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Reviving the Spirit of Karbala: Upholding Muslim Identity Through Activism & Resistance

by in Culture on 15th August, 2023

“Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala”

This sentence transcends time, because of its eternal relevance to Muslim identity. 

The Battle of Karbala, which took place in 680 AD, is a significant event in Islamic history, centered around Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad . Imam Hussein, along with his family members and a small group of supporters, were met by a much larger army sent by the Umayyad ruler, Yazid I, in Karbala, present-day Iraq. The Umayyads sought allegiance from Imam Hussein, but he refused, in cognizance of their corrupt rule and oppression. The army of Yazid then besieged Imam Hussein’s camp, cutting off their access to water and supplies, and on Ashura, the battle began. Imam Hussein’s small army fought valiantly despite being outnumbered by thousands. However, near Asr, no one but Imam Hussein remained, who was also martyred while he was praying in Sajdah. 

In Karbala, Imam Hussein and his companions demonstrated unparalleled courage and unwavering commitment to justice. Imam Hussein marched, not for wealth or power, but to resist injustice, in a supreme sacrifice for Islam. Embodying the teachings of his grandfather and father, he rose against a tyrannical system and became the voice of truth. The legacy of Karbala is the relentless pursuit of justice.

Karbala, thus, is universal. It is a metaphor for the resistance of all oppressed people against oppression.

Social Activism in Light of Quran & Hadith

In today’s world, each era unveils its own version of Yazid, whether it is in the form of settler-colonial states, imperialism, or social evils like poverty, racism, misogyny, sectarianism, and Islamophobia. In reviving the spirit of Karbala, we need to realize that Islam is a faith of activism against all these forms of oppression. 

The importance of activism against injustice can be traced from the Holy Qur’an. In Surah al-Ma’idah, Allah commands, 

“O you who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety, and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” (Surah al Ma’idah 5:8). 

Further, in Surah al-Nisa, Allah declares, 

“O believers! Stand firm for justice as witnesses for Allah even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or close relatives. Be they rich or poor, Allah is best to ensure their interests. So do not let your desires cause you to deviate from justice. If you distort the testimony or refuse to give it, then know that Allah is certainly All-Aware of what you do.” (Surah al-Nisa 4:135). 

Therefore, Allah has directly commanded all Muslims to be steadfast in justice.

We can also trace the importance of social justice through the Hadith of our Prophet Muhammad . He stated,

“Whoever witnesses something evil, let him change it with his hand, and if he is unable then with his tongue, and if he is unable then with his heart, but that is the weakest form of faith.” (Ṣaḥīh Muslim: 49).

He further proclaimed that the most noble struggle is to speak a truthful word in the presence of a tyrannical ruler (Jamiʿal-Tirmidhī: 2174). 

Accordingly, Imam Hussein’s stance in Karbala was the noblest of struggles against oppression, a demonstration of the core Islamic principle of justice. 

Social Injustices of Our Times

To mirror the Prophet and his progeny, we then must re-evaluate our efforts in the fight against oppression. Whether it is the never-ending Nakba in Palestine, the militarization of Kashmir, the repression of Uyghurs in China, or countless Islamophobic attacks across the globe, Muslims are facing unprecedented persecution. 

Some injustices are also being falsely carried out in the name of Islam, such as the ban on women’s education and mobility in Afghanistan, and the persecution of minorities under various Muslim governments. Besides the visible forms of oppression, people across the world are struggling with health, economic, gender, and racial disparities, and the looming doom of a climate catastrophe. 

Yet, the Ummah has not only been a silent spectator in most cases, but some people have even joined the hands of the oppressors. In such times may we be reminded that the Prophet described people who diligently prayed, fasted, and gave charity, but behaved unjustly in society, as al-muflis or “the bankrupt” (Ṣaḥīh Muslim: 2581). Joining hands with oppressive forces, or turning a blind eye to oppression anywhere is missing the point of Islam. 

Ways to Engage in Social Justice

Here are some ways in which we can engage in social justice in our individual capacities.

1. All social justice campaigns start with education and awareness of social issues. Surrounding yourself with diverse people and listening to them actively while reading books about social issues is a good starting point. 

2. Try joining grassroots organizations that work for the upliftment of marginalized populations. For example, Who is Hussain, Muntaha Aid,  Zahra Foundation, DAJI, Ummaty, Muslim Hands, Muslim Aid, Al-Khair Foundation, Saba ReliefWorld Relief, Save The Children, Oxfam, etc. 

3. Offer material, informational, and emotional support to vulnerable people through various means. For instance, this may include donating to initiatives that empower women, refugees, and other disadvantaged groups. A few such organizations are Africa Impact Organization, Islamic Relief, Azad Foundation, Muslim Food Bank, When We Band Together, Takaful, Zamzam Foundation, CORO India, Imece Initiative, Female Strong, The Jerusalem Center for Women, Srujna, etc.

4. Practice ethical consumption, and make conscious choices that consider the social and environmental impacts of our purchases. To know more about ethical consumption, you can refer to Ethical Consumer

5. Moreover, we need to reflect on and challenge our own biases and prejudices, actively working towards eliminating them. 

6. Finally, we must partake in global social and political movements to promote justice, foster peace, and advance the values of Islam on a global scale. 

Karbala as Hope 

We can look back at early Islamic history for countless examples of resistance and activism, such as Khaybar and Karbala, and take inspiration to embark on our own journeys against injustice. It is also important to acknowledge that such a journey is laden with difficulties and may be lonely. 

Fighting against injustice often means challenging the systemic paths of least resistance, which prioritize convenience, conformity, and maintaining the status quo, making it easier to go along with the prevailing injustices rather than confronting them. In the face of such deeply ingrained social structures that perpetuate injustice and global oppressive forces with immense power, the fight may seem like a Sisyphean struggle, but here, Karbala can provide encouragement and hope.

Imam Hussein, supported by a small number of his companions, was confronted by a much larger and overwhelmingly powerful army. Yet, he chose to confront Yazid’s tyrannical forces, fully knowing that the path he had chosen was fraught with peril and ultimate sacrifice. Despite the inevitable outcome that awaited him and his companions, he remained steadfast in his pursuit of justice. 

He epitomized the notion that one’s duty is not defined by the prospect of success but by the commitment to truth and resistance against oppression. Imam Hussein’s perseverance must have stemmed from his unrelenting faith in Allah not letting his sacrifice go in vain. After all, the ultimate defeat of injustice and its perpetrators is promised by the Qur’an.

“And Allah, will by no means, give the unbelievers a way against the believers” (Surah al-Nisa 4:141).

Ultimately Imam Hussein’s sacrifice, in the grand scheme of history, yielded profound and lasting results. His martyrdom preserved the core values of Islam, reinforcing the principles of justice, truth, and righteousness, and awakened the conscience of people across generations, reminding them of the importance of standing against injustice. 

Afreen Zehra

Afreen Zehra

Afreen, 23, is a psychologist and researcher in the field of mental health situated in Srinagar, Kashmir. She is a passionate and curious reader who loves asking questions. She is very dedicated to the cause of women empowerment and community mental health.