Lifelong Learning Articles
Imam Husayn Ibn ‘Ali
Imam Husayn ibn ‘Ali was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the son of Imam ‘Ali and the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. He is regarded as one of the early imams of the Shi‘is, and his refusal to offer baya (allegiance) to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, which led to his death and the massacre of his family and supporters at Karbala in 680 CE, has immortalized him in the Muslim—and particularly Shi‘i—imagination as one of the great martyr figures of Islam.
The final confrontation, as recorded by Muslim historians, is the tragic account of the encirclement and massacre of Imam Husayn and his small army, which was said to number seventy-two men. They fought gallantly, but they were soon overpowered, and Imam Husayn, his brother, and some of his closest relatives were slaughtered. Imam Husayn’s head was taken to Damascus to be displayed before Yazid and his court.
The events of Karbala and the death of Imam Husayn catalyzed opposition to the Umayyad dynasty and rallied support around the family of Imam Husayn and the general cause of the ‘Alids. Imam Husayn’s son, ‘Ali (also known as Imam Zayn al-‘Abidin), who was spared in the battle, assumed the role of leader and imam of Husayn’s followers, thus crystallising further a distinctive Shi‘i identity.
Although there are differing accounts regarding where Imam Husayn’s remains were taken, it is generally believed that he was buried at Karbala, where, in time, a mausoleum was built to honour his memory. The mausoleum at Karbala is the most visited pilgrimage centre in Shi‘i Islam after the Ka‘ba. It is the centre of prayers, devotions, and rituals associated with Imam Husayn’s memory and death, which is commemorated in particular and with great religious fervour and intensity during the first ten days of Muharram, known as Ashura.
The devotions during Ashura have evolved to represent two major ritual expressions. The first, known as rawzeh-khani, involves preaching that is based on the Karbala narrative and, over the ten-day period, a formal recounting of the events is made in the context of the Shi‘i interpretation of Muslim history, with a special focus on notions of persecution, suffering, resistance, and martyrdom. Another major ritual expression developed much later in history and is known as ta’ziyya, a form of passion play that re-enacts the events of Karbala. During these rituals, some participants express their internal grief through acts of chest beating and flagellation. Ta’ziyya processions can be highly stylised and may include structures representing Imam Husayn’s bier and a rider-less horse.
Imam Husayn’s life and death are also evoked in special poems of remembrance that have been composed to highlight key themes such as justice, devotion, and courage in the face of oppression. Recitations of these poems, accompanied by music, have also developed into a special genre. Although a significant part of the focus of these expressions is found in Shi‘i literature and cultural life, Imam Husayn’s example has pervaded all periods of Muslim history, thought, and culture, and it transcends geographic and ethnic differences. Shrines, mosques, and places of remembrance are found throughout the Muslim world. Among the Shi‘is, special structures called Husayniyah are built to commemorate Ashura and to hold sessions of remembrance for other imams and martyred figures.
In situations of historical conflict and warfare, Imam Husayn’s example is often invoked to gain support for particular political and religious causes. This is illustrated in the appropriation of the Karbala narrative, for example, during the Iranian revolution in 1979 and during the recent conflicts in Iraq. However, the more enduring aspects of Imam Husayn’s life are the ones that continue to inspire Muslims: selfless leadership, commitment, courage in the face of oppression and, above all, devotion to God and the cause of Islam.
Ahmad, Fazi. Husayn, the Great Martyr. Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1969.
Ayoub, M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam; A Study of the Devotional Aspects of Ashura in Twelver Shiism. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.
Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Sobhani, Jafar. Doctrines of Shi‘i Islam. London: Institute of Ismaili Studies and I.B. Tauris, 2001.