Ruba Al-Hassani : Hussain A Universal Call for Justice

It was almost time; the moment of truth. He was uncertain about whether he was ready. It was not only his fate alone that was at stake, but that of many others who depended on him and believed in his cause. He had to be brave, and he surely wanted to be so. He has had moments of self doubt; some sort of hesitation. He was not hesitant about what he was about to do. Rather, he was hesitant about how things would turn out. He could not determine anyone’s fate. In fact, he could not determine his own. All he knew was that life itself was not for him to waste. It was not up to him to determine what happens to everyone. It was all pre-determined. He truly believed, in his heart of hearts, that it was all pre-determined. He was destined to witness the culmination of his life today; for it was today that his sentence would be handed down.

He looked down at his feet as he sat there. It’s true, he thought, that one’s life flashes before his life at such critical moments. He thought of his grandfather, who would carry him on his back and give him sweets. He loved his grandfather like no other. A childhood memory flashed before his eyes…

His grandfather was giving a lecture, and since he was much loved within the community, a large crowd had gathered and was listening. In the meantime, he, as a child, was playing around, when he tripped and fell. A stone had grazed his knee when he fell, and he could, more than five decades later, still remember that pain. In hindsight, it was nothing. But as a child, he wanted to cry at the time. Before he could ever think of it, his grandfather had left the altar and rushed to pick him up. People looked on with such love and compassion, making him feel as loved as his grandfather was. As trivial as it may have seemed, this was one of the most meaningful moments of his life.

The memory faded away as he felt a tingling sensation around his nose and eyes. He just realized his eyes had welled up in tears. He would do anything to be held in his grandfather’s arms again. His mind wandered again…

This time, it was winter, and he had just returned home, to find that his grandfather was wearing his cloak. He always loved it when his grandfather took it out. He loved to cuddle with him in it. Though his brother was already on their grandfather’s lap, he asked to join them. Sure enough, there was enough space for them all. His mother and father also joined in at some point. It was one of his fondest family memories.

He opened his eyes – this time, to think of his parents, of how much he missed them. He felt vulnerable, yet he was always humble enough to remind himself, and others, that humans are allowed to feel that way. After all, we learn the most about ourselves when vulnerable. Though he felt this way because his circumstances were difficult, and rather dire, he knew he had done nothing wrong. If he could go back in time, he would do it all over again, without a doubt. His mind wandered again…

 “Son”, said his father on his deathbed, addressing both sons, “bear patience to the truth, even if it is bitter… and never oppress those who have no support but God.”… “Speak the truth, always; work towards God’s reward; be kind and compassionate with orphans; aid those in need; work towards the afterlife; be adversaries to oppressors; and a support to the oppressed; look after your neighbours; for your grandfather entrusted them to you; and mind your scriptures…”

He wiped his eyes, realizing that everything in his life right now made sense… he was in the right place, at the right time, and for the right cause. Everything he believed in and worked towards led to this moment. Those who opposed his cause simply did not understand it. They did not understand social and political justice, for they were intent on coercing his allegiance to a tyrant. Similarly, they did not appreciate freedom; for they were facing him in battle for opposing that tyrant. They also did not appreciate empathy, for they did not spare his sons, both adolescent and infant, as well as his younger brother, who had fought valiantly, amongst others. They did not appreciate equality, for they had enslaved soldiers to fight his cause. Those he was about to face did not appreciate human life, for they were ready to waste it all for the few elite and a cruel tyranny.

At this moment, he saw her come in. She was there to visit him before he had to face his executioners. She took his hands into hers, held them to her chest, and reminded him that he was doing well. He knew she was supporting him through the entire ordeal. He felt a heavy and sharp pang of guilt. He knew she was thirsty, and so was everyone else. Water was nowhere to be seen, for it has been cut off for over three days. His body was exhausted, and yet, this was not the time to be tired. He apologized to her for his inability to bring them water, and she found the apology unnecessary.

He kissed her head, then she kissed his chest. “This is from mother,” she said, “She knew this day would come, and wanted me to kiss you on her behalf.” Their hearts wanted to sink in unison, realizing how their entire family had known this day would come. However, this realization also reaffirmed their conviction that he was the one to fight for this cause. It all came down to this – he was the one to do it. They all fought for the same cause, but now was the time for him to face an army in battle. It was also time for her to realize that her role has not only begun, but shall continue in struggle after his sentence is handed down. He would be a martyred hero for social justice, and she would bear his torch. He held his sister in his arms for a moment then left the tent. She went out after him, but he motioned for her to stay. He drew his sword and went out into battle. Today, he would die for social justice.

It is a rare individual whose reputation for wisdom and fight for justice transcend time. Hussain – grandson of Muhammad; son of Ali and Fatima; brother of Hassan, Abbas, and Zainab – was such a person. He made the ultimate sacrifice to save Islam from a decline to tyranny; to instigate revolution. On Hussain, Charles Dickens wrote, “If Hussain had fought to quench his worldly desires… then I do not understand why his sister, wife, and children accompanied him. It stands to reason, therefore, that he sacrificed purely for Islam.”

However, his struggle has had more universality. The pacifist revolutionary, Mahatma Gandhi, had said: “I learned from Hussain how to be wronged and be a winner, I learnt from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed.” Edward Gibbon also spoke of his appreciation for Hussain’s cause when he wrote, “In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hussain will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.”

However, it is not sympathy which makes Hussain’s legacy transcend time. Though his death took place in 680 C.E., and his sister, Zainab, was taken as prisoner of war from Karbala, Iraq, to Damascus, Syria soon afterwards, his message is more relevant today than ever. His death is commemorated globally by at least 33 million people, many of whom gather in Karbala, Iraq, where his fateful death took place. Those who celebrate his legacy and commemorate his death come from countries where all forms of injustice take place. In fact, injustice can be found everywhere. This means that empathy, not sympathy, makes this story resonate today more than ever. Many of those unfamiliar with his story, and that of Zainab, wonder why it continues to be narrated at commemorations; and why over 1330 years later, these repeated narrations are necessary. Why the redundancy?

With every recited narration, and with every commemoration, there lies a call for empathy; a call for a revival in the universal call for justice. Injustice can be found everywhere, and it is more lacking in countries where most of Hussain’s supporters reside today. Therefore, commemorations of his life and death induce empathy from those who continue to experience injustice on a regular basis. These commemorations, with time, become a source of catharsis, closure, and drive for social justice. In Hussain and Zainab’s story, people today find themselves and their loved ones; they find their conflicted nations, their oppressed people, and their meaningless lives, objectified to serve the few and cruel elite.

On the 5th of December 2013, and on 2 Safar, 1435 – with Nelson Mandela’s death, I am reminded not only of Madeba’s struggle for justice in South Africa, but of Hussain’s, as well. Their struggle was universal in nature, and was one.


Ruba Ali Al-Hassani is an Iraqi-Canadian Ph.D. candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, with Masters degrees in law and criminology. In addition to teaching Sociology at York University, she works at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project , as well as Legal Agenda, an Arabic legal magazine, and blogs about politics and current events at her new blog: