Someone Save ʿĀshūrāʾ from Us!
By Rasūl Jaʿfarīyān
Translated by Shayan Shirazi
These days, we are witness to an abundance of different socio-political analyses of ʿĀshūrāʾ. We all know that, for years, everyone has been presenting a particular political interpretation of ʿĀshūrāʾ by citing a single statement or action of Imām Ḥusayn—while the majority of these statements or reports have not yet been criticized from a historical perspective. But irrespective of that, it has never been the custom of the jurists to cite such historical reports for use in legal propositions and to draw jurisprudential conclusions. And from the time that these things have become popular, it has predominantly been the work of the pulpit preachers (minbarī-hā)—otherwise such things would have been paid no attention to by the prime and noble jurists.
The point to consider about such analyses of ʿĀshūrāʾ is for how long, to what extent and with what foundational principles (uṣūl) do we have the right to have different interpretations of ʿĀshūrāʾ in each era? Do we believe that we can present multiple different [contradictory] interpretations from this event and extract a different legal principle from it each day? Or is it the case that there are limitations and that we have certain rules, for example, that we must follow in jurisprudential deduction from history?
If you take a look at the sources pertaining to ʿĀshūrāʾ in the last one hundred years, you will see that ‘epic and heroic’ interpretations have become popular in this century which cannot be found the old texts and sources—for example, the books of the Qājārs are all focused only on tears and grief. Which of these two views is correct? If a particular view is predominant in our day and age, does it mean that it is definitely correct, even if it has not been considered by scholars for the last one thousand years? With what foundational principles is this so? Another case is that, in the recent period, there are many interpretations of ʿĀshūrāʾ relating to enjoining good and forbidding evil—while such an understanding and consideration was not raised in any traditional book of jurisprudence, at least until the middle of the Qājār period. In fact, on the contrary, they discussed whether ʿĀshūrāʾ was an instance of the verse “and do not, with your own hands, cast yourselves into ruin” (2:195).
The question is this: what criteria exist to save us from self-invented interpretations with strange and weird phrasing and terminologies, and subjective analyses arising from the specific political conditions of Iran and the Shīʿa in the last century. What criteria do we have that can teach us to have a normal and rational interpretation based on historical texts and Imāmi reports, to the extent that is authentic, not fabricated and not Isrāʾīlīyyāt?
In one decade alone from the year 1969 to 1979, tens of books were written about Imām Ḥusayn (peace and blessings be upon him) which each had a particular interpretation and approach. There was Ṣāleḥī Najaf Ābādī on one side, Sharīʿatī on the other, and Hāshemīnejād and others… They even tried to base their historical references on some of the historical and ḥadīth works, but, in any case, they were all captivated by and immersed in the political situation of their day, [which influenced their work].
In the last few decades also, we hear discussions about the philosophy of ʿĀshūrāʾ from the tongues of the eulogist reciters (maddāḥān)—who have recently learned to use Arabic phrases in their recitation to reassure people that what they are saying is the truth! By quoting a poem from this and that in the text of the lamentation (rawḍa) or by citing the name of Shaykh Jaʿfar Shūshtarī, Kompānī or others like them, they enchant the audience with their own astonishing quasi-mystical interpretations and mesmerise the youth with obscure expressions and rhetoric accompanied by strange self-invented music. Of course, this climate is no longer that of creating an epic out of Karbalāʾ, just as it is not the tragedy-oriented approach of the Qājār period; it is itself a new style alongside new forms of mysticism.
The fact that we witness epic analyses of ʿĀshūrāʾ immediately being brought out [and used to motivate people towards political ends], whenever the political situation of the country becomes complicated, pressures rise and it is needed that we have a trace of altruism and self-sacrifice, is itself strong evidence of how we treat this event arbitrarily, [and manipulate it] according to our desires.
Some also endeavour to extract the idea of democracy from ʿĀshūrāʾ and interpret it as a movement against tyrannical governments. It is clear that the Imām opposes oppression, but their interpretation is very different. It is possible that, in the next few days, the movement of ʿĀshūrāʾ is also spoken of as an anti-corruption movement.
The question is this: what is the extent of these religious and political deductions from a historical event and how much of a right do we have to produce all of these political, social and fictional mystical interpretations from this Divine movement? Someone must save ʿĀshūrāʾ from us and not allow the greatness of Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī (peace be upon him) to be overshadowed by these erroneous interpretations.
Shayan is an MPhil student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, interested in Islamic thought, theology and intellectual history.