The Iraqi clergy effectively tapped into the doctrine of martyrdom in the fight against ISIS by invoking the Battle of Karbala in which the Prophet’s grandson Hussain and 72 of his companions and family members laid down their lives resisting an unjust ruler
The last phase of the war on ISIS was the main talking point at the shrine of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain when we visited it in Iraq’s Karbala as part of a group of journalists covering the conflict. The devotees collectively prayed after every prayer for the liberation of Mosul, which was then still under ISIS’s occupation, and for those who laid down their lives to liberate the country.
Some of the devotees at the shrine had relatives on the front lines of the war while others had lost their loved ones. A strong belief in Karbala as a symbol of defiance against tyranny was the common thread that connected them and charged the atmosphere.
‘Labaik ya Hussain (I am here, O Hussain)’, they shouted, pledging to uphold the Imam’s values and mission. The spirit has endured centuries after Hussain refused to legitimise Umayyad ruler Yazid’s unjust rule and paid with his life for it. It was now being channelised against ISIS.
Pilgrims sat on expensive rugs in groups in the shrine’s courtyard. Some gorged on falafel and sweets. A majority of the pilgrims were Shias and mostly wore black clothes. Shia clerics wear flowing robes of the same colour, which have a special significance in Shiism. The black represents an expression of sadness, the red commemorates Hussain’s martyrdom, and green honours the Prophet’s lineage. Clerics, who are syeds or trace their lineage to the Prophet, wear black turbans.
In her halting English, a pilgrim from Baghdad told us she was not afraid and felt the safest in Karbala, a sanctuary for the persecuted. ‘ISIS is not Islam. Please tell the world.’ She pointed out Christians were among the displaced people who found refuge in Karbala after tens of thousands were forced to leave the country’s north when ISIS overran the region.
The woman added the Karbala shrine authorities ran refugee camps in Karbala for people who needed them irrespective of ethnic, sectarian, and religious considerations. ‘Our children are dying on the battlefield to save the world from terrorism,’ she added, referring to the anti-ISIS Hashd volunteer forces.
The forces would make their presence felt every now and then outside the shrines, the nerve centre of the resistance against the terror group. Synchronised goose-stepping Hashd fighters in military fatigues would march past on the street separating Imam Hussain and his brother Abbas’s shrines.
The ever-so-abuzz environs of the shrines would virtually come to a standstill every time the fighters marched past. The fighters would have the rapt attention of the devotees, who showered them with rose petals amid salutations to the Prophet and his family and pledges for all possible sacrifices.
The salutations would grow louder every time coffins of fallen fighters would be brought to the shrines before their burial invariably with their proud parents among the pallbearers.
The clergy was effectively tapping into the doctrine of shahadat or martyrdom among the Shias in the anti-ISIS fight. It invoked the Battle of Karbala in which Hussain and 72 of his companions and family members laid down their lives in the seventh century resisting Yazid for violating foundational Islamic values—egalitarianism, justice, and equity.
The sufferings of the imams beginning with Hussain’s father, Caliph Ali, whom Shias consider God-appointed successor of the Prophet, writes academic Vali Nasr, lies at the heart of the doctrine of shahadat. He argues just as early Christian saints accepted ‘the crown of martyrdom,’ steadfast in their faith and believing that their blood would be the seed of the church, so do the Shias revere martyrdom.
The imams, notes Nasr, died as witnesses to the faith, as did many of their followers. Nasr writes Hussain is popularly known as the Lord of the Martyrs (Sayyid al-Shuhada) and Shias believe that martyrdom is the highest testament to faith, following the example of the imams, a deed that will gain the martyr entry into paradise just as it will strengthen Shiism.
Billboards dotting the region and depicting Hashad fighters as Hussain’s contemporary companions sought to underline the doctrine to draw volunteers for the fight against ISIS.
The devotees at the shrines contributed generously to the fight monetarily too. The shrines were full of donation boxes with an appeal in Arabic and English for donations to help ‘the popular voluntary forces against ISIS.’ Most of the boxes were full at any given point in time with currency notes from all over the world.
A devotee told us through our interpreter Hassan Mohammad Moussa, a scholar associated with the Imam Hussain Shrine, that he contributed a large chunk of his saving as he was not physically fit enough to fight. He added it may now be difficult for him to remain within his budget but it was a little sacrifice he had to make.
Moussa explained to us why the idea of sacrifice was so dominant in Karbala. ‘If we see sacrifices of Hussain… they inspire us…sacrifice comes easily to us. …we can give sacrifices to save the country; it gives us strength… he [Hussain] sacrificed everything for Islam, humanity, and justice. We are also ready [for sacrifice] at any time. Whatever sacrifice we can make…for Islam and our country.’
Moussa, who doubled up as our translator and spoke chaste Urdu having studied in Pakistan, echoed a sentiment we repeatedly heard on the streets, at restaurants, refugee camps, hospitals, hotels, etc.