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Karbala: An Islamic Paradigm of Liberation

While Esack draws upon the Exodus as a model of struggle, Engineer turns to the Battle of Karbala, reflecting his own religious background as a Shi‘a Muslim. Over the course of his writings, he invokes a number of liberative paradigms. Like Wadud and Barlas—whose Qur’anic hermeneutics we will explore in subsequent chapters—Engineer highlights the social implications of tawhid. For an understanding of Islamic monotheism rooted in struggle, he argues, must entail not only the unity of the Creator but also the unity of the creation, undivided by socioeconomic hierarchy.[1] The Battle of Karbala, however, is the most distinctive paradigm in Engineer’s liberation theology, in which Husayn b. Ali (d. 680), the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and third imam of Shi‘a Muslims, along with seventy- two of his followers, rebelled against the despotic caliph Yazid (d. 683) and were brutally massacred in the plains of Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq. Yazid’s ascension to the caliphate following the death of his father, Mu‘awiya (d. 680), represented the introduction of monarchy into Islamic governance, and therefore a radical departure from Qur’anic values of fellowship and egalitarianism.[2] This development was exacerbated by Yazid’s politics, marked by nepotism and arbitrary rule, as well as his personality, taken to the sensual pleasures of courtly life and thus utterly divorced from the realities of the broader Muslim community. In fact, if Islam represented a sociopolitical revolution in seventh-century Arabia, the reign of Yazid, to quote Engineer, constituted a ‘counter revolution’.[3] But the rebellion of Husayn was not simply against Yazid, Engineer continues, rather what this individual symbolized: namely, the degeneration of Islam into a religion of establishment.[2] This was a struggle, then, that sought to reclaim the revolutionary soul of the faith, to restore Muslim practices to the ethical teachings of the Prophet. Though Esack’s and Engineer’s paradigms of preference are clearly different in that the former looks towards an event within scripture— the Exodus—while the latter draws inspiration from an episode that transpired roughly five decades after the Qur’anic revelation, it is important to note that Engineer’s hermeneutical emphasis on Karbala does not necessarily make it any less Qur’anic. For Husayn’s martyrdom exemplifies core principles embedded in the text, such as justice, courage and self-sacrifice. It is in Husayn’s commitment, therefore, to put the Word into practice in the face of overwhelming odds that the link between this historic event and scripture lies. The following Urdu couplet by Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), the distinguished South Asian poet and intellectual founder of Pakistan, evocatively captures this relationship: ‘I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain. In his fire, like a flame, I burn.’[5]

As this couplet suggests, Engineer is not the first Muslim thinker to have been inspired by the legacy of Husayn. Indeed, the Battle of Karbala has become a pervasive paradigm of struggle in contemporary Islam. During the 1978-9 Iranian Revolution, references to Husayn’s martyrdom permeated revolutionary discourse, especially in the Islamic writings of Shari‘ati—the exegete of tawhid whom we met in the previous chapter—discerning in Husayn an insurrectionary figure fighting for the cause of social liberation.[6] What makes the memory of Karbala so compelling, so subversive as a political language of resistance is the remarkable fluidity with which it can be applied to markedly different contexts. In contemporary Iraq, for instance, resistance fighters have called the American occupation forces the ‘Army of Yazid’, while before the invasion the same term was used to denote Saddam Hussein’s regime.[7] The Battle of Karbala, then, not only acted as a powerful language of protest against domestic dictatorship but, once this regime was toppled by foreign powers, it was able to swiftly switch discursive gears and denounce imperialist invasion. It is important to note that while the memory of Karbala has inspirited Muslims of all sectarian stripes (recalling Iqbal’s poetry) it has had a particularly formative impact on Shi‘a Islamic thought. Because the Shi‘a, as the devout followers of the Prophet’s family, were marginalized from the very outset by the Sunni-dominated Muslim polity—a betrayal that would eventually culminate in the martyrdom of Husayn—Shi‘a Islam has historically exhibited an acute awareness of power, cultivating a culture of protest. Speaking truth to power is a central teaching of Shi‘a ethics for, by siding with the oppressed and downtrodden, the believer stands up not only for ‘the historical Hossein but for all the Hosseins of the world.’[8] I do not mean to suggest, of course, that Shi‘a Islam is essentially radical. As the Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi has observed, Shi‘a Islam remains a ‘religion of protest’ so long as it exists on the edges of society, but that once it attains power, thereby transforming into a religion of establishment, it undoes its own social



  • [1] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 56.
  • [2] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [3] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 230.
  • [4] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [5] Muhammad Iqbal, as quoted in Syed Akbar Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 137.
  • [6] Keddie, 206.
  • [7] Hamid Dabashi, Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire (London:Routledge, 2008), 178.
  • [8] Safi, Memories of Muhammad, 256.
  • [9] Dabashi, 67-8 . 2 Engineer Interview, 2010. 93 Ibid.
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