Defying Death On The Day Of Ashura

How Do We Deal With Death?

The issue of death and the way to deal with it is among the prominent elements of the bloody fight by the Bank of the Euphrates on the day of Ashura. From this angle, the event of Ashura is distinct among great historical events.

When Husayn (‘a) was leaving Hijaz and heading towards Iraq he announced that he would meet his death on that trip. He also informed the people of his own death and urged them to lay down their lives for the same cause and prepare themselves for their meeting with God. Throughout the journey to Karbala, Husayn (‘a) had been frankly telling his companions and the people he met that their destination was inevitable death. His companions entertained no doubts about it: they were absolutely sure.

The only excuse offered by those who wished to forsake Husayn (‘a) was their fear of death, and there are many instances of this in Husayn’s journey to Karbala. This is a remarkable feature of the battle of Ashura which distinguishes it from other similar incidents. For a revolutionary leader to invite people to their death is very rare, if not completely unheard of. Such leaders invite the people to activism and revolution and request them to get ready to sacrifice their lives for it, if need be. Husayn’s case was different

. He did not seek a military conquest as imagined by the people; he only wanted to embark boldly upon a tragic sacrifice unparalleled in history, in order to jolt the nation’s conscience. Husayn (‘a) had found that the Umayyads had succeeded in controlling the people’s will and rendering them subservient through terror and exile.

In this atmosphere the Umayyads tried to reinstitute pre-Islamic values and views in the new Islamic society with no significant opposition from the community. Therefore a strong jolting of the people’s conscience was necessary to restore the will they had been robbed of, and this could only be achieved by a tragic sacrifice unparalleled in history! Thus Husayn (‘a) prepared his family and his companions for this tragedy!

This feature of the event of Ashura makes it unique when compared to most other similar events in history. It is a deceitful mistake of history to have stripped Ashura of this feature. If the feat of defying death and seeking martyrdom be divorced from the event of Ashura it will be nothing more than an insurrection against Umayyad rule by an extremely unequal military force. It would not have achieved its goals as expected by those who were advising Husayn (‘a) against his journey to Iraq, without realising his intention. The Imam (‘a) was seeing what they were not seeing and knew what they knew not.

How Do People Face Death?

Death is an important matter with regard to how people organize their lives. With respect to this natural phenomenon which is a part of God’s inexorable norms, people fall into two groups: the overwhelming majority who are apprehensive of death and try to escape it, and the minority who challenge death and long for it.

The fear of death and challenging death, play a significant role in organizing people’s lives and in determining their destiny. If a nation is afraid of death oppressive rulers will not need much effort to subjugate and cow them down. Their lives become subservient to the despot and they gradually lose their innate nature and conscience, which form the basis of a decent life. However, a nation which has the power to face death without fear and proves it, cannot be made to bow down to the will of tyrants. It is impossible to rob such people of their will and goals.

We shall now dwell, to some extent, on these two situations (i.e. fear of death and challenging death):

Fear Of Death

Fear of death deeply affects people’s lives and has wide-ranging effects in society with respect to activism and struggle, so this phenomenon deserves a closer study. By God’s will, we will discuss, in what follows, the causes of this phenomenon, its negative effects on society, and the useful educative ways to cure minds of this condition.


Attachment to the world is among the most important causes of fear of death. If one lives in this world like all people and enjoys its good things but his heart does not get attached to it, death will not frighten him. We shall discuss this point presently, God willing.

Another cause of fear of death is poor preparation for the hereafter, because of which one is afraid of embarking on a new phase of life that will be everlasting. It is to this fact that the following Qur’anic verse alludes, while addressing the Jews, who believed that God preferred them over all other nations and that they were His friends to the exclusion of other people:

"Say, ‘O Jews! If you claim that you are God’s favorites to the exclusion of other people, then long for death, should you be truthful. Yet they will never long for it because of what their hands have sent ahead, and God knows best the wrongdoers.”(62:6-7).

This is a litmus test to gauge the truthfulness of their claim. Lack of preparation for the hereafter results from getting wedded to the world, therefore, this is the principal factor that causes fear of death. Something to this effect has been related from Imam al-Sadiq (‘a): “He who loves the world is humiliated”.1 This narration could be analyzed and interpreted in this way: love for the world and attachment to it is among the causes of uneasiness towards death, and the two are in fact two sides of a single issue; he who loves the world becomes afraid of death.

Whoever fears death is humiliated because he does not have the ability to take a stand on a bold resolution, and when a man is unable to do so he becomes a compliant tool whose actions are dependent on those of the arrogant powers: This is the humiliation which Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) speaks about in this narration.

This is a precise yardstick by which a person’s readiness for the hereafter, in this world, may be known. The more one’s attachment to the life of this world is, the less his preparation for the next; and the less one’s preparation for the hereafter is, the more his apprehension about death. Someone said to Abu Dharr (may God be pleased with him): “Why do we dislike death?” He replied: “Because you have built this world and demolished your hereafter; so you dislike moving from a refurbished place to ruins.”

Then he asked: “How do you consider our meeting God?” “The good doer will [meet Him] like someone who has been away and now returns to his family, the wrongdoer will [meet God] like the slave who had run away and now returns to his master.” The questioner added: “How do you see our condition with God?He replied: “Put your works before the Book of God, the Blessed, the Sublime [for He says]: "Indeed the pious shall be amid bliss, and indeed the vicious shall be in hell” (8:13-14), then the man said: “So where is God’s mercy?” Abu Dharr answered: "Indeed God’s mercy is close to the virtuous.” (7:56).2

The Stand

Strength, courage and audacity certainly constitute one of the two elements that make a stand, the other being political awareness. Since fear of death weakens man, it inevitably deprives him of the power to take a practical stand on difficult questions. Man’s worth in the field of encounter does not lie in his intention alone; it rests on his stand as well.

A large number of Muslims during the time of Imam Husayn (‘a) were not pleased with Yazid and his actions; they hated him very much, but Husayn translated that hatred and rejection to action. The value of Imam Husayn’s work lies here, for a stand is the embodiment of opinion and affiliation; bringing out views, affiliations, loyalty or repudiation from the mind to the arena of confrontation.

All people do not approve of injustice but some openly declare their disapproval either by civil disobedience, demonstrations and strikes or by revolution. Of course, the disapproval which remains in the mind unexpressed will not cost the disapprover anything. It is practical stand taken on the field of confrontation that costs one dear and proves a burden.

It is this action that requires struggle and sacrifice, and imposes the consequences on the one who takes it. It is essential to note that passive resistance and armchair opposition cannot change the course of history; what does is the action of those who take the bold decision. Rejection and dislike which one leaves in his mind does not make any difference in political and social realities nor does it stir people; it is positive action that moves people and brings about political and social changes. In the end, confrontation and encounter is the real stand.

Changing From A Position Of No Stand To That Of A Contrary Stand

Civilizational conflicts do not tolerate non-stands so if a man cannot cope with the difficult stand and is too weak to take the right stand, he cannot remain neutral to the last; non-stands get transformed into contrary stands. The reason why non-stands turn into contrary stands is exactly why stands change into non-stands, i.e. fear of death.

What disables man from taking the right position will surely disable him from slipping into falsehood, and in this way he will be classified within the front of falsehood. As we said, the field of confrontation will not leave one alone without classifying him. If he does not align himself with the party of truth in which he believes, the battlefield will sooner or later enlist him into the ruling order, at which time he will be among the army of the rebellious [to God] (taghut), even if his heart and mind are with the truth.

Here one is split into two opposing halves: his view (his mind) and his sentiment (his heart) taking the direction of truth and his outward stand and declared position (his will) taking the side of falsehood. This is a clear case of schizophrenia in which a person is split into two contradictory parts with the result that his personality loses its harmony and his outward actions are in conflict with his internal situation.

This is the issue to which Imam Husayn (‘a) called the attention of Ibn Ziyad’s army in Karbala on the day of Ashura, saying: “You have drawn on us the sword we placed in your right hands”3 Indeed this sword that is mentioned by the Imam denotes power and authority and it was Islam that gave them this power [as a whole].

The Arabs were a weak nation isolated in the desert. The Messenger of God (S) brought them Islam from God. With these people, he set up a formidable force to conquer east and west, overthrew the thrones of despots and oppressors, liberated oppressed peoples, set free God’s servants from the yoke of oppression and servitude and directed them away from servitude to man towards servitude to the One, the Irresistible. Surely, the Messenger of God (S) entrusted them with this power.

One of the achievements of the Messenger of God (S) made possible through the support of Almighty God was to make this nation a great and miraculous force. This is what is intended by this precise statement which expresses the depth of the tragedy: ‘the sword we gave you, which is in your right hands’.

What was appropriate for them was to draw that sword on the enemies of God and His messenger, but they used it against the Prophet’s Household and his successors. They were supposed to use the sword to fight the leaders of oppression and polytheism but they used it on the leaders of monotheism and justice, in support of the leaders of polytheism and injustice.

This is the depth of the tragedy which befell this nation during the time of the Umayyad rulers. This is also the correct description of the Kufans which was given by al-Farazdaq when Imam Husayn (‘a) asked him about the situation he left behind in Kufa, for the majority of the Kufans were Alids and the hearts of the Alids were with Husayn although their swords had turned against him.

Many of those who came out with Ibn Ziyad’s army to fight Imam Husayn (‘a) loved him before; they were among those who wrote to him requesting him to join them. What identifies man is his opinion, love, hate and stand: Whenever these three elements are complete and harmonious man is strong, but when they are opposed and contradictory he becomes weak and, as a result, turns into a pliant tool in the hands of the oppressors.

The Last Stage Of Apostacy

Al-Farazdaq did not say-although he should have said-that the first and second stages of man’s renegation are from a stand to a non-stand and then from a non-stand to a contrary stand. The third stage is reached when the stand which is contrary to the truth overpowers man’s thought and opinion and directs him towards the opinion of the opponent by adorning it till he completely contradicts the first opinion [the truth].

Then his view turns into its antithesis: love turns into hate and hate into love. This is the final stage of renegation which al-Farazdaq did not mention. This final stage could well have been hidden to him but the Qur’an has recorded it most clearly:

“Then the fate of those who committed misdeeds was that they denied the signs of God and they used to deride them” (Qur’an, 30:10).

It is a blatant commission of misdeed for a believing man to wield a sword against God, His messenger (S) and His friends and fight them in defense of taghut. Should one do this, God Almighty will remove faith, awareness and the ability to have a stand from him so that he will deny the signs of God, and when he denies God’s signs, His messengers and His friends, he ends up treating them as enemies and hating them. This completes the apostasy.

Realignment On The Opposing Side And A Turnabout

Thus the three centres of human personality-the mind, the heart and the will (or opinion, sympathy and stand) once again realign after getting split up, and are filled with confusion and anxiety. The human personality regains harmony but in the opposite direction altogether; a negative one which is inclined to disobedience of God, His messenger (S) and His friends.

Three States In Man’s Life

State one: Harmony between hearts and swords in the direction of truth.

State two: Conflict between hearts and swords and between truth and false hood.

State three: Harmony between hearts and swords in the direction of falsehood.

The First State

The condition whereby hearts and swords are in harmony represents the sound natural state in which the three centres, the mind, the heart and the will meet, so that opinion joins love and hate and they are connected with a stand. This state is that of harmony, perseverance and strength because the coming together of these three centres imbues man with strength. This condition is a natural and innate one where mutual influence exists between these three factors. The effects of this condition on man are that he lives a tranquil life that does not know anxiety, because psychological comfort does not stem from external peace and comfort but from internal mental harmony. With this condition man develops in a balanced way.

The Second State

This is a situation in which hearts and swords contradict each other and that is when man’s will succumbs to the agents of enticement and terror which are applied by taghut. Taghut aims at occupying the three centres of human personality altogether; however, the first to be terrorized is the will. This is where the fall starts and it is the first stage of apostasy, although the mind and the heart still remain unchanged. The situations we mentioned above are now reversed: one loses comfort, tranquility and mental equilibrium, and instead, suffers from anxiety and disorder and his personality becomes deprived of ‘the baptism of God.’ (2:138).

This is the stage at which the degradation of man’s personality begins and the conscience struggles to restore harmony and balance inside itself. If it succeeds, then the personality will surely regain its balance and harmony. At this stage, people fall into two groups: one with the type of al-Hurr’s personality, who had a strong and sound conscience, which brought him back to God again, and another group with a personality like that of Umar ibn Sa’ad, who lacked such strong conscience and descended to the last stage of degradation.

The Third Stage

At this stage harmony among the three seats of human personality returns once again but in the direction of disrepute. Internally, man seeks order, so if he is unable to get it in the right direction due to his weak conscience which cannot harmonize the personality on the side of truth, order returns him to the side of falsehood. Man’s heart and mind will now realign with his [now untoward] will and action.

This is level zero of man’s degradation, in which taghut and worldly desire drain the conscience and take over both mind and heart. When this happens taghut occupies all the three forts of human personality and empties the conscience of whatever power of struggle God Almighty has endowed it with. There upon, God’s mercy on man comes to a halt because mercy descends on the conscience, the heart, the mind and the will, and when they are all drained away there remains no place for mercy to descend on. This is a state of unbelief.

There exists a more abased state: the state of hypocrisy in which the swords return to the side of truth but not in compliance with it but to conspire against it. Because of this, God Almighty says:

"Indeed the hypocrites will be in the lowest reach of the fire...” (4:145).

After this passage about the stages of man’s degradation we shall now return to our discussion about defying death and fearing death.

The Effects Of Fear Of Death On Society

Fear of death leaves wide ranging negative effects on human life; it robs people of the power to resist and makes them easy prey for tyrants, who deplete the resistance Almighty God has bestowed their consciences, the strength He has endowed their will and the awareness He has given their minds. As a result, all the values, morals, will and resistance which God has given them is drained off.

This state of total draining-away and depletion is the despicable condition which God Almighty mentioned as part of the way the despots treat their people: “So he despised his people and they obeyed him.”

Pharaoh would not have been able to subjugate the people to his will and power without draining their values, morals, power of resistance, will and conscience which God had bestowed on them. [The verse refers to Pharaoh and his people.] Man becomes inconsequential as a result of total submission to tyrants. The instrument which is preferred most by the arrogant is terrorising, because the fear of death makes it easy for anyone to sow the seeds of terror in any society.

Educative Methods For Fighting This Situation

1. Curtailing expectations from life in this world.

2. Remembering God and yearning to meet Him.

First Method

Curtailing one’s expectation from worldly life and weakening one’s relationship with it.

A firm attachment to the world and too much hope in it are among the greatest fetters that hamper man’s progress towards God. When one frees oneself from them, he becomes less encumbered for the journey towards God Almighty and is never frightened by death. In fact he becomes indifferent to it, never worrying whether it falls on him or he falls on it, as Ali Akbar (‘a) said to his father as they approached Karbala: ‘Dear Father! In that case we do not fear to die, being on the right.’ Imam Husayn (‘a) replied: ‘May God reward you with the best of what He rewards a son for serving his father!”4

Second Method

Remembering God and making firm one’s longing to meet Him through death.

Death is, to the believer, a way of meeting God, and, meeting Him is the greatest joy. The life of this world screens one from experiencing the presence of God, and when death overtakes him the covering leaves his eyes

"We have removed your veil from you, and so your sight is acute today” (50:2).

At that time, the believer will behold the beautiful names and attributes of God, and His sublimity, beauty, omnipotence and greatness. To the believer, this represents the highest pleasure which is incomparable to paradise and its houris and all the blessings God has created in it.

It is recorded in Makarim al-Akhlaq that the Messenger of God (S) has said: “O Ibn Mas’ud! Curtail your hopes; when morning comes, say: ‘I may not see evening’ and when evening comes, say: ‘I may not see morning’. Resolve on leaving the world and love to meet God and do not dislike to meet him, for indeed God loves to meet those who love to meet Him and he dislikes meeting those who dislike meeting Him.”5

The Messenger of God (S) also said: “When light enters the chest it expands.” He was asked: ‘Does that have a sign by which it may be known?” “Yes”, he replied. “Withdrawing from the house of deception, returning to the everlasting house and making preparation for death before it descends”6

Ali (‘a) is reported to have said: “Arouse the desire for the delights of paradise in yourselves and you will love death and loathe living”7

Some Scenes Of Confronting Death In Al-Taff

In what follows I will recount one out of many scenes of al-Taff [the bank of the Euphrates where the battle of Ashura’ took place] where death was held in contempt and even positively sought for, and the longing to meet God exhibited. This was one of the most beautiful scenes that history has recorded in that regard.

The Imam gathered his companions and family on the night before the tenth of Muharram and asked them to go wherever they wanted and leave him alone. He wanted them to be fully aware of their situation. He said to them:

“I commend God with the best commendation and praise Him for both ease and difficulty. O Lord! I praise you for the honour you granted us through prophethood; You gave us hearing, sight and hearts; and taught us the Qur’an and made us comprehend religion. So include us among the grateful.

“I do not know of any companions more loyal and better than mine; nor a family kinder and more devoted. May God bless you all for my sake. Listen! I think our appointment with these enemies is tomorrow and I permit you all to go away and leave me; you are free and you [no longer] have any duty towards me. The night has provided you with cover so avail yourselves of it. Let each one of you hold the hand of [i.e. go with] one of my family (may God reward you all!) and disperse in the rural and urban areas of the land [and take refuge there] till God brings relief. These people are only after me; should they get me, they will forget the rest.”8

His family’s reply:

The Imam had hardly finished his speech when that select group of his noble family declared that they would choose the way he took. They would follow him and never take a different course. So they all stood up with tearful eyes and said: “Why should we do that? The worst thing that can happen to us is to remain alive after your death? May God we do not live to see that day!”

His brother Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas was the first to reply, then the noble ones of the Prophet’s family followed suit. Then the Imam turned to the sons of his uncle Aqil and said:

“The killing of Muslim [ibn Aqil] suffices you a share, so you can go, for I allow you.”

The noble men of Aqil’s family started up and spoke passionately:

“What do we say to the people? Do we say: ‘we have left alone our leader and our cousins, who are the best of cousins, without having shot any arrows together with them, nor getting pierced by a spear, nor struck by a sword, and without knowing what they had done to be killed?! Never! By God we will not do that. Instead, we will sacrifice our lives, wealth and families for your sake; we will fight on your side till we reach the same destination as you. Abominable indeed, is life after you!”9

His Companions’ Reply

With tears running down his cheeks, Muslim ibn Awsajah sprung up and addressed the Imam in these words:

“Should we abandon you? What will be our plea with God for our inability to discharge our duty to you? I swear by God that I will never forsake you; rather I will pierce their chests with my spear and strike them with my sword as long as its hilt remains in my hand. If I will have no arms with which to fight them I will pelt them with stones till I die on your side.”

Then Sa’ad ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi said:

“By God we will not abandon you. [We will remain with you] till God ascertains that we have kept our duty toward His Messenger in your regard. By God if I know that I will be killed and then revived, then burnt, then [my ashes] blown away, then the whole process repeated seventy times, I will not abandon you, till I meet my death in your defense! How can I not do that [i.e. persevere] when it is but a single death after which I will meet everlasting honour?”10

Zuhayr said: “By God, I would like to be killed, then revived, then killed again till I am killed a thousand times in this way, if only God the Almighty and Sublime will ward off death from you and these noble souls of your family as a result.”

The rest of the Imam’s companions also declared their readiness to die sacrificing themselves for his sake. So he expressed his gratitude to them all and stressed that they would all meet their death the next day. Oh hearing this, they answered in chorus:

“Praise be to God who honoured us by making us your helpers to be martyred along with you. Will you not be pleased that we should be together with you in your station, O son of the daughter of the Messenger of God (S)?11

The Imam had tested these people and found them to be the most loyal of men whose souls had been enlightened with the light of faith, who had freed themselves of all worldly concerns and who, as the historians inform us, were martyrdom-thirsty and poised to earn the blessings of the hereafter.

When Muhammad ibn Bashir al-Hadrami was informed that his son had been captured at the frontiers of al-Rayy he complained: I do not want my son to remain in captivity while I live after him. The Imam got the impression that the man wanted to get his son released from captivity so he allowed him to leave, saying: “You are free to go and work for the release of your son.” Al-Hadrami replied: “May wild beasts devour me if I leave you ...”12

Al-Qasim ibn al-Hasan, an adolescent who had not reached puberty, said to Husayn (‘a) “Am I among those who will be killed?” Touched by this, he said: “How do you consider death, my son?” “Sweeter than honey, Uncle!” he replied. On hearing this, the Imam said: “Surely, by God, may your uncle be your ransom! Certainly you will be killed along with the men with me after you meet a tough ordeal. My son Abdullah [the suckling child]13 will also meet the same fate.

  • 1. Bihar al-Anwar, 6/128 (hadith 14).
  • 2. Bihar al-Anwar, 6/137 (hadith 72).
  • 3. Al-Muqarram’s Maqtal al-Al-Husayn (‘a), 286.
  • 4. Sheikh al-Samawi’s Ibsar al-Ayn fi Ansar al-Husayn (‘a), pg 21-22.
  • 5. Makarim al-Akhlaq, 452.
  • 6. Kanz al-Ummal 1, 76 (hadith 302).
  • 7. Ghurar al-Hikam, 413 (Ch: 42 No. 25)
  • 8. Ibn al-Athir’s Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh 4/ 57, Beirut ed. 1965. In Al-Muntazam, Ibn al-Jawzi has recorded another version of the Imam’s speech: ‘It is recorded in Sayyid al-Muqarram’s Maqtal al-Husayn (‘a) that he said: “You are free from your oath of allegiance to me so join your clans and clients” And he said to His family: “You are permitted to leave me for you cannot stand them by virtue of their great numbers and strength, and no one is wanted except me. The Sublime and Mighty God will support me and never deprive me of His good watch as was His wont with our good forebears.”

    A group of people left his camp and then his family said to him: “We will not part from you. Whatever grieves you should grieve us and whatever befalls you should befall us, we shall be nearest to God when we are with you.’ He said to them: If you have prepared yourselves for what I have prepared myself then know that God bestows honourable stations for His servants only because they bear adversities, and that God has conferred on me and on my family, of whom I am the last to stay in the world, such honours that will make it easy for me to bear adversities. Indeed you have a portion of God’s honours. Know that the sweet and the bitter of this world are but a dream and the hereafter is the place for waking up, and the successful is the one who succeeds in it and the damned is the one who is damned in it”.

  • 9. Ibn Athir’s Al-Tarikh, 4/58.
  • 10. Al-Muntazam 5/179; Tarikh al-Tabari 6/239.
  • 11. Bihar al-Anwar 44, 298; Al-Bahrani’s Al-Awalim, 350.
  • 12. Tarikh Ibn Asakir 13/54; Tahdhib al-Tahdhib 1/150, al-Maqarram’s Maqtal al-Husayn (‘a) 165-170.
  • 13. Al-Muhaddith al-Qummi’s Nafas al-Mahmum, 230.