Roughly three-four years ago as I was going through some parts of Insān 250-Sāleh, a work based on the speeches of Sayyid ‘Alī Khāmeneī, it led me to look further into the discussion surrounding Imām al-Ḥusayn’s (a) movement. The work puts forth the idea that all the infallibles were essentially one person who would have acted similarly if they were to be placed in each other’s situation, and most importantly, all of them were actively working towards the establishment of an Islamic government in order to implement certain lofty goals.
The idea put forth by Sayyid Khāmeneī is unique in one sense that one will be hard-pressed to find this matter being discussed in earlier Shī’ī theological works. I recall reading a transcript of one of Dr. Aḥmad Pakatchī’s workshops – a senior and well-renowned professor from Imām Ṣādiq University of Tehran – where he mentioned a number of theological discussions that require further investigation, research and contemplation. Two of these were: 1) that there was no difference in the personalities of the Imams, and 2) that they had a continuous intent of uprising and establishing a government if the conditions were appropriate.
That being said, I am sharing a brief summary of some notes I made three years ago while looking into some of the opinions held by scholars regarding Imām al-Ḥusayn’s (a) uprising and movement, so they can serve as a starting point for those interested to further research and contemplate. Some have enumerated up to 7 or 8 interpretations, including the opinion that we have no idea what reason the Imām had for his movement, but it appears most of the other interpretations can be narrowed down to the four described below. Lastly, as this post is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation of these interpretations, their implications, their arguments, or the critiques of the proponents on other opinions, as such, the reader should not be judging the validity of any of these opinions after reading this brief post.
The Imām was purely seeking martyrdom
Those who prescribe to this view do so due to the statement of the Prophet (p) where he says: Allah wishes to see you martyred, and as well as numerous other reports that foreshadow his (a) martyrdom. Why the Imām sought martyrdom itself has been interpreted in different ways – some saying it was for reasons that remain unknown to us as it was a secret between the Imām and his Lord (swt). Others have said it was a sacrifice he made for others, similar to the case of ‘Īsa (a), and yet others considered his motive to be political and to revive the religion.
Some have critiqued the last interpretation by citing Ziyārah al-Nāḥiyah – on the presumption that it is from Imām al-Mahdī (a). In it, it explicitly mentions that alteration, distortion, infidelity, abandonment of Islamic laws, misguidance, turmoil and falsehood became prevalent amongst the Muslims after his (a) martyrdom. By looking at subsequent events, the critics argue that religion was most definitely not revived in the apparent sense of the meaning after the Imām’s martyrdom.
Protecting his life
This opinion has not been attributed to many scholars in the past and is rather a contemporary opinion. They prescribe to this view because Imām al-Ḥusayn (a) left Medīnah and headed towards Makkah when he felt his life was in danger. Furthermore, there are other signs that corroborate with this interpretation, such as when the path to Kūfa was blocked, the Imām decided to change his course and eventually even asked his enemies to let him go free up until the Day of ‘Āshūrā.
Establishing a government
This view has both supporters and opponents. This view was put forth formally for the first time by Āyatullah Ṣāleḥī Najafābādī in his controversial book Shahīd Jāvīd – although some have attributed this view to earlier scholars like Sayyid al-Murtaḍā and Shaykh al-Mufīd as well. The author had remained a student of Imām al-Khomaynī, though he had other teachers as well, and the work was written over a span of seven years. In this work, in order to prove his point, he argues that the Imām had absolutely no knowledge that he would become a martyr and denies knowledge of the unseen to the Imām with regards to this event. By denying any knowledge of the unseen, he eventually argues that the Imām saw that the time to topple Yazīd was appropriate, and hence set forth to accomplish this obligatory task.
According to him, historically speaking, three stages unfolded for the Imām. Firstly, he decided to form a government, and when that failed, he went for a truce (ṣulḥ), and when that failed, he attempted to avoid battle but was martyred. Āyatullah Najafābādī refutes the opinion of those who believe that the Imām went to seek martyrdom, by saying martyrdom in it and of itself has no value. It is not something that God wants, rather God wants the defence of religion, not dying in it and of itself. Martyrdom is a consequence of an act that is not in one’s hand and therefore God could not have wanted the Imām (a) to be martyred, as it is not something that was in his hands.
This book was very controversial, and many scholars wrote refutations on it, particularly the point concerning Imām’s knowledge of the event. Initially, scholars like Āyatullah Montazeri and Āyatullah Mishkīnī wrote introductions to the book, but later regretted it and got their writings removed from it. One of the lengthiest refutations written on it was by Shahīd Muṭahhari – though Āyatullah Najafābādī wrote a rebuttal which was quite lengthy itself. One of the criticism Shahīd Muṭahhari had was that Āyatullah Najafābādī presumed the Kūfans would have helped the Imām form a government, while we know that the Kūfans were a people who had betrayed the previous Imāms multiple times and were known to be disloyal.
Imām al-Khomaynī remained silent on the book and instead spoke out against the heated arguments that were taking place within the seminary between the two camps. In some cases, the disputes got so heated that it resulted in physical brawls and even some people getting killed. The Pahlavi dynasty seemed to defend those who were against the book as well since they felt the political ramifications of the book would be detrimental to their regime.
Move to Kūfa and not have to give allegiance
Those who accept this view say that the Imām simply wanted to move to Kūfa in the hopes that with the support of the Kūfans he would not have to give allegiance to Yazīd and continue living the way he did for 10 years under Mu’āwiyah. Those who maintain this view also critique Shahīd Muṭahharī – who argued the Kūfans were known to be disloyal – by saying that the Kūfans were like any other Muslim group living in the Islamic lands. They were not betrayers in their essence, rather they were humans who could have leaned towards any position at any given time. Therefore, the Imām (a) kept moving towards Kūfa even after hearing about the martyrdom of Muslim b. ‘Aqīl and Hānī, because he believed he could have been able to convince them.
The proponents of this view say that the Imām still believed the caliphate was his right, but that he was not actively seeking it as the conditions were not right. Furthermore, if the Imām had been able to live in Kūfa with the support that he could have gotten there, he may have been able to more good for the community through his teachings.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.