Yemen & The Tragedy of Karbala

Painting: The martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

#Ashura #Yemen

The suffering of Yemen today in many ways began with the tragedy of Karbala. Yemen joined Islam by the persuasion of Ali ibn Abu Talib, who as Fourth Caliph had the people of Yemen behind him, most prominently Malik al-Ashtar, who was appointed Governor of Egypt. However, following Ali’s assassination, the Ummayad family seized power, before sending troops to Yemen to murder those who refused to pledge allegiance to Muawiya I.

So long as the lineage of Ali & Fatima survived, Ummayad legitimacy was fragile because no amount of bribery and terror would suffice in seducing the masses away from those closest to the egalitarian spirit of what began as a social movement against the corrupt and oppressive decadence of the Quraysh, but then had its symbolism appropriated by the wave of bloody counter-revolution that culminated in Karbala, when Umayyad troops ambushed and killed Ali’s son Hussein along with his family & supporters, before parading the survivors through the streets of Damascus.

Just as the severed head of John the Baptist was offered to Herod centuries earlier, this time was it was the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, being offered to Muawiya’s alcoholic son Yazid. Just as Christianity ended up being cynically appropriated by the same Roman empire that murdered Christ, Islam after Karbala became the legitimising ideology of kings and dynasties. What survives the bloody counter-revolution are symbols of sacred martyrs whose names are sources of power for oppressed nations & classes.

In pre-Islamic Yemen the people of Najran mobilised under the banner of Christianity, in the northern highlands, against their corrupt and oppressive rulers, culminating in them being massacred, as alluded to in the Quran. Today, from those same highlands of northern Yemen stands Sayed Abdel Malik al-Houthi, a leader who starves with his nation for refusing to pledge allegiance to the House of Saud, while the majority of the Islamic world pretends nothing is going on.

Inspired by the conviction that Muslims are obliged to rebel against corrupt rulers, the Ansarullah movement draw their inspiration from the uprising led by Zayd ibn Ali, the half-Indian grandson of Hussein, against the Ummayad dynasty, bringing about it’s downfall ten years later in 750 CE. But since Karbala, Yemen has been violently compelled into allegiance by successive Islamic hegemons, because of its importance as an entrepot of global trade, its geography, the cradle of Arab civilisation, often treated as more important than the welfare of its impoverished people.

If, as Marx said, the “history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles”, then the civilisational history Islam bears the same patterns and scars.

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