Democracy in the Light of Imam Hussain’s (AS) Movement

One of the questions that arises about Imam Hussain’s (AS) movement, which is of great importance especially in the modern days, is whether he desired to form an Islamic community, and if so whether the people willingly wanted to accept his leadership or not. In other words, did Imam Hussain (AS) actually want to rule over the Islamic community? Did he seek power? Did people join Imam Hussain (AS) of their own free will or they were forced, enticed or threatened to do so?  The answers will reveal the core message of Imam Hussain (AS)’s revolution for us today.


Did the Infallible Imams Long for Leadership?

Imam Hussain, muharram 2018, Salam Islam

To answer these questions, we should first find out what the idea of the infallible Imams (AS) was about power. If we carefully look at their lives, we will come to know that they did not struggle for power nor did they have a craving to attain it. At the same time, though, whenever there was a public demand to govern over people, they did not refuse that request. Power or governing a community in the infallible Imams’ eye is nothing but a duty to serve people, protect their rights and bring justice among them.


They considered power as the means of reviving and expanding the divine goals and principles and preserving the moral values. So having political power was not of inherent value to them. You can see the proof in the following account:

“This world of yours is no better than the sneezing of a goat to me.” 

After the death of the third caliph, Uthman, the crowd of people rushed to Imam Ali (AS) and asked him to take up the reins of government. But Imam Ali (AS) replied: “It is better for me to be your vizier and advisor rather than a ruler… leave me and go to others” [1]. In fact, if it was not for the sake of justice and people’s frustration and call for help, Imam Ali (AS) would have never accepted to be the ruler, as he said: “In my view this world of yours is no better than the sneezing of a goat” [2]. 


Or in another occasion, he said to one of his companions that his worn-out patched shoes were dearer to him than ruling over people unless for the fact that he may establish right and ward off wrong [2].

Imam Hussain’s (AS) Attitude toward Leadership (Political Power)

Imam Hussain, muharram 2018, Salam Islam


Imam Hussain (AS) had the same attitude toward power as his father. He did not seek a leadership role unless for the sake of eliminating injustice and corruption from the community. And that’s why Imam Hussain did not take the oath of allegiance to Yazid, the ruthless caliph of that time.


Clearly, it is every individual’s duty to fight against oppression and injustice in society. In other words, standing against tyranny is a moral and virtuous act in itself that is not entirely dependent on the companionship of others. However, when it comes to the issue of gaining power or accepting people’s leadership to fight against tyranny, the morality and value of this uprising depend on whether the leader is merely seeking reformation, or he struggles to gain supremacy over people. Such arrogance in leadership, in the latter case, can be eliminated by the presence of people.


Democracy is a Two-Way Street


When people of Kufa heard Imam Hussain (AS) had not pledged allegiance to Yazid’s government, they got impressed and sent thousands of letters to Imam Hussain (AS) asking him to go there and serve as their leader to fight against the tyranny. He did not take their request for granted nor did he accept their invitation right away. Instead, he decided to send his representative, Muslim ibn Aqil, to them to confirm their loyalty. That’s because in Islam the relationship between people and the government is a two-way street. On one way is the voting public -those who decide who becomes their leader and have to be loyal to him- and on the other path is the government, who also needs to be loyal to people and care about their well-being. And this is one of the important aspects of democracy in its true sense of the word.


Here another aspect of Imam Hussain’s (AS) movement is revealed which is beyond the mere fight against oppression: the necessity which made Imam Hussain (AS) decide to take power, i.e., people’s will and invitation. 


Imam Hussain (AS) Accepted People’s Request

Imam hussain, muharram 2018, Salam Islam

Imam Hussain (AS) thought it was necessary to accept the people’s leadership because they had asked him to do so. 

If Imam Hussain (AS) had sought supremacy, he would have accepted people’s leadership at any cost. But he fulfilled what God told him in the Holy Quran:

“Do not be like those who left their homes vainly and to show off to the people, and to bar [other people] from the way of Allah” (8:47)

He also said: “Indeed, I have not risen to make mischief, neither as an adventurer nor to cause corruption and tyranny. I have risen solely to seek the reform of the Ummah of my grandfather (PBUH)” [2].

He expressed it manifestly in his speeches that he would accept people’s leadership only if the elites of the community were all agreed on that invitation. He repeated it once again when he was faced with Hur’s army on his way to Kufa and emphasized that the people of Kufa had invited him by sending thousands of letters and requested him to take over the affairs. He explicitly stated that if the people of Kufa regretted their decision, he would return. He did not want to impose himself on people!


People Must Also Be Loyal to Their Leader


People of Kufa had invited Imam Hussain (AS), they had chosen him as their leader. But they were too weak to stand for what they had asked for. They were threatened and enticed by the tyrant governor of Kufa and could not keep their promise. Their hearts were with Imam Hussain (AS), but in practice, their swords were against him. They left Imam Hussain’s (AS) side and so the democracy they wished for was not materialized among them.


The Last Word

Finally, in the Islamic view of democracy, there has to be a balance between the rights and duties of both people and the rulers. Otherwise, there would be a disaster.

Many times in a democratic scene, there is a ruler who oppresses a lot of people. However, in the tragic story of Imam Hussain (AS), there is a group of people who choose and invite their leader, and promise to support him but go back on their pledge and fight against him, which ultimately resulted in the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS), one of the most righteous people on earth.