A Controversial Interpretation of the Killing of ‘Husayn ibn Ali: Salihi Najafabadi and His Critics

November 13, 2012


The Karbala narrative is a systematic reconstruction of the tragic battle that took place in the year 680 AD. Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, along with most of his followers, was killed in what has become a central identifying feature of early Islamic history.  The central theme of the Karbala narrative revolves around the historically recurring conflict between the forces of oppression and falsehood pitted against the forces of honor, dignity and valor. In addition to being understood as accepting martyrdom as a sign of courageous obedience to the divine will, Islamic tradition holds that it was only by the sacrifice of Husayn on the battle that the Muslims could have been shocked out of their spiritual sleep and Islam could be saved. One could dispute this perspective.

The traditional narrative of the killing of Husayn can be summarized as follows:

“Although the caliph Mu`awiyya was strongly anti-`Alid, he would not force Imam Husain, the third Shi`ite Imam, to publicly      pledge allegiance to the caliphate. This was to change in 60 AH with Mu`awiyya’s death and the accession of his son, Yazid, to the caliphate. Yazid (traditionally depicted as sharing all of his father’s negative characteristics with none of his positive qualities of common sense and an adherence to at least a public recognition of Islamic principles) arrogantly tried to force Imam Husain to publicly recognize him as caliph. This the Imam could not accept, and so he fled from Mecca to Medina. He was invited by the people of Kufa, a Muslim garrison town in Iraq, to launch a rising against the caliph. The Kufans, we are expected to remember, had been allies of `Ali and of Imam Husain’s older brother, Hasan, the second Shi`ite Imam, and had shown themselves to be completely unreliable, regularly leaving the `Alid cause in the lurch. Imam Husain went along with this, although he privately knew that a rising against such a powerful institution with such useless allies was hopeless. Rather, his strategy was to accept such a horrifying martyrdom upon himself and his family, seeds of the Prophet of Islam, at the hands of the Ummayids, that this dynasty would be disgraced for all time and the people would be shocked out of their terror and awakened from their apathy to ultimately rise against the usurpers.” (The Politics of Shahid Jevi, Rainer Brunner and Werner Ende(ed.), The Twelver Shia in Modern Times, vol. 72 of the Social, Economic, and Political studies of the Middle East and Asia (Leiden, etc., : Brill, 2001))

One controversial interpretation that goes against this common narrative was proposed by a religious scholar, Salihi Najafabadi, who studied with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1960’s. In 1968, Najafabadi wrote a book entitled Shahid-I Javid (in Farsi) that was published in Qum, Iran. Najafabadi, born 1923/24 in Najafbad, Iran (within the province of Isfahan) was a relatively unknown cleric until views on the death of Husayn were published which challenged this conventional understanding. His argument about the Karbala narrative revolved around two key points. First, Najafabadi argued that Husayn ibn Ali had the intention of overthrowing Yazid, as he was widely perceived as being a corrupt leader whose toppling was religiously mandated. Second, he argued that Husayn did not have prior knowledge that he would be killed on the fields of Karbala. Because Husayn did not succeed at putting an end to the Umayyad Dynasty, Najafabadi argued that Husayn’s revolution was a failure. Far from being merely to expose the failure of the Umayyads as corrupt and incompetent, Husayn’s objective according to Najafabadi was to implement necessary reforms in the religious governing body at the time and to take control of political leadership. Najafabadi even went as far as to argue that the long-term effects of the massacre that Yazid perpetrated against the forces of Husayn were negative, primarily because the Umayyads were not militarily weakened by the massacre. Najafabadi further claimed that, contrary to conventional wisdom about the Karbala narrative, Husayn did not have prior knowledge about his impending death. To be sure, this claim was precisely the claim made by Sheik al-Tusi, a prominent Shi’i jurist from the eleventh-century. Moreover, according to Najafabadi, the traditional account of Husayn’s martyrdom necame “only good for making people weep. It was supernatural, presenting no model for believers to follow.” As opposed to this, author is keen to demonstrate that Imam Husain’s rising was actually a military struggle for the caliphate which indeed stood a good chance of succeeding.

After its publication, the book was met with intense opposition from the conservative clergymen in QumHowever, one notable exception to this scholarly opposition came from the well known cleric, Hosain `Ali Montazeri, a prominent ally of the exiled Ayatollah Khomaini. The disagreement with the substance of the arguments advanced by Najafabadi were so heated that they led to violence; some of Muntazir’s followers murdered some of the clerics who had criticized Najafabadi!

One important response to Najafabadi’s argument were written by Lutf Allah Safi Gulpaygani, entitled Shahid-I agah. The title of book, translated as “The Martry Who Was Aware”, was an immediate response to the claim Najafabadi made that Husayn did not have foreknowledge of his death. Gulpaygani engaged in a point by point refutation of the work made by Najafabadi. He rejected the notion that Husayn was rebelling against a corrupt state to establish an Islamic state, instead arguing that Husayn would have only pursued such a goal under favorable circumstances, which the era of the Ummayad’s did not provide. (Aghaie, 162). Gulpaygani also rejected the notion that Husayn had waged a defense battle to save his and his family, and instead asserted that Husayn would have never surrendered and made peace with Yazid to prevent an impending military defiant (which Najafabadi claims. Indeed, in Shahid-e Javid, Salehi-Najafabad takes pains to depict the Imam as a reluctant warrior and his struggle as a defensive one.). Gulypaygani also heavily criticized Najafabadi for his controversial contention that Husayn’s campaign against Yazid as an utter failure, reaping more negative than positive results.

One author who defended Najafabadi’s critique is the well-known Iranian revolutionary intellectual and sociologist, Ali Shariati. In his book, Hosain, Adam’s Heir, although Shariati seems to offer a critique of Najafabadi’s argument, he nonetheless praises him for his extensive research and analytically argumentation that goes beyond the traditional lamentation of mainstream works on the martyrdom of Husayn. `Ali Shari`ati responded to Shahid-e Javid by solidarizing with the author’s open-mindedness and his vision of a proactive Imam Husain, but when it came down to the details, he found the traditional picture more politically useful. Indeed, argues, in response to Najafabadi:
Some have doubts about the effects of Husain’s martyrdom! They call it a failed uprising!
… Amazing! What jihad, what war was so victorious that the scope of its victory on the level of society, on depths of thought and feeling, and throughout the ages of history could be so widespread and deep and fruitful? (Siegal).

Shariati described the matrydom of Husayn in rather unorthodox terms. He argued that the religion of Islam had come as a revolution against a conservative tribal order that existed in Pagan Arabia.(Aghaie, 167). According to Shariati, there was once upon a time a divide order, which had existed before the descent of Prophet Adam to Earth. The division of humanity into good (the original nature of humankind) and evil was the product of the Cain, son of Adam, shedding the blood of his own brother, Abel. For Shariati, Cain’s killing of Abel led to the onset of corruption and social ill destabilizing the traditionally pure and pristince social order of God that existed before then. (Aghaie, 168). According to Shariati, Husayn’s actions were in the spirit of Adam, an attempt to bring back the old social order of God in which corruption would be rendered unable to rule. In pursuit of this reasoning, Sharitati further claims that although Husayn’s battle should have been a full-blown jihad, the fact that he did not posses the resources or manpower to successfully wage a jihad mean that Husayn’s only option was to chose shahada (martyrdom). Thus, Shariatia believed that it was incumbent upon Husayn to proceed with is plan against Yazid even though he knew that in the process of rebelling he would be killed. Thus, Shariati strongly disagreed with Najafabadi’s claim that Husayn lacked foreknowledge of his own matrydom. (Aghaie, 168-69).

Shariati, however, also had areas of agreement with Najafabadi. Indeed, one area in which Shariati and Najafabadi disagreed with the mainstream understanding of Husayn’s death was the implications one should derive from learning about the martyrdom of the Imam and his family. For Shariati, the Umayyad rulers had essentially been able to secure obedient religious scholars of their period and use them to become subservient to their rule. These scholars, including some of the Shi’i school of thought, began to interpret Islamic rules on rebellion and fitna as prohibiting any recourse to genuine jihad, and instead focused seemingly obsessively on the minute details of ritual worship. Significant controversy would develop among religious scholars over these details of ritual worship, that in the first place should have never led to such intensive engagement. Many of these scholars who were granted positions of power in government also went on to promote the notion that Islamic law demands an unwavering duty to obey political rulers, become passive in the face of corruption, and force Muslims to focus excessively on religious rituals at the expense of social justice and equality. In sum, Shariati argued that these scholars had legitimized the despotism and oppressive regimes of the likes of Umayyads.

It is here where Shariati finds console in what Najafabadi argued. Shariati believed that the attribution Najafabadi gave to Husayn’s movement did more justice to his matrydom than other narratives, particularly the mainstream understanding of ashura. This was because Shariati had interpreted Najafabadi’s understanding of Husayn’s killing as a call for political action, and that the historical movement of Husayn did not end with his killing. Thus, far from the passivity of those who wail and mourn, Shariati praised Najafabadi’s understanding of Husayn as a call for activism. Interestingly, Murtatha Mutahhari, the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, also adopts this pro-revolutionary interpretation of Ashoura in his widely distributed public lectures under the title of Hamasef-I Husayni (The Epic of Husayn).

Sources: Kamran Aghaie, The Karbala Narrative: Shi’I Political Discourse in Modern Iran in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Journal of Islamic Studies (2001) (151-176)
Evan Siegel, The Politics of Shahid Jevi, Rainer Brunner and Werner Ende(ed.), The Twelver Shia in Modern Times, vol. 72 of the Social, Economic, and Political studies of the Middle East and Asia (Leiden, etc., : Brill, 2001))


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