Mohammad Ali Naquvi : The Logic and Emotional Aspects of Commemoration

Some say that it is overly dramatic to say that the Caliph Yazid and his forces committed the greatest injustice in the history of mankind by killing Imam Hussain (AS), grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), in Karbala in the Year 680 A.D. It is important to take this matter seriously because it questions the appropriateness of ritual remembrance of this seminal event in Islamic history that has spanned 1,400 years and goes to the crux of Shi’i belief, specifically.


First, let’s consider how we as a human society, in general, rate levels of injustice. It is certainly not by act alone because in the example of killing, many people believe that killing a murderer, killing in self-defense, and killing in war are quite justified under controlled conditions. It has to do with either the severity of the act, the sanctity of the killed or both. Why are people so upset at the killing of a child, for example, more so than an adult? Because taking an innocent life, that of a sinless soul, reverberates as a greater injustice.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) brought a religion whose second fundamental principle after oneness of God (Tawheed) is Justice (Adl). In order to deliver such a message, he would need to be the embodiment of God’s message of Justice. And if his example was indeed passed on through the 12 Imams, as Shi’is believe, then they carried and passed on this embodiment of justice from one Imam to the next. Therefore, it would be appropriate to be upset about any injustice committed against any one of these embodiments of justice – from not receiving the Prophet’s successorship, to being put in jail, to being assassinated, as they all were eventually.

But what if the embodiment of justice was put through the most severe acts of injustice? What if hurting him was not enough for the oppressors? What if the unjust acts were extended to his family – his sons, his nephews and his friends? What if his female family members were stripped of their modesty, led in chains and jailed? What if he and his family were deprived of the basic necessity of water for days? What if the injustice was magnified to hurt him even more by also hurting that which all of us understand to be closest to any human – his loved ones. The severity of these acts that took place at Karbala combined with the fact that they were committed against the most just life of the time make Hussain’s martyrdom the greatest injustice in the history of the world.

The tragedy of Karbala could have happened to any of the Imams and the injustice would have been the same because they all embodied Allah’s justice – but it was Hussain who made the Great Sacrifice (Zibhin Adheem*). In killing Hussain, Yazid was killing the embodiment of justice that was passed down from the Prophet. In doing so, he was killing the Prophet himself.

And in commemorating his sacrifice and martyrdom, we continue that call for justice. Because to remember this sad story every year, these great unjust acts that should never have occurred against the most just, we recalibrate and remind ourselves what justice means. We remember that we are human and that Imam Hussain was human. And that even though he understood his duty to pass the message of justice to humanity, we understand that he was physical and emotional like us – he had hands and eyes and a heartbeat and even a smile. We understand that he loved his children and cared deeply for his friends. And with that heartbeat and that smile, he marched along out of a sense of responsibility granted to him by his grandfather to keep the torch of justice burning – all the Imams went through struggle but his was the greatest.

What do you think he said to himself? Keep going Hussain, you will lose your brothers but keep going… keep going Hussain, you will lose your sons but keep going… keep going Hussain, you will lose your life but keep going…

Our lives are full of passion. In our individual lives, we cry at the loss of love and life, and rejoice at births and unions. And rightly so, because we understand that the emotional commemoration is appropriate at these times. So then what is the appropriate way to react to Karbala? It is our passionate remembrance of Hussain, which carries the message of justice from generation to generation. Every beat of ma’tam, in its utter simplicity, and its dramatic multiplicity is a continuation of that embodiment of justice. We will continue it until the end of days and it still will not be enough – billions have mourned and will continue to mourn Hussain for all time to come but only Allah can give us justice – only then will we stop because to not dramatize Karbala while justice has not been served would be inappropriate and ultimately, unjust.


*Refers to “And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice.” – The Holy Qur’an [37:107]

Ma’tam – rhythmic, collective beating of the chest which accompanies poetry in lamentation over the martyrs of Karbala


Mohammad Ali Naquvi a lawyer, community organizer, and public advocate based out of the tri-state area. He has advocated and mobilized around for social justice initiatives for 15 years.