The Ecstatic Dimension of Karbala
One very important dimension of the Institution of Karbala overlooked by so many of us is its spiritual dimension. Scholars of gnosis (‘Irfan), however, have contemplated over this dimension and narrated so much for us to learn and benefit. In order to make us closer to tangibly perceive the inner dimension of the Karbala event, perhaps the most eloquent revelation is that of Lady Zainab (peace be upon her), the daughter of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) when asked by Ibn Ziyad how Allah dealt with her brother (Imam Hussain) and family. It is narrated that when this was asked, she said: “I did not vision save beauty.”
O Zainab, when we narrate the tragedy of Karbala, nothing but sorrow develops and increases in our hearts. What other version of Karbala do you have? What beauty is this that whereas you were able to comprehend, most of the narrators of the tragic incident were in oblivion? It is here when we come to realize that beyond this material realm of plurality and conflict (Tazaahum) is a realm of unity, harmony, love, and beauty which can only be perceived by those who are spiritually united with that realm. Sayyid Muhammad Husayn al-Tehrani in his Spirit Immaterial (Ruhe Mujarrad) quotes his mentor in Irfan (Divine gnosis) Sayyid Haddad al-Musawi to have said: “Ashura is a day of which if only a fraction were to be unveiled for the spiritual wayfarers and ardent lovers, it would keep them in a state of bewilderment out of extreme ecstasy until the end of their lives, and they would fall into the state of prostration until the Judgment Day out of gratitude to Allah.”
Here is Zainab with a lofty spirit, and here is Karbala with all the different calamities. Whereas others beheld what apparently transpired, her penetrating vision tore the veils of this transient realm and apprehended the kernel which, according to her, was nothing besides beauty. She was of a personality who would tangibly understand and experience the prophetic tradition, “Paradise is under the shadows of swords.” (Al-jannatu tahta zilaal al-suyoof.) She had complete realization of her father’s statement: “Calamities are bestowals of Allah.” (Al-masaa’ibu minhun min Allah.)
Have we ever wondered why we praise Allah for the calamities that befell the warriors of Karbala as we conclude the sacred Ziyarat of Ashura? We say: “O Allah, praise be to You, the praise of those who thank You, for the calamities that befell them (the martyrs). Praise be to Allah, for my great loss…” One of the possible interpretations of these brilliant verses is that we praise and thank Allah for having conferred Imam Hussain and his companions the succor of bearing the great calamities that befell them. Another interpretation is to thank Allah for the kernel and reality of these calamities, which as the daughter of Ali al-Murtadha explicitly said, was nothing save beauty. Consequently, it is a call for every reciter of this Ziyarat to spiritually prepare himself to appreciate this reality in order to be able to naturally express the same.
Whereas undoubtedly Bibi Zainab did encounter the hardships of this material world and tangibly felt the same, her penetrating spirit understood how victorious her brother and the valiant martyrs of Karbala were. Therefore, one should not misconceive and think that there is no need for us to mourn and lament for what transpired in the plains of Karbala. Rather, as the 12th Holy Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance) is reported to have said in his well-known Ziyarat al-Naahiya: “I will, therefore, lament you morning and evening and will weep blood in place of tears out of my anguish for you and my sorrow for all that befell you, until I meet death from the pain of the catastrophe and the choking grief.” In fact, there are many traditions that encourage us to weep and lament, and thus we should remove the misconception from our minds.
However, what is important for us to realize is that, as expounded by the Holy Qur’an, traditions of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) and Divine theosophy, the world of reality consists of a hierarchy of existence, and the result of what transpires in the lower realms is exhibited in the higher realms. Karbala had visionaries who could comprehend this tangibly. In one of the salutational recitations (Ziyaraat), we address them saying: “…I bear witness that most surely Allah unveiled for you the curtain…” And in a tradition Imam Hussain reports that the Holy Prophet said to him: “And surely you shall be martyred there (in Karbala) together with a group among your companions who would not sense the pain of the touch of iron. Then he read the verse: ‘O Fire, be cool and peaceful for Ibrahim.’ (21:69) The war [similarly] will be cool and peaceful on you and them.”
Small wonder it is that some traditions clearly indicate that the martyrs of Karbala would warmly welcome the arrows that were rained at them. Again, one must not misconstrue and think that the companions were death lovers per se. It was rather their unwavering stance of not submitting to Yazid and his forces that brought them to the state of confronting death, which when they encountered was “sweeter than honey”. In the well-known Ziyarat Warith, we employ such expressions as Ahibba’ Allah (heart lovers of Allah) and Awidda’ Allah (constant lovers of Allah) for them. They were virtually drunk and intoxicated with the wine of Divine love. It seems that the cup-bearer (Saqi) constantly availed them with sips of Sharaaban Tahoora (“wine of purity”). The Holy Qur’an speaks of the near ones that, “And their Lord made them drink a pure sharaab.” (76:21) According to a tradition narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), this pure drink is such that “it purifies them from everything other than Allah.” If Allah himself is the intoxicator, when would the lover ever return to the state of consciousness?
Here I am transported to the brilliant poetry of Mullah Ahmad Naraqi in his poetical masterpiece Mathnawiye Taaqdees when speaking about the great spiritual state of annihilation in God (al-fana fi Allah): In fanaaye bande dar mawla buwad (this is the annihilation of the servant in his Master); In fanaa az sad baqaa awla buwad (this annihilation is better than hundred kinds of subsistence); Fahme un khwaahi boro taa Karbala (if you would like to know the reality of this, then go to Karbala). Al-Naraqi would like to tell us that the most suitable arena for this kind of exalted spiritual state of beholding the fact that only the Beloved exists is Karbala.
In the end, I would like to quote the words of Ayatollah Maliki Tabrizi about the bilateral experience of the Chief of Martyrs. He says in his Al-Muraqibat that “although Imam al-Hussain was apparently struck with such injuries that no Prophet, Divine Successor, or human being is heard to have encountered, such as his thirst which cannot be intellectually apprehended, his spirit would experience the delights of the manifestations of the lights of Divine Beauty and the Revelation of Divine Majesty as well as the eagerness to meet and reach the proximity of God. All this would diminish those difficulties; rather, it would change their severity into pleasure.”
Shaikh Muhammad Khalfan is the author of several books and articles on spiritual wayfaring. He lives and studies in the holy city of Qom. This article originally appeared on his blog Universal Realization.