It all started with claims of Khilafat (Caliphate).
He was ill, and death drew near. When Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was asked to choose a successor (leader) of the Muslims, he refused. When death took this great soul, Muslims were left leaderless.
It is said that at the time when Muhammad died, Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, was telling others that Muhammad(S), who meant so much to them, could not die. Abu Bakr (R) at this time went to Muhammad(S)’s home and found his body lying in the laps of Ayesha (R). Abu Bakr came back, and tried to tell Umar in private what has happened. Seeing that Umar was not willing to pay heed, he declared that the prophet, peace and blessings upon him, has passed away, and recited this verse from the Qur’an: “Muhammad is but a prophet, (prophets) like whom has passed away in the past…”
Abu Bakr was elected the new leader of the Ummah (The Muslim community). A part of the Muslims wanted Ali ibn Abu Talib (R), who was of the same blood as Muhammad(S) to be the new leader. Some people (who later was to become the Shias) believed that only people of Muhammad(S)’s blood should be leaders of the community. This is the main cause of friction between the Shias and the Sunnis. However, as Abu Bakr (wiki) was elected, Ali apparently accepted the new leader with some reservation(this is disputed). Upon being elected Abu Bakr gave this wonderful short speach which should be the spirit of modern day democracies:
“The weak among you shall be strong with me until their rights have been vindicated; and the strong among you shall be weak with me until, if the Lord wills, I have taken what is due from them… Obey me as long as I obey God and His Messenger. When I disobey Him and His Prophet, then obey me not.”
After Abu Bakr’s death(634 AD), Umar (wiki) was elected the caliph(assasinated, in 644 AD), followed by Uthman(wiki) (again assasinated, 656 AD), followed by Ali ibn Abu Talib (wiki)(until 661, when he was assasinated while saying his prayers). These four leaders are called the four rightly guided leaders, or Al-Rashidun.(wiki)
Ali’s son Hassan was a contestant for the Caliphate. The Syrian Muawiyah I, who had been fighting Ali for the Caliphate, now started preparing for a war. Hassan avoided war by signing a pact with him giving Muawiyah the Caliphate and thus saving bloodshed. Hassan was later poisoned to death.
After Muawiyah’s death, it was expected that Husayn (younger brother of Hassan) will contest for caliphate. But Muawiyah, before his death, nominated his son Yejid for the Caliphate. Thus the post of Caliphate became heredetary from this point. Husayn rised in revolt and was crushed and murdered at deserts of Karbala.
On the occassion of Muharram that day is remembered. It is particularly important to the Shias and till date their glorification of Martyrdom centers around this incident. (Perhaps the Shia identity revolves around this martyrdom.) Husayn had to fight, for justice, even though he was badly outnumbered (mythology say 72/73 on Husayn’s side faught over a lakh ).
Sunnis, too, mourn the death of Husayn.
Present Day Practices
In India, a lot of practices have cropped up. People beat themselves with sticks and whips; cut themselves with blades; and get drunk. I believe all of these are un-Islamic practice.
Yesterday, I heard, some children were made to run on burning coal in memory of this incident. These are barbaric practices, to say the least, and I am surprised as to why the ‘Ulema are not taking a stand about these. (Honestly, I am not surpirsed).
As far as I am aware, crying too loudly on somebody’s death is not preferable. A Muslim is supposed to be content in sorrow and in happiness. These practices put up a very bad show of Muslims in front of others.
This is an occassion to reflect and remember and to glorify our Lord. History is a very good teacher, and unlike time, it does not kill all it’s pupils.