In the Islamic calendar, the month of Muharram is of particular significance for Shia Muslims. Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.s.) grandson, Imam Husayn (a.s.), and many family members and supporters gave their lives during the first ten days of this month on the fields of Karbala in Iraq, in 680 CE. It is a month during which we engage in self-reflection and refrain from celebrating any festivities during the first ten days out of respect for their sacrifice. What other lessons can we derive from their bravery and perseverance?
The inhabitants of Kufa had asked Imam Husayn to help them fend off the Umayyad Caliph Yazid’s tyranny and oppression. On his way to Kufa, however, he was forced to turn towards Karbala when he was confronted by a contingent of Yazid’s forces that would not let him proceed on his intended path. There, the Imam’s family and supporters learned that their supporters in Kufa had abandoned them. Trapped in the desert and cut off from water, the Imam gave his people the opportunity to escape in the darkness of the night. They chose instead to remain by his side, probably aware that they were massively outnumbered and had little chance of survival. 1
Imam Husayn and his followers fought courageously, sacrificing their lives for their cause.
After the battle, Imam Husayn’s sister, Hazrat Bibi Zaynab (a.s.), and other women and children of his household were taken prisoner and marched to Yazid’s court. In that moment, Bibi Zaynab chose to confront her oppressor, delivering a defiant speech:
O Yazid, do you believe that you have succeeded in closing the sky and the earth for us and that we have become your captives just because we have been brought before you in a row and that you have secured control over us?… Wait for a while. Do not be so joyful. Have you forgotten Allah’s saying: “The unbelievers should not carry the impression that the time allowed to them by us is good for them. Surely we give them time so that they may increase their evil deeds, and eventually they will be given insulting chastisement” [Qur’an 3:178]. 2
In Yazid’s court a Syrian man asked Yazid to give him Bibi Fatima bint Husayn (a.s.) as loot won in battle. 3 Bibi Fatima shuddered thinking about the fate that awaited her. With her niece holding on tight to her skirt, Bibi Zainab did not hesitate to intervene. She argued that Yazid did not have the authority to give away the young girl. When Yazid disagreed, she retorted: “You, a commander who has authority, are vilifying unjustly and oppress with your authority.” 4 Yazid went silent, and eventually asked the Syrian man to go away.
The actions of Imam Husayn, Bibi Zaynab, and those who fought alongside them carry significant lessons for us today. Even in extremely vulnerable positions—on the battlefield, outnumbered against a mighty enemy force, or in the case of Bibi Zaynab, as a prisoner facing a tyrant ruler—they continued to stand firm on their principles. They displayed the courage to protect those in need, regardless of the consequences they might have to face themselves.
As Bibi Zaynab’s speech reminds us, we always have a path to move forward, however dire the circumstances appear. Allah has made a promise that He will hold everyone accountable for their actions, and even though oppression and unjust practices might seem rampant, they will not go unchecked. It is incumbent upon us to follow our ethics and intervene through actions, words, or even prayers. As Allah says in the Qur’an in Surah An-Nisa, Ayat 135:
O you who believe! Be steadfast maintainers of justice, witnesses for God, though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsfolk, and whether it be someone rich or poor, for God is nearer unto both. 5
In this month of Muharram, let us reflect on our responsibility to uphold our values. Let us ask ourselves: how can we embody the ethics exhibited by Imam Husayn and Bibi Zaynab in our everyday lives?
1 Juan E. Campo, ed., Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edition (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009).
2 Muna Haeri Bilgrami, ed., The Victory of Truth: The Life of Zaynab Bint Ali (Karachi: Zahra Publications, 1986).
3 For more see Diane D'Souza, Partners of Zaynab: A Gendered Perspective of Shia Muslim Faith. (Columbia, SC: University of South Caroline Press, 2014).
4 I.K.A. Howard, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 19: The Caliphate of Yazid b. Mu'awiyah (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 378.
5 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (New York: Harper One, 2015), 252.