karbala, of the Divine

gentle reminders to myself before anyone else this Muharram:


the message of Imam Hussain (a) is the message of Allah (swt). the stand he took, the sacrifice he and his companions made – was all for Allah. he was able to enact the revolution that he did, to live for what he did, to die for what he did – because of his unwavering faith in Allah. without a doubt, he is a hero by all universal standards, but he is first, and foremost, the Imam chosen by God, and a servant of God. when conveying the message of Imam Hussain, we would do well to be cautious of the trend to narrate a secular story of Karbala…for a Karbala without the Divine, is not Karbala at all.

as one of my respected teachers once told me:

“if in any of the stories [of Karbala] it would be easy to switch out the character that has been presented with someone who was, say loyal, or against oppression, or wanting to defend his family, but not a Muslim who is among the highest ranks of believers, then the story needs to be looked at again…the entire sacrifice of Imam Hussain, his family, and his companions was an act of servitude to Allah, and done as obedience to His command (ubudiyyah). the shuhadaa of Karbala were able to actualize such high morals because of their utter servitude to Allah. they were, or became, mirrors of the perfection of Allah. they were examples of devout Shi’a who understood what it means to accept the wilayah of the Imam of their time, and because of their taqwa were given the insight to make the right choices, even if they went against the majority and their own personal interests.

one of the corruptions of the events of Karbala that has been taking place in recent years is to turn Imam Hussain into a humanitarian who had a secular struggle for the sake of humanity, as opposed to portraying him as the Imam of the time and a devout servant to Allah. part of this has taken place out of a desire to make Imam Hussain appealing to non-Muslims. but this is out of ignorance, because non-Muslims don’t need another secular humanitarian figure. if they understood the real Imam Hussain, his Rabb, and his religion, they would surely love him and want to take him as an Imam.”


any alteration in the facts, or distortion in the retelling of the story, whether out of creative fervor or the desire to make an audience weep, shows a lack in our understanding of the true message of Imam Hussain. without the utmost precision and most accurate research of which we are capable, we do not do Karbala a service, but a disservice.

in a series of lectures on Ashura, Misrepresentations and Distortions (Part 1, Part 2) Ayatullah Mutahhari says:

“What does tahrif mean? The Arabic word tahrif is derived from harrafa meaning, to slant, incline, alter, distort, misconstrue which means to make something depart from its original or proper course and position.

“[…] There are personalities whose words and deeds represent a sacred authority for the people and whose character and conduct is a model for mankind. For instance, if someone were to ascribe to Imam ‘Ali a statement that he did not make or something that he had not meant to say, that is very dangerous. The same is true if a characteristic or trait is ascribed to the Prophet or one of the Imams when in fact they had some other qualities, or when tahrif occurs in a great historic event which serves as a moral and religious authority and as a momentous document from the viewpoint of society’s norms and is a criterion in matters of morality and education. It is a matter of incalculable importance and entails a crucial danger when tahrif – whether in respect of words or meaning – occurs in subjects which are not of the ordinary kind.

“[…] the misrepresentations that have been carried out by us have all been in the direction of degrading and distorting the event and making it ineffective and inert in our lives. […Hajji Mirza Husayn Nuri writes]: ‘Today too we must mourn Husayn, but there are tragedies which have befallen Husayn in our era which did not occur in the past, and they are all these falsehoods that are said regarding the event of Karbala’ and which no one opposes! One must shed tears for the sufferings of Husayn ibn ‘Ali, not for the sake of the swords and spears that struck his noble body on that day, but on account of these falsehoods.’

“[…] The people should get this expectation out of their heads and refrain from encouraging the kind of fictitious narratives which kill the soul of Karbala but work up the mourners into a frenzy. The people should hear the true narrative so that their understanding and level of thinking is elevated.

[…] What is more painful is that, incidentally, there are few events in history that are as rich as the event of Karbala’ from the viewpoint of reliable sources. […] the developments relating to Karbala’ are quite clear and all of them are throughout a matter of great honor and pride. But we have disfigured this shining historic event to such an extent and have committed such a monstrous treachery towards Imam Husayn that if he were to come and see, he would say, ‘You have changed the entire face of the event. I am not the Imam Husayn that you have sketched out in your own imagination. The Qasim ibn Hassan that you have painted in your fancy is not my nephew. The ‘Ali Akbar that you have faked in your imagination is not my aware and intelligent son. The companions that you have carved out are not my companions.”

“[…] Imam Husayn had certain goals and motives for staging his uprising and we have ascribed to him some other motives and goals. […] We have divested this event of its ideological character. When it is shorn of its ideological character, it is no more capable of being followed, and when it cannot be followed, one cannot make any use of Imam Husayn’s teachings and draw any lesson from the event of Karbala’. […] Could there be a worse kind of treachery?

“[…] The Imams have exhorted us to keep alive the tradition of mourning over Husayn ibn Ali because his goal was a sacred goal. Husayn ibn ‘Ali established a school, and they wanted his school to remain alive and flourish. You will not find a practical school of thought in the whole world that may be likened to that of Husayn ibn ‘Ali. […] If you can find another example of that which was manifested in Husayn ibn ‘Ali during the event of ‘Ashura’, in those ordeals and taxing conditions, of the meaning of tawhid, of faith, of the knowledge of God, of perfection, convinced faith in the other world, of resignation and submission, of fortitude and manliness, of self-contentment, of steadiness and steadfastness, of honor and dignity, of the love and quest for freedom, of concern for mankind, of the passion to serve humanity – if you can find a single example in the whole world, then you may question the need to refresh his memory every year. But he is unique and without a parallel.

“Keeping alive the memory of his name and his movement is for the purpose that our spirits may be illuminated by the light of the spirit of Husayn ibn ‘Ali. If a tear that we shed for him should signify a harmony between our souls and his spirit, it represents a brief flight that our spirit makes along with Husayn’s spirit. Should it create within us a little glow of his valor, a particle of his free nature, a particle of his faith, a particle of his piety, and a small spark of his tawhid, such a tear has an infinite value.

“They have said that it has the worth of an entire world even if it is so small as the ‘wing of a gnat.’ Believe it! But that is not a tear shed for a pointless death, but a tear for the greatness of Husayn and his great spirit, a tear that signifies harmony with Husayn ibn ‘Ali and of movement in his steps.

“[…] If a man has faith in God, in tawhid, if he has a link with God and faith in the other world, single-handedly he can inflict a moral defeat on a host of twenty and thirty thousand. Is this not a lesson for us? Where can you find another example of it? Who else can you find in the whole world who could utter two sentences of that sermon in conditions in which Husayn ibn ‘All spoke, or, for that matter, two sentences like the sermon of Zaynab (‘a) at the city gates of Kufa? If our Imams have told us to revive this mourning every year and to keep it alive forever, it is for the purpose that we may understand these points, that we may realize the greatness of Husayn – so that if we shed tears for him it is out of understanding.

“[…] the danger of tahrif is extraordinarily great. Tahrif is an indirect blow which is more effective than a direct one. If a book is corrupted (whether in respect of its wording, or its meaning and content) and it is a book of guidance, it is transformed into a book that is misleading.

“[…] the common people have two weak points in relation to the mourning ceremonies held for Imam Husayn. One of them is that […] usually those who arrange and organize the mourning gatherings […] want the majalis to draw good attendance. […] This is a weak point. These sessions are not held to draw crowds. Our purpose is not to hold a parade or a march past. The purpose is to become acquainted with the truth and to fight against distortions.

“[…] Another weak point present in the mourning gatherings […] is that profuse and loud weeping is regarded as the criterion of their success. […] I do not say that the majlis should not be rocked with mourning; what I say is that this must not be the objective. If tears are shed as a result of listening to facts and the majlis is rocked with mourning by descriptions of real history without false and fabricated narratives, without distortion, without conjuring companions for Imam Husayn that did not exist in history and who are unknown to Imam Husayn himself (as they were nonexistent), without attributing such children to Imam Husayn as did not exist, without carving out enemies for Imam Husayn that basically had not existed – that is very good indeed. But when reality and truth are absent, should we go on making war against Imam Husayn by fabricating falsehoods and lies?

“[…] We beseech God, the Blessed and the Exalted, to lead our hearts towards the truth, to forgive us the sins which we have committed through tahrif and otherwise, to grant us the ability to carry out successfully the duty and mission that we have in this field.”


“Among the books featuring the details of the Ashura saga (maqtal), the Maqtal of Abu Mikhnaf is noteworthy. This maqtal is the source for many of the recitals and eulogies (that we see). Abu Mikhnaf was a student of Imam Sadiq (a). In Tarikh Tabari [1], the section for the history of Karbala is from this maqtal. As maqtal [pl. Maqaatil] go, Nafas Al-Mahmum of Shaykh Abbas Qummi is also a good book.

To learn about the states of Imam Husayn’s (a) companions, Iisaar Al-‘Ayn Fi Ahwal Ansaar Al-Husayn (A) authored by Shaykh Muhammad Samaawi is a good book. He was a thorough researcher and very accurate.

Similarly, the book Fidaa-Kaari Haftad Wa Do Tan Wa Yek Tan (The Sacrifice of Seventy-Two Persons and One Person’) or Unsuri Shujaa’at (The Element of Courageousness) written by the late Haaj Mirza Khalili Kumrahai is a good book.

The maqtal Lahuf or Malhuf [2] is also a good book. However, Haaji Nuri [3] did not accept all of it, and was of the belief that Sayyid b. Taawus wrote this maqtal while he was young and not as scholarly refined. Aqaa Ustadi [4], in his critique on [the book] Shahid Javidan (The Eternal Martyr)[5], whilst addressing a point, defends the maqtal of Sayyid b. Taawus. He writes that Sayyid himself, in (his) book Iqbaal (Al-A’maal), which is among his latter and important works, speaks highly of Malhuf and verifies its contents.”

—Ayatullah Sayyid Musa Shubayri Zanjani, translated by Hadi Rizvi

[1] An important work on Islamic History.
[2] Both referring to the same book. The exact original title is unclear.
[3] Mirza Husayn Nuri, famously known as Mirza Nuri. The author of Mustadrak Al-Wasaa’il and other important and notable works.
[4] A researcher and teacher in the Islamic seminary of Qum, holding various religious, institutional and governmental roles (presently or in the past).
[5] A book on the topic of Imam Husayn and his movement which sparked controversy in Iran and drew much criticism from the scholarly circles.

o eyes, shed your tears

O eyes shed your tears
Muharram’s moon has turned
in these days Hussain’s blood is spilled—
the tents of Zaynab burned

O eyes shed your tears
the caravan arrives
soon will the sands redden with blood—
the children’s gasping cries

O eyes shed your tears
a battle now will rage
a noble band of few will rise—
warriors of every age

O eyes shed your tears
the bodies on the ground
trampled by the hooves of horses—
broken, in pieces found

O eyes shed your tears
the son and father part
the Prophet’s face enters the fray—
yet spears still pierce his heart

O eyes shed your tears
to Furat Abbas goes
Hussain rushes to his side—
Hussain returns alone

O eyes shed your tears
will not be quenched a thirst
the neck of Hussain’s pure infant—
an arrow reaches first

O eyes shed your tears
Hussain will call this cry
“Is there no one to help us?”—
will ring throughout the sky

O eyes shed your tears
join Hussain’s ranks and know
you could not be there in body—
you can still be in soul

O eyes shed your tears
more than just in sorrow
but in reflection and new growth—
to better our tomorrows

O eyes shed your tears
these tears must us revive
they lead to perfecting our souls—
they bring dead hearts alive

O eyes shed your tears
weep and recall Hussain!
how they surrounded him with swords—
how he fell on those plains…

O eyes shed your tears
Hussain killed in Karbala!
from the skies heard, O soul at peace—
return now to Allah…

O eyes shed your tears
the heart begins to shake
a young daughter’s heart-wrenching wails
the head raised on the stake

O eyes shed your tears
the ringing of her cries
searching the desert for his chest
for where his body lies

O eyes shed your tears
don’t let this month’s moon pass
without your heartstrings torn apart
in Hussain’s love steadfast

O eyes shed your tears
cry wa Muhammada!
in these days, join his caravan—
Hussain and Karbala…

“for a lover of the Chief of Martyrs, one applause from Imam Hussain (ع) is more valuable than all the pleasures of the world.”

—ayatullah misbah yazdi
the secret of ashura’s immortality

the secret

the world still craves to know the secret spoken by Hussain
that changed the heart of one such as Zuhayr the son of Qayn

what was it that was spoken in the silence of that tent
that changed a wary man into a man wholly content?

when just moments ago, Zuhayr had in this act persisted
where Hussain lay his camp, Zuhayr would lay his at a distance

two caravans had found their paths by destiny were crossed
yet one hid from the other steering clear at any cost

til finally the noble son, the heir of Thaqalayn
dispatched a message for Zuhayr, the simple son of Qayn

with one who had avoided him, Hussain now wished to speak
with one whose hesitance til now both caravans had seen

the news arrived and all around him motionless became
would he accept the invitation sent him by Hussain?

such an invitation, still the will of Zuhayr faltered
until were spoken such words by which destinies are altered

Zuhayr’s wife had beheld what her husband did not see
by such women are some men made from naught to Hussaini

how strange is this Zuhayr! all praise to God alone belongs!
the Prophet’s son has summoned you and you do not respond? 

her words ignite a spark inside the depths of Zuhayr’s soul
and so he stands and to the tents of Hussain he now goes

on entering the tent he’s who his whole life he had been
yet when he leaves an altered man by history is seen

Zuhayr has returned, shining bright, contentment on his face
his wife bids him farewell as with Hussain he takes his place

the world still craves to know the secret spoken by Hussain
that changed the heart of one such as Zuhayr the son of Qayn

what was it that was spoken in the silence of that tent
that changed a wary man into a man wholly content?

what was that treasure hidden in the depths of Zuhayr’s heart
that in the eyes of his Imam set him clearly apart?

something was seen there by Hussain; Zuhayr did not yet know
a seed in need of one small push into an oak to grow

men like Hussain are not just men, they are spirits in flight
and so the hearts they call to them turn by their touch to light

those who have known him, know that when you stand before Hussain
he’ll change your heart the way he changed that of Zuhayr bin Qayn

when came the call from his Imam, Zuhayr did not know why
yet answering the call alone, his soul was purified

such is the beauty of Hussain—by darkness we’re enthralled
yet to us he extends his hand: us by our names he calls

we choose so often to be blind and from our souls to turn
yet when we come to know Hussain we learn how to return

just like Zuhayr, our caravan has traveled on so far
beside us Hussain’s makes its way, headed for Karbala

if in this moment, sorrow’s weight upon you heavy lays
consider it the gentle touch of Hussain’s changing rays

if this desire – to be his – awakens in your heart
consider that Hussain has sent your soul a special call

if you respond seeking to learn the secret Hussain knows
and if you go leaving behind all that your tent now holds

if in this moment truth like that of lightning now does strike
and if you let it alter you, not slow, but speed of light

if like Zuhayr you wish that you are killed a thousand times
so that each time to your Hussain you may offer your life

then even when arrows of life towards you become vaulted
you will stand firm, you will not shake, your faith will never falter

and all will wonder what was said in your heart’s silent tent
that changed a straying soul into a soul in truth content

the world will ask to know the secret spoken by Hussain,
that in one moment made you rise a person truly changed

the world will ask, yet like the secret of Zuhayr bin Qayn—
this secret will always be yours, for you and your Hussain

they honored the wooden pieces of the Prophet’s pulpit,
but tossed beneath their feet the Prophet’s children;
on what basis should the Prophet’s children follow you,
when you take pride in being his companions and followers?

-mayhar ibn marzuyah (d. 428 AH)

tell me,

tell me, o heart: in distance – can you ever be at ease again?
tell me, o soul, can anything else ever taste as sweet again?

tell me, o wings of destiny,
when will i smell the fragrance of heaven again?

when will i see my Hussain again?

little lights

bury your heart only in those places,
trust your soul only with those few,
the blood of your blood who lead the path to finding the truest you

how many are our journeys,
how many are the storms we’ve known,
how i’m grateful for these little lights always there to guide me home

what religion is

A Mercy Case

It has been about 24 years since I began reflecting on the religious aspects of human civilization. This is the definition of “religion” that I find most compelling. It wasn’t a sociologist nor an anthropologist nor a comparativist nor a structuralist nor a post-structuralist nor an anti-essentialist who won in the market place of ideas. It was an Iranian philosopher and exegete of the Qur’an who passed away in 1981, may God have mercy upon him.

“There is no doubt that each member of the human race is naturally drawn to his fellow-men and that in his life in society he acts in ways which are interrelated and interconnected. His eating, drinking, sleeping, keeping awake, talking, listening, sitting, walking, his social intercourse and meetings, at the same time that they are formally and externally distinct, are invariably connected with each other. One cannot perform just any act in any place…

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what they have done to your ‘Ali

it has long been a wish of mine
a wish that my eyes may see
may see what lays beneath the sky
the sky of Madina’s pure city

Madina, of you i have dreamed
dreamed of your tranquil purity
of that soul resting in your sands
his grave, RasoolAllah, Allah’s Nabi

in the depths of night i lay awake
to my eyes comes a whispered dream
the fragrance of sun, the scent of rain
the coolness of the moonlight’s gleam

with aching hands i grasp at stars
my feet walk weightless over seas
i see a green dome rising from afar
i stand, your grave in front of me

how many words i wish to say!
how many wishes of heart to free!
but comes to mind just a single phrase
just one thought brings me to my knees

no other words are worth these words
no other discourse my tongue will speak
except: RasoolAllah, see what they’ve done…
what they have done to your Ali

did you not say Ali is to me as was Haroon,
except there will be no Prophet after me?
was it not that Allah and you and the one
who gives in prayer are our Wali?

did you not say it time and time again?
at Ghadeer his arm raised did they not see?
did they not hear: of whosoever I am Mawla,
his Mawla is none other than Ali…

did not come to you this order from Allah
was not Ali’s Wilayah God’s decree
to declare this as revealed by your Lord
or your mission would be rendered incomplete?

were not said the words of Thaqalayn?
were not two things each attached to each?
two things: Ahlulbayt and the Quran
is not then Quran only with Ali?

at every moment of your life
at each turn – in public or secrecy
was there not one shoulder next to yours?
was that shoulder not always Ali?

when they pelted you with stones
when bled your feet on Ta’if’s streets
when they plotted murder while you slept
was not your protector always Ali?

did you not call him flesh of your flesh?
blood of your blood was not said he?
when asked who’d stand by your side
was not the answer always Ali?

and at the moment of your death
when all had turned their backs to leave
who was that one remaining by your side?
whose hands gave your ghusl but Ali’s?

your soul had scarcely left this world
when were snatched the rights of your family
in the dead of night, creeping like wolves
teeth bared, snapping in animosity

the hands that you had once kissed
the arms you embraced so lovingly
come and see, RasoolAllah,
see what they have done to your Ali

the mirror of your soul, your true friend
your branch and his – from a single tree
they’ve taken to its bark a jagged axe
they’ve come for the blood of your Ali

they have cut to pieces your daughter’s heart
of whom you said, Fatima is part of me
her grief made unbearable for her this world
her soul rose, leaving lonely here Ali

come and see, how heavy is his chest
the weight of worlds his heart carries
hear his whispers, a lover to his Lord
in stormy seas – the patience steady of Ali

come and see RasoolAllah!
how your beloved wanders through the streets
his sorrow emptied in desert sands
secrets no soul alive can now set free

come and see RasoolAllah!
how they avoid him, come and see
how they spread lies and curse his name
how they take lightly the name of your Ali…

come and see RasoolAllah!
the blood that from your lover’s eye does weep
as it hears the voice of its Imam
the unanswered last call of Salooni..

come and see RasoolAllah!
come and see the great deceit
fallen over your Ummah’s eyes
sitting by ponds, leaving the sea…

come and see, HabibAllah!
the tatters of this heartstring’s grief
calling – followers of Mustafa!
why have you forgotten his Ali!?

it is heartwrenching O my Rasool!
this forsaking a hurt beyond belief!
a sorrow that grays each head of hair
for abandoned has been your Ali!

oh Muslims, soften your hearts
let the skies thunder as you weep
to reach the city go through the gate
renew your allegiance to Ali

come and see your lovers O Rasool
O lovers let your wails to heaven reach
make firm your pledge to your last Imam
do not forsake him as was forsaken your Ali

a game of leadership has been made
though no prophet chosen by man had been
though never was there absent a guide to God
though mankind was never left without this link

twelve leaders chosen by Allah
linked to the Quran, its living tafsir
all but the last – imprisoned, slaughtered one by one
the first murder, the murder of Ali

if Ali is second only to you
in nearness to God if it’s you, then he
then to be against him is against Islam
for where there is Islam there is Ali

if there is La saif illa dhulfiqaar!
and La fatah illah Ali!
…then why have they cut him with a sword?
why have they struck the head of your Ali?

come and see RasoolAllah!
in the early dawn of Kufa’s city
as God’s lion cries out with this roar
Fuztu bi Rabbil Kaaba! cries your Ali

come and see how spreads the blood
how it flows upon his cheeks
how a voice from heaven shrieks a call
in Kufa has been struck Ali!

come and see how the face you kissed
the child you cradled in infancy
how into his veins a poison pours
how turns pale the face of your Ali…

come and see Rasool Allah!
as if from the sky the stars unseat
as if God’s anger blackens every sky
as sets in the eve of the nineteenth…

come and see, your Zaynab wails!
come and see, your Hassnain weep!
come and see how the orphans cry,
where is our father, where is Ali?!

come and see as one who loves you
embraces your grave, her wrenching screams:

come and see O RasoolAllah,
see what they have done to your Ali…

drink water, and remember

“May my father and mother be sacrificed for you. Indeed my affliction due to what happened to you is immense. Therefore, I ask Allāh who venerated your station and honored me through you...” | Ziyarat Ashura 

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(The Sacred Effusion: Volume II (p.116) – Shaykh Muhammad M. Khalfan)