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The epic of Karbala: A divine decree

17Oct 2015
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The epic of Karbala: A divine decree

Dr Murtadha Alidina considers Imam Hussain’s knowledge of the unseen regarding the Battle of Karbala and explores why he still proceeded despite knowing the tragic outcome.

It is often overlooked that the events leading up to the tragedy of Karbala were divinely decreed and designed. When Imam Hussain (as) visited the Prophet’s (pbuh) grave for the last time, the companions with him incessantly tried to persuade the Imam (as) against departing to Kufa. However, the Imam (as) repeatedly mentioned that the divine command was the reason behind him proceeding with the movement. But what is the role of the divine decree in the occurrence of this tragedy?

The foremost reasons that the tragedy of Karbala took place was because, firstly Imam Hussain (as) was forced to pay allegiance to the tyrannical leader Yazid Ibn Muawiya and he refused to do so. Secondly, once the Imam travelled to Mecca he started receiving invitations for his presence at Kufa, thus he proceeded there to establish the righteous government. Thirdly, is that the Imam wanted to establish virtue and eliminate vice and thus bringing about reformation in a corrupt society.

The Imam knows that he will be killed

Before attempting to understand the divine decree it is important to analyse the incidents mentioned above. When the Imam (as) set out to the grave of the holy Prophet (pbuh)  to bid his final farewell it is narrated that the instant he rested his head on the grave he was transported to another realm where he began to see a vision.

The Imam was not asleep nor was he dreaming, however, these powerful souls have the capacity to detach themselves from the physical world and divert their total attention to the realm of spirituality. During this vision, the Imam (as) sees the Prophet (pbuh) come to him with a group of angels surrounding him. According to the narration the Prophet (pbuh) says, “Ya habibi, Ya Hussain (my dear grandson, oh Hussain) I see very soon that you shall have fallen on the ground, in the dirt and covered in blood. Ya habibi, Ya Hussain, I see that you shall be slaughtered in the land of Karbala. Ya habibi, Ya Hussain, I see you thirsty with no one willing to quench your thirst.”

Although the Imam (as) was aware of the consequences of his journey to Kufa, he still proceeded knowing that is what Allah (swt) has planned and hence he had to pursue it.

Consider the other incident where the Imam’s companion  and half-brother Ibn Hanafiya strongly advises the Imam (as); “Please do not proceed to Kufa as the people of Kufa have betrayed your father in the past. Instead why do you not go to Yemen where you will receive more support?” Although the Imam promises to ponder over this, he proceeds to Kufa the next day. When Ibn Hanafiyah discovers this he questions the Imam accordingly. To this the Imam replies, “What am I  supposed to do, Shaa Allah an Yarani Qateela (It is a divine decree that I am to be killed in the land of Karbala).”

Recognising the divine decree

We must recognise the significance of the divine plan. What does it mean? The Imam (as) is about to depart from Mecca to Kufa from which he has received almost eighteen thousand letters of help and support. The day prior to his departure he delivers a sermon.

The Imam’s (as) sermon; “I will reach there and overthrow the corrupt regime and we will established the righteous regime.” The Imam then says; “Let me tell you, death for the human being is just like that wonderful necklace on a young girl’s neck.” People questioned the Imam; “You have been promised support but you are talking about death and the desirability of death?” The Imam replies; “No, not only is death desirable for me, do you know the intensity to which I desire death? My desire is the same as that of Yaqub who deeply desired to be reunited with Yusuf. Declaration of death, death is not only inevitable, it is deeply desirable.”

The Imam then explains, “It has been decided and decreed, I shall meet this end and I am ready for it, I long for it, I can see myself, these animals brutally chopping off parts of my body. It has been decreed, the pen has written it down and I cannot avoid it, the day shall come. If they have decreed, we the Ahlul Bayt (as) are in total submission to the will of God and will accept it. We shall remain steadfast and determined, because it is the decree of God.”

True, politically the Imam was invited to go to Kufa. True, the Imam was forced to pay allegiance and he refused to do so. True, the Imam said that the aim of his revolution was to eliminate vice and establish virtue. However, one factor that we need to understand clearly is the divine decree.

Understanding the divine decree

The entire tragedy of Karbala can seem meaningless if we are to say “it was decreed, it had to happen and the Imam (as) was chosen to do it and thus submitted to it, so therefore what is in it for me, how do I take this tragedy as a role model?”

We need to appreciate the question of divine decree. Firstly, is it possible for a human being to know the future? If it is possible, then how do you reconcile the fact that God and God alone is the one that knows the ghayb (unseen)? How do you then further reconcile the fact that when death was certain, the Imam (as) still proceeded to self-destruction?

What is knowledge of the unseen?

The knowledge of the unseen relating to the future has been attributed in the Quran to God and God alone. God is the Absolute entity and therefore infinite are all His qualities, including His knowledge. Allah (swt) alone has knowledge of the unseen.

With Him are the keys of the unseen, the treasures that none knoweth but He. He knoweth whatever there is on the earth and in the sea. Not a leaf doth fall but with His knowledge: there is not a grain in the darkness (or depths) of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry (green or withered), but is (inscribed) in a record clear (to those who can read). (Quran; 6:59)

On the other hand, the Imams (as) claimed that they had knowledge of the unseen, for example the narrations previously quoted related to Karbala. How does one  reconcile the two seemingly conflicting statements?

Can an Imam have unseen knowledge?

There are several explanations that scholars have given for the possibility of an Imam sharing and having knowledge of the unseen. One explanation is “departmentalisation” which claims that there are certain sections of unseen knowledge that God alone knows and there are other departments of knowledge which God then shares with others. The verse below describes five different types of knowledge that God and God alone knows.

Surely Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the hour, and He sends down the rain and He knows what is in the wombs; and no one knows what he shall earn on the morrow; and no one knows in what land he shall die; surely Allah is Knowing, Aware. {Quran; 31:34}

We see that God alone is all knowing and there is certain knowledge that God alone knows. However, God may    impart other knowledge to others, chosen by him. So, departmentalisation is one theory for the knowledge of the unseen possessed by the Imams (as) and this is most certainly plausible and possible by the leave of Allah (swt).

A second explanation is that knowledge is of two types; fixed and changing (in chapter 19; “God alone has the power to establish certain things and create them and He alone has the power to eliminate some other things.”)

The fourth Imam (as) says that “had it not been for this verse, whereby Allah (swt) can change the destiny, I would have told you whatever is going to happen until the end of the world, but I cannot because destiny changes.” “A sinner’s life will be shortened” is just one of many often heard examples.

A third explanation into this is that the Imams (as) potentially have the power to understand if they willed it so. There are many traditions that state “if the Imam wills, God provides.” It is therefore in the wisdom of God to give the knowledge of the unseen. If it is not in the wisdom of God; God does not provide that knowledge to the Imam. This could be because sometimes the destiny which is to occur would be a test for the Imam, thus God does not bestow this knowledge to him.

For example, the night of the migration of the holy Prophet (pbuh) from Mecca to Medina when Imam Ali (as) had to sleep on the Prophet’s (pbuh) bed under the threat of assassination by the enemy. God withholds the knowledge of the outcome of this sleep because this is where the real test is.

A fourth explanation is that essentially the Imams have unique knowledge.

“…He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot comprehend anything out of His knowledge except what He pleases…” {Quran; 2:255}

If an individual is able to perfect himself to such a degree, whereby his status before God is elevated and thus he is close to God, he can be granted the knowledge of the unseen in all affairs; be it fixed or changing.

However such knowledge is totally dependent. Indeed there exists that knowledge which the Imam cannot access; the essence of God is one example. Such knowledge is beyond the comprehension of man as our minds are finite and limited. Excluding this domain, there is a possibility for the Imam to reach a level where he can be granted knowledge of everything, including therefore the occurrence of Karbala.

Willingly proceed to self-destruction?

The next logical question is hence; “If the Imam knows he is going to die then how could he willingly proceed towards self-destruction?” This verse is often quoted:

“…Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful!” (Quran; 4:29)

Scholars have responded to this issue by saying that this verse is not addressed to the Imam (as). Furthermore, they say that this verse does not refer to the physical death but rather a meaningless and fruitless death.

In Surah al-Kahaf, between verses 60-82, we find the narration of Prophet Musa (as) and Prophet Khidr (as). We see that Khidr (as) performs certain actions which appear unusual to Musa (as). We find that the domain and the spheres of activities for these two Prophets (as) are somewhat distinct. One is working in the apparent world while one is “working behind the curtain”. God has for a temporary   moment lifted the veil; thus we are able to observe the  unseen world and the way in which it operates. Towards verse 79 the explanation is given as to why the actions were performed by Khidr (as). We find that there is short-term damage to ensure long-term benefit. The damage is what is seen in the apparent world, while the long-term benefit can be understood by the knowledge gained from the world of the unseen.

Therefore, “Do not destroy yourselves” as spoken in the aforementioned verse is not referring to the Imam (as) because the Imam (as) works in a different domain which is the domain of Khidr (as) and not the domain of Musa (as).

An alternative explanation could be that; yes the verse is referring to the Imam (as) and yes it does refer to physical death, but sometimes death is more important than life.  Observe the declarations of the Imam (as) at various stages of his movement; “I will never ever subjugate and submit myself to the tyranny of this despot, because life with dishonour is worse than death with dignity.” Sometimes death is more important than life especially when the goals you have to achieve are much larger and more significant.

Eternal self-preservation

To conclude, it is true that one of the factors that determined the occurrence of Karbala was the divine decree. However, it was a divine decree whereby the Imam (as) was given the option to fulfil his duty under these circumstances in order to re-establish Godly values, to eliminate devilish vices and reform a corrupt society. In such a situation it is not only the Imam (as) but rather any believer that must rise up.

In the words of Imam Hussain (as); “Don’t you see that truth is being abandoned and trampled upon, look at falsehood, falsehood is being embraced, in such circumstances it necessitates not me as an Imam but it necessitates every believer to make an uprising, to eliminate vice and establish virtue…”

Therefore the divine decree is not something which was imposed upon the Imam (as). It was a decree whereby the Imam (as) was given the option upon which the future of the Ummah was dependent on him making a choice. When asked if the Imam was ready to meet his death and destiny, he replied: “Yes, what is pleasing for Allah (swt) is most satisfying for us.” This was a conscious, wilful and deliberate decision to give up one’s life for the sake of Godly values. That is not self-destruction but rather self-preservation for an eternity.

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