So what has changed since Hussain’s heroic refusal to endorse Yazid’s tyranny in 680 AD? Very little, indeed, if truth be told uncoated. Yet more than any other event in Muslim history, the spirit inherent in the tragedy of Karbala is one that defies injustice and coercion — unto death if that’s what it must take.
Repression and cruelty could not get Hussain, or indeed his survivors, to endorse the authoritarian order Yazid set out to impose. The assassination of Hussain and his companions at Karbala 61 years after the proclamation of Islam, which set a people enslaved by superstition and tribal tyranny free to bow only before one God, caused repulsion all around. It prompted a revolt in Hejaz led by Abdullah Ibn Zubair.
Yazid’s army responded by sacking Madina and laying siege to Makkah. But the flame of human dignity and independence of action, as guaranteed by the new social contract that Islam had brought to Arabia, was rekindled by the martyrs at Karbala. It consumed Yazid within three years of the atrocity, and confined his reign of terror to oblivion.
What survived in the hearts and minds of the people was Hussain’s refusal to endorse rule by terror. And that indeed is divine justice in action. Hypocrites and tyrants (kufi-o-shami) will come and go, as Iqbal says, but the perpetual reality (haqiqat-i-abadi), the spirit of defiance in the face of coercion that is Hussain, shall remain. The vanquished of yore is the hero of history and the historical victor has become synonymous with tyranny.