Who was Abbas (peace be upon him), whose birth anniversary is being celebrated this week? To the Muslims, Abbas is known in different ways: as the lion of Ali, the hero of Karbala, the flag-bearer of Hussain, the beloved brother of Zainab, and the loving uncle of Sakina (peace be upon them all).
Abbas was the son of Imam Ali, the first Imam and successor of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny). He was the brother of Imam Hussain. Fifty years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad, his grandson Hussain stood up against Yazid, the tyrant ruler of the time, and refused to pledge allegiance to him. As a result of this protest, Hussain, his family-members, and a small group of his companions were surrounded by Yazidi forces in the desert of Karbala, prevented from water for three days, and, finally, on the Day of Ashura, Hussain with about 100 souls faced an army of 25,000 soldiers. They were given the choice of pledging allegiance to Yazid or face death. In that uneven battle, Hussain chose an honorable death over a disgraceful life under a tyrant like Yazid. It was in that historical event that Abbas was made the commander-in-chief and flag-bearer of Hussaini forces. That battle-field gradually turned into a place of pilgrimage, and today the shrines of both these brothers, with their golden domes, form the skyline of Karbala in Iraq.
By his supreme sacrifice, Abbas became a universal soul that transcends time and space. Let us start with concept of brotherhood: Brotherhood can be understood on two different levels, a physical and personal level, and a spiritual and social level. Both aspects are important. However, the brotherhood based on blood relationship should be synchronized with the brotherhood based on spiritual relationship. In case of tension between the two relationships, the spiritual brotherhood will take precedence over the physical brotherhood. (“Verily the believers are brethren [of one another].” 49:10) Imam Zainul Abideen (peace be upon him), the fourth Shia Imam and nephew of Abbas, in his famous the Charter of Rights, writes about the rights of a brother. He says brothers should consider one another as a source of support and protection, and they should be sincere in giving advice and helping one another towards the path of God. He concludes by writing: “…Then if he obeys his Lord and properly answers His call [it is good for all]; otherwise, Allah, rather than your brother, should be your choice and the object of your reverence.”
It is human nature for two brothers to love and support one another. Almighty God tends to leave natural issues to nature and does not talk about it that much, and only points out issues when humans deviate from their nature. On brotherhood, there are two negative examples in the Qur’an: the example of Qabil (Cain) who murdered his brother Hãbil (Abel); and the brothers of Yusuf (Joseph) who conspired to get rid of him. In the scale of zero to ten, we can put Qabil’s relationship at zero, and that of Yusuf’s brothers at three – on the positive side, we can surely put the relationship of Abbas to Imam Hussain at ten.
The devotion of Abbas to Hussain was not just on the physical level; it was also based on the spiritual level. This is reflected in his statement to Shimr bin Dhil Jawshan. Shimr, one of commanders of the Yazidi forces, was related to Abbas through his mother who was from the Kilabiyya tribe (while Hussain’s mother was the daughter of the Prophet). Shimr had come to Karbala with an amaan, assurance of protection or amnesty signed by Iraq’s governor, for Abbas and his three full brothers. When Shimr presented that amnesty to Abbas, Abbas responded by saying: “May God curse you and your amnesty. You give assurance of protection to us, but the son of the Prophet’s daughter has no amnesty!”
Abbas bin Ali’s message to us is quite clear: we have to strengthen the ties of brotherhood with fellow Muslims irrespective of their race, color, language, or geographical location. All of us are brethren in faith; all other relationships must be synchronized with that. We should be able to feel the pain of one another, as the Prophet Muhammad once said, “Muslims are like one body: when one limb is injured, the hurt is felt by the entire body.”
Between Abbas and Imam Hussain, this level of closeness and concern is symbolized in the words of Hussain: when he heard Abbas calling for help as he was falling down from the horse, the Imam felt the pain and said, “Now my back has broken, and my options are few.”
What is courage? In Islamic ethics, courage is not defined by physical strength; courage means to have control over one’s emotions and feelings and to use them only for the right cause. A person who only relies on his physical strength and cannot control his emotions is not a courageous person; he is rather a foolhardy person.
While describing the Prophet and his true followers, Allah says: “Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, and those who are with him are firm against the enemies but soft with their own.” (48:29)
Iqbal, the famous poet of the Indian sub-continent, presents the same concept in his poetic style:
In the struggle of truth, the believer is as solid as the steel
But in midst of his friends, he is as soft as the silk
Abbas was not the slave of his desires and emotions; even his courage was linked to the spiritual relationship: Abbas was very stern and firm when he confronted the enemies, but he was very kind, compassionate, and caring towards the good people. The children of Hussain and the clan of Banu Hashim adored him. He was the favorite uncle of Sakina, the four years old daughter of Imam Hussain.
Unfortunately, what we see in the world today is that the tyrants, the kings, and the generals who rule over Muslim countries behave in the opposite manner: they are humble in front of the enemies but very bold when they deal with their own people and oppress them!
When Imam Hussain asked Abbas to try and get water for the children, Abbas confronted the enemy force and he was easily able to disperse them and got access to the river. Abbas entered the river and filled the water-bag with water. On the way back, he had to pass through some palms trees, and that is where the enemy was hiding behind the trees to attack him from the back. One Yazidi soldier attacked him from behind in such a way that he lost his right hand. Abbas courageously got hold of the water-bag and consoled himself by the following verses:
By God, though you have severed my right hand
My faith, I will surely forever defend
I will defend the truthful leader of conviction
The grandson of the pure and truthful Prophet
We see that loyalty is a very important quality, especially the loyalty toward one’s
faith and community. Abbas’s loyalty has become proverbial in the literature of Karbala. On the eve of Ashura, when Imam Hussain asked his friends and family members to go away and leave him, since the enemies were after his blood only, the first person to stand up and express his loyalty was Abbas bin Ali. He said, “And why should we abandon you? So that we may live after you! May God not show us such a day ever.”
On the day of Ashura, when Imam Hussain asked him to get water for the children, he succeeded in gaining access to the stream. He galloped into the stream, got down, and filled the water-bag. As a person who had been thirsty for three days, Abbas could have quenched his thirst, but he did not do so. Legally as well as morally, nothing prevented him from drinking water. But he did not do so. It was his sense of loyalty to Imam Hussain and the love for Hussain’s children that prevented Abbas from drinking the water.
While filling the water, he recited the following verses:
While Hussain is drinking the syrup of death
You are imbibing the coolness of joy
When you look at the flag of Abbas, you always see that a water-bag is attached to it, hanging on to it. It reminds us of the loyalty of Abbas to Hussain and his children. That flag challenges us to be loyal and true to our faith and its values. It urges the followers of Abbas to stand up against oppression, tyranny, and injustice in whatever shape or form that we see in our own times – all in the name of God and to serve the cause of God.
And so we end with a tribute to Abbas in the famous words of the Sixth Imam who praised him by saying:
“I bear witness that you submitted [to your Imam], affirmed [his truth], and were loyal and sincere [to him].”