Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Ashura Artwork: Part I

'Abbas bin 'Ali, a son of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi'i Imam, and half-brother of Husayn bin 'Ali. He was Husayn's standard bearer. His shrine is located in the southern Iraqi city of al-Kufa.

*Post in the 'Ashura 1431 Occasional Series of posts about the annual Shi'i Muslim (all branches) commemoration of the martyrdom in 680 C.E. of Husayn bin 'Ali, the third Imam of the Shi'is.*

Today's "'Ashura 1431" post is made up of two parts: (1) a brief historical summary of the death of the third Shi'i Imam, Husayn bin 'Ali, and many of his male companions at Karbala in 680 C.E. (taken from this POST from the last 'Ashura, with minor edits) and (2) popular Shi'i artwork about the Karbala events and personalities which is produced and displayed in areas with large Shi'i populations such as southern Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Bahrayn.


We are presently in the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The first ten days of the month have a particular importance to Shi‘ī Muslims, as well as many Sunnī Muslims, who mark the martyrdom of Husayn ibn ‘Alī, the third Shi‘ī Imam and son of the first Imam, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib. The role of the Imam in this case combines both religious and temporal (worldly or, for lack of a better term, “political”) social roles. In short, Shi‘īs view the Imams to have been both the legitimate leader of the Muslim community, a leader who holds the reins of both religious and temporal authority.

"'Ashura," the shrines of Imam Husayn (right) and 'Abbas (left)

For the largest group of Shi‘īs, the Ithna ‘Ashariyya or “Twelvers”, the line of Imams runs to 12, the last of whom is believed to be in occultation, a concealed/hidden state beginning in the tenth century in order to safeguard him from his worldly enemies. This twelfth Imam, the “Hidden” Imam or the Imam al-Zaman (“Imam of the Age”), will return at a time decided by God, and upon his return, he will establish absolute justice. It is my hope to raise several questions in this short essay about the nature of the actions taken by Husayn, in that year 680 C.E., that were themselves raised in my mind during a conversation several days ago with a couple friends and a few others. First, for the benefit of lay readers, I feel it is necessary to provide a brief background of the events in question. However, what follows is just that, a brief background of the relevant historical events. It is not meant to be a comprehensive retelling of events. Hopefully, I have found the correct balance.

Mourning by survivors of Husayn's band, which included his sister Zaynab bint 'Ali and his daughters, in a famous modern Iranian Shi'i painting, "Evening of 'Ashura."

Husayn holds a place of particular importance to Shi‘īs, Twelvers and others, who view him as the most important of their martyrs, of whom there have been many throughout history. He is given the popular title, “Sayyid al-Shuhada” (“Lord of Martyrs”), a title that clearly denotes the esteem in which they hold him and, as importantly, the story of his and his companions’ actions on the barren plain of Karbala, in present-day Iraq. His father, ‘Ali, the first Imam, and brother, Hassan, the second Imam, did not challenge Mu‘awiya ibn Sufyan, the first caliph (roughly, “king”) of the Umayyad dynasty, the first monarchical dynastic line following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. The reasons as to why this was are the topic of debate to this day.

The tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina (bottom left) and a minaret from Husayn's shrine in Karbala (bottom right) mixed with the "Evening of 'Ashura."

Unlike his father and brother, Husayn not only refused to give allegiance to Mu‘awiya’s son and successor, Yazid I, but attempted to answer a call from supporters of his father in the Iraqi city of al-Kufa, who promised to fight with him if he would come from his refuge in the city of Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia to lead them. However, before Husayn and his small band reached al-Kufa, the Imam’s representative and cousin, Muslim ibn Aqīl, was arrested and executed on the orders of ‘Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, the governor of Iraq and a loyalist of Yazid’s.

Barren plain of Karbala with a part of the portrait "Evening of 'Ashura" and a banner dedicated to Husayn and the "martyrs of Karbala." The mourning women surround Husayn's horse, Zuljanah, which, like many objects/relics connected to Husayn and the other Imams, is now revered by Shi'i Muslims.

Soon thereafter, a large Umayyad military force sent by Ibn Ziyad, led by the general ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d, cut off Husayn’s band from reaching al-Kufa, stopping them at Karbala, now a city not far from al-Kufa. The Kufans, who had promised to aid the Imam, reneged on their promises, perhaps out of fear, and effectively abandoned him and his companions and their families. In a siege and battle lasting several days, the Umayyad soldiers killed all but one of Husayn’s male relatives and companions, and, on the tenth day of Muharram, the Imam himself. Only Husayn’s ill son, ‘Ali ibn Husayn, better known as Zayn al-‘Abidīn, survived, of the Imam’s male relatives and companions. His sister, Sayyida Zaynab, and his daughters were among the survivors of his band. They were all taken back in chains to Damascus in Syria, the base of Umayyad power. Damascus was the Umayyad capital and the stronghold of the late Mu‘awiya.

Zaynab bint 'Ali, the daughter of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the individual responsible for the survival of her brother Husayn's message following his death at Karbala.

Shrine of Imam Husayn at Karbala with a red sky; Some Shi'i sources say that the "sky wept blood" on the day of his martyrdom.

Imam Husayn and his son 'Ali Asghar, who was killed at Karbala

"Lord of Martyrs"

Shrine of Imam Husayn and a portrait of his horse, Zuljanah, and the fallen helmet and banner of the Imam.


Imam Husayn and his youngest son, 'Ali Asghar, who was killed at Karbala by an Umayyad arrow. Many readers will see this portrait's resemblance to imagery used in Christian painting, particularly the symbolic act of "offering" one's son as a sacrifice for a message or cause, à la Jesus in Christian theology.

See the first 'Ashura 1431 series post HERE.

See the second 'Ashura 1431 series post HERE.

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