Few religious events from any faith evoke such a visceral emotional response as the observance of Ashura does for Shia Muslims.
Historically Ashura (literally “tenth”) commemorates the Battle of Karbala, where the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed (sa), Husain ibn Ali (as) was slaughtered along with his family upon orders from the Ummaiyad Caliph. The tale is rife with heart wrenching sub-stories of cruelty, barbarism, torture, and the cold-blooded murder of innocents. However, one of the tales that grips me most and resonates loudest is not one of cruelty or torture, nor one of valiant battle; but rather one of forgiveness, humility, and redemption.
Hur (as) was an officer and commander in the Umaiyyad army. When Husain’s caravan reached Karbala, Hur was the person responsible for stopping them from proceeding further to Kufa (their destination). He did so within sight of the Euphrates River, a major source of fresh water in the arid desert. But he would not allow them to reach the river to replenish the coffers– a major taboo unheard of among the Arab cultures. By the tenth day of the year, Ashura, Husain’s family had been out of water for three days when open hostilities were declared.
Hur participated in this torture of innocents both actively and tacitly. Before the declaration of hostilities, Husain asked for a bit of time so he could lead his men in a prayer. Importantly, he asked Hur to do the same for his own men.
Immediately touched by Husain’s unshakeable faith and devotion in the face of overwhelming suffering and thirst, Hur realized that he did not want to be associated with the torture and murder of such noble people. Although a major commander in Ummaiyad army, Hur defected and begged for forgiveness from Husain and from God.
Husain forgave Hur and immediately granted him permission to join his army. He even granted him the great honor of being first to go to battle, where Hur was eventually killed by his former comrades. Though this may seem a dubious distinction in today’s world, in the ancient Arab culture there was no greater honor.
Today, when the story of Husain is told, Hur’s story is always told first. Here is a man who committed perhaps one of the worst atrocities imaginable in this scenario–stopping Husain and his family at the place of their massacre, and withholding water from all (women and children included) in the desert heat. It was only in the very last moments of his life that he realized his mistake and sought forgiveness with a clean heart. Even so, this genuine repentance earned him a tremendous honor. Now, 1400 years later, he is still remembered–not for his evil deeds, but for his noble one.
Who among us has wronged or been wronged so severely that forgiveness and redemption seem out of reach? Surely, none more so than Hur. At those times, he reminds us that God lives in each of our hearts– and with God, all things are possible.