Āshūrā, Karbalā and the Signs of the End-time

by

Shaykh Faheem of the Islamic Lifestyle Solutions, Durban, South Africa

(7th Muharram 1438 / 10th October 2016)

 

Preamble

   The majority of information in this essay is a collaboration of my thoughts on the subject penned some 4-5 years ago which has since been inculcated into the curriculum for the course offered by the Islamic Lifestyle Solutions taught by me in Durban. The month of Muharram is indeed a blessed month as alluded to by the consensus of the exegetes of the Qur’ān. Within this sacred month is a day known by many, but understood by few, better known as ‘Yaum Āshūrā’ (The Day of Āshūrā). By this we mean, that many Muslims are unaware of even the reason they fast on Āshūrā, yet the reason located in the Prophetic traditions, which subsequently guides us to that exact narrative in the Qur’ān, albeit with profound detail, takes the student on a historical quest leading to sudden intuitive insights. Once studied, and juxtaposed by the ever-unfolding historical process, those details make for an interesting eschatological hypothesis. It is hoped that by the end of this essay, the following points will be clarified;

  1. The legal reason for fasting on the day of Āshūrā
  2. The link between Āshūrā and the Tragic events at Karbalā
  3. Analysis revealing the eschatological dimensions of Āshūrā in the Modern Age (to be discussed in pt.2 one week after inshā Allāh)

Introduction to the Sanctity of Muharram

 

   Modern western civilization has created certain systems which have automatically inducted the Gregorian calendar into society as global induction. In fact, news media has been reporting for several days now that even Saudi Arabia has abandoned the Lunar Calendar on the economic front to be on par with the West.

   For the majority of the world, there are no other months besides the months we are familiar with from the Gregorian calendar. The Qur’ān too has stressed that there are twelve months that should be followed by Muslims.

“The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve, so was it ordained by Allāh on the day He created the heavens and the earth; of them four are sacred.””.[1]

   The twelve months mentioned in the Qur’ān are in reference to the twelve months of the lunar calendar. These are the months by which Muslims are obliged to keep track of time and dates as the Qur’ān elucidates in the following verse,

“They ask you (O Muhammad) concerning the New Moons. Say” ‘They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time for mankind, and for the pilgrimage.”[2]

   The mention of the moon yet again establishes the lunar calendar as the yardstick to measure time, but specific to the recognition of the new months through the passage of time. The verse also clarifies that Muslims should follow the crescent moons in order to observe the days of Allāh Ta ālā.  

  The four sacred months are, Muharram, Rajab, Zhul-Qa’dah & Zhul Hijjah. It is evident from the above, that the month of Muharram was indeed sacred from the beginning of creation. Prior to the advent of Islam, the Arabs would cease all war during these months. This is proof that the sacred months (of which Muharram is inclusive), were also revered in the pre-Islamic era, in all probability from the era of Nabī Ibrahīm and Ismaīl (alayhimas salām). The tenth of Muharram is known as the day of Āshūrā. So why do we fast on this day? Before answering that question, we must first clarify a misconception

The link between Āshūrā and the Tragic events at Karbalā

Numerous Sunnī Muslims automatically link the month of Muharram to Imām[3] Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu). Hence the question which begs to be asked is,

What is the link between Āshūrā & Karbalā?

   After the demise of the Beloved Messenger (peace be upon him), there is no event more tragic than the massacre at Karbalā. It is indeed a stain laden era in the history of this Ummah, and a reminder of how quickly we can turn against our own brethren blindly. The incidents which occurred at Karbalā however, are even more horrific when we realize that the grandson of the Noble Messenger (peace be upon him), namely Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) was martyred by the very people who recited the same kalimah brought to them by his grandfather. The manner in which he and his family were oppressed, cut-off from their water supply in that barren land, and eventually martyred, is undoubtedly an event which brings tears to the eyes. The martyrdom of Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu), his family and dear friends occurred in the month of Muharram around 60/61 AH. The actual martyrdom of Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) occurred on the 10th of Muharram, which is identified by Muslims as the Day of Aashura. It is important to note that Rasoolullah (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) displayed immense love toward his Ahlul Bayt (Noble household). It is therefore incumbent upon all Muslims to love them as well. There are plentiful authentic narrations to substantiate that claim. For all intent and purpose, we present but a few,

  • “Rasoolullah (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) stated, ‘Husain is of me, and I am of Husain. Allāh loves those who love Husain’. [4]
  • “When Allah’s Messenger was asked which of his family members are dearest to him, he replied: ‘Al-Hasan and Al-Husain.’[5]
  • “Hasan and Husain are the leaders of the youth in Jannah.”[6]

    The above narrations clearly indicate his immense love for Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu). It is for this reason that even scores of Sunnī Muslims display their love for those who were loved by the Noble Messenger (peace be upon him). That being said we must be sure not to traverse the thin line between Sunnism and Shiasm. Furthermore, we must always adopt the path of ‘wasatiyyah’ (the middle way) but not shying away from the subject of Karbala and the Ahul Bayt with the fear of being labeled a Shia. We must exercise our right to love and honor the Noble Household of the Prophet (sallalahu alayhi wa sallam) within the parameters of the theological teachings of the Ahlus Sunnah. If the ONLY Shia acknowledge the sanctity of Karbalā in Muharram, then it does not necessitate us distancing ourselves from this tragic event merely because of their actions, after all, if we were to adopt such a wayward philosophy as general view, then we will be robbing the Sunni populace of many great virtuous ahādīth from the major books. After all, it is illogical to adopt an extremist mentality to counter extremist views. That mentality is a kin to adding fuel to the fire with hope of extinguishing it. Which brings us once again to the question of why do we fast on Āshūrā?

The Legal Reason for Fasting on Āshūrā

    For the benefit of those readers who have understood Āashūrā to be only associated to Karbalā, the use of the rational faculty combined with even a modicum of knowledge on the mechanics and dynamics of revelation, coupled with the timeline of Islamic history, will undoubtedly lead to the realization that fasting on Āshūrā simply cannot be due to the events at Karbala. Why? Revelation was only brought down to the chosen Messengers and ceases upon the physical demise of that messenger. The Beloved Messenger (peace be upon him) was the final Prophet and who departed from this mundane world on 11 A.H. The martyrdom of Karbalā took place on 61 A.H. That is a gap of 50 years. If we are adamant that the events at Karbalā are the only reason why we fast, or the sole reason for its sanctity, then the question which must be asked is,

“What possible reason were the companions fasting for on Āshūrā in those 50 years???”

    This is a pivotal question, because those who argue that Karbalā is the sole reason for the acknowledgment of the Day of Āshūrā, indeed perform an act of grave injustice upon the Noble Companions, in addition to the Noble Household of the Prophet (Sallalahu alayhi wa sallam). How? Well, for something (as important as fasting on a specific day) to be established in the shari’ah, must be established from the Qur’an or Sunnah. Since revelation had ceased due to the demise of Rasoolullah (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam), it could only mean that the fasting and reverence of the Day of Āshūrā must have already been established no less than 50 years prior to Karbalā. If not, then we are merely saying that Āshūrā simply did not exist for the entire life and post five decades from the Prophet’s demise. That is indeed an ignoble and uncharitable statement. Further probing from the rationale reveals that since Karbalā occurred some 50 years after the demise of our Noble Master (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam), that subsequently, the martyrdom at Karbalā having not been mentioned in the Qur’ān, rules out the possibility of it being instated as the legal injunction for Muslims to fast on the 10th of Muharram. That being affirmed, we reiterate our viewpoint that there is no harm in revisiting that egregious crimes against the beloveds of Allāh Ta Ālā and His Messenger (Sallallahu aayhi was sallam).

Āshūrā in the Sunnah

    As a methodologist myself, I am quite aware that logic demands our commencement of the subject by acknowledging the status quo to initiate the discussion from the Qur’ānic view. However, a cursory study of the subject reveals that without the narrations in the Sunnah, we would never have been able to identify the story of Mūsā (alayhis salām) and the Pharaoh as the story of Āshūrā.

   It is only via the Prophetic traditions, that we identify the significance of Āshūrā from the Qur’ān. The sunnah explains,

   Sayyidah Ā’ishah (radhiyallahu anha) narrates that the Quraysh kept the fast of Āshūrā in the age of ignorance. Rasoolullah (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) also fasted (during that time). When he migrated, he fasted (on Āshūrā) and commanded its fast. When the fast of Ramadhān became compulsory, he said, ‘Whoever wishes to fast may do so, and whoever wishes to leave it out may do so’. [7]

   It is quite clear that whilst the Quraysh were performing certain acts such as Tawāf, Udhiyyah (sacrificing animals), Sa’ee (between Safā and Marwah) as well as the fast of Āshūrā, their history and significance of those actions were lost in the pages of history. Discussing the aforementioned narration with greater detail, the following narration explains,

   Hadhrath Abdullāh Ibn ‘Abbās (Radhiyallahu anhuma) narrates that the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) came to Madīnah and found the Jews fasting on the day of Āshūrā. Hence the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) inquired of them, “What is (the significance of) this day on which you fast? They replied, “This is a great day. On this day Allāh Ta Ālā saved Mūsā (alayhis salām) and his people and drowned Fir’awn (The Pharaoh) and his nation. Thus Mūsā (alayhis salām) fasted on this day as a token of thanksgiving, therefore we too fast on this day.” The Messenger of Allāh (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) said, “We are more worthy of Mūsā and nearer to him than you.” Thereafter, the Noble Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) fasted on this day and ordered (his companions radhiyallahu ‘anhum) that a fast be kept on this day.[8]

   The Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) did not reject their reason for fasting. Instead, he clarified that due to the fact that the Jews had left the teachings of Prophet Moses (peace be upon him), that they had consequently lost their claim to him. Upon exercising the rational faculty, we arrive at the conclusion that the very incident mentioned in the above narration is actually a verbosely narrated incident spanning across numerous chapters of the Qur’ān, better known as the story of Moses and the Pharaoh.

   Thus Āshūrā is a narrative located in the Qur’ān, which becomes an obligation for every Muslim to study. Our analysis however, will be study the narrative with view to unravelling the eschatological dimensions of this amazing story in the Qur’ān.

Āshūrā in the Qur’ān with view to Islāmic Eschatology

   Like any story, the villain, viz. Pharaoh, plays an integral role in the rise of a hero, who in this case, is Nabī Mūsā (alayhis salām). The Pharaoh may be considered the superpower of his age who was unsatisfied with mere mortality and assigned divinity to himself. Of course, absolute power corrupts absolutely. He went on to make the most horrendous claim when he said,

“I am your Lord, Most High”.[9]

 

   As a corollary of that blatant statement, Allāh Ta Ālā commissioned Nabi Mūsā (aayhis salām) to go to the Pharaoh to try to knock some much needed sense into him. Naturally, since the Pharaoh was a superpower, the representative of Allāh Ta Ālā was also equipped with the requisite ammunition to prove that the Pharaoh’s claims were indeed false. The Qur’ān explains,

“What is that in your right hand, O Mūsā? He said: “This is my rod, on it I lean, and with it I beat down fodder flocks, and in it I find other uses”. (Allāh) said: “Cast it down O Mūsā!”. He cast it down, and behold! It was a serpent, active in motion. Allāh said: “Seize it, and fear not: We shall return it at once to its former condition”. And draw your hand close to your side: it shall come forth white (and shining) without harm- as another sign.”[10]

 

   The Qur’ān declared that Moses (alayhis salām) was given not one, but two ‘signs’. The Qur’ānic consistency of discussing the miracles of Moses (alayhis salām) as ‘signs’ is further understood when we attempt to unravel how many of these signs were sent with him. The following verse from a different chapter of the Qur’ān sheds light on the matter as it continues from where the previous verse left off by reiterating the point of the amount of ‘signs’ sent with Moses (alayhis salām),

   “Now place your hand into your bosom, and it will come forth white without stain. (These are) among the nine signs (you will take) to Pharaoh and his people, for they are a people rebellious in transgression.” [11]

 

   Here the Qur’ān clearly explains that Moses (alayhis salām) was sent with nine signs to the Pharaoh. At another juncture, it clarifies five of those nine signs,

   “So We sent against them, the tūfān (flood, storm, wholesale death), and the locusts, and the vermin (lice), and the frogs, and the blood. A succession of clear signs. But they were steeped in arrogance, a people given to sin.” [12]

   The full nine signs are located in the books of tafsīr under the above verse indicate that majority of the forerunners in commentary such as Hadhrath āibn Abbās, Imāms Mujāhid,  Ikramah, Sha’bi and Qataadah (rahimahomollah) have opined that those nine signs were,

  1. His Staff (Asā)
  2. The Radiant Right Hand
  3. Years of famine
  4. Failure of crops (due to famine)
  5. tūfān
  6. locusts
  7. lice
  8. frogs
  9. blood [13]

   Of course the biblical version of the ‘plagues’ share similar implications, but for Muslims, the Qur’ānic narrative takes preference.

Reaction to the Signs

 

   Since the Pharaoh had claimed divinity, it was only natural for his people to turn to him in these times of great distress, but of course he was aware of his dilemma. The Qur’ān has even discussed the reaction of the Pharaoh and his people to the signs which were sent to them, as well as why the signs continued in succession.

   “Every time the penalty fell upon them, they said: “O Moses! On your behalf call on thy Lord in virtue of his promise to thee: if thou wilt remove the penalty from us, we shall truly believe in thee, and we shall send away the Children of Israel with thee. But every time We removed the penalty from them according to a fixed term which they had to fulfill, Behold! They broke their word!”[14]

   At the manifestation of each sign, they promised Moses (alayhis salām) that if he was to supplicate to his Lord to remove that particular sign, that they would;

  1. Believe in him and his message
  2. allow the Israelites safe passage

   But at each juncture, they reneged on their promise and reverted to their old ways, thus resulting in the next sign being sent upon them as a result of their treacherous ways. After the ninth sign had come upon them, and they made the same promise once more, this time Allāh Ta Ālā commanded Moses (alayhis salām) to escape with the Israelites and they left under the cover of night. The Pharaoh got wind of the news and decided to pursue them. When Nabī Mūsā (alayhis salām) and the Israelites were caught between the Red Sea and the army of the Pharaoh, it was here, when they were in all probability at a loss for hope due to their predicament of being unable to move forward due to the ocean in front of them, nor backward due to the Pharaonic forces, the that the first ‘sign’ of Nabī Mūsā (alayhis salām) now functioned as the ‘tenth’ sign.

“And when We split the sea for you thereby rescuing you, and drowned the Firaun’s people in front of your eyes.”[15]

 

The arrogance of the Pharaoh caused him to pursue Nabī Mūsā (alayhhis salām) and Israelites through that pathway in the Red Sea, but Allāh (Ta Ālā) had caused them to drown. The specific eschatological implications of incident will be discussed in part 2 inshā Allāh.

Karbalā & Āshūrā – Parallels

This part of the essay aims to shed light on some of the parallels shared by Āshūrā in the Qur’ān and the tragic incident at Karbalā. The information is merely an observation from a juxtaposing of the two events and is by no means an attempt to ‘compare’, nor to ‘liken’ Nabī Mūsā (alayhis salām) to Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu). Rather, by highlighting the parallels between these two historic events (albeit historic for very different reasons), it is hoped that the reader will unlock a realm of understanding one of the many possibilities of why Karbalā took place on the 10th of Muharram.

The historical process has depicted many parallels between these two events. We have asserted that our view is not to ‘compare’, rather, to find the subtle parallels in the two narratives to display the inner workings of the historical process. Since the events at Karbalā occurred in the blessed month of Muharram and the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) on the Day of Āshūrā, the intellect demands that we refute the false notion of ‘coincidence’ and accept the decree of Allāh Ta Ālā as being full of both; apparent and hidden wisdoms. The true answer to the question of ‘why did Karbalā occur on the Day of Āshūrā’, may never be known, because true knowledge (Wahī), in the form of divine wisdom may only be divulged by the Messengers of God, and since the last and Final Prophet (sallalalahu alayhi wa sallam) has physically departed, we are left only with a means of analysis from the Qur’ān and Prophetic teachings.

Parallel 1 – Oppressive Leadership

Āshūrā: depicts an era whereby the ruler has literally lost his common sense to the point that he proclaimed himself as the Lord Most High. As a result, Moses (alayhis salām) rebelled against such a preposterous claim. Hence the story of Āshūrā in the Qur’ān is one which encourages dialogue with oppressive rulers.

Karbalā: Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu), according to his reasoning (ijtihād), felt that Yazīd was not fit to rule the Ummah as Emir of the believers. As a result of his decision to not take the pledge of allegiance to Yazīd, Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) was met with fierce rivalry from the camp of Yazīd, to the point that he and numerous of his family members were oppressed, and eventually martyred for that decision.

Parallel 2 – The Signs as a means of dialogue

Āshūrā: We have already established that Moses (alayhis salām) approached the Pharaoh with signs. These signs however were not given to defeat Pharaoh. Rather, they were utilized to function as a tool for dialogue to draw Pharaoh away from his delusional state of mind. The Qur’ān clarifies that even though Moses (alayhis salām) was equipped with these signs, he was to speak to the Pharaoh in a gentle manner (20:44). At each juncture, Moses (alayhis salām) took the opportunity at to use those signs as means of dialogue.

Karbalā: The Qur’ān declares, “O Humankind! There has come to you a convincing proof…”[16]

The commentators of the Qur’ān opine that the ‘Burhān’ (convincing proof) in this verse is in reference to our Noble Master Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam). Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu ahu) was placed in a situation which we would even not wish upon our own enemies. His family members were surrounded on that barren land of Karbalā with their water supply cut off, yet at each juncture, Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) presented to the Yazīdī army the only convincing proof which he knew, viz. Nabī Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam). History is littered with information detailing how Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) reminded the people that it was his beloved grandfather who brought the very Kalimah to them. He presented his proof to them on numerous occasions, similar to the reaction of the Pharaoh and his people the Israelites, Imām Al-Husain’s plea fell on deaf ears.

Parallel 3 – Uprooting for the sake of Allāh Ta Ālā

Āshūrā: When all diplomacy failed, Prophet Moses (alayhis salām) was commanded to leave his home. He took with him his people and left in hope of being free from the tyrannical rule of the Pharaoh.

Karbalā: When Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) believed that diplomacy would not yield results, he too made the difficult decision to leave the blessed land of Madinatul Munawwarah where he was raised in the lap of his beloved grandfather (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam). He too left his home with his family for sake of what he believed to truth. This is a clear parallel.

Parallel 4 – Deceptively arrogant people

Āshūrā: After moving his people out of Egypt, one would have expected the Israelites to have been grateful to their Prophet for having given them the freedom they so desired. There was, however, one more obstacle in their path. There was a powerful people inhabiting the Holy Land (5:22). Nabī Mūsā (alayhis salām) then revealed to them that they should enter the Holy Land as it was written for them. Their arrogant response was, “You and your Lord go fight! We will remain here seated” (5:24). All they had ever desired, was access to that land, and now that it was within their grasp, they turned their backs on their leader.

Karbalā: Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) was requested by the people of Kufa to make the journey there as they believed in his leadership as they believed in his illustrious father before him. Yet when he answered their call and uprooted his family to assist them in their need, they turned their backs on him for fear of the regime at the time. They too displayed a deceptively arrogant behavior. Yet another parallel between the two people in the two narratives.

Parallel 5 – The Final Miracle

Āshūrā: When the Israelites were in that hopeless state of being surrounded, they must have felt that they had met their end. At that moment, Allāh Ta Ālā revealed that tenth sign which functioned as proof of the belief in the Lord of Moses (alayhis salām). In a time of hopelessness, faith is a rare commodity. The function of the signs has always been to prove the existence of the One True God. Hence that final sign proved that the message of Moses was true. One can only begin to imagine the elation on the faces of his people who were being rewarded with the flavor of Imān at that moment.

Karbalā: Envisaging the manner in which the Noble Household of the Prophet

(Sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) indeed brings tears to the eyes of the believers. They too were surrounded by people who were willing to achieve their goal ’by any means necessary’ and that was evident from the manner in which they massacred the family members of the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam). How testing that time must have been for their leader, Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu)? To have seen his entire family massacred before his eyes? Yet even when he was alone against that battalion, he stood his ground. If one of the functions of the signs is to prove belief, then indeed Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) passed that test with distinction. Even when he was outnumbered, bloodied and bruised from the arrows and swords of his Muslim brothers, he did not waiver. The ‘sign’ of his unshakable faith has been etched in the books of history for all time. At that moment, even the strangest amongst us may have yielded to the enemy in order to save our own life as is human nature, but not for the true in faith. Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) sensing that he could no longer fight, turned to the greatest form of submission and fell prostrate to his Lord. In that moment, the wretched swordsman martyred him.

Conclusion to Pt.1: These are but some of the parallels we have brought to the vanguard of discussion in hope of drawing the reader’s attention to the manner in which the historical process unravels. In the next part, we will discuss the parallels between Āshūrā and the End-Times with focus on the eschatological agenda to yet again prove the brilliance of the Qur’ānic methodology in it conveyance of knowledge.

[1] Sūrah At-Taubah, 9:36

[2] Sūrah Al-Baqarah, 2:189

[3] Whilst the Shia view on Imāmat is diametrically opposed to our own, there is no harm in addressing him with the title of ‘Imām’ so long as we do not delve into the view of the Shia. Imām Al-Husain (radhiyallahu anhu) has been deemed the ‘leader’ of the youth of Jannah by our Beloved Messenger (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam). that alone is reason enough to acknowledge his leadership qualities.

________________________________________

[4]Jāmi’ At-Tirmizhi

[5]Jāmi’ At-Tirmizhi

[6]Mustadhrak Imām Haakim, Imām Azh-Zhahabi, Jāmi’ At-Tirmizhi

[7]Sahīh Muslim

[8]Sahīh Muslim

[9] Sūrah An-Nāzi’āt, 79-24

[10] Sūrah Tāhā, 20:17-22

[11] Sūrah An-Naml, 27:12

[12] Sūrah Al-A’raaf, 7:133

[13]Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr

[14] Sūrah Al-A’raaf, 7:134-135

[15] Sūrah Al-Baqarah, 2:50

[16] Sūrah Nisā (4:174)