same views, was in order to rule the people and for the sake of the people.

All of the non Abrahamic messengers from Indo China to Athens were either connected on their mother’s side or their father’s side or even both sides to emperors, clergymen and aristocrats.

This holds true for Confucius, Laotzu, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mani, Mazdak, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Whereas the Quran emphasises,

“We appointed among the ordinary people, a Prophet from themselves.” (3:163). They were ordinary people from the masses and among the community. Thus the Abrahamic prophets arose from the mass of the people.

This does not mean that they did not have an angelic dimension or that they did not hold absolute powers and were only human beings. It means they were appointed from among the ordinary mass of people rather than relating to a special, noble, and selective class of society.

Some people believe that because the Prophet of Islam arose from among the Arabs, he should speak Arabic, or Moses, who was appointed to the Jewish people, should speak Hebrew. It is obvious that a Prophet appointed from amongst the Arabs cannot speak a language other than Arabic.

The important thing is to speak in the language of ordinary people which means to speak the tongue and use the idioms which the mass of that community understands. In order to speak about their needs or troubles in a language which is understandable to them, and not as philosophers, poets, intellectuals, scholars and educated people, they must use a language and idioms which people are familiar with. But, neither do they understand the thoughts and emotions of the ordinary people nor do they understand their language. This still can be noted everywhere. When we discuss the Abrahamic prophets, we are talking about the people, for the mission of these prophets differs from that of the other.

The mission of the non-Abrahamic messengers is always related to the existing power structure so that power supports these messengers’ ideas. The Abrahamic prophets, on the other hand, were always supported by the ordinary people against the powerful rulers of their time.

Look at Abraham. As soon as God appointed him, he wielded his mace to destroy the idols. Moses took up his shepherd’s staff and stormed Pharaoh’s palace. He brought down the wealthy and powerful Croesus, buried him in the earth and drowned Pharaoh in the sea. And the Prophet of Islam first went through a stage of individual development, and then began his spiritual struggle. Within a period of 10 years, he fought 65 battles, that is, every 50 days, a battle, a military encounter. The miracles of the Abrahamic prophets are also in accordance with their mission. The turning of the staff into a serpent was used to destroy wizardry and to attack the Pharaoh’s throne.

The Quran clearly announces the principle that Islam is not a new religion because, in fact, throughout history, there has only been one religion. Every prophet was appointed to establish this religion in accordance with the circumstances of the time and in compliance with the needs of that era.

There is only one religion and its name is Submission “Islam”. Through this announcement, the Prophet universalises it and gives the idea of Submission a universal, historical viewpoint. He relates the Islamic movement to other movements which have, throughout history been fought to free people. They have stood up, risen against the powerful, the wealthy and the deceivers. In this way, they have shown their unity of vision: one spiritual struggle, one religion, one spirit and one slogan throughout the whole of humanity’s history in all domains, all times and all generations.

Let us take a look at this verse of the Quran and consider its historical context and choice of words and see how the historical perspective is expressed in the Quran and see how it places these movements one after the other.

Those who disbelieve in the signs of God and slay the Prophets without right and slay such men as bid to justice. . .” (3:21)

We see that in this verse three points are connected to each other: first, the signs of God, second, Prophets and third, men who call for equality in opposing the disbelievers. The Prophets and men of justice are put on one level. We see how a type of social encounter and philosophy of human history and description of previous movements is expressed in the Quran.

The Prophet of Islam is the last messenger of this religion of Submission, which throughout history, as the Quran has repeatedly shown, the Prophets came to bring. Their message consisted of wisdom, the Book and justice for the world.

The Prophet of Islam is the last messenger of this world and human movement who, in the name of Submission (Islam) called the people to serve God and the One so that they would be freed from obeying and serving any other than Him.

The Prophet of Islam came to confirm the universal view of Unity (Tawhid) and even to bring that unity into human history, to all races, nations, groups, families and social classes and to eliminate the discord brought by polytheistic religions. The slogan of Islamic unity was a slogan which gave freedom.

Before intellectuals, scholars, the educated and philosophers became aware of it, slaves, the tortured, hungry and the belittled were sensitive to and aware of it. It is because of this that the group which gathered around Muhammad in Mecca were among the most deprived, who had been belittled and were among the most debased elements of society.

The Prophet of Islam was scorned by his enemies because only the dregs of humanity surrounded him. This is the greatest praise today for this movement while we see that the leaders of the Buddhist religion are all of the nobles and aristocrats of China and India. Today, values have changed!

This is why the Prophet of Islam marked the turning point for slaves who, throughout history, were certain that their fate was slavery. Slaves and the debased were convinced by the tongue of religion, science, philosophy or with the tongue of the day or with poetry or art that their fate was to serve their masters and they believed that they existed solely to experience suffering, to carry heavy loads and to go hungry, so that others might receive pleasure. They were born and created for this.

This deprived class who were convinced that the gods or God were their enemy, believed that in order for the world to function and for the performance of the jobs of the people, they were created as porters in order to carry the loads.

Or as the Prophet Mani had said when speaking of light and darkness, “The wretched and defeated are of the essence of darkness and the conquerors are of the essence of light.” Aristotle and Plato, intellectual geniuses that they were, had said “God or nature has created some as slaves of creation and others as free so that the slaves perform the ordinary jobs and the free ones can then be free to attend to the higher affairs such as morals, poetry, music and civilisation.”

The Prophet of Islam had been appointed in order to complete the movement which had existed throughout history against deception, falsehood, polytheism, creation of discord, hypocrisy, aristocracy and class differences which were all made an object of the spiritual struggle and by announcing that all of humanity is of one race, one source, one nature and one God, to declare equality for all, with philosophical explanation and by fighting an economically powerful regime to maintain social equity.

Take the model society of Medina as an example where Bilal, a debased slave was recognised as more noble and of greater value and was treated with more respect than the aristocrats of Arab society.

Everyone accepted his position. Suddenly the inhabitants of Medina, the Arabs, Jews, the Quraish find themselves greeting the young slave of Hozaifah as an equal, he who had once gone about in the narrow streets as a debased and deprived slave, now, in the Ghoba Mosque standing for prayer in front of the noble Emigrants of the Quraish, is one of the dearest, most radiant figures. The most distinguished personages of the pre-Islamic era and even of the present ones are praying behind him.

All values were shattered when the Prophet himself began his efforts to destroy all of the values of ignorance and aristocratic thinking. He instructed them to shorten the long, flowing robes they wore and to trim their long beards which were signs of aristocracy.

He ordered people not to strut with pride in the streets. He instructed people to ride two at a time on horseback. One would ride in front and another behind. Sometimes, in order to break down the values of the aristocracy in the eyes of the people, he would ride a donkey bare back.

One day an old woman, who had for many years heard of the greatness and magnificence of the Prophet, came before him. She stood tongue tied in awe of his presence. The Prophet, softly, kindly and simply took her by the shoulder and said, “Why are you afraid? I am the son of that Quraish woman who milked sheep. Who are you afraid of?”

When this shepherd, who was the last appointed Prophet, the last messenger for those who suddenly arose out of silent deserts and assaulted the lords of power, wealth and deceit in the cities, died, suddenly everything was different.

Discrepancies appeared immediately upon his death. The path of historical events did not deviate from the true way more than a centimetre at first. The angle which appeared between the School of Islam and the History of Islam, between the truth and reality was narrow at the beginning.

But after the Prophet died, the gap between them grew wider and wider. It was like the angle between two lines which are at first close together (no more than a thousandth of a centimetre apart) but gradually the distance expands as history moves forward.

The two lines widen so that in an eternity there are kilometres of space between them. If other factors and causes become operative as they do, we may see that the two lines which extend from an angle move apart as the line of history from the line of the truth of Islam has done in this case.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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