The Semiology of the Martyrdom of Imam Al-Husayn (ʿa) on the Day of Ashura from the Viewpoint of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

The Semiology of the Martyrdom of Imam Al-Husayn (ʿa) on the Day of Ashura from the Viewpoint of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

The martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) was so intertwined with various lofty values that it will never become old, nor will its values ever become outdated. Not only that, but Karbala and the sacrifice of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) grows in value and relevance every single day.‌

Reflection upon the various facets of the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and the ordeal that he and his family members went through is of such a nature that the mourners and the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa) can further enhance the spiritual and social atmosphere of their societies towards a better understanding of Karbala through establishing mourning ceremonies even before the month of Muḥarram has begun.

The reason behind this issue can be found in the important role which the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) played in the revival and continuation of Islam.  Similarly, the tragedy which took place for the Imam (ʿa), his family, and his companions is not comparable to other tragedies which have taken place for the other Infallibles (ʿa).  Even though Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) was martyred fighting against the tyranny of Yazīd, his martyrdom had implications which went beyond that specific time period.  In light of this understanding of the sacrifice of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), let us utilize the valuable viewpoints of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi in regards to better understanding this subject.

The Martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa): One of the Bitterest Tragedies of Human History

Without any doubt, the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) was one of the bitterest tragedies in human history. Every year, millions of people all around the people mourn his martyrdom and relive what happened to him.  When we consider the pure motivations which bring about this mourning, it is clear that they take place without the need for any encouragement or elaborate organization. People come out and attend due to their love for the Imam (ʿa) and out of their sadness for what took place.

The Reformation of the Prophet (ṣ)’s Ummah: An Important Sign in the Martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa)

When Muʿāwīyah died in the middle of the month of Rajab in 60 AH, his son Yazīd usurped the position of caliphate by force, much like his father. In no time, corruption and oppression spread to an even greater degree than during his father’s rule. Yazīd was known for being a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, and he engaged in every type of sin imaginable.[1]  It is clear that with a leader such as Yazīd, the society would be afflicted with social, ideological, and moral corruption of the highest degree.  These problems compelled Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) to set out to reform the Muslim Ummah, which was in fact, the same Ummah established by his grandfather the Prophet (ṣ). In the end, the Imam (ʿa) was martyred but his tragic martyrdom caused an awakening to take place amongst the Muslims and so the process of reformation began. If Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) had not risen up and fought against Yazīd, there is no question that we would have nothing left of Islam today. This is a key point which we must realize.

Seeking Martyrdom as a Means of Reviving the Precept of Enj o i ning the Good and Forbidding the Evil

When a time came when evil was spread far and wide and the good was forgotten and laid aside, and the pious, the worshippers, the Anṣār and the Muhājirs were excluded from the government, while the corrupt and the oppressors, who were banished by the Prophet (ṣ) because of their wrongdoing, were given the reins of power,[2]  Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) rose up and fulfilled the religious precept of enj o i ning the good and forbidding the evil in its complete sense.  On the day of Ashura, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) gave his life for this very purpose and protected the tree of Islam through his martyrdom, saving it from complete and utter de-struction.

The pure blood of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), his companions, children, and relatives turned in to an effective protection for the tree of religion, allowing it to grow, and it also pushed away many of the blights which threatened it. In a visitation supplication related to Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) by the name of Ziyārat Wārith, the following has been mentioned:[3]  I give witness that you (Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) established the prayer, paid the Zakāt, and enj o i ned the good and forbid the evil; you obeyed Allah and his Prophet (ṣ) until you were martyred.

Awakening the Muslim Ummah: The Attainment of the Conscious Self-sacrifice of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) on the Day of Ashura

It is worth mentioning that Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) had no way to wake up the Muslim Ummah except through his own martyrdom. Immediately, from the day of Ashura, the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) had its effect.  When we look back in history in regards to the reasons behind the corruption and deviation which had overtaken the Muslims on the year 61 AH, we find that the Muslims were in such a deep state of unawareness in regards to their own situation and the situation of their society that they could only be awakened through the martyrdom of someone such as Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his loyal companions and family members.

When the people realized that Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his companions had been martyred and his family members taken as captives, and the heads of the martyrs were being paraded around the cities on the tips of spears, they quickly woke up from their deep slumber.  Revolts began to break out from all corners of the Muslim world and the Umayyads did not have much rest after Karbala; their rule was beset by problems after problems. Eventually, the pure blood which was spilled at Karbala had its effect and the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown for good.  The sacrifice of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) in defense of the religion and the truth was of such a nature that it will continue to awaken people throughout time.[4] It has been narrated that the Prophet (ṣ) said:[5]  Certainly the martyrdom of al-Husayn will create a flame in the hearts of the believers which will never be extinguished.

Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his companions chose an honorable death under the striking of the swords over a life of subjugation and disgrace under the shade of the palaces of the oppressors. They knew that such a death was simply a means of eternal life, not just for them but for the entire Muslim community as a whole. This was a death which would awaken the Ummah and save the religion of Islam from the clutches of ignorance and hypocrisy.

Exposing the Hypocrites: A Key Pursuit which Led to the Martyrdom by Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) on the Day of Ashura

Without any doubt, anyone with a duplicitous behavior, whose words and deeds are not consistent with each other, is considered to be a hypocrite.  The Umayyads had dressed themselves with the clothing of Islam (meaning they appeared to be Muslims externally) but they were busy with destroying everything which the religion held holy.  If Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) had not risen up and he and his companions had not been martyred then the Umayyads would have been left free to continue their activities and so nothing of the religion would have been left.

The Martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) as a Key Element in the Downfall of the Ty-rannical Rulers

When we look at the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), we find that his intention was not only to establish a government during his own time period. When he was martyred, his martyrdom had an effect that rippled through time and it continues to effect the Muslim world to this very day and it will continue to affect us in the future as well.  The rule of the ignorant and corrupt was cut short due to the Imam (ʿa)’s martyrdom and they were not able to establish their rule in the same way as before. The bravery of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) on the day of Ashura created a wave of fear in the tyrannical rulers. As a result, the religion of Islam was revived and it was saved from becoming deviated and corrupt through the actions of the corrupt rulers. The path of truth was made clear for the Muslims from the path of falsehood and darkness.[6]

The Martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) Exposed the Deviations Created by the Umayyad Dynasty in Islam

The martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) on the day of Ashura, with all of its lessons of greatness, was not something which could easily be forgotten by the Muslim community. This is true even centuries after that event. The traditions which have been narrated have told us of the changes which took place both in the heavens and in the earth; these traditions have narrated how the dwellers of the heavens wept over the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa). These are traditions which have been narrated both in the Shia sourcebooks, as well as in the Sunni sourcebooks.[7]

What is most painful is that the same people who claimed to be Muslims and who outwardly appeared to pray and recite the Quran were the ones who fought and killed the grandson of their Prophet (ṣ).  Without the least bit of mercy, they killed the very manifestation of piety and faith, and took his family as captives in the worst way possible, parading them around the various cities.  

Through his martyrdom, the Imam (ʿa) fulfilled his proof against these so called Muslims. These were the same people who followed leaders such as the corrupt Muʿāwīyah and they had now turned to the leadership of Yazīd. These people were so deluded in their corruption that they saw the Umayyads as being the faithful, while they considered the family of the Prophet (ṣ) as rebels against the religion!

The Martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) as a Manifestation of Servanthood, Love, and Spirituality

Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his companions were so immersed in their love for Allah (swt) that even the pain of the strikes of the swords and the piercing of the spears upon their bodies did not bother them.  In reality, this reminds of the story of Abraham (ʿa) and how he was placed in the fire of Nimrūd but he did not feel a thing, for the fire had become cool for him.  This is what the love of Allah (swt) does to the servants; this is the meaning of servanthood. When we consider the level of love which these individuals had for their Lord, it is truly something amazing and it is something which is beyond our comprehension.

When Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) told his companions of their impending martyrdom and that they would be going to meet their Lord, they began to cry tears of eagerness and happiness; this news made them exceedingly happy.  Divine wisdom and the highest levels of submission to Allah (swt)’s will were completely manifested in these men. We do not see one word of complaint, restlessness, or feelings of inability in them. There is not the slightest manifestation of hopelessness or dissatisfaction in these men… Everyone is only speaking of patience, perseverance and submission to Allah’s will.

A Manifestation of being Hereafter Centric: An Enduring Symbol of the Martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa)

Another one of the manifest symbols of the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) can be found in the hereafter centric nature of his martyrdom. Imam ʿAli ibn al-Husayn (ʿa) is narrated to have said: When things became difficult for Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) on the day of Ashura, those who were with the Imam (ʿa) saw that in spite of the dangers (which had caused the faces to become pale and the bodies to tremble), the Imam (ʿa) and his s e l e c t companions appeared very serene, and their bodies were completely calm, and their hearts were ever more certain. Some would say to the others: Look at them…they have no fear of death.  At this time, the Imam (ʿa) said:[8] O’ ones of noble birth! Be patient. Death is only a bridge which takes you from the difficulties towards the vast paradise and eternal blessings.

The words of this great Imam (ʿa) clearly show us how much certainty he possessed and how calm he was in the face of what was in front of him. He considered death as only a bridge which would take one from the difficulties of this world in to the ease of the eternal life. Even the martyrdom of those dearest to him did not faze him; in fact, these things only added to his perseverance and his desire to meet his Lord would become even greater.  Smiling at the face of death, happinessat the threshold of martyrdom,  and serenity at the last moments of life is only possible for those who desire to see their Lord with the force of their entire existence. These are the same people who see this world as their cage and prison and they see death as a means of escaping it and being reunited with the infinite.

A Final Word

In conclusion, it can be said that Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) was an example of courage, bravery, freedom, and martyrdom in the way of Allah (swt).  The martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) was so intertwined with various lofty values that it will never become old, nor will its values ever become outdated. Not only that, but the sacrifice of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) grows in value and relevance every single day. The issues of the truth and justice, human potential, fighting in the way of divine values, the rejection of disgrace and abjectness are all values which we learned from the event of Ashura and these are values which will never become obsolete.

These values are even more important for us in the world which we live in today. How can an act of courage and a heroic martyrdom which is intertwined with the essence of Allah (swt) ever become outdated? The essence of Allah (swt) is eternal and limitless and whatever connects with Him takes on the values of eternity and limitlessness.  Through his martyrdom, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) taught us a great lesson in freedom, honor, greatness, sincerity, self-sacrifice, and war against oppression and tyranny. These are the same values which we need more than ever in our world today.


[1]. Ibn Kathīr was a well known but prejudiced Sunni historian and scholar. He has mentioned that: Yazīd was well known for his love of music, drinking, singing, and hunting (recreationally). He would purchase male and female slaves for their singing, and he loved playing with dogs and having rams and other animals fight one another. He would wake up hungover every single morning. He would mount monkeys on saddled horses and take them around his court. His slaves and even monkeys would wear golden caps. When his monkey died, he became very sad over what had happened

[2]. Muʿāwīyah chose individuals such as ʿAmr ibn ʿĀaṣ, Ziyād ibn Abīh, Mughayrah ibn Shuʿbah, and Samrah ibn Jundab as his governors in the cities of Egypt, Baṣrah, and Kufah. It is interesting to note that Imam ʿAli (ʿa) predicted that this would take place before it happened and this has been recorded in the sixty second letter of the Nahj al-Balāghah.

[3]. «اشْهَدُ انَّكَ قَدْ اقَمْتَ الصَّلاةَ، وَآتَيْتَ الزَّكاةَ، وَامَرْتَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ، وَنَهَيْتَ عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ، وَاطَعْتَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ حَتّى‏ اتيكَ الْيَقينُ

[4]. Mustadrak al-Wasāʾil, vol. 10, p. 318, hadith 13.

[5]. إِنَّ لِقَتْلِ الْحُسَيْنِ حَرارَةً فِي قُلُوبِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لا تَبْرَدُ أَبَداً

[6].Refer to: Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 45, pgs. 201 through 219; Sayr ʿAlām al-Nubalāʾ, vol. 4, pgs. 425 through 428.

[7]. The poet has mentioned: وَ يُكَبِّرُونَ بِأَنْ قُتِلْتَ، وَ إِنَّما/قَتَلُوا بِكَ التَّكْبِيرَ وَ التَّهْليلَا; When they killed you, they recited the Takbīr (the saying of God is Greater) but in reality, when they killed you, they destroyed their Takbīr and Tahlīl. Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 45, p. 244.

[8]. «صَبْراً بَنِي الْكِرامِ، فَمَا الْمَوْتُ إِلّا قَنْطَرَةٌ تَعْبَرُ بِكُمْ عَنِ الْبُؤُسِ وَ الضَّرَّاءِ إِلَى الْجِنانِ الْواسِعَةِ وَ النَّعيمِ الدَّائِمَةِ»