-- a traditional Shia saying
Today and tomorrow, the Shia religious of Ashura reaches its climax. This mourning celebration (the connection between those two words is profound) commemorates the Battle of Karbala, fought at the site of the present-day Iraqi city in 680 AD. The central event of the Shia faith, this battle was at once a human catastrophe that split the Islamic ummah into two irreconcilable sects, and a divine act pre-ordained by God to provide man with a clearer concept and pathway to redemption. As Golgotha is to Christians the pivot upon which history turns toward the salvation of mankind, Karbala is to Shi'ites a similar place of suffering and doom, where a single individual, evincing absolute obedience to God, sacrificed everything for the soul of the world. In order to understand the Shia, one must become familiar with Karbala.
As a narrative, the story is a cross between Homeric epic and a medieval passion play, rich in religious symbolism, legendary characters and bloody combat, all based on actual historical events. The basic facts are these: after Mohammad died in 632 AD without leaving a male heir, a dispute broke out among his followers over who should succeed him. Many felt that the Prophet had intended Ali to adopt the mantle, but Mohammad's father-in-law Abu Bakr outmaneuvered the younger man to become the first leader, or caliph, or the ever-expanding Muslim world. By all accounts a quiet, pious figure, Ali waited 25 years before finally becoming caliph himself. His short imamate was characterized by constant rebellion and conflict with Mu'awiya ibn Abu Sufyan, governor of Syria and head of the Ummayad family. Ali was assassinated in 661 by the first of Islam's interminable extremist sects, the Khawarji.
In the power vacuum left by Ali's death, Mu'awiya--a late convert to Islam and son of one of Mohammad's bitterest enemies--claimed leadership of Islam's growing empire for the Ummayads. By means of a lucrative pension and other enticements, he managed to persuade Ali's oldest son, Hasan, to repudiate his claim to the Caliphate and retire. (In 669, Hasn was poisoned--by his wife, Shia historians believe, under Mu'awiyya's orders.)
Possibly to avoid internecine strife, Hasan's brother Hussain decided to wait until Mu'awiyya's death before asserting his right. The Ummayad chieftain obliged in 680, but his corrupt and profligate son Yezid refused to relinquish power. Prompted to act, Hussain took up arms and marched out of Mecca. It was a neat bit of historical symmetry, the stuff of myth and legend: the virtuous Hashemite grandson of Mohammad set forth to save Islam from the dissolute Ummayad grandson of one of Mohammad's most inveterate foes.
Hussain's forces numbered about 72 men, women and children, including members of his own household. They headed for the anti-Ummayad city of Kufa in southern Iraq, whose people pledged they would flock to Hussain's banner once he arrived. But Yezid's men got there first, and through terror and bribery smothered support for the Imam. Hussain's destruction was a foregone conclusion. The Ummayad's four thousand men surround his little camp near a place later called Karbala (karb meaning "anguish;" bala, "vexation."), cutting it off from the waters of the Euphrates River.
Unwilling to simply overrun and slaughter so prominent a personage as Hussain, Yezid's men instead waited for ten days, depriving the Imam's followers of water while slaying his warriors one by one with arrows or single armed combat. The stories that emerged from this brutal siege still blaze in the Shia imagination: the defection of Yezid's commander Hur to Hussain's side. Abbas, fighting his way with a water bag to the Euphrates, only to be overwhelmed by Yezid's men. Hussain's teen-age son Ali Akbhar dying in his father's arm. And, most heart-wrenching all, Hussain holding his infant son up to the enemy troops and begging them to allow him a drink of water: the response was an arrow that lodged in the six month old's throat, killing him.
With Ali Asghar's death, Yezid's troops swarmed over Hussain, decapitating his body and throwing the women and children of the encampment into chains. They took the Imam's head and the captives back to Damascus, where Yezid exulted over his gruesome trophies. (Sensitive to public opinion, the Ummayad chief eventually allowed the women and children to return to Mecca.)
The death of the Prophet's grandson shocked the Islamic world, especially those of the Shi'at Ali ("Party of Ali")--or Shia. For them, Hussain's fate was more than a quashed insurrection; it was a martyrdom. A myth developed around the defeat: sinless, infallible, realizing beforehand the fate that awaited him, Hussain marched to doom in Karbala, knowing that his death would expose the Ummayads' brutality and preserve forever the flame of pure Islam. As for the Kufan's cowardice and treachery, it became a source of perpetual shame--one for which many Shia seek to atone by wailing lamentations and beating themselves with whips, cudgels and swords.
I witnessed this firsthand last year when, disguised as a Shia pilgrim, I attended the Ashura commemoration in Karbala. There, amidst a crowd numbering in the millions, I saw mirrored replicas of Hussain's bier, black bunting depending from the facades of the mosques of Hussain and Abbas, one hundred foot long signs spelling out Hussain's name in bleeding red letters, eight-foot long white silk flags depicting bloody crossed swords...pictures of severed hands, severed heads..a fountain that sprayed geysers of blood-red liquid...men with blood-soaked bandages wrapped around their heads to staunch the bleeding from self-inflicted wounds...children whipping themselves with miniature floggers...innumerable posters of the slaughtered innocents of Hussain's household--an endless sea of fake blood and death-oriented imagery.
And then this staged and festishtic primitivism erupted into real life when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi sent six suicide bombers into the crowd, killing scores of pilgrims (a second attack that day, at the Shia mosque of Khadimain in Baghdad, raised the Ashura death toll to over 200). I saw the dead and shattered bodies, the panicked crowds, the still-fervent religious pilgrims chanting Hussain's name, and felt the frightening, but perversely exhilarating sense of surrender, blood, martyrdom--and evil. Truly, cruelty and festival are interrelated, as Nietzsche writes; so too, is the religious mindset only the thinnest of margins away from the joyous spectacle of suffering and the lure of the forbidden ecstasies of the blood.
(I write about this in In the Red Zone; readers who want a quicker take--and also my thoughts on the Shia fetishization of Hussain's death--can link to my NRO piece written last year. For the more political aspects of Shi'ism, go here.)
Like the effect of the Crucifixion on Christians, the human sacrifice necessitated by God to redeem mankind sears the Shia spirit and brands their soul with a faith much unlike that of the rival Sunni. From the black flags of rebellion that fly over hillocks in far desert wastes, to the processions of men whipping themselves with heavy metal flagellants, to the real life stories of Ayatollahs murdered by Saddam--to the death of innocent Shia Iraqis, 30 of which perished today at the hands of terrorists--Shi'ism is a religion characterized by oppression, insurrection and perpetual martyrdom to a cause. It is a convenant written with Allah in the blood of the faithful, continually renewed with offerings of fresh martyrdom. Whether the Shia's obsession with violent passion, their fetishization of death, will translate into a stable democracy, with all the mundane compromises such government involves, remains to be seen.
Fourteen centuries ago, Hussain laid down his life to keep the true light of Islam burning in the world. Today, Iraqis--most of them Shia--are dying for a different, more worldly, sort of redemption: freedom, democracy and an end to the seemingly endless karbala of their history.