In these troubled times, The concept of the sacrificial son, as embodied in Abraham, Jesus, and Hussain Ibn Ali provides a vital bridge for understanding across the Abrahamic faiths.
Going somewhere nice?
One of the more curious aspects of growing up in Britain as a member of the Shia branch of Islam is that you regularly find yourself in places and situations that are unfathomable to those around you. How to explain to your school friends at the age of 15 why you take a day off each year to beat your chest and weep for a man who died almost a millennium and a half ago. How to get your Sunni co-religionists to understand that while you may possess a version of history that casts some of their most revered figures in a less than flattering light, you still regard them as brothers in Islam.
And turning to more prosaic matters, when the obligatory pre-Christmas holiday conversation happens, how do you get your colleagues to understand why it is that while they are opening presents and chasing reluctant Brussels sprouts around the plate you will be spending your extra Christmas holiday time in the deserts of southern Iraq, pushing your aged aunt in a wheelchair towards a shrine that is the prime target for the suicide bombing, mass-murdering, blasphemous death cult that calls itself The Islamic State.
The answer, or at least my answer, lies in three pivotal events in the history of mankind: the sacrifice that Abraham was prepared to make (the Islamic tradition states that the son in question was Ishmael, the Judeo Christian that it was Isaac), the sacrifice of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Hussain Ibn Ali.
As numberless as the stars
The story of Abraham’s sacrifice, where God comes to him in a dream to demand he slit the throat of his young son and, at the moment that Abraham is about to do so replaces the boy with a ram, is one of the pivotal not to mention most problematic passages in the Bible.
It is often cited by atheists raised in the Abrahamic traditions as one of the reasons why they cannot believe: “What kind of God would do that?” they ask, choosing to interpret the story with a bloody-minded literalism that has more in common with Bible-Belt fundamentalism than the critical traditions of the Enlightenment.
In the attempt avoid such easy dismissal I have tried to frame my argument in the terms of materialist psychology on the basis that those with religious belief already know what I am talking about.
The story of Abraham’s sacrifice is not one of abortive filicide. It is about placing immediate desires and fears in the context of both the arc of one’s own life and the arc of human history.
To put it another way, each of us is subject, minute by minute, and hour by hour, to a vast, bewildering and contradictory array of thoughts, impulses, worries and wants. To make human life meaningful, we need a way to contextualise those feelings in relation to our whole lives. Additionally, to overcome the fact that we alone amongst the creatures of the earth are aware of our own mortality, we also need a means to relate ourselves to all the humans that have gone before and all those to come; to feel connected to something that was there long before we became and that will endure long after we are dust.
Abraham is asked to sacrifice that which he holds most dear. His reward for overcoming the instinct to protect one’s offspring is to be raised out of time, to be given eternal life as part of the collective consciousness of the species, for his “offspring” to become as numberless as the stars, as Deuteronomy so elegantly phrases it.
Jesus, too, fits this paradigm. His suffering is given pathos by the gap between the reception he received in Jerusalem as the returning King and his drawn out and painful death by crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for criminals and traitors. His purpose is to renew in blood the covenant between God and his people, to irrigate and bring new life to the dessicated, legalistic ritualism of the religion of the Pharisees.
Even his moment of doubt serves to elevate him, showing the completeness of his humanity and thereby making his determination to see through to the end the thing he believes in all the more powerful a lesson.
That lesson, in a nutshell, is that we are more than our bodies, or at least that we are capable of being so, and that our full actualisation as human beings comes through dedicating those bodies to something that is not subject to their caprices.
If we fail to attempt this as a model for living, the only thing that separates us from animals is the extent of our cunning.
This lesson, taught to Jews by Abraham and Christians by Jesus resonates throughout the Islamic faith, which self-consciously sees itself as a continuation of the same tradition.
But Islam has its own sacrificial son, and as I happen to have been blessed to spend Christmas Day in the place where he made his stand I will do my best to articulate his story.
His name was Hussain Ibn Ali. He was the grandson of the Prophet of Islam and he could have chosen to live his life in honour and comfort. Instead he was killed, after being deprived of water for three days at the scorching nowhere land of the southern Iraqi desert by men who had once pledged allegiance to his father and his grandfather, not just as temporal rulers, but as holders of a sacred trust on behalf of the Lord, Master and Creator of all.
A brief history of schism
To begin to understand how Hussain was called upon to make his version of the sacrifice of Abraham, an overview of the history of the schism between Sunni and Shia is needed. The differences between them are not my subject but to understand what is, a brief history of the crisis of succession that followed the prophet’s death is inescapable.
The Shia narrative is that the Prophet, returning from his last Hajj, stopped his followers at a place called Khum and declared to the assembled faithful that he was leaving them two weighty things as his legacy the Quran and the “bayt” or House of the Prophet. He also declared his cousin and son in law Ali was to be their “mawla,” a word that has some dozen or so meanings in Arabic and that the Shia translate as “Master” in the sense of liege Lord.
The Sunnis believe that the word “mawla” is better glossed as friend or close companion; that “bayt” includes the wives of the Prophet as well as his line through his daughter and Ali’s wife, Fatima; and that the Prophet died without naming a successor. A Shura council was convened and selected the eldest of the Prophet’s companions Abu Bakr as the heir. After Abu Bakr, the Sunnis recognise three more “rightly guided” caliphs of whom the last was Ali.
After Ali’s assassination while leading prayers at the hands of a malcontent former supporter, the Caliphate was seized by a Mu’awiyah, very much a worldly rather than a spiritual ruler and the Golden Age of the rightly guided Caliphs was over.
For the Shia, the perceived usurpation of the Caliphate was an event that stopped history. We live, generation after generation, awaiting the Mahdi, the 11th in line from Ali, to return and institute once again a society that combines just temporal rule with charismatic authority as existed under the Prophet.
For Sunnis too, there is a recognition that the age of divinely sanctioned rule is in abeyance. They also await the Mahdi. And so, having been divided by history, the two sects anticipate, without necessarily recognising this to be the case, being reunited at its end.
In the meantime, both suffer a separation between temporal and religious authorities.
In Shiism, this has led to yet more splits and schisms, with the main Twelver branch competing with around a dozen others, each following a charismatic leader or succession of leaders. In Sunnism it has led to the blurring of boundaries between Islam as faith and Islam as a social instrument. This is particularly true in the Wahhabi strain, an ultra-austere and literalist branch which must somehow also justify the rule of its morally bankrupt, brutal and authoritarian Saudi sponsors.
There is however a place where the two can intersect before the end of history. It is Karbala, where the Hussain, the last great sacrificial son of the Abrahamic tradition gave up his blood so that life might continue to flow through the religion brought by his grandfather and its truths might not perish from the earth.
Death in the Desert
Some time around the middle of 680 AD, Hussain gathered a small band of followers (traditionally numbered as 72) and along with the women and children of the house of the Prophet, left Mecca to make the long journey to Kufa in Southern Iraq.
The reason for his journey had its roots in the schism described above. With the era of the Rightly Guided over, the growing Muslim empire fell victim to dynastic politics. Mu’awiyah had recently died, appointing his son Yazid as Caliph, in violation of treaties between Mu’awiyah and the House of the Prophet and to the disgust of many Muslims who tolerated the father but saw the son for what he was: an arrogant, oppressive, licentious drunk who did not so much as pay lip service to the new faith and the limits that it placed on the exercise of power. Were he to go unchallenged, it was unlikely that the new religion of Islam would survive.
Yazid had asked Hussain for his fealty and Hussain had refused, saying “one such as I cannot swear fealty to one such as him.” And when the people of Kufa, who had been strong supporters of his father, Ali, asked him to offer them an alternative to Yazid’s rule, he agreed to go to them.
Although initially the conditions were favourable, a new governor appointed to Kufa by Yazid killed Hussain’s emissary, to little protest from the local people. Hussain was made aware of the situation before he left but elected to go anyway, declaring in a speech before his departure that death was a certainty for all mankind and calling on all those who wished to give their blood for his sake and for the sake of God to come with him.
Hussain was well aware barring an unlikely change in the hearts of the armies of the Caliph or a sudden surge of courage on the part of the Kufans, he was going to his death. He also knew that all that was needed to avoid it was to pledge allegiance to Yazid. Like Jesus on the Mount of Olives, he was given the choice to be an ordinary human, cowering from fear of death or to become something greater and so to not only fulfil the potential of his humanity, but to show the way for generations of others to do so in the future.
Two days away from Kufa, Hussain was intercepted by the forces of Yazid. Cut off from the river Euphrates, his little caravan’s supplies ran dry and after three days in which children as young as six months old were deprived of water, Hussain and his small band of companions gave battle in the searing heat against an army numbering in the thousands.
The battle of Karbala, which took place on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, known as Ashura, has inspired vast bodies of literature in languages as diverse as Wolof, Urdu a a Azeri. I do not have the skill to try and emulate those who have articulated its key moments, but I will do my best to relate just three to give an inkling of the character of the man, his followers and their opponents:
Traveling with Hussain was his six month old son, Ali Asghar. Before the battle, Hussain went to his enemies to beg water for the child. Your quarrel is with me, he said, please do not make my innocent child suffer. Sensing that the resolve of his soldiers was about to break and that the cruelty that they were inflicting on the family of their Prophet might be too much for them, Yazid’s commander ordered his best archer to kill the child with an anti-cavalry arrow, as a reminder of who held the power of life and death in the situation.
The poets say that as the arrow pierced his son, Hussain’s hands filled with blood, as it overflowed onto the earth, the earth cried out that if a single drop fell, nothing would grow there again, so instead Hussain raised the blood to the sky, which cried out that of it were to take the blood of Ali Asghar no rain would ever fall again, so Hussain smeared the blood on his beard and returned with his child’s body to camp, turning back seven times because he could not bear to face the boy’s mother. This narration is metaphor, of course, but it drives home the point that the blood shed at Karbala was innocent and that those who shed it were capable of a preternatural cruelty against that which they professed to hold most dear.
A second story is that of Hussain’s half brother Abbas, renowned as the finest warrior in Arabia and Hussain’s standard bearer. In the thick of battle Abbas penetrated the enemy line, managing to take a waterskin to the river. In an act of almost incomprehensible loyalty he did not take a drink but turned back to ride to the camp. On the way he was ambushed and his right arm cut off. Taking both standard and waterskin in his left hand he rode on. Another attack took his left hand and so he let the standard fall, taking the water skin in his teeth. Unable to catch him and unwilling to let the water reach Hussain’s camp, Yazid’s forces aimed their arrows at the waterskin. It was only when the waterskin was empty that Abbas’s resolve broke and he fell from his horse.
The final story is of Hussain’s own death. With the day drawing to a close and almost all his companions dead. The mortally wounded Hussain stopped in the middle of the fight to say his obligatory prayers. While he was prostrate, one Shimr came up to him and slit his throat. As if stopping the fight to pray was not mockery enough of his enemies pretensions to greatness, Hussain’s final words to his murderer were “have you said your prayers yet today?”
And with that, the deed was done. In the aftermath of the battle, the bodies of Hussain and his companions were mutilated with a fetishistic relish; the remaining women and children beaten and abused and dragged in chains to Yazid’s court in Damascus where many perished in captivity.
To those who remember, Sunni or Shia, Christian, Hindu or secular, the cruelty of Daesh is nothing new. We are all to well aware of the viciousness human beings can inflict, even on those that supposedly represent all that they hold sacred.
The story of Hussain is not well known in the world, it has been deliberately suppressed by tyrants, dictators and mere bad politicians because it is a perennial focus for resistance to injustice and unfettered power.
Revolutionaries in the Muslim world, both believing and secular have stood behind the slogan “We are not the people of Kufa” as a demonstration of their fidelity to their cause.
The resonance with the example of Jesus is strong. Pope Francis, truly the right Pope in the right place at the right time, uses it to chastise the leaders of the world as the pursue wealth and war over equality and peace. Even David Cameron has fallen foul of it, his Christmas address highlighting the absurdity his appeal to Christian values in the light of his policies and spawning the hashtag youaintnochristianbruv.
Peace and goodwill to all
I have written this article because circumstance has led me to be in the place of Hussain’s sacrifice on two immensely important days: the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on 24th December and the celebration of the birth of Jesus on the 25th.
Both are part of my heritage and I refuse to give in to those who peddle hate and division by choosing one or the other. In Hussain, I find the bridge between the two.
Both Jesus and Muhammad brought a message of brotherhood, peace and goodwill. Jesus suffered and died for doing so, and while Muhammad died of natural causes, the calamities suffered by his descendants were no less than those of the son of Mary, nor was their courage in the face of them any less.
In a time of deep antagonism within Islam and between Islam and the Judeo-Christian and post Christian worlds, we do well to meditate on those who sacrificed themselves to demonstrate our common humanity.
The scourge of Wahabism is tearing the heart out of the mainstream Muslim tradition. It obliterates the history of co-existence and cross-fertilisation between sects and faiths, the pluralism, that has for so long characterised Islam. It seeks to rewrite history in a manner that (entirely coincidentally, I’m sure) happens to fit the agendas of the House of Saud and their various autocratic allies.
If it is not tackled at its root we may drop as many bombs as we like but even if Daesh are defeated, their hateful death cult, all the more grotesque because it walks in the garb of Islam and quotes scripture to its purpose, will spring up again.
To do that, Sunnis must reclaim the sacrifice of Hussain for their own, an example by which they may judge those who have stolen the symbols of their tradition and excise them; Shias must open hearts made hard by generations of persecution and reach out in order to enable that process; and all of us, Christians, Jews and Muslims, must look back to the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice the immediate and the instinctual for the sake of that which is greater and harder to perceive.
Atheists and agnostics too must be open to the possibility that while they may see us believers as superstitious children, the great religions of the world have endured because they tell fundamental truths about humanity.
We are all of us on the same little raft, sailing through the night. We possess the power to destroy it and ourselves many times over. If we cannot learn to see our common humanity and to collectively resist those who deny it for the sake of the certainty that comes from fundamentalism, then it is all of us together that drown.
And that is why I am in Karbala, taking advantage of the Christmas public holidays to spend time with my family and remembering what it is to be human.
The fact that it is in Iraq is of course a source of worry, but also of joy. Daesh will not stop our remembrance, just as Saddam did not stop my mother, when she came in 1998. No Herod, no Yazid can take away our humanity, we alone can do that through cowardice and lack of fidelity to the ideals we claim to adhere to.
Peace be upon you Jesus Son of Mary, Spirit of God.
Peace be upon you Muhammad son of Abullah, Messenger of God.
Peace be upon you Abraham, beloved of God.
Peace be upon you, Hussain Ibn Ali, Prince of Martyrs.
(This article was written on a phone without access to reference materials, responsibility for any incoherence or factual inaccuracy lies with me. God alone knows best)