Ashura has multiple significances for Muslims. The first is probably that it has ensured that there will be no celebration of the Muslim New Year. That is appropriate, as the Muslim festivals are the Eids, and the New Year is not a rival. However, the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) marked Ashura by fasting, well before the martyrdom of his grandson at Karbala on this day. Ashura thus provides a link from Islam to the earlier Judaeo-Christian religions. It is also political, for while the Imam offered his martyrdom for the eternal principles of Islam, the occasion was his refusal to offer his allegiance to a person he did not consider fit for the office of Caliph.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the joining of the Imam’s martyrdom to the fasts of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is that there is an essential link provided to Islam’s Jewish heritage. Islam, as the Quran insists, is firmly in the Jewish tradition, and the Holy Prophet (PBUH) claims descent through the Prophet Ismail to the Prophet Abraham. There is a resonance between the Abrahamic Sacrifice (which only Islam marks, as Eidul Azha) and that of the Imam. Christian commentators compare the Abrahamic Sacrifice with that of Christ going on the Cross, and while Muslim commentators do not draw any comparison with the martyrdom, the comparison is virtually inescapable, especially when it is remembered that the Imam was a descendant of both Abraham and Ismail.
At the same time, there is an avoidance of the politics of the martyrdom. It was essentially a political event, and the Imam was refusing to give a bait, or oath of allegiance, that Yazid wanted very badly. The Imam’s martyrdom shows that Islam views politics as an integral part of religion that cannot be left out. There is none of the leaving it to the next election. The Imam showed, personally and with his family, that the choice of ruler was important enough to die for.
Militants are criticised for imparting what is called ‘political Islam.’ This is a criticism based on the Western division of church and state, where the ruler also divides himself between the personal and private. The Imam’s criticism of Yazid was not based on his public unfitness, but his personal disobedience of the law. The reasoning was that if someone did not apply the law to himself, then he would not apply it to the Muslims as a whole. It must not be forgotten that the law is not merely a series of manmade constructs, but an understanding of the commandments of the Almighty Himself. The Caliph pledges to enforce that law, acting therein as the representative of all Muslims, and in exchange, commands the allegiance of the Ummah, the bait, which is a promise to obey him. This is important, for it not only acknowledges him as ruler, but also binds one to obeying his interpretation of the law. As has resounded down the centuries, this the Imam refused to do.
Why was Yazid so insistent? The Imam was the one most likely to challenge his Caliphate, and he was going to obtain his allegiance in much the same way as modern election losers make concession speeches. Another factor that made a difference was that many people asked the Imam to declare his candidacy for the Caliphate. That also solved another dilemma of the critic: if Yazid was not suitable, who was? If the Imam gave the bait, this would put paid to his candidacy definitively.
Hussain put himself forward, and he staked his claim on his following the teaching of his grandfather, of the commandments of the Almighty. It is important that he genuinely did not see anyone to whom to give allegiance. Just as one cannot say a prayer behind a prayer leader who does not fulfill the conditions, one cannot offer allegiance to a person who does not fulfill the conditions.
From the martyrdom at Karbala flowed the Shia-Sunni divide. It was from that, not from the conflict between Muawiya and Ali, that the Shia-Sunni divide flowed. However, the martyrdom of the Imam belongs to all Muslims, not just any one sect. The recent statement of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, in Baghdad, that the Shia-Sunni divide is costly, is not just of interest for its own value, but because all three of the caliphal capitals are involved. Davotoglu himself is from Turkey, with Istanbul until the 1924 fall of the Caliphate its capital, speaking in the land of Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, about Syria, the land of Damascus, the capital of the Umayyads. Of the other caliphal capitals, Kufa is in Iraq, while Cairo (where the Abbassid caliphate was revived after Baghdad fell to the Mongols) has seen the turmoil of Tahrir Square, though Madina, the capital of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, has not only not been a capital since then, but is undisturbed under Saudi rule.
The theological position is that martyrdom is a status granted by the Almighty, and it carries with it a high place in Heaven in the afterlife. It is because of the high reward for martyrs that it is coveted. However, while the decision is the Almighty’s, the term can be used by people about others. That is one reason why the Imam is considered a martyr, one who was killed in the way of the Almighty.
Ashura is not just about the Imam’s martyrdom. According to a Hadith, it is also the birthday of the Prophets Musa and Isa, and the anniversary of the pardon to Adam, among other things. Yet for Muslims, it is this martyrdom which defines the day, indeed the month. Ashura is about politics, about the state as it is supposed to be. The debate over the nature of the state continues to this day. Not for nothing is the War on Terror going on, as the vision of the Islamic state involves, as it did for the Imam, its head. His assumption, that the state itself was Islamic, is not accepted by the militants. While ‘political Islam’ may bother the West, it remains the central message of the Imam’s martyrdom, that Muslims must never accept an unjust person as ruler. This is something so important that the Imam not only gave his own life, but also that of his family.
The lesson of Ashura is very powerful. It reinforces the message of resisting evil that Islam gives, and that is at the root of what is called ‘political Islam.’ The Imam’s example is a forceful reminder that Muslims cannot simply designate something ‘religious’ and shove it into some back room. The Imam’s concern about the ruler means that religion cannot be relegated to a personal affair and ignored. This is not a religious holiday, but a political.

The writer is a veteran journalist  and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.