August 17, 2021 – It was my privilege to speak at the conference, “Ashura Commemoration in the West”, organised by the Ashura International Foundation in cooperation with the One Nation Center for Intellectual and Strategic Studies in Iran.
It is my privilege to be asked to participate in this wonderful seminar, held on this auspicious occasion – the day of Ashura, 2021.
I appreciate that I participate in Ashura as an outsider, though I have come to feel over the years that Ashuara and the battle of Karbala and the figure of Imam Husain are points at which the Christian and Islamic communities actually connect in a very profound way.
I appreciate, of course, that these families of faiths were formed centuries apart in different parts of the world, and that the Jewish, Christian and Islamic Scriptures are vastly different in their content and style. Even so, in all three traditions, and in Christianity and Shia Islam in particular, there is an emphasis given to the suffering of the innocent, and I suspect that this is reasonably unique in the history of religions
Immanuel Kant famously suggested that the basic religious intuition that we all intuit is that ‘good should be rewarded and evil punished’. I believe he was correct.
From my limited understanding, this seems to be exactly what Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, embody in their concept of ‘karma’ – the belief that virtuous actions will always generate positive results (in one form or another) and that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between virtue and reward.
The early wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible attests to an identical link between virtue and reward, as reflected in Psalm 1:
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Pslam 1;1-3)
This sort of straightforward calculation between godliness and prosperity gets critiqued within the Jewish wisdom literature itself (most obviously in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes). Even so, it is not until we reach the Christian Scriptures that we find this whole equation turned on its head – that it is only the devil’s own who prosper in this world and that the righteous must expect to suffer!
Perhaps I am exaggerating the point, and yet the early Christian writers, known as the Apostles, were most explicit in linking genuine religious piety with a life of persecution, and seeing this as an inevitable consequence of their relationship with the persecuted Jesus.
“Rejoice”, the Apostle Peter encourages his sisters and brothers in faith, “in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13)
Similarly, the Apostle Paul says, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29)
These verses give us glimpses of what is at the core of the New Testament – the proclamation of the cross of Jesus which becomes the central symbol of the church and is, in itself, a recognition that God’s chosen representatives do not necessarily get it easy in this life.
As I say, I believe this runs completely contrary to the fundamental religious intuition, as formulated by Immanuel Kant, as it elevates the suffering of the innocent, but this is exactly what I see happening too in Ashura, where the children of Islam celebrate and revere Imam Husain, not despite his suffering but because of his suffering!
You will have to forgive me if my knowledge of Imam Husain and of the Prophet (peace be upon them both) are only partial. As I say, I come to Ashura as an outsider. Even so, what I see my Shia sisters and brothers doing as they meditate on the life of Husain Ibyn Ali is not trying to overlook the horror of his sufferings but to embrace them and recognise in them the profound and disturbing truth that God’s servants in every age do suffer.
The Jews did recognise this and they wrote about it in their later wisdom literature. The church embodied this truth in the central symbol of their faith – the cross. Muslims affirm the same truth every Ashura when they remember the life and the death of the servant of God, Husain Ibyn Ali.
As I say, I do believe that Ashura is a bridging point between our faiths as it affirms what we, as people of faith, recognise, but which most of the world still fails to acknowledge – namely, that being a good person does not necessarily mean you’ll have an easy life.
I think Immanuel Kant was right. I do think that each of us deep down does have that basic religious intuition, that good should be rewarded and evil punished, and it takes the explicit revelation of God to shake us out of that simplistic understanding and to recognise that life almost never works like that.
Too many still believe that if you take up religion you are pretty much guaranteed a quiet and comfy life. Many come to religion with exactly that expectation. They are looking for God to solve all their problems and provide them with an easy path.
The cross of Christ and the battle of Karbala are two stark reminders that virtue and comfort are not so straightforwardly linked. Good people still suffer in this world. Even the greatest of God’s servants can be crucified and killed. Even the best of us can meet the worst of fates.
Christianity and Islam and Judaism all recognise this somber truth, and perhaps we have a role in helping the rest of the world come to terms with this, most especially at this moment in world history. If so, we equally have a role in proclaiming to the rest of the world the other side of this coin – that God’s justice ultimately prevails and that in the end the righteous do receive their reward.
Enshallah, that day will come soon,