Ashura and Myth

By Dr. Jūyā Jahānbakhsh

The following is a translation of an essay written by Dr. Jūyā Jahānbakhsh on his blog site.[1] Dr. Jahānbakhsh is a literary critic, author, and seminarian from Iṣfahān. His critical Persian translation of Āyatullāh Hādī al-Najafī’s “Yawm al-Ṭaff” under the title “Rūznāmeh-ye-Āshurā” earned Iran’s Book of the Year Award. In this short piece, he discusses the complex interplay between myth and ‘Āshurā’. We have taken the liberty of adding some explanatory footnotes to the piece where we deemed necessary:

The monumental historical event of ‘Āshurā’ and the bloody fate of the Martyr of Nainawā (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) has carried with it the potential of opening the floodgates to the world of legend.  Indeed, the epic of the Ḥusaynī ‘Āshurā’ and the stance of its martyrs has lent itself to mythical undertones; this can be palpably appreciated in some of the reports, narrations, and perceptions surrounding the event. Some of these myths have also left their imprint on the pulpiteers who narrate this tragic history. They have also found themselves a place in the public perception of the event, manifesting in the highly embellished color to some popular narratives of ‘Āshurā as well as their associated historical re-enactments (ta’ziyeh).[2]

In this vein, the event of ‘Āshurā’ and the martyrdom of the Master of the Martyrs (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) has become naturally intertwined to the world of myth; and this attachment has its advantages and disadvantages. Among its advantages is that it has laid the ground for allowing ‘Āshurā’ to enter every domain of artistry.[3] It has facilitated the influence and impression of ‘Āshurā’ upon the public psyche—upon minds that have a natural proclivity towards the world of legend. However, among its disadvantages is that it has facilitated the distortion of historical reports and laid the groundwork for rendering sheer emotions reign over rational analyses of ‘Āshurā.[4]

The annexation of an event as epic and monumental as ‘Āshurā’ to myth is inevitable. There is no historical occurrence of similar dimensions in emotional grandeur that has successfully escaped the hand of gradual mythification in the public consciousness; fantastical undertones are unrelinquishable. However, a principled regulation of the nature of this relationship is essential. As much as possible, it is important to prevent the obfuscation of the event.[5] By strengthening intellectual and investigative approaches, we ought to try to curb the mythical readings of the event as much as possible.[6]

By way of analogy, we may point towards the portrayal of Mukhtār’s uprising or the envoyship of Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl. In understanding these events, we have been inevitably drawn towards a cinematic portrayal of them.[7] Theatrical portrayals have their own unique prerequisites: they usually require a glamorization of the story as one must fill the unavoidable gaps that are present between historical accounts. Therefore, there will be a binding and inextricable difference between the exposition of a historical account and a cinematic one.

We are confronted by two options at this juncture:

1) We cease producing cinematic portrayals of Islāmic history and lock ourselves out from this world of artistry in totality. In so doing, we will be left only with the dry historical narrative, which holds appeal only for historical experts (all of us know that this option is not feasible);

2) We afford theatrical portrayals their separate sphere while not granting them full hegemony over the historical narrations. In so doing, we always make sure the spectators are aware of the intrinsic differences between historical and cinematic portrayals. We make sure we preserve the dichotomy between history and legend—fact and metaphor.

The situation is analogous to how when a spectator sees an actor playing Shimr, he or she can differentiate that this individual is not the same as the historical personality. The actor ought not to be held culpable for the crimes of Karbalā and the martyrdom of God’s representative. Rather, the actor and criminal are not conflated; in an analogous matter, we ought to cultivate the ability to appreciate the difference between an artistic portrayal and a historical narrative.


[1] The original piece may be found here:

[2] Nonetheless, it should be said that the vast majority of what is narrated on the pulpit still does have historical origins. The Baḥrainī scholar and leader of its seminary, Muḥammad Ṣanqūr, has opined that approximately 70-80 percent of what is narrated about the tragedy of Karbalā is historically accurate: However, this is wrought only through close inspection of the historical sources.  As an example, some authors such as Mahdī Pishvā’ī have deemed it a myth that ‘Abbās refused to drink from the Euphrates after remembering the thirst of Ḥusayn (as). Dr. Jahānbakhsh has critiqued this view and showed there is very early historical evidence that suggests this narrative is true. His blog post discussing this can be found here: It should be said that historical critique is quite nuanced and there is an unavoidable element of subjectivity which must be appreciated.

[3] We see this in the various documentaries, plays/re-enactments, books, illustrations, lectures, figurines, and poetry produced about this event. The tragedy of Karbalā has even entered the realm of virtual reality most recently as illustrated by the VR Karbala project.

[4] For more information of such examples of common legends surrounding the Karbalā narrative, please see here:

[5] Metanarratives of ‘Āshurā’ presented on the pulpit typically rely on an amalgam of historical narrative/quotation (lisān al-maqāl) as well as metaphorical storytelling (what is termed lisān al-ḥāl). The issue is quite complicated, because oftentimes these two elements are blended in a way such that the audience is unable to distinguish between the historical and the metaphorical. There are complicated fiqhī discussions regarding to what extent ascribing creative speech to the infallibles is allowed. In general, however, it is recommended that one attempt to differentiate between lisān al-maqāl and lisān al-ḥāl.

[6] Historical accounts may themselves be subject to critique. A great resource that has attempted to apply a relatively more stringent historical criteria to the martyrdom narratives is the late Āyatullāh Muḥammad Reyshahrī’s “The Chronicles of the Martyrdom of Imām Ḥussain (AS)” translated to English by Dr. Abbas Jaffer.

[7] The author is of course alluding here to the popular Persian historical television series “Mukhtārnāmeh.”