A Muharram Reflection: Lessons from the Ahlul Beyt (Prophet Muhammad’s Family) About Fighting for Justice
By Zehra Naqvi
“None of you truly believe until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.” -Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
“Do justice for Allah and do justice towards the people, as against yourself, your near ones and those of your subjects for whom you have a liking because if you do not do so you will be oppressive…. Nothing is more inductive of the reversal of Allah’s bounty or the hastening of His retribution than continuance in oppression, because Allah hears the prayer of the oppressed and is on the look out for the oppressors.” – Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib in his letter to Malik al-Ashtar
Justice encompasses our understanding of fairness, rights, and order. We have different legal systems around the world, all aiming to deliver on particular theories of justice.
From a faith perspective, however, the concept of fairness is a far simpler thing and meant to be more universal – helping others to attain the basic treatment you would want for yourself, for your loved ones, for those who you consider in your circle. Justice from a faith perspective, requires recalibrating our own perception of who the terms “we” and “us” include. Going one step further, it may even mean understanding that how someone else may want to be treated may differ from how we may want to be treated, and to help them advocate for the change they want. It’s about developing our capacity to empathize with, relate to, and advocate for people we know and people we have absolutely no contact with or very little in common with, but who are subjected to unfair and unjust practices that should be changed.
The observation of the first ten days of Muharram is an exercise in reinforcing this type of development. During this time period, Shia Muslims around the world grieve the murder and imprisonment of members of the Prophet’s household in the 7th century on the plains of Kerbala, Iraq.
The essence of all the rituals and remembrance is to continually remind ourselves today of what unjust behavior costs us in this world. During the ten days, we are overcome with feelings of deep grief, unease, and perpetual discontent. We mourn that more was not done to avoid the tragedy that followed and remind ourselves that there were many in the world that could have helped but didn’t. Some didn’t know, some feared for their own safety, some were just cowards. And we are committed not to become them. So we take this time to make ourselves uncomfortable, to remind ourselves we should not settle into a state of being content because we should always be toiling for better for all and injustice still exists and whether it is nearby or far away, that it exists is a reflection on all of us.
While many Muharram services revolve around reflecting on the past, it’s just as important to look forward to what the past teaches us about how we should fight for justice today. So, for this year, I’m reflecting on tangible lessons I learned about organizing from the lives of the Ahlul Beyt.
Nothing beats a good story.
The earliest stories I remember are about Kerbala and its aftermath – stories about family, principles, valor, and justice. There are gripping stories of the victims and what they endured. Every year, Shias honor a different individual every night for the ten nights, naming them, retelling the story of what that person endured, how they acted heroically, and how they fell. We remember the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, the leader of the group, but there are countless other stories of heroism around the larger Kerbala narrative. We remember Abbas, Zainab, Qasim, Ali Akbar, Asghar, and Sakina.
Stories can inspire, mobilize, galvanize. Today, our storytelling isn’t just verbal, but visual. We have social media platforms that love to seize onto a good story and it can capture the attention of the world in an instant. Stories matter, but having a long term strategy that builds on the stories is also critical. Bringing attention to a plight cannot be the ultimate goal. Having a clear ask is just as important to help whatever cause it is.
There is a role for everyone.
As a young child, I listened to the tragedy of Kerbala and felt the same helplessness as all the other listeners, but even more so thinking I’m just a kid. What could I have done? But my ears would perk up when I heard about a young girl named Sakina, the Prophet’s granddaughter, comforting the other younger children as they all endured starvation and thirst at the camp. We heard about Abbas, Hussein’s half-brother, a warrior who died on a battlefield, not locked in battle but shot through by arrows as he tried to get water for the children in the camp. We remember Zainab, the Prophet’s granddaughter, for not only caring for the caravan of captives marched from Kerbala to Damascus, but delivering a powerful public shaming to Yazeed, the head of state who attempted to shame her as a captive. We remember Habib ibn Madahir, a companion of the Prophet and over seventy years old at the battle of Kerbala, for making his last stand one in support of his convictions. There are stories about babies, teenagers, warriors, liberated slaves, and people who changed sides.
What I have learned through a lifetime of remembrances during this month is that everyone has a role in fighting for what’s right, regardless of their age, gender, station in life, or past.
Prepare to lose even as you plan to win.
Kerbala, as a battle, was lost. Kerbala, as a wake up call for generations to come, was a victory.
If you only ever win, you never develop resilience. You cannot undertake only those battles you know you will win, you must fight for right because it must be done and you are duty bound to do it. Encountering and coping with losses is how we develop the savvy we need to win. Develop resilience, keep learning, keep fighting. Sometimes a loss can be the call to action a community needs to step up. It’s thinking long game, beyond today, beyond this year, beyond our lifetimes. It’s about legacy. It’s about a lifetime of fight.
What is it worth?
Advocating for change necessarily requires a willingness to sacrifice the way some things are done today. Sometimes that means a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort and anonymity, other times it means leveraging your privilege to help others. It may mean using our voices to support the voiceless, amplifying other voices, passing the mic, shining a light on issues where we may not face as much danger as people who are directly impacted, and/or exercising our right to vote to advocate on issues that impact those who cannot vote. And the truth is that not every issue means the same thing to everyone and that shouldn’t be a basis to shame others, but a reminder to build up from the commitment of those who are the most invested and impacted by the cause.
Center the cause, not your ego.
“Do not say: ‘I have been given authority, I should be obeyed when I order, ‘because it engenders confusion in the heart, weakens the religion and takes one near ruin. If the authority in which you are placed produces pride or vanity in you then look at the greatness of the realm of Allah over you an His might the like of which might you do not even possess over yourself. This will curb your haughtiness, cure you of your high temper and bring back to you your wisdom which had gone away from you.” – Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib in his letter to Malik al-Ashtar
“People will now watch your dealings as you used to watch the dealings of the rulers before you, and they (people) will criticize you as you criticized them (rulers).” – Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib in his letter to Malik al-Ashtar
We need different kinds of people doing different kinds of organizational work, campaigns, and efforts. We need to elevate each other, not bring each other down. Infighting, public shaming, and calling one kind of activism “purer” than others is just us undercutting ourselves. We need to be more humble.
Also, in this day and age, social media can be brutal and as fast as young leaders may rise, they may be brought down even faster. To the young leaders rising, tread carefully and thoughtfully, surround yourself with wise folks who have your best interests at heart but also keep you grounded. Invite honest feedback from a trusted circle of advisors, that’s not hating to be dismissed, that’s mature leadership and investment in self development. Stay humble, build alliances, you are our future.
For the community, be kind and forgiving to those navigating new paths and whose intentions are good. We all need some course correction at times.
Passion without strategy is wasted energy.
Use all you’ve got, but use it thoughtfully: our voices, our communities, the courts, social media, our abilities and talents.
The Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, did not arrive in Kerbala with his family and close friends eager for a battle against a vast army that outnumbered him. He, his brother, and his father before him did everything they could to avoid conflict first. They ceded the separation of politics and faith, reached an agreement with the political leaders that the latter then violated, and they tried to live quiet lives out of the public eye to avoid further conflict. But they also had a clear red line based on their principles. That red line was the breach of an earlier succession treaty and the demand of the usurping leader that Hussein pledge his allegiance to him. That was the trigger point for what ensued and that seemingly small form of resistance was so powerful that an army of thousands showed up to take on a band of less than 100 (including women and children). Water and food sources were cut off. Starved, thirsty, and cut off, the Prophet’s household was decimated by the army.
There was no miraculous victory in this story, but the story endures as the legacy of the household. Over a thousand years later, we are still learning from these people, these stories.
What millions of Muslims around the world commemorate during Muharram is not merely one battle that took place in Kerbala; it is about learning from and honoring the lifetimes of those who spent their lives pursuing justice, who used treaties, legal court battles, great orations, and stories to leave us with powerful examples of what the pursuit of justice should entail.
It’s also a reminder that we likely won’t achieve all our ideals of justice in one lifetime but we must try, and trust that future generations will continue building on our efforts and commitment. Our responsibility is to continue educating ourselves, ringing the alarms, mobilizing, voting, writing, speaking out, and mentoring – all in the pursuit of our ideals of justice.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s only and no other entity.