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“The Knight of Faith”: Imam Husayn’s Chivalry at Karbala

H. Talat Halman

H. Talat Halman

We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be. When we see a man bravely facing his own extinction, we rehearse the greatest victory we can imagine. And so the hero has been at the center of human honor and acclaim since probably the beginning of specifically human evolution.1

Among the most extraordinary examples of heroic chivalry not only in Islamic history, but possibly any history, is the martyrdom of the third Shi'a Imam, Imam Husayn. On the day of 'Ashura, October 10, 680, on the plains of Karbala near the Euphrates river, Imam Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad's second grandson, was mercilessly slaughtered. As warriors on both sides closed in, Imam Husayn and his party found themselves grossly outnumbered. This gruesome, bloody and tragic event, along with its ceremonies of commemoration, is "the beating heart of Shi'a devotion."2 Shi'a Muslims regularly evoke the centrality of Imam Husayn's martyrdom in the proverb, "Every day is 'Ashura; every place is Karbala."

Messianic Chivalry
The concept of chivalric sacrifice as a central and symbolic religious theme is not limited to Islam – it resonates in all the Abrahamic traditions. Abraham himself is an example of a person of spiritual chivalry. Kierkegaard refers to him as a "Knight of Faith,"3 a spiritual exemplar, like Imam Husayn, "...who lives in faith, who has given over the meaning of his life to his Creator, and who lives centered on the energies of his Maker. He accepts whatever happens in this visible dimension without complaint, lives his life as a duty, faces his death without qualm."4 The comparison between Abraham and Imam Husayn is underscored by the Shi'a understanding that the real meaning of the story of the ram God substituted prefigures the sacrifice that Imam Husayn would make at Karbala.

Imam Husayn was a knight in the spirit of messianic chivalry, where knighthood – like priesthood or kingship – is ordained by God. In the Islamic Shi'a tradition, Imam Husayn, as a descendant of the Prophet, is revered as pure and sinless. Imam Husayn shares with Sir Galahad in Malory's Grail narrative qualities of impeccable purity, a lineage from pious ancestors, and a "destiny expressed in an image of bodily suffering that conquers and heals."5 Like Sir Galahad, the story of Husayn's martyrdom also exemplifies the perfect example of chivalric experience – an experience that can be drawn on as inspiration to become more valiant than we think ourselves capable.
Gandhi celebrated Husayn as an example of satyagraha (truth force) and true bhakti (devotion).  He described such truth force as "the talisman by which death becomes the portal to life eternal."6 Describing the experience of the medieval Christian Knight, Jill Mann emphasized the elements of bodily risk in combat and the shedding of blood as central to knighthood. As the Knight's body serves as the vessel of blood, his body intimates the mysteries of the Holy Grail.7

Imam Husayn's role includes a unique and specialized foretold redemptive mission. To consider him a messianic figure honors the way that Shi'a Muslims commemorate his heroic life and martyr's death. In both narrative and ritual, Shi'a Muslims claim Imam Husayn as the locus of a redemptive power, which they receive through ritual atonement for his sacrifice. As a projected successor to the Prophet, his status is in an official sense secondary; but as the martyr of Karbala he becomes in an honorific sense the pivotal and pre-eminent hero of Islamic justice and Prophetic succession.

The Tale of Martyrdom
Born in 625 C.E., Husayn lived for six years with his grandfather the Prophet Muhammad and thirty years with his father Imam 'Ali, whose chivalry is cogently expressed in the often-repeated formula, “la fata illa 'Ali” ("There is no chivalrous hero but 'Ali).  Growing up with his father and grandfather, Imam Husayn breathed in the fragrance of right moral conduct, refined behavior, and the practice of virtuous beauty. These three terms serve well as synonyms for the concept of an Islamic chivalry.
The background to the tragedy of Karbala begins with the first Umayyad caliph Mu'awiya.  Husayn's father Imam 'Ali had challenged the spiritual fitness of Mu'awiya to rule, but lost and was eventually slain while in prostration during the dawn prayer. While on his deathbed Imam 'Ali, exemplifying his own chivalry, commanded that his assassin be treated well and executed as painlessly as possible.
In order to preserve peace and unity, 'Ali's eldest son, Imam Hasan (d. 669), after asserting his right to the Caliphate for six months, decided to compromise with Mu'awiya and signed a treaty with the understanding that after Mu'awiya's rule he would assume the caliphate.  Instead, Mu'awiya had Hasan poisoned and appointed his son Yazid as caliph. Some Shi'a sources maintain that Mu'awiya bribed Hasan's wife to serve him poisoned water. This motif then reinforces by contrast Imam Husayn's later death caused partly by many days' thirst.

Sequence of events

1. Imam Hasan - Husayn's brother - signs a peace treaty to succeed Mu'awiya as Caliph

2. Mu'awiya has Hasan poisoned and appoints his son Yazid in his place

3. Imam Husayn moves to Mecca for four months

4. Imam Husayn uncovers a plot to assassinate him during the holy month, and hears complaints about Yazid's rule over the Kufans

5. Imam Husayn heads to Kufa but is stopped on the dry plains of Karbala

6. Imam Husayn refuses to fight but is told his party will be denied water unless they swear allegiance to Yazid

7. Imam Husayn's party is attacked and slaughtered, including his young sons. Husayn fights bravely but is killed.

To avoid bloodshed in Medina, Imam Husayn moved with his family to Mecca where he stayed for four months. During the month of the Hajj, Imam Husayn discovered that some of the alleged "hajjis" were mercenaries of Yazid sent to assassinate him in the sacred city of Mecca. At the same time the people of Kufa complained of the ill treatment they were receiving at the hands of the governor Yazid appointed over Iraq.
The Kufans, mostly non-Arab, felt that they were taxed inequitably and treated harshly.  They appealed to Imam Husayn to come to Kufa and take a stand against this injustice and oppression. The Kufans promised to back the Imam with military support.
Thus Imam Husayn departed with his family and a total of seventy-two in his party to respond to the plight of the Kufans. Asked why he was leaving before the completion of the hajj, Imam Husayn explained that he did not want the sacred mosque to be desecrated by violence and bloodshed.
Imam Husayn and his party first headed toward Medina. However, hearing that Yazid planned to demand that he pledge his oath of fidelity in Medina to confirm his caliphate, the Imam continued directly toward Kufa. Until this time, he had lived and taught in Medina and remained silent about the injustices of the Umayyad dynasty in honor of the treaty between Imam Hasan and Mu'awiya. In 680 (A.H. 61) Imam Husayn publicly challenged Yazid's right to rule. As Imam Husayn departed, the Umayyad army learned of his route and Yazid's general, al-Hurr, intercepted his party where they had encamped twenty-five miles north of Kufa on the plains of Karbala.
The place where they halted was desolate and dry. Husayn scolded Hurr for not allowing them access to either water or proximity to a village, but Hurr was under orders and intimidated by the watchful eye of the governor's emissary. The historian at-Tabari (d. 923) reports that Imam Husayn succeeded in positioning his troops so that their rear was blocked by reeds and grass, ensuring they would only have to fight in one direction.
Though encouraged to fight, Husayn, again demonstrating his chivalry, declared on the second day, "I will not begin to fight against them."8 The Imam demonstrated his commitment to justice, his lack of personal motives, and his dedication to serve the greater good of his people. In responding, the governor 'Ubaydullah reiterated his command that unless Imam Husayn give allegiance to Yazid that Husayn and his followers would be denied access to water. By the seventh of Muharram, the Umayyad general Shimr had brought five hundred – some say 4000 – horsemen to block the water supply of the Euphrates.

However on the tenth ('Ashura) of Muharram 'Umar ibn Sa'd attacked and slaughtered Husayn's entire parched party, including ten young men from his family. Those slaughtered included his eighteen-year old son and his fourteen-year-old nephew.  At one point Imam Husayn emerged holding his six-month old baby son, 'Ali Asghar, and an arrow pierced the baby and Imam Husayn's arm. Wiping the blood off his son, Husayn said, "O God! Judge between us and a people who asked us to come so that they might help us and then killed us."9
Husayn then unsheathed his sword and fought boldly and bravely until Shimr knocked him off his horse. Lying on the ground and awaiting his death, Imam Husayn prayed, "Forgive, O merciful Lord, the sins of my grandfather's people and grant me bountifully, the key of the treasure of intercession…"10  As the Imam prayed, Shimr swiftly swung down his blade and cut off his head.  Husayn's sister Zaynab emerged and placed her body over that of Husayn's other son, who had been sick and thus had rested with the women. Shamed, none of the troops dared to attack her in order to kill the last of the Imam's descendents. Thus 'Ali ibn Husayn ibn 'Ali called Zayn al-'Abadin ("The Adornment of the Worshippers," d. 712-3) survived to become the fourth Imam and Zaynab lived to tell the tale of the tragedy of Karbala.
Husayn's killer came with Imam Husayn's head first to the governor who had the head of the grandson of the Prophet paraded before sending it to the caliph Yazid. Local villagers buried Imam Husayn's body on the battlefield. In 979 the Mashhad Husayn, the holiest shrine for Twelver Shi'a was built to ennoble the former simple enclosure. Since Karbala became the hallowed ground of the central event of sacred history, the perfect witness against tyranny and oppression and stand for truth, the clay of Karbala is valued as a place to place one's forehead during formal prayer and for its healing powers.
The sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq (d. 765), Husayn's great-grandson said, "…Even if one recites poetry about Husayn and weeps himself alone, or pretends to weep, his will be paradise on the Day of Resurrection."11 Pir Moinuddin Chishti (d. 1236) wrote in a poem that Husayn was a Shah and protector of religion who "gave his head, but not his hand to Yazid."12 This is the line heard in many of Nusrat Fateh 'Ali Khan's qawwalis:
The Shah is Husayn; the padishah is Husayn.
The religion is Husayn and the shelter of religion is Husayn.
He gave his head, but not his hand to Yazid.
In truth, Husayn is the foundation of 'there is no [other] god [but God].
If we search within ourselves we can emulate the valiant honor of Imam Husayn's chivalrous dignity, nobility, and passion. At the least we can empathize with Imam Husayn's bravery and take inspiration from his heroism. By drawing on the stories of Imam Husayn and other heroes and by contemplating and seeking their redemptive power, every day becomes 'Ashura, and every place, Karbala. We might reflect that much of the resonating vibrance of Islamic spirituality in the world today reverberates from the nobility of Imam Husayn's chivalrous witness to truth, his courageous rebellion, and his fearless self-sacrifice.

1. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1973, 1997, pp. 11-12.

2. Nasr, The Shi'a Revival. New York: Norton, 2006, 2007, p. 43.

3. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008 (rpt.).

4. Becker, ibid., pp. 257-258.

5. Ibid., p. 213.

6. M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance. New York: Schocken Books, 1961, pp. 39-40.

7. Ibid., p. 208

8. Quoted from Shaykh al-Mufid's historical reconstruction excerpted in Shi 'ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality. Ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyed Veli Reza Nasr. Albany: S.U.N.Y., 1988, p. 326.

9. At-Tabari, Annals 2.2165, in at-Tabari, The History of the World (1990: 75-76) quoted in F.E. Peters, A Reader on Classical Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 129.

10. Quoted in Reza Aslan, There is no god but God. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 173.

11. Quoted in Mahmoud Ayoub, "Shi'i Literature," in Shi 'ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality. Ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyed Veli Reza Nasr. Albany: S.U.N.Y., 1988, p. 313.

12. Vali Nasr, ibid, 42-43.
Comments (5)
  • Beautuful article Talat. I love you

    — shakura on January 13, 2009

  • thank-you for writing this - it bears much thought and consideration…

    — bruce mc. on November 2, 2009

  • Authentic books like “nafasul mahmoom” doesn’t mention that he prayed for the forgiveness for the rebels.why should he? to condone acts like this?

    — irfan on January 27, 2010

  • Great historical context, also a good lecture to hear in person.

    — Matt on April 1, 2010

  • my-heart imam hussein

    — ahmed english on January 4, 2013

7 January 2009

Tagged Under
chivalry, Abraham, Islamic history, Muhammad, hero, Imam Husayn, ‘Ali,
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