Husayn, Shariati and Fanon

Compare and contrast the “classical” narrative of Imam Husayn at Karbala with Ali Shariati’s narrative. How do you account for the differences? Obviously a good answer makes reference to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (2005).

In the earlier narratives of Karbala the primary focus was the idea of redemption in mourning the suffering of Husayn. Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala was seen as the fulfillment of the broader prophetic mission and connected to the persecution of previous prophets. In Vaiz Kashefi’s text circa 1502 the prominent figures of Karbala were not a symbolic set of political role models but religious ideals to be remembered and commemorated. The idea of Husayn rebelling against injustice and oppressive rulers was manifestly absent in these texts. This was seen as the responsibility of the last imam, the Mahdi, to avenge the death of Husayn. In these Safavid texts the mains villains in the Karbala narratives were the Sunnis, as they were also in the actual Safavid political context.

However just because did not inform the earlier Safavid narratives did not have agentative connotations does not imply that they did not exist as a  significant part of the story of Karbala elsewhere. The Abbasids and the Zaydis had both appropriated the Karbala symbols for their own campaigns.  It can be said then that such opinions are best understood by the political contexts that they are used in. These early texts did not contest the legitimacy of the ruling elite and instead focused on idealizing  ‘patience and perseverance instead of action ‘ perhaps because the authors themselves were part of the ruling elite who were wanted to maintain a status quo or were trying to appease their rulers. Conversely in 1960 Najafabadi’s revision of the Karbala narrative and his opponents like Gulpaygani gave it political agency by ridding it of the ‘symbolically static interpretations’ in order to oppose the Shah’s regime. In this sense the Karbala narrative was appropriated for  political motives.

Such politicization of the Karbala narrative took place manifestly during the Pahlavi regime, when Husayn was inscribed with a political agency. The oppositional political discourse presented by the Karbala Paradigm as ‘a historic rebellion against corrupt leadership’ worked well for the dissidents who recast themselves as the suffering martyrs of Karbala while the Shah became the personification of Yazid or Muawiyyah. The meta-narrative of Karbala which informed and influenced social and political discourse was revised from the dual opposition of pious and loyal Shia followers vs the disloyal followers and evil Sunni forces to become an opposition between just Muslims and unjust Empire. It is significant to note that this reinterpretation of the Karbala narrative in revolutionary terms met with resistance from the orthodox clergy who labeled it as ‘heresy’ and ‘refuted’ their arguments.

It was in this context that Shariati’s unorthodox revolutionary interpretations of Shi’ism which used the symbolism of Karbala to condemn the Shah’s regime was rejected by the ulema. For Shariati(20005)  the most important dimension in Islam was political and he sought to transform Islam into an ideology in order to galvanize the revolutionaries of his time. All the while he highlighted the centrality of Karbala, saying that  ‘Every place should be turned into Karbala, every month into Moharram and everyday into Ashura’. Islam was seen as a struggle against the conservative tribal social order and he traces the origins of revolution back to the Prophets. In his narrative the revolution against conservatism that was initiated by Prophet Mohammad was in danger and Husayn’s sacrifice ultimately showed the world the right path. But Shariati lamented the loss of the revolutionary spirit saying that Islam has changed from a revolutionary movement that was opposed to aristocracy, class, tribe, race, despotism, and exploitation …. into ‘the opiate of the masses’, so much so that Islam was used to legitimize the wrongdoings of the elite.

Shariati entertwined the Karbala rhetoric with revolutionary context and foregrounded the notions of shahadat and jihad in this narrative saying, “Husayn introduces shahadat as a principle above jihad and a duty when jihad is not a feasible alternative”. He attributed Husayn’s martyrdom not to any weakness but rather to dignity under oppression. In this sense his views resonate with those of Fanon who spoke of the oppression of the colonized people  as ‘not a lack of heroism but a fundamentally different international situation’ which they faced with dignity. According to Fanon,  ‘They fought as best with the weapons they possessed at the time’.

Furthermore Shariati combined the symbolism of jihad, uprising and martyrdom with the notions of  liberation of the masses of humanity, universal class struggles and anti-imperialist rhetoric to make the Karbala narrative more actionable. But immersing religion within such ideological contexts can be seen as problematic.  No ideology is universal for all times and when an ideology fails it has the potential to taint the religion along with it. This can be understood to some extent in the light of Fanon’s arguments.

Fanon seems to believe that rather than there being a universal goal for all to attain, all generations have their own distinct narratives which they must interpret according to the demands of their times, when he says that ‘Every generation must find its mission, fulfill it or betray it’. In this sense theKarbalanarrative was seen as a mission which was to be fulfilled or betrayed depending on the agency of the followers. However when the Shah was finally overthrown and the mission ‘fulfilled’ it did not lead to any permanent fulfillment but rather to further disillusionment for the followers of Shariati and such.


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