karbala, of the Divine

by Aqeela Naqvi

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.