Understanding Why Good People Must Suffer.
BY DR. MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
Weil explains how the idea of seeking some comfort for Imam Hussain’s camp or temptation of advising other actors in the drama or God to redirect some of its elements in more humane or moral terms that is often indulged in by some Muslims is premised on failure to understand the basic design. “Renunciation demands that we should pass through anguish equivalent to that which would be caused in reality by the loss of all loved beings and all possession, including our faculties and attainments in the order of intelligence and character, our opinions, beliefs concerning what is good, what is stable, etc. And we must not lay these things down of ourselves but lose them—like Job…” We find true renunciation in Hussain(A.S) who offers or loses all things, relationships and the last and most dear treasure, life.
In fact ultimately it is a childish question to ask how Hussain(A.S) could have saved himself or struck a better deal that avoided such a tragic outcome. Man as such has no choice but to embrace cross and carry it. To the question why subject to suffering Jesus or Hussain if they are sinless and what is justice in making them sort of scapegoats for community, for sinners, evidences failure of comprehension of what is sin and what is atonement and how the task is the birth of Christ/Hussain in each one of us. Hussain’s story is ours. Corbin, however, explains this insight best. “There is an Imam Husayn within each man: his intellect (Aql), whose divine splendour is a light that derives from the Imam. But this inner Imam is surrounded by enemies (Jahl), and these are all the powers of the carnal soul that issue from the shadow of the Imam’s enemies. Within every man there unfolds a tragedy of Karbala. In the Karbala of his heart, it may happen that the powers of the carnal soul kill the intellect and the angelic companions who assist it, and uproot all traces of them from man’s heart. Then indeed there is accomplished in each one of us, word for word (harfan bi-harfin), the ta’wil (esoteric dimension) of the tragedy of Karbala.”
To the objection that Hussain was blameless, Simone Weil would say that he shared the blame of being. It has been rightly noted that if our being were not ultimately a scandal, there would have been no death. And one’s being innocent in ordinary sense makes one better able to carry the cross in style. Martyrdom is no punishment. How do we know, as Socrates long back pointed out, that death is a punishment? To quote Weil, “If a human being who is in a state of perfection and has through grace completely destroyed the ‘I’ in himself, falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the ‘I’ from outside – we have there the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the ‘I’ in him for the ‘I’ in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God.”
She further notes, “If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought. And this knowledge is extended to our sensibility only through suffering and death.” “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.”
The cosmic scale of injustice against Hussain may be appreciated by noting Weil’s another remark stating that what is sacred is impersonal and thus shared by us all and this implies that if it is desecrated, all are affected. Our responsibility/guilt is either cosmic or extends to whole of humanity or it is not there at all. (This is illuminated by a remark in Dostoevsky and elaborated by Levinas to the effect that for any crime anywhere by anyone we are all responsible and the one who asserts this is more responsible.)
Lastly we turn from moral (what ought to be) to ontological plane (what is) to illuminate more disturbing aspects of the problem of evil that arise in connection with Karbala. A few remarks follow:
If there is a Spirit that is to be identified with the power to say “I” or witnessing consciousness, nothing worthwhile could be destroyed in Karbala. As Weil has remarked nothing can take away our power to say “I.” The Spirit can’t be conquered, even touched in the least by anything under the sun. It is and remains incorruptible. It is the Spirit in us that makes all of us including the worst criminals worthy of redemption.
Our job is to resist destruction but let decreation happen. Acting our part well in the drama of life by crossing the self and embracing the other, or as Shakespeare teaches us, to live as if we are actors on the stage and thus play our role as underdogs, as those frowned upon, well. (This doesn’t mean that injustice has not to be fought for our role as activists for fighting evil is equally a role we are required to play well. And revealed laws offer us guidelines of playing our roles without allowing us to assume the role of directors, to take anything too personally. They show how God can take away the pain in our suffering).
Existence is ultimately justified only in aesthetic terms, noted Nietzsche. Sufi thinkers and Muslim poets in general (who are almost all Sufistically inclined in their poetry at least) concur with the primacy of the aesthetic/ontological stating that we must raise from moralistic to ontological plane to appreciate how God is ever in control in all affairs, how everything contributes to larger good (again not to be reduced to moralistic plane but to be identified with plenitude, existence) and see things from God’s viewpoint which is the view from nowhere and everywhere. Villains in the drama of life, like Satan in the cosmic drama, have a role that must be recognized. All things, save God’s Face/Being are destined to perish. There remains a terrible beauty behind every event of which Yeats talks. The cosmic dance appreciated in a Unitarian vision “justifies” all and our task remains both of contemplation of the unity/transcendence of opposites and joining the dance and siding with justice at the dualistic plane on which drama of unity unfolds. A world without Hussain and Karbala would be an impoverished world in both moral and aesthetic terms where much of the fire of love and passion and warmth of tears and the wild cry for justice would be absent. Moralism should not blind us to the element of beauty and limitations of moralistic-legalistic response. “Lives become petty and laughable to the extent that they shy away from the presence of the tragic. And to the extent that they participate in a sacred horror, they become human. It may be that this paradox is too great and to difficult to uphold: still, it is no less the truth of life than blood is.”
Sunni-Shia polemic over Karbala and debates over other choices offered to Imam Hussain may be put in perspective by noting that the latter tried to achieve objective of setting right time out of joint without uprising and without inviting death for anyone. But things are as they are – where ill will (“cursed spite”) has its way. And this means unavoidable tragedy. And point to be noted is Hussain thanked God for the sacrifice offered. In fact tragedies, mournings and elegies accomplish certain ends and help express certain truths of spirit and as such are found everywhere in the world. Religion is sacrifice, a point illustrated across traditions (a brilliant exposition one may find in AKC’s Hinduism and Buddhism).The world is a product of sacrifice by the Supreme Self. Violence we find in institutions of sacrifice is part of the kitty of psycho-spiritual health – one needs to review the debate on violence and the Sacred in philosophy and anthropology to appreciate how violence – of which ultimate expression is hell – accomplish purification and why should the noblest and most virtuous humans – prophets/sages – be chosen to suffer in style?
Karbala is only an instantiation of Karb-o-bala that constitute the very tapestry of life and as such can’t be avoided. A mother’s sacrifice in raising a family has been compared to any grand story of sacrifice. Since it happens daily and we are too familiar with it, we don’t salute mothers and sing great songs on routine basis for remembering them.
The debate on cursing Yazid may be illuminated by recalling the Biblical verse stating that scandals must come but woe to those through whose hands they come. It hardly matters if one formally curses those hands as God/History/the Poet anyway curse on our behalf.
A world without suffering would be God/Heaven/Utopia and thus impossible or not a world as we know it.
Whether truth wins in particular historical conditions is not an issue. People often forget the distinction between divine will as expressed in scripture or revealed law and ontological will that ultimately prevails. For instance God forbids murder and injustice but these things happen in His world by His leave though He is not pleased with such acts. What is real is what prevails and that is no less divine in its roots or thingness/being than is scripture. At the root of certain difficulties arising in understanding Karbala is prior misconception regarding religion understood in nauseatingly sentimental/moral terms (‘Be good, sweet child,’ etc) invoking pleasure/pain duality and neglect of the intellectual virtues (which alone survive our death) – as noted by AKC. We must find deeper import of Karbala at another plane.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philos¬ophy, literature, religion and mysticism