The circumstances that culminated in the greatest tragedy recorded in history are relevant in every age and time. The conflict between the competing notions of good and bad and the ontological struggle of truth against the falsehood is omnipresent.
Karbala is an illustration of the everlasting conflict between good and evil. It is a source of that luminous spark that washed from our hearts the murkiness of the days of tyranny and suffocation. It calls for action in the spirit of the Quranic verse: "surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change it on their own". It promises change upon action. It promises Islam.
Karbala is a fearless voice that still echoes in the annals of history, a storm that chafes and shakes the tyrants, a free conscience that stirs within man the spirit of revolution, a brilliant torch of resistance against tyranny and a seat to declare a manifesto for what the philosopher Bertrand Russell calls a "free man's worship".
One of the astounding features of Kabala is its multidimensional aspect that presents a theme and a character for every aspect of human society. One such character is Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi who is like us in many ways. He is an employee of Yazid, a commander of his army. He prays five times a day, fulfills all essential obligations of a Muslim. He qualifies as a good Muslim and carries out his duties responsibly.
He obeys Yazid's command by obstructing Imam Hussain's (AS) path and is given the task, along with Omar Ibn Saad, to assassinate Imam Hussain (AS). He was all set to perform his 'duty', not because of his personal rivalry with Imam (AS), but because of the requirement of his profession, of the demands by his employer.
He, like all of us today, was concerned about his bread and butter, his professionalism and career, no matter who governs and controls the people and the state. He was paid handsomely for his services, his professionalism and had the freedom to offer prayers and practice his religion. Of course, this was at the heavy cost of his true freedom!
Hurr, after profound thought and keen observation of Imams (AS) character and the truth of his mission, was deeply influenced, what the Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard calls, Abrahams anguish. This situation demanded an Abraham in him. And we all know Hurr was the first to jump into this fire in Karbala, only to last forever.
Hurr chose Imam Hussain (AS) over Yazid; he chose action over reaction; he chose truth over falsehood. More significantly, like Ammar and Yasir, he chose Holy Prophet (pbuh) over Abu Jahl. He chose to be free. He chose to be Hurr!
While describing the emancipatory goals of Imam Hussain's (AS) revolt, Dr. Ali Shariati writes about him, "And Hurr has not played with words and concepts, but with love and blood. If one grasps the depth of Imam Sadiq's saying that all days are Ashura, all places are Karbala and all months are Moharram, one readily feels the extension, and all human beings are Hurr". For every human being faces this dilemma, this Abrahamian anguish, this urge to choose between good and bad, right and wrong, oppressed and the oppressor, Hussain and Yazid, in this life. He may either choose to be a Hurr (literally meaning free in Arabic) or a 'no one.'
French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre is right in saying that existence rules and precedes essence. A man exists by being in this world and finds essence through choice. It is by virtue of this choice, in fact, the free choice, that a man finds his essence. This essence makes him the rightful claimant of being a perfect man (Insaan-e-Kamil).
Hurr's choice made him a hero that keeps watering the revolutionary spirit of Islam. He was the first to nourish the cry of Hussain's (AS). No! He was the first martyr of Karbala.
The distinctive effect and approach of Karbala is peculiar only because of Imam Hussain's (AS) presence, a persona that remains overwhelmingly absent from the leadership manuals that guide leaders of the Muslim world. What ails the struggles in conflict zones of the present-day world where people face oppression is the lack of the spirit of Karbala, absence of leaders like Hussain (AS) and Hurr to make the remarkable choice.
Karbala's teachings are a sacred mountain that is still an unchartered territory—unearthed and unfathomable in its entirety. It is a timeless event that will perpetually call the faithful and the believers to stand up against tyranny and injustice.
(Eesar Mehdi is a Research Scholar at South Asian University, New Delhi)