Imam Husayn (‘a) ’S Portrayal of Islamic Society During Umayyad Rule

Imam Husayn (‘a) delivered this speech in Karbala:

“The world has changed beyond recognition: its goodness has receded and nothing remains of it except for drops, like the drops of water that remain in a jar [when it is emptied of its contents] and a despicable sustenance like unwholesome pasture. Don’t you see that truth is not acted upon and falsehood is not refrained from? Let the believer earnestly desire meeting God, for I do not consider death to be anything but bliss and living with the oppressors anything but humiliation.”

Sayyid Ibn Tawus has recorded this speech of Husayn in Al-Luhuf, adding that he delivered it in Karbala. It is also reported by Ibn Abd Rabbih in Al-Iqd al-Farid (2/312), Abu Nu’aym al-Isfahani in Hilyat al-Awliya (3/39), and Ibn Asakir (4/333), all indicating that Husayn (‘a) gave it in Karbala, as did Sayyid ibn Tawus in Al-Luhuf. Al-Tabari has also related it in Al-Tarikh (6/229) and said that the Imam (‘a) spoke those words along the way to Karbala at Dhu Husum. In whichever place Husayn (‘a) might have said those words, they portray for us an exact picture of the period Imam Husayn lived and the misfortunes and catastrophes that befell the Muslims in it. This speech comprises three points that deserve reflection:

1- The condition of the world at that time (the social, political and spiritual situation).

2- The people’s disregard of truth and inclination towards falsehood.

3- Need for aversion towards the world and desire to meet God.

1. The Condition Of The World At That Time

Change takes place in two ways: a thing may change without losing its fundamental features or it may change beyond recognition. The change which the people and society underwent during the Umayyad affliction was of the second type, change beyond recognition from what it was during the time of the Messenger of God (S). The Muslims reverted to pre-Islamic (jahiliyah) customs and values although they did not renege on Islam. However pre-Islamic customs, values and ideas returned, and the Umayyads regained, in the new dispensation, the positions of influence which they occupied during the pre-Islamic period, based on the same values and concepts.

This awful deviation took place within only half a century after the demise of the Messenger of God (S). The palaces of the Umayyads and their governors bore no resemblance to what was prescribed in God’s Book or the Sunnah of the Messenger of God (S), as demonstrated in his public and private life style. What is prescribed in the Book of God and communicated to us by His Messenger (S) and what also appeared in his way of conduct differs greatly from what we know of the luxury, dissipation and aggression of Umayyad palaces.

Anyone who considers the Book and the Sunnah to be the standards for decent life will no doubt condemn the attitude of the Umayyads and find it impossible to reconcile the two. This is what the Martyr Grandson [of the Prophet (S)] was telling us about when he said: “The world has changed beyond recognition.”

Then he added: “... and its goodness has receded”, which is the situation when a civilization experiences decline. When nations are on the ascent they uphold goodness which springs from them as water springs from the earth. This is the sign of a sound innate nature, intellect and conscience of the nation; it is the situation that is characterized by cultural, intellectual and human progress. The drying-up of this goodness in innate nature is an indication of the decline of civilization. There exists a constant relation between upholding goodness and cultural advancement and also between disregard for goodness and cultural decline. Cultural progress in human life invariably stems from the overflowing of goodness from man’s innate nature and all cultural decline results from its drying up.

To explain this point further, when human nature is unimpaired, qualities flow from it such as mercy, faith, sincerity, righteousness, affection, piety, decency, loyalty, gratitude, chastity, self-esteem, truthfulness, trustworthiness, knowledge and justice. The Qur’anic view is that these qualities constitute the normal situation in man’s life and the Qur’an calls it al-ma’ruf (the known thing) because man’s innate nature is acquainted with it.

On the other hand sound human nature disowns and avoids heresy, obstinacy, ingratitude, greed, perfidy, lying, oppression, dissipation, cowardice, despair, indecision and betrayal. The Qur’an calls them abominable deeds because human nature finds them reprehensible.

When man’s nature becomes impaired he no longer finds goodness attractive nor is disgusted by what is abominable, whereas a person with sound senses and taste is attracted towards wholesome things and disgusted by repulsive ones. When one is bereft of his sound innate nature and conscience, he not only loses the power to distinguish between the good and the bad, but abominable things really attract him and good ones repel him.

The soul and the innate nature seem to have undergone mutation. If one loses his untainted nature he must have already lost his conscience, for conscience is the sentinel that watches over nature. Conscience continues to act as the faithful guard of nature until all its power of resistance is exhausted.

Before we round off this discussion we must add this point from the Imam’s speech: Corruption of the nature and conscience of people does not occur involuntarily, although once it occurs the consequences are beyond man’s will power. However, God the Exalted has given man control over his conscience and innate nature and the two will only be corrupted through the abuse of his choice and volition. Whatever the case may be with regard to Imam Husayn’s (‘a) brief statement that described the condition of the nation, the question we should ask is what truly befell the Muslims?

There is a relationship between the descending of God’s mercy on man and the flow or decline of goodness from his soul. God’s mercy flows unceasingly and is never cut off from man and creation even for a moment. However, this descending mercy has particular places of landing such as unimpaired souls and hearts, for they are receptacles of God’s mercy.

When souls and hearts become diseased and their goodness dwindles, their share of divine mercy and blessing decreases or is even stopped completely. God’s mercy is not niggardly, however, it is the souls and hearts that turn their backs on it when goodness in them recedes. God Most High says:

“Indeed God does not change a people’s lot unless they change what is in their souls” (13:11).

‘And nothing remains of it except for drops like the drops of water (subaba) that remain in a jar.’

Subabat al-ina’ means the drops of water which usually remain after the water in a container is poured out. These drops cannot quench the thirst of man or animal. Similarly, when goodness in man’s innate nature dries up except for drops like the drops remaining in a jar-nothing good can be expected from such a person.

Man’s innate nature is in fact the spring from which all goodness flows, so when this goodness dries its decay leads to the depravity of man and society. I have said before that when fairness and goodness emanate from innate nature God’s mercy and blessings descend on it and when it lacks them this descending mercy of God does not land there.

‘And a despicable sustenance like unwholesome pasture.’

Sustenance is not only for the body; there is sustenance for the heart, the mind and the soul as well. Just as bodies die when they lack what will sustain them, hearts, minds and souls also die when they lack their sustenance. The death of hearts, minds and consciences is more dangerous than bodily death. In his speech, the Imam is saying: What was left for the people during that time of trial by way of sustenance for their hearts, souls and minds was too meagre to save man from corruption, like unwholesome pasture, which, as a result of plant epidemic, becomes scorched and yellow with a few patches of green here and there.

Such was the condition of society when it was gripped by this tribulation [i.e. the Umayyad scourge], because all goodness that was in the people’s souls had been swept away and nothing was left of it except the drops that remain in a water container after its contents have been poured out, drops that cannot quench one’s thirst.

2. The Peoples Disregard For Truth And Their Inclination Towards Falsehood

The Imam (‘a) says: “Do you not see that the truth is not acted upon and falsehood is not refrained from?”

This is the second part of the Imam’s address which alludes to the sign of the dwindling of innate nature and weakening of the conscience. Don’t you see that the right thing is not being done? Had innate nature been flowing in their souls, the people would not have ceased to act on the truth, but when man’s nature becomes corrupted he loses the motive to act upon the truth. Conversely, a sound nature and conscience reject falsehood and consider it repulsive, just as normal feelings and tastes loath offensive food and drink. When one’s feelings become dysfunctional he no longer considers loathsome what normal people do.

Likewise, when one’s conscience and innate nature are sound and unimpaired he deems the truth to be truth and falsehood to be falsehood, acts on the former and refrains, and also prevents others, from the latter. But when his innate nature and conscience are corrupted he will not have the motive for working with the truth nor a deterrent from accepting falsehood.

The foregoing is a precise picture of the misfortune that struck the people in the wake of this Umayyad-caused tribulation. The Imam (‘a) painted this picture on the day of Ashura or in Dhu Husum.

3. Need For Aversion To The World And Desire To Meet God

The Imam (‘a) said “Let the believer desire to meet God, for I do not consider death to be anything but bliss, and living with oppressors anything but humiliation.”

This statement in the Imam’s speech contains two feelings:

(i) The world no longer had anything that the believer could desire; wares and pleasures could not attract or make him incline towards them. This feeling urges asceticism and aversion towards worldly pleasures.

(ii) A yearning to meet God is most pleasing thing to the believer. This is clearly stated by Husayn (‘a) in the above address. Death is a way to meet God and through it the veils over the believers’ hearts are removed, so that they may witness the grandeur and beauty of God which they could not witness in worldly life, and in this resides the believer’s bliss and joy in the hereafter. How can the joys and blessings of paradise be compared with the joy of meeting God in the hereafter?

Thus, to the believer, death constitutes nothing but bliss. There is nothing in the life of this world that may bind him to it except the company of the righteous and the best of people, or righteous deeds such as maintaining good, praying, glorifying God, upholding justice, trustworthiness, truth, and being prepared for sacrifice, martyrdom,. The believer may be tied to the world but when it is bereft of these values, the righteous become scarce and the faithful encounter nothing in this world except deception, rivalry, oppression, lies and perfidy which they become weary of and detest. They feel that the world is a prison.