The Key Element of “Remembering Death” in the Movement of Imam Al-Husayn (ʿa) as Reflected in the Words of  Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

The Key Element of “Remembering Death” in the Movement of Imam Al-Husayn (ʿa) as Reflected in the Words of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

Various moments in the history of Karbala have shown us how we should live an honorable life and how we should die an honorable death. These are the same lessons which Imam al-Husayn(ʿa) taught the world at the Battlefield of Karbala on the Day of Ashura.‌

Remembering death and preparing oneself for it  is one of the best ways of self-discipline, moral training, and fighting against the desire to sin.  This practice will help people restrict their unbounded desires and it will give them a greater degree of wisdom.  This practice of remembering death and preparing oneself for it can be witnessed in many instances during the event of Ashura, as well as the events which preceded it. In this article, we will look in to the viewpoints of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi in regards to this issue, particularly those aspects pertaining to the movement of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa).

Being Hereafter Centric as a Key Outcome of Remembering Death and Preparing Oneself for It

A key outcome of thinking about death and preparing oneself for it is that the individual will perpetually keep the hereafter in mind and they will look at this world as a temporary abode which will only last for a few short days. Such individuals look at this world as a place of fleeting pleasures and focus on the hereafter as the place of the final abode which is eternal. A person with such a worldview will struggle hard for the hereafter because they will understand the true reality of the hereafter in comparison with this material world.

There is a narration from Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) which helps us to understand the link between being hereafter centric and remembering death. It has been narrated that one of the companions of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) by the name of Ḥanẓalah asked the Imam (ʿa): Should I not hurry towards the hereafter and j o i n my brothers (who have gone ahead of me)? The Imam (ʿa) said to him: Go towards an abode which is better than this world and all that it contains; go towards a realm which will never fade and become old.

Similarly, it has been narrated in the text Nafas al-Mahmūm, that when ʿAli al-Aṣghar was martyred, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) said: Oh my soul! be patient in the face of all of these calamities. Oh Lord, you see what calamities we face in this transient world, so store our rewards for tolerating them for the hereafter.[1]  In yet another tradition it has been mentioned that Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) said: Oh Lord! Now that you have withheld victory from us in this world, store it for us for our hereafter and take revenge on those who wronged us.

Thinking About Death as a Key Element in Strengthening Courage

It is clear that smiling when one is faced with death is something which is only possible for those who greatly desire to meet their Lord.[2]  In the traditions, it has repeatedly been narrated that an intelligent and felicitous individual is one who remembers death often. Remembering death resolves many of the problems which we face…  When an individual remembers death, they feel relieved since death is something that everyone faces and there is no point in being upset about something which is a certainty.

Imam ʿAli ibn al-al-Husayn (ʿa) is narrated to have said the following in regards to this issue: 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 mortal dangers (which had caused the faces to be-come 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. In those moments, some would say to the others: Look at them…they have no fear of death. At this time, the Imam (ʿa) said:[3] O’ ones of noble birth! be patient. Death is but a bridge which takes you from the difficulties towards the vast paradise and eternal blessings.

Embracing Martyrdom, the Result Remembering Death

Longing for martyrdom, which is a result of remembering death, is extremely intertwined with every moment of the movement of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa). One of the amazing results of remembering the fact that everyone will someday die is that it makes one realize how great a pity it is that one should die bedridden from an illness when they can die willingly in the way of Allah (swt) while covered in their blood! Such an individual will j o i n the ranks of the martyrs and this is truly a worthy rank and status.  Furthermore, this issue shows us why the Imam (ʿa) embraced martyrdom with great eagerness and he saw it as a lofty honor, for there is no greater honor than dying in the way of Allah (swt). This was also why he feared nothing, not even death, and one who does not fear death (and is in fact eager for it), will not fear anything else in this world. The martyrdom of such a person will also inspire the entire mankind all throughout history.

The Imam (ʿa) is narrated to have said the following in this regard: “If the bodies were created for death, then martyrdom under the blows of the sword in the way of God is best…  In such circumstances, it is obligatory for the believer to be eager in meeting with his Lord (through martyrdom). Certainly, I see death (in the way of the truth) as nothing but felicity while living alongside the oppressors is nothing but disgrace and abjectness”.[4]   It is interesting to note that when the situation would become more difficult for Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his companions, their faces would show signs of light and ease. Even the elderly were seen smiling on the morning of Ashura. When they were asked about this, they replied: (We are happy) because in a few hours we are going to be martyred!

There is a tradition from Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) which states the following in regards to the concept of thinking about death:[5] Be aware, the collar of death is set upon the necks of the children of Adam just like a necklace which is always worn by the young girls (i.e. death always accompanies mankind). My eagerness in seeing my relatives who have passed away (such as the Imam’s (ʿa) father, mother, grandfather, and brother) is much like the eagerness of Jacob (ʿa) towards seeing Joseph (ʿa)! [6]

Honor and Greatness is Realized through Remembering Death

Remembering death is a source of honor, and greatness.  Those who have kept death in mind end up preferring the strikes of the sword and the hits of piercing arrows to a life of disgrace in the castles and palaces (of the oppressors). The people who constantly remember death end up living their lives in a way where no other type of life is possible for them. Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) is narrated to have said numerous times that : “We will never prefer the obeying of the ignoble ones to an honorable death. Know that… I will fight you [i.e. the tyrants] even with these few companions and family members, and little preparation (and I am ready for martyrdom).

The Rejection of Abjectness and Disgrace: the Blessed Result of Remembering Death

Thinking often of death and contemplating in regards to it is one of the key characteristics of the movement of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) in rejecting disgrace and abjectness. Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his movement were defined by their rejection of all forms of disgrace; they were in fact martyred for their outright rejection of abjectness.  The Imam (ʿa)’s slogan of ‘Far from us is humiliation’  and[7]  the Imam’s (ʿa) statement that: ‘I swear by God that I will neither submit to your will in disgrace, nor will I run away like the slaves’ have both shined in the pages of history and in the hearts of men as a light of guidance.[8]

When we examine the relationship between the rejection of disgrace and remembering death, we find that these two things enjoy a very powerful connection with one another. In a tradition narrated from Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), it has been mentioned that:[9] ‘It is not befitting for someone such as me to fear death. How easy is the death which comes in the way of reviving the truth and attaining honor! Truly the death which is attained in the way of honor is nothing but a life of eternity!  [10]

And a life of disgrace is nothing but a death devoid of any life.  Are you trying to make me fearful of death? Never! You are gravely mistaken and your assumptions are without basis! I am not someone who fears death and my soul is grater and my scope of mind is more superior than that I should accept oppression for fear of death.  Are you able to do anything beyond killing me? Blessed is that of being killed in the way of Allah. You are unable to do anything to lessen my greatness, honor, and dignity. Now that it is such (you are forcing me to fight), I have no fear of being killed.’[11]

Remembering Death as a Key Element in Reviving the Religion of Allah (swt)

Remembering death and keeping it in mind is one of the most important elements in reviving the religion of Allah (swt) and fighting against the oppressors. From this perspective, the revolution of Ashura was not only a means of reviving the religion of Islam but it was also a means of causing the people to awaken to what was taking place around them. It helped the people to develop a spirit of martyrdom and bravery in the face of the oppressors and enemies.   In addition to all this, the revolution of Ashura established a new school for the free men and women of this world and it showed them that death and martyrdom were simple matters that brought honor and meaning to their lives.

Abstaining from Sins as a Key Outcome of Remembering Death

Thinking about death is a powerful ‘brake’ in regards to the commission of sins.  Keeping death in mind and understanding what will happen after one dies is a key element which prevents people from even approaching the commission of sins. It also acts as a powerful preventative measure in regards to pursuing useless matters which have no benefit and it also eliminates one’s greed for worldly matters. Such aberrations typically come about when one has forgotten death and the insignificance of the worldly matters.

Similarly, thinking about death causes one to awaken and repent of their past sins.  One clear example of this can be found in the repentance of Ḥurr ibn Yazid al-Riyāḥī. According to Ibn Athīr, when Ḥurr came to see Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), he said to him: I have come before you in order to repent and I have decided to aid you up until I die before you.

Centering One’s Life Around the Hereafter as a Key Consequence of Reflecting upon Death

One of the very important elements which helps distinguish theists from materialists is their thinking in regards to death. Monotheists see death as a rebirth which gives rise to a new life; from their perspective, death is simply some sort of relocation from one home to another whereby one is freed from the confines of the material world and allowed to live in the vast and eternal hereafter. Contrary to this, the materialists see death as the complete end of all things.

Due to this reason, they are not willing to sacrifice themselves for greater purposes or values. In light of this reality, there is nothing more important than the belief in the hereafter, after the belief in monotheism, towards creating human character. In fact, all of the prophets (ʿa) were delegated with the purpose of inviting the people to have faith in monotheism and the hereafter..

Therefore, we must keep the life after death in mind often, and not a day should pass where we do not think about death and where we are going. The key to the epic struggles which took place in Karbala goes back to this very same issue. The companions of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) had developed a very solid and refined belief in regards to death and the life after death; it was through their solid beliefs that they became capable of doing what they did on the day of Ashura.

True Submission to Wilāyah, as a Consequence of Contemplating upon Death

What took place on the night of Ashura are totally unprecedented all throughout history. On this night, the commander of a force gives permission to all of his men to leave the field of battle and to save themselves. In spite of this, his men choose to stay, even though they know that certain death awaits them on the following day. They not only choose to stay but they consider it an honor the likes of which the world has never seen. They even say that they wish they had more than one life to give in the cause of their leader. This was truly an epic moment in history which can never be forgotten. This moment was created by a group of men who loved martyrdom in the way of their Lord and who were willing to fight under the leadership of a divine leader.

Not Becoming Negligent through Thinking of Death

Thinking of death is a great blessing which removes the curtains of negligence. Even beyond this, if life in this world were to continue forever, then it would certainly become tiring in time. When we compare this world to the next, it is clear that the hereafter is something which is eternal whose bliss does not fade or turn in to boredom.  Therefore, it can be said that the most intelligent person is he who remembers death the most and prepares themselves for it the best.

Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) rose up in order to awaken the people from their state of slumber and negligence. When Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his companions were martyred, and his family were taken as captives, and the heads of the martyrs were placed on spears and paraded through the cities, the people finally woke up to their reality. They woke up and they revolted against the evil which they saw around them. The Umayyads were severely harmed by the movement of Karbala and this event continued to hunt them until they were finally overthrown and destroyed completely.[12]

A Final Word    

Remembering death is a means of self-purification and discipline. If it were not for death, then life would become extremely difficult. In reality, remembering death is one of the great blessings which Allah (swt) has given to us.  Through reflecting upon death, we can subjugate our carnal desires and put them in to check. When an individual reflects upon death, the curtains which veil us and make us negligent and arrogant are all removed both from our eyes, as well as our hearts.  When we look back in to the history of Karbala and what took place there, we are left amazed at the amount of love and wisdom exhibited by the martyrs as they faced a most certain death at the hands of the enemies.

Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) gave his companions clear news of their martyrdom and the reaction of the companions was nothing other than tears of joy; this is something which is extraordinary when one thinks about the circumstances they were facing. These moments in the history of Karbala in reality teach us how to live an honorable life and die an honorable death.  These are the same teachings which Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) taught to us so many centuries ago on the plains of Karbala.  


Researched and edited at editorial deputy of his eminence office


[1]. Maʿālī al-Sibṭayn, vol. 1, p. 419.

[2]. Yanābīʿ al-Mawaddah, vol. 3, p. 77.

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

[4]. Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 44, p. 381; Tārīkh al-Ṭabarī, vol. 4, p. 305 (with slight summarization).

[5]. .. خُطَّ الْمَوْتُ عَلى‏ وُلْدِ آدَمَ مَخَطَّ الْقَلادَةِ عَلى‏ جيدِ الْفَتاةِ، وَ ما أَوْلَهَني إِلى‏ أَسْلافي اشْتِياقُ يَعْقُوبَ إِلى‏ يُوسُفَ...؛

[6]. Malhūf (Luhūf), p. 126; Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 46, pgs. 366 and 367.

[7]. وَاللَّهِ لَاأُعْطِيكُمْ بِيَدِي إِعْطاءَالذَّلِيلِ، وَ لَاأَفِرُّ فَرارَ الْعَبيدِ

[8]. Iḥtijāj Ṭabarsī, vol. 2, p. 99.

[9]. لَيْسَ شَأْنِي شَأْنُ مَنْ يَخافُ الْمَوْتَ، ما اهْوَنَ الْمَوْتِ عَلى‏ سَبيلِ نَيْلِ الْعِزِّ وَ إِحْياءِ الْحَقِّ، لَيْسَ الْمُوتُ فِي سَبيلِ الْعِزِّ إِلّا حَياةً خالِدَةً وَ لَيْسَتِ الْحَياةُ مَعَ الذُّلِّ إِلّا الْمَوْتَ الَّذِي لا حَياةَ مَعَهُ، افَبِالْمَوْتِ تُخَوِّفُنِي، هَيْهاتَ طاشَ سَهْمُكَ وَ خابَ ظَنُّكَ لَسْتُ اخافُ الْمَوْتَ، انَّ نَفْسِي لَأَكْبَرُ مِنْ ذلِكَ وَ هِمَّتِي لَأَعْلى‏ مِنْ أَنْ أَحْمِلَ الضَّيْمَ خَوْفاً مِنَ الْمَوْتِ وَ هَلْ تَقْدِرُونَ عَلى‏ اكْثَرَ مِنْ قَتْلي؟! مَرْحَباً بِالْقَتْلِ فِي سَبيلِ اللَّهِ، وَ لكِنَّكُمْ لا تَقْدِرُونَ عَلى‏ هَدْمِ مَجْدي وَ مَحْوِ عِزِّي وَ شَرَفِي فَإِذا لا أُبالِي بِالْقَتْلِ

[10]. shād by Shaykh Mufīd, p. 450.

[11]. Iḥqāq al-Ḥaqq, vol. 1, p. 601; Aʿyān al-Shīʿah, vol. 1, p. 581.

[12]. The martyrdom of Imam Husayn (ʿa) began to wake people up on the very day of Ashura. One of the women who had accompanied the enemy soldiers (who was from the tribe of Bakr ibn Wāʾil) began to shout and encourage the people to take revenge for the spilt blood of the Imam (ʿa), saying: Yā Lithārāt Rasūllah. It wasn’t long after that numerous revolts broke out across the Muslim world and these movements eventually culminated in the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty (Sūgnāmeye Āle Muḥammad, p. 533).