Freedom is a lofty value that all humans recognise irrespective of sect or religion. This is especially true of those who commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who died opposing the corrupt dictator of his time, Yazid ibn Muawiyah.
I think it would be interesting to reflect on what freedom means, in the context of Ashura, and through the prism of Imam Hussain and his companions. First, let’s begin by briefly discussing two concepts of freedom.
Freedom To Do What You Like
In contemporary culture, to be free is to be able to do what you like. Freedom is the absence of the interference of others in your life, allowing you to lead the life you see fit. This concept of freedom is that of Classical Liberalism, which has historically been very influential. Because its focus is on the absence of something, namely the absence of interference of others, it has been dubbed ‘negative freedom’. If someone forces you to do something, then they are restricting your negative freedom, because they are interfering with your life. When the corrupt ruler Yazid oppressed Muslims through threats, intimidation, imprisonment, and worse, he restricted their freedom in this sense of freedom.
Arguably it was this sense of freedom that Imam Hussain was referring to when he addressed the enemies saying,
“If you do not believe in God and the Hereafter, at least be free in this world”.
In other words, don’t let Yazid and his thugs force you to do their bidding; don’t let them interfere with your life in this way. This sort of freedom was recognised by all, including the soldiers of Yazid, many of them being Kufans who joined Yazid’s army out of fear.
A Deeper Sense of Freedom
But there is more to freedom than non-interference of others. Think about the alcoholic who lives in a liberal society with very few restrictions. The alcoholic does what he likes – he drinks alcohol. While he might be free to do this as no one is interfering in his life to stop him, and so is free in the sense of freedom discussed above, in a deeper sense he is anything but free; rather he is a slave to his addiction, spending all his time between intoxication and seeking more alcohol to satisfy his cravings. Or consider the person driven by his animalistic passions, whose sole concern is to satisfy those base desires in any way he can. He is ruled by his desires, and lives his life in the prison of these desires, unable to break free and appreciate the greater things in life.
What this shows is that there is a deeper, more profound sense of freedom, that isn’t simply freedom from interference of others, or freedom to do what you like. This deeper, ‘positive’ notion of freedom is concerned with fulfilling your potential as a human being, which is to fulfil your potential as a moral and spiritual being. This is no small thing. To achieve this type of freedom is to refuse to be a slave to drugs and alcohol, and to rule over your own animalistic desires rather than let them rule over you. It is to not give into peer pressure, blindly following the herd, easily swayed by the opinion of the majority and ‘turning whichever way the wind blows’ in the words of Imam Ali. It is to fulfil your purpose in creation as a spiritual being, through submission to the ultimate source of all goodness and devotion to Him. It requires knowledge of important truths, strength, and courage to act on them, and perseverance to remain on the path.
Imam Hussain’s Sense of Freedom
So what of Imam Hussain? There can be no question that he was an exemplar of this deeper sense of freedom, through his devotion to God and application of lofty Islamic principles in his life, his courage, and patience in the face of the greatest trials, and impossible odds. While Yazid’s army restricted his negative freedom, he was on the day of Ashura the freest man on Earth.
We call Imam Hussain Abul Ahrar – the father of the free – a title he holds in part because of the freedom he inspired in his companions. Companions such as Hurr, a general in Yazid’s army who intercepted Imam Hussain on the way to Kufa, and who was responsible for trapping the Imam in Karbala. Hur’s story is an incredible tale of forgiveness and redemption, for when Hur came to realise the evil of what he had done, he defected from Yazid’s army and joined Imam Hussain, in the face of certain death. After seeking forgiveness from the Imam, he became one of the first to fight the enemy and be martyred. Imam Hussain then approached the lifeless body of Hurr, whose name literally means ‘free’ in Arabic, and wiping away soil and blood from his face he said, ‘Congratulations Hurr! You are free (hurr) as your mother named you, free in this life and the next!’.
Contrast this with Umar Ibn Saad, who led the army against Imam Hussain after being promised the rulership of Ray in Iran by Ibn Ziyad. Although he was freer than Imam Hussain and his companions in the superficial negative sense of freedom, he was ultimately a slave to his greed and love for wealth and power. He was at the mercy of these spiritual vices and under the command of Iblis, so was in the deeper and more important sense not free at all.
Perhaps it was this sense of freedom Muslim ibn Aqeel, Hussain’s emissary, was referring to, when in the midst of battle, on the streets of Kufa he was offered safety by his enemies. Muslim replied in the form of beautiful poetry that began,
“I swear I will not be killed except as a free man.”
This offer of safety, even if true, and even if it allowed Muslim to live a life without interference, would have compromised his real freedom.
Indeed the battle of Karbala is a battle between the free and the slaves. It is a battle between those who conquered their animalistic self (nafs) and those who were ruled by it. In the words of Imam Hussain himself,
“By God, I shall not surrender as one humiliated, nor shall I escape like a slave.”
We pray to Allah that He gives us the ability to learn from Imam Hussain how to be free.