1400 years ago the Umayyads seized complete power of the Muslim world,1 ruling for 90 years and came to be recognized as one of the most damaging dynasties to take control of the Muslim world. The Umayyads were able to alter and enforce an interpretation of Islam on the newly developing Islamic nation that dictated the fundamentality of tribalism, the superiority of Arabs, harshness, warfare and geographical expansions. In these 90-years, the Umayyads did not have much to do with Islam, rather they primarily saw it as a means to further strengthen their political power. Hence, we do not even see any significant depth in Islamic scholarship being produced during this period, in fact, on the contrary, some traditions indicate that some groups of Muslims were even unaware of rules concerning the Ḥalāl and Ḥarām during parts of Umayyad rule. The remnants of this enforced interpretation can be seen predominantly in certain theological discussions, the ḥadīth, Qurānic exegesis and jurisprudence, as it deeply embedded itself into the minds of the early Muslim community. Even some later Shī’ī traditions where the Imams (a) respond to individual questions can only be understood when one understands certain trends and ideas inherited by the community from the previous Umayyad dynasty.
According to the Umayyad painting of Islam, any movement seeking reform, change and improvement was deemed sectarian and a cause of a split in the Muslim nation – a threat to their power – even if it happened to be one of their own, like the caliph ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz. Hence, 1380 years ago, Imam Ḥusayn (a) was also seen as a troublemaker. Imam Ḥusayn (a) rightly deemed the Umayyad caliphate – still in its infancy – as a source of corruption (fasād) on Earth and described them as those who obey Shayṭān instead of obeying the Most Gracious.2 The Imam (a) took a stand against their corruption which continues to be remembered till today:
So, he (a) called to You (swt) flawlessly, gave advices, and sacrificed his soul for You to save Your servants from ignorance and perplexity of straying off. Yet, those whom were seduced by this worldly life, who sold their share (of reward) with the lowliest and meanest, retailed their Hereafter with the cheapest price, acted haughtily, perished because of following their desires, brought to themselves Your wrath and the wrath of Your Prophet. ~ Ziyārah of Arba’īn
However, the stand of Imam Ḥusayn (a) was not against any petty corruption. At times you have corruption on the micro-level, perhaps between two individuals in a business transaction, or between a couple where one spouse is oppressive to the other. Fighting against this corruption would not have required him (a) to do what he did and say what he (a) did. He (a) could have given allegiance and remained in Medina to fight against such corruption. Other times you have a macro-level and systematic corruption – a type of corruption that is built into the very systems ruling over you. It can even be argued that the former types of corruption ultimately originate in some aspects of the latter.
The Qurān contains examples of both types of corruption. For example:
وَلَا تَنقُصُوا الْمِكْيَالَ وَالْمِيزَانَ ۚ إِنِّي أَرَاكُم بِخَيْرٍ وَإِنِّي أَخَافُ عَلَيْكُمْ عَذَابَ يَوْمٍ مُّحِيطٍ
[11:84] Do not diminish the measure or the balance. Indeed I see that you are faring well, but I fear for you the punishment of an all-embracing day.
This verse is referring to corruption that occurs in matters of transactions and business, asking individuals to not cheat one another – such a person would be a fāsid. In order to understand corruption on the macro-level, we should see who the Qurān describes as a mufsid. A few examples:
ثُمَّ بَعَثْنَا مِن بَعْدِهِم مُّوسَىٰ بِآيَاتِنَا إِلَىٰ فِرْعَوْنَ وَمَلَئِهِ فَظَلَمُوا بِهَا ۖ فَانظُرْ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُفْسِدِينَ
[7:103] Then after them We sent Moses with Our signs to Pharaoh and his elite, but they wronged them. So observe how was the fate of the agents of corruption!
The verse asks us to go and investigate the fate of the mufsidīn – the very agents of corruption, those who caused corruption on a macro-level. A fāsid causes corruption on a micro-level which impacts him or herself and perhaps a few around them, but a mufsid impacts society at large. The Qurān repeatedly emphasizes the mufsid aspect of Pharaoh instead of his kufr.
إِنَّ فِرْعَوْنَ عَلَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَجَعَلَ أَهْلَهَا شِيَعًا يَسْتَضْعِفُ طَائِفَةً مِّنْهُمْ يُذَبِّحُ أَبْنَاءَهُمْ وَيَسْتَحْيِي نِسَاءَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ كَانَ مِنَ الْمُفْسِدِينَ
[28:4] Indeed Pharaoh exalted himself over the land, reducing its people to factions, abasing one group of them, slaughtering their sons and sparing their women. Indeed He was one of the agents of corruption.
This verse further implies that it was the power and authority Pharaoh held which allowed him to cause the corruption that he did.
وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يُعْجِبُكَ قَوْلُهُ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَيُشْهِدُ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا فِي قَلْبِهِ وَهُوَ أَلَدُّ الْخِصَامِ وَإِذَا تَوَلَّىٰ سَعَىٰ فِي الْأَرْضِ لِيُفْسِدَ فِيهَا وَيُهْلِكَ الْحَرْثَ وَالنَّسْلَ ۗ وَاللَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الْفَسَادَ
[2:204] Among the people is he whose talk about worldly life impresses you, and he holds Allah witness to what is in his heart, though he is the staunchest of enemies.
[2:205] And if he were to wield authority, he would try to cause corruption in the land, and to ruin the crop and the stock, and Allah does not like corruption.
These two verses are describing an individual as the staunchest or fiercest of enemies. The staunchest of enemies is someone whose speech and words will impress you, but when they gain power and take over, they cause corruption and destruction over the lands – this is not a micro-level corruption by any means.
It was this type of corruption that the Imam (a) was primarily trying to expose and fight against. Furthermore, not everyone can necessarily fight against this corruption and neither is it expected from everyone and this is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the Qurān considers this an expectation for the Ūlū Baqīyatin:
فَلَوْلَا كَانَ مِنَ الْقُرُونِ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ أُولُو بَقِيَّةٍ يَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْفَسَادِ فِي الْأَرْضِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا مِّمَّنْ أَنجَيْنَا مِنْهُمْ ۗ وَاتَّبَعَ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا مَا أُتْرِفُوا فِيهِ وَكَانُوا مُجْرِمِينَ
[11:116] Why were there not among the generations before you a remnant [of the wise] who might forbid corruption in the earth, except a few. Those who were wrongdoers pursued that in which they had been granted affluence, and they were a guilty lot.
وَمَا كَانَ رَبُّكَ لِيُهْلِكَ الْقُرَىٰ بِظُلْمٍ وَأَهْلُهَا مُصْلِحُونَ
[11:117] Your Lord would never destroy the townships unjustly while their inhabitants were bringing about reform.
As per some works of tafsīr, the Ūlū Baqīyatin have been described as the intellectuals and scholars – in the general sense of the word – of society. They are expected to expose, forbid and fight against this level of corruption. Micro-level corruption can be forbidden by even the laity and in fact they are expected to do so given the right conditions, but macro-level corruption requires more and cannot necessarily be expected from them. It requires knowledge – specialist knowledge of who one is up against, knowledge of the system and how it works – and secondly, it requires purity and righteousness. As the verse implies, only a few special people come forth to forbid this extent of corruption, while the rest themselves are guilty of sins and corruption.