Central Narratives of Karbala

Identify the central threads that emerge from the classical narrative of the death of al-Hussain.

The battle of Karbala, which took place in the deserts of Southern Iraq in 680 AD, is a central event in Shi’ism which serves as a point of reference for many Shi’i religious beliefs and practices. In a sense, Karbala has become the ‘root metaphor’ for Shi’i beliefs and the narratives associated with it have came to be known as the ‘Karbala Paradigm’(Aghaie).  The main themes that have emerged from this event such as resilience in the face of oppression, suffering and redemption, along with unflinching loyalty to the Imams, have become defining features of the Shi’i narrative.

The Karbala narrative has evolved over the centuries but there is no single authoritative version of the event today even according to Shi’i historical accounts. Different versions present different details of the battle and historical accuracy is apparently not a central concern in the retelling of these narratives as they became part of popular historical folklore. Several contingent and subjective factors such as the fear of repercussions in presenting the ruling elite of the time in a negative light or the divergent geo-political, Arab vs Byzantinian outlooks and rivalry make it difficult to distangle historical myth from reality. There are however many ‘correct representations’ of the event that the Shi’i agree upon.(Aghaie)The Shi’i discourse presents a larger than life image of Hussain and his band of men whose story is imbued with the ideals of self-sacrifice and loyalty.(Mufid) The men in Hussain’s army symbolize piety and courage as do the women accompanying them in all the narratives. One central aspect that also emerges within this narrative is the agency of the women of Karbala as spokespersons and guardians of the faith in the absence of men. The sacrifices made during the battle ofKarbalahave become intertwined with the narrative of spiritual redemption and salvation in the life after death. Through the process of intercession, the Shi’i followers believe they will attain atonement for their sins in this world. (BahrulUloom)

In the later versions among the other villainous characters like Ibn Ziyad, Shimr, Umar Ibn Saad, Yazid becomes the ‘ultimate, impious tyrannical villain’ (Aghaie) In the earlier versions, he is seen as a remorseful and ambiguous character who ultimately makes good will gestures to the Prophets family in the aftermath of the battle of Karbala.(Mufid) This presents somewhat of a glaring contrast between the two representations of Yazid, because in the mainstream, present Shi’i narratives he excessively degrades the Ahl-Bayt in his court and mocks their tribulations. In many traditions he forced them to stand outside the gate of his Palace for days. The same can be said in general regarding the accounts of Yazid’s army, who are shown as being motivated by monetary greed to indulge in the vilification of the Prophet’s family but are hesitant in killing Hussain, who embodies the Prophet’s charisma and tradition. ( Bahr ul Uloom)

Ultimately in its central narratives, the Battle of Karbala has come to be seen as the vindication of upright Shi’ism against violent distortions of Islam. As the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain fulfilled his obligation to save the religion from moral depravity and decay that was being perpetuated by the Ummayads under Yazid. (Mufid) Hussain’s sacrifice  has a universal appeal as a principled stand against tyranny and had far-reaching effects on the Muslim world because it identified and highlighted the ‘true Islam’ and distinguished it from the coercive religion of the political elite.  In this sense he  ‘lost the battle but won the campaign’. (BahrulUloom)

Sectarianism in Syria

Syeda Zainab Mosque in DamascusSyria is somewhat an anomaly in the Shi’i context because it is a Sunni majority state that is being ruled over by an authoritarian Shi’i regime. It would be worthy to mention here a fact that is overlooked in much of the current discussion on Syria that the Syrian rulers belong to the Alawi sect of Shi’ism which is quite distinct from the  mainstream Twelver Shi’ism. Although the current uprising is predominantly seen as a Shia-Sunni sectarian issue, the truth is that the Assad regime does not even have manifest or widespread support from the Shi’i community either. This much I gathered during a visit to Syria recently, through my interaction with Shi’i people in Damascus and it’s vicinities.

The current regime is repressive and ruthless towards almost any dissent coming from any group. The Shi’i people have faced the wrath of the Assad regime because they face pretty much the same socio-economic constraints that the Sunni population faces, leading them to protest against the unfair policies of the dictatorship. As a result the Shi’i sections of the society are as deprived and backwards as their Sunni coutnerparts. However ironically there is a very strong anti-Shia sentiment within Syria at present which stems from the fact that it symbolizes the brutality of the Assad regime and also because the Sunni population is excessively ostracized because it constantly questions the legitimacy of the current dictatorship.

Academic Vali Nasr recently spoke about the sectarian tensions in the current violence in Syria.


Recently at one of my classes at SIPA, journalist Nir Rosen spoke about the current situation in Syria where he has been based over the last few years. He presented an interesting insiders’s perspective , one which does not necessarily correlate with th official Western narratives of the region. This is one of his latest interviews which cover most of the issues he spoke about at Columbia.


It will be interesting to see how the current situation resovlves itself ultimately. The Syrian government is trying its best to appease the discontent but its attempts are largely seen as being superficial, as a feature in the New York Times points out today.


Occultation and The Hidden Imam

First, list the primary elements of the Twelver Shi’i doctrine of occultation (ghayba). Next, articulate the primary arguments (a) for and (b) against its validity.

According to Shi’ite traditions  a leader know as the Qaim (the one who rises up), who is a redresser of wrongs and is also referred to as the Mahdi, will arise from the family of Muhammad. The two concepts of the Mahdi and the Qa’im became conflated and were transcribed against the  concept of the Twelfth Imam by the beginning of the fourth/tenth century. (Modaressi) This Imam will distribute equality and establish justice among his subjects. The role of the saviour or the Mahdi can be understood within the context of  eternal struggle between right and wrong, the Mahdi is needed to ascertain the final supremacy of good over evil and right over wrong because God can help create change  but ‘the role of man in human effort and struggle is utmost’. (Behisti&Bahonar)  The end of the period of the greater Occultation will be ‘a  time when contradictions will disappear and peace and tranquility will prevail’. The Imam can be  symbolically seen of ‘an inspiration cherished by mankind’ which provides hope for ‘persecuted individuals’ and ‘oppressed nations’ and keeps them away from evil. (Sadr & Mutahhery)

The death of each Shi’ite imam invariably created a problem of succession, with splinter groups either denying his death or believeing in his imminent return. In each case the deceased imam was believed to return as the Qa’im. (Moderessi) This happened in the case of the Eleventh Imam, whose death was confirmed by the Imamis and the concealment of his son, who was the hujja (proof) of God on earth, was proclaimed. A doctrine of occultation was presented as a rationally established dogma, asserting the neccessary existance and absence of the Hidden Imam or the Qaim. The twelfth Imam was said to be alive in his occultation and was able to communicate with this followers throught his agents. It is this doctrine of Occultation which distinguishes Twelver Shi’ism from the earlier Imamiyya as the ‘Belief in the ghayba is a direct corollory to the belief in the 12 Imams’. (Kohlberg) There were two periods of Occultation. The ‘lesser’ ghayba  which was a shorter period lasted from 260/874 to 429/941, during which the Imam was represented on earth by four successive agents. This period gave way to a  longer and ‘greater’ ghayba “whose duration is known only to God”. (Kohlberg)

The Case Against the Doctrine of Occultation:

For obvious reasons the concept of  Occultation is against the laws of nature because it covers a time span that goes well beyond a human lifetime and defies any reasonable measures of sustained existence. Not only is there no scientific proof but there also does not seem to be  sufficient religious proof for such a doctrine which is largely based in a ‘strong belief in the imperceptable’. (Sadr & Mutahhery) Such beliefs also attributes a superhuman role to the Imam which seems contradictory to the assertions made by the Shii’i imams to negate the extremist ghulat beliefs which were characterized as untrue and misplaced. Given the dissent and division within the Shi’te community after the death of each imam, clearly the delegation of authority nass cannot be proved easily. It also has to be said that bare a handful, no humans seem to have humanly know him. Infact “until after his father’s death, the news about his birth and existence was not publicized”. (Moderssi )

The prophetic traditions which assert the succession of twelve caliphs and the traditions from the Shi’te Imams themseves regarding this subject can be said to be of ‘questionable authenticity’. (Kohlberg)  Such traditions as are presented to justify the Occultation had “never attracted the attention of the Shi’ite community” until after 295/908 to provide a background as evidence to ground these assertions. (Modaressi )Apparently the concept of the Mahdi was essentially a non-Imamite concept and had existed even before Islam as the saviour who will fill the earth with equity and justice. It has also been recounted that by the year 940 around the time of the Twelfth Imam’s occultation many shi’i were in a state of ‘confusion’ and ‘fierce doubt’. (Moderessi)

The Shi’ites themselves claim that the concept of the Mahdi is  ‘an abstract idea’ of an unknown saviour in the distant  future which was given a concrete shape by Islam.  because the Mahdi is already present and waiting for suitable time and circumstances for his arrival to beginhis great mission. (Sadr & Mutahhery) The question also come up then why did the majority of other imams carry a disdain for  taking up  political roles, even at times when conditions were favorable and people were unjustly oppressed and needed saviours.

The multifarious indications of the arrival of the Twelfth Imam (Mufid ) seem to be manifestly human constructs that seem extremely time specific and constrained by the circumstances of the the early Islamic period and many of which do not seem realistic in a universalistic sense in today’s world for instance. This could be a reflection of the fact that they were construed by the human mind and were not not divinely sanctioned indications.

The Argument for The Doctrine of Occultation:

The basic justification for the  ghayba  is that  mankind cannot remain without a guide. Belief in ghayba is based on Quranic concepts and precedents of the prophet as interpreted by Shi’i traditions.  The concept of the Mahdi finds resonance in the Quranic concept of the muamarun( those whose life has been prolonged by God) . The significane of the number twelve and the idea of ghayba are early motifs in islamic history and therefore the notion of ghayba was achieved throught the reinterpretation of already existing materials. (Kohlberg) The notion of twelve successors to the Prophet existed long before the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in the prophetic traditions and was widely accepted and known before the beginning of the ghayba so that “no one can … claim that the statement was in any way authored by the Imamites in the post-Occultation period.” (Modaressi) “Even the belief in two concealments did not originate with the Ithna’ashariyya, and the traditions of ghayba of Abraham and Muhammad to fend persecution can serve as religious historical precendents for the ghayba of the Twelfth Imam. (Kohlberg)

Futhermore at the time of the beginning of the Occultation the Abbasid persecution had become intolerable which nessitated the ghayba. It was a responsiblity that the Twelfth Imam has undertaken and “he was in hiding because he feared that  he would be captured and killed”. (Modaressi) The persecution of all the Shi’a imams had been so severe that even the names of the Imams were forbidden  to pronounce and were even unknown to many.(Kohlberg) In such a situation it seems logical that the final Imam retreat  within God’s protection.

The issue of the unnatural longetivity of the ghayba can also be seen as a miracle. Miracles are attested to in all scriptures and accepted by all religions. As can be seen through them that natural law was suspended for Abraham when the Nimrod’s fire turned cold. The case of Noah who lived for 950 years to guide his people, the sea was parted for Moses and the instance of Mairaaj in Quran seem incomprehensive in the logical and rational sense but are accepted today as facts.  (Sadr & Mutahhery) In the same way one can make a case for the validity of the ghayba as a phenomenon that is ‘understood best by God’.

‘A Religion of Protest’

Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest’ is Professor Hamid Dabashi’s latest book which was published recently and presents unusual insights into Shi’ism’.  The New York Times carried a review of the book here.


According to the Professor Dabashi, Shi’ism is not so much a sect or minority tradition of Islam as it is ‘a state of mind’. This is so because Shi’ism has ‘always defined itself in opposition to the mainstream discourse’ in Islam. Once in a while every other Sunni Muslim can be in such a state of mind, he believes. In a very quotidian way, he describes Shi’ism as being dominated either by ‘very old men sitting in their mosques or very young revolutionaries, fighting wars’. This binary argument can be projected onto his descriptions in his book of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Iraqi firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, as “two Shi’is at the two opposing but complementary ends of their faith, defending their cause and sustaining the historical fate of their community in two diametrically parallel but rhetorically divergent ways”.

Among other unusual observations he asserts that, “The more volatile, unstable, and impulsive the charismatic outbursts of revolutionary movements in Shi’ism have been throughout its medieval and modern history, because of its traumatic origin, the more precise the exactitude of the Shi’i law has sought to regulate, to the minutest details, the affairs of Shi’i believers—from their rituals of bodily purity to the dramaturgical particulars of their communal gatherings, to their political suspicions of anyone’s claim to legitimate authority”.

One of the most interesting discussion in the book is that of Professor Dabashi’s use of a Freudian notion of the ‘Death of the Father syndrome’ that characterizes the Jews and results in a ‘delayed obedience’ on their part through the adoption of systematic rituals. He posits this as an analogy with his idea of the ‘Death of the Son’ concept where in the wake of Karbala tragedy, Shi’ism becomes characterized with a ‘delayed defiance’  being ‘overcome with the guilt of not helping Hussain ( the Third Shi’i Imam)’ which causes it to always ‘say no’ and protest.  He believes that the Shi’i proclivity to denunciate everything has be completely historicized in this sense.

Below is an introductary video of Professor Dabashi speaking about this book.


Critques of Shi’ism and Mutazalism

Week 4 (A) Write a critique of the Twelver Shi’i concept of the Imamate from a Mutazili perspective.

According to the Mutazalli precepts the primacy of reason over revelation does not make it possible to easily accept the concept of an infallible Imam appointed through divine sanction. The fact is that inspite of their emphasis on the contrary, the Shi’i themselves rely excessively on reason. Shi’i scholars incessantly implore people towards ‘intellectual evaluation’ which  however they feel would lead them towards the same conclusion that is presented by the infalliable imams. (Shobani) The qualifications that are presented for the necessity of Imams is that they must assist people towards that ‘to which their reasons guide them’. (Hilli )

If the Imam’s are those who have ‘supreme leadership over affairs of religion and mundane life’ ( Modaressi) and are sent to ‘give proofs’, ‘protect’ and ‘guide’ men at all times (Hilli), then they are essentially making the decisions for people or at the very least manifestly influencing them. Eventually then the Imam’s are responsible for all human behavior, a notion which undermines the concept of free will. If the human being is so dependent on the will of the Imam than there is really no space for him to act independently. Furthermore the concept of divine justice can never be actualized if man is not held accountable for his deeds. The notion of the intercession of the Imams is problematic in this sense that if man commits evil deeds but believes that he will not be held responsible for his actions because of the intercession of the Imams. This could easily become the basis of anarchy in a society.

 (B) Write a critique of Mutazilism from a Twelver Shi’i perspective.

One of the biggest contention between Shi’ism and Mutazalism was over the concept of  Imamate. Mutazallism does not believe in infalliability and necessity of the Imams. There is also a significant disagreement on the intercession of the Imams which is directly related to the  concept of waid or unconditional punishment of God.

Mutazalism does not believe in the necessity of the Imam or the fact that Imamate comes from divine appointment . From the Shi’i perspective human beings are always in need of a leader and an organized society needs a  guide to avoid disorder and chaos. Since Islam is a religion predominantly concerned with social life it needs a leader who can navigate throught the pitfalls of society. (Tabatabai) Imamate is directly derived from the Prophet-hood and  is ‘a universal authority in the things of religion’. Imamate is an incumbent kindness (lutf) and is described as that ‘which brings the creature near to obedience and keeps him far from disobedience’, an idea that is fully realized only by the concept of Imamate.  In this sense the Imams are also a proof of God on earth (hujja ) and without them the earth will perish and descend into chaos. (Hilli)

The Mutazali believe that the appointment of imam is possible from within a community through the concensus of the Ummah and believe that it can be ascertained by reason and election (ikhtiyar).  However the Shi’i believe that consensus is not a ‘convincing proof’ and because of ‘the possibility of error in every individual of them, and so in all of them’.  The Prophet has said: “After me this people will act some by the Book and some by Hadith and some by Analogy, and whenever they do thus then they have gone astray and let astray.” Thus nothing remains to be the guardian of the law except the Imam. (Hilli)

 According to the Shi’i there is sufficient traditions and texts available from the prophet’s life and the Quran to determine who can be Imam and successor, and none of these indicate it as a human decision. So therefore for the Shi’i the Imams have to be designated through divine appointment (nass). The Shi’i therefore seek to understand religion not through reason but through revelation and prophecy, unlike the Mutazalite. (Tabatabai)  Contrary to Mutazalite belief, the Shi’i Imams can be visible, known or  hidden, protected and eventually ‘it is not possible for us, nor for any believer, to choose an Imam by rational thought and choice. (Calder)

Since infalliability and immunity to sin (isma) is one of the salient aspects of Imamate and is a matter which no one perceives but God himself. Imamate is a succession (khilâfa) from God and His Messenger, and it cannot be acquired except by the word of them both.  Immunity to sin is ‘a hidden kindness which God Most High shows’. Also by establishing the Imamate by acknowledging any human who is fallible as an imam and by his claim to it total authority would result in conflict (fitna). (Hilli ) The Imams are persons without attachment to the world and do not seeks worldly gains.  This cannot be said of the ordinary people who  according to Mutazali thought can fit into such a criterion.

Mutazalites do not believe in bodily ressurection, but if there was no return in the hereafter then the challenges of human existence would become meaningless and infact God would be seen as unjust.  This can be explained throught the concept of taklif which can be seen as ‘an obligation on rational adults’ and a  ‘labor which requires a compensation’ and any labor without re-compensation could be equated with injustice. (Hilli) If bodily resurrection does not happen then man cannot be given his due share for the period of taklif (his life) and this would be great injustice on the part of God, which is an impossibility since God is just. Man clearly possesses an inner spiritual life and the Quran affirms the ‘existence of another life and another spirit’. (Tabatabai)

Shi’i Iraq Asserts it’s Agency

The assertion of the identity of a predominantly Shi’i Iraq has a significant bearing on the way Shi’ism evolves in the recent times. This article aptly highlights some of the important aspects of the current dynamics in Iraq.


The controversey surrounding the current regime in Iraq is unwittingly intertwined with the narrative of Shi’i faith because ‘Baghdad is now officially Shiite’. According to the popular discourse on Iraq, after decades of persecution, ‘now it was the Shiites  turn to rule, and they didn’t want to share’. It has also been noted that the ‘Iraqi Shiites aren’t shy about showing off their newfound power’ by asserting their agency, a fact which is clearly not sitting well with the occupying powers which saw Iraq as a prize which was supposed to submissively fall into line with their goals for the region.It is significant to note  the underlying justification that is given for  the continued US or Western interference  and influence on the situation in Iraq. As outlined in this article, the United States needs to maintain its influence in Iraq because, ‘it is a major source of energy reserves, it’s critical to the security of the southern Gulf, and it has an actual impact on the U.S. economy’.  

Another article also notes how the assertion of Shi’i agency and the path of independence being followed by the current Prime Minister is ‘unacceptable’.


Given this context it becomes understandable when Senior members in the Obama administration, like Biden and Clinton, assert that Baghdad must be ‘forced into submission’. While the motivation for this line of action is professedly clear, what is extremely disturbing however are the strategies that Washington is using which  seek to weaken the Maliki government by ‘encouraging the division of Iraq along sectarian/ethnic lines’ and ‘exaggerating differences among Iraqis’ . Since the US is officially not deployed in Iraq other  forces  ‘aligned with Washington have campaigned fiercely to incite sectarian and ethnic conflict’. This approach is further advanced by pushing neighboring countries like Turkey to become actively involved in Iraq and to exercise pressure on the Iraqi government through political ‘intimidation’, a move that may well be underway.


Week 3- Doctrinal Implications of Divine Justice

Prompt Week 3 -Provide a clear and cogent summary of the Shi’i-Mut’azili Tenet of Divine Justice. What are it’s primary doctrinal implications? What would be the most problematic consequences of this conception of a rationally just deity?

At the very onset it can be said that Shiism and Mutazalism cannot be conflated with each other (Madelung), but they do seem to have significant resonance on common concerns . There is clearly a longterm impact of Mutazalite thought on Shia theology which seems to have evolved towards the conclusion that the fundamentals of religion are to be derived from reason alone. There are fuzzy boundaries between divergent strains within Shi’ism with regards to the Mutazali influence where Usuli Shiism in  more  in resonance with Mutazli that the Akbari school and the Baghdad Mutazalite school, which was less radical , was more in agreement  with the Shii values.

In term of Divine Justice the Shi’i outlook is not a radical departure from Mutazalite views but  there is a significantdisagreement on the intercession of the Imams, the position of waid or unconditional punishment of God. In the Mutazalite view justice and goodness exist as universal values are independent of God, as opposed to the theistic subjectivism view. So God cannot do evil even if he tries, because justice is inherent in his essence (Hourani). The Mutazalites, as  rationalizing philosphers theologians,  exalted reason and valued reason as a source of true knowledge. Mutazalism also believes in free will and does not accept the concept that all acts are predetermined.  

In this sense Shi’ism holds an intermediate position between Mutazalism and Sunni traditionalist doctrine. (Behisti & Bahonar)  Shi’ism, following Imamic traditions, also upholds that  justice begins with the assertion of one’s agency or exercise of will. However in Shiism there is no ultimate pre-destination or absolute human discretion. There is some sense of relativism in the argument about pre-determinism and the truth seems to lie between the two extremes. Human beings are responsible for their actions but free will has its limitations. Some Shi’i Mutazalites explained this as the acts of men being created by God (makhluqa), which  qualifies this act of creation as pre-estimation or fore-knowledge ,but not as production (takwin). (Madelung.) In a paradoxical way then God has ordained free will for man. Whenever man wills an action , Divine power brings into effect its punishment. Man determines his destiny by his own decisions. (Shobani )

Everything in this universe is a necessary existant and there is a  causal connection between rationality and justice, in Shi’ism. Given this human beings have a purpose in this world as rationl beings (mukallaf) to respond to God by worshipping him. The actions which proceed from humans, all take place by their own power and choice. In other words ‘he is not forced to act as he does, but he can act and he can refrain from acting’. (Hilli) If humans have no power over their own actions, then God would be ‘the most unjust of unjust beings’ because he would be willing these actions and setting human beings up for failure. However the Quran states that there is no possibility of injustice by God because God is just , justice is a divine attribute. (Sobhani)

In the Mutazallite view then God is seen as a rational being that imparts justice (Caspar) According to them all things exist according to an ‘objective moral order’, so that good and evil were intrinsic to all things. Believers are judged by their own faith and action which are independent of God’s will. Some Mutazalites have even gone as far as to say that It is better for humans to reach heaven by their own efforts rather than with God’s help. The problem with divine justice theory is that it  limits Gods power and agency over man.  Furthermore by imposing free will upon man, God is forcing humanity to be free.  In a way the free man, completely responsible for his actions, becomes set up as a creator or a rival of God. (Hourani) Obviously then God’s authority becomes constrained and its existence comes into question. This position intrinsically negates God’s omnipotence, and it also seems to ascribe to God the constraints of man which brings it into a direct opposition to the traditionally accepted concept of Tanzih, which proclaims that Allah is free of all defects and failures.