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Contemplating Ashura: A Shia Muslim’s Reflections

Every year, upon the emergence of the crescent of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shi’i Muslims around the world cloak themselves in black garments and prepare to mourn Imam Husayn, peace be upon him, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and his family.

On the day of Ashura, the 10th of Muharram, in the year 680, Imam Husayn, his family, and his companions were massacred on the plains of Kerbala by the army of Yazid, son of Muawiya, the tyrant caliph to whom Imam Husayn refused to pledge allegiance. Following the battle, the women and children of Imam Husayn’s camp, including his sister Lady Zainab, peace be upon her, were taken prisoner and paraded through the cities of Kufa and Damascus.

Today, Imam Husayn’s sacrifice is assigned the utmost importance, considered a display of courage in the face of tyranny, rejection in the face of injustice, and resistance in the face of oppression. Let’s talk about some of the guiding values of how we observe this day.

Divine Potential

To be an agent of existence, to choose that which is good and forsake the path of evil, one must necessarily have the power of free will. For all the beauty the angels exhibit through their undying obedience, such beauty is still one-dimensional, for the angels aren’t equipped to disobey the command of their Lord, to choose not to fulfill their purpose. Man, on the other hand, encounters numerous choices over the course of a single day, choices he must make of his own accord. And given that the purpose of man, his one true destiny, is to be a manifestation of the glorious qualities of God, of mercy, forgiveness, and justice, his choice to live in accordance with this fate ranks him above angels in terms of the beauty of his actions. 


To attempt to define beauty is nearly an exercise in futility. Man understands beauty in a variety of ways. Some marvel at the exoteric beauty of the universe, of the many creations of God, such as wildlife, natural landscapes, and even other human beings. Others find beauty in acts; they admire monumental landmarks in the history of the human race—discoveries, enlightenment, and revolution. And still, others believe that the most beautiful is that which is inherent within both individuals and societies, such as loyalty, selflessness, and love. 

While all these are certainly beautiful, be they material or abstract, they are merely manifestations, embodiments of the beauty of the Divine, the one and only true Beauty. Kerbala was one such manifestation. 

“I did not see anything except that which is beautiful.”

This is how Lady Zainab described the events of Ashura in the court of Ibn Ziyad, the governor Kufa and close ally of the caliph Yazid. In contemplating these few words, a paradigm shift occurs. Suddenly, Ashura becomes a multi-layered phenomenon.

Those who study the events of the day and those leading up to it understand it as a collection of realized potentials, instances in which men and women chose to submit to their Divine fates rather than forsake them. When Imam Husayn gave the army of Yazid water from his own caravan’s supply, he chose the Divine’s mercy over spite.

When Hur Al-Riyahi, a commanding officer from the army of Yazid, chose to desert his camp and instead stand alongside Imam Husayn, he chose the Divine’s knowledge and best judgment over ignorance. And when Lady Zainab recounted the events of the day with admiration, she chose the Divine’s wisdom over despair.

Kerbala was not merely a slaughterhouse; rather, it was a stage upon which unfolded an immortal symphony of retribution and revolution, loyalty and love.

Kerbala was not merely a slaughterhouse; rather, it was a stage upon which unfolded an immortal symphony of retribution and revolution, loyalty and love. Under the harsh afternoon sun and by the gentle glow of lantern flame, pools of blood reflected the Heavens above. The goblet of Ashura overflows with instances of men choosing to fulfill their destinies. And for this reason, the event is not simply a manifestation of the Divine. It is, in fact, the manifestation of the Divine, a well infinitely deep, gushing forth with infinite lessons. 

Every day is Ashura, every land is Kerbala.

Though outwardly, Ashura was a day on which tens—potentially hundreds—annihilated themselves in the essence of the Divine through physical martyrdom, its story has reverberated for centuries, shining a light down a path we, in the present, may use to achieve the very same result. One needs not to be a martyr on the battlefield to submit himself to his destiny, to shun the path of deficiencies like injustice, ruthlessness, and cowardice, to lose himself in the Divine. 

Like Lady Zainab, we, too, may encounter orbs of light in the oceans of blood. One may witness Kerbala, encounter compassion, and feel inspired to be compassionate toward her family, her spouse, and her children. One may witness Kerbala, encounter forgiveness, and feel inspired to release himself from grudges he holds against those who have wronged him. One may witness Kerbala, encounter justice, and feel inspired to treat her employees equitably and compensate them with fairness. 

Perhaps the most important lesson we may learn from these examples is that Ashura, its commemoration, and the jewels of wisdom we derive from it, are not exclusive to the Shi’i Muslim community. In fact, they aren’t even exclusive to Muslims in general. To learn from the centuries-old events of Kerbala, to be emboldened toward the path of goodness, the path of Divine manifestation, to be beautiful in the truest sense of the word, one needs only to be human.