Husayn (603–661)

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HUSAYN (603–661)

Husayn ibn ˓Ali ibn Abi Talib, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, the third Shi˓ite imam, was born according to Sunnis on 6 Ramadan, according to Shi˓a, on 3 Sha˒ban. He was martyred at Karbala at noon on Friday the tenth (˓Ashura˒) of Muharram at the age of fifty-eight in the year 680 C.E. For Shi˓a, Husayn's martyrdom is the paradigmatic story of existential tragedy, of injustice in this world triumphing over justice, of the duty a true Muslim has to sacrifice oneself, to witness for truth and justice as Husayn did, and to shock others into returning to the cause of Islamic social justice, a theme that has come again to political importance in the rhetoric of Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1977 through 1979, but also in Iraq in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Husayn in 2003.

The Importance of the Difference between Sunni and Shi˓a Interpretations

What is at issue in the different understandings of Sunni and Shi˓a is not mere history, but the abstractions from history that compose the mythos or symbolic structure of religious belief. The account of early Islam by Western historians, as well as the Sunni account, is a story of alliances among Bedouin tribes that controlled the trade between the three great agrarian empires of Byzantium, the Sassanians, and Abyssinia. The second caliph, ˓Umar, was the architect of expanding the polity that Muhammad had initiated. He nominated Abu Bakr to succeed Muhammad, then ˓Umar became the second caliph. Conquest proceeded quickly across the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and Iran. The state was based on the separation of the Arab military garrisons from the conquered populations. ˓Umar's governor in Syria, Mu˓awiya, commanded from Damascus, but elsewhere garrison towns were established: Kufa near Ctesiphon, Basra on the Gulf, Fustat at the head of the Nile delta. A register of Muslims was established so that these garrisons could be paid from the booty of war and revenue from lands conquered. As expansion slowed, this system caused problems under the third caliph, ˓Uthman, who reacted by relying increasingly on his own clansmen, the Umayyads. This provoked further complaints. In an attempt at symbolic unity, ˓Uthman imposed a standardized Qur˒an; this also led to resentment. ˓Ali became a center of opposition to these policies. ˓Uthman was assasinated in 656, and ˓Ali was proclaimed the fourth caliph in an attempt to stabilize the state by using his religious position as imam to strengthen the secular position of amir almu minin. But it did not work: he was assassinated, Mu˓awiya became caliph, and he appointed his son, Yazid, to succeed. The Hejaz refused to recognize Yazid, and Kufa invited Husayn to lead a revolt. It failed, ending with Husayn's death at Karbala.

This history can be followed in the Shi˓ite version but with quite different nuances, emphases, and meanings: Leadership should have passed from Muhammad to ˓Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, whom the Prophet had adopted as a boy even before Muhammad's first marriage. According to Sunnis succession was elective, and Abu Bakr, the father-in-law of Muhammad's youngest wife, was legitimately elected. But according to Shi˓a this was an usurpation, not just of Muhammad's designation but of the special access to the infallible interpretation of the Qur˒an that passes via the lineage of the twelve imams from ˓Ali to Hasan and Husayn. ˓Ali withdrew into quiet teaching, and also compiled an authoritative edition of the Qur˒an (having been one of the recorders of Muhammad's recitations of revelation), allowing the first three caliphs to show by their actions and legal decisions how imperfect and unfit they were to lead. The story of ˓Ali's martyrdom while praying in Kufa on the 19 Ramadan 661 C.E. provides Shi˓a with a prologue to the central maryrdom of Husayn: ˓Ali's foreknowledge of his death, his generosity toward his assassin, his courage in battle, his knowledge of Islamic law, his humility as an officeholder, and his wisdom as a judge. These are celebrated by Shi˓a. Hasan, ˓Ali's eldest son, who was too weak to wrest the leadership from Mu˒awiya, was poisoned, and Mu˒awiya declared his own son, Yazid, his successor.

Husayn's Martydom at Karbala

Husayn, ˓Ali's second son, refused to swear allegience. It is alleged by Shi˓a that Yazid sent assassins to mingle with pilgrims at the hajj. To avoid bloodshed during the hajj, Husayn cut short his pilgrimage. Foreseeing his martyrdom, he released his followers from any obligation to follow, and with his family and seventy-two men, he went toward Kufa. Yazid had co-opted the Kufans. Husayn's forces, who were trapped in the desert at Karbala, were denied access to water (to the Euphrates), and on the tenth of Muharram all but two of Husayn's men were slain, his body was desecrated, and the women were taken prisoner. According to a Shi˓ite legend Husayn's head was taken to Damascus, where the caliph Yazid beat it with sticks in a vain attempt to keep it from reciting the Qur˒an. The details of the battle of Karbala form the key imagery of passion plays (ta˓ziyeh, shabih) and preachments (rawzehs).

The details heighten the significance of Yazid's tyranny and desecration of the sacred and proper order of life and Islam. Not only had Yazid usurped the caliphate and was using that office tyrannically, but he had attempted to desecrate the hajj, had desecrated the time of communal prayer (Friday noon), and had destroyed one by one the elements of civilized life symbolized most powerfully by the denial of water. Three sons of Husayn were slain: the infant ˓Ali Asghar, the five-year-old Ja˒far, and the twenty-five-year-old ˓Ali Akbar. Destruction of family, community, government, and humanity are all themes of the Karbala story, retold and relived in rawzehs (a form of preaching that uses the Karbala story to frame the topic of the sermon), taziyehs or shabihs (passion plays), dasteh or matam (lines of men chanting, beating their chests, and flagellating their foreheads and backs with knives), and the carrying in processions of naqls (large wooden structures representing Husayn's bier that requires scores of men to carry; called ta˓ziyehs in India and Trinidad, there in the shape of the Taj Mahal).

The Karbala Paradigm

For Sunnis, the tenth of Muharram is merely a day of voluntary fasting that has to do, not with Husayn, but with Muhammad. Sunnis focus their symbolic structure on Muhammad, while Shi˓a, also honoring the details of Muhammad's life, focus attention on ˓Ali, Husayn, the Five Pure Souls of the Family of the Prophet, and the twelve imams. Key calendrical events differ: For Shi˓a, Husayn's birthday is not the 6 Ramadan, nor ˓Ali's 22 Ramadan, as they are for Sunnis, and all such happy events are in other months the better to focus on the martyrdom of ˓Ali during Ramadan. Sunnis deny that Hasan was poisoned: He died of consumption; Sunnis say that Abu Bakr, not ˓Ali, was the first man (after Muhammad's wife Khadija) to accept the call to Islam.

Such systematic differences help signal the Shi˓ite drama of faith: Believers are witnesses (shuhada) through their acts of worship (˓ibada) to the metaphysical reality that is hidden (gha˒ib). Shuhada means both martyrs and witnesses. Husayn, knowing he would die, went to Karbala to witness the truth, knowing that his death would make him an enduring, immortal witness, whose example would be a guide for others. Gha˓ib refers to a series of inner truths: a God who is not visible, a twelfth imam who is in occultation, a personal inner faith, and the special light (nur) that created Muhammad, ˓Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn, the Five Pure Souls of the Family of the Prophet (33:33), and whose direct connection with the divine passes down through the line of the imams. The nur doctrine parallels the divine royal farr of Persian epic tradition. There is a story that Bibi Shahbanu, the daughter of the last Sassanian king, married Husayn so there is a connection between Persian royalty and the imams. The nur doctrine says that all 124,000 prophets as well as the imams were created from a ray of divine light, often making for a divine birth, as was the case with Husayn. Fatima emerged from a stream pregnant, the pregnancy lasted only six months, and her womb glowed with incandescent light.

There are thus three parts to the notion of the Karbala paradigm as encoding for the Shi˓a story of Husayn: (1) a story expandable to be all-inclusive of history, cosmology, and life's problems; (2) a background contrast (of Sunni conceptions, but also other religions) against which the story is given heightened perceptual value; and (3) ritual or physical drama to embody the story and maintain high levels of emotional investment: rawzeh, shabih, ta˓ziyeh, data, and matam.

Husayn is an intercessor at Judgment Day, and with various interpretive sophistication, one is induced by the pietistic and didactic exercise of the rawzeh to weep for Husayn in an act of repentance so that he may intercede and judge one's sins more lightly and with compassion. Some rawzeh-khwans (preachers) elicit tears for the injustice of the world and the misfortunes that befell Husayn and Shi˓a; others stress Husayn as an example of bravery and courage in the fight for freedom rather than as a victim. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the time of the Iranian revolution stressed that one should not cry for Husayn, but one should march with the same determination that he showed to fight for justice against all odds. Since martyrs are said to go to heaven, one need not mourn their deaths as one does the deaths of ordinary people. During the Iranian revolution young men wore white shrouds to symbolize their willingness to die, and wall graffiti proclaimed that those who died did the work of Husayn, those who fought did the work of Zaynab (she kept the survivors of Karbala together and maintained the message of Husayn until the fourth imam had recovered and could assume leadership), and those who did not fight did the work of Yazid.

The dramatic performances of the events of the first ten days of Muharram at Karbala (the passion plays, shabih, ta˓ziyeh, and rawzehs) are occasions when the story can be expanded to stories of the earlier prophets who had foreknowledge of the martyrdom of Husayn and were told that their own sufferings were minor in comparison. Thus, Adam, when first put on Earth, wandered across the future site of the battle of Karbala and cut his toe, a prefiguration, God told him, of the more serious blood that would be shed there by Husayn. The infant Isma il suffered thirst but found water; Husayn and his children suffered a greater thirst and were denied water. God substituted a ram for Isma˓il, but Husayn was in fact slain.

In politically charged times—as in the years before the 1977–1979 Islamic revolution in Iran—the Karbala paradigm could be a vehicle for political mobilization. The shah was identified with the caliph Yazid (who sent his army to defeat Husayn) and injustice, while Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would lead the revolution, was identified with Husayn and with the forces of justice. Preachers could speak against Yazid and be understood to be attacking the shah. In the Persian Gulf and the Subcontinent (Lucknow, Karachi), the processions of ˓Ashura˒, the tenth of Muharram—when the bier of Husayn (ta˓ziyehs in India, nagls in Iran) is carried through the streets along with chanting ("Husayn! Husayn!") and breast-beating groups of men (dasteh) sometimes also beating their backs with chains and slashing their foreheads with knives—in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often caused riots between Sunnis and Shi˓a. Under Khomeini, conflict with Saudi Arabia was stirred up by invoking the hajj in the Husayn story, and using the hajj as a site for organizing and spreading the message of the revolution; in the war with Iraq, Iran utilized slogans about Karbala and a series of military operations were code-named Karbala.

In less politically charged times, as well, the emotional work of the passion plays, processions, and rawzehs is one of instilling stoicism and determination to fight for justice even against the overwhelming odds of a corrupt world. After the ousting of Saddam Husayn from power in Iraq in 2003, on the fortieth day after the tenth (˓Asura˒) of Muharram, hundreds of thousands of Shi˓a joyfully joined processions to Karbala (a practice forbidden under Saddam Husayn) with many dastehs of chanting men, head slashing and flagellation with chains.

See alsoImamate ; Martyrdom ; Shi˓a: Early ; Shi˓a: Imami (Twelver) ; Succession .


Fischer, Michael M. J. "Shi˓ite Islam: The Karbala Paradigm and the Family of the Prophet." In Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

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Shaban, M. The Abbasid Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Strothman, R. "Shi˓a." In Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Michael M. J. Fischer