11/26/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Ashura Epitomizes Modern Battle for Islam's True Voice

Thousands of people across the Muslim world came out in droves on Nov. 24 to express their grief over a seventh-century assassination that characterizes one of the darkest chapters in early Islamic history. Given previous demonstrations of grief and anger toward cartoons and films that insult the Prophet Muhammad, a public procession by Muslims shouldn't be surprising. Those that take place on Ashura day should be even less so because the victim of the assassination on that day was Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

But what's peculiar about Ashura day commemorations is that for most of the Muslim world, they will either fall upon deaf ears or be stifled. Some mourners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will almost certainly be attacked, as they are each year by extremists loyal to the Taliban and al Qaeda. The reason behind such attacks -- and widespread ignorance in general about Ashura -- is deep-rooted in early Islamic history.

After the death of the Prophet in 632 A.D., a dispute over rightful succession ensued and Muslims split into two camps. The larger group believed successorship should be chosen among the Prophet's closest companions while a smaller group believed that he had intended for his legacy to be succeeded matrilineally. This group appointed Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as Caliph. In the end, the larger group won and Abu Bakr, a key companion who was later succeeded by the Bani Ummayad tribe, was appointed First Caliph of Islam.

But the dispute continued to divide the first generation of Muslims, and led to wars, assassinations and the murder of Ali and his son Hasan. Political power of the Caliphate shifted to the Umayyads who were mercenaries and eager to rule over a fast growing Muslim empire.

In 680 A.D. the leading Ummayad caliphate army in what is now modern-day Iraq demanded that Husain, Ali's younger son, pledge allegiance to the sitting Caliph, Yazid, in Damascus or face death. Husain resisted and a bloody battle followed in the city of Karbala.On Ashura day, Yazid's army killed every male member of the Prophet's family before he finally bore down on Husain, trampling his body with horses before decapitating him. Female members and children of the Prophet's family were bound as slaves and taken along with Husain's head as a trophy to Damascus. Holding the Quran high in one hand, Yazid and his supporters rejoiced in front of a stunned audience. The Ummayad's had succeeded, they said, in "restoring" Islam to its true principles.

The parallels between the brutality, intolerance and hypocrisy of the Ummayad caliphate with today's autocratic rulers and Salafi-influenced extremists are chilling. In the words of Lesley Hazleton, a British journalist and author of "After the Prophet: The Sunni-Shia Divide," Yazid was "the image of a spoiled scion given to drink and dissipation, the antithesis of the Islamic ideal." He was renowned for stifling opposition and heavily rewarding those who affirmed his legitimacy as Caliph. Describing the period of Ummayad rule, Ali Shariati, the Iranian Sorbonne-educated theologist writes: "The Bani Ummayads occupied every base of society. ... Ideas and thoughts were controlled by agents of the regime. Brains were washed, filled and poisoned with falsehood presented in the name of religion." Husain, by contrast, is portrayed consistently across classical sources as a man who embodied the values and ideals of the Prophet. His followers longed for a strong central authority which would suppress warfare and defend the rights of the weak.

The modern forms of the Ummayad dynasty today can be seen in GCC monarchies and the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam that dictates how Islam is practiced in those countries. Their similarities can be seen through their extreme decadence, deep intolerance of opposition and, in Saudi Arabia, the desecration of any archaeological sites connected to Prophet Muhammad or his family, including the razing of the Prophet's home to make way for a public toilet.

In Syria, insurgents recruited and funded by the al Qaeda -- and governments in the Gulf -- flood the streets, transforming a once peaceful revolution for human rights into a bloody sectarian war. Such acts are constantly committed under the pretense of religious edicts from the Quran or hadith (Islamic scholarship), just as they were under Yazid's rule. Thus, to the minority of Muslims in the world who are commemorating Ashura, the condolences expressed for those killed in Karbala are appropriate for the entire human race.

For all the carnage inflicted on Muslims by Western governments and their allies, the bitter truth is that Muslims are more often than not their own worst enemies. Believers across different factions need to take an honest look at history and awake to a new consciousness. Until then, Islam's rich tradition will continue to be distorted if not obliterated -- by the very people that hold the key to the Kaaba.