Differentiate between martyrs and assassins….Don’t misinterpret Imam Hussain and the Battle of Karbala.

Martyrs and martyrdom Syed Mansoor Hussain

The sad thing is that young men who frequently have never lived in a loving home, never have been married or have become fathers are prepared for terrorism. These men have never known how good life can be and therefore put no value on it

Josh Malihabadi was one of the great Urdu poets of the last century. Of his many writings, there is a famous marsiya (elegy) titled “Zindagi” (Life) written to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), in the Battle of Karbala. He first describes life and how beautiful and desirable it is, and then talks about the supreme sacrifice that is the giving up of such a life.

Imam Hussain was in his fifties, married and with many children. He was the son of the fourth Righteous Caliph and the only surviving grandson of the Prophet (pbuh), and as such was the leader of the House of the Prophet (pbuh). His opposition to the ruler of the day was based on principle; he refused to accept his suzerainty and chose to fight even when the odds of survival were non-existent.

My purpose today is not to discuss whether Imam Hussain did the right thing. Over the last week, much has been written and said about this subject in all sorts of media by people who know much more than I do about it. What I want to emphasise is the point that Josh brought out. A life that is worth living when given up means a lot.

Many of my friends that are not Muslims or Shias often bring up the ‘cult’ of martyrdom as a driving force behind many suicide bombings and other acts of such terrorism. As they watch the Shia all over the Muslim world exalting the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and indulging in what any good Catholic would recognise as a passion play, they wonder whether this feeds into the terrorism.

It is therefore important to separate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain from those that indulge in wanton acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. First and most importantly, what Imam Hussain did was not done in the darkness of the night or under any disguise. He stood there in front of the whole world fighting against the forces of tyranny.

Second, he was no orphan brought up in a madrassa devoid of the love of family, never having known the love of a woman and the beauty of a child. That is perhaps the most important lesson of that battle. The willingness to give up things that are so dear to you: children, siblings and, of course, your self.

Third, and perhaps in a modern sense most importantly, everybody knew what he stood for. It was a fight between two competing visions of what Islam meant. We all know who one won on that day, and yet we all know who won as far as history is concerned.

To put it in a perspective understandable to some in the West, the Battle of Karbala can be compared in some ways to famous battles like that of Thermopylae or the Battle of the Alamo — a small force fighting against a much larger army. Fighting for principle or in defence of freedom even when such a fight will surely lead to death is what real martyrdom is all about.

Some that support suicide bombings among Muslims use the mythology of martyrdom to justify such actions. However, it was recently disclosed that a suicide bomber that had attacked a (Shia) politician’s home in the Punjab (Bhakkar) a few months ago had been ‘bought’ (from Waziristan) for that purpose.

If there is any historical parallel to such activity, it is probably in the story of Alamut and the ‘old man of the mountain’, where young men were drugged with hashish, shown a glimpse of ‘paradise’ and then sent off on murderous assignments. Their reward, dead or alive would be a return to that paradise. This story, apocryphal or not gave us the word ‘assassin’.

The important point that needs to be made is that Muslim suicide bombers and other such, including those that destroyed the Marriott in Islamabad or indulged in the carnage in Mumbai, are not martyrs but rather assassins. And to even think of them as martyrs sullies the memory of the Martyr of Karbala.

Any loss of life, especially if avoidable is always a sad thing, whether of the suicide bomber or of the people that are killed as a result of such activity. But it is important for us as Muslims to realise that acts of wanton terrorism even if done in the name of our religion must be condemned and not glorified.

The blame must, however, rest on those that brainwash and train these young men to perform these acts of terror. The sad thing is that young men who frequently have never lived in a loving home, never have been married or have become fathers are prepared for terrorism. These men have never known how good life can be and therefore put no value on it.

And indeed, just like the assassins of Alamut, they are convinced that after death they will achieve paradise. More pernicious is the concept that has recently evolved in the methodology of terror that any innocent people killed will also go to paradise, so in a sense they are doing their victims a favour by also sending them to paradise.

It is an unfortunate fact that Muslims in many parts of the world are in a state of siege and feel helpless against superior forces that oppress them, kill and maim them and their women and children wantonly and without any regard for human decency — as is happening in Gaza.

It is indeed difficult to fight against such superior odds, but then one lesson of modern times is that non-violent protests are more effective than terrorism that is faceless and leaves only the victims for the world to see. After all, the Palestinians made their first major political gains after the first Intifada, a non-violent movement that ended in the Oslo Accords.

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at smhmbbs70@yahoo.com