Tawil of Karbala
When we remember past events and recite the stories of the incidences that took place at Karbala and draw lessons from them we are fulfilling a qur’anic entreaty to call to mind past occurrences and draw lessons from them. Just as the qur’an is a book of guidance for us, from God, so also is the universe, the world which we inhabit, a “book” of God replete with signs (ayats) and waymarks – a guidance to those whose hearts are inclined to seek guidance and who strive to understand the significance of human actions in this world.
This is a difficult task and that is why the qur’an places emphasis on the effort required to achieve correct understanding. It requests an effort of mind, will, intellect, and heart in contemplating both the book of revelation and the book of the universe, of existence. It cautions against seeking simplistic answers or blindly following past generations who may have made a habit and virtue of beliefs and practices devoid of correct intellectual content or deep reflection.
“We make clear the communications (only) for a people who reflect.” (Qur’an 10:24)
Our approach to all activity in this world, all events in our lives, should be as towards a book of Allah. This world is a book which is still unfolding, still being written and our lives are books whose pages we are busy filling through our actions, our words, our thoughts and their impact on the world and on our own inner selves. That which is past is fixed but that which is happening now is what we are privileged to interact with.
“That is a people that have passed away; they shall have what they earned and you shall have what you earn” (2:134)
If we look at the lives of the Prophets and the Imams it seems as if the substance of the qur’an, it’s deep meanings, was infused into the very essence of their own selves. They dealt with everything that happened around them, to them, every encounter, every word spoken, as if they were engaged simultaneously in a tafsir and a tawil of the events. The tafsir is the interpretation, the explanation of the significance, and tawil is the process by which signs (ayats) are followed back to their point of origin so that one can draw closer to the Originator.
Tanzil (meaning “descent”) is the process by which ayats of the qur’an descended from God to the heart of the Prophet and then to the verbal level at which we received them from the Prophet. Tanzil is also the process by which God creates his various creations – causing them to descend from His inexhaustible treasuries to the realm of space and time which we inhabit.
Tawil is the reverse process by which those ayats (whether qur’anic verses or things in creation) are decoded and understood so that the understanding leads one from mere words and things, to comprehension, to certainty, to a transformation of the soul, and to recognition of the source of the ayats – God.
So the Imams engaged in a constant tafsir – interpreting the significance of the events of their time – and in a constant tawil – so that every event, positive or negative, became for them and their companions a means of drawing near to God – of unraveling the true meaning of an event and their correct place within it.
They approached each situation in a unique way, in the most effective manner possible. They did not act according to rigid formulas based on narrow understandings or simplistic criteria. So often, their followers were caught off balance by the manner in which they acted – they confounded the expectations of people who acted according to fixed slogans and a narrow static knowledge.
Through their tawil of events, through connecting themselves to the Source of all events, they (each Imam in his own way) transformed themselves into living ayats demonstrating the beauty of the qur’an put into action within the tumult, upheaval, fortune and misfortune of an endlessly transforming world. Imam Husayn (a.s.) and the shuhada (martyrs) of Karbala wrote the difficult, heart-rending tafsir of their time, of early Islamic history, in words of blood that no succeeding generation could ignore.
And for us, in our times, we can only strive to follow the advice of the qur’an to remember and reflect and thereby grow in understanding so that we may be capable of undertaking a correct tafsir and tawil of the events that are unfolding in our era and affecting our lives. To this end we relate the narratives of Karbala in our gatherings and turn the focus of our hearts and minds to reflect searchingly upon them.
“Therefore relate the narrative that they may reflect.” (Qur’an 7:176)
– Irshaad Hussain