"They should know that if a sentence creates a tremor in one's soul and attunes it with the spirit of Husayn ibn 'Ali and, as a result, one small tear were to come out of one's eyes, it is really a precious station. But tears drawn by the scenes of mere butchery, even if a deluge, are worthless." – Ayatollah Mutahari, in "Ashura: Misrepresentations and Distortions"
I heard someone ask, "Why is the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) and the tragedy of Karbala considered a sad event?" Why aren't we joyous that the heroes achieved martyrdom and saved Islam? Is the purpose of Muharram to get sad or compete in mourning rituals? I think these are valid questions and worthy of thought and not quick dismissal because they are honest and sincere questions.
I read that when the martyrdom of Imam Hussain approached, he acted as if he were invigorated and energized in battle knowing his time was near. It is reported that Qasim, upon hearing that the men would all be martyred, asked if he would as well, being a young teen. Imam Hussain asked him how he felt about it, and he replied that it was something he really wanted, to achieve martyrdom along with the adults. They all knew with confidence they were on the side of right and that martyrdom would be a good outcome for them. We also know through history that although they did die that they were the ultimate victors. They were the victors because they achieved their purpose. They never separated their acts from their active intentions. They never sought martyrdom as a merit in itself or an end in itself. If they had wanted martyrdom as an end in itself, they could have achieved it on many prior occasions. Rather, they understood that the worth of their martyrdom was in its purpose of standing against oppression and standing up for truth and upholding the true Islam for mankind till this day.
Yet we also read that Imam Sajjad (peace be upon him) mourned greatly throughout his life over the tragedy. If we love someone sincerely, then we feel the loss and pain as our own. So the sadness is an outcome of the love, and the love is the essence of what we really need – love for those close and dear to Allah and love for Allah himself – whatever imperfect love we are blessed with in response to Allah's perfect love.
We should feel grateful that the rightly-guided at Karbala made that sacrifice, and we should honor it through careful attention to real Islam in everything that we do to the best of our ability. But we should also feel pain at their sufferings that were very real. To make the sacrifices they made and to go through the trials they endured was very difficult. It is sad and shameful that it was necessary. It is sad and shameful that still the message is not heeded. If one imagines for a moment that a loved one has died to save another, would not one feel great sadness, loss, and sorrow even though the loss accomplished something good? What people are more beloved to the true followers of Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) than the Ahlul Bayt?
If one imagines a Muharram observance that takes joy as its means, the message of reform would be confused and lost over time. What is Muharram about if not reform – the reform that returns our actions to the pure active intention of fulfilling our ultimate purpose in existence. Imam Hussain showed us what reform is and how to live it and how to die in it. Surely that is what Muharram observance should be all about.
So whatever someone does that is permissible for observance of Muharram, be it of any type and any fervor, may Allah bless him with an attentive heart. Love Allah, love Ahlul Bayt, feel the love, and then act on it – not only in mourning or Muharram observance, but in self-reform in Allah's way.