Question: Which group is more despised and condemned in the eyes of God? Those among the Israelites who worshipped the calf in the absence of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), or those who killed Imam Hussain (peace be upon him), the grandson of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny)?
If we pose this question to the majority of the Muslim nation who follow the School of Companions, they will answer without hesitation that those who worshipped the calf are much worse, since they committed Shirk (polytheism). Shirk is associating a partner with God or giving a share (of that which belongs to God alone) to others. The proponents of this position will argue that the greatest sin stated in the Qur'an is Shirk, "Most surely polytheism is a tremendous wrongdoing." (31:14) The Almighty also says that He will forgive all other sins if he wishes, except Shirk. (4:49) Worshipping a calf, especially after being guided to the truth, is surely a devastating sin which demonstrates the weak level of faith that the Israelites had and their lack of certainty in the Oneness of God! There is nothing more unforgiving than a person committing a sin intentionally while bearing knowledge of the falsehood being committed and the extent of transgression in the eyes of God.
On the other hand, those who realize the great status of the holy personality of Hussain ibn Ali say that, most definitely, the killing of Hussain is the worst and most unforgivable sin, which has no like or similarity and will not be forgiven by Allah. But what supports this argument? Let us use the Holy Qur'an, historic facts, and logical reasoning to reach a satisfying answer which no one else can refute. To do so, one must first define the wrong that was committed in each case, its level of intensity, its negative affect and influence on others, as well as its long term effects in this life and the Hereafter. Let us consider the following:
If we analyze the historic circumstances of both events, we will find that the Qur'an clearly states that Allah eventually pardoned the people who worshipped the calf, "Yet they worshipped the calf even after clear signs had come to them; even so we forgave them." (4:153) In fact, they were punished by Allah on the spot as a way of atonement for their sin, as described in Sura Baqarah, "And when Musa said to his people: O my people! You have surely been unjust to yourselves by taking the calf (for a god); therefore, turn to your Creator (penitently), so kill your people, that is best for you with your Creator: so He turned to you (mercifully), for surely He is the Oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful." (2:51) In their case, the divinely-appointed guide of their time, who was Prophet Musa, was the person who conveyed the order of punishment as well as the glad tidings of forgiveness.
The Qur'an acknowledges the great extent of transgression committed by the people of Bani Israel, since they deviated even after they witnessed the clear signs. By their actions, they attained the wrath of their Lord as well as indignity in the life of this world as mentioned in verse 7:152. However, Allah's infinite Mercy encompassed them, and they were given the opportunity to be punished in this life to atone for their sins, which was altogether good for them. Even though Allah states elsewhere in verse 4:49 that He forgives anything except Shirk, this example of Divine Mercy demonstrated in the case of Bani Israel comes to show the unlimited level of compassion and forgiveness that the Almighty Creator enjoys. Glory and praise be to Him! It is also a reminder that prophets can do intercession on behalf of others, just like Prophet Musa did on behalf of his people.
Conversely, there is absolutely nothing in history which indicates that any of the killers of Imam Hussain or those who participated in his massacre were remotely forgiven by Allah. On the contrary, we find multiple narrations where the Holy Prophet was envisioned in dreams, where he was observed to be in a disheveled state filled with grief over the killing of his son Hussain and disappointed over His nation who dared to commit that evil act of transgression. We do not hear any indication that any of the Imams (peace be upon them) conveyed any glad tidings of forgiveness or an opportunity for atonement to any of the perpetrators of the Karbala tragedy. Instead, we hear the story of one of the men who participated in the battle against Imam Hussain, and he was seen circumambulating the Holy Kaaba while weeping in regret and acknowledged his certainty that Allah will never forgive him for what he committed.
We see the deep grief and sorrow which Imam Sajjad (peace be upon him) observed as he spent the rest of his life mourning the tragedy of his father. We find that his grandson Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) teaches us Ziyarat Ashura, which is an authentic narration relayed to us by an infallible personality. Without a doubt, the words of this Ziyarah are not based on personal vendetta or desire; rather, it is the Divine verdict announced in the form of a supplication and stamped in history for all Muslims to absorb and observe. In the last portion of this Ziyarat, we call out, "O Allah, remove Your Mercy from the first tyrant who unjustly and wrongfully usurped that which rightly belonged to Mohammad and the children of Mohammad, and from those who, after him, followed in his footsteps. O Allah, remove Your Mercy from those conspirators who vexed and harassed Hussain, showed eagerness, agreed mutually, and joined hands to kill him. O Allah, remove Your Mercy from all of them."
From these Divinely-inspired words, it is crystal clear that in addition to praying that Allah's Mercy be taken away from those who participated in the killing of Hussain, we are also praying that all those who tread the path of these killers and all those who showed lack of enthusiasm or hesitated to support Imam Hussain be included in the condemnation. How grave is that sin of killing of Imam Hussain such that Allah condemns all those who are associated with that event by far and in the future?! So despicable it is such that even the great sin of committing Shirk by worshipping the calf is not anywhere near its extent of horrendousness, and so there is no supplication propagated to us which prays against the worshippers of the calf.
Furthermore, if we compare the two acts of transgression – worshipping the calf and killing Imam Hussain – we will realize that worshipping the calf constituted an act of oppression to one's own self, as Prophet Musa addressed his people, "O my people! You have surely been unjust to yourselves." By worshipping other than God, they have hurt none but themselves, because creation is in need of God, and not vice versa.
But the slaughter of Imam Hussain involved oppression of another being(s), in addition to committing injustice to the self. The injustice committed in this case is directed to the holy grandson of the Seal of Prophets, who said about his grandson, "Hussain is from me, and I am from Hussain." Hence, any offense directed to Hussain is equal to an offense committed to Prophet Muhammad! After all, Imam Hussain represents the beautiful manifestation of truth, justice, and divine perfection, and by killing him, all these manifestations are also challenged and destroyed! This direct offense to Allah by attacking His divinely appointed representative is worst than those who killed the camel of Prophet Saleh, which was also a divine symbol, and the consequences were destruction to the people of Thamood within three days only, without being given a chance for atonement or repentance!
Furthermore, the killing of Hussain meant the obstruction of divine light and radiance to the people of this world. Hence, it is oppression committed not only against the victim himself, but also to every person who is deprived of that Beacon of Guidance. If we analyze the Qur'anic verses, we will find that indeed Allah promised a great punishment for those who dare to kill His divine guides, whether they are prophets or Imams. He states in Sura Aal-Imran, verses 21-22: "As to those who deny the Signs of Allah and in defiance of right, slay the prophets, and slay those who enjoin justice among people, announce to them a painful chastisement." Imam Hussain was surely among those referred to in this first as those who enjoin justice and stands up against the oppressor and tyrant of his time.
So great is this injustice that Imam Mahdi (may Allah hasten his reappearance) vows to shed tears of blood in mourning for it. Certainly, there is no narration that expresses with great passion the amount of grief over any event as was expressed by Imam As-Sadiq when he stated, "Surely, there is a burning heat in the hearts of the believers with respect to the killing of Hussain that will never cool down!" This flaring heat is fueled by the love and devotion to our Master Imam Hussain, and it is directed against his killers and enemies who continue to exist till this very day.