Husayn (Hussein) son of Ali – Shiites

UI – Part 248 – Husayn (Hussein) son of Ali – Shiites

To further understand the Shiite line of Muslims we need to look back in time to the established leadership of the Islamic ideology following the death of Muhammad (632CE).  The first 3 Caliphs were not of the direct family of Muhammad.  The 4th, Ali, was married to Muhammad’s daughter Fatima.  He was in the bloodline, the sons of Ali and Fatima (grandsons of Muhammad), critical to the Shiite leadership. Hasan was the 1st son; Husayn (also spelled Hussein) was the 2nd.  The title of ‘Imam’ is applied, Ali the 1st Imam and Husayn the 3rd.

Ali was assassinated by the Caliph, the leader of the Umayyad Dynasty, Mu’awiyah.  His sons did not dispute this leader, receiving a pension for not resisting. In addition there was an Agreement that upon Mu’awiyah’s death the next Caliph would be chosen by the community (Ummah).

 Baghdad, Kufa, 

 After the death of the older son Hasan, Mu’awiyah broke the Agreement by designating his son, Yazid, to be his successor and the next Caliph. However Husayn after Mu’awiyah’s death refused to accept his son, Yazid I, as successor Caliph. “Husayn opposed Yazid I and declared that Umayyad rule was not only oppressive, but also religiously misguided. In his view the integrity and survival of the Islamic community depended on the re-establishment of the correct guidance. Husayn also believed that the succession of Yazid I was an attempt to establish an illegitimate hereditary dynasty.”[i]

Enroute to Kufa Husayn encountered a Umayyad commander and his army. His progress was halted and they set up camp at Karbala.  He was refused water for his band of followers which eventually led to fighting when his stores of this essential dessert commodity, which he had shared with the Umayyad army, was exhausted.  Husayn and most of  his small following were killed, beheaded. (October 13, 680) Family survivors were taken to Syria where Yazid was based.

Husayn’s claim was that the Truth of the heritage of Islam was in the blood line of Muhammad.  Anything else was false. Believing in the right path flowing from Muhammad is the proper frame of thought when one dies. That leads to happiness.  Living a life under false tyrants only causes sorrow.[ii]  This thinking is the framework for the martyrdom of Husayn.  He is revered by the Shiites as Christ is to the followers of Christ.  Christ offers the true and only path to salvation. Husayn and his descendants, the Imam’s to follow, were of the right path, were the guides, the ones providing the truth of the Quran.

Husayn is still mourned.  The date of the Battle of Karbala is observed as the days of Lamentation.  Here again is a parallel to the mourning over Christ’s body, remembered as the Lamentation of Christ.


Today Karbala is a City in Iraq about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad.  After Mecca and Medina it is among the holiest cities for the Shias. The Imam Husayn Mosque is located there.


Our focus is on Shia Imam’s.

For clarification, from Wikipedia, “In every day terms, the imam for Sunni Muslims is the one who leads Islamic formal (Fard) prayers, even in locations besides the mosque, whenever prayers are done in a group of two or more with one person leading (imam) and the others following by copying his ritual actions of worship… The person that should be chosen according to Hadith is one who has most knowledge of the Qur’an and is of good character, the age is immaterial”

Using Wikipedia again, “In the Shia context, imams have a meaning more central to belief, referring to leaders of the community. Twelver and Ismaili Shia believe that these imams are chosen by God to be perfect examples for the faithful and to lead all humanity in all aspects of life. They also believe that all the imams chosen are free from committing any sin, impeccability which is called ismah.  These leaders must be followed since they are appointed by God.”[iii]

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan was the 12th Imam (al-Mahdi, Hidden Imam, al-Hujjah) and is the current Imam (the doctrine of the Twelver’s), the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with Christ. He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and replete the earth with justice and peace.

All but the 3rd and 12th Imam were poisoned.  The 12th is hidden, or in ‘occulation’, taking place in 873. Most but not all Shia believe in the ‘occulation.’

Political Islam historically was not a component of Shiism, especially that of the Twelvers.  “These Shiites…deferred the obligation to wage jihad “in the path of God” to the day when the hidden Imam would reappear as redeemer and raise God’s banners. In the meantime, they drew comfort and inspiration from commemorating the martyred Imams, and inflicted violence only upon themselves in penitential rites of self-flagellation. Historical circumstance transformed their grief for the Imam Husayn into a call for inner repentance rather than revolution. This strand of the Shiite tradition abjured politics, and disdained all temporal power as an infringement upon the authority of the hidden Imam. The pursuit of power in this world was deemed the heretical doctrine of extremist dissidents…and not the duty of true believers, who were enjoined to equate faith with patience, virtue with suffering.” So claims Martin Kramer[iv] in a speech given in Jerusalem in 1990 the title of which was, Shiite Islam and Islamic Fundamentalism.

Reinterpretation of Martyrdom of Husayn

This disdain of government as the usurper of God’s authority, however has changed. It all came down to interpretation, or a re-interpretation of texts historically used by the scholars.  From Martin Kramer’s speech[v] again, “The most important was the reinterpretation of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn at Karbala. The tradition had regarded this martyrdom in ways almost comparable to the martyrdom of Christ: the death of this pure and sinless saint was meant to remind all men of their individual sinfulness, of individual guilt. He did not seek to harm others or overturn the existing order. He sought merely to die a death which would inspire repentance in man. The Imam Husayn was mourned by the infliction of punishment on the self, by an internalization of violence.”

What we see in Arab Spring demonstrations is the youth of the Middle East crying out against oppression. They needed an inspirational leader, a resistance hero, and they found, for the Shiite anyway, Husayn (Al-Husayn[vi]) as the revolutionary that fought against the false claims of the Caliph Yazid I.  It was no longer suffering, martyrdom, for the personal guilt of being a sinner; it was the oppressor that was the guilty party. Husayn fought to right the wrongs of the Umayyad Caliphate and the Sunni way of thinking towards leadership in the Islamic world. Husayn was to be followed, emulated, and propped up as the Shiite Imam who pointed the way to the right path. The new Shiite was as a modern revolutionary, in the image of Husayn, against the false proclamations against Islam or those whose direction for the Muslim Ummah is wrong.

Quoting Kramer anew there was a change in what God intended, how the texts were interpreted, that allowed the scholars, the ulema, to become pro-active in governance, “… the reinterpreters, going back to a particular text, suddenly announced that this traditional interpretation had not only been flawed, but that God had intended exactly the opposite: that the clerics themselves should rule, that they should struggle to implement God’s law here and now, that they should …lead the people to anti-imperialist revolution and justice.”  Look towards the emergence of the Ayatollah Khomeini (1965) as the exemplar of this reinterpretation of history and texts.  The impact on Iran and its political hierarchy demonstrates the result.


It all boils down to a matter of interpretation.  Also how texts and history were interpreted in the past need not be the same as how the two are interpreted today or for the future.  The scholars change their mind, alter their conclusions, and teach new ideas.  As much as the Quran is a text that has never changed, as claimed by all scholars, certainly it is subject to interpretation.  There are so many Hadiths and Sunnah that flavor the ideology of one sect, culture, or the thinking of the scholars within that ‘true Islam’ is an unknown.  Even history can be distorted, or the practices applied to historical events can be altered, as with Husayn.  And if you do not agree with another, each will point to the other and call out “heretic.”

Grace and Peace.


[ii] Don’t you see that the truth is not put into action and the false is not prohibited? The believer should desire to meet his Lord while he is right. Thus I do not see death but as happiness, and living with tyrants but as sorrow.


[iv] Martin Kramer delivered this address in a lecture series on fundamentalism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on or about November 21, 1990.

[vi] l-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī,  (born January 626, Medina, Arabia [now in Saudi Arabia]—died Oct. 10, 680, Karbalāʾ, Iraq), Shīʿite Muslim hero, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and son of ʿAlī (the fourth Islamic caliph) and Fāṭima, daughter of Muhammad. He is revered by Shīʿite Muslims as the third imam (after ʿAlī and Ḥusayn’s older brother, Ḥasan).  After the assassination of their father, ʿAlī, Ḥasan and Ḥusayn acquiesced to the rule of the first Umayyadcaliph, Muʿāwiya, from whom they received pensions. Ḥusayn, however, refused to recognize the legitimacy of Muʿāwiya’s son and successor, Yazīd (April 680). Ḥusayn was then invited by the townsmen of Kūfah, a city with a Shīʿite majority, to come there and raise the standard of revolt against the Umayyads. After receiving some favourable indications, Ḥusayn set out for Kūfah with a small band of relatives and followers. According to traditional accounts, he met the poet al-Farazdaq on the way and was told that the hearts of the Iraqis were for him, but their swords were for the Umayyads. The governor of Iraq, on behalf of the caliph, sent 4,000 men to arrest Ḥusayn and his small band. They trapped Ḥusayn near the banks of the Euphrates River (October 680). When Ḥusayn refused to surrender, he and his escort were slain, and Ḥusayn’s head was sent to Yazīd in Damascus (now in Syria).  In remembrance of the martyrdom of Ḥusayn, Shīʿite Muslims observe the first 10 days of Muḥarram (the date of the battle according to the Islamic calendar) as days of lamentation. Revenge for Ḥusayn’s death was turned into a rallying cry that helped undermine the Umayyad caliphate and gave impetus to the rise of a powerful Shīʿite movement.  The details of Ḥusayn’s life are obscured by the legends that grew up surrounding his martyrdom, but his final acts appear to have been inspired by a definite ideology—to found a regime that would reinstate a “true” Islamic polity as opposed to what he considered the unjust rule of the Umayyads.  Source:

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