Mourning for Ma‘rifah: Ismaili Interpretations of Ashura

“We are the House of Muhammad and as such are more entitled to the authority (walāyah) of this affair over you than these pretenders who claim what does not belong to them… By God there is no son of a Prophet other than me among you and among the peoples from East to West.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī

The tenth day of Muḥarram, known as the Day of ‘Āshūra’ is when the Battle of Karbala took place – in which Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, the second hereditary Imām of the Shī‘ī Muslims, along with his family and supporters, was brutally massacred by the armies of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān.

This painting commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam, or leader, of the Shia Muslims. Source
This painting commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam, or leader, of the Shia Muslims. Source

The Imām and the Adversary (ḍidd)

When I ask you to read Kisso (the account of the events at Karbala) it is not because those who read it will go to Paradise, but that you may ponder over it and know the unbelievers fought us. These Prophets and Imāms knew what was going to happen, yet we are not allowed to reveal the mysteries of the Unseen (ghayb).

Imām Āgā Shāh ‘Alī Shāh Āgā Khān II, (transl. Rai Gulamali Kassam Shivji, Calgary November 1989)

The Battle of Karbala, from the esoteric perspective, was the manifestation of the opposition that takes place in every age and time between the forces of the Imām of the Time and the forces of his Adversity (ḍidd). Just as the Imām of the Time is the inheritor of Haḍrat Adam and the vicegerent of God on earth, the Adversary (ḍidd) is the inheritor of Iblīs and the devil (shayṭān) among human beings.

Likewise did We appoint for every Messenger an enemy: devils (shayāṭīna) among mankind and jinns, inspiring each other with flowery discourses by way of deception. If thy Lord had so planned, they would not have done it: so leave them and their inventions alone.

(Holy Quran 6:112)

Likewise, century after century, and epoch after epoch, every time has its Iblīs, may God’s curses be upon him, and its Adam, may God’s prayers be upon him.

al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirāzī, (Majālis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah, Vol. II, Majlis No. 11, 71)

The Ismā‘īlī Imāms have also referred to this Adversary or Iblis of the Time as the “pharaoh” who tries to lead people astray in the age of every Imām.

There is a physical and spiritual pharaoh in the cycle of every Imām. By means of the power and influence of his defiled soul he leads astray the simple-minded servants who are not yet firm-footed on the way of the bearer of truth, diverting them from the path of the most sublime paradise and supreme heaven to the nethermost hell, which is the land of the hypocrites (munafiqan).

Imām Islāmshāh, (Seven Aphorisms, quoted in The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, 107)

Just as the Imām is the bearer of the light of walāyah which bring human beings closer to God, the Adversary manifests the darknesses of the “counter-walāyah” which leads people astray. As al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirāzī explains, the Imām and his hierarchy (ḥudūd) of spiritual teachers are the embodiment of virtues known as the Adamic Forms (al-ṣuwar al-ādamiyyah) and they are opposed by the Adversary and his counter-hierarchy of deceptors who embody the decadent vices known as Satanic Shapes (al-ashkāl al-shayṭāniyyah). In other words, there exist the Imāms of Truth (a’immat al-ḥaqq) as well as the imāms of going astray (a’immat al-ḍalāl).

The masters of resemblance are the false imāms (a’immat al-bāṭil), who are established opposite to the true Imāms (a’immat al-ḥaqq), and the creation of humankind, only resembling the real creation of God, and they (the false imāms) are apparitions (ashbāh) without spirits (arwāḥ). Meaning, God did not breath into them the Spirit of True Life (rūḥ al-ḥayāt al-ḥaqīqiyyah) with the designation (naṣṣ) from the Messenger of God.

al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirāzī, (Majālis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah, Vol. I, Majlis No. 25, 124)

The difference between the true Imām and the Adversary – the false imām – is that the true Imām is inspired by the Holy Spirit (al-mu’ayyad bi’l-rūḥ al-quds) while the false imām attempts to imitate the true Imām and usurp his rights. This opposition even existed in the eras of the Imāms who preceded the Prophet Muḥammad and Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. For example, Mawlānā Hāshim ibn ‘Abd Manāf (the great grandfather of the Prophet) was the Imām of his time and his Adversary was his own his half-brother Umayyah – whom he banished from Mecca. There was similar opposition between Mawlānā ‘Abd al-Muṭālib (the grandfather of the Prophet) and the Adversary of his age who was Ḥarb ibn Umayyah – particularly over the custodianship of the Ka‘ba. At the time of the Prophet Muḥammad, the Adversary or the imām of falsehood was none other than Abū Sufyān ibn Harb – who led the Quraysh in opposing the Prophet. In the time of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the Adversary was Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān. And so, in the time of Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, the Adversary was Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān. The opposition between the true Imām, who has the rank of Adam, and his Adversary (ḍidd), who embodies Iblīs, exists in every age and cycle:

In al-Mu’ayyad’s theory of walāyah and counter-walāyah, Adam and Iblīs co-exist throughout prophetic history as the Imām and the ḍidd in each cycle until the “Day of the Time appointed” (Qur’ān 15:38). Because in terms of capacity, the vanquisher and the vanquished are equally and mutually matched to each other, one of the two will conquer the other due to the equanimity in him.

Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, (The Sphere of Walāya: Ismaili Ta’wil according to al-Muayyad, PhD Dissertation, 340)

Imām al-Ḥusayn at Karbala

Imam al-Husayn's family and companions surrounded by an Umayyad army numbering over 40,000 troops.
Imam al-Husayn’s family and companions surrounded by an Umayyad army numbering over 40,000 troops.

In the field at Karbala, a fierce battle was waged against Imām al-Ḥusayn. At that time he fought alone against thousands of men. He endured the immense suffering and cruelty by the hands of his enemies and in spite of all this he still proclaimed: “I am the Imām.”

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (Address made in Kutch Nagalpur, November 28, 1903)

Mu‘āwiya openly opposed and fought against the Caliphate of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. After the death of Imām ‘Alī, his son Pīr Imām al-Ḥasan succeeded to the Caliphate but – due to the weakness of his support and resources – had to abdicate the Caliphate to Mu‘āwiya on the condition that Yazīd would not succeed to the Caliphate after him. However, Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān ensured that his son Yazīd succeeded him as Caliph – an event which directly contradicted the agreement that Pīr Imām al-Ḥasan had made with Mu‘āwiya earlier. Unlike Mu‘āwiya, who was unrighteous but tried to keep the appearance of dignity to the Caliphate, Yazīd was an open sinner and disgraced the position by his drinking of wine and many other sinful activities. When Yazīd succeeded as Caliph, he sought to gain the allegiance of Imām al-Ḥusayn to legitimize his succession but the Imām refused to do so. Meanwhile, the people of Kufa invited Imām al-Ḥusayn to lead them. The Imām and his close family and companions were journeying from Makkah to Kufa and were intercepted by the Umayyad armies sent by Yazid and surrounded at the plains of Kabarla After cutting off their water supply for several days, the Umayyad armies engaged the Imām and his supporters in battle. Outnumbered by an army of over twenty thousand men, the Imām, his family and supporters were inhumanly massacred and martyred in what became known as the Battle of Karbala. The dead included the sons of Imām al-Ḥusayn – among them a six month old infant ‘Alī Asghar, the sons of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abū Ṭālib, and the children of Pīr Imām al-Ḥasan. The only surviving male member of the Imām’s family was his son Imām ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Ābidīn – who was sick during the battle and saved from execution due to the intervention of Haḍrat Zaynab – the sister of Imām al-Ḥusayn.

We now present selected quotations and statements made by Imām al-Ḥusayn before and during the Battle of Karbala.

The Imām’s Letter to the People of Basra

Imam Husayn
Imam Husayn

God gave preference to Muḥammad before all His creatures. He graced him with prophethood and chose him for His message. After he had warned His servants and informed them of what he had been sent with, God took him for Himself. We are his family (ahlihi), those who possess his authority (awliyā’), those who have been made his trustees (awṣiyā’), and his inheritors (wurathā); we are those who have more right to this position among the people than anyone else. People selfishly claimed our exclusive right to that. Yet we consented since we hated disunion and desired the well-being [of the community]. However, we know we have greater claim to that right, which was our entitlement, than those who have seized it. They have done well, set many things right, and sought truth. May God have mercy on them and forgive us and them. I have sent my messenger to you with this letter. I summon you to the Book of God, the Sunnah of His Prophet. Indeed, the Sunnah has [almost] been killed while innovation has been given life. If you hear my words and obey my commands, I will guide you along the path of righteousness.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought, 30)

The Imām’s words to al-Hurr ibn Yazīd and the Umayyad Army

Address to people
Address to people

People, if you fear God and recognize the rights of those who have rights, God will be more satisfied with you. We are the House of Muhammad and as such are more entitled to the authority (walāyah) of this affair (i.e. the rule of the community) over you than these pretenders who claim what does not belong to them. They have brought tyranny and aggression among you. If you refuse (us) because you dislike (us) or do not know our rights, and your view has now changed from what came to us in your letters and what your messengers brought, then I will leave you.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

Words spoken to his sister Zaynab bint ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib:

I have just seen the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, in my sleep. He said to me: You are coming to us.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

The Imām’s words spoken to his half-brother al-‘Abbas regarding the enemy


Go back to them, if you can, delay them until the morning and (persuade) them to keep from us during the evening. Then, perhaps, we may be able to pray to our Lord during the night to call upon Him and seek His forgiveness. He knows that I have always loved His formal prayer, the recitation of His Book and (making) many invocations to Him, seeking His forgiveness.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

The Imām’s words spoken to his companions on the eve of the Battle of Karbala

Arrival at Karbala
Arrival at Karbala

I know of no followers more loyal and more virtuous than my followers, nor of any House more pious and more close-knit than my House. May God reward you well on my behalf. Indeed, I do not think that there will be (any further) days (left) to us by these men. I permit you to leave me. All (of you) go away with the absolution of your oath (to follow me), for there will be no (further) obligation on you from me. This is a night (whose darkness) will give cover to you.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

The Imām’s family and companions reaffirm their allegiance

Offering lives
Offering lives

We will not leave you to make ourselves continue living after your (death). God will never see us (do) such a thing.

‘Abd Allah b. Ja‘far

No, by God, we will not do (such a thing). Rather we will ransom you with our lives, property and families. We will fight for you until we reach your destination. May God make life abominable (for us) after your (death).

The Sons of ‘Aqīl ibn Abī Ṭālib

By God, if I knew what I would die and then be revived and then burnt and then revived, and then scattered, and that would be done to me seventy times, I would never leave you until I met my death (fighting) on your behalf. So how could I do it when there can only be one death, which is a great blessing which can never be rejected.

Muslim ibn Awsaja

By God, I would prefer to be killed and then recalled to life; and then be killed a thousand times in this manner; and that in this way God, the Mighty and Exalted, should protect your life and the lives of these young men of your House.

Zuhayr ibn al-Qayn

The Imām returns to his tent and designates his son Imām ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Ābidīn as his successor

Last words
Last words

My son, you are the best and purest of my children. After me you will be my successor and deputy. Take care of these women and children during captivity and the rigours of travel. Console them. My son, convey to my friends my Salam (greetings of peace) and tell them their Imām has been killed away from his home and that they should mourn for me.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (M.H. Bilgrami, The Victory of Truth: The Life of Zaynab bint ‘Ali, Chapter 6)

The Imām’s final warning to the Umayyad armies

Address to army
Address to army

People, listen to my words and do not hurry (to attack me) so that I may remind you of the duties you have towards me and so that (by telling you the true circumstances) I may free myself from any blame in (your attacking me)… Trace back my lineage and consider who I am. Then look back at yourselves and remonstrate with yourselves. Consider whether it is right for you to kill me and to violate the honour of my womenfolk. Am I not the son of the daughter of your Prophet, of his testamentary trustee (wall) and his cousin, the first of the believers in God and the man who (first) believed in what His Messenger, may God bless him and his family, brought from his Lord? Was not Hamza, the lord of the martyrs, my uncle? Was not Ja‘far, the one who flies in Heaven, my uncle? Have you not heard the words of the Messenger of God, may God bless him and his family, concerning myself and my brother: ‘These are the two lords of the youths of the inhabitants of Paradise? Whether you believe what I am saying and it is the truth, for by God I have never told a lie since I learnt that God hated people (who told) them.. Is there not (sufficient) in this to prevent you shedding my blood?

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

You are in doubt that I am the son of the daughter of your Prophet. By God there is no son of a prophet other than me among you and among the peoples from East to West. Shame on you, are you seeking retribution from me for one of your dead whom I have killed, or for property of yours which I expropriated, or for a wound which I have inflicted?

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

The Imām’s prayer to God when the Umayyad cavalry approached

Waiting for call
Waiting for call

O God, it is You in Whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, (no matter) how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish (my hope) in it, the friend may seem to desert (me) in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in (everything) and have revealed its (significance to me). You are the Master of all grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire.

Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, (al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, 22-62)

The Sacrifice of the Imāms

The Battle of Karbala is a primary example of how the Imāms have sacrificed their lives to uphold truth, defend justice and fulfill their sacred mandate as the guardians of the ethic of Islam. This shows how the institution of Imāmah is not only a spiritual institution, but has the mission of establishing social justice and equity in the world. Imām al-Ḥusayn and his family gave their lives for the sake of this mission. And every Imām of the Time performs this same sacrifice in different forms.

The sacrifice of the Imāms is alluded and foretold in the Qur’ānic narrative of Haḍrat Ibrāhīm sacrificing his son Ismā‘īl by the command of God. This story is but an allegory, and its real meaning refers to the mission of the Holy Imāms who all come from the progeny of Mawlānā Ismā‘īl ibn Ibrāhīm. The Qur’ān then states about Ismā‘īl that:

We ransomed him with a tremendous sacrifice (dhibḥin ‘aẓīm); And we left it among the later generations.

(Holy Qur’ān 37:107-108)

Contrary to the exoteric interpretation which holds that Ismā‘īl was exchanged with a ram, the real meaning of this verse is that God ransomed the physical sacrifice with the spiritual sacrifice of the Imāms – renewed in every generation by the Imām of the Time who is descended from Mawlānā Ismā‘īl ibn Ibrāhīm. There have been countless other examples of the Ismā‘īlī Imāms sacrificing their lives to preserve Islam, protect their community, or uphold the truth.

One of the most tragic events in the history of the Nīzārī Ismā‘īlīs occurred in 1256 when the Mongols massacred thousands of Nīzārīs during their invasion of Persia. Not even the women and children were spared as Genghis Khan has ordered that even the babies in their cradles should be killed. During this massacre, the Nīzārī Ismā‘īlī Imām of the time, Mawlānā Rukn al-Dīn Khwarshāh and most of his family were brutally murdered by the Mongol army. The succeeding Imām, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, was secretly sent to Tabrīz and the lineage of Nīzārī Ismā‘īlī Imāms continued. Mawlānā Shams al-Dīn would later refer to the Mongol massacre of the Nīzārīs and the conquest of Alamut as the “final Karbala”:

May it not remain hidden from all the servants that as Mawlānā ‘Alī and Mawlānā Husayn (on whose mentions be peace) have said, “We will have to pass through Jabalistan (i.e., Gilan) and Daylam, which will be the final Karbala. The palace of Caesar and the fortress of Alamut [will be reduced to such straits] that were they given to even a poor old woman, she would not accept them.” All of this came to pass and was seen by the people of the world.

Imām Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, (quoted in Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, 53)

When Mawlānā Hāḍir Imām, Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV, assumed the office of Imamat on July 11, 1957, he boldly declared that he was dedicating his entire life and existence to serving his followers and the world of Islam:

I have dedicated my life to the uplift and progress of the Ismailis all over the world and I pray for all your happiness and success.

Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV, (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, 217)

My grandfather dedicated his life to the Imamat and Islam, both of which came first, and above all other considerations. While I was prepared that one day I might be designated the Aga Khan I did not expect it so soon. I follow a great man in a great responsibility and he could have given me no more appreciated honour than to bequeath me this spiritual leadership. My life, as his, will be dedicated to the service of my followers.

Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV

In a candid interview given in 1969, Mawlānā Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī describes the struggles that he undergoes in fulfilling the mission of the Imāmah. And yet, he maintains that “responsibility is a burden we love”:

I hardly have time to think about myself. I have my moments of fatigue, anxiety, but without the feeling of abandonment. I am engaged. I have to weigh, to consider, to try make a wise decision. But, with my advisers, I escape the isolation. “Responsibility is a burden we love.” I received from my grandfather responsibilities that are heavy but not burdensome. This is not a burden. It is a pleasure to devote oneself (de se consacrer = “to sacrifice oneself”) to such a community, to work for people. The responsibilities are a burden that we love to wear.

Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV, (Elle Magazine Interview with Paul Giannoli, “The Mystery of the Aga Khan”, August 20, 1969)

While Imām al-Ḥusayn’s martyrdom may have taken place thirteen hundred years ago, the spirit and meaning of his sacrifice is renewed by every Imām in his progeny – including the Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī, the Present and Living Imām (al-imām al-ḥāḍir al-mawjūd). Among the most eminent manifestations of the current Imām’s sacrifice is his tireless work through the Aga Khan Development Network – which aims to elevate the quality of life and dignity for all human beings on this planet. In this sense, Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī continues the very same mission as his ancestor Imām al-Ḥusayn – a mission that will be upheld by every Imām in the Ḥusaynī lineage until the end of time:

We the Imāms in descent from Imām al-Ḥusayn for are present until today and we shall remain until the Resurrection (qiyāmah) and even after the Resurrection (qiyāmah).

Imām Āgā Shāh ‘Alī Shāh Āgā Khān II, (Address made in Bombay, 1878)

The Ever-Living Imām

Ever living Imam
Ever living Imam

O people take this saying of the Last of the Prophets that he who dies from among us is not dead, and he who decays from among us does not decay.

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, (Nahjul Balagha, tr. by Syed Ali Rezha, Khutbah 86, 217-218)

While the death of Imām al-Ḥusayn was extremely tragic and totally contrary to all the principles of goodness and righteousness, the true believer must remember that from the spiritual perspective, the Imām in reality can never be killed. The Qur’ān applies this perspective to the historical crucifixion of Jesus when it proclaimed that “they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but it only appeared to unto them” (Qur’ān 4:157). Similarly, the ‘historical’ Imām lives and dies in the realm of nature (dunyā), but the ‘eternal’ Imām is always present in the realm of Faith (dīn). This is why, for example, the Ismā‘īli Muslims, while remembering and honouring the death of Imām al-Ḥusayn, do not perform formal mourning. The Qur’ān confirms this reality when it says:

Think not of those who are slain in path of God as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; They rejoice in the bounty provided by God.

(Holy Qur’ān 3:169-170)

The Imāms are perpetually alive in three respects. In one respect, the Imāmah continues through designated successor who is the next Imām, so the Imām as such is always present on earth. In another respect, the pure soul of the deceased Imām remains perpetually alive in Paradise and in the Divine Presence. For this reason, the Ismā‘īlī Dū‘ā’ includes intercessory supplications naming all of the Imāms of the past. Thirdly, the Nūr of Imamat – known as the Universal Intellect, the First Originated Being, the Logos or the Muḥammadan Light, the Eternal Imām which manifests through the soul and body of each and every hereditary Imām – is eternal, perfect, immutable and otherwise unaffected by the events of the physical realm. Therefore, the Imām remains ever-living – historically (as his successor-Imām), spiritually (as a pure soul), and ontologically (as the Nur of Imamat).

You should be rest assured that the Nūr of Mawlānā Murtada ‘Alī is in me and is present before you. We Imāms change the physical bodies in this world but our Nūr is eternal and originates from the very beginning. You should therefore take it as one Nūr. The Throne of the Imamat of Mawlānā Murtaḍa ‘Alī continues and it will remain till the Day of Judgement.

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (Address made in Bombay, September 8, 1885 quoted in Michele Boivien, Le Renovation du Shiisme Ismailien en Inde et au Pakistan, 197-98)

Today we carry this authority and power of Imām al-Ḥusayn for we are Imām al-Husayn. You can see that today we carry this authority and power everywhere we go because we are the rightful Imāms. We do not fear anything.

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (Address made in Kutch Nagalpur, November 28, 1903, quoted in Michele Boivien, Le Renovation du Shiisme Ismailien en Inde et au Pakistan, 197-98)

Mourning for Ma‘rifah: The Ta’wīl of Karbala

There were many different kinds of people present at Karbala, and there were people amongst them who recognized and accepted Imām al-Ḥusayn as their Imām… Shimar, a worshipper of God, who claimed that he was the servant of God, also martyed Imām al-Ḥusayn. Shimar thought that the Imām was an ordinary human being like himself.

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (Address made in Bombay, October 17, 1885)

It is reported that Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III instructed his Nīzārī Ismā‘īlī Muslim murīds not to mourn the physical death of Imām al-Ḥusayn by crying or hitting themselves, but instead to recognize the living Imām and “mourn for ma‘rifah” – that is, mourn for the ma‘rifah of the Imām of the Time.

As explained in the first post on this blog, ma‘rifah (English: gnosis) refers to the innate spiritual recognition of tawḥīd (the unity of God) that resides in the depth of every human soul – since the Qur’ānic day of Alastu when all human souls testified to God (Qur’ān 7:172). The Shī‘ī Muslim disciple (murīd) seeks this ma‘rifah (recognition) of tawḥīd – the gnosis of God – through the ma‘rifah of the Imām:

Imām al-Husayn called out to his companions: “God – may His Mention be glorified – did not create the servants except to know Him, and by knowing Him to worship him, and by worshipping Him to be satisfied only by His worship, and to never find satisfaction in worshiping other than Him.” And a man said to him: “O Son of the Prophet, may my father and mother be sacrificed for you. What is this ma‘rifah of God?” The Imam said: “The ma‘rifah the people of every time have of their Imām — to whom obedience is due.”

(Shaykh Saduq, Ilal al-Sharā‘i’, Vol. 1, 19)

Everyone must know God through knowing me, since a person becomes a knower (‘ārif) through my ma‘rifat and becomes a unifier (muwaḥḥid) through my tawḥīd. Then the reality of ma‘rifat, union (ittiḥād), and unity (waḥdat) comes completely into existence, and the reality of worship becomes evident.

Imam Ḥasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salām, (Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tusi, Contemplation and Action, 44)

So the question remains, in what manner does the human soul attain ma‘rifah? The answer is provided by Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib in his sermon:

God has not made the intellects (‘uqūl) capable of defining His qualities, but He has not veiled the intellects from essential recognition (ma‘rifah) of Him.

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, (Nahj al-Balāghah, Sermon 49)

The above words of the Imām draw a direct link between the human intellect (‘aql) and ma‘rifah. The intellect, according to teachings of the Shī‘ī Imāms, is much more than the capacity for rational thought or discursive reasoning. The ‘aql is essentially a spiritual faculty of direct apprehension – in which the intellect immediately grasps its object of knowledge and becomes one with it in the act of intellection. This is in contrast to the rational or discursive faculty – which operates in time and employs logic and reasoning to proceed step by step in order to reach a conclusion. While the rational faculty arrives at a representational concept (taṣawwur) of the known object, the intellect (‘aql) perceives things as they are as a timeless and direct presence. The intellect is the highest organ of knowing in the human being and is capable of attaining ma‘rifah – while reason can at best provide a conceptual representation of such knowledge.

The ma‘rifah of the Imām can only be reached by actualizing one’s intellect (‘aql). This is because the intellect (‘aql) in every human being is a ray of the Nūr of Imamat – the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kull). As Mawlānā Ḥāḍir Imām has said publicly:

The Divine Intellect, ‘Aql-i Kull, both transcends and informs the human intellect.

Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV, (AKU Inauguration Speech, 1985)

The Imām of the Time is the manifestation (maẓhar) of the Universal Intellect in the physical world while the fully actualized human intellect (‘aql) is the manifestation of the Universal Intellect in the heart (the center of the rational soul). Thus, the “outer Imām” in the world is paralleled by the human intellect (‘aql) – which could be called the “inner Imām” of one’s own soul:

The Imām within (each human being) is each individual intellect, such an intellect being the irradiation of the outer Imām; for the Shi‘ites, the initiates of the Imāms, have been created out of the rays of their light, and light is proportional to the source of light.

Shaykh Karīm-Khān Kirmānī, (Henry Corbin, Temple and Contemplation, 46)

Herein lies the esoteric meaning of the event of Karbala and the explanation as to why Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh instructed his jamā‘ats to “mourn for ma‘rifah“. All human souls possess ma‘rifah in the very essence of their being – but practically, this ma‘rifah is dormant or unrealized. The real status of Imām al-Ḥusayn can only be recognized through the ma‘rifah of the intellect (‘aql) – the inner Imām. Those who killed and opposed the Imām al-Ḥusayn did so because they lacked this ma‘rifah – due to their own intellects being dormant and their hearts being diseased. Because they lacked a connection with their “inner Imām“, they were unable to recognize Imām al-Ḥusayn, the “outer Imām“. Just as the Imām of the Time is opposed by an Adversary in the physical world, there is also an inner Iblīs in the personal world of the soul that opposes the human intellect. This inner Iblīs is called hawā (caprice, whims), the carnal soul or the “soul that commands to evil” (nafs al-amarra) (see Qur’ān 12:53). Reza Shah-Kazemi, summarizing the teachings of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib on this subject, writes about the inner struggle between al-‘aql and al-hawā:

This emerges from the metaphor given by the Imām to define the struggle: al-ʿaql (the intellect) is the leader of the forces of al-Raḥmān (the Compassionate); al-hawā (whim, caprice, desire) commands the forces of al-shayṭān (the devil); al-nafs (the soul) vacillates between them, susceptible to the attraction of both and enters into ‘the domain of whichever of the two will triumph.

Reza Shah-Kazemi, (Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, 40)

The Battle of Karbala outwardly represents the inner struggle that takes place at every moment within the human soul between the intellect and the caprice. The Imām al-Ḥusayn and his companions symbolize the intellect and its related virtues, while Yazīd and his minions symbolize the caprice (hawā) and its vices. Henry Corbin eloquently explains this symbolism as follows:

There is an Imām Husayn within each man: his intellect, whose divine splendour is a light that derives from the Imām. But this inner Imām is surrounded by enemies, and these are all the powers of the carnal soul that issue from the shadow of the Imām’s enemies. Within every man there unfolds a tragedy of Karbala. ‘In the Karbala of his heart, it may happen that the powers of the carnal soul kill the intellect and the angelic companions who assist it, and uproot all traces of them from man’s heart. Then indeed there is accomplished in each one of us, word for word, the ta’wīl of the tragedy of Karbala.

Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 46)

Thus, the events of ‘Āshura and Karbala take place in each human soul. The intellect is responsible for the qualities of compassion, love, beauty, kindness, generosity, and wisdom while hawā is the source of greed, lust, fear, desire, and most of all, pride and ego. If the human intellect is overwhelmed by the carnal soul or hawā, then one will not have the ma‘rifah of the Imam. Whenever our ego and fear dominate our loving compassion and wisdom, then the inner Imam has been slain and Karbala has happened again. This becomes is an occasion for true mourning – mourning for this ma‘rifah that has been forgotten due to spiritual decadence. Indeed, this is the ta’wīl of Karbala and the ta’wīl of mourning for Imām al-Ḥusayn.

The Ismā‘īlī Flag: Remembering Karbala

My Flag (Ismaili flag)
My Flag (Ismaili flag)

… one feast day, when the two child-Imams Hasan and Husayn asked their grandfather the Prophet to give them a new garment as a present, two robes came down out of the sky. The robes were white, but the two boys declared that they would not be satisfied until they were dyed the colour they wanted. Hasan asked for his garment to be green as the emerald, while Husayn wanted a colour like that of the red hyacinth. This was brought about through the ministration of the Angel Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation. But while the Prophet rejoiced, the Angel shed tears; and when the Prophet asked him the reason, he could not but announce the fate that awaited the two young Imams in this world. Hasan would perish through poison, Husayn would be assassinated.

Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 43)

The Nizarī Ismā‘īlī Muslim community, led by Mawlānā Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī – the present (hāḍir) and forty-ninth hereditary Imām in direct lineal descent from Imām al-Ḥusayn, continuously bears witness to the events of Ashūra and Karbala. This is evident in the official Ismā‘īlī Flag – raised upon the various buildings and structures where the Present Imām happens to be. This includes the Imām’s private jet – which could be likened to Duldul, the famous horse of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, in the modern age. Like the companions of Imām al-Ḥusayn in the past, the Ismā‘īlī Muslim today uphold the spirit of Karbala when they dedicate and sacrifice their lives in the service of the Imām of the Time, the community and humanity at large.

Imam's plane
Imam’s plane

In this respect, we conclude this post with the august words of Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh where he explains the meaning of the Red and Green colors of the Ismā‘īlī Flag in his letter to Dr. Pir Muhammad Hoodboy. As the Imām explains below, the Green color stands for the Prophet Muḥammad, Pīr Imām al-Ḥasan, and the office of the Pīr (the supreme ḥujjah of the Imām) while the Red color stands for Imām ‘Alī, Imām al-Ḥusayn, and the office of the Imām. Interestingly, the colors of Red and Green also featured prominently when the Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh assumed the Imāmah in Bombay 1885 – where the Imām, dressed in red attire, sat upon a green cushion.

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III
Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III

In reply to your letter of 8th October, the colours of our family are, as you know, Red and Green. The reason being that we represent both the (offices of) Shāh [Imām] and Pīr. The Shāh was Ḥusayn and the Pīr was Ḥasan. Ḥasan had the Pīr’s colour of Green, but Ḥusayn’s martyrdom was so enormous in events and was so opposed to even the smallest laws of war that the colour of his Holy Blood, namely Red, was accepted with the Green of the Prophet’s flag as a souvenir and remembrance of that terrible day.

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (Letter to Dr. Pir Muhammad Hoodbhoy, October 16, 1954)

Note: The Nizari Isma‘ilis do not include the name of al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali in their list of Imams which has led some people to conclude that al-Hasan is not accepted as an Imam in Nizari theology. In reality, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali is regarded as an Imam by the Nizaris but with a minor difference: al-Hasan is understood to be an Entrusted Imam or Trustee Imam (al-imam al-mustawda) as opposed to a Permanent Imam (al-imam al-mustaqarr), the latter position belonging to his brother al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali. The Nizari list of Imams only includes the names of the Permanent Imams and not the Entrusted Imams. The difference between the Entrusted Imam and the Permanent Imam is that the Entrusted Imam is a person from outside the genealogical line of the Imams who holds the rank and authority of Imam for a temporary period and the Imamate does not permanently dwell among the Entrusted Imam’s descendants. The Permanent Imam is the hereditary Imam who inherits the Imamate from his forefathers and transmits it to his descendants. The Entrusted Imam is only appointed in special circumstances and is usually the brother or cousin of the Permanent Imam. When there is an Entrusted Imam, the Permanent Imam remains silent (samit) although he is the source of authority (amr) of the Entrusted Imam who acts on his behalf. Thus, Imam al-Hasan was an Entrusted Imam as he held the authority and rank of Imamate after Hazrat ‘Ali and then bequeathed it to his brother Imam a-Husayn who then transmitted the Imamate in his progeny. For further details, see Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, pp. 83-85. In Nizari Isma’ilism, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali also holds the rank of Pir or supreme hujja which is the rank in the Isma’ili hierarchy (hudud) second only to the Imam himself. This has led some to confuse the positions of Entrusted Imam and pir or simply deny that al-Hasan was an Imam altogether. In reality, al-Hasan was both an Entrusted Imam and a Pir (supreme hujja) and this is perhaps why the Nizari Isma‘ili Ginans, the Asal Du’a (Old Du’a) and the farmans of Imam Sultan Muhammad refer to al-Hasan as ‘Pir Imam Hasan’.

Image credits: Karbala artwork images from

25 thoughts on “Mourning for Ma‘rifah: Ismaili Interpretations of Ashura


  2. It was one of the wonderful article i ever read,and after reading it i realized how fortunate we are to have a living Hussain in form the form of Shah Karim.

  3. Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah’s comments about how to mourn the events at Karbala by recognizing Hazir Imam and craving for his batini deedar is of signifigance.

  4. Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah’s observation about how to mourn the tragic events at Karbala by first recognizing Hazir Imam and craving for his Ma’rifah is of special significance to commemorate this occasion.

  5. YA ALI MADAD! an article which illuminated the darkened heart of mine which was veiled by the dark of fallacious queries…but the dark veil is shed off with ease now..thank you so much..

  6. I must say this is what an ismaile needs to know today and learn about. I love this article. Mola a.s bless you all

  7. The most important and informative article I have ever read…I got clarification in some points and some points i got new from this article. This kind of article should be more and more in the sites.

  8. One of the best part of Ismaili gnosis is to provide detailed, intellectual, factual, spiritual and the various aspects of the past events, corresponding with the Islamic calendar year as it passes today. The articles are, no doubt, based purely on research and proof from various resources, which enables reader from any background, who is neutral, to accept them. These articles enlighten us and strenghthens the faith even more. Hope this endeavour continues with the same spirit into the future and stay blessed all the contributors.

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