Recalling Imam Husayn and His Martyrdom

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Editor’s Note:  During this period, the Shi’ah world community is commemorating the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn, who was the third Imam of Shi’ah Islam, the second son of ‘Ali and Fatimih, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.  An account of the martyrdom of Husayn is provided in this posting.  Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, often refers to the many virtues and exalted station of Imam Husayn, and the title that Baha’u’llah uses is  ‘the Prince of Martyrs’ (Siyyidu’sh-Shuhada’), which underscores the importance of Husayn’s dramatic death in the Shi’ah religious polity.

History of Husayn’s Martyrdom

The Baha’i writer and scholar Jonah Winters in his brilliant Dying for God: Martyrdom in the Shi‘i and Babi Religions (University of Toronto Master Thesis, 1997) has a chapter titled, “Martyrdom And Suffering In Shi’ism”.  In this chapter he notes:

At one point the Muslims of the city of Kufa, in Iraq, invited Husayn to visit them, whereupon they would publicly acclaim him as the caliph and sole legitimate ruler of the Muslim world.  So many thousands of Kufans wrote to Husayn that, though advised not to by wise friends, he decided to honor the request.  Husayn recognized well in advance that the Kufans, ambivalent and lacking steadfastness, might prove unfaithful.  Were he to decline the invitation, though, it would signal his willingness to abide by the manifestly unjust and amoral rule of Yazid and thereby precipitate a complete fall of his grandfather’s religion.  Yazid, for his part, recognized that, were the Kufans to honor their pledge and proclaim support for Husayn, his own hold on power would become very tenuous.  He had to stop Husayn.

Yazid commissioned ‘Ibn Ziyad, an appointee of Mu‘awiya, as governor of Iraq.  ‘Ibn Ziyad, upon arriving at his post, threatened all who might support Husayn with torture and death, and thereby convinced all of Husayn’s declared supporters to abandon their oaths to Husayn and turn against him.  By this time, though, Husayn had already departed for Kufa with about seventy of his followers and was not aware of his supporters’ change of heart.  Husayn did have the foresight to send an advance envoy to Kufa to reassess his support there, but this scout was captured and beheaded before being able to warn Husayn of the changed situation.  Husayn continued on his way, not knowing that ‘Ibn Ziyad had dispatched an army of thousands to meet and stop him.  By the second night of the month of Muharram in the year 61 A.H. (2 October C.E. 680), Husayn had reached an area known as the plains of Karbala, a few dozen miles from Kufa.  They were camping there when the army of ‘Ibn Ziyad came upon them.  The two groups stood in a standoff for a few days, the army waiting to secure Husayn’s oath of allegiance for Yazid and Husayn and his group of followers negotiating for their freedom.

By the ninth day of Muharram neither Husayn nor the opposing army had yielded, and ‘Ibn Ziyad sent word that the army was to wait no longer.  That night Husayn addressed his followers, saying that the army wanted no one’s blood but his own and that all were free to make use of the cover of darkness and escape.  Morning dawned, but none had left.

This, the tenth day of Muharram, or ashura (‘ashura’, meaning “tenth”), was to be the day of their deaths.  Seeking a peaceful settlement, a path he believed Muhammad would have chosen, Husayn approached his adversaries with offers of reconciliation. Though unsuccessful, he did convince a few among the enemy to join his side.  The rest then began their slaughter.  They surrounded Husayn’s small band, preventing them from reaching the nearby Euphrates to get much-needed water and killing any who tried.  Husayn even tried carrying forward his dehydrated infant son and pleading for a drop of water to keep him from dying of thirst.  The child was shot in the throat.  With the death of his infant child, Husayn sunk down at the door of his tent to pray and grieve for all those who had been killed that morning.

By noon, not one of the fighting men among Husayn’s followers was left alive. Husayn appealed once again to ‘Ibn Ziyad’s army.  He reminded them with loving and respectful words that they and their fellow Kufans had pledged to support him, the grandson of the Prophet, and tried to convince them to end the slaughter.  This proved to be but an invitation for the battle’s most inglorious episode: Husayn himself was shot.  He asked for a brief respite to say the noonday prayer and say good-bye to his family, which was granted.  But no sooner had he finished praying than the final assault began in earnest.  The enemy swooped upon him like birds of prey, landing so many arrows and blows of the sword upon him that he fell from his horse.  They continued to attack his helpless body, but still he clung to the last strands of life.  This tenacity inspired such awe that none would deal him the coup de grace.  A man named Shemr [that is, Shamir ibn Dhi al-Jawshan], sent by ‘Ibn Ziyad to accompany the army specifically for his quality of unadulterated immorality and brutality, stepped forward and struck off Husayn’s head.

The army of four thousand, now having completed its victory over a band of seventy men dying of thirst, raised the heads of the dead on spears and, leading the roped women and children still alive, returned to Kufa.

Following their martyrdom, the bodies of Husayn and his companions were trampled on by horsemen, and then left for three days on the plain of Karbala; in October of 680 AD (61 AH) they were buried by a passing tribe at the same spot.  In August of 684, a small mosque was erected on the site, consisting of two entrances and a single dome. In June 787 AD, during the reign of Al-Rashid, the dome and roof were destroyed.  The building was reconstructed in October of 808 AD by Amin.  This reconstruction was demolished by Mutawakkil who ordered that the land should be ploughed.  Between 861 and 886 AD, the gravesite was marked only by a single iron pillar.  In August 977 AD, Adzd ‘Ibn Boweih rebuilt the roof, the dome and the sepulcher, added houses to surround the site, and raised a wall around the city.  These buildings were damaged by fire in 1016 AD, and were rebuilt.  In 1365 AD, Sultan Owais ‘Ibn Hasan Jalairi remodeled the dome and raised the walls of the enclosure.  In 1514 AD, Shah Ismail Saffawi visited the holy shrine and he added an inlaid sarcophagus over the grave.  In July, 1796 AD the Qajar monarch, Muhammad Shah, covered the dome of the shrine with gold.  His grandson, Nasir’id-Din Shah, extended the courtyard of the shrine in May of 1866 AD.

Effect of Husayn’s Martyrdom by the Bab and Baha’u’llah

Nabil has related the following account from the time of the Bab’s imprisonment at Mah-Ku (The Dawn-breakers, pp. 251-52):

A winter followed of such exceptional severity that even the copper implements were affected by the intensity of the cold. The beginning of that season coincided with the month of Muharram of the year 1264 A.H. The water which the Bab used for His ablutions was of such icy coldness that its drops glistened as they froze upon His face. He would invariably, after the termination of each prayer, summon Siyyid Husayn to His presence and would request him to read aloud to Him a passage from the Muhriqu’l-Qulub, a work composed by the late Haji Mulla Mihdi, the great-grandfather of Haji Mirza Kamalu’d-Din-i-Naraqi, in which the author extols the virtues, laments the death, and narrates the circumstances of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn.  The recital of those sufferings would provoke intense emotion in the heart of the Bab.  His tears would keep flowing as He listened to the tale of the unutterable indignities heaped upon him, and of the agonizing pain which he was made to suffer at the hands of a perfidious enemy.

Concerning the effects of Husayn’s sacrifice, Baha’u’llah writes (Summons of the Lord of Hosts, M52):

By the righteousness of God! Through his deed the fragrances of holiness were wafted over all things, the proof of God was perfected, and His testimony made manifest to all men.”

Furthermore, in the Kitab-i Iqan (pp. 127-28), Baha’u’llah writes:

For instance, consider the pervading power of those drops of the blood of Husayn which besprinkled the earth. What ascendancy and influence hath the dust itself, through the sacredness and potency of that blood, exercised over the bodies and souls of men! So much so, that he who sought deliverance from his ills was healed by touching the dust of that holy ground, and whosoever, wishing to protect his property, treasured, with absolute faith and understanding, a little of that holy earth within his house, safeguarded all his possessions. These are the outward manifestations of its potency. And were We to recount its hidden virtues they would assuredly say: ‘He verily hath considered the dust to be the Lord of Lords, and hath utterly forsaken the Faith of God.’

Significance of Husayn’s Martyrdom from scholars’ perspective

William McCants in “The Wronged One: Shi’ih Narrative Structure in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Visitation for Mullah Husayn”, notes:

The central position of Husayn’s martyrdom in the formation of Shi’ih identity can find no greater parallel in religious writing than the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. Both men, as portrayed in later accounts, were betrayed by their followers.  Both were left to die alone and abandoned, pierced with wounds and mourned by a few pious women. Death, however, was merely a vehicle for victory in both narratives, granting lasting influence to the men who had offered up their lives for Truth and thereby demonstrated the falsity of their persecutors acts. This core narrative of betrayal, abandonment, suffering, martyrdom, and victory forms the emotional center of both Christianity and Shi’ih Islam.

Commenting on Husayn’s possible motivations and the impact of his sacrifice, S.H.M. Jafri, a modern Shi’ih historian, has written:

… it is clear that Husayn was fully aware of the dangers he would encounter and that he had a certain strategy and plan in mind to bring about a revolution in the consciousness of the Muslim community. Furthermore, it is also very clear from the sources, as has been started before, that Husayn did not try to organize or mobilize military support, which he easily could have done in the Hijaz, nor did he even try to exploit whatever physical strength was available to him…

Is it conceivable that anyone striving for power would ask his supporters to abandon him?… What then did Husayn have in mind? Why was he still heading for Kufa?

It is rather disappointing to note that Western scholarship on Islam, given too much to historicism, has placed all its attention on the discrete external aspects of the event of Karbala and has never tried to analyze the inner history and agonizing conflict in Husayn’s mind… A careful study and analysis of the events of  Karbala as a whole reveals the fact that from the very beginning Husayn was planning for a complete revolution in the religious consciousness of the Muslims. All of his actions show that he was aware of the fact that a victory achieved through military strength and might is always temporal [sic], because another stronger power can in course of time bring it down in ruins. But victory achieved through suffering and sacrifice is everlasting and leaves permanent imprints on man’s consciousness… The natural process of conflict and struggle between action and reaction was now at work. That is, Muhammad’s progressive Islamic action had succeeded in suppressing Arab conservatism, embodied in heathen pre-Islamic practices and ways of thinking. But in less than thirty years’ time this Arab conservatism revitalized itself as a forceful reaction to challenge Muhammad’s action once again.. The strength of this reaction, embodied in Yazid’s character, was powerful enough to suppress or at least deface Muhammad’s action. Islam as now, in the thinking Husayn, was in dire need of reactivation of Muhammad’s action against the old Arabian reactions and thus required a complete shake-up…

Husayn’s acceptance of Yazid, with the latter’s openly reactionary attitude against Islámic norms, would not have meant merely a political arrangement, as had been the case with Hasan and Mu’awiya, but an endorsement of Yazid’s character and way of life as well…

Husayn prepared his strategy… He realized that more force of arms would not have saved Islamic action and consciousness. To him it needed a shaking and jolting of hearts and feelings. This, he decided, could only be achieved through sacrifice and suffering. This should not be difficult to understand, especially for those who fully appreciate the heroic deeds and sacrifices of, for example, Socrates and Joan of Arc, both of whom embraced death for their ideals, and above all of the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of mankind.

It is in this light that we should read Husayn’s replies to those well-wishers who advised him not to go to ‘Iraq. It also explains why Husayn took with him his women and children, though advised by ‘Ibn Abbas [his father’s cousin] that should he insist on his project, at least he should not take his family with him. Aware of the extent of the brutal nature of the reactionary forces, Husayn knew that after killing him, the Umayyads would make his women and children captive and take them all the way from Kufa to Damascus. This caravan of captives of Muhammad’s immediate family would publicize Husayn’s message and would force the Muslims’ hearts to ponder on the tragedy. It would make the Muslims think of the whole affair and would awaken their consciousness. This is exactly what happened. Husayn succeeded in his purposes. It is difficult today to evaluate exactly the impact of Husayn’s action on Islamic morality and way of thinking, because it prevailed. Had Husayn not shaken and awakened Muslim consciousness by this method, who knows whether Yazid’s way of life would have become standard behavior in the Muslim community, endorsed and accepted by the grandson of the Prophet.  No doubt, even after Yazid kingship did prevail in Islam, and the character and behavior in the personal lives of these kings was not very different from that Yazid, but the change of thinking which prevailed after the sacrifice of Husayn always served as a line of distinction between Islamic norms and the personal character of the rulers.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact and importance of the martyrdom of Husayn for Shi’ihs. Although it was the usurpation of ‘Ali’s right that is looked upon by Shí’íhs as the event initiating their movement and giving it intellectual justification, it was Husayn’s martyrdom that gave it its impetus and implanted its ideas deep in the heart of the people.  To this day it is the martyrdom of Husayn that is the most fervently celebrated event in the Shi’ih calendar.  During the first ten days of Muharram, the whole Shi’ih world is plunged into mourning.

Above all, the martyrdom of Husayn has given Shi’ih Islam a whole ethos of sanctification through martyrdom.  Although the Shi’ihs were persecuted all through their early history and, according to their traditions, every single one of the Imams suffered martyrdom, it is above all the martyrdom of Husayn that has given this characteristic to Shi’ih Islam; a characteristic that recent events in Iran have demonstrated to be as strong as ever.


One Response

  1. shahidullah

    January 17, 2009 11:45 pm



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