Ḥusayn Ibn ʿAlī, Al-

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USAYN IBN ʿALĪ, AL- (ah 461/626680 ce) was the son of Fāimah, the daughter of the prophet Muammad, and the Prophet's cousin ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib. Al-usayn was born in Medina on 3 Shaʿbān 4 (January 626). He and his elder brother, al-asan, were the only grandsons of the Prophet, and many accounts survive in Muslim tradition of the Prophet's affection for them. The Prophet is reported to have said: "al-asan and al-usayn are the lords of the youth of Paradise," interpreted by the Shīʿah as proof for their imāmah. The Prophet is also reported to have said "al-usayn is from me and I am from al-usayn," which signals the intimate relationship between grandson and grandfather, or in the Shīʿī conception, between the Prophet and his third successor as imām. Al-usayn is best known as the archetypal martyr of the Shīʿī cause and a pristine, moral Islam. His tragic death with a small band of followers at Karbala in Iraq on 10 Muarram 61 (October 680), an event that according to Shīʿī tradition was foretold and lamented by the Prophet himself, became the pivotal event in Shīʿī salvation history.


Al-usayn grew up as a member of the Muslim elite in Medina. He was a child when the Prophet died, and he suffered the death of his mother soon after. He also saw how his fatheraccording to the Shīʿahwas continuously denied his right as the legitimate religious and political successor to the Prophet until the chaos of 656, when, following the murder of the third caliph, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, by disaffected Egyptian rebels, ʿAlī was chosen as caliph by the community in Medina. Some, however, were not willing to accept his leadership and ʿAlī had to fight fellow Muslims to assert his authority. ʿUthmān's kinsman, Muʿāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān, governor of Syria, disputed ʿAlī's authority, claiming that the blood of the dead caliph had not been revenged, ushering in what is known in Muslim tradition as the first civil war. After the famous and inconclusive battle at iffīn on the northern borders of Syria and Iraq, ʿAlī was coerced by a group of his forces, who were unable to countenance further internecine blood, to accept arbitration. This led to the discontent of some of his supporters, who declared him to be an unbeliever for accepting arbitration over what they regarded as the rule of God. These Khārijīs rebelled and were crushed at Nahrawān. But the movement survived and in 661 one of its members assassinated ʿAlī in the mosque at Kūfah, the caliphal capital.

Al-asan succeeded his father. But the intrigue against him and his lack of support led him to agree to terms whereby he abdicated the caliphate in favor of Muʿāwiyah. According to the agreement, Muʿāwiyah would safeguard the life and property of the supporters of ʿAlī, cease the public cursing of ʿAlī from pulpits in Syria, and ensure that his successor would be decided by consultation, probably in favor of al-asan or al-usayn. Al-asan died in 671, poisoned by Muʿāwiyah according to Shīʿī tradition, which also affirms that Muʿāwiyah never kept his side of the bargain.


The hope of the Shīʿah turned to al-usayn. He stood by the agreement with Muʿāwiyah and refused to revolt in his lifetime. But when Muʿāwiyah died in 680, ensuring the succession of his son Yazīd, universally regarded in Muslim tradition as an immoral and unjust tyrant, al-usayn became the leader of those who refused to acknowledge the succession. Yazīd ordered the governor of Medina to seek the allegiance of the notables in the city, especially al-usayn, who was the surviving grandson of the Prophet. Al-usayn evaded this demand and left for Mecca and its sanctuary. The Shīʿah in Kūfah, upon hearing of al-usayn's action, urged him to come to Iraq to lead a revolution against Yazīd. Responding to their call, al-usayn sent his cousin, Muslim ibn ʿAqīl ibn Abī ālib, to Kūfah to assess his support. Yazīd, however, appointed ʿUbayd Allāh ibn Ziyād, the son of a close confidant of Muʿāwiyah, as the governor, with the mandate to crush any resistance. Ibn Ziyād quelled the discontent in Kūfah through coercion and bribery, and he executed Muslim and his protectors, especially Hāniʾ ibn ʿUrwah. Ibn Ziyād then sent out forces to intercept al-usayn, who had set out from Mecca towards Kūfah with a band of family and followers. As news of events in Kūfah spread, al-usayn's following dwindled. The remainder was intercepted by Ibn Ziyād's forces, led by al-urr ibn Yazīd, and the group was forced to stop on the banks of the Euphrates at Karbala. Ibn Ziyād then sent a further force, under the command of ʿUmar ibn Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqā, to urge al-usayn to submit or to suffer the fate of a rebel. Al-usayn's party was surrounded and denied water. The Battle of Karbala took place on 10 Muarram 61 (October 680), the day known as ʿĀshūrāʾ.

Al-urr, appalled by the possibility of being responsible for the death of the Prophet's grandson, switched sides. But the forces of the governor, which included many who had initially called al-usayn to Kūfah to support them against Yazīd, persisted, demonstrating the success of Ibn Ziyād in transforming the rebellion. All of al-usayn's followers were killed, including his infant child and other children of his family. Al-usayn was executed, decapitated, and his body trampled under the hooves of horses. Possessions were plundered and the women and children were taken as captives, first to Kūfah and then to Damascus, where they were paraded as defeated rebels. Only one son of al-usayn, ʿAlī, who had been sick throughout, survived. In Shīʿī accounts, the humiliation is amplified by the fact that few in Syria even recognized them as the family of the Prophet.

Historical Legacy, Martryology, and Commemoration

The martyrdom came as a great shock to the Muslim community and inspired many Shīʿī revolts aimed at revenging the blood of al-usayn. The earliest, known as the Penitents (al-Tawwābūn ), were Kūfans who regretted their failure to support al-usayn. When the ʿAbbāsids came to power in 750 through a revolution, the call for avenging al-usayn was a key aspect of their kerygma. Nevertheless, once the rights of the family of the Prophet and the Shīʿah remained unfulfilled, Shīʿī rebellions continued. Vengeance for al-usayn still lies unfulfilled in Twelver Shīʿī theology until the coming of the messianic mahdī, the descendent of the Prophet and al-usayn, who at the end of time will eradicate injustice, thus avenging the blood of al-usayn, and usher in a final era of peace and justice.

The emotional affect of al-usayn's martyrdom inspired elegies and accounts of what happened. These accounts, the earliest being the Kūfan Shīʿī Abū Mikhnaf al-Azdī's maqtal, were central to mobilization for the Shīʿī cause. The maqātil (accounts of the martyrdom) literature proliferated in a variety of vernaculars from Arabic to Swahili (and continues to be writtenthe contemporary Arabic maqtal of the Iraqi scholar Sayyid Muqarram is very popular). As powerful rhetorical devices that represent and express Shīʿī theology, the maqātil signal the devotion, aspirations, thought, and collective memory of the Shīʿah. Over time, more miraculous stories and details were layered into the account. These accounts, along with the rituals of commemoration, developed elaborate forms, including sermons recounting the martyrdom (known in the Persianate East as rawzeh after a key text of the fifteenth-century, the Rawat al-shuhadā ʾof usayn Vāʿi Kāshifī). Concurrently, pilgrimages to the shrine of al-usayn in Karbala developed, and rulers expressed their piety and devotions through the construction of works at the shrine and charitable endowments. Prayer and pilgrimage manuals set out the excellences and rites of visitation (ziyārah ) and salutations upon the martyred imām, through which the Shīʿah would renew their covenant of allegiance to the imām s of the family of the Prophet. The visitation also recognizes the spiritual vitality of the imām as an enshrined saint.

The commemoration rituals during the month of Muarram, known as ta ʿziyah, take on various cultural forms and illustrate the translations of Shīʿī aspirations and grief for the death of al-usayn. The earliest public sponsorship of the ʿĀshūrāʾ commemoration occurred during the Būyid period in fourth-century Iraq. In the Fāimid period and in subsequent Shīʿī states, such as the early modern Safavids in Iran, patronage of the commemorations was central to the affirmation of Shīʿī identity and dynastic legitimacy. On the Indian subcontinent, processions from the late Mughal period have been the main expression, with mourners, flagellants, and devotees carrying replicas of the shrine of al-usayn and war banners streaming through the streets. In Iran and Bahrain, passion plays recounting the events are enacted. They are socially and even politically significant, as every political tyrant is equated with Yazīd and every seeker of justice with al-usayn. It is not insignificant that the Iranian revolution in 1979 was sparked during the Muarram commemorations. More recently in Iraq, the fall of addām usayn in 2003 was celebrated with free Shīʿī commemorations for the fortieth day after ʿĀshūrāʾ for the first time in more than twenty years. According to some accounts, up to four million pilgrims were in Karbala for the occasion. The vitality of the symbol of Karbala and the martyred al-usayn remains a strong strand in the life of the world's Shīʿī communities.


Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿĀshūrā ʾ in Twelver Shī ʿ ism. The Hague, 1978. An instructive analysis of the Shīʿī theological response to the martyrdom of al-usayn.

Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Ta ʿziyeh. New York, 1979. A collection of articles describing and analyzing the commemorations for the martyrdom of al-usayn around the world.

Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge, UK, 1997. A historical account of the early caliphate in the light of the Shīʿī claim of the rightful succession of ʿAlī; it contains a detailed account of the civil war and the iffīn arbitration.

Mufīd, al-Shaykh al-. Kitāb al-irshād: The Book of Guidance into the Lives of the Twelve Imāms. Translated by I. K. A. Howard. London, 1981. Part 2, chapter 2, on al-usayn provides a traditional Twelver Shīʿī view of the life and significance of al-usayn by a tenth-century Shīʿī theologian. It contains an account of his martyrdom, which is also found in al-abarī.

Papers of the Imām usayn Conference 1984. Al-Serat : Special issue, vol. 12. London, 1986. A collection of reflections by Shīʿī scholars and academics on the significance of al-usayn and the commemorations of his martyrdom.

Shams al-Dīn, Muammad Mahdī. The Rising of al-usayn: Its Impact on the Consciousness of Muslim Society. Translated by I. K. A. Howard. London, 1985. An interesting study by a modern Lebanese Shīʿī scholar of the development of commemorative rituals, practices, and elegies concerned with the martyrdom of al-usayn.

abarī, Ibn Jarīr, al-. The History of al-abarī: The Caliphate of Yazīd b. Mu ʿāwiyah. Translated by I. K. A. Howard. Albany, N.Y., 1990. A classic account of the martyrdom of al-usayn by the famous historian based on the earliest Kūfan history of Abū Mikhnaf al-Azdī.

Sajjad H. Rizvi (2005)