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Opinion: Karbala via Glasgow | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani adjusts a translation headphone during a news conference in New York, United States, on Friday, September 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Anxious to reach agreement with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program, President Hassan Rouhani is trying to mobilize support for his divisive policy. Last month, he tried to woo nationalists with a speech in which there was no mention of Islam, let alone the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. He talked of Iran as “the builder of civilization for thousands of years,” long before Islam, and as a great power that knew when to fight and when to negotiate.

Last week, with the start of the Shi’ite mourning month of Muharram—the first month of the Islamic calendar—Rouhani tried to use the story of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husayn, the third Imam of Twelver Shi’ites, to justify negotiations with the “infidel.”

Rouhani claimed that Husayn had negotiated with Omar Ibn Sa’ad, sent by Umayyad Caliph Yazid to persuade the Imam to abide by the truce made by his elder brother Hassan with the founder of the Umayyad dynasty Mu’awyiah, and return to Medina.

Husayn refused and engaged in the battle of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, in which he and his 72 armed companions perished. Trying to portray Husayn as a man open to compromise and forgiveness, Rouhani also recalled that the would-be martyr had pardoned Hurr, an enemy officer, after he repented and joined the Imam’s companions.

Rouhani is right about both incidents but is wrong in his conclusions. Husayn did talk with Ibn Sa’ad before Ashura, but one could hardly describe the encounter as “negotiations.”

According to Abu-Mikhnaf in his Book of Husayn’s Slaying (Kitab Muqtal Al-Husayn), the oldest accounts of the tragedy, Ibn Sa’ad repeated Yazid’s demand that the Imam return to Medina and make no further trouble. Husayn refused, insisting he would not recognize Yazid as caliph. The session ended in acrimony. That could hardly be regarded as negotiations in any acceptable sense of the term. The method of the two sides was closer to “declamation,” known in Arabic as rajaz.

The Hurr incident occurred on a trajectory different from the one Rouhani claims. Hurr, whose surname incidentally was riahi which means “weathervane” in Arabic, simply changed sides without obtaining any concessions.

Rouhani’s idiosyncratic reading of the Karbala story has provoked a polemical storm in Iran. Some critics have branded his account as “the Glasgow version of Karbala,” because Rouhani holds a PhD in Constitutional Law from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

In a sermon, Ayatollah Adib Yazdi urged Rouhani “to re-learn the Qom version” of the Karbala story. Another theologian, Heshmatallah Qanbari, went further, describing Rouhani’s version as “a glaring error.” Husayn, Qanbari says, did not want to sign “additional protocols” with Yazid, a mocking reference to Rouhani’s efforts to sign something, anything, with the P5+1. “The exchange between Husayn and Ibn Sa’ad was not negotiations,” Qanbari says. “It was a warning [inzar] to Yazid’s envoy from the Imam.”

Another theologian, Ayatollah Muhammad Qa’em-maqami, insists that the key lesson of Karbala was “rejection of truce with the Infidel.” “Those who preach agreement at whatever price speak against the message of Ashura,” Qa’em-maqami said.

As for Ayatollah Javad Suleimani, Rouhani’s “Glasgow Version” ignores “the very foundation of the Shi’ite faith which is seeking martyrdom in the way of God.”

“Today, downtrodden people everywhere in the world are looking to our Islamic revolution and its message of combat and martyrdom,” Suelimani wrote this week. “So, how could we claim that one of the founders of our faith was trying to make a deal with an oppressor?”

Even theologians on government payroll have found it hard to endorse Rouhani’s interpretation. Ayatollah Muhammad-Qassem Wafa, a religious commissar with the army, says that even supposing that the Imam did hold as discussion with the enemy, “the final lesson of Karbala is struggle and martyrdom.”

Ayatollah Mehdi Tabataba’i, a pro-Rouhani mullah, suggests that Husayn decided to fight to the bitter end only after negotiations with Ibn Sa’ad had failed. “Reason dictates that we negotiate,” Tabataba’i says.

The trouble with the “Glasgow Version” is that it tries to re-write an epic as a picaresque novel. The Karbala incident has always been called a hamassah, which means “epic” in both Arabic and Persian. Thus Husayn is an epic hero and, as such, cannot develop, change , mutate, alter or even mature in the course of events. The epic hero arrives fully formed with all his potentials already realized. Nothing, not even martyrdom or victory, would alter his predestined fate (maktoub). He is the translation of the divinely decreed “let-there-be” into the actual “is”.

In a novel, however, the hero could—indeed must—change by becoming older, or thanks to an elixir of youth, even younger, better, worse, richer, poorer, in love, out of love, powerful, or powerless, as the case may be.

In Husayn’s case, there is no circumstance one could imagine in which he might have changed with changing circumstances.

Another problem is that if we assume that Husayn’s position might have changed through negotiations, even imagining his total victory with Yazid agreeing to step down and giving his rival the caliphate, we would empty the Karbala story of its central theme: martyrdom.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini was not a great theologian. However, even he understood that it was not up to individuals to choose martyrdom; some are chosen, most are not. Husayn was chosen to become “Lord of the Martyrs” (Sayyed Al-Shuhada).

Husayn was not faced with an a la carte choice that included a deal with Yazid, return to Medina, taqiyyeh (dissimulation) to save his life, or even redeployment to Lake Razzaza to have access to water. Had he done any of those things he would have become a picaresque character rather than an epic hero.

Rouhani also commits an error of categories when he claims that “reason” justifies negotiations. Faith involves belief in matters that “reason” might regard as unreasonable, even absurd. Vice-versa, faith probes into depths that reason does not pretend to reach.

The “Glasgow version” is an example of mixing religion and politics, an exercise that harms both. Rouhani is a politician and ought to argue his case in political terms. If he believes that making a deal with the P5+1 is good for Iran, he should try to sell the idea in political terms, not by having recourse to religious themes that, his Scottish PhD notwithstanding, he seems to misunderstand.