The Jurisprudence of Ashura (Part 1)

By Muhammad Jaffer[1]

Despite the relatively short span of time in which its events transpired, the fateful tragedy of Karbalā is arguably one of the most recounted, analyzed, and appraised events in human history. Whether it be in the domain of Islamic history, theology, sociology, literature, or art, the movement of ‘Āshurā’ as led by Sayyid al-Shuhadā’ (as) has rightfully imparted an unmistakable and everlasting impression. A testament to the immortalization of this tragedy in the Muslim psyche is that Imam Ḥusayn (as) is one of the few influential personalities in Islamic history whose date of martyrdom is undisputed.[2]  Nonetheless, there has been heretofore a dearth of literature regarding the jurisprudential implications of ‘Āshurā’ in the English language.[3] In this essay, we will aim to specifically explore the following questions: 1) To what extent is it possible to derive any jurisprudential conclusions from the movement of Imam Ḥusayn (as)?; 2) Was the uprising of Imam Ḥusayn (as) wājib or mustaḥabb?; 3) How has the discussion regarding ‘Āshūrā’ been contextualized by those who believe it has fiqhī implications?

Of course, the answer to these questions is heavily predicated upon one’s belief regarding the underlying objectives of Imam Ḥusayn’s (as) uprising against Yazīd (la), and we will frame our discussion around this axis. We will endeavor to present the views on these questions with reference to the writings of primarily Shī’ah Imāmī scholars, although we will quote Sunnī scholars in the discussion as well. Out of fear that we may render the discussion too unwieldy or protracted, we will confine ourselves to simply presenting and describing the existing viewpoints without discussing evidence and critique. Despite trying to be as inclusive as possible, we do not make the claim that our presentation here is exhaustive, and advanced readers are highly recommended to consult the Arabic and Persian sources we reference in our footnotes for further discussion.

The Intense Multiplicity of Interpretations Regarding ‘Āshūrā’

When one examines the available literature about Karbalā, what is immediately apparent is the intense variety of viewpoints and appraisals of its analysts. It appears that this heterogeneity is a product of several important factors:

A. Imam Ḥusayn’s Unique Stance and Personality

Among both the Sunnī and Shī’ah, Imam Ḥusayn (as) is one of the most highly revered personalities in Islamic history. As the grandson of the Holy Prophet (saw), Imam Ḥusayn’s actions carry a certain weight and authority and clarifying one’s position regarding his uprising therefore becomes imperative. The significance of his persona has hence ushered in the milieu for scholars to opine and speculate on the reasons underlying his uprising. The impetus to explain why Imam Ḥusayn (as) did what he did becomes even more palpable when one appreciates that his defiant stance against Umayyad tyranny differed quite drastically from that of the Ṣaḥābah and many of the Tābi’īn (from the Sunni perspective) and the other Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (as) (from the Imāmī Shī’ah perspective), and even from what his brother Imam Ḥasan (as) had done in his establishing a truce with Mu’āwiyah.[4]

Within a Shī’ah perspective, there is a well-known adage within uṣūl al-fiqh that “the words, actions, and affirmations of an infallible are probative,” and thus at least from the theoretical perspective, Imam Ḥusayn’s actions should be capable of analysis to extract legal precepts. However, there are nonetheless specific rules that govern one’s ability to extract fiqhī conclusions from the actions of a ma’ṣūm, which has fraught the discussion with a certain level of complexity:

1. One must demonstrate that the action of the infallible did not occur under the auspices of taqiyyah (dissimulation) due to sociopolitical or religious pressure. While this criterion is not specifically salient for ‘Āshūrā’, it can be evoked for other aspects of Imam Ḥusayn’s life. For instance, Imam Ḥusayn (as) tolerating the peace treaty enacted with Mu’āwiyah despite its being violated for nearly ten years after the demise of Imam Ḥasan (as) deserves scrutiny: was this due to dissimulation or not?

2. One must show that the action in question was not specific to the infallible (such as the Holy Prophet’s obligation to pray ṣalāt al-layl). Therefore, for instance, if one believes that the events of ‘Āshūrā’ were obligated upon the Imam as an extension of the duties (takālīf) of his Imāmate, this is a major impediment to being able to generalize the Ḥusaynī revolution.

3. One must be able to show that the action was not the result of an exceptionally unique political or historical circumstance. Therefore, for instance, if one believes that Imam Ḥusayn was forced to rise because Islam was still in its nascency and its collapse was imminent under Yazīd’s reign, then it again becomes difficult to extrapolate his actions into a modern context where Islam is already a major world religion.[5]

B. The Diversity of Historiographical Material Regarding Karbalā

The nature of the source material documenting the events of Karbalā is extremely varied both in chronology and its genre. We have literature that spans from the early 2nd century to the present day, which can be roughly divided into the following categories:

1. Primary sources: These consist of very early orally transmitted reports collected by historical traditionists (akhbārists) narrating the event of Karbalā, many times by eyewitness testimony or individuals removed from the tragedy by a few generations. Books that specifically fall within this category are from the second and third centuries and are musnad (with chains of transmission); these include Ansāb al-Ashrāf by al-Balādhurī , al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā by ibn Sa’d, and Maqtal Abū Mikhnaf.[6] Unfortunately, a great deal of this early literature is no longer extant, such as the maqātil of Asbagh ibn Nubāta, ‘Ammār al-Duhnī, and Jābir bin Yazīd al-Ju’fī. This naturally imposes a great deal of impediment in understanding firsthand the exact aims and objectives of Imam Ḥusayn’s movement. Another formidable challenge is that oral transmission of history (al-ḥadasī instead of al-ḥissī), especially one as emotionally charged as Karbalā, can be prone to exaggeration, even in the setting of eyewitnesses.

2. Secondary sources: These consist of sources that are primarily chronological encyclopedias of Islamic history, but quote the primary sources in narrating the events of ‘Āshūrā’; these include books such as Tārīkh al-Umam wa al-Mulūk by al-Ṭabarī, Kitāb al-Irshād by Shaykh al-Mufīd, Manāqib Āl Abī Ṭālib by ibn Shahr Āshūb, al-Luhūf f Kitāb al-Futūḥ of ibn A’tham al-Kūfī, al-Akhbār al-Ṭiwāl by al-Dīnawarī, and al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah by ibn Kathīr, among many others. We also have maqtals in this category that try to draw from earlier sources, such as al-Luhūf fī Qatlā al-Ṭufūf of ibn Ṭāwūs and Muthīr al-Aḥzān by ibn Numā al-Ḥillī. Although these sources may attempt to be objective, the reader must not neglect that each historian may have had his own specific biases. In turn, one cannot overlook the possibility of exaggerations, especially by those who were wont to exploit people’s emotions in the charged atmosphere of that society, which was quite rampant during the early ‘Abbāsid era. In general, events of this nature provide numerous opportunities for distortion, exaggeration, and omission. Such motives exist both on the part of the ruling powers and their opponents.[7] Some historians such as Rasūl Ja’fariyān have opined that one should scrutinize historical details about ‘Āshurā’ that are only found in a single secondary source. This is appreciated even more so when one realizes that many of these sources do not include isnād, adopting a more narrative style with truncation of the transmitters.[8]

3. Tertiary sources: These consist of sources that attempt to collate and historically critique or refine the narrative of Karbalā with reference to various primary and secondary sources. Examples of these books include Nafas al-Mahmūm of Shaykh ‘Abbās al-Qummī, Lawā’ij al-Ashjān by Sayyid Muḥsin al-Amīn, Hamāse-ye-Ḥusaynī by Shahīd Murtaḍā Muṭahharī, Maqtal-e-Jāmi’ by Sayyid Mahdi Pishwā’ī, and Shahādatnameh-ye-Imam-e-Ḥusayn by Shaykh Muḥammad Rayshahrī. The challenge with these books is that they sometimes rely on a methodology that may be either too lenient or overly stringent in filtering narrations.[9]

4. Quasihistorical sources: This consists of a vast body of literature that appears to incorporate supernatural or mythological elements in narrating the events of Karbalā. Many of these books have been authored specifically for lamentation purposes and often utilize poetic elements, hypothetical speech (zabān-e-ḥāl), and dreams/visions in their narratives. Among the prototypical forms of this literature include Rawḍah al-Shuhadā by Mullā Ḥusayn Wā’iz Kāshifī and Tadhkirah al-Shuhadā by Mullā Ḥabībullāh Kāshānī, which were authored during the Safavid and Qajar dynasties in which an ornate art form known as rawḍah-khwānī (elegy recitation) was emerging (and remains prevalent in Iranian culture today). The methodological problems in relying on these books to inform one’s knowledge of Karbalā are obvious.[10]

Given that fiqh is predicated upon narrations and accounts that meet the prerequisite of a certain level of authenticity (al-wuthūq), it becomes even more salient for those who believe ‘Āshūrā’ has fiqhī implications to scrutinize the narratives to support their conclusions. Furthermore, one must understand that during the early period of Imam Ḥusayn (as), fiqhī terminology and discussions about Islamic rights (al-ḥuqūq) was still underdeveloped, and therefore one must be very sensitive to the possibility of committing the fallacy of presentism in interpreting the events of Karbalā.[11]

C. The Religious Preconceptions of Its Analysts

Inevitably, the religious ideology of those who write about ‘Āshūrā’ plays an inextricable role in how they perceive the events of Karbalā. Depending on the credal tenets held regarding the position and authority of the Imam, one shall naturally draw different conclusions regarding the underlying motivations of Imam Ḥusayn (as). We draw the reader’s attention to the following points for instance:

1. The Doctrine of Foreknowledge of the Imam Regarding his Demise: there are different gradations of belief regarding the extent of Imam Ḥusayn’s knowledge of what would transpire in Karbalā. Depending on whether one believes he had a complete detailed knowledge of what would transpire or absolutely no foreknowledge, the conclusions shall drastically differ.[12] In the case of complete foreknowledge, we have an Imam that is actively and deliberately proceeding towards his death whereas in the case of an uninformed Imam, we shall interpret the event as a passive and unintended tragedy.

2. The Doctrine of Infallibility: if one believes that Imam Ḥusayn (as) is inerrant and cannot commit any mistake whether religious or mundane, then this will influence how one perceives his actions at Karbalā. In contrast, those who believe he could make political or religious mistakes may introduce the factor of human error in how they interpret ‘Āshurā’. Sometimes, an analyst may accept the Imam’s foreknowledge but reject infallibility. For instance, the Sunnī scholar Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmadī (d. 623 AH) has used the verse of not casting oneself into perdition (2:195) to cast aspersions on the infallibility of Imam Ḥusayn: that despite him apparently knowing about his martyrdom, he acted in contradiction to the dictates of the verse of perdition.[13]

3. The Question of Political Motivation: some believe that it was always the political mission of the Prophets and Imams to establish a government of justice and equity, whereas others believe that the Imams and Prophets did not have any political aspirations and simply called people towards religious ideals. Those who interpret the tragedy of ‘Āshurā’ in a political lens will obviously have drastically different conclusions from those who interpret it as one driven by non-political factors.

D. The Perpetual Annual Renewal of Karbalā’s Memory

A final factor in accounting for why there is such a variety latent in the interpretations of ‘Āshurā’, especially among Shī’ah circles, is because it is considered a religious duty and obligation to mourn and commemorate the events of Karbalā annually. Naturally, as the exigencies of different eras change, the interpretation of ‘Āshurā’ may be colored and leveraged to support certain initiatives and political ideas. For instance, as previously mentioned, in the Safavid period, the focus was on ornate artistic forms in reliving the tragedy of Karbalā and this lent a mythological and superstitious flavor to the narratives regarding ‘Āshurā. As another example: when one examines the literature penned regarding Karbalā, it becomes clear that the focus on political activism is relatively recent, specifically over the past two centuries and mostly after the Persian Constitutional Revolution and the Iranian Revolution. Prior to this period, most literature was focused on the tragic elements of ‘Āshurā’ without much opining regarding the motivations underlying Imam Ḥusayn’s uprising.[14] It therefore appears that the political aspirations of Shī’ah scholars played a major role in re-envisioning the fiqhī implications of ‘Āshurā.

In the context of this discussion, we will first aim to address the question of whether any fiqhī implications can be derived from Karbalā. There are two broad camps on this frontier among Muslim scholars: those who negate the existence of being able to derive any fiqhī implications and those who affirm it. Within each of these camps, we can summarize various disparate viewpoints regarding their respective interpretations of ‘Āshurā’ and Imam Ḥusayn’s motivations for his stand. We will attempt to quote representative scholars directly but as we mentioned we will not delve too deeply into the evidence they leverage or any critique of their viewpoints as this may require an entire book to properly elucidate.

1. Those Who Believe that There Are No Fiqhī Implications of Imam Ḥusayn’s Movement

This is obviously informed by what analysts believe were the underlying motivations for why Imam Ḥusayn rose against Yazīd. This header subsumes five major theories: the illegitimate viewpoint, the mysterious knowledge viewpoint, the mystical union viewpoint, the intercessory viewpoint, and the evasive viewpoint.

A. The Illegitimate Viewpoint

The adherents of this analysis consist of Sunnī scholars with a particularly pejorative stance against the revolution of Imam Ḥusayn (as). Naturally, this group does not believe there are any fiqhī implications to the uprising of Imam Ḥusayn (as), because they believe it was in the first place a blunder and religiously inexcusable (ḥarām). They believe that the only reason Imam Ḥusayn stood up was for mundane political aspirations and love of leadership, whereas it was more religiously expedient for him to submit to Yazīd’s earthly authority like the rest of the Ṣaḥābah and Tābi’īn. In fact, in their view, Imam Ḥusayn (as) was duped and beguiled by the Kūfans into political uprising but then betrayed; therefore, he committed an error in his ijtihād and should have remained patient in the face of Umayyad tyranny. While the Shī’ah are of course vehemently opposed to this viewpoint, it has nonetheless exerted a powerful sway in Sunnī circles to the present-day, especially among Salafists.

Among scholars who adopted this viewpoint is Abū Bakr ibn ‘Arabī al-Andalūsī al-Mālikī (d. 543 AH) who states:

فلم يفد شيء من هذه الجهود في تحويل الحسين عن هذا السفر الذي كان مشئوما عليه، وعلى الإسلام وعلى الأمة الإسلامية إلى هذا اليوم وإلى قيام الساعة، وكل هذا بجناية شيعته الذين حرضوه بجهل وغرور، رغبةً في الفتنة والفرقة والشر

“None of it [the warnings of al-Ḥusayn’s contemporaries not to uprise] availed in averting Ḥusayn from this journey, which spelt nothing but evil for him, Islam, and the Muslim ummah until today and to the Day of Judgement. All of this was due to the criminal activity of his Shī’ah, who instigated him through their ignorance and deception, desiring to sow tribulation, dissension, and evil.”[15]

Another Sunnī scholar who also adopted this same view is the Egyptian historian Muḥammad al-Khuḍarī (d. 1345 AH), who states:

وعلى الجملة فإن الحسين أخطأ خطاً عظيماً في خروجه هذا الذي جر على الأمة وبال الفرقة و الاختلاف وزعزع عماد ألفتها إلى يومنا هذا وقد اكثر الناس من الكتابة في هذه الحادثة لا يريدون بذلك إلا أن تشتعل النيران في القلوب فيشتد تباعدها . غاية ما في الأمر أن الرجل طلب أمراً لم يتهيأ له ولم يعد له عدته فحيل بينه وبين ما يشتهي وقتل دونه

“In summary, al-Ḥusayn committed a great mistake in this uprising of his which brought forth the bane of dissension and tribulation in the ummah, toppling the foundation of its solidarity until the present-day. People have gone into excess in writing about this event and do not desire to do so except to ignite inflammatory sentiments in the hearts which in turn draws us further away from one another. What can be said is that the man (i.e., Imam Ḥusayn) sought an affair which he was not prepared to undertake, and did not have the proper means to assume; therefore, he was intercepted from reaching what he aspired to and was killed without being able to achieve it.”[16]

The famous Sunnī scholar ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 AH) also has said:

وكان في خروجه وقتله من الفساد ما لم يكن حصل لو قعد في بلده. فإنَّ ما قصده من تحصيل الخير ودفع الشر لم يحصل منه شيء، بل زاد الشر بخروجه وقتله، ونقصَ الخير بذلك وصار ذلك سبباً لشرٍّ عظيم وكان قتل الحسين مما أوجبَ الفتن، كما كان قتل عثمان مما أوجب الفتن وهذا كله مما يبين أن ما أمر به النبي ( صلى الله عليه وسلم ) من الصبر على جور الأئمة، وترك قتالهم، والخروج عليهم هو أصلح الأمور للعباد في المعاش والمعاد، وأن من خالفَ ذلك متعمداً، أو مخطئاً، لم يحصل بفعله صلاح بل فساد

“In the wake of his [al-Ḥusayn’s] uprising and death, corruption ensued that would not have occurred had he just stayed in his city. For indeed, he did not at all obtain what he intended to achieve of goodness and avert of evil; rather, evil was only amplified and goodness was only truncated by his uprising and death. It became a cause of great evil and his death engendered a great deal of discord, just as the death of ‘Uthmān had led to discord. All of this substantiates what the Prophet (saw) has said regarding being patient in the face of the tyranny of the leaders and avoiding confrontation and uprising against them. For this is more expedient in preserving the affairs of the servants [of God] in their worldly lives and their hereafter. Anyone who goes against this precept, whether deliberately or mistakenly, will not achieve anything of rectitude, rather [he will only engender] corruption.”[17]

B. The Mysterious Knowledge Viewpoint

This is a theory adopted by several Shī’ah scholars, which proposes that we cannot know the exact reasons for why Imam Ḥusayn (as) rose against the Umayyads. Rather, this is a secret which remains between him and God alone; all we know is that this was a duty particular to him and he fulfilled it accordingly. The Holy Prophet (saw) had already informed Imam Ḥusayn (as) that he would be martyred, and this was God’s decree to which Imam Ḥusayn (as) relented. Since this group believes that this obligation to revolt was specific to Imam Ḥusayn (as), it follows that they do not predicate any fiqhī conclusion upon it. Among scholars who advocate for this viewpoint is Muhammad Ḥasan Najafī (d. 1266 AH), who states in his magnum opus Jawāhir al-Kalām:

وما وقع من الحسين عليه السلام مع أنه من الأسرار الربانية والعلم المخزون يمكن أن يكون لانحصار الطريق في ذلك، علما منه عليه السلام أنهم عازمون على قتله على كل حال….على أنه له تكليف خاص قد قدم عليه وبادر إلى إجابته، ومعصوم من الخطأ لا يعترض على فعله ولا قوله، فلا يقاس عليه من كان تكليفه ظاهر الأدلة والأخذ بعمومها وإطلاقها مرجحا بينها بالمرجحات الظنية

“What happened to Imam Ḥusayn (as), notwithstanding that it was among the divine secrets and preordained knowledge, is possibly because there was no other path for him other than this. He knew (as) that they were intent on killing him no matter what…of course, he had a uniquely personal obligation which he endeavored to fulfill. Someone who is immaculate from committing error is not questioned regarding his actions and words; you cannot compare his action with someone who must determine his religious duty on the basis of apparent pieces of evidence that he must extrapolate and weigh against each other through deductive means.”[18]

Another Shī’ah scholar who echoed these sentiments was Shaykh Ja’far al-Tustarī (d. 1303 AH), where he states:

قد امتثل لله تعالى خطابا خوطب به في صحيفة مكتوبة له خاصة ، جاء بها جبرئيل عليه السلام من الله تعالى واودعها عند نبيه محمدا صلوات الله عليه واله ، ثم سلمها (ص) الى عليا (ع) ثم علي الى الحسن (ع) ثم سلّمها الحسن المجتبى الى اخيه الحسين عليهما السلام عند وصيته ، فامتثل خطابا خاصا من تكاليفه الخاصة ، والخطاب الخاص هو : ” اخرج بقوم الى الشهادة فلا شهادة لهم الا معك واشتر نفسك لله عز وجل ” ، نعم فامتثل عليه السلام خطابا خاصا من تكاليفه الخاصة

“He (Imam Ḥusayn) acted in accordance with the dictates of God, based on an address that was specifically directed to him in a written record that Gabriel (as) brought down from God and gave to the Holy Prophet (saw). The Prophet gave this record to Imam ‘Alī (as), who then gave it to al-Ḥasan (as), who then passed it down to al-Ḥusayn as his testament. Al-Ḥusayn acted in accordance with this specific address that expounded specific obligations, and it read as follows: “Rise up with a group of people towards martyrdom, for there is no martyrdom ordained for them except with you; and transact your soul for the sake of God the Almighty.” Indeed, he acted in accordance with this specific commandment, which was particular to him alone.”[19]

In more contemporary times, the Iraqi scholar Sayyid Muḥammad al-Ṣadr (d. 1419 AH) has stated the following:

و لا ینبغی أن ننسی أن أکثر أئمتنا المعصومین علیهم السلام، عانوا من ظروف التقیة و المسالمة و الهدنة مع الآخرین الشی‌ء الکثیر بصبر عظیم و صدر رحب کریم. لا یستثنی من ذلک- بعد ولایة أمیر المؤمنین علیه السلام- إلا ثورة الحسین علیه السلام. التی کانت لها مصالحها الخاصة التی لا یمکن القیاس علیها أو استنتاج القاعدة العامة منها. و التی لا یصدّق فیها و فی أمثالها إلا المعصوم علیه السلام. و المهم أن الجهاد الإسلامی، إذا لم یکن موجودا، فلا حاجة إلی التعرض إلی أحکامه أو ولایته، و لذلک أیضا سوف لن نتعرض لکتاب الجهاد الذی یذکره الفقهاء فی مصادرهم القدیمة أیضا

“It is not appropriate for us to forget that most of our infallible Imams (as) suffered from circumstances that demanded dissimulation, maintaining the peace, and establishing a truce with their adversaries on many an issue, all the while maintaining intense perseverance and the utmost openheartedness. There is no exception to this—after Amīr al-Mu’minīn (as)—except for the revolution of Imam Ḥusayn (as). This revolution had its own expediencies which are not subject to rational reasoning or extrapolation. There is none who appropriately fits its criteria except the Infallible Imam (as). The important point is that Islamic holy war (jihād), given that it is not present today, does not require any exposition regarding its rules or its authoritative underpinnings; we will therefore eschew discussing the chapter of jihād that is exposited by the jurists of old in their respective works.”[20]

C. The Mystical Union Viewpoint

This view is held specifically by Ṣufī and mystically-inclined scholars; in gist, they state that Imam Ḥusayn (as) chose the path of love and union with the Divine, flouting the dictates of reason and rationality. They state that Imam Ḥusayn (as) and his supporters could see nothing but God and had completely dissolved their own identity into the Divine. They state that the rank of an individual in their union with God is proportionate to the tribulation they face in the journey of returning back to him, therefore Imam Ḥusayn (as) chose this tragic martyrdom based on his own volition and as such achieved otherworldly felicity. Hence, they claim, there is no point mourning for Imam Ḥusayn (as), rather his victory of achieving divine union should be celebrated. Given that the motives of Imam Ḥusayn (as) were not rational, there is therefore no fiqhī implication that should be abstracted or extrapolated from his movement.

One of the most famous Ṣūfī scholars who has alluded to his support for this viewpoint is the famous Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 672 AH) who states in a famous ghazal of his:

کجایید ای شهیدان خدایی بلاجویان دشت کربلایی

کجایید ای سبک روحان عاشق پرنده‌تر ز مرغان هوایی

کجایید ای شهان آسمانی بدانسته فلک را درگشایی

کجایید ای ز جان و جا رهیده کسی مر عقل را گوید کجایی

کجایید ای در زندان شکسته بداده وام‌داران را رهایی

کجایید ای در مخزن گشاده کجایید ای نوای بی‌نوایی

در آن بحرید کاین عالم کف او است زمانی بیش دارید آشنایی

کف دریاست صورت‌های عالم ز کف بگذر اگر اهل صفایی

دلم کف کرد کاین نقش سخن شد بهل نقش و به دل رو گر ز مایی

برآ ای شمس تبریزی ز مشرق که اصل اصل اصل هر ضیایی

“Where are you, O martyrs of God, who have sought affliction in the land of Karbalā?

Where are you, O light-spirited lovers, who fly more smoothly than the birds of the wind?

Where are you, O kings of the skies, who know how to unlock the celestial spheres?

Where are you, O those freed from space and soul—nay, does anyone even ask the intellect: where are you?

Where are you, O those who have broken the door of the prison and given relief to the debtors?

Where are you, O those who have opened the gate of the treasure vault, O where are you, who possess the wealth of austerity?

You traverse an ocean for which this world is its surface, you have swam it for long;

The surface of this ocean is but the forms of this world, pass through the surface if you are of the pure folk

My heart has burst forth in the form of these words; if you are of us, leave the form and go to the heart

Rise—O Shams-e-Tabrīzī—from the East, for you are the source of the source of the source of every light!”[21]

As one can see, Rūmī celebrates the martyrs as having achieved a status wherein they have achieved ultimate release from this world in actively seeking out the torment of Karbalā, and had transcended the dictates of their soul and mind; they are not questionable by the intellect and are altogether in a realm of their own.

Another famous Ṣūfī poet, known as Ṣafī ‘Alī Shāh (d. 1316 AH), states in a famous poem, discarding completely the ability of the intellect to understand Karbalā’s sacrifice:

آفتاب عشق میدان تاب شد عقل آنجا برف بود و آب شد

عقل تنها نی دم از هیهات زد عشق را هم بهت برد و مات زد

“The Sun of divine love arose there [in Karbalā] and the intellect itself dissolved;

The intellect only shouted the slogan “Hayhāt!” and was confounded at the sight of divine love”[22]

D. The Intercessory Viewpoint

The advocates of this theory believe that Imam Ḥusayn (as) rose up with full knowledge of his martyrdom in order to serve as a means of salvation for the sinners among his Shī’ah. This viewpoint was prevalent among the public Shī’ah mourning laity as well as scholars that had a strong affinity towards elegy recitation. In gist, there is a strong resemblance to the Christian belief here that Jesus was crucified in order to serve as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity; in the same way, the advocates of this view believe that Imam Ḥusayn ransomed himself in order to intercede and wipe out the sins of his mourners.

As such, we find the Shī’ah scholar Shaykh Muḥammad Bāqir Sharīf Ṭabāṭabā’ī writes:

مام مستجاب الدعوه است پس اگر حضرت سید الشهدا علیه السلام می خواست نفرین کند که دشمنان او ،مانند قوم عاد و ثمود ،هلاک شوند ، پیش ازآنکه بر او دست یابند ،نفرین می کرد و خداوند عالم همه را هلاک می کرد لکن چون می خواست کشته شود از برای اینکه مومنین اولین و آخرین بر او جزع کنند و گریه و زاری نمایند و تمنای این کنند که کاش با او بودند و به فوز عظیم شهادت فایز بودند تا به این وسیله گناهان ایشان آمرزیده شود و گریه و اندوه ایشان کفاره گناه ایشان باشد و این گریه و اندوه بدون شهادت چنین بزرگواری صورت وقوع نمی یافت پس در واقع شهادت آن بزرگوار کفاره جمیع گناه گناهکاران است

“The Imam (as) is guaranteed to get a response in his du’ā (mustajāb al-da’wah). Therefore, if the Master of the Martyrs (as) had so willed he would have cursed his enemies such that they would be destroyed, just like the tribes of ‘Ād and Thamūd. Even before they had overcome him, he was at liberty to curse them, and God would have destroyed them each and all. However, he wanted to be killed in order that the believers, from the first to the last of them, would lament, mourn, and weep over him. He wanted the believers to yearn if only they had been with him so that they would have achieved the victory of martyrdom. As such, he desired for their sins to be forgiven, and that their tears and sorrow should become expiation for them for their vices. This [merit of] crying and lamentation would not have been actualized if not for the martyrdom of this great personality. Therefore, in actuality, the martyrdom of this distinguished individual is an absolution for the sins of all the sinners.”[23]

We find the famous scholar Mullā Muḥammad Mahdī Narāqī (d. 1209 AH) also writes as follows:

امام حسین برای رسیدن به شفاعت کبرا که مقتضی استخلاص همه محبان و موالیان باشد….به شهادت راضی شد …زیرا که رفع کدورات معاصی امت و شفاعت ایشان موقوف بر خون و تالم ایشان است

“In order to achieve the station of ultimate intercession, which would result in the salvation of all his lovers and professors of his wilāyah…Imam Ḥusayn became pleased with his martyrdom…This is because the wiping out of the stains of disobedience of the ummah and interceding for them is contingent upon his blood and pain.”[24]

Furthermore, the jurist Aḥmad al-Musawī al-Mustanbiṭ (d. 1399 AH) states the following:

شهادت امام حسین ع به عوض گناهان شیعیانش است و سپری است برای ایشان در برابر آتش

“The martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn (as) occurred in exchange for the sins of his Shī’ah, and it is a shield for them from the fire of Hell.”[25]

E. The Evasive Viewpoint

This viewpoint holds that the motive for which the Imām left Madīnah towards Makkah and the Makkah towards Kūfah was not due to political uprising at all, but rather out of fear and a desire to escape the political pressures being imposed on him to give allegiance to Yazīd. It was only later when his hand was forced and he was ambushed by the army of ibn Ziyād that he chose to fight and pursue martyrdom rather than surrender. Therefore, his intention from the beginning was not motivated by any political reform nor a desire to stand against oppression; rather he was simply intent on self-preservation and not being compelled to give allegiance to the unrighteous and tyrannical Yazīd. As such, it is not possible to predicate any fiqhī conclusions on his stance or maneuvers since these occurred due to personal and psychological duress.

Among the advocates of this theory is the scholar and historian Hibatallāh al-Shahristānī, who writes:

يصف الواصفون لتاريخ الحسين (عليه السلام) أشد ليالي حياته عليه ليلة مقتله في الطف، تلك الليلة التي حوصر فيها هو وذووه في بقعة جرداء وضاقت عليه الأرض بما رحبت، ومُنع حتى من شرب الماء المباح فلم تهجع عيناه حتى الصباح، ولا يبعد أن يكون أشد ليالي الحسين ليلة مرجعه من مجلس الوالي في المدينة وحيرته في سيرته مع القوم الظالمين، إذ كان الحسين (عليه السلام) ليلة مقتله على بصيرة من أمره، وأن ليس بينه وبين الجنة سوى سويعات; لكنما الحسين (عليه السلام) في ليلة هجرته من مدينة جدّه كان في جهاد فكري وألم عقلي يفكر في مبايعته ليزيد وكونها ضرباً من المحال ثم يفكر في بقائه في حرّم جدّه، ولكن ذلك استسلام لمروان فيما يفعل به وبأسرته… إذن فبماذا يصنع الحسين (عليه السلام)؟ إلاّ أن يهاج إلى مكة ابتغاء الابتعاد من المنطقة المروانية، ولقاء وجوه المسلمين في الحج، وانتظار الفرج

“Those who recount the history of Ḥusayn (as) describe that the most difficult night of his life was the night preceding his martyrdom at Ṭaff (i.e., Karbalā); that was the night in which he and his family was besieged in a desolate land, the Earth was restrained onto him despite its vastness, and he was prohibited from drinking water such that he remained sleepless until the morning. However, it is not farfetched to state that the most difficult night for al-Ḥusayn (as) was probably the night he returned from the governor of Madīnah, where he was left utterly confounded by the manner in which he was being treated by the oppressive folk. This is because on the eve preceding his martyrdom, he clearly knew what was to happen and had conviction that there was nothing between him and Heaven except a few mere hours. However, on the night of his migration from the city of his grandfather, Ḥusayn (as) was struggling with his thoughts and undergoing intellectual agony—he was thinking about allegiance to Yazīd and how this was impossible for him to do. Then he also thought about whether he should remain in the sanctuary of his grandfather, however this would be surrendering himself to Marwān in what he would do to him and his family…therefore, what was Ḥusayn (as) to do except to take flight towards Makkah seeking to distance himself from Marwān’s sphere of influence, meet the influential personalities of the Muslims at Ḥajj, and await achieving relief [from the political pressure].”[26]

A contemporary and reformist scholar who has advocated for this view is Dr. Abdolkarīm Soroush, who advances a secular interpretation of the events leading up to ‘Āshūrā’ and believes that those narrations that state Imam Ḥusayn (as) had foreknowledge about his martyrdom were fabrications. As such, he advocates that Imam Ḥusayn (as) did not desire to die and had no political or reformist aspirations. Rather, he claims, he was not revolutionary at all and was only seeking to escape the political demands imposed upon him. However, when he was finally cornered, he chose martyrdom (shahādat) over humiliation (zillat).[27]

This concludes our discussion of those who believe that Imam Ḥusayn’s movement had no fiqhī implications. In the next article, we will discuss the various scholars throughout Shī’ah history who have sought to glean a jurisprudential significance from ‘Āshūrā’.


[1] We have compiled this discussion based on several Arabic and Persian sources, which we list here in order of importance for advanced readers to review:
1. Negāh be ‘Āshūrā dar Fiqh-e-Shī’ah by Rasūl Ja’fariyān (

  1. ‘Āshūrā dar Fiqh by Sayyid Ḍiyā Murtaḍawī (
  2. Al-Ḥarakah al-Ḥusayniyyah wa al-Ta’ṣīl al-Fiqhī li Shar’iyyāh al-Thawrah by Dr. Ḥaidar Ḥobbollāh (
  3. Naẓrah al-Fiqh ilā Ḥādithah ‘Āshūrā’ by Dr. Mohammad Soroush Maḥallātī (
  4. Fiqh ‘Āshūrā’ by Al-Sayyid Muṣṭafā al-Ḥusayniyān (

[2] In contrast, even the date of the Prophet’s (saw) demise is disputed. Shī’ah sources say it occurred on the 28th of Ṣafar 11 AH while Sunnī sources say it occurred on the 12th of Rabī’ al-Awwal 11 AH.

[3] This is of course excepting a great discussion by Sayyid Ali Imran that has previously been published on IqraOnline here:

[4] There are certain narrations even within our ḥadīth corpus that describe Imam Ḥusayn (as) was in disagreement with the truce that Imam Ḥasan (as) enacted; depending on their ideological stance, Shī’ah scholars have taken different positions regarding these narrations, with some believing that they are fabrications and others using them to discount the theory that every Imam of Ahl al-Bayt had the same disposition and that only their historical circumstances differed.

[5] These points have been discussed by ‘Allāmah Ḥillī in his Mabādi’ al-Wuṣūl page 173

[6] One of the primary maqtals, that of Abū Mikhnaf (d. 157 AH) is no longer extant but has been reconstructed by historian scholars such as Shaykh Yūsūfī al-Gharawī through consolidating secondary sources such as Tārīkh al-Ṭabarī that mention excerpts from his narrative. Of course, due to this, we cannot truly know whether we have a complete reconstructed monograph of Abū Mikhnaf’s account. There is another version of Abū Mikhnaf’s maqtal in circulation, which appears to be a fabrication.

[7] As an example, one may cite narrations in these secondary sources that claim that Imam Ḥusayn (as) asked ‘Umar ibn Sa’d during negotiations to hand him over to Yazīd in order that he may pay him allegiance. These have been deemed fabrications by many Shī’ah scholars.

[8] Rasūl Ja’fariyān also has interestingly noted that the three extant primary sources we discussed (Abū Mikhnaf, al-Balādhurī, and ibn Sa’d) were lost for a millenium and were only recently discovered within the past two or three centuries. Therefore, one must wonder which primary sources the secondary sources mentioned here were relying upon in transmitting the events of Karbalā. For more details, see here:

[9] Some reservations and critiques regarding tertiary sources have been made by the contemporary Arabic scholar Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz.

[10] More details regarding these quasihistorical narratives can be found here:

[11] For example, some writers the meaning of Shī’ah used to refer to the people of Kūfah as reflective of the same ideological beliefs of modern-day Shī’ah. Equally fallacious is to assume that Imam Ḥusayn (as) was a humanistic freedom fighter or that Lady Zaynab (as) was a forerunner of feminist ideals.

[12] We have discussed this point in depth in the past here:

[13] Abkār al-Afkār fī Uṣūl al-Dīn volume 5 page 203

[14] This observation has been made by both Rasūl Ja’fariyān and Ḥaidar Ḥobbollāh in their respective works which we quoted earlier.

[15] Al-‘Awāṣim min Al-Qawāṣim page 233

[16] Muḥāḍarāt Tārīkh al-Umam al-Islāmiyyah, page 405

[17] Minhāj al-Sunnah volume 4 pages 527-531

[18] Jawāhir al-Kalām volume 21 pages 295-296

[19] Al-Khaṣā’iṣ al-Ḥusayniyyah, pages 30-31

[20] Mā Warā’ al-Fiqh volume 2 page 106

[21] Diwān-e-Shams, ghazal 2707

[22] Zubdat al-Asrār, page 56

[23] Asrār Shahādat Āl Allāh, pages 133-134. In fact this scholar has gone so far as to say the following in this same book:
اگر کسی ایمان به کفاره بودن شهادت او نداشته باشد در حقیقت مشرک است
“If anyone does not believe that his martyrdom (Imam Ḥusayn) was expiation [for sins], then in reality he is a polytheist.” (p. 147)

[24] Muḥriq al-Qulūb, page 4

[25] Al-Qaṭrah min Biḥār Manāqib al-Nabī wa al-‘Itrah, volume 1 page 186

[26] Nahḍah al-Ḥusayn, volume 1 page 75

[27] I was unable to locate a specific written source clarifying Soroush’s views, however he has an extended discussion on his views in Persian which can be found here: