In placing before you a geographical picture of the tract of country in which the great tragedy was enacted, I consider myself fortunate in having my own personal memories to draw upon. They make the picture vivid to my mind, and they may help you also. When I visited those scenes in 1928, I remember going down from Baghdad through all that country watered by the Euphrates river. As I crossed the river by a bridge of boats at Al-Musaiyib on a fine April morning, my thoughts leapt over centuries and centuries. To the left of the main river you have the old classic ground of Babylonian history; you have the railway station of Hilla; you have the ruins of the city of Babylon, witnessing to one of the greatest civilisations of antiquity. It was so mingled with the dust that it is only in recent years that we have begun to understand its magnitude and magnificence. Then you have the great river system of the Euphrates, the Furat as it is called, a river unlike any other river we know. It takes its rise in many sources from the mountains of Eastern Armenia, and sweeping in great zig-zags through rocky country, it finally skirts the desert as we see it now. Wherever it or its interlacing branches or canals can reach, it has converted the desert into fruitful cultivated country; in the picturesque phrase, it has made the desert blossom as the rose. It skirts round the Eastern edge of the Syrian desert and then flows into marshy land. In a tract not far from Kerbela itself there are lakes which receive its waters, and act as reservoirs. Lower down it unites with the other river, the Tigris, and the united rivers flow in the name of the Shatt-al-Arab into the Persian Gulf.
Medina was the centre of Husain's teaching. They made Medina impossible for him. He left Medina and went to Mecca, hoping that he would be left alone. But he was not left alone. The Syrian forces invaded Mecca. The invasion was repelled, not by Husain but by other people. For Husain, though the bravest of the brave, had no army and no worldly weapons. His existence itself was an offence in the eyes of his enemies. His life was in danger, and the lives of all those nearest and dearest to him. He had friends everywhere, but they were afraid to speak out. They were not as brave as he was. But in distant Kufa, a party grew up which said: "We are disgusted with these events, and we must have Imam Husain to take asylum with us." So they sent and invited the Imam to leave Mecca, come to them, live in their midst, and be their honoured teacher and guide. His father's memory was held in reverence in Kufa. The Governor of Kufa was friendly, and the people eager to welcome him. But alas, Kufa had neither strength, nor courage, nor constancy. Kufa, geographically only 40 miles from Kerbela, was the occasion of the tragedy of Kerbela. And now Kufa is nearly gone, and Kerbela remains as the lasting memorial of the martyrdom.
Invitation from Kufa
When the Kufa invitation reached the Imam, he pondered over it, weighed its possibilities, and consulted his friends. He sent over his cousin Muslim to study the situation on the spot and report to him. The report was favourable, and he decided to go. He had a strong presentiment of danger. Many of his friends in Mecca advised him against it. But could he abandon his mission when Kufa was calling for it? Was he the man to be deterred, because his enemies were laying their plots for him, at Damascus and at Kufa? At least, it was suggested, he might leave his family behind. But his family and his immediate dependants would not hear of it. It was a united family, pre-eminent in the purity of its life and in its domestic virtues and domestic affections. If there was danger for its head, they would share it. The Imam was not going on a mere ceremonial visit. There was responsible work to do, and they must be by his side, to support him in spite of all its perils and consequences. Shallow critics scent political ambition in the Imam's act. But would a man with political ambitions march without an army against what might be called the enemy country, scheming to get him into its power, and prepared to use all their resources, military, political and financial, against him?
Journey through the desert
Imam Husain left Mecca for Kufa with all his family including his little children. Later news from Kufa itself was disconcerting. The friendly governor had been displaced by one prepared more ruthlessly to carry out Yazid's plans. If Husain was to go there at all, he must go there quickly, or his friends themselves would be in danger. On the other hand, Mecca itself was no less dangerous to him and his family. It was the month of September by the solar calendar, and no one would take a long desert journey in that heat, except under a sense of duty. By the lunar calendar it was the month of pilgrimage at Mecca. But he did not stop for the pilgrimage. He pushed on, with his family and dependants, in all numbering about 90 or 100 people, men, women and children. They must have gone by forced marches through the desert. They covered the 900 miles of the desert in little over three weeks. When they came within a few miles of Kufa, at the edge of the desert, they met people from Kufa. It was then that they heard of the terrible murder of Husain's cousin Muslim, who had been sent on in advance. A poet that came by dissuaded the Imam from going further. "For," he said epigramatically, "the heart of the city is with thee but its sword is with thine enemies, and the issue is with God." What was to be done? They were three weeks' journey from the city they had left. In the city to which they were going their own messenger had been foully murdered as well as his children. They did not know what the actual situation was then in Kufa. But they were determined not to desert their friends.