Long term effects of the events of Karbala, and Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a) [Lecture 8]

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Hamid Algar

Rajab 15, 1422 2001-10-02

Occasional Paper

by Hamid Algar


-A Look at various rituals for the remembrance of Imam Husain [AS] - Ziyarah, Ta'ziyah, elegaic poetry.

-A look at the appearence of the movement of the Tawwabun (Penitents) after the death of Imam Husain [AS]

-A look at the movement of Mukhtar Thaqafi

-A look at the activities of the Fourth Imam - Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS]

-A look at the movement of Zaid ibn Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS]

Rituals of Remembrance of Imam Husain [AS]

In the year 61 AH, 680 AD the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS], grandson of the Prophet [sAW] and the third among the Imams [AS], took place. It was plain from the narrative elements that this was an extremely tragic event. In part it is the extremity of the atrocious death to which Imam Husain [AS], his companions and relatives were subjected that has anchored Karbala and the memory of Imam Husain [AS] in the Shi’i consciousness. Of course from one point of view it might be said that all of the Imams insofar as they had the quality of Imam are equal and no distinction is to be made among them, in the same way that the Quran tells us that an article of Islamic belief is not to make distinction among any of the messengers – to accept all of them with respect to their quality of Prophethood – not to affirm for one and deny for the other. So analogously there is a similar equality among the Imams however there is no denying that in the historical and religious consciousness of Shi’i Muslims Imam Husain [AS] occupies an extremely high place second only possibly to that of his father Imam Ali [AS]. There are of course historical reasons for this – not simply the narrative details. Firstly it may be pointed out that Imam Ali [AS] had been martyred while in prayer, but the group to which his assassin belonged was a relatively marginal one, the Kharijites. Imam Hassan [AS] had abdicated and although it would be reasonable to presume that he was martyred – this martyrdom did not take place on the open field of battle. Imam Husain’s [AS] case is different in that he was martyred clearly and obviously on the field of battle and the agent of his martyrdom was the nascent Umayyad caliphate which had usurped the caliphate but nonetheless had gained at least passive acquiescence of the majority of the Muslim community. One can say that this point of view among many others – Karbala was a turning point. The devotees of the Imam [AS] without becoming separated from the main Muslim community began to acquire a distinctive identity within the Muslim community as those who rejected the legitimacy of the existing caliphate and continued to pledge their loyalty to the Imams from the lineage of the Prophet [sAW].


It has been said that Shi’ism was born on the plain of Karbala, this is however is a gross over simplification. It has been demonstrated that at least the essential elements of Shi’ism were present very much earlier – it could be argued even in the time of the Prophet [sAW] given the particular relationship of closeness that existed between Imam Ali [AS] and the Prophet [sAW] and the indications given of his Imamate by the Prophet [sAW], the fact that number of men gathered around him (Imam Ali [AS]) even during the lifetime of the Prophet [sAW]. Apart from the clear indications of essential doctrines given by Imam Ali [AS], and later by Imam Hassan [AS] and later by Imam Husain [AS]. One of the effects of Karbala however was to make a line of distinction clearer, the Shi’ah now become a group within the community bound together by loyalty to the lineage of the Imams. The remembrance of Imam Husain [AS] has of course held an extremely important part in Shi’ah religiosity, the beginnings of this commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS] take place very soon after his martyrdom. The survivors of the massacre were taken to Damascus and then sent out from there to Madinah are known to have engaged in rituals of mourning and commemoration. Likewise at the very site of Karbala not before too long men would gather in order to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS]. Before long a whole series of distinctive rituals for the commemoration of Imam Husain [AS] came into being. These can be reviewed under the following headings –firstly, ziyarah – which literally means visiting but in this particular context – pilgrimage. Ziyarah although translated to pilgrimage, is not necessarily a journey from one place to another it is in its essence an orientation of the one undertaking the Ziyarah to the personage to whom he pledges his loyalty. It can therefore is a sense be undertaken from a distance. With respect to the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS] and the ziyarah in Karbala there are a large number of traditions emphasising its particular virtures. One even attributes some foreknowledge of his martyrdom and of the merit of making pilgrimage to his place of martyrdom to the Prophet [sAW] himself. It is said that Imam Husain [AS] said to the Prophet [sAW],

‘O father (Imam Husain [AS] addresses the Prophet [sAW] as father although of course he was from a more literal point of view his grandfather) what shall be the reward of those who visit our graves?’

To this the Prophet [sAW] is said to have replied:-

‘Men and women from my community will make the pilgrimage to your grave, it will then be incumbent upon me to seek them out on the day of resurrection and to save them from the fear of that day, as a consequence of their transgressions, and Allah [sWT] will cause them to dwell in paradise.’

In this hadith and in many more similar to it one consequence of ziyarah to Karbala is held out as the intercession of the Prophet [sAW] in the hereafter and deliverance from fear and deliverance from punishment from sin and the reward of paradise. Most of the hadith relating to the merits and the reward for ziyarah come from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] the sixth of the Imams. This is in itself not surprising in that we have by far a larger number of hadith from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] on virtually any topic than from any other of the Imams [AS] – but still given the circumstances of the age in which Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] exercised his Imamate, this may be some particular significance to his very numerous hadith emphasising the merit of making pilgrimage, especially to Karbala and to Imam Husain [AS]. This was a period in which the appeal of Shi’ism despite continuous oppression by the Umayyads was on the rise and it is known that for example, that in order to discourage those that who in small clandestine groups made their way to Karbala – the Umayyads would post garrisons along the main roads leading in that direction so that the act of ziyarah was one that was fraught with danger. And precisely in order to emphasise the virtue of performing the ziyarah under these dangerous circumstances Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] put forward a large number of hadith emphasising the importance of the ziyarah.

The ziyarah is not necessarily even not in its essence a journey undertaken from one place to another and it seems that at least from the time of the 5th Imam [AS], Muhammad al-Baqir [AS] the recommendation was made that those unable for whatever reason to undertake the journey to Karbala should do it by intention. In other words from a distance, and sometimes here the precise details are given, the individual wishing to perform ziyarah should go onto the roof of his dwelling – orient himself towards Karbala, and engage in an intentional ziyarah. The essence of the ziyarah whether performed in the immediate proximity of the shrine of Imam Husain [AS] in Karbala or from a distance is the recitation of a particular text, and in fact so close is the relationship between the text that is to be recited and the visitation of pilgrimage itself – that both are designated by the same word ziyarah. Ziyarah is then both the act of pilgrimage whether from far or near, and it is also the text that is recited. There are a large number of texts that are recited for each of the Imams [AS] at whatever place of pilgrimage they may be recited. Some of them stem from the Imams [AS] themselves others are of unknown authorship. But central to all of these is the invocation of the particular virtues and attributes of the person from among the Imams [AS] in this instance Imam Husain [AS] who is buried at a particular location and a pledge of loyalty to the Imam in question. One can say that the ziyarah has from a political point of view two essential aspects on the one hand an act of defiance against those who are the heirs to the usurping Umayyads, those who are the enemies of the household of the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS]. One the other hand a continued pledge of loyalty to the Imams [AS] made explicit by a recitation of their qualities and their attributes and a declaration of devotion to them. These two aspects can be summarised tawwalah – comes from the root walaya it means in effect a declaration of loyalty to, and tabarra is the negative counterpart that is foreswearing of loyalty to the enemies of the Ahl al-Bait [AS]. Typically these two key elements come towards the very beginning of a ziyarah that is to say the text recited in the course of a ziyarah. By way of example the following sentences can be read for the ziyarah for the visiting of Imam Husain [AS]:-

‘O God curse him who usurped the rights of Muhammad and the family of Muhammad and his supporters from the first to the last of them. O God curse the group that gathered together for the killing of Husain and pledged allegiance to his enemies to kill him and companions, O God curse them all.’

This is an expression of tabarra, not simply dissociating from the enemies of Ahl al-bait [AS] but invoking God’s curse upon them. If the occurrence of a curse in a devotional text might appear to some of you from a contemporary point of view inappropriate the following should be remembered, firstly that a curse implies not an egregious insult but a wish, or prayer to God that he remove from the proximity of His Mercy and favour those who have offended against Him, against His Messengers, against the followers of His Messengers. This is the essence of cursing and to curse therefore is simply a prayer to Allah [sWT], or really an imprecation – a prayer or supplication to God for harm to come to the object of the imprecation. One might think of curse in this context as an imprecation.

After this expression of tabarra in the ziyarah the pilgrim then goes on by saying:-

‘Peace be upon you O Abu ‘Abd Allah (one of the designations of Imam Husain [AS]) Peace be upon you and the spirits of those who dwell in your spacious house, from me to you is the salutation of God’s peace for as long as I live and day and night follow one another. May God not make this my last Ziyarah to you, peace be upon Husain [AS] and upon Ali [AS] son of Husain [AS] and upon the companions of Husain [AS], and God’s peace, prayers and blessings.’

First there is disassociation from the enemies of Ahl al-Bait [AS], a cursing of them, and then the complementary and more importantly the invocation of peace upon Imam Husain [AS] and the rest of the Ahl al-Bait [AS] and an affirmation of loyalty to them. What is the sense of loyalty, particularly with respect to Imam Husain [AS]? The desire for the vengeance of his death. The most immediate consequence of the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS] on the political plain was precisely the emergence of a group which sought to avenge his death by hunting down and removing his killers and those associated with them. But even after that event which is relatively brief and without successful outcome the theme of vengeance remains. It is part of the devotional attitude towards Imam Husain [AS] by extension the Ahl al-Bait [AS] as a whole, that one who desires vengeance for Imam Husain [AS]. What sense does this have? After all the original killers have departed from this world – they and their immediate descendants. Here one comes to what might be called the meta-historical significance of Imam Husain’s [AS] martyrdom. It has been suggested that from the point of view of Shi’ah religiosity what was underway in Karbala was not simply a conflict between two persons or groups but rather between two principles, between the principle of justice and injustice – legitimacy and usurpation. Therefore once the one who undertakes ziyarah calls for the vengeance of Imam Husain [AS] he no longer has in mind the Umayyads, who have after all long since been disposed of on the capacious garbage heap of history, rather what is in mind is the ultimate triumph of that principle for which Imam Husain [AS] suffered martyrdom i.e. the cause of justice and of legitimacy – this ties in as shall be seen with the question of the 12th Imam [AS], Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS] – one of the functions for his coming shall be in this particular sense to take vengeance for Imam Husain [AS]. But in the relatively short run this desire for avenging Imam Husain [AS] has some very clear political consequences if there is tabarra and tawalla this necessary spills over from the devotional onto the political plane in that those who behave like the Umayyads are seen to be essentially identical with them. And those who rise up against the tyrannical regimes similar to the Umayyads are self-identified with Imam Husain [AS]. On some occasions especially in recent years this has become entirely explicit. In the 19th century history of Iran, we see comparisons being made between the ruling dynasty the Qajar dynasty and the Umayyads. A number of religious leaders of that time invoked this theme very clearly, most explicitly and most affectively this happened in the course of the revolution in Iran of 1978-1979. When the Pahlavis were seen as the heirs to the Umayyads not of course in the genealogical sense, or institutional sense but they incorporated the same principles of usurpation and tyranny as did the Umayyads. At the same time the Islamic movement under the leadership of Imam Khomeini was as it were a manifestation or continuation or even of rebirth of that movement of Imam Husain [AS] that lead to his martyrdom. Most of the significant events of the Islamic revolution took place in the Month of Muharram – which coincided with December 1978, which was the month which broke the Shah’s regime. There were other factors, but this ongoing political significance of Muharram and the commemoration of Muharram has also played an extremely important role. Earlier in the Pahlavi period it seems that the monarchs were aware of the political danger for them of Muharram, of the commemoration of Karbala, and they sought to ban all celebrations of it, even private celebrations.

This phenomenon is not entirely restricted to Iran, the association of contemporary political enemies and oppressors with Yazid and the Umayyads and self-identification with Imam Husain [AS]. In the case of Lebanon also one sees a similar phenomenon taking place in that during the years of the Zionits occupation of south Lebanon – the commemoration of Muharram would definitely include clear references to the Zionists who in there own fashion were identified as heirs to the Umayyads. The struggle against the Zionist occupation also was experienced as a practical contemporary form of the commemoration of Imam Husain [AS] and his martyrdom. Ziyarah is a matter of great importance emphasised from the earliest times but particularly from the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] onwards. Another indication of the contemporary significance, or interpretations of applications made of the understanding of Karbala. During the Iran-Iraq war one of the slogans that was current at the time was that, ‘The path to Jerusalem (under Zionist occupation) lies through Karbala.’ One reason that the war of defence against Iraq was being fought was to open up the road for a decisive confrontation with Zionism. But beyond that obvious geographical factor, implicit in this was also the concept that through a contemporary manifestation on the political and military plain of Imam Husain’s [AS] martyrdom at Karbala, by that means and that means only might the liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine from Zionism be aspired to.

So frequent is the emphasis placed on the value and the merit of ziyarah that sometimes the impression arises outside Shi’ism amongst Sunni Muslims – that ziyarah is either intended as or has become a substitute for the Hajj itself. There are traditions that say that ziyarah to Karbala for example has the merit of the performance of a Hajj or even multiple performances of a Hajj. This however is a different matter to lay emphasis even on what appears to be hyperbolic terms on the merit of the ziyarah, does not make it an equivalent of the Hajj. In other words it does not substitute ziyarah for Hajj as a religious duty. Hajj remains a duty, a fundamental religious obligation irrespective of the number of times one performs the ziyarah. If you take some of these hadith at face value and say, I have now performed the ziyrah to Karbala 10 times and according to the hadith this has the merit of Hajj or even several Hajj’s. This does not relieve one of performing Hajj. These are two different things i.e. merit and legal obligation.

Elegaic Poetry and Ta'ziyah

Apart from ziyarah which is no doubt the foremost mode of commemoration, there are other fashions in which the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS] has been commemorated for example elegiac poetry in all of the languages of Islam especially Arabic and Persian on the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS]. Poetry that was written from the earliest times continuing to the present day. A lot of poetry was written by Sunni authors – while laying emphasis on the obvious that Karbala is a crucial event for the evolution and subsequent practise of Shi’ism – it should not be imagined that in the long run Sunni Islam remained indifferent to what had taken place at Karbala or extended support and sympathy to the Umayyads. In the short run it is true as has been said with some emphasis that there was no widespread revulsion to the murder of Imam Husain [AS] and his companions, in the long run however one can say that condemnation of Yazid and the commemoration of Imam Husain [AS] did become a salient element in much of Sunni spirituality also. This is easy to overlook because there is not much left of traditional Sunni spirituality, what passes for Sunni Islam these days is mostly a modified form of Wahhabism. Part of the devotional culture of all Muslims Sunni and Shi’ah has been in the past the commemoration of Imam Husain [AS], there are relics of this that we see today in turkey on the 10th Muharram it is common for the pious in Turkey to fast, this is a complex matter. The 12th day of Muharram even before the martyrdom of Imam Husain [AS] was associated with all of the key events in sacred history – with the descent of Adam to the earth, Noah disembarking from the Ark, Ibrahim being delivered from the fire and so forth. And also before the month long fast of Ramadhan was mandated, the early Muslims used to fast on the 10th Muharram, the day of Ashura. After the institution of Ramadhan, the fast on Ashura became a voluntary although meritorious matter. Virtually all of the preceding associations of Ashura were completely obscured by the tragedy of Karbala. So that today those few people who observe a voluntary fast on the 10th Muharram in the Sunni world, do so not because of the original significance but because they are in their own way mourning the death of Imam Husain [AS] on that day by fasting. There is a lot of poety in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu written both by Sunnis and by Shi’ahs.

More distinctively Shiah among the modes of commemoration is the practise – a kind of quasi-theatrical practise of Ta’ziyah (primarily but not exclusively in Iran). The word Ta’ziyah has its original significance quite simply as mourning. But the Ta’ziyah has evolved in Iran into being a dramatic performance in which the events of Karbala often of course embroidered with fictitious and non-historical details takes place. All of the principal personages – Imam Husain [AS], his followers, Shimr, Yazid, all of them are played by actors. The origins of this seem to be relatively recent, the earliest recorded literary record dates back to the 18th century i.e. taziyah as a dramatic form of performance does not appear to date earlier than the 18th century. Probably the way that it evolved was that originally storytellers would stand in front of cloths on which were depicted the events of Karbala – i.e. Imam Husain [AS] on horseback, the beheading taking place, all of these events were depicted and to some degree still are depicted in more remote areas of Iran on – in a rather crude fashion on cloths that formed the backdrop for an oral recitation by a storyteller of the events. It seems that that was the transitional stage in the direction of the fully fledged dramatic performance of the Ta’ziyah. Not surprisingly because the Ta’ziyah was never a simple form of dramatic performance in which the audience maintained an emotional distance from what was being portrayed deep emotions would be aroused and to play the role of Shimr was a very dangerous undertaking. The persons playing the Umayyad army would often place themselves in jeopardy by playing these distasteful roles. Ta’ziyah although intrinsically very interesting as one of the few examples of indigenous theatre in the Muslim world, it should not be exaggerated, far more important as a mode of commemoration of Imam Husain [AS] is the ziyarah with all of it’s various forms put forward.

The Movement of the Tawwabun (Penitents)

Imam Husain’s [AS] death inaugurates really a second period in the historical evolution of Shi’ism in the following sense. Firstly that the principle of Shi’ism that is to say a Divinely sanctioned leadership vested in the descendants of the Prophet [sAW] was now firmly established as a doctrine held by one segment of the Muslim community. And as yet also there were no significant disagreements about the identity of the Imam, that is to say who among the descendants of the Prophet [sAW] should be Imam. However this second period was characterised by uncertainty as to the correct path of political action. In other words among the three models of the Imams, which was that which was now relevant? Was it the model of Imam Ali [AS] who had remained patiently on the sidelines although under protest during the caliphate of the first three caliphs was it rather the model of Imam Hassan [AS] who for reasons that have been examined abdicated the caliphate to Mu’awiyah. Or was it the path of Imam Husain [AS] who had risen up against Yazid and suffered martyrdom. There was uncertainty on this point and in fact there remained uncertainty and division for several generations. Part of what happens now during the period of the 4th, 5th and even 6th Imams [AS] is a gradual resolution of this question. Of the question of whether to remain politically quiescent or to rise up in rebellion against the illegitimate power. The essence of the Imamate was not the exercise of political rule although it most definitely includes that. However given the circumstances of the age, given the tyranny and mischief of the Umayyads there was a high degree of impatience among many of the followers of the Imams [AS] which impelled in the direction of immediate insurrectionary activity. The first example of this tendency comes in the year of Imam Husain’s martyrdom the year 61 AH, 618 AD. A group of the Shi’ah of Kufa came together with the intention of avenging the death of Imam Husain [AS] and in the process purifying themselves of the guilt that they felt for failing to support him and to defeat the umayyads. This movement is known as the movement of the ‘Tawwabun’ the ‘penitents’. Tawwab the singular – is an intensive form in Arabic in other words those who repent with great seriousness and earnestness. It is very probable that they took their designation because this is a designation that they chose themselves not one that the historians have awarded to them. It is probable that they chose this designation from Quran (2:122) which says that:-

‘Certainly Allah loves the penitent and he loves those who purify themelves.’ Quran (2:122)

The juxtaposition of these two attributes in the Quran the penitent and those who purify themselves suggest that those who egaged in true penitence purified themselves of there various guilt, of their various sin. And the guilt and sin of which these tawwabun wished to purify themselves was the guilt of having failed to stand by Imam Husain [AS], and for that matter Imam Hassan [AS] and Imam Ali [AS] before him. They were about 100 people in number to begin with and they met in the house in Kufa of Sulayman Khuza’i. They agreed that he should act as their leader. The title that they gave him was ‘Sheikh Shi’ah’ the ‘elder of the Shi’ah’. What is the significance of this? it is one indication among others that now the Shi’ah were taking shape as an organised group within the Muslims community. Shi’ah originally was only the first half of the expression, Shi’ah ‘ali the followers of Imam Ali [AS], the adherents, the partisans of Ali. Now however it occurs in isolation without the specific mention of Imam Ali [AS]. Sheikh Shi’ah – is the head of a group that identifies themselves quite simply as the ‘Shi’ah’ – the partisans, of course originally of Imam Ali [AS] but also of his successors. What is worth noting is that the tawwabun seem to have had some contact with the sole surviving son of Imam Husain [AS] who now becomes the fourth Imamm – Imam Ali Zain al-’Abidin [AS], but he does not authrorise their movement of uprising while not condemning it either. He has chosen the path of quietude and withdrawal from political and social affairs. On the other hand he does not dissuade them and one must reach the conclusion that the movement of the tawwabun although having before it the possibility of the overthrow of the Umayyads was in essence a collective act of purification from sin – the sin of having abandoned Imam Husain [AS] to his fate. There is a speech that was a speech that was given by Sulayman Khuza’i indicating fairly clearly his goals – it is in its contents very similar to the speeches given earlier by Imam Hassan [AS] and Imam Husain [AS] specifying that acting according to the Sunnah and the Qur’an is indissolubly linked to the cause of the ahl al-bait [AS] and it is to this religious position acting according to the Quran and the Sunnah and giving allegiance to the Ahl al-Bait [AS], that the tawwabun invite their followers.

Yazid – under whose auspices Imam Husain [AS] had been martyred, died in the year 64 AH, 683 AD. This appears to open an opportunity for immediate action in other words before the Umayyads had the chance to consolidate their rule after the transition to a new ruler it would have been good to take advantage of the situation. Sulaiman however decided that it would be premature and he concentrated on expanding the scope of the movement gathering more people into it by means of a secret organisation, in this he appears to have been fairly successful and a number of 16,000 is mentioned as having flocked to his banner. The successor of Yazid, Muawiyah II, also passed away after a gratifyingly short reign of 6 months and he was then followed by an old man who was not prepared for the purpose of power Marwan ibn al-Hakam. His rule also was not very lengthy he was killed in the course of a marital dispute by one of his wives who sat on his face. While these domestic misfortunes were assailing the Umayyads tribal disputes broke out among them. The Hijaz was seceded from them and the situation evolved in Kufa to the extent that the Umayyad governor was obliged to leave the city. Now the situation appeared to be propitious at last for an uprising, for a movement on the part of the tawwabun against what was left of an apparently crumbling Umayyad power. However in keeping with a pattern that had already been established many of the tawwabun fell away. And in the end there were only 2000 out of the original 16,000 that followed Sulaiman.

The Movement of Mukhtar Thaqafi

Matters were complicated at this point by the rise of a dissident Shi’i faction headed by Mukhtar Thaqafi. At the same time as the Umayyad house appears to have been crumbling and favourable conditions appeared to be emerging for a Shi’i uprising divisions appeared within the Shi’i movement itself. There are for this various reasons one being the as yet undecided question of whether it was essential for the Imam [AS] to revolt immediately or whether it might be permissible for him to bide his time and follow a pattern of quiescence. The other being Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] the sole surviving son of Imam Husain [AS] he was resident in Madinah and did not have easy and frequent communication with Kufa which was still the main centre, demographically speaking, of the Shi’i movement. Also the principle of legitimacy had not yet been fully refined. In other words there was an agreement among the Shi’ah as a whole, legitimacy was vested in the descendants of the Prophet [sAW] through Imam Ali [AS]. However there were those who believed that offspring of Imam Ali [AS], from wives other than Bibi Fatimah [AS], also had a right to the Imamate. Mukhtar Thaqafi who now comes forward espouses as the Imam – Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah. Muhammad the son of Hanafi woman, Hanafi being a tribal designation. This Muhammad is known as such because of the significance of his mother, in order to emphasise that his mother was not the daughter of the Prophet [sAW] – Fatimah [AS], but rather a wife that Imam Ali [AS] took after the death of Bibi fatimah [AS].

Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah was put forward by Mukhtar as a candidate for the Imamate. Initially Mukhtar sought to merge his movement with that of the Tawwabun. However this was rejected by them because they appeared to have regarded Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin as the legitimate Imam – not Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah – because Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah is not a lineal descendant of the Prophet [sAW] through his daughter Fatimah [AS]. The genealogical connection is only through Imam Ali [AS] who is a cousin of the Prophet [sAW], therefore there is not a direct genealogical descent apart from the fact that Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] was in existence and regarded as the Imam. Of the original 16,000 of the tawwabun only 2000 now remained when having decided to be independent of Mukhtar and his group, Sulaiman lead his followers out into battle in November of 684 AD. The battle that took place was in many ways an echo of Karbala. In other words it was a lengthy battle, at first hand to hand combat between individuals of each of the two armies and then in the final night, the last night before the decisive confrontation, 1000 of the people slipped away. Therefore although the movement had begun with the intention of seeking martyrdom or seeking revenge for the death of Imam Husain [AS], many of those who participated in the movement behaved exactly as those who had betrayed Imam Husain [AS] three years earlier. So in the end an extremely small number met a vast army of the Umayyads, despite the various difficulties of the Umayyads. And they were almost entirely killed. Not before they had caused considerable losses to the Umayyad army also. This was the end of the movement of the Tawwabun, a movement that was primarily religious in its orientation, entertained the possibility of overthrowing the Umayyads – but moved independently of Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] and ultimately gained their goal – at least those who remained with the movement till the end, of martyrdom in battle and thereby redeeming themselves for their earlier failures.

Mukhtar Thaqafi however remained on the scene – who had put forward as his candidate for the Imamate Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah. He tried to shift the loyalty of the Shi’ah away from those who insisted upon the importance of descent not only from Imam Ali [AS], but also from Bibi Fatimah [AS] the daughter of the Prophet [sAW]. It can be said that this movement inaugurated by Mukhtar introduced the first significant breach into the Shi’i community. It is highly probable that more people followed Mukhtar and his candidates, Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah that followed the 4th Imam, Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS]. One of the very remarkable things about the resilience of the Shi’i cause throughout history but particularly during the time of the 12 Imams is that it survived not only minority status, it not only survived persecution of varying degrees of intensity, but also it survived internal crises and disputes. The first of these is really the crisis that is bought about by the claims of Mukhtar on behalf of Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah.

The Activities of the Fourth Imam [AS], Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS]

At the time of the battle of Karbala the 4th Imam [AS] was sick and had for that reason not participated in the battle. But nonetheless was almost killed in the general slaughter that terminated the battle. Together with the surviving womenfolk he was taken from Karbala to Damascus and thence to Madinah. And in Madinah he was to spend the rest of his life. It is clear that he held the Umayyads responsible for the death of his father, in other words this was not the individual sin of Yazid, but it was an inherited responsibility – inherited by the later Umayyads also. He kept his distance from the Umayyads, spending his time almost exclusively in the cultivation of learning and personal piety. In this it is important to remember that although Madinah had lost its political importance, the caliphate had moved out of the Peninsula first out to Kufa, the land of Imam Ali [AS] and to some extent Imam Hassan [AS]. The centre of the caliphate was then established in Damascus in Syria the land of the Umayyads. Madinah had retained its eminence as a centre of learning and piety. It is therefore important that not only Imam Zain al-Abidin [AS] but also his next two successors Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS] and Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS], are resident in Madinah. This means that there they participate in influentially and importantly in the unfolding of Islamic learning that was taking place at the time. It is why it can be spoken about of a radiation of spiritual influence beyond the relatively narrow circle of those who identified themselves as Shi’ah. Specifically with reference with Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS], a number of hadith transmitted by him are to be found in the Sunni books of hadith, aswell as in the Shi’ah books. The principle literary legacy of Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS], is of course that book of Sahifah al-Sajadiyyah (Sahifah means book)– Sajadiyyah derives from one of the epithets of Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] as Sajjad – one who engages in frequent and prolonged prostration.

The Sahifah al-Sajadiyyah which has been well translated into English under the title the ‘Psalms of Islam’ is a book of Du’a – supplicatory prayer. That does not fully exhaust it’s significance or adequately describe its content. You can see from the book that it is not simply a series of appeals addresses to God but rather has also a complete exposition of doctrine within it. Theological and metaphysical doctrine, aswell as moral advice, all of this contained in the form of supplicatory prayer. In fact it can be said that the supplicatory prayer by Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] and other of the Imams [AS] represent one of the most important forms of Shi’i literature. The Ziyarah is also distinctive genre of Shi’ah literature. It is not simply a text for recitation on a given occasion it is also contains within itself a wealth of intellectual and spiritual content. Likewise the Du’a the supplicatory prayers, compiled by the Imams for a whole variety of occasions, religiously significant occasions, days of festivals, important points in life – even days of the week, Du’a is an important contribution of the Imams and a significant portion of Shi’ah literature is such. The Sahifah al-Sajadiyyah also has found some echo among Sunni Muslims aswell. Even in part or as a whole. If one looks at the books of Du’a that were, until the fairly recent subversion of Sunni tradition, there are a large number of Dua’s taken from the Imams of the Ahl al-Bait [AS] aswell. This is like the memory of Karbala a shared part of Sunni as well as Shi’ah tradition.

One anecdote contemporary with Imam Zain al-Abidin [AS] points clearly to his significance and his influence in his own lifetime. It is said that the Umayyad caliph of the day came to perform the Hajj, after all from a public relations point of view it was necessary for the caliph to make an appearance on such occasions. But when he arrived and wanted to approach the Ka’bah in the course of the Hajj he found himself unable to do so because of the vast throng of people gathered around a certain individual. Upon asking who was this individual he was informed that this was Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS]. What we know of the relatively small number of the Shi’ah at the time who owed their loyalty in the distinctively Shi’ah sense to Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] that throng respectfully gathered around him must have been draw from the broader community. However Mukhtar Thaqafi and Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah did have their following from within the Shi’ah community. Most probably because of the desire for some immediate deliverance – the path of quietude and patience chosen by Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] did not appear convincing or satisfactory to some individuals in the Shi’ah community.

The Movement of Zaid ibn Ali Zain al-Abidin

There also emerged a challenge to Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] from another quarter, so we have to speak of a three way split in the Shi’ah community at this time. His own son - Zaid. There is some dispute in the literature about whether Zaid himself made a claim to the Imamate or the claim was advanced on his behalf. Already in the lifetime of his father he had a group gathered around him prepared to advance his claim for the Imamate on the death of Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] – which took place in the year 94 AH, 712 AD. Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] before his death had designated as his successor his eldest son Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS]. There were rival claims by his (Imam Muhammad al-Baqir’s [AS]) half brother Zaid ibn Ali Zain al-Abidin. This pointed again to the instability of much of the Shi’i community with respect to the problem of political behaviour. Zaid ibn Ali Zain al-Abidn precisely like Mukhtar who advanced the claims of Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah, believed that defining for the Imamate was immediate and uncompromising insurrection. In other words patient waiting was not permissible. It was not only not permissible but lead to the negation, to the nullifying of the very principle of the Imamate itself. If matters were not complicated enough, now, this claim from one of the offspring of Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS], also made matters more complex. The challenge that he mounted was reinforced by an appeal on his behalf towards Sunni opinion. Because Zaid ibn Ali Zain al-Abidin whilst insisting on the primacy of Imam Ali [AS] and of his legitimacy as caliph, had a somewhat conciliatory attitude towards the first two caliphs – Abu Bakr and Umar. He said that their exercise of the caliphate had not been without its merit. Under some circumstances the Imamate of the less preferable person was permissible. This is a topic that enters into Sunni political theory also. Whether it is permissible for someone less virtuous and accomplished than another to exercise power, some people say that it is permissible and some say that it is not permissible. The Sunni consensus says that it is permissible for one less virtuous than someone else to exercise power. In Shi’ism for obvious reasons this is generally not that the case. That it is the most virtuous person, the possessor of the quality of ‘ismah the one who is inerrant and infallible – necessarily he must as a matter of logic as well as legitimacy exercise power. This principle is diluted or modified by the followers of Zaid ibn Ali and his followers who say that the first two caliphs although not fully legitimate nonetheless deserve respect and that their practises should be incorporated into the methods of law.

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