The Bloody Counter Revolution that was Karbala

Photo taken by my friend Tom Toby at the annual Ashura march in Sydney, 21 Sep 2018

Throughout history, every revolutionary movement that established state power was initially carried on the shoulders of those whose faith alone compelled them to sacrifice everything, and often those very people were stabbed in the back by those who joined after the movement became a rising state power.

In the case of Islamic history, the latter would eventually seize control of the state and use it to crush those closest to its original vision. From then on the Islam of the state, dressed in the religious clothing of its founder, would clash with the Islam of revolution and martyrdom, while pointing its swords at the founder’s family.

What began as a unifying social movement against the corrupt ruling class of their time, the Quraysh of Mecca, tragically culminated in the murder of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was murdered along with his family members and supporters, including women, children and even infants, 72 martyrs in total, cut down by arrows and swords on the plains of Karbala, Iraq in the year 680CE.

In the brief period that Hussein’s father Ali ibn Abu Talib was Caliph, the elite made him their enemy because he served the masses instead of them. As Caliph, Ali established an independent judiciary, practiced the equal distribution of public wealth, moved against financial corruption, treated populations conquered under previous Caliphs humanely, and encouraged the protection of their culture.

Ali was warned by one of his own officials, “look my Master, these are the reasons why influential and rich Arabs are deserting you and are gathering around Muawiya”, that is, around someone who’s father, Abu Sufyan, was one of those enemies of the Prophet who switched sides after the Muslims had conquered Mecca. Ali kept to his principles of social justice, observing that “the rich and powerful persons have not created any wealth, they have merely sucked it from the masses…” (Nahj al Balagha)

After the tragedy of Karbala, the survivors of that horrific massacre were dragged through the streets of Damascus in chains, tired, thirsty and severely injured. Hussein’s son, Zain al Abedin, stood before the tyrant Yazid, whose father Muawiya had usurped power following Ali’s assassination, and delivered a speech that made Yazid think twice about the consequences of killing him now that everyone knew who he was, and the moral authority he held.

Karbala embodies the dissenting conscience of Islamic history, reminding the faithful of when dynasties usurped power from those most fit to honourably wield it, through war, political terror, and mass-murder, and that the essence of the faith had to be defended with sacrifice and martyrdom, in the face of severe persecution.

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