“Surely, whoever follows me will be martyred. Whoever does not follow me will not witness the Triumph.” These were some of Imam Hussain’s last words before leaving Medina. He set out from Medina towards Kufa, and ultimately to Karbala, knowing the great sacrifice that he would make. He foretold of his fate and knew that his movement will only result in a crushing military defeat. But he also knew the great value – the great triumph – that was to be gained. He set out not to achieve any immediate results or short term goals. Rather, his movement was meant to build an eternal legacy and achieve lasting reform in the nation of his grandfather. But what and how did Imam Hussain reform the nation of his grandfather? Why did Imam Hussain sacrifice as he did? What was the context in which this sacrifice and tragedy took place? What was the role of the remainder of the Household of the Prophet before and after the tragedy? What was Imam Hussain’s goal and how did he triumph despite the grand massacre? Understanding Karbala is an in depth historical and theological analysis that attempts to answer these far-reaching questions about Imam Hussain’s movement. Based on the work of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Saeed al-Hakeem, the book looks at the driving factors behind Imam Hussain’s journey. It sets the theological framework for studying the movement of the Household of Prophet Muhammad, and then begins to analyze their choices as seen in their words and actions, as well as the historical context in which they operated. The book also looks at the great triumph Imam Hussain aimed for and was able to achieve through his movement. By studying the short and long term effects of the grand tragedy, the book sheds light on Imam Hussain’s objectives and achievements, and how the remainder of the Household of the Prophet worked to preserve that triumph.
Sayyid Muhammad Saeed Al-Hakeem
His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Saeed Al-Hakeem was born in the Holy City of Najaf in 1934. His father, Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Al-Hakeem, was a prominent scholar of his time. He grew under the tutelage of his father who began to teach him the basic courses of Islamic sciences before the age of ten.
Since his youth, His Eminence was known for his knowledge, ethics, and piety. He was respected amongst his peers and teachers for his keen understanding of the religious sciences and critical approach in discussion. He was always alongside his father in the gatherings of scholarly learning and intellectual discourse.
Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Saeed Al-Hakeem was given special attention by his maternal grandfather Grand Ayatollah Muhsen Al-Hakeem, who assigned his grandson the task of reviewing the manuscripts of his well renowned jurisprudential encyclopedia Mustamsak Al-‘Urwa Al-Wuthqa. In the course of reviewing the manuscripts, His Eminence would discuss the text with his grandfather. Through those sessions he gained a great wealth of knowledge and showcased his understanding and skill in the Islamic sciences.
During his time at the Islamic Seminary of Najaf, His Eminence studied under some of the most prominent scholars. Those scholars included his father, his maternal grandfather, Grand Ayatollah Hussain Al-Hilli, and Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim Al-Khoei.
At the age of thirty-four, after having spent more than two decades of his life in the pursuit of religious learning, he began offering bahth kharij (advanced seminars) in the principles of jurisprudence. Two years later, he began offering advanced seminars in jurisprudence based on the books of Al-Shaykh Al-A’dham Murtadha Al-Ansari and his grand-father Grand Ayatollah Muhsen Al-Hakeem. Since then, His Eminence would continue to teach advanced seminars despite the challenges and obstacles he would face.
Along with his teachers and peers, His Eminence was active in public affairs ever since he joined the seminary. He was amongst the group of scholars that supported Grand Ayatollah Muhsen Al-Hakeem in his movement against Communist influence in Iraq. In 1963, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Saeed Al-Hakeem signed the notable petition from the seminary that denounced President Abdul Salam Arif’s attempt to impose Communism in Iraq.
When the Baathist regime overthrew its predecessor and took control of Iraq, His Eminence continued his activism against the state’s dictatorial policies. Most notably, he would defy Baathist threats to execute anyone who would fulfill the ritual of walking toward the city of Karbala as a commemoration of the sacrifices made there fourteen centuries ago. Because of this defiance, the Grand Ayatollah became a pursued target of the Baathist regime and was forced into hiding until the regime finally closed the case. Yet despite all the harassment and persecution, His Eminence would remain in Najaf and refuse to join the exodus away from Baathist tyranny. He saw the exodus as a threat to the existence of Najaf’s seminary, and so decided to stay in the city to ensure its continuity.
On May 9th, 1983, after the Hakeem family’s refusal to support the Baathist regime during the Iran-Iraq war, many of the family’s members were arrested, including the Grand Ayatollah himself. There, they faced constant interrogation and all kinds of torture. They were beaten with nightsticks and subjected to electric shocks, to name a couple of the most used torture methods. Diseases began to spread, with no access to any medical assistance. Still, the family’s fortitude was not broken and they persevered.
Shortly after the mass imprisonment of the family, the Grand Ayatollah began offering classes in Quranic exegesis. He found no other books or sources for study in the Baathist prison system other than an old and worn copy of the Holy Quran. The wardens soon found out about this course and forced him to stop teaching. Nonetheless, religious discussions and commemorations continued in secrecy throughout their years of imprisonment. During those years, a total of sixteen members of the Hakeem family were executed by the regime.
In 1985, the remainder of the imprisoned members of the Hakeem family was moved to Abu Ghraib prison, which was a lower security prison at the time. There, the Grand Ayatollah found an opportunity to continue teaching the advanced seminars he had offered before imprisonment. Since most of the inmates with him were highly educated seminarians and students of his, he quickly seized the opportunity.
Finally, on June 7, 1991, His Eminence and the remainder of the Hakeem family were released from prison. That, however, did not mean an end to Baathist harassment. Baathist authorities badgered him in an attempt to name him an official state designated religious authority. He definitively refused such offers, asserting that religious authority is and must always be independent. Because of his firm position, the state imposed a great deal of restrictions on the Grand Ayatollah. Amongst those restraints included a ban on publishing any of his books and scholarly work and broad restrictions on his travel.
After the passing of Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim Al-Khoei the following year, many scholars and seminarians petitioned His Eminence to assume the obligations and duties of Marja’ – the religious authority to whom the believers refer to in issues of law. In compliance with the incessant petitions of students and peers, he put forward his views on Islamic law and practice and became one of the most prominent religious authorities of the time. He continued his scholarly work, writing and teaching across the fields of Islamic sciences. Currently based in the Holy City of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Al-Hakeem is one of the leading contemporary religious authorities for Shia Muslims worldwide.