The Martyrdom of Imam Hussain as a Symbol

Peace, one and all…


What gives an act its meaning, and why do some acts become translated into the symbolic world so quickly, and so lastingly?  Why are symbols so important (to both individuals and communities)?  What do they do?  What function do they serve?  Why do they carry so much charisma, so much psychic power?

These thoughts have been simmering gently away on the rusty stove in the back of my mind for some time now.  During the last few weeks, we have been exploring the death of Hussein and its significance in my Shi`a Islam class.  We have explored this issue from a number of different perspectives, using marthiya poetry, ziyara texts, Sufi poetry, music, theological writings, historical texts and other relevant materials.  I have also recently read an interesting two part article (part one; part two) from Sherryx’s Weblog on rebellion in Islam (hat tip to the Towelies for the link).  It seems that, right from the start, Hussein’s death became a powerful symbol in the collective unconscious of the Muslim ummah.

Why?  Why should this event have inspired so much focus, so much commemoration?  The answer to this multi-faceted question is similarly multi-faceted.  The answer is partly historical: the circumstances and timing of Hussein’s revolt (coming, as it did, towards the end of the first Muslim generation, against a deeply unpopular ruler).  It is also partly meta-historical.  That is, Hussein’s unyielding response to tyranny struck a chord beyond his own time.  It is also ethical.  Imam Hussein’s uncompromising stand against injustice, and the violence of tyranny were a statement of how things should be.

I have always seen great power in an acknowledged act of sacrifice.  The first film I remember seeing was Star Wars.  The willing death of Obi Wan Kenobi struck a deep chord with me, even though I was then at the tender age of 5.  Perhaps this is why the death of Hussein strikes such a chord with me.  But, as Katib as pointed out (post 1; post 2), we should not remember such sacrifices in sorrow alone. 

No, the love of God triumphs in the end.

Update: see this interesting post by our worthy brother Yursil.
Update II: see Irshad Hussein’s collection of essays: Tawil of Karbala.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman


21 thoughts on “The Martyrdom of Imam Hussain as a Symbol

  1. This is very interesting. And for me it has many echoes in the deaths of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and of Mahatma Gandhi, both of which we commemorate this month. Yes, the willingness to act knowing that death may be the outcome strikes a deep chord.
    I look forward to reading the links you posted when I have a little more time.
    Meanwhile, I love your sentence “These thoughts have been simmering gently away on the rusty stove in the back of my mind for some time now.” So evocative. Even though you’re writing prose, these are the words of a poet!

  2. Asalaamun alaykum brother Abdur Rahman,

    In the last of a series of Muharram lectures, Dr. Akber Mithani, the English zakir-in-residence this month at my community’s mosque (at — you can see the lectures under the Multimedia section) raised a very important point: Why bother simply crying for Imam, simply mourning his death and commemorating his sacrifice, without actually learning about it? Umar ibn Sa’ad’s forces shed tears for Imam, and for Ali Asghar (as), and for all the others, and so did many others, but they didn’t bother doing anything about it.

    If you havent’ seen it already, you might want to read Ali Shariati’s Red Shi’ism vs Black Shi’ism, or any other of Shariati’s works in which he talks about the “red death” “chosen” by Imam Hussein (as). I’ve seen Shariati unfairly characterised as having nihilistic tendancies, but the devotion he spends on clarifying between the “red” (revolution, rebellion) and “black” (mourning for the sake of commemoration) forms of Shi’ism answers that charge well, I think. It’s no more nihilistic than the Kaleema–there’s absolute rejection (La illaha), but only of that which needs to be rejected before we can prepare ourselves for acceptance (Il allah).

    For what it’s worth, I’ve blogged a bit about the martyrs here:

    Great blog, by the way…


  3. Peace Tess,

    Thank you for your kind compliment. I am honoured that you enjoyed my writing.

    As for the subject matter, perhaps it’s the underlying meaning of sacrifice for the cause of truth that such figures embody.

    For me, it is also the idea that the person willingly chooses death, so that others might live. On a symbolic level, it is in this light that I understand Christian beliefs regarding the crucifixion of Jesus (upon whom be peace).

    Thanks for the tip about Ursula Le Guin. I read the trilogy last week and yes, names and naming were deeply integral to it. Insha Allah, I’ll post some excerpts from it.

    Abdur Rahman

  4. Salaams Abdiel,

    Welcome to my online home. 🙂 Ahlan wa sahlan.

    God bless you for your comments and suggested readings. I have a copy of Shariati’s Islam and Sociology (or something like that), though I’ve not read the book you recommend. Insha Allah, I will have a look for it.

    As for the symbol of Hussein’s death at Karbala, as I said in the comment above, for me it is about death so that others might live – and about the ultimate victory of love.

    Abdur Rahman

  5. BismillahirRahmanirRahim

    I think the aspect of a sacrificial hero is very distinctly Christian. In Abdul Hakim Murad’s work, “Bombing Without Moonlight, The Origins of Suicidal Terrorism” we find the Quranic concept of a hero is completely different than the one which is based on a religious figure of ‘sacrifice’ (the Christian understanding of Jesus (AS)).

    In doing so they are defying tradition and even lawful orders, but they earn thereby the eternal gratitude of their people. As Robert Jewett and John Lawrence have shown, this image of the American hero as the ordinary man impatient of traditional authority who risks or destroys himself to save the world (John Brown, Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, and Captain Picard in the final episode of Star Trek), is the great monomyth of today’s West.[64] In some Eastern parts, the popularity of magically vanishing Bin Laden figures, who emerge from undistinguished lives to break conventional laws in order to save the world, offers another suggestion of how deeply Westernised Arab culture has become.

    I think the article has deep parallels and insights to what certain groups have done to the story of Imam Hussein (R).

    Indeed, at such tragic heros have always made great tales of emotion, there is something obviously powerful about such a tragedy. However, I find that spirituality is much less the application of brute force emotions and much more about the subtlety of application and the channeling of such emotions into self-improvement.

    Yes, our Shaykh remembers this incident and encourages us to contemplate on it. But not in a constant loop of tragedy, rather we need to consider and think, would we be on the Yazidi side or Imam Hussein’s (R)?

    Today most of us would jump to say, we would be one of the 72 with Imam Hussein (R), but the reality if we are honest with ourselves, is most likely very different. At that time too there were only 72.

    Mevlana also reminds us to rise above powerful tragic emotions, to a higher station which acknowledges the reality of this world and their true nature of loss, and enter, ultimately the station of Rida (Contentment) as taught by the spiritual masters.

    Indeed, I find Islam and Sufism is a lot more about healing and being stronger from loss than it is about recreating it.

    Its infinitely more harder to appreciate that, I think, but like sugar to a diabetic, the sweetness of tragic contemplation is great, yet it can be poison for the spiritual seeker.

  6. Salaams Yursil bhai,

    Insha Allah, I hope you and yours are well. How’s the new addition to the family?

    Emotion can become a drug, as can anything I suppose. Perhaps emotion is, in some sense, a form of first contact so to speak, in that it helps establish a relationship. But, as with all relationships, then comes work and hard effort – and the pursuit of truth (or healing).

    Ultimately, as I tried to suggest above, the symbol for me here is not death but the strength of love.

    Abdur Rahman

  7. Assalmualikum Br Abdur Rahman

    I think it is unfair for some to denounce the wonderful displayed emotions by the Shi’a brothers in commemorating Imam Hussain, for emotions are a legitimate natural rights of all human beings and in fact they are as you have beautifully defined as “Perhaps emotion is, in some sense, a form of first contact so to speak, in that it helps establish a relationship.”
    It is reported in all the “sihah” that the holy prophet cried intensely for the loss of his baby son and his uncle Hamza. You were absolutely right in saying that ” the symbol for me here is not death but the strength of love.” So emotions are the first step toward a bigger purpose but emotions alone would definitely prevent the purpose, of such emotions, from seeing the sun light which it seeks.
    I believe that emotions in post Imam Hussain’s martyrdom have taken new definition and purpose in this world; they have become a spiritual ladder through which our soul is enabled to ascend upward to higher reality, should these emotions for Hussain are channeled properly through understanding the true purpose of his revolution.
    I believe that those sincere tears which are shed for Hussain would, God willing, engulf us to ease the pain of chastisement of our evil doings.

    God bless you

  8. Salaams Katib,

    Perhaps there is a balance to be struck? When we take emotion too far, perhaps it becomes sentimentality? Perhaps if we strive towards an emotion-less religiosity, it runs the risk of becoming stale and sterile?

    At any rate, I think that the strength of Husayn’s death is the idea that we can all hope to become like that. That is, we can all hope (insha Allah) to be ready to sacrifice all that we have for the sake of God, for the sake of love.

    Abdur Rahman

  9. Thank you for sharing this dearest Abdur! Before going on a trip recently to Spain, I had no idea of how great the number of martyrs there were. It’s truly mind boggling and touching.

  10. Ma sha Allah!
    assalaamun alaikum
    Perhaps the brother who wrote “for the true believer death is nothing to be feared or mourned. It is the lover joining the Beloved” is right, because Allah (swt) says in the quran about prophet Jacob (as) mourned at the news of death of his son prophet Joseph (as). may be prophet Jacob (as) did know that It is the lover joining the Beloved like the brother says and should not have mourned. The prophet Jacob (as) made a mistake when he mourned and Allah (swt) made a mistake in making him a prophet instead of this brother who says death is not to be mourned. May be Allah (saw) should have made this brother a prophet instead of prophet Jacob (as) because this brother knows the religion better than prophet Jacob (as) and we muslims should follow the sunna of this brother instead of prophet Jacob (as) and the quran or vis-a-vis I personally would like to follow Allah (saw), the sunna of prophet Jacob (as) and all the prophets of whom the chief and the greatest is Muhammad (saw) and the quran and would wish to mourn in love for the prophets till I become blind like prophet Jacob (as) as the quran says. The rest of the muslims are at liberty to follow this brother who does not mourn for prophet Joseph (as) or all the prophets (peace be upon all of them) for that matter. astagh firullaha Rabbi wa atubu ilayhi I seek refuge in Allah (swt) from this brother.

  11. Wa alaikum salaam Harji,

    Welcome to my online home. Allah bless you always. This was an interesting discussion, and so thank you for sharing your own thoughts on it.

    I must confess that I can’t find the quote to which you refer though.

    Abdur Rahman

  12. May you live for 1000 years my brother Abdur Rahman
    Assalaamun alaikum
    The quote to which I refer is found on
    where my brother Irving quotes Maulana Rumi (R) on Karbala, Ashura, Shia practices quote 7 Irving “A most excellent post and a worthy point. Indeed, for the true believer death is nothing to be feared or mourned. It is the lover joining the Beloved.” My brother yursil has linked this site to your site. Maulana Rumi (R) is a great Maulana but unfortunately his quote have been misunderstood by some of my muslim brothers. Maulana Rumi (R) has never claimed that his knowledge of religion is superior to that of the Prophets neither has he claimed to be a prophet. When he quotes ” Indeed, for the true believer death is nothing to be feared or mourned” He does mean that the true believer should not mourn the prophets or The Martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as) the grandson of the greatest Prophet of the Universe Muhammad (saw) The mercy to the Universe. If the Maulana Rumi (R) meant we should not mourn, it would mean prophet Jacob´s mourning for his son prophet Yusuf until he became blind was wrong, this is what the holy quran says he did, the shia do not mourn until they become blind yet this prophet (Jacobs a.s) went to the extent that even his eyes became blind because of much mourning and no maulana or mufti ever dare give fatwa that his mourn was wrong or bidah etc. if you wish I could post you many examples from the holy quran where not only leaving creatures mourn even the earth and the sky and heavens mourn and in the case of firoun the heavens did not mourn says the holy quran. Why not? because Firoun was rebellious but what suppose firoun was not rebellious but instead was obedient and a prophet, would the heavens than mourn for him? You are my brothers and intelligent readers of the holy quran I think I would not need to send you those verses but if you are not than i will In sha Allah post them to you. If the great Maulana Rumi (R)meant mourn is wrong then that would naturally mean Allah (swt) should not have appointed prophet Jacobs (as) who wrongs, since he mourned and instead Maulana Rumi (R) should be appointed since he does not mourn and does not wrong by mourn. No! my dear brothers, we muslims do not believe the maulanas, sheykhs, muftis, sufis, ayatullas etc. to be superior to the Prophets actually we belieave their knowledge compare to the prophets is like a drop of water in the sea, even lesser than that. If the great Maulana Rumi (R) were to be asked this question, he would probably consider himself to be even lesser than what I say. This is because he is very humble and not proud like the taghut.
    I advise myself and all the muslims to meditate the great verses of the great quran carefully

  13. salaams my brothers
    Thanks to Allah (swt) for now we have understood the great Maulana Rumi(R) meant regarding the mourning of the grandson of our dearest and our most beloved holy prophet Muhammad (saw) (May we sacrifice our lives and our children for Him). Maulana Rumi (R)meant we are not pure like prophet Jacob (as) who mourned till he became blind but we muslims should mourn the great Imam Husain (as) to the extent of our faith as much as to the extent of our love for Islam.
    best wishes

  14. Salaams Harji,

    Thank you for your swift response. Ma sha Allah! Your detailed post will take me some time to read through. Once I have, I will offer my own thoughts, insha Allah.

    Jazak Allah for posting them.

    Abdur Rahman

  15. Glory be to Allah, The Loving.

    assalaamun alaikum,

    I beleive I would be unjust if I do not quote evidence from the Holy Quran,

    12:85 And he (Jacob) turned away from them, and said: “How great is my grief for Joseph!” And his eyes became white with sorrow, and he fell into silent melancholy.
    12:85 They said: “By God! (never) wilt thou cease to remember Joseph until thou reach the last extremity of illness, or until thou die!”
    12:86 He said: “I only complain of my distraction and anguish to God, and I know from God that which ye know not…

    Does the heaven or the earth weep? or does it mean the angels in heaven and people on earth weep?

    44:29 So the heaven and the earth did not weep for them, nor were they respited.
    44:30 And certainly We delivered the children of Israel from the abasing chastisement,
    44:31 From Firon; surely he was haughty, (and) one of the extravagant.

    your sincere well wisher.

  16. salamun alaikum
    Thank you very much brother for moderating my comments so quick.
    please remember me in your duas
    your sincere well wisher

  17. Salaams Harji,

    Thank you for offering your comments. The purpose of this blog is to generate conversations and so, this is good stuff indeed!

    Abdur Rahman

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