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Dying for God:
Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 2



      The key event shaping all subsequent Shii history and, according to Shii theology, all history preceding the event, is the rebellion of Muhammad's grandson Husayn against the Umayyad dynasty at the end of the decade of 670 C.E. and his subsequent martyrdom at Karbala in 680.

      The root causes of Husayn's murder go back to the time of Muhammad. Shiis believe there are many historical clues indicating that Ali, the cousin of Muhammad and the eventual founder of Shiism, was the rightful leader of the community following the Prophet's death.[41] Ali was only nine or eleven years old when he recognized the prophetic station of Muhammad. This places him, after Muhammad's wife Khadija, as being the first believer.[42] The historian Tabari records an early intimation of Ali's station: one time three years after the beginning of Muhammad's prophetic mission the Prophet called forty eminent guests to dinner and, in front of all, ordered the community to listen to and obey the boy Ali. Later during Muhammad's lifetime, Ali undertook a great many unique tasks, such as acting as his secretary in Medina, leading the battles of Badr and Khaybar as standard-bearer, and caring for Muhammad's family while he was on campaign. Most importantly, on the way back from Mecca to Medina following Muhammad's final pilgrimage in 632, Muhammad stopped the caravan at a pool called Ghadir Khumm. He called everyone's attention, stood up with Ali and raised Ali's hand, and clearly stated "Of whomsoever I am Lord (mawla), then Ali is also his Lord." While the exact meaning of mawla in this context is unclear, the event at least is recognized by both Shiis and Sunnis to signify a unique importance of Ali in Muhammad's eyes.

      Muhammad does not seem to have left his community with clear directions as to how to choose a successor. Shii hadiths recount that, lying on his deathbed, Muhammad asked for pen and paper with which to write his will and, supposedly, name Ali as successor. His request was refused, and he died without leaving any formal record of his wishes. The community was thus left with the responsibility of trying to figure out how to choose a leader, and there was no precedent for them to follow. Some thought that the successor should be chosen in the manner of the earlier tribal custom; this would entail that the members of the community vote to select one of their own class, a person renowned for his qualities of strength and virtue. Others felt that only a member of Muhammad's immediate family, one who enjoyed blood-ties to the holy Prophet, could have the necessary divinely-appointed authority to rule. It is possible that some may have agitated for the installation of Ali, though it is not known how strong his support was at this time.[43] Still others pointed out that, since the society inaugurated by Muhammad could not be bound by any earlier traditions, there was no way of knowing how a successor should be chosen. In the end it was partly political maneuverings and largely contextual happenstance that proved to be the deciding factors. Key figures of the Muslim community met shortly after the Prophet's death at the hall of the Banu Saida clan and chose Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts, to be the first caliph. Those siding with Ali quietly accepted the decision, but remained disposed to regard Ali as the legitimate heir to leadership. These were the shiah Ali, the "party of Ali"--the Shiis.

      Two years later, in 634 C.E., Abu Bakr nominated Umar to succeed him, and Ali gave Umar his pledge of fidelity. Umar, as he lay dying from an assassin's wound ten years hence, appointed a six-member council to choose a successor. Ali was offered the caliphate on the condition that he continue the policies of his predecessors, which he refused to do, since what he was in effect being asked to do was to keep the Qurayshi tribe in power at the expense of other tribes.[44] Uthman, the alternate choice, accepted the caliphate. Though Ali expressed a certain hesitation in offering Uthman his support,[45] he made no vocal objections to Uthman's appointment. When Uthman was murdered in 656 C.E., Ali was urged to take the caliphate and, while expressing reluctance, he now accepted. Though discontent with his caliphate was not long in coming, it is possible that he was initially supported by all sides.[46]

      Ali's accession to the caliphate came to be regarded by the later Shiah as a long-overdue fulfillment of the Prophet's own wishes.[47] For them he was the imam, the first divinely elected and inspired leader of the Muslim community. Ali was assassinated by a Khariji in 661 and his son Hasan became the second imam. Hasan declined to press his claims for the caliphate and take temporal rule. Instead, he ceded power to the Qurayshi aristocrat Mu'awiya, and thus the Umayyad period began, marking the end of the period of the "rightly-guided Caliphs" in the eyes of the community. From this point, the Sunnis and the Shiis recognized different leaders--the Sunnis continued to follow the Caliphs, but the Shiis instead regarded the imams, the offspring of Ali, as the true leaders, even though these imams had no temporal power. Hasan was poisoned in 669, and was succeeded by his brother Husayn, the third imam.

      When Mu'awiya died in 680 partisans of Ali urged Husayn to travel to Iraq to lead a revolt against Mu'awiya's successor Yazid and seek the political power, the caliphate. Husayn set out with about seventy of his supporters, including his wives and children, but they were met by a contingent of Yazid's forces and surrounded at a place called Karbala. The men were killed and the women and children taken as slaves to Damascus. This event, though of a type relatively commonplace in Middle Eastern history, proved to have great ramifications. Julius Wellhausen, in commenting that Husayn's murder "opened up a new era for the Shia," expressed the meaning of this episode well. "There are such things as events which have a tremendous effect, not so much through themselves and their inevitable consequences as through the memories they leave in the minds and hearts of men," he wrote.[48] There were more imams following Husayn--four for the Isma'ili "Seveners" and nine for the majority Ithna Ashari "Twelvers"--but none had the same impact on Shia history as did the imamates of Ali, Hasan, and Husayn.[49]


      From the time of the usurpation of power by Abu Bakr from Ali, the Shiis began adopting a distinct identity: they were a persecuted minority who knew that rule of the Muslim community rightfully rested with them, but who were resigned to watching helplessly as power was wrested from them by illegitimate megalomaniacs. To the Shiis, not only were those who assumed leadership legally unjustified in doing so, for Muhammad officially bequeath rulership to Ali, but worse, those who took power--the Umayyads--were, as the Prophet's original enemies, spiritually unqualified. Helpless in the face of manifest injustice and yet confident of their legitimacy, the Shii ethos became politically quietist, religiously introspective, and eschatologically oriented.

      These themes have taken expression in what is perhaps the most unique aspect of Shiism: its ethos of suffering and martyrdom. Themes of pain and suffering are of course found in many religious traditions. Most notably, Buddhism teaches that suffering (duhkha) is, along with soul-lessness (anatman) and impermanence (anityam), one of the three fundamental qualities of existent entities. Christianity, with its highly-developed theology of incarnation, the divisions between the soul and the spirit, and the martyrdom and physical resurrection of Christ, has many strong themes of the reality of pain, and many Christian mystics have taken the practice of bodily mortification to an extreme.[50] In contrast Shiism, though also concentrating to a certain extent on the philosophical explanations of suffering or the redeeming value of pain, has emphasized most strongly the emotional commitment to mourning. One observer, 1981 Nobel Laureate in literature Elias Canetti, was not employing hyperbole in saying that Shiah Islam is "a religion of lament more concentrated and more extreme than any to be found elsewhere.[51]

      Two distinct events have contributed in shaping the themes of suffering and martyrdom in Shiism: the murder of Husayn and the "occultation" of the twelfth imam. With the death of Husayn the extent of the spiritual debasement of the opponents of the Prophet's family was made clear and the Shiis entirely gave up hopes for establishing a legitimate government; and with the occultation of the twelfth imam the Shiis became wholly politically quietist, keeping alive the cadre of Muslims loyal to Muhammad's family while waiting for the twelfth imam to return and lead the Shiis to victory.

The Martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali

      The principal events surrounding the death of Imam Husayn, the Prince of Martyrs (sayyed al-shuhada') are clear and fairly well documented, though their interpretation may not always be [see for example A. Q. Faizi, The Prince of Martyrs]. However, this event soon became the event of central significance to the entire Shii history--indeed, it became seen as a central event in the entire history of humankind, one towards which previous history was teleologically drawn and from which subsequent history charted its course[52] --and its details became highly elaborated upon and surrounded with numerous non-historical embellishments. While any academic history of Shiism will present the details of this history, it is only the event as seen through the eye of the believer that concerns this project.[53] As this event is foundational for Shiism and Babism and its details and characters will be referred to and cited frequently in this study, a summary of the incident is necessary here. The following account, which is representative of what has become a distinct genre of narrations of Husayn's death, will be telescoped from an apologetic (and, incidentally, Bahai) source: Abu'l-Qasim Faizi's The Prince of Martyrs: a brief account of the Imam Husayn.[54]

      Muhammad had many times announced that the house of Ali was to lead the community after his death.[55] At his deathbed Muhammad requested pen and paper with which to officialize his appointment, but his request was denied by those who were already hatching their plans to usurp power. The first two rulers following Muhammad, Abu Bakr and Umar, conspired to keep Ali powerless but the third, Uthman, was forced by popular opinion to designate Ali his successor. Ali ruled for a brief five years before a power-hungry member of a rival clan, Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, managed to have him assassinated. Mu'awiya quickly captured the caliphate and thereby the rule of the Muslim world. Though nominally a pious Muslim, he took every opportunity to vilify Ali and his followers, the Shiah, and keep Ali's son Hasan from practicing his rightful rule. Hasan, too, was soon killed at command, and it fell to another of Ali's sons, Husayn, to seek his just place as Caliph. Mu'awiya, anticipating Husayn's attempt at the caliphate, labored hard to have his own son, Yazid, accepted as successor.

      Yazid repeatedly sought to secure an oath of allegiance from Husayn in advance, but was unsuccessful--Husayn was staunch in his commitment to honor the line of the Prophet. To compound matters, Yazid was every bit as debased as Husayn was pious: his greed, ignorance, and libertinism were legendary, and his addiction to alcohol so great that he even made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's most sacred spot, while drunk. Husayn's spiritual magnitude was equally legendary. 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 followers had already departed for Kufa with about seventy of his 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 despatched 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 here 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', "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 grâce. A man named Shemr, 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.

      Though accounts may differ in a few details and some add considerable detail and embellishment, the above is a fairly representative story of the death of Husayn and its surrounding circumstances.[56] A few characteristics stand out in all standard tellings: the sincerity of Husayn and his followers; the perfidy of his sworn supporters in Kufa; the willingness of Husayn to give them the benefit of the doubt and act as if he believed in their support though he knew it to be a fatal choice; the respect and love Husayn showed his enemy and the immoral brutality they returned; the defenselessness and peacefulness Husayn's band showed in the face of the unprovoked offensiveness of Ibn Ziyad's forces; the evident piety of Husayn; and, most importantly, Husayn's foreknowledge that by acting with sincerity and piety, even if in accordance with the behaviour of the Prophet, he was embracing a certain death. These characteristics, which have been abstracted, amplified, and cherished by Shiis since 680 C.E. have given Shiism its distinct personality.

Later developments: the Twelfth Imam

      With Husayn's martyrdom the party of Ali found itself politically leaderless, yet unified in its recognition of the series of spiritual leaders--the imams. Husayn's son Zayn al-Abidin, who escaped death in the massacre at Karbala, became considered the fourth imam and the line was thus kept alive. Al-Abidin was succeeded by another seven hereditary leaders, imams five through eleven. The eleventh, Hasan al-Askari, died in January 874,[57] leaving a state of confusion behind him. Some Shiis claimed that he died without leaving male progeny, but others believed that he left a young son and hence twelfth imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan. The last reported public appearance of Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan was at the time of Hasan al-Askari's death, after which the twelfth imam went into "occultation," or a state of concealment. For the next sixty-seven years Imam Muhammad, still in occultation, communicated with the community through the intermediary of a series of agents known as babs, or "gates" to the imam. When the last of these intermediaries died in 941 C.E. all communication with the twelfth imam ceased.

      Though no tangible proof for the twelfth imam's existence was available, the thought of his death was unthinkable for the Twelver Shiis. By now he would only be sixty-six years old, and though the last intermediary had died and the imam was fully out of contact with the community, there was no reason to assume that he would cease to remain its leader. Thus began the period known as the "greater occultation." From 941 to the present day Imam Muhammad has not let his physical presence be known, though he occasionally manifests himself to the pious after sincere prayers or in dreams and mystic visions.

      Soon after the death of the fourth Bab and the beginning of the twelfth imam's greater occultation, it became apparent to the believers that his inevitable return would be a momentous event. He became known as the Mahdi, "the (divinely) guided one."[58] The key decisions made shortly after the Prophet's death--by the Sunnis to adopt elective rule and by the Shiis to follow an appointed series of leaders--continued to shape the community's political structure: the imam, the appointed and hereditary heir to Muhammad was gone and in the meantime only his delegates, the collective priesthood of the "learned," 'ulama', could guide the Shii community. When the imam emerges from his occulted state, though, then God's appointed representative will once again exercise authority on the earth. Two crucial motifs followed this realization. First, any individual or body assuming power in the twelfth imam's absence is at best a surrogate ruler and at worst an ungodly impostor. All forms of earthly rule other than the body of the ulama are either provisional or unjust. Second, the return of the Mahdi will herald the return of justice and righteousness and the culmination of whatever mysterious plan of God's occulted the imam in the first place.[59]

      The doctrine of the Mahdi was no doubt initially a simple expectation that a powerful figure would soon lead the Shiis back into power, but it gradually accrued a whole constellation of related beliefs: his return will elevate the Shiis to the state of righteous rule granted by Muhammad but usurped from the day of his death; it will herald the Day of Judgment and the eschatological end of time; in the final apocalyptic battle led by the Mahdi the pious will be brought back to life;[60] the enemies of the Shiis will be vanquished once and for all; true justice will finally be established over the earth.[61] While such religious symbology may sound quaint or even medieval to a contemporary educated Western reader, the vitality of the doctrine of the Mahdi must not be underestimated. Even a seemingly least-likely adherent to this belief as the self-proclaimed modernist intellectual Al-e Ahmad wrote in the 1960s that

"...all of us are waiting for the Imam of the Age [the Mahdi]. I mean we are all waiting, and rightly so, because no ephemeral government has come through on the least of its promises and undertakings, and because oppression is everywhere, along with injustice, suffocation and discrimination...God Almighty hasten his advent!"[62]

      An overview of the doctrine of the Mahdi is indispensable for understanding many aspects of the three religions under consideration here. The meanings of suffering and martyrdom are especially informed by two of its multifarious influences. First, the politically quietistic attitude Shiism developed in the imam's absence tended to elevate suffering in the path of the imam to a worthy attitude and guaranteed sufferers a reward commensurate with the degree of their righteous suffering. Inspired by the fact that each and every imam was reported to have been martyred, and by the fact that the injustice of the world was so pervasive and, without God's delegate visible on earth, so incapable of being challenged, the Shiis became somewhat passive in their acceptance of suffering and injustice and content to wait for the imam to lead them. Enduring suffering in his path came to be expected. Second, the eschatological fervor that came to be expected with the "advent" of the Mahdi encouraged the development of an at-times militant rhetoric. When the imam manifests himself once again, he will lead his followers in a magnificent battle: the final battle will be the first unified effort of the Shiis, led by God's representative, against all the world's injustice and all of those who have tormented the pious through all their years of long-suffering, and further it will be the final battle, the cleansing of all evil from the face of the earth.[63] For such a glorious event extreme measures might be called for--the possibility of martyrdom was to be expected.

Vicarious suffering in the path of God: Muharram

      As the above summary of Shii history shows, Shiis have found themselves to have suffered severe injustices in the first three centuries of Muslim history. First they were excluded from taking the positions of leadership which clearly were theirs; when Ali, the proper heir to power, finally did gain the seat of the caliph he was granted only a short period of rule before being assassinated; when Ali's son Husayn made another try at the caliphate he too is assassinated, and this under most heinous conditions; and finally, the line of Ali seemed to die altogether when the twelfth imam disappeared.

      Shiism reconciled these injustices with the clear directives of the Prophet, who, they felt, had explicitly designated them the true Muslims, by adopting the explanation that God's inscrutable plan underlay it all and that all these events were foreordained for specific reasons. Since these maligned Shii heroes were doubtless destined to receive the favor of God, it was not a long jump to the conclusion that accepting all the sufferings was in some way the key to God's good pleasure. For the mass of the Shiis, who were not privy to the core events of Shii history, the key to God's favor and even the intercession of the imams was to commemorate and sincerely lament over these events and thereby partake vicariously in the sufferings of God's chosen ones.

      All of God's prophets, Muslim belief holds, have suffered in His path, and likewise have all of the imams.[64] Each and every one, according to Shii belief, found his life ended by martyrdom. Shiis commemorate the sufferings of these martyrs frequently, both in a variety of public holidays scattered throughout the year and also in private, often weekly, ceremonies. The most important of these ceremonies are those held in Muharram, the month in which Husayn was killed. This month, and especially its first ten days, is the central focus of Shii piety. Worshippers attend special commemorative meetings in which the story of Karbala is told and retold and the sufferings of the house of Ali, the imams, and especially Husayn are recounted, processions are held, and passion plays, taziya, are enacted.[65] These three rituals--the tellings of the story of Husayn (rauza-khani), the passion plays (ta'ziya), and the processions (dasta-yi azadari)--are the three main elements of activity and devotions during Muharram.[66]

      The commemorative meetings known as rauza-khanis, or "Rauza readings," are named after an early book on the sufferings of Husayn called Rauza al-Shuhada', "Garden of Martyrs."[67] These are held in many venues, both public and private. Special narrators, called rauza-khans, "Rauza readers," are hired to recite the events surrounding the day of Ashura, the day of Husayn's martyrdom. The more successful of these narrators are highly skilled in poetic storytelling, dramatic techniques, and chanting of elegies, as well as perfect pronunciation of classical Arabic and skilled use of symbolism, all serving to convey the events of Karbala with an intense passion and maximize the audience's emotional involvement. The rauza-khan portrays the events with great detail, and dwells especially on the sufferings of Husayn and his party: their long march, the heat and their thirst, the gradual killing of the fighting men and the agonies of each individual death, and the brutality Husayn is subjected to. As the narration proceeds and continually heightens in intensity, the audience repeatedly will burst into sobbing and moaning and will slap their foreheads and beat their chests in anguish.

      The taziya, the passion play in which the events of Husayn's death are actually reenacted by the participants, is another important event. These plays began to be enacted in a simple form shortly after the event of Karbala but only became widespread during the Safavid period,[68] reaching their peak in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Qajar Iran. In the twentieth century Iran's various secular governments have occasionally outlawed their practice,[69] but the taziyas nonetheless still exist as a key religious event in Iranian Islam. They are enacted in every major city in Iran, and semi-professional traveling troupes--whose pay is often provided by a wealthy sponsor as a public service bringing its own religious rewards--sometimes bring the play even to remote and small villages. As with the rauza-khans, the taziyas do not simply portray the known historical events but provide a great amount of imaginative detail to flesh out the story. A Turkish traveler to Iran in 1640 provides a vivid description of one such public passion play for Husayn, to which came "the nobles and notables and all the people of the city, great and small":

When the reader of the book [on the martyrdom of Husayn] reaches the part describing the manner in which the accursed Shemr killed the oppressed Husayn, at that very moment, they bring out to the field...mock representations of the bodies of the dead children of the Imam. Upon seeing this spectacle shouts and screams and wailings of "Alas, Husayn" mount from the people to the heavens and all spectators weep and wail. Hundreds of Husayn's devotees beat and wound their heads, faces and bodies with swords and knives. For the love of Imam Husayn they make their blood flow. The green grassy field becomes bloodied and looks like a field of poppies. Then the mock dead are carried from the field and the reading of the story of Imam Husayn's martyrdom is completed.[70]
      The processions are perhaps the most public of the Muharram ceremonies and, with their conspicuous self-flagellation, are perhaps the most immediately noticeable to foreign observers. These range from simple marches to elaborate pageants, complete with characters from the taziya, groups singing dirges and laments, banners and flags representing the standard of Husayn at Karbala (the alam), and floats, all interspersed with often shirtless men wailing and beating their chests.[71] The self-beatings take a variety of forms, from light chest-slapping practiced chiefly by the observers to strenuous self-flagellation, often with chains, daggers, razor blades, or other "implements"--these occurring in their most vigorous forms during processions and other outdoor events--practiced most conspicuously by young men. Indeed, many of the forms of self-beating are complex and evolved enough that the activity has become even part art and part sport, with vendors selling a variety of instruments and enthusiasts discussing fine points of technique.[72]


      The various ceremonies commemorating the sacrifice of Husayn--Muharram, taziyas, rauza-khans--can have many purposes and intended effects, such as keeping alive and vibrant the religion's history and legends,[73] unifying and consolidating the community through group participation ceremonies,[74] providing a means for personal spirituality, or even for inciting the audience to political action.[75]

      The most common and noticeable purpose for such events is simply to inspire weeping. Many hadith affirm the spiritual value of weeping,[76] and Shii tradition has long upheld the redemptive value of heartfelt weeping in memory of the suffering of the Prophet and especially the martyred imams.[77] Iranian Shiis weep during these ceremonies, while visiting the shrines of the imams or their four babs (and especially to Karbala), during prayers, while listening to Quran recitations, and any number of other occasions where devotions and personal piety are expressed. Seeing this phenomenon as a simple act of catharsis for personal misfortunes; for the agonies undergone by Shiism's spiritual heroes; and as an expression of both the broad motif of the suffering of the community at the hands of political and religious injustices and the narrower motif of the contemporary unpleasantries of life, often caused by the impoverished peasant conditions characteristic of many Iranian communities in history, are all valid and no doubt accurate explanations for the pervasiveness and magnitude of the Shii culture's obsession with weeping.

      All these explanations, however, would seem to belittle the significance of sorrow and suffering for Shiis, and at minimum do not fully account for the heartfelt sincerity with which Shiis mourn. More transcendent spiritual explanations seem to be needed. Why are the events of Karbala seen as of cosmic import, why are Shiis so committed to commemorating and vicariously experiencing the event every year, and why do these commemorations focus on suffering and martyrdom?

      There seem to be a few answers to these questions, some obvious and simple, others highly theological and abstruse. We will explore here three: (1) suffering as simply that--a natural outburst of expression by a community that has been subjected to injustices and painful events; (2) suffering as a vehicle for worship and religious growth, using Husayn and his followers as a model; (3) the theology of redemption.

Sufferings of the community

      To a certain extent since 945 C.E. with the founding of the Buyid Dynasty and to a great extent since 1501 with the establishment of Safavid rule, Iran has been affiliated with Shiism. Persian culture and Shii thought proved to be an agreeable couple, and each half of the couple brought with it an awareness of having suffered in the past and an acute familiarity with pain.[78]

Persian historical suffering

      The twentieth century has introduced the world to an Iran notable for its willingness to rise to political action and seize power from the civil rulers, sometimes to redirect this power into the hands of the religious authorities. Indeed, Jahangir Amuzegar delineates seven such revolutions since 1906 alone, in many of which members of the religious establishment played a key role.[79] This is, however, a recent phenomenon. Both in its earliest years of millennia ago and its recent years of the twentieth century Persia was a strong, self-confident nation, but in the intervening two thousand years it fell to a continuous series of political subjugations and, especially with the coming of the Muslim Arabs, a strong foreign cultural imperialism. The first few centuries of Shiism's history can especially be and have been read as a tragedy of continual persecution. In these years Persian religion, arts, and philosophy came to reconcile Persia with its suffering and, eventually, to embrace it.

      Under Cyrus the Great and his immediate successors in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Persia enjoyed the distinction of ruling over a domain that, stretching from Europe to India, was the world's first true world empire. Including as this area did, if only for a time, the regions of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, Persia was also able to consider itself the possessor of what are likely the world's oldest civilizations. Since at least the time of Cyrus, Persian culture has been strongly autonomous, defensive of its history, and proud of its culture. "The Iranians as a whole feel their cultural roots with a sensitivity shared by few other people on earth," writes Sandra Mackey. All ethnic and religious groups within Iran, she writes, "with the possible exception of the Kurds," share "an intense pride" in the Persia's history and its unique society, arts, literature, and philosophy, combined to give Iran "an intense nationalism."[80] Yet Persia became a vanquished land. Though once enjoying glory as the pinnacle of human empire and culture, she was defeated by one foreign power after another: first the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Arab Muslims, then the Turks, then the Mongols, then Russia, and most recently the British all either captured major parts of or completely conquered Persia.[81] Persia's determined pride for its unique culture and its strong sense of nationalism remained strong during, and perhaps were even further strengthened by, its political subservience, but in its subordinate state this self-confidence and pride turned inward. Cultural resistance movements such as the Shubiya of the late eighth century C.E.--a culture war bordering on insurrectionism--demonstrated the vitality of Iran's self-identity as well as possibly a certain insecurity.[82]

Persian cultural suffering

      This uniquely Persian mix of nationalistic pride blended with pervasive mourning is perhaps most clearly evidenced by Persia's three most emblematic pieces of literature: Ferdausi's epic "Book of Kings," the Shahnameh, written in the early eleventh century; the divan (the corpus of poetry) of the fourteenth-century Hafez, and Omar Khayyam's classic "Quatrains," the Rubayyat, written in the twelfth century.

      The Shahnameh, a book-length paean of courts, heroes, and battles, is regarded by Persians as their national literary epic, its style and themes seen as the ultimate expression of Persian cultural identity.[83] The Iranian identity of mourning can clearly be seen by contrasting the Shahnameh with other epics which have been adopted as emblematic by their respective cultures. Where the national epics of other cultures tend to celebrate victories and sovereignty,[84] the Shahnameh is in many ways a celebration of defeat. After recounting the histories and glories of Persia's ancient kings, the epic culminates with the defeat of the Iranian armies by the conquest of the Muslim Arabs. Almost any educated Iranian, writes Mackey, can "passionately quote" Ferdausi's famous lament "Damn on this World, Damn on this Time, Damn on Fate / That uncivilized Arabs have come to force me to be a Muslim."[85] In the Shahnameh, Muharram-like rituals are portrayed as historically preceding Karbala: the deaths of two of its heroes at the hands of treachery are bitterly lamented, lamentations which soon became emulated in practice by the advent of public mourning for these heroes as well as Husayn.[86]

      The most memorized and revered poet of Persia is Hafez, whose poems to this day are quoted at every opportunity. Hafez, with his emphasis on the love of God and his frequent, seemingly deliberate mystical blasphemies ("Stain your prayer rug with wine if the Zoroastrian Elder tells you to"[87] ), expresses to a great degree the religious sentiments of much of Persian thought. Hafez writes of mystical union with God as inherently supreme over religious law, of love as flirtatious and easily lost, and of the reality of earthly suffering: "Not all the sum of earthly happiness / Is worth the bowed head of a moment's pain."[88] While the poetry of Hafez can prima facie seem to be predominantly a celebration of the joy of life, a careful reading can reveal that, underlying this celebration, themes of death and loss of love and faith run as ubiquitous undercurrents.

      Similarly, Omar Khayyam's Rubayyat, while permeated with an almost Epicurean sense of enjoying life, is more than anything a meditation on the fickleness of life and the evanescence of its pleasures. In some one-hundred verses[89] Khayyam expresses a mood of regretful nostalgia, bittersweet pleasures, happinesses tempered by deep, world-weary sorrow, occasional heresy, and a relentless pessimism about the futility of action in whose mirror many Persians recognize their own life attitudes.[90] Reflecting on his one-time lovers who have since died, Khayyam writes:

And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend--ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?[91]

      Though Shiism has enjoyed the status of being a state religion to a large extent since the Buyids and explicitly so since the Safavids, it seems never to have lost its self-identity as a persecuted community. The Shii community has been shaped by and defined itself around a series of traumatic events: the loss of rightful rule and the scorning of the Prophet's family and chosen heirs; the failed caliphate and martyrdom of Ali; the failed uprising and massacre of Husayn; the (supposed) assassination of every imam; and finally the total disappearance of worldly leadership with the occultation of the twelfth imam. These themes have welded themselves smoothly with the theme of the unjust oppression of one of the world's pre-eminent cultures. "The masses of Iran," writes Mackey, have "suffered for centuries at the hands of unjust and venal rulers they...have had no power to resist." She postulates that "perhaps this is why Iranian culture bears a palpable if not quite definable burden of grief." This history of persecution and suffering has, she concludes, "preconditioned them to always perceive the negative, the sad, and the tragic."[92]

      It can now be seen that the suffering and martyrdom of Husayn is far more than that of a single person. For the normative Iranian, the passion and suffering of Husayn encapsulates both his Persian cultural mourning as well as his Shii spiritual lamentation. His agony, as Mackey expresses it, "is the symbol of oppression from which they [the Iranians] have suffered individually and collectively at the hands of tyranny wielded by powerful aliens and their own social-political systems."[93] Just as Husayn died a martyr at the hand of evil forces which he was not able to defeat, so have the masses of Iranian also long suffered at the hands of unjust political and religious authorities they were not able successfully to resist. Save for a century of Buyid rule (946-1055 C.E.), for all of Shiism's history before the rise of the Safavids in 1501 the Shiis found the authority of their imams spurned, the rule of their political leaders rejected, their collections of hadith rejected, and often their followers executed. The Shiis thus felt themselves to be masters of suffering, as evidenced by their greatly-regarded literature of Ferdausi, Hafez, and Omar Khayyam, but they did not grieve merely for themselves. Their unique status of being the heirs to the only legitimate spiritual authority following Muhammad, combined with their collective grief as an oppressed culture, gave them what they believed to be a unique insight into the reality of human suffering. They mourned not just for themselves but for the entire human condition.[94]

Identification with Husayn to vitalize personal religiosity

      Many religions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Christian liberation theology, teach that suffering, though an inescapable fact of life, is not a condition to which the individual should be reconciled. The individual must strive to transcend suffering and the community to ameliorate it. Shiism, however, akin to strains in Greek asceticism and medieval Christianity, emphasizes suffering as a necessary vehicle for personal betterment and religious transformation.

      Imam Husayn is the model Shii. First, his status as grandson of the Prophet immediately lends him an exalted heritage, a bloodline direct from God's messenger on Earth. As imam, he has a spiritual authority which not only allows him to legislate but, equally important, invests him with the qualities of the perfect Muslim. Many stories are preserved, in both Shii and Sunni writings, of Husayn's generosity, wisdom, and, above all, his deep piety.[95] However, the most outstanding meritorious event of Husayn's life, the one most deserving of emulation by the Shii, is his martyrdom and the image of Husayn as the hero. The figure of Husayn possesses an unusual degree of what Max Weber called "charisma"--the strength of an individual, especially a religious one, to inspire devotion and emulation in his followers. He is, of course, a hero of a rare sort, for he is the paragon not of worldly victory but instead of defeat and sacrifice. No strong and stoic warrior, he is often depicted as crying out pitifully for help and begging for mercy in his last moments.[96] Husayn's goals being otherworldly, his heroism was strictly emotional and spiritual.

      It must be pointed out that Husayn, upon departing for Kufa, quite likely did not believe himself to be facing certain death. His journey to the city was at the request of the Muslims of Kufa, who were clearly dissatisfied with the rule of Yazid and were seeking a replacement. This invitation was, even by a conservative estimate, overwhelming: most sources report that the letters of appeal sent to Husayn numbered in the thousands. Husayn was not simply embarking on a pious quest, but had clearly been promised a strong showing of military support, both from the Kufans and from the band of followers who accompanied him. Further, Husayn was likely following a cautious military strategy, as indicated by his sending a scout ahead of his force. Finally, he and his party made it clear that they had not come simply to surrender, for he and his party opposed the forces of Yazid in a standoff for a full nine days. Some reports tell that the night before the battle he had his little army fortify their camp against attack, digging a trench behind the camp and filling it full of burning wood and then pitching the tents in a tight circle to afford the fullest protection.[97]

      These details, though, are not necessarily of interest to the Shiis, because for them Husayn's journey was a heroic, not a military, quest. For them the key is that Husayn knew beforehand that his opposition would be futile. He is almost always depicted as having been fully aware before departing Medina that his struggle was doomed to failure, and if for any reason he let himself forget that, his half-brother Muhammad ibn al-Hanifiyyah foretold with clear warnings the fate that would lie at the end of the journey. If Husayn's foreknowledge is postulated, the entire meaning of the event changes. Instead of being a failed military coup inspired by a desire to seize power and rectify political wrongs, the event becomes a moral play whose chief intent is to demonstrate a higher truth. By advancing to certain defeat, Husayn was testifying to his followers that their cause was one so important and vital as to merit their dying for it and to his opponents that his party held the strongest possible belief in the righteousness of their agenda and hence would never rest until either they were dead or their enemies ended their unwelcome rule.[98]

      Finally, Husayn's voluntary death was not simply a demonstration for the benefit of his contemporaries, but further was proof for all future generations of what exactly the Prophet Muhammad's teachings meant for Muslims: piety is more important than temporal power, and only a just ruler is a Muslim one. Thus, if Husayn marched to Kufa with a foreknowledge of his fate, then his heroic journey transcends all political and socio-cultural implications and becomes a worldly manifestation of the cosmic battle of good against evil. It is a spiritual statement and quest par excellence. The Shii commemorates the suffering and death of Husayn not just to immortalize his opposition to unjust usurpations of power but more to take his own place in the eternal stand against the ungodly. Shii culture, as demonstrated above, defines itself largely in contradistinction to a state of impious injustice reigning in the world at large, and the sufferings of Husayn must be continuously actualized in the present to retain his spirit of pious opposition to them.

      The Shii author Ali Shariati, writing in the twentieth century, expresses this true significance of the death of Husayn for Shiah Islam in a brief statement that summarizes well all of these key themes:

Choose mourning for continuing the constant historical struggle of the Shiites against usurpation, treachery, cruelty...Remember Ashura [the day of Husayn's death] to humiliate the ruling group who call themselves the inheritors of the traditions of the Prophet, for the remembrance of it will prove that they are the inheritors of the killers and murderers of the Prophet's family...Ashura recalls the teaching of this continuing fact that the present Islam is a criminal Islam in the dress of "tradition" and that the real Islam is the hidden Islam, hidden in the red cloak of martyrdom.[99]

      Islam never seems to have developed the Muslim equivalent of the Imitatio Christi, the Christian path of living one's life in imitation of Jesus. Shiism, however, has strong elements of an "Imitatio Husayn," and it is here that the heroic aspects of Husayn emerge most strongly. The Shii can participate in the sufferings of Husayn by a form of intentional transference, so to speak: through devotional practices the worshipper can shift the experiences and emotions associated with Husayn to him- or herself, thus allowing for a form of identification with Husayn and vicarious suffering. Besides keeping alive the memory of Husayn, as Shariati writes, this transference has a powerful effect on one's personal spirituality. Legend relates that, during the battle of Uhud (625 C.E.), Muhammad was sharply wounded on the mouth by a flying rock. In grief for the Prophet's injury, one of his companions grabbed a stone and smashed it against his own teeth, to feel the same pain as Muhammad and to emulate his experiences. Shiis often explain their own mourning in the same way: "Beating one's chest is a natural thing, a natural response when one hears about Karbala," David Pinault was told in conversation with a group of Shiite men. "We want to feel Husayn's sorrow."[100]

      Emulating Husayn and subjecting oneself to experiences like his is more than a simple wish to identify with a hero's actions. What it demonstrates is that the inner convictions are the same--just as Husayn was willing to die to testify to the strength of his ideals and the sincerity of his convictions, so is the self-flagellating Shii testifying to the depth of his own commitment to and willingness to die for the Shiah agenda. "We do matam [mortifications] not just to commemorate [Husayn] but as a way of saying we are Shiites," said one of Pinault's interviewees. "[B]y hurting myself, I show I am willing to protect my religion."[101] One need not actually be a martyr (shahid) to testify (shahida) to one's piety, but can testify by enacting and reenacting the key events.

      It must not be believed that the participants in mourning and mortification ceremonies as described here regard them as theatre, or as play-acting, though the taziya and other Muharram ceremonies have occasionally been portrayed as such by Orientalist scholarship. For the worshipper--who is demonstrating that, had he been with Husayn on the fields of Karbala, he would have laid down his life for the imam--these role-playing events are in serious, one might say deadly, earnest. Pinault writes that, in observing the Muharram ceremonies, he noted "again and again" the "desire to break down the barriers of time, between the twentieth century and the seventh."[102] The act of intense mourning can provide a means to participate in the battle of Karbala itself, regardless of the fact that it is historically distant. Matthew Arnold, in his 1871 essay "A Persian Passion Play," noted that "the power of the actors is in their genuine sense of the seriousness of the business they are engaged in."[103] Though the actors are supposed to identify not with the characters but with the roles they represent--good versus evil, the family of the Prophet versus impiety--it is not unheard of for an unlucky actor playing the part of a villain to be attacked or even killed by the impassioned audience.[104]

      Though the ceremonial events recalling the events of Karbala culminate in the annual month of Muharram, this is not the only time that Shiis revive the memory of Husayn. Rauza-khanis, especially, are held much more frequently on smaller, more local scales. The fact that the Shii continually recalls the behavior of his religion's spiritual and historical hero indicates that the significance of Husayn exceeds what might be seen as a once-per-year spiritual catharsis. The scars a young and exuberant Shii might incur during Muharram remind him throughout the year of the potential for bravery and courage residing deep in his heart. Even for the majority of mourners who do not go so far as to inflict wounds upon themselves, the memories of their passions waiting to well up from within in the right setting inspire a sense of deep identification with the family of Husayn. This can act as a constant reminder to the Persian Muslim of the reality of his belief and his commitment to his religion. Even as a memory in daily life, when the Shii is not mourning, it provides a constant reminder of what is perhaps most important: a passionate sense of love for and devotion to the Prophet and his family.

      The "imitatio Husayn," the greatest performance of which is weeping and experiencing suffering, can be seen as the most vibrant and vital aspect of the Shii identity. One might not be called to witness--to martyrdom--oneself, but one can and must keep alive the memory of Husayn's sacrifice to keep alive the commitment to Islam, piety, and opposition to the world's manifold injustices. Husayn's journey and sacrifice testify to his rejection of such worldly considerations as wealth, safety, and political power in favor of a commitment to true Islamic ideals,[105] and emulating him as a hero strengthens one's own spiritual commitment to the religion.

Intercession through redemptive suffering and martyrdom

      The Shii veneration for Husayn, with its accompanying depth of sorrow and, in its extreme forms, self-mutilation, may appear to an outsider as unfathomable, bizarre, or even horrific. The realism of the taziya's portrayal--which sometimes went so far as to close with the decapitated head of Husayn delivering the narrative--could strike an observer as, in the words of one scholar, "simply [a] reveling in the pain and cruelty of the spectacle."[106] And yet this is the same episode which one Shii scholar describes as "a cosmic event around which revolves the entire history of the world, prior as well as subsequent."[107]

      As described above, the significance of Husayn's martyrdom can be explained partly as a symbol whose reenactment is a catharsis for a persecuted community's shared suffering, and partly as an episode whose heroic figures can inspire individual piety and religiosity. However, a much more transcendent and compelling reason behind honoring Husayn and glorifying his martyrdom overarches obvious explanations such as these. Like Jesus for Christianity, Husayn's sacrifice allows for personal salvation. His martyrdom was a salvific act, and commemoration of it through reenacting his suffering is the most direct gate to redemption.

      The Quran provides a root explanation for the function of suffering in the Muslim religious tradition: "Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility." (6:42 and 7:94) This teaching is greatly expanded upon in hadith. As shown in chapter two, above, the Quran and hadiths state that the martyr in the path of God will receive wondrous rewards in the next life. Further, in other hadiths Muhammad states that, not only will rewards be forthcoming for the one who dies for the cause of God, but the one who suffers in life will also be rewarded:

Our afflictions are multiplied in order that our rewards may also be multiplied.


The greatness of the reward [of the man of faith] is proportionate with the greatness of his afflictions. For, if God loves a people, He visits them with afflictions.[108]

      In examining the concept of redemption in Islam, one is immediately tempted to think of the religion in which notions of redemption are most evident--Christianity. This is misleading, largely because in Islam there is much less stress on sin, the state from which humanity needs redeeming. In Christian thought, most notably in Augustine and in later Protestantism, awareness of original sin is elevated to an all-encompassing preoccupation with the fall of Adam. Here humanity demonstrated its ego by disobeying God's clear command in the primeval time when humanity was created. In the thought of Augustine, humanity's arrogance in disobeying God can be read as a vaunting of the individual's will over God's, or of the individual's body over his will. Both constitute a primordial rebellion, because of which a rebellious nature inheres in all of Adam's future offspring. It is from this original sin in the form of a revolt of the individual will that humanity needs to be saved.[109]      

      Islamic thought differs in that much less emphasis is laid on original sin, and redemption has a fundamentally different function. Sin is essentially traced back to the pride of Iblis, Satan, not to a primal disobedience of Adam and Eve or a rebelliousness inherent in human nature. Satan's story is told in numerous places throughout the Quran, always with the same basic plot: God commanded all the angels to bow down before the newly-created race of humanity. All did save Satan, who objected that Adam, a being created from mere clay, was not worthy of the devotions of Satan, a being created from fire.[110] The Quran does retell the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, but it has much less an emphasis than it does in Genesis; their disobedience comes across as being merely incidental.[111] A final difference between Christian and Islamic portrayals of the fall is that God's omnipotence in the Quran is stressed so strongly that in places all human will seems to be rendered impotent: "God leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills." (35:9)

      That sin in Islamic thought is a result of pride more than of rebellion or evil is evidenced by the Quran's statement that prophets were sent to towns, "[taking] up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility." Muhammad clarifies in a hadith that these afflictions are indeed intended to absolve sin: "Afflictions continue to oppress the worshipful servant until they leave him walking on the face of the earth without any sin cleaving to him," he said.[112] Sin in the Quran thus seems to be a much simpler and more minor affair than in Augustinian Christian thought,[113] and other explanations must be sought in understanding redemption.

      The martyrdom of Jesus, especially for Protestant Christianity, is redemptive if the believer wholeheartedly believes that he has died for the sins of the believer--salvation is conditioned upon belief, as in Luther's maxim sole fides. In contrast, the martyrdom of Husayn is redemptive if the believer feels the suffering of Husayn and mourns for him--salvation is conditioned upon pious emotion. In the afterlife, Husayn will intercede on behalf of those who have accepted and interiorized his sacrifice. In a hadith, the Prophet on the day of Resurrection will turn to Husayn and say "Go thou and deliver from the flames everyone who has in his life-time shed but a single tear for thee,...everyone who has performed a pilgrimage to thy Shrine, or mourned for thee and everyone who has written a tragic verse for thee. Bear [them] with thee to paradise."[114]

      The omnipresent suffering of the Shiah community described above interacts with the notions of redemption in a way that strengthens the vitality of each of these two themes. While it could be suspected that public lamentations would act as catharses that function to alleviate the community's suffering, what is actually seen is that the public lamentations instead serve to heighten the sense of pain and persecution, and indeed are only considered successful if they do. The theme of redemption enters here as a sort of transmutation of opposites: suffering will lead to future happiness, and the greater the suffering the greater the happiness. Those who feel most intensely the pain of Husayn's sacrifice will find their pain transmuted into delight in the afterlife, and conversely those who do not participate in the pain of Karbala will receive no compensatory joy. To the eighth imam is attributed an explanation of this process:

He for whom the day of Ashura would be his day of calamity, sorrow, and weeping, for him God will make the day of resurrection a day of joy and happiness, and, delighted, he will be sitting with [the imams] in heaven. But he who marks the day of Ashura as a day of blessing...will, on the day of resurrection, share the hottest flames of hell with Yazid [Husayn's enemy]...[115]

On the one hand, this concept of redemption begs the believer to evoke the greatest possible pain, ultimately to achieve a sort of sympathetic martyrdom. On the other hand, such a concept also serves to explain and justify sufferings imposed from external forces. A hadith relates that, when Muhammad was asked "who among men are those afflicted with the greatest calamity?" he replied:

The prophets, then the pious, everyone according to the degree of his piety. A man is afflicted according to his faith; if his faith is durable, his affliction is accordingly increased, and if his faith is weak, his affliction is made lighter.[116]

As it is through the mechanism of tribulations that the believer refines his piety, and ultimately that redemption is achieved, Muhammad emphasizes that sufferings are not to be seen as having been visited upon humanity by a cruel God, but rather that they are a token of God's love. "The greatness of [one's] reward is proportionate with the greatness of his afflictions," he said, explaining that "if God loves a people, He visits them with afflictions" to increase their faith and give them the maximal opportunity to submit to God's will.[117]

      This type of testing lends itself naturally to a reassurance that if the suffering is descended upon the believer at God's bidding then God will surely recompense these tribulations with worthy reward in the afterlife. Of all of God's creatures, said Muhammad, it is his prophets who suffer the most, a verity which Shiah Islam has incorporated in its teaching that, supreme among the community, it was the imams who suffered most greatly, all of whom save the twelfth succumbing to martyrdom. It can therefore be expected that the imams are destined to receive the greatest of rewards. In this dialectic can be found another key to the meaning of redemption. As described above, the Shii who fervently associates himself with Husayn through commemorative lamentation achieves a virtual identification with him. Indeed, the sixth imam went so far as to draw an ontological identification, claiming that "God created the spirits of our followers from our own clay"--the imams and the faithful rank and file of the community were created from the same divine substance.[118] Because of this identification, the believer who associates himself with the sufferings of Husayn can also expect to partake of Husayn's rewards, and these rewards will be the greatest of all possible since Husayn's suffering was the greatest possible.

      The redemptive aspects of Husayn's sacrifice take simple, worldly forms as well as abstruse theological ones. His physical body, his blood, and even the dirt of the ground of Karbala all have magical properties reflecting the power of redemption in the spiritual plane. The almost fetishistic power of Husayn's physical body is usually manifest in legends or in dreams and visions. For example, a story attributed to one of the members of Husayn's family tells of a blind and crippled Jewish girl whose father brought her to a garden outside Medina. She remained until night, when a bird approached her covered with of Husayn's blood. One drop of this blood fell on her eyes, thereby curing her blindness, and another on her feet, curing her lameness.[119] Donaldson relates that enterprising merchants living at the town of Karbala would sell tablets made from the clay of the site of Husayn's death (which by this time was enshrined in the middle of the town that had sprung up around the location of his death). Among other uses, the clay from these tablets could be mixed in with food to provide a miraculous cure for a various ailments.[120]

      Though the believing Shii may not analyze the process in the following terms, it appears that the process of redemption through Husayn can be explained clearly. Husayn gave his life to express his commitment to what he believed to be the true Islamic ideals, demonstrating his opposition to the impious Umayyads through what could fairly be considered the ultimate protest vote. In doing so he further testified to the importance of religious ideals over political ones; there is an ultimate code of morality higher than those operating in the impious world, and a greater life beyond this one. His willingness to sacrifice his life testifies to the existence and the superiority of this moral code and this future life. The Muslim who also believes in the truth of these two ultimate realities demonstrates his belief by participating in an equivalent rejection of lesser realities. Voluntary suffering testifies to one's willingness to make the ultimate statement of belief--death in the path of God. This testimony will be rewarded in the next life, and the greater the statement of belief, i.e. the greater the self-imposed suffering, the greater the reward. It is thus not necessarily the person of Husayn who acts as intercessor, but that which he represents. He is the ultimate symbol of religious affirmation.

      The vehicle of Husayn is a means by which to conduct a very clear and real transaction. When asked if the great amount of energy expended lamenting for Husayn might not be better expended in some "more productive" activity, a Shiite mourner explained that lamentation was indeed the most constructive of religious activities. "We convert this energy into spiritual energy which becomes available to us only when we shed our blood," he said. "By losing physical energy we gain spiritual energy."[121] None can fully appreciate the righteousness of being a true Muslim or participate in the joys of the afterlife without intensely mourning for Husayn or even undergoing martyrdom oneself.

Notes to this chapter

[41] These are presented and analyzed in Jonah Winters, "The Origins of Shi'ism: A Consensus of Western Scholarship" (unpublished paper: University of Toronto, 1996). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "The Origins of Shi'ism"; URL

[42] Some sources name both Ali and Abu Bakr as being first; Momen reconciles the discrepancy by pointing out that what is likely meant is that, while Ali was first believer, Abu Bakr was the first adult to follow Muhammad. Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985), 325, note 2.

[43] Donaldson claims that it appears that Ali seriously considered pressing his claims even at this early stage, (Dwight M. Donaldson, The Shiite Religion [London: Luzac & Co., 1933], 12) but Momen counters that, though Ali was urged to do so, he refused. (Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 18).

[44] Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (Longman, London, 1986), p. 70.

[45] Donaldson, Shiite Religion, p. 21.

[46] Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 22. It must be pointed out that some scholars disagree with this statement. Cf. Heinz Halm, Shiism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), 8: "Ali's Caliphate was disputed from the very beginning."

[47] Halm, Shiism, p. 8.

[48] Quoted in Halm, Shiism, p. 15.

[49] Unless otherwise noted, "Shiism" and "Shiis" as used in this essay will refer to the Ithna Ashari "Twelvers."

[50] On duhkha, see Jonah [Siegel] Winters, Thinking in Buddhism: Nagarjuna's Middle Way (B.A. thesis, Reed College, 1994). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Thinking in Buddhism: Nagarjuna's Middle Way"; URL On Christian ascetic mortifications, see Maureen Flynn, "The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism," in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:2 (Summer 1996), 257-278, and William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (numerous editions) lectures six and seven, "The Sick Soul."

[51] Quoted in Peter Chelkowski, in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 263.

[52] Shii scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes "The Shiis regard the martyrdom of Husayn as a cosmic event around which revolves the entire history of the world, prior as well as subsequent." (Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 260, footnote) Interestingly, he appears to have unconsciously been quoting Ayoub, who ten years earlier wrote "The martyrdom of Imam Husayn has been regarded by the Shi'i community as a cosmic event around which the entire history of the world, prior as well as subsequent to it, revolves." (Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of 'Ashura' in Twelver Shi'ism [The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978], 141. Cf. ibid., 93 and 136.)

[53] The believer and the secular historian will often present slightly different accounts of an event and its meaning. On Shiism, see for example Winters, "The Origins of Shi'ism." On the Babi and Bahai religions, see Stephen Lambden, "An Episode in the Childhood of the Bab," in Peter Smith, ed., In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History volume three (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986), 19-22.

[54] The Prince of Martyrs: a brief account of the Imam Husayn, by Abu'l-Qasim Faizi, (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977). These comments aside, it must be stressed that clear lines of demarcation between critical history and hagiographic representation are not always possible. The events at Karbala were so widely reported, and sufficiently contemporaneously, that legend versus reportage are in places indistinguishable. Ayoub discusses some of these primary sources in Redemptive Suffering, 137-9.

[55] The following presentation of the circumstances surrounding the episode of Husayn will differ little from an objective scholarly history, for the general facts are for the most part historically fairly reliable. The interpretations of these circumstances, though, are to be taken as wholly biased.

[56] Ayoub, in Redemptive Suffering, provides one of the fullest scholarly accounts of Husayn's martyrdom and its historical background (ibid, pages 93-120), as well as an examination of later embellishments to and pietistic interpretations of the story (ibid, pages 120-39).

[57] Sources give as his death date either A.H. 1 or 8 Rabi al-Awwal 260, or December 25 873 or January 1 874 C.E. See Momen, Shi'i Islam, page 44.

[58] Mahdi, the passive participle of the Arabic verb hada, to guide," means "the one guided." Since all guidance is from God, mahdi carries the connotation of "the divinely-guided one."

[59] While the commonly-advanced explanation is that he went into hiding simply to avoid being assassinated, the fate of his eleven predecessors, a more comprehensive and mysterious divine plan eventually came to be suspected.

[60] Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina, Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), 165.

[61] An oft-quoted hadith cited in defense of the institution of the imamate and the person and the function of the Mahdi reads "If there were to remain in the life of the world but one day, God would prolong that day until He sends in it a man from my community and my household. His name will be the same as my name. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny." ('Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i, trans. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Shiite Islam, [Albany: State University of New York, 1977] 210.) This and other hadith on the Mahdi can be found in the section on "Mahdi," in A. J. Wensinck, A Handbook of Early Muhammadan Traditions (Leiden, 1927).

[62] Quoted in Roy Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet (New York, Pantheon Books: 1985) 300-301.

[63] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 164-166.

[64] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25-26. Their suffering is consistently emphasized by Babi and Bahai texts, as well. See for example Baha'ullah, Kitab-i-Iqan: The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), 73.

[65] "Passion" derives from the Latin passus, past participle of pati, "to suffer," hence phrases such as the "passion of Christ."

[66] These Shii ceremonies are described in many places. The fullest accounts of these are: Gustav Thaiss' "Religious Symbolism and Social Change: The Drama of Husayn," in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East since 1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), where he presents his first-hand experience participating in a taziya; Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, chapter 5; J. Robson, "The Muharram Ceremonies," The Hibbert Journal 54 (Oct. 1955-July 1956): 267-274; Thaiss, "Religious Symbolism and Social Change"; Mottahedeh, Mantle, 173-9; and Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 258-70. Pinault includes a series of photographs of Muharram ceremonies at the beginning of The Shiites and devotes a few chapters to the practices of Muharram ceremonies in one village in India. Yitzhak Nakash delineates five major rituals revolving around the battle of Karbala and discusses their practice in "An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of '/shura'," in Die Welt des Islams, 33:2 (Nov. 1993), 161-181.

[67] E. G. Browne, quoted in Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 261

[68] Taba+aba'i, Shiite Islam, 232-233.

[69] See J. Robson, in "The Muharram Ceremonies," in The Hibbert Journal, 54 (Oct. 1955-July 1956), 273.

[70] Quoted in Mottahedeh, Mantle, 174-5.

[71] As described in Peter Chelkowski in Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 264.

[72] Pinault, The Shiites, 113-114. The different types of flagellation are described in ibid., 109-114, and Nakash, "Origin of 'Ashura'," 175-179.

[73] Pinault, The Shiites, 169.

[74] See Syed Mohammed Ameed, The Importance of Weeping and Wailing (Karachi: Peermahomed Ebrahim Trust, 1973), 75-6, and Pinault, The Shiites, 121-124. For example, an Indian businessman explains to anthropologist David Pinault that Muharram is the only time of the year when the community strongly pulls together, so much so that "a millionaire" will invite to his house "even a rickshaw-puller, someone he won't even look at the rest of the year." Pinault, The Shiites, 87.

[75] For cases of the latter, see for example David Busby Edwards, "The Evolution of Shi'i Political Dissent in Afghanistan," in Juan R. I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie, eds., Shi'ism and Social Protest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 214 and 228.

[76] Wensinck, in Handbook of Early Muhammadan Traditions, has noted more than forty of these.

[77] Hamid Enayat, Alserat, Imam Husayn Conference Number, Vol. XII, No 1 (Spring 1986), page 197. See also Ameed, The Importance of Weeping, and Nakash, "Origin of 'Ashura'," 165. Mottahedeh portrays the commonality and the significance of the act of weeping in some powerful episodes in Mantle of the Prophet, including pp. 23, 114, and 174-5.

[78] General descriptions of Persia's unique culture and psyche can be found Sandra Mackey, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), in toto, Michael C. Hillman's Iranian Culture: A Persianist View (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1990), in toto, and Jahangir Amuzegar, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis' Triumph and Tragedy. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 99-114.

[79] I.e. the Constitutional Revolution in 1906; a coup d'etat in 1921; the forced abdication of Reza Shah in 1941; the claim for sovereignty by Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1946; a brief challenge to the throne by Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; revolts against Westernization in 1962-3; and the Iranian evolution in 1979. Amuzegar, Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution.

[80] Mackey, The Iranians, 4-5. Mottahedeh adds, "unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, who lost virtually all identity with the four millennia of their history that preceded the Islamic conquest,...Iranians retained their language and a fierce pride in their continuity with their pagan pre-Islamic ancestors." Mottahedeh, Mantle, 164

[81] Persia was never conquered without a fight. Nowhere else, for example, did the Muslim expansion of the seventh century C.E. encounter such strong resistance from the inhabitants. See Kennedy, Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 69.

[82] A Shubiya poet retorted to the Arab conquerors: "Retreat to the Hijaz and resume eating lizards and herd your cattle / While I seat myself on the throne of kings supported by the sharpness of my blade and the point of my pen." Quoted in Mackey, The Iranians, 59.

[83] Hillman, Iranian Culture, 15.

[84] For example, the Iliad and the Odyssey can be seen as odes of triumph and adventure, the Epic of Gilgamesh a tale of heroic victory over destructive gods, the Bhagavad-Gita a call to glorying in and defending the caste and kingdom into which one has been born, Beowulf an allegory of idealism, and Don Quixote a portrayal of idealistic nobility.

[85] Quoted in Mackey, The Iranians, 63.

[86] Mottahedeh, Mantle, 174.

[87] Quoted in Mottahedeh, Mantle, 140. To stain one's prayer rug with wine at the command of a Zoroastrian would be to pollute one's sacred physical religious symbol with a forbidden substance at the bidding of a pagan.

[88] Trans. Gertrude Bell. A. J. Arberry, ed., Fifty Poems of Hafiz (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1993), 100.

[89] Manuscripts of the Rubayyat vary greatly. Edward Fitzgerald's translations of the nineteenth century, still the most famous, vary from 75 verses in the first, 1859 edition to 101 verses in the fifth, 1889 edition. (Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward Fitzgerald [London: Bernard Quaritch], first edition 1859; fifth edition 1889.)

[90] See Hillman, Iranian Culture, 42-63.

[91] Omar Khayyam, verse 23, fifth edition.

[92] Mackey, The Iranians, 105.

[93] Mackey, The Iranians, 104.

[94] Mackey, The Iranians, 108, and Pinault, The Shiites, 170.

[95] See, for example, Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 87-90

[96] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 118-119.

[97] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 114.

[98] Cf. St. Anselm on the martyrdom of Christ: "God did not compel Christ to die,...but Christ himself freely underwent death, not by yielding up his life as an act of obedience, but on account of his obedience in maintaining justice, because he so steadfastly persevered in it that he brought death on himself." Eugene R. Fairweather, ed. and trans. A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), 113.

[99] Quoted in Pinault, The Shiites, 172.

[100] Related in Pinault, The Shiites, 101-102.

[101] Quoted in Pinault, The Shiites, 103.

[102] Pinault, The Shiites, 106. An interviewee told Pinault: "What thought does a matamdar [flagellant] have in mind when he does matam? Just this: If I had been there at Karbala, I would have fought for Imam Husayn and died for him." Quoted in Pinault, ibid., 106.

[103] Quoted in Mottahedeh, Mantle, 177.

[104] Mottahedeh, Mantle, 142.

[105] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 93.

[106] G. Yver, s.v. "Ta'ziya," in E. J. Brill's First Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993).

[107] Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 260, footnote. See also note 52, above.

[108] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25-26.

[109] See Jonah [Siegel] Winters, "SIN: Or, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People." Unpublished paper, 1994.

[110] Quran 2:34, 7:11-18, 15: 31-44, 17:61-65, 18:50, 20:116-123, and 38:71-85.

[111] In one of the Quran's two tellings of the fall, Adam and "his wife" simply "slip from the Garden" and "out of the state of felicity in which they had been." (2:35-36), and immediately after leaving the garden Adam is consoled by God with "words of inspiration." (2:37) Here the fall from grace is gradual and not emphatic. In the other telling (7:19-28), Adam and his wife do oppose God more directly, for God's commands to them are here much more explicit. However, the blame for their disobedience is laid solely at the feet of Satan.

[112] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25.

[113] See the discussion by Edward Sell under "Sin (Muslim)," in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), volume 11.

[114] Quoted in Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 260, note.

[115] Quoted in Nakash, "Origins of 'Ashura'," 166.

[116] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25.

[117] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 26.

[118] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 51.

[119] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 132. Stories of the power of Husayn's corpse, especially his decapitated head, can be found in ibid., 133-134.

[120] Donaldson, Shiite Religion.

[121] Quoted in Pinault, The Shiites, 108.

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