The battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hussain ibn Ali in 680 CE is often exclusively viewed as a Shia issue. Every year millions of Shia Muslims remember the events at Karbala that took place on Ashura (the 10th day of Muharram on the Islamic calendar). But not only is this tragedy not exclusively a Shia issue, but it is also not exclusively relevant to Muslims. There is a lesson in Karbala for all people, particularly people who have been oppressed, marginalized and exploited. For African Americans, the lesson of Karbala is one of sacrifice, struggle for justice and hope for a fair and equitable future.
“We suffer political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation — all of them from the same enemy. The government has failed us; you can’t deny that.” – Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet (1964)
The United States government has failed us, black people in America, since our ancestors were brought here in chains and sold into perpetual slavery, through decades of unchecked lynching, Jim Crow and now the modern mass incarceration system. While the image of a black president on television might lead the casual observer to believe racism has ended its chokehold on America, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Although individual race relations and attitudes toward diversity have improved in America over the years, systemic racism persists in nearly every institution, from police departments to churches. It is so pervasive that many of the people working within those institutions do not even realize they are perpetuating racial inequity.
1400 years ago, Prophet Muhammad faced persecution from Arabs who did not want to see their privileged way of life upset by a new monotheistic religion. Idolatry for them was not simply their belief system but also an extremely profitable industry. Slavery was commonplace, and female infants were often buried alive because male offspring were better for family business. Tribalism, racism and sexism were rampant. Islam stood against all of that, and the tribe of Quraish and clan of Banu Umayyah that once stood against him eventually embraced Islam.
After the Prophet’s death, however, old wounds left from tribal rivalries persisted. Banu Umayyah would eventually once again rise to power, but this time claiming to uphold the banner of Al-Islam. Mu’awiyah ibn Abu Sufyan instituted what would become the Umayyad dynasty, and the leadership of Muslims was, for the first time, in the hands of a monarchy. His son and successor Yazid had little interest in keeping Islam alive and more interest in strengthening the dynasty by subduing any perceived threats, particularly from Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s own grandson.
Just as many white Americans would prefer to ignore history and pretend as though racism does not exist or was not all that bad, many Sunni Muslims choose to turn a blind eye to the darker portions of Muslim history and imagine that Islam’s “golden age” was golden for everyone rather than an exclusive elite and their loyal subordinates. In doing so, they not only ignore years of oppression and exploitation, they also enable present-day Muslim leaders to repeat those mistakes. As the renown historian Ibn Khaldun determined, history is cyclical in nature, and those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Islam is particularly unique among world religions in that justice (‘adl) is a fundamental principle. Al-’Adl (The Just) is one of the divine names and attributes of God. When Prophet Muhammad began to preach his newly revealed message, one of his first tasks was to stop the burial of newborn infant girls. Justice is so crucial to Islam that a Muslim is even obligated to defend a non-Muslim against an unjust Muslim. Justice does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or religion.
Imam Hussain could have hidden and stayed quiet. After all, his brother Imam Hassan, the rightful khalifah after Imam Ali, had abdicated to Mu’awiyah and chosen to spend his last days teaching and fostering good will among Muslims. But Imam Hussain recognized that at certain times the injustice and tyranny becomes so great that remaining silent and hidden is no longer an option. Resistance becomes an obligation. Standing for truth becomes a necessity lest the very light of truth be extinguished completely. Such were the conditions in the still young Muslim community (ummah) at that time.
Likewise, throughout America’s history, great men and women have recognized when the time for waiting quietly was over and the time for action was imperative. Harriet Tubman understood this. Robert Smalls understood this. Rosa Parks understood this. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. Malcolm X understood this. And there were numerous others, some we know and some who have been lost in history.
At least 72 of Imam Hussain’s family members and followers stood with him on the desert plain of Karbala and were butchered because they understood this. Through their sacrifice, the people began to once again understand the importance of truth and justice. His sister Zaynab survived and began to teach people the purity and compassion of Islam and also expose the corruption Yazid had dispersed over the land.
Martyrs like Imam Hussain and Malik Shabbazz (Malcolm X’s name after returning from Hajj) are symbols of hope for a day when justice prevails, but more than this, they provide us with examples of how and when to stand for justice. It is no accident that Malik Shabbazz was killed not long after he decided to take the grievances of African Americans to an international audience at the United Nations. It is when great leaders demonstrate for us a path to justice that tyrants seek to silence them, but in their martyrdom, their voices become louder and their causes become immortal.
The Yazids of the 21st century have made it clear that Black lives do not matter to them. This is clear in their words, but it is even clearer in their actions. And now we see young and old black men and women standing up (or kneeling as the case may be) to expose this tyranny and oppression while putting their careers and possibly even their lives at risk. Imam Hussain is a shining light for the oppressed and disenfranchised people of the world, and today he lights the way to justice for Black lives in America.