Karbala: A Divine Decree


Karbala: A Divine Decree

by Sheikh Murtadha Alidina

We begin the main body of our discussion by dealing with one important aspect about Karbala, the divine decree and the divine design for the occurrence of the tragedy. We have observed in the past that the foremost reasons Karbala took place were because:

1. Imam (as) was forced to pay allegiance and he refused to do so

2. One other reason he mentions, is that once he travelled to Mecca and he started receiving the invitations to come over to Kufa, he proceeded then to Kufa to establish the righteous government.

3. And yet a third reason that he himself mentions, in the wasiyyah (will) that he left with Mohammad Ibn Hanafiyyah which we mentioned is that he wants to establish virtue he wants to eliminate vice, he wants to bring about reformation in a corrupt society, he wants to re-introduce, the holy godly lifestyle of the Prophet (pbuh) (pbuh) and Imam Ali (as).

These are some of the goals, some of the purposes of the uprising. However, if you scan the literature and the riwayat related to us about the tragedy there is one other reason that is mentioned and it keeps on repeating itself and that is, God planned it.

Right from the time

1.    When he visits the Prophet (pbuh)’s (pbuh) grave for the last time before his departure for Medina,

2.    To his arrival in Mecca,

3.    To his explanation to Mohammad Ibn Hanafiyyah,

4.    To his explanations to other companions who wanted to dissuade him and persuade him against making the move,

5.    To his declarations on his way from Mecca to Medina he keeps repeating this one phrase, “it was God’s decree” and that’s why I am making this movement.

Question: What does this mean?

Let me just quote one or two of these examples and then try to analyse. For example the incident narrated that when he went for the final farewell to the grave of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) it is narrated that he kept his head on the grave and immediately he was transported and began to see a vision.

He was not asleep; he was not in the state of dream. These powerful souls have the capacity to detach themselves from the physical world, and divert their total attention to the realm of spirituality. And he experiences vision there, he saw the Prophet (pbuh) come with a party of angels on his right in front of him on his left, and the Prophet (pbuh) addresses him according to this narration as “Ya habbibi, Ya Hussain (My dear grandson, Oh Hussain) Oh Hussain! I see you very soon you shall be fallen on the ground and in the dirt and in blood. Ya habibi Ya Hussain! I see you shall be slaughtered in the land of Karbala. Ya habibi Ya Hussain! I see you thirsty, nobody ready to give you water, I see you hungry no body ready to feed you.

Notice the message, why did Imam Hussain (as) make the journey according to this reason? It was a divine plan and he had to follow that plan. In yet another tradition, Mohammad Ibn Hanafiyyah advises him, “do not go to Kufa, the people in Kufa have betrayed our father, why don’t you go to Yemen there is more support there.”  And Imam (as) says allow me to ponder over it. The next day Imam Hussain (as) makes his move.  And he proceeds, Mohammad Ibn Hanafiyyah hurries and catches up with him and says “but you promised you would think about it, you promised you would not go ahead.” The Imam (as) said “what can I do, Sha’a Allahu an-yaraani qatilah” (It ’s in Allah’s plan to witness me killed. ) 

The following day Imam Hussain makes his move. He proceeds, Ibn Hanafiyyah hurries and catches up with the Imam and says “but you promised you would think about it, you promised you would not go ahead.” The Imam replied “what can I do, shaa allahu an yarani katibah” it is the divine plan, I have to be killed.

Yet a third tradition, just as a representation, I want us to recognise the significance of the divine plan. What does it mean? He is about to depart from Mecca, the day previous to the departure he gives out a sermon. Notice the reason he is departing from Mecca, one is the fear of assassination by the henchman of Yazeed but the direction now in which he is going to proceed will be toward Kufa because almost eighteen thousand letters of indication came from there. They are all letters of hope and support.

We must recognise the significance of the divine plan. What does it mean? The Imam is about to depart from Mecca, the day prior to which he delivers a sermon. Notice the reasons behind his departing from Mecca. One is the fear of assassination by the henchmen of Yazeed. The direction in which he is going to proceed will be towards Kufa, as almost eighteen thousand letters of invitation came from therein. They are all letters of hope and support, you reach here, we will overthrow the corrupt regime, and we will establish the righteous regime.

There is hope but look at the speech. “Alhamdulillah, MashaAllah, wa laa Quwatta illa billah, wa sallallahu ala Rasoollih” (All praise and glory is to Allah, there is no power except through Allah, and may His blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah) And then he says. “Let me tell you, death for the human being is just like that wonderful necklace on a young girl’s neck.” People questioned him saying “you have been promised support, but you are talking about death, and the desirability of death” the Imam (as) replies no, not only is death desirable for me, do you know how intensely “I desire death just like Yaqoob deeply desired to be reunited joined with Yusuf.”

And then he explains, “it has been decided, it has been decreed, I shall meet this end, and I am ready for it, I long for it, I can see myself, these animals are brutally chopping off parts of my body. It has been decreed, the pen has written it down and I cannot avoid it. The day shall come. If they have decreed, we the AhlulBayt are in total submission to the Will of Allah and will accept it. We shall remain steadfast and determined, because it is the decree of God. Of course he is going to reward us the tremendous reward for those who remain steadfast and determined in the way of God. I ask you; whoever is ready to give out the gift from the love of his heart, his own life.”  

True, politically he was invited to go to Kufa, true he was forced to pay allegiance and he refused to do so, true he said that the aim was to eliminate vice and to establish virtue, though one factor that we need to understand clearly is the Divine Decree.

Allow me to analyse this particular reason because potentially, the whole tragedy of Karbala can become in a sense meaningless for us as a role model because we will say “it was decreed, it had to happen, and Imam (as) was chosen to do, Imam (as) submitted to it, so what is in it for me, how do I take this tragedy as a role model”

We need to appreciate the question of divine decree:

  1. Is it possible for a human being to know the future?
  2. If it is true, then how do you reconcile the fact God and God alone is the one that knows the ghayb (unseen)?
  3. Assuming that yes it is possible to know the future, how do you reconcile the fact that when death was certain, the Imam (as) was proceeding for self-destruction? – How does one explain that?

The knowledge of the unseen of the future, of what’s going to happen in the next moment or the next century that “ghayb” in the Quran has been ascribed and attributed to God and God alone. God the Absolute being, therefore infinite in all his qualities, including his knowledge alone knows the unseen (Ghayb). There are numerous verses that speak about it, for example;

And with Him are the keys of the unseen treasures– none knows them but He; and He knows what is in the land and the sea, and there falls not a leaf but He knows it, nor a grain in the darkness of the earth, nor anything green nor dry but (it is all) in a clear book. (Sura 6: Verse 59).

However on the other hand the Imams (as) did claim that they had to knowledge of the unseen, for example the narrations previously quoted about Karbala. How do you reconcile the two?

There are several explanations that scholars have given for the possibility of an Imam (as) sharing and having the knowledge (‘Ilm) of the unseen (Ghayb), of what’s going to happen in the future. Of course there are some traditions where the Imams (as) deny that in one gathering Imam Sadiq (as) denies knowledge of the ghayb in public, but when asked again in private, he said that he did have knowledge of the unseen (Ghayb) but it was not to be proclaimed publicly as some people might not understand. Aside from these traditions, there are numerous amounts of traditions that say that the Imams (as) knew the unseen (Ghayb). The question is how do you reconcile the two?

One explanation put forward by our scholars is “departmentalisation” which claims that a certain amount of Ghayb that God and God alone knows and there are other departments of knowledge which God then shares with others. For example Sura Luqman (chapter 31) towards the end there is a description of five different types of knowledge, that God and God alone knows;

Surely Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the hour, and He sends down the rain and He knows what is in the wombs; and no one knows what he shall earn on the morrow; and no one knows in what land he shall die; surely Allah is Knowing, Aware. (Sura 31: Verse 34)

  1. God alone knows the hour of reckoning
  2. And he alone is the one who sends down rain (where/when/how much)
  3. And he knows what lies in the wombs
  4. Nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow
  5. Nobody knows where they will perish and end their life.

God alone is All-Knowing-there is certain knowledge that God alone knows, certain other knowledge, God then gives, so for example, in Sura number Three (Family of Imran) we are told of Prophet Isa (as) who was a Prophet, he was sent to his people, “let me tell you I have come with a miracle, I have got a claim and I have got a challenge, and I have got a proof for that claim, my claim is, I am a messenger from God. My proof is I can do some extraordinary things, which no other human being could do, and I have a challenge see if you can do something like this, if you can, and then it I accepted.

What are some of the extraordinary things that the Prophet Isa (as) claimed he could do?

And (make him) a messenger to the children of Israel: That I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I determine for you out of dust like the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with Allah’s permission and I heal the blind and the leprous, and bring the dead to life with Allah’s permission and I inform you of what you should eat and what you should store in your houses; most surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers. (Sura 3, Verse 49)

  1. Turn something from clay into life by breathing unto it the name of God, and it becomes alive
  2. Curing incurable diseases by God’s power
  3. I can tell you, each one of you what you have eaten at home, and what you have stored by home

So, Departmentalisation is one theory

Yet another explanation as to how Imams can know the future, is that knowledge is of two types

  1. Destined and determined (fixed/unchanging)
  2. Changing- in chapter 13, verse 39 – “Allah makes to pass away and establishes what He pleases, and with Him is the basis of the Book.”

The fourth Holy Imam (as) says that had it not been for this ayah, whereby Allah can change the destiny I would have told you whatever is going to happen until the end of the world, but I cannot because destiny changes.

So a second explanation for the possibility of the Imams (as) having Ilm of Ghayb certainly comes from this explanation of knowledge of a changing destiny. “A sinner’s life will be shortened” is just one example of the many things we hear.

A third explanation into this is that the Imams (as) potentially have the power to understand if He willed it so. There are many riwayat that say “if the Imam (as) wills, God provides” it is in the wisdom of God to give that Ilm-e-Ghayb. If it is not in the wisdom of God, God does not provide that knowledge to the Imam (as), perhaps, sometimes the destiny, which is to occur because it is going to be a test for the Imam (as), God doesn’t give that knowledge. For example: the night of migration of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) when Imam Ali (as) had to sleep under the threat of assassination by the enemies. God withholds to knowledge of the outcome of this sleep because this is where the real test is. Therefore, in certain cases Allah withholds the knowledge of the unseen, the Imam (as) does not know everything.

Yet a fourth explanation is that “actually” in the real world, the Imams have that knowledge. In Sura Baqara, verse number 255 Allah says;

He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot comprehend anything out of His knowledge except what He pleases, His knowledge extends over the heavens and the earth, and the preservation of them both tires Him not, and He is the Most High, the Great.

Nobody can comprehend the knowledge that Allah has except that which He wills.

If a human being, an individual can perfect himself so much that he can elevate himself to get close to God, he can be granted the knowledge of the unseen in all affairs, be it destined, be it fixed, be it changing. But that knowledge is the one where the Imam (as) is totally dependant.

True there is certain knowledge, which the Imam (as) cannot access. The essence of God for example. That’s beyond comprehension, nobody has access to that. In Sura 3, verse number 30 Allah says:

…and Allah makes you to be cautious of (retribution from) Himself; and Allah is Compassionate to the servants.

To begin to think who God is in his essence is prohibited. Not because God does not want us to know but because we do not have capacity to know. Our minds are limited we work with concepts and mental constructs. A beautiful example, one of our teachers gave is (Ayatullah Jawadi Aamoli, May Allah preserve him for the Hauza), try to imagine that you want to have a picnic. Take your mat and keep it out in the open, and bring your tea ad food, whatever you want to eat out there, if you do it in the safety of the land its ok, but try to imagine to do this in the middle of the ocean, in a storm when the wind is blowing at 100 miles per hour. The moment you try to keep anything stable it is eliminated. When you enter the domain of the infinity of the essence of God where the thinker and the thought and the thinking is all eliminated, there is no way you can think and survive and conceptualise, and that is what the Imams (as) themselves have admitted. “We know you through your names, we know you through your attributes, we know you through your manifestations and actions in the world, but we don’t know your essence, we cannot reach you at that level. And therefore we cannot worship you in a manner that you and you alone deserve.”

Excluding this domain, there is a possibility for the Imam (as) to reach a level where he can be granted knowledge of everything, including therefore whatever is going to happen in Karbala.

The next question is, well if the Imam (as) knows he is going to die then how could you willingly proceed for self-destruction? There is an ayah in the Quran, which is often quoted; Sura 2: Verse 195.

And spend in the way of Allah and cast not yourselves to perdition with your own hands, and do good (to others); surely Allah loves the doers of good.

It is interesting the scholars have responded to this potential question by saying:

  1. This ayah is not addressed to the Imam (as)
  2. Yes that it is true that this ayah is addressed to the Imam but don’t plunge yourself into death, but it is not physical death.
  3. No it is not that this ayah does not refer to the Imam (as), no it is not that it is not physical death, but it is a death which is meaningful who’s consequences over ride its negative effects, the death which this ayah talks about is one which is meaningless and fruitless, which is destructive therefore, not a death which is productive.

Let me elaborate, one reason is that the ayah does not talk to the Imam (as), do you notice in the Quran there is the narration of Prophet Musa and Khidhr? They met together and Khidr begins to damage the boat and Musa says “no you should not do that, that belongs to someone else!” and secondly they come to a town where he kills a young boy. “how could you dare assassinate a person” and thirdly they reach a place where he reconstructs a wall. The domains and the spheres of activities differ for these two Prophets (pbut). One is working in the apparent world; one is working behind the curtain. God has for a temporary moment opened the curtain and we are seeing the unseen world, how it operates. I have damaged the boat, let me tell you why, Sura 18 ayah number 65 onwards. Towards ayah number 79 the explanation is given as to why all these actions were done by Khidr. Let me explain to you why I damages the boat, there was a tyrant who was behind him, he would have confiscated that boat, in order to save him temporary damage to ensure long term benefit. Sometimes we come across situations where we are afflicted, we suffer, we become sick, and we have stress in our lives. We don’t know, but perhaps this is temporary damage and harm for a long term benefit. In the case of Musa it was Khidr openly doing it, but Khidr was operating in the unseen world, the curtain has just been removed for a moment and we have seen the unseen world. In our cases from the unseen world, different beings can be used as instruments to do that. The angles can be used as instruments to do that. Secondly, the reason why I killed the young man, his parents were good people, faithful, we were afraid that when this boy grew up he would lead his parents to deviation and to disbelief. Our decree was to substitute this young man, in the unseen world he could have become sick and died, but God opened the curtain and showed how death occurs. The man was killed, but in our case we say the person died young. We do not know but perhaps there is a decree. God wanted to substitute, the ayah has an interesting explanation, the boy was removed and they were given a girl. And do you know whom this girl was? This girl became the mother of ten Prophets (pbut), twenty Prophets (pbut), a large number of Prophets (pbuh). When we get a newborn the first question we ask is, is it a girl or is it a boy? You never know, a girl can be much better than a boy. You know what the Imams (as) tell us when we get a new born. The fourth Holy Imam (as) when he had a new born in the house he des not ask, is it a boy or is it a girl? He asks, is the child born safe and sound or not. And the third case, this wall that we reconstructed, was damaged badly and should have been taken down and built again, but the damage was restored temporarily to preserve something, it had a treasure under it which belong to two orphans who are too young right now to possess it, so we want time for them to grow up so that they can possess the treasure that belongs to them. The interesting part here is God does not abandon anyone. The parents have done something good, and God does take care of the children. Now look at the hadith, it do not say that it was the immediate father who left something behind for them, it was their great great great grandfather. So this shows that what I do today will not have its effects in the first generation, second, third, multiples generations. It is inconceivable that in a universe run by an All-Living, All-Wise Lord for any individual to perform any small act of virtue but that it is recorded and rewarded. Not necessarily immediately, but generations. That’s how the unseen world works.

“Don’t self destruct” the ayah is not talking about the Imam (as) because the Imam (as) is working in a different domain. The domain of Khidr not the domain of Musa. That’s one possible explanation.

The second possible explanation, you know its death, don’t self destruct, but the ayah is not physical. You see the preceding part of the ayah and the succeeding part of the ayah talks about spending in the way of god, and the last part of the ayah talks about in, in between it says do not destroy yourself. So if I do not spend and I am not kind, I destroy myself? Physically? No. Socially? Maybe. Politically? Maybe. Economically? Maybe. And God will punish me in those areas. So true the ayah may be talking to the Imam (as) but who says it is talking about physical death.

The third explanation says, yes the ayah is talking to the Imam (as), yes it is talking about physical death, but sometimes death is more important than life. Look at the declarations of the Imam (as) at various stages of his movement. “I will never ever subjugate and submit myself to the tyranny of this despot, because life with dishonour is worse than death with dignity. Sometimes death is more important than life especially when the goals you have to achieve are much larger.

Let me conclude, it is true that one of the factors that determined the occurrence of Karbala was the divine decree. But it was a divine decree whereby the Imam (as) was given the option, that it is your duty under these circumstances that in order to establish godly values, to eliminate devilish vices, to introduce reformation in a corrupt society, to re-establish the holy godly practices of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and the First Imam (as) that in such a situation not the Imam (as) but any mu’min, (any believer) in the truth in God must make an uprising. “Don’t you see that truth is being abandoned and trampled upon, look at falsehood, falsehood is being embraced, in such circumstances it behoves not me as an Imam but it behoves every mu’min to make an uprising, to eliminate vice and to establish virtue. So the divine decree was not something, which was imposed on the Imam (as). It was a decree whereby the Imam (as) was given the option. That the future of the Ummah was dependent on him making a choice. Are you ready? The Imam replied, Yes, what is pleasing for Allah is most satisfying for us. That was a conscious willful deliberate decision to give up ones life for the sake of godly values. That is NOT self-destruction, that is self-preservation on a long-term basis.


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