In an interview with IQNA, Chris Hewer added that Imam Hussein’s (AS) lesson is a most powerful lesson that speaks to the depths of human hearts and draws people to the highest acts of faith.
Dr. Chris Hewer comes from a background in Christian theology, education, Islamic studies and inter-faith studies and has worked in the field of Muslims in Britain and Christian-Muslim relations since 1986, first at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak in Birmingham and from 1999 to 2005, as the Adviser on Inter-Faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham. From 2006-2010, he was the St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations in London, with a brief to deliver adult popular education courses, study days and talks around Greater London. His current work is to teach study days and residential courses, to develop written and electronic resources and to be available for consultation.
Following is the full text of the interview with Dr. Hewer:
Q: How did you get acquainted with Imam Hussein (AS) and his stand for justice?
A: I have lived and worked amongst Muslims for the last thirty-five years, therefore the name of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] has always been in my consciousness. I had both Sunni and Shia teachers, so I was able to learn about the events of the early Muslim community from both perspectives. The Sunnis amongst whom I worked were great ‘lovers of Hussein’ but they revered him as the beloved grandson of the Prophet, “whose lips has kissed the Prophet’s face”, and not as the third in the chain of divinely appointed Imams. My Shia friends and students observed the time of Muharram with great intensity and so this led me to explore more of Imam Hussein’s life, his stand for justice, and his eventual martyrdom with his companions on the Field of Karbala. My work is to help Christians to understand Islam and so they need to know the deeper meaning behind his life and death and not just the details of the story. This was my route into deeper research and examination of Hussein’s character and the stand that he took against tyranny and injustice.
Q: What do you think were the real reasons behind Imam Hussein’s (AS) stand for justice?
A: God has no favorites and all human beings are called to worship God. Those appointed to positions of authority and possessed of a higher degree of piety and wisdom have an especially important role as guides and exemplars to others. The most spiritually exalted of the Servants of God do not belong to the community from which they came alone, but belong to God in a special way and thus belong to all humankind. Imam Hussein is one of these. The reason behind his stand for justice against the tyranny of Yazid is to set an example that speaks to men and women of all ages and places to show how they must also be prepared to take a stand rather than let injustice and tyranny rule the world. His is a most powerful lesson that speaks to the depths of human hearts and draws people to the highest acts of faith: Even though I appear to fail in the eyes of this world, God can use that apparent ‘failure’ to a most noble end. The life of faith calls us to go forth in the trust that God will vindicate our actions and will not allow our suffering to count for nothing.
Q: As a Christian, what aspects of Imam Hussein’s life and stand for justice are most attractive?
A: The Bible has several accounts of men and women who were prepared to give their lives for the sake of a stand for justice and to die as martyrs. Martyrdom is never a human choice, but rather a full-hearted response to the invitation of God to take a stand on justice, uprightness and truth and not give way no matter what happens; even at the cost of one’s own life. In this way, Hussein stands as a role model in resolute obedience to the invitation of God for all humankind, and therefore also for Christians. As a Christian, I too am on a path of faithful following of the invitation of God to surrender my life as God so wishes to use me. Hussein lives fully the life of faith, he is willing to endure hardships in the desert and to see his family and friends suffer terrible thirst and harassment. Ultimately, he accepts that terrible burden of responsibility of allowing members of his family and his faithful companions to go to certain death rather than accept tyranny. Given his own exalted position, he is brought from the heights to a cruel and demeaning death. These aspects of his life shine out with a special brilliance to people of all ages.
Q: Are there any similar events, like Ashura, in Christian history?
A: There are many examples of faithful women and men who are called to martyrdom in Christian history, which may have some parallels with Ashura, but none of these martyrs has the same exalted status as Jesus for Christians, or Hussein for Muslims. Therefore, the most pertinent comparisons are between the Christian understanding of the death of Jesus and the Muslim understanding of the martyrdom of Hussein. For the Christian, the supreme sacrifice in obedience to the divine command is the death of Jesus. The understanding of the death of Jesus is one area in which Christianity and Islam differ, as, for Christians, Jesus is not spared the ultimate humiliation of a most degrading public death but endures to the end, dies, is buried and, on the third day, is resurrected to eternal life. In this way, his ultimate victory is over death itself. Given that Jesus is the supreme example of ‘all that it is to be human’, for Christians, his death is a descent from the highest to the depths of human degradation, whilst his resurrection to eternal life is evidence of God’s vindication of his obedience and self-offering. He, like Hussein, follows the way of obedience to God’s call even at the cost of his own life and this obedience becomes a shining light for all to see and emulate. (There are, of course, other fundamental differences between the Muslim and Christian understandings of Jesus concerning his divine nature.)
Q: What lessons can the contemporary human being take from the life of Imam Hussein (AS)?
A: Imam Hussein accepts and respects the decision taken by his brother, Imam Hassan [AS], to keep out of political life as long as Mu'awiya keeps to his side of the agreement; he shows us the importance of honoring the agreements that were entered into by our predecessors. He tries every way to avoid bloodshed by moving successively from Medina to Mecca and finally into the desert. He accepts the duty of leadership by not giving in to injustice and tyranny; if he had done so, others would have felt open to do the same. He leaves people free to decide to follow him or not; there is no force or coercion. He is prepared to grant forgiveness and the highest honor of martyrdom to al-Hurr, the man who dogged his steps through the desert and eventually brought him to the place of his death. He is prepared to go forward in faith solely in the trust that God will not forget him, but rather vindicate him to use his death and the death of his companions to the higher purpose that God wills. Their names live on in human memory and have inspired countless others to strive in their own way, as God so wills, to resist injustice and tyranny and strive for a more just and noble way of human living.