Islamic Studies Husayn
Diana Steigerwald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0111


Husayn b. ʿAli b. Abi Talib, the son of ʿAli (the cousin of Muhammad) and Fatima (the daughter of Muhammad), was born, according to most credible sources, in Medina on 5 Shaʾban 4 AH/10 January 626 CE. Muslim sources report that as the grandson of Muhammad, he was particularly dear to the Prophet. Hagiographic sources also report that he inherited the sturdy nature of his father, ʿAli, and that he was particularly focused on the struggle for justice. He was known to be very pious, performing one thousand rakʿat (units of prayer) per day and undertaking twenty-five pilgrimages by foot from Medina to Mecca. He is described in the religious sources as generous, gentle, eloquent, and courageous. This entry mainly focuses on the Shiʿi perspectives on Husayn and especially on the tribulations Husayn faced during the caliphate of Yazid, which led to Husayn’s martyrdom at the battle of Karbalaʾ.

General Overviews

Madelung 2004, Jafri 1979, and Vaglieri 1971 are the most important articles and books that give a general overview of Husayn’s life. Abu Mikhnaf 2002 is the earliest and most valuable primary source on the life of Husayn during the caliphate of Yazid.

  • Abū Mikhnaf. Kitāb Maqtal al-Ḥusayn. Edited by Mushtaq Kurji and translated by Hamid Mavani. London: Shia Ithnasheri Community of Middlesex, 2002.

    (Narrative of the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn.) Abu Mikhnaf (d. 157/774) was the first historian to collect reports on the life of Husayn and the tragic events of Karbalaʾ. Not much is known about his life, but we do know that his father was a companion of ʿAli. The translation of Hamid Mavani is based on al-Kalbi’s account of Abu Mikhnaf. Mavani relied on the edition of the Kitab maqtal al-Husayn annotated by Ayatullah Mirza Hasan al-Ghaffari (Qum, Iran: al-Matbaʾat al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1977). The page numbers referenced in this entry correspond to the Internet edition.

  • Jafri, S. Husain M. Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam. London and New York: Longman, 1979.

    Jafri dedicates one chapter of his book to the martyrdom of Husayn. He presents a critique of the earliest sources available, looking at Husayn’s tribulations while also focusing on the Shiʿi perspective. Reprint by Ansariyan Publications available online.

  • Madelung, Wilferd. Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī Abī Ṭaleb. In Encyclopedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 2004.

    Madelung bases his account of Husayn’s life on early Muslim historical sources.

  • Vaglieri, Veccia. “Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 3. Edited by B. Lewis, V. L. Menage, C. Pellat, and J. Schacht, 607–615. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1971.

    Vaglieri covers the life of Husayn based on early Muslim historical sources.

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