A story from history that is told and retold

October 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Sixty-one years after Prophet Mohammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, which started Islamic history, the Prophet’s grandson Hussein was ruthlessly killed by the forces of the Caliph of the time, Yazid Ibn Muawiyya. Fourteen centuries later, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom is still being told, sung and read. Al-Husseiniyya is not an epic in the professional sense. It has no fixed text. It is a collection of poems written by different poets through the past centuries telling the story of Hussein's martyrdom. But listening to it steers emotions as strong as, or even stronger than, the emotions that might have been steered by the event itself fourteen centuries ago.

The hatreds that led to the death of Hussein stretch back into pre-Islamic history, to the rivalry between the two biggest houses within the tribe of Quraysh; the Hashemites and the Umayyads. When the Prophet Mohammad, a Hashemite, declared his message, the Umayyads declared him an outcast. They took the opportunity to punish the whole house of Hashem and win full political leadership of Mecca unrivaled. Under great pressure, the Prophet left Mecca to Medina, where the balance of power began to change. The Arab Islamic calendar starts with the date of this journey. The wars that followed, between the new Islamic state in Medina and the infidels of Mecca, were also wars of the Hashemite house allied with the people of Medina, against the Umayyad house of Mecca.

The Umayyads were defeated, and the Prophet conquered Mecca eight years after he was driven out from it. After the Prophet’s death, the issue of succession came to dominate the political scene in Arabia, and then it came to dominate most of Islamic history. Two of the Prophets companions were peacefully chosen as successors; they were neither Umayyads nor Hashemites. Then, Othman Ibn Affan, an Umayyad, was chosen, on the condition that he would not turn the Umayyads into a royal family; Roman, Persian and Egyptian royalties being symbols of tyranny to the relatively free Arab tribesmen.

Nevertheless, by the end of his rule many Umayyads had made great fortunes and enjoyed many privileges as rulers of different parts of the newly created Islamic empire, encompassing the whole Middle East. People rebelled. The Caliph was killed and Ali Ibn Abu Talib was chosen. Ali was a Hashemite, a cousin of the Prophet and his son-in-law. More dangerously for the Umayyads, his sons Hasan and Hussein were the only living descendants of the Prophet, which makes them possible heirs to the Caliphate. To the Umayyads, if the caliphate was allowed to move from father to son in the house of Hashem, no other house among the Arabs would ever have a chance to rise to political power. Muawiyya, a relative of Othman (the Umayyad Caliph that was killed in the rebellion) declared that he does not recognize Ali the Hashemite as Caliph. Ali was known for his incredible piety, justice, wisdom and eloquence. He is the only one of the Prophet’s companions that had a book of his own: Nahj al-Balagha (the way of eloquence), while his rival Muawiyya was an archetype pragmatic politician, with no sense of morality whatsoever. The most notorious civil war in Islamic history known as Al-Fitna al-Kubra, (The Great Illusion) broke out. Like most civil wars, there was no decisive victory. But Ali the Hashemite was assassinated near the end of the war. His older son Hasan, in an attempt to end bloodshed, made a deal with Muawiyya that the latter would become a Caliph, but that he would not pass the Caliphate to any of his descendents, and that after his death the issue of the Caliphate will be left for the Muslims to decide. Of course,  Muawiyya broke his promise, Hasan was poisoned, and the Caliphate was passed to Yazid the son of Muawiyya. On the day Muawiyya declared his son Yazid to be his successor, a pro-Umayyad orator stood up in front of the gathered tribes and said: This is the Caliph (and he pointed to Muawiyya), and when he dies, this will be the Caliph (and he pointed to Yazid), and if you refused, this will be the Caliph (and he pointed to the sword).

Hussein, the younger son of Ali, and the brother of Hasan, rebelled against Yazid. He was invited by the people of Iraq, who loved his father, to come and fight Yazid. Together with his family, Hussein started moving from Medina to Iraq. Yazid knew about Hussein’s moves, and decided to keep his crown at any price. Yazid was also obsessed by not allowing the Hashemites to get to power. Hussein and his family were besieged in Karbala, near the Euphrates. They were 70 fighters, besieged by an army of 30,000. The commander of the Umayyad Army shouted to Hussein: “Oh Hussein, do you see the waters of the Euphrates glowing like silver snakes under the sun? You will die before you reach it.”

Thirsty, hungry and under siege, Hussein, his sons, his brothers and his nephews fought as valiantly as they could, and they all became the martyrs of the Massacre of Karbala. The women and children were then taken into custody, and driven to Damascus, where they were released. Among the captives was Ali the second, a young son of Hussein who was spared because he was ill and did not join the fight. Shiite Muslims believe that Ali, Hasan and Hussein and their descendents are holy figures that have a divine right to rule over Muslims. Their line of descent was broken, though, by the disappearance of the 12th Imam, “Mohammad the Awaited,” 200 years after the massacre at Karbala. Shiites still believe in his second coming.

The epic tells the whole story of the massacre using flashbacks and fast-forwards. Usually, it is told from the eyes of Zaynab, Hussein’s sister, who witnessed everything, and had to take care of the children and the women who survived. In poetry, the martyrs were granted eternity.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2003/Oct-25/113244-a-story-from-history-that-is-told-and-retold.ashx#ixzz2wGmHYCqH 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb