Ethical Lessons from the Movement of Ashura by Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

Ethical Lessons from the Movement of Ashura by Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

Reviving the name and memory of these great men is something which gives inspiration and it furthermore gives human beings a spirit of self-sacrifice.‌

The movement of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), in light of its monumental importance, can be analyzed from various perspectives. Reflecting upon the ethical aspects of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa)’s movement, his actions, and the actions of his companions can provide us with many valuable lessons which we can implement in our day to day lives, as well as in the society overall. Let us look in to the details of these ethical lessons through the valuable viewpoints of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi:

A Reflection on the Meaning of Ethics and Morality (Akhlāq)

Ethics is a set of spiritual and internally-based characteristics in human beings. According to some scholars, certain actions which arise from the inner and natural character of human being are also considered to be one’s moral state.  

The Effects and Blessings of Being Ethically Oriented

Ethics is one of the fundamental belongings of a nation or a group of people. It is a key to the resolution of the major societal problems which the people face. Without any doubt, ethics is the very essence of civilization and it can be considered as the spine of a healthy social life. It is one of the best means for human beings to gain proximity to Allah (swt). In light of this reality, it is clear that until the ethical issues of a society are not resolved, none of their other problems will be resolved either.  

Within the Islamic framework, we believe that the Prophet (ṣ) was sent in order to ‘perfect the morals’, to ‘purify the hearts’, and to ‘train the souls’. These can be considered as some of the primary goals of the prophetic mission and they have been mentioned in the Quran and in the Islamic traditions as well. When we examine the life of the Infallibles (ʿa), we find that they dedicated a large part of their lives to this very goal.[1]

With regard to this issue, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) has been quoted as saying: “If man’s [good] deeds bring him closer to perfection, then doing ethical deeds and acquiring good character qualities are the best [of deeds] and they can bring one much closer to perfection” In another tradition, it has been narrated that Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) said the following to his enemies: “If you do not have faith and you do not fear Allah and the Day of Judgment, then at least be freemen and do not forget the way and path of freedom.’ In reality, the Imam (ʿa) was address-ing the people of the entire world and he was telling them that even if you do not follow a religion, then at least abide by the essential principals of honor and humanity.

Some of the Most Important Ethical Lessons during the Revolution of Karbala

Love and Affection

Islam is a religion based on love and affection towards others. The faith utilizes practical methods where animosity is answered with love.  Within the religious framework, love, affection, and friendship are definitive duties of every single Muslim man and woman. All of them are duty bound to implement these elements in their day to day lives.  In reality, the sacrifice of Karbala was a practical ethical lesson in regards to love and affection. It showed us that it is possible for one to live their lives centered on love; this includes both love for the creation and love for the Creator.

One question which may come up from the story of Karbala is whether millions of people all around the world cry for Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) only to gain divine reward; is it this reward which brings them to tears or is it something else? The reality is that if love were not an integral part of our lives , then nothing would move so many people to such extreme emotions.   The things which took place in Karbala were of such a nature that anyone with the least amount of love and affection will become affected and this is that same emotional link which binds all people together.

When we look at the vast nature of love and affection within the context of the Ashura movement, one key point that sticks out is a moment during the night before Ashura when the enemy wished to attack Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) and his companions. Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) said to his brother ʿAbbas:  Oh ʿAbbas, may I be sacrificed for you oh brother; go and ask them what their intentions are….  These remarks show the profound love of the Imam (a) for his brother Abbās.

Similarly, one can look at the love and affection of the Lady Zaynab towards her brother, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa). During numerous instances, she would express how much she loved her brother and how deep her feelings were towards him.   When we also look at the way that the companions of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) would speak to him, we find that their words were filled with love, support, and affection. For example, Ḥanẓalah said in response to Imam al-Husayn (ʿa): You have spoken the truth, may I be sacrificed for you; you are wiser than I and more able to distinguish the truth.   In yet, another instance, Nāfiʿ ibn Hilāl came towards the Imam (ʿa) on the day of Ashura and he said: Oh Abā ʿAbdillah, may I be sacrificed for you… I swear to Allah that I must die before you!

One can also see the veritable peak of love and affection expressed in the existence of Abal-Faḍl al-ʿAbbas (the brother of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa). He is narrated to have said the following to Imam al-Husayn (ʿa): Oh my brother, may I be sacrificed for you…oh my master!  The level of love was so deep within the Imam (ʿa) that even in his final moments, when he really had nothing left, he still defended the tents of his family members from the attacks of the enemies. He addressed the enemy, telling them: If you do not have faith, then at least be free men.

The night before Ashura was a night that went down in history as the pinnacle of loyalty and allegiance. When the night before Ashura had arrived, the Imam (ʿa) told his companions: Now that the night has fallen, utilize its darkness (and go far from here). Each one of you can take the hand of his friend or the hand of one of the men from my family and disperse in to the dark night.  In spite of this, the companions of the Imam (ʿa) responded to him in one voice: No by Allah, such a thing is impossible (meaning we will stay with you until we are martyred).  At this time, ʿAbbas spoke out and said to the Imam (ʿa): Why would we leave you? Would it be so that we could remain alive after you? May Allah save us from such a day!

After the family members and the relatives of the Imam (ʿa) had announced their unbreakable allegiance and loyalty to Imam al-Husayn (ʿa), the companions of the Imam (ʿa) began to express their unwavering loyalty to him. One of the companions who stood up and talked to Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) was Saeid Ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi; he said to the Imam (ʿa): No, by Allah I swear that I will never leave you until I take Allah as my witness that I have abided by the sanctity of the Prophet (ṣ) in regards to you in his absence. I swear to Allah that if I know that I will be killed in your way, then brought back to life, then burnt in a fire and my ashes blown to the wind, and this were to happen to me seventy times, still, I would never leave you.

The companions then expressed similar sentiments, one after the other. Naturally, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) became happy at these expressions of complete loyalty and courage; his compan-ions had s e l e c ted the best of ways and the best of paths towards Allah (swt).  When we look back in history, we can not find anything similar to what happened on the night before Ashura. The companions of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) chose to follow him, knowing with certainty that death lay before them. They all knew that they would be dead by the following night but this did not deter them in the least. They went forward with happiness, announcing their loyalty to their Imam (ʿa), and they were not just willing to give one life, but they were willing to give as many lives as they had to offer!

Appreciation and Thankfulness
Thankfulness is an important means of connecting the hearts and establishing love and affection between the various members of society.  When the spirit of thankfulness is established in the human soul, then the individual is thankful to Allah (swt) and also thankful to the creation as well. Being thankful to people for what they have done is an effective drive for greater progress within human society; it also plays an integral role in the blossoming of human potential.  The night before Ashura shows us an example of this issue, when Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) thanked his followers and said to them:[2] I do not know of any companions more sound and just than you, nor do I know of any family better than my family. May Allah reward you with a goodly reward!  In this way, Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) prayed for all of the people there and he showed them their position which was awaiting them in paradise.

Self Sacrifice
Self-sacrifice is of a very lofty degree and one of the key ethical teachings which we can see reflected in the lives of those who are near to Allah (swt).  In the visitation supplication of Arbaʿīn (Ziyārat al-Arbaʿīn)  we read: Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) gave His blood in Your way (he sacrificed everything for the sake of Allah (swt).[3]  Similarly, his companions can be considered as a complete reflection of the characteristics of self-sacrifice and courage during Ashura as well.
When we look at the actions of the companions, we find that they did not allow any of the family members of the Imam (ʿa) to go towards the battlefield for as long as they were alive. This is reflected in a conversation which the companions had on the night before Ashura. When Ḥabīb ibn Muẓāhir asked them what they would do when morning arrived, they responded, saying: We will go to the field of battle before the Banī Hāshim. So long as there is blood in our veins, we should not allow even one of them to be killed. We should never let the people say that we sent our masters ahead of us and refused to give our lives to protect them.  

When we look at the history books, are there any similar examples of such dauntless self sacrifice? Can any examples be found where the people follow their leaders with such purity, sincerity, courage, and faith?  Indeed, such an example cannot be found anywhere in the history texts. This is truly one of the most monumental examples of self-sacrifice which we can find!

A Final Word

Without any doubt, reviving the name and memory of these great men is something which gives inspiration and it furthermore gives human beings a spirit of self sacrifice. The mention of these righteous men and the des c r i p tion of their ethical virtues and heroic characteristics  teach us great lessons of piety and lofty human character.  Through utilizing these amazing lessons from the movement of Imam al-Husayn (ʿa) , every nation and every people (particularly the Muslims) can gain worlds of wisdom and experience in regards to revive the religion of Allah (swt), to awaken the people, and to strengthen the spirit of sacrifice and bravery.  Through the lessons of Karbala, it is possible for the people to understand how to live an honorable life and how to die an honorable death.  All the people need to do is to reflect upon the story of Karbala and implement its teachings in their day to day lives.  


Researched and edited at editorial deputy of his eminence office



[1]. Kashf al-Ghammah, vol. 2, p. 28.

[2]. إِنِّي لا أَعْلَمُ أَصْحاباً أَصَحَّ مِنْكُمْ وَ لا أَعْدَلَ وَ لا أَفْضَلَ أَهْلَ بَيْتٍ، فَجَزاكُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِّي خَيْراً؛»

[3]. The visitation supplication of Arbaʿīn has only been narrated in regards to Imam Husayn (ʿa) and no such supplication exists for any of the other Infallibles (ʿa). This visitation supplication is a well-known supplication and it was narrated through Shaykh Ṭūsī. The body of the tradition shows us that we can visit Imam Husayn (ʿa) from a far distance and we don’t necessarily have to be next to the grave. According to what has been mentioned in Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām of Shaykh Ṭūsī (vol. 6, p. 52, hadith 37), this visitation supplication has been narrated from Imam Hasan al-ʿAskari (ʿa).