Muslims around the world commemorate in Muharram (the first month of the Muslim year) the death of Hussain ibn Ali, a leader who epitomized the struggle against tyranny. For some context, consider the following:
A tyrannical leader comes to power exploiting an arcane political system. Having been handed everything by his father, this ruthless and decadent dictator enriches himself and his family at the expense of the common people. As his regime upends the values of justice that the nation once espoused, many people wonder how others can sit idly and tolerate this poor excuse for leadership.
Sound familiar? This is not the United States of today; this is the Umayyad Islamic empire in the year AD 680, and the leader described is Yazid I. But, the similarities are evident.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) died in AD 632, having established the religion of Islam and its numerous political and social reforms. Over the next several decades, various tribes attempted to seize political power through duplicitous dealings and by fomenting rebellion against the Prophet’s companions. The Umayyad clan emerged victorious under Muawiyah I, who poisoned Hassan ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Muawiyah also appointed his son Yazid as his successor, in violation of an earlier treaty he had signed with Hassan.
Yazid routinely demonstrated contempt for traditions of the Prophet. Rather than using government funds to promote social welfare, Yazid’s regime used taxation money in order to fund his extravagant lifestyle, such as having monkeys dance for him in gold-embroidered outfits.
While the Prophet had appointed people of all ethnicities, religions, genders and tribes to leadership, Yazid favored members of his own family above all others and actively promoted discrimination against non-Arabs. Many of the common people became disillusioned, and started to lose faith that things would ever change for the better.
There are many parallels between the current U.S. administration and that of Yazid, nearly 1,500 years ago. As a 25-year-old Muslim, I live in constant fear that I will be stripped of my citizenship, that I might be sent to an internment camp, or that I may travel abroad only to be barred from re-entering the United States, the place of my birth.
I am disheartened by fellow citizens and elected officials who refuse to stand against these oppressive policies, even as they contradict the values of the U.S. Constitution. It is easy to lose hope. However, I am inspired by Hussain ibn Ali, who strove to oppose tyranny in even bleaker circumstances. He was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and the brother of that same Hassan who had been murdered by Muawiyah.
Hussain refused to give an oath of allegiance to Yazid and sought to rally the common people behind a nonviolent reform movement that would eradicate Umayyad corruption. Hussain wrote and spoke profusely about Yazid’s crimes and demonstrated leadership through his personal example. He gave extensively to charity and wrote, “The most generous of people is the one who gives to those from whom he has no hope of return.”
Thousands of people from all around the Umayyad empire, from Arabia to Persia, wrote to Hussain in support of his movement. They were inspired by his continual pursuit of social justice and the ethical manner in which he challenged Yazid. Hussain never sought to retaliate for the death of his brother and never employed spies or assassins to bring Yazid down. Instead, Hussain relied on the support of the common people.
Sensing a rebellion, Yazid ordered the death of Hussain’s peaceful caravan. In an act of utter monstrosity that came to be known as the Tragedy of Karbala, Yazid’s army massacred Hussain, his brother, many of his small children (including his six-month-old son) and many others after depriving them of food and water for three days. The survivors were taken back to Yazid’s capital in chains and publicly humiliated.
Some may wonder why this example is inspiring, considering that Hussain and most of his family were killed. However, this massacre was so horrific that it awakened the disillusioned commoners of the empire to rise up in revolt. The surviving members of Hussain’s family took up the mantle of resistance, while continuing the pursuit of social justice.
For example, Hussain’s sister Zaynab was a gifted orator who empowered women everywhere to join the movement and demand their natural rights. Revolts happened periodically for the next several decades until the Umayyad empire finally collapsed.
Since then, the legacy of Hussain has been celebrated all over the world as a model for resistance against oppression. Shi’a Muslims annually commemorate the Tragedy of Karbala through community gatherings, speeches, dramatic plays and charitable events. The site of the tragedy draws pilgrims from all nations and diverse religious traditions such as Sunni Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Hussain has also inspired leaders throughout history.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I learned from Hussain how to be wronged and be a winner; I learned from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed.”
Hussain is the model of an interfaith leader, a person who brought together people from diverse backgrounds both during his life and after his death. He never achieved a military or political victory but instead achieved a lasting moral legacy due to his unshakeable commitment to justice. Hussain once said, “Remember me when the truth becomes alone and sad.”
In the era of fake news, this quote feels especially poignant.
Hussain is the kind of leader we need now, as our political system continues to crumble under the weight of numerous scandals, corruption and discrimination. However, the example of Hussain has also shown me that we do not need to wait for a singular person; we can each be leaders in our own way by promoting justice. In the American context, we can all advocate for the marginalized, call our elected officials to account for their behavior, and support each other in times of hardship.
This is how we can attain victory while being oppressed.