Islamic Studies Karbala in Shiʿi Ritual
Afsar Mohammad
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0278


The ten-day battle of Karbala that occurred in 7th-century Iraq has remained a key event in the history of Islam, as it marked a split between Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims. In the battle, the grandson of the Prophet and his followers were martyred, and their history tied together the entire community of Shiʿi Muslims. In contemporary debates, the impact of this protest and resistance transgressed the limits of Shiʿi devotion and extended further into a symbol of new Muslim identity discourse. Recent studies have recognized this shift, and most observe it as a specific mode of identity discourse, known as the “Karbala Paradigm.” Throughout the world, various levels of ritual and narrative practices of Shiʿi Muslims and the battle of Karbala display a diversified mode of Islam. Despite its status as a minority sect, Shiʿi Muslims take on an assertive role, as well as a clearly marked identity, separating themselves from the dominant Muslim practices and narratives. This aspect of diversity and a different mode of narrative tradition in Shiʿism actually begins with its intriguing history itself. Since then, Shiʿism has become a major school of thought and practice in Islam, referring specifically to the followers of ʿAli, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. ʿAli and his family, including his wife, Fatima, and sons, Hasan and Husain—often spelled Husayn—took the role of the heirs of the Prophet, and their sacrifices for the community remain the center of the Karbala narrative both in global and local Islams. Each year during the month of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, thousands of Muslims including Shiʿa and Sunni, join to commemorate the battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Hasan and Husain. However, Shiʿi and Sunni Muslims participate in different sets of storytelling and devotional practices that represent their different viewpoints of the history and legacy of the Prophet. Undoubtedly, the history and theology of Shiʿi Muslims impact the making of many everyday practices of Shiʿism. In order to understand the contours of several everyday practices of Shiʿism, we need to learn about their specific practices, such as the ten-day commemorations during the month of Muharram, and their narrative and ritual practices surrounding this event. According to these definitions, it is imperative to comprehend the contours of various living practices within the larger frame of the conceptual issues that Shiʿi Muslims, and even non-Muslims in various other contexts, involved in different rituals and narrative performances of Shiʿi Islam. Along with the overview and the section on the living Shiʿism as related to the battle of Karbala, this bibliography also includes Karbala-based studies on the public event of Muharram, Shiʿi literary and narrative cultures, and interactions among Shiʿi Muslims, Sufis, and non-Muslims. Most practices of Shiʿi Muslims hinge largely on their agreements and disagreements with these specific groups of communities. Daily practices of Shiʿism are inseparable from its historical memory, such as the battle of Karbala and the concept of the martyrdom of Husain. Shiʿi Muslims participate in their everyday devotional life while remembering these events from the history of Karbala martyrdom. Many rituals commemorate the memory of the battle of Karbala, religious gatherings (majalis) dwell deep on these historical details, and visitations to the symbolic shrines of the martyrs (ʿalam or taziyeh) also highlight this memory.

General Overviews

In his pioneering study on Shiʿism, Michael Fischer used a key term, “Karbala Paradigm,” to denote several distinctive dimensions of a newly emerging discourse of Shiʿism. Since the Iranian revolution of the 1980s, Karbala has acquired more prominence beyond its geographical boundaries. Since the 1980s, traditional mourning rituals of the Karbala martyrdom have been replaced with contemporary Muslim activism in various social spheres, and several studies on Shiʿi Islam offer fresh perspectives and narrativizations of the battle of Karbala.

  • Amir-Moezzi, Ali. The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism The Sources of Esotericism in Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

    As a resulting phenomenon of the battle of Karbala, the role of the imam as a religious leader has been intriguing in Shiʿism since the beginnings of its history. This book offers foundational knowledge into the making of the imamate in the early history of Shiʿism, and seeks to explore the distinctive traits of early Imamism.

  • Chittick, William C., trans. A Shiʿite Anthology. Selected by Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i. London: Muhammadi Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1980.

    This anthology is foundational in understanding the three basic dimensions of Shiʿism; namely, the idea of unity, political and moral teachings, and inward spiritual devotional life of the community. As far as the daily practices of Shiʿism are concerned, this third dimension of devotional aspects as described in this book provides a philosophical base to the theology of Karbala martyrdom.

  • Fischer, Michael. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    With an ethnographic account of the town of Qum in Iran, this work uses the key term “Karbala Paradigm” to define new politics in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Fischer describes this paradigm that “provided a psychology of stoic determination to fight for social justice even against overwhelming odds.” Ever since its publication, this work has provided a continuous theoretical framework to comprehend contemporary Muslim politics at the global and local level.

  • Fischer, Michael M. J., and Mahdi Abedi. Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

    This book discusses multiple aspects of Muslim life in the light of contemporary theoretical discourses. Specifically, Part 1 of this book is central to understand the everyday life in various rural and urban Shiʿi locations. This part focuses on the questions of schooling, sex, marriage, and class distinctions that shed light on daily practices as well.

  • Jafri, S. Husain M. Origins and Early Development of Shi‘a Islam. London: Longman, 1979.

    A detailed study of various conceptual foundations that led to the formation of an early Shiʿi Muslim community. Jafri’s emphasis on the making of Shiʿism as a religious movement actually reconstructs various sources of early Shiʿism.

  • Kamrava, Mehran. “Iranian Shi‘ism at the Gates of Historic Change.” In Innovation in Islam: Traditions and Contributions. Edited by Mehran Kamrava, 58–81. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    Although this essay is more about contemporary political changes in the nature and newly emerging patterns of Iranian Shiʿism, this helps us to understand how these changes are related to new modes of articulations in religious system as well.

  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    An excellent introduction to Shiʿi Islam and its connected history with Sunni Islam and Sufism. In the chapters on “The Popular Religion,” and “Contemporary Islam,” Momen also explains various daily practices of Shiʿism.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Hamid Dabashi. Shi‘ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

    This book provides an insight into the making of several theological concepts that define contemporary Shiʿism and its spiritual aspects.

  • Newman, Andrew J. Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780755610358

    From a historical perspective, this work offers a backgrounder to various theoretical and political narrativizations of the Safavid discourse that is at the center of diverse Shiʿi religious practices.

  • Newman, Andrew J. Twelver Shiism: Unity and Diversity in the Life of Islam, 632 to 1722, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

    A study that explains the origins and journey of diversified groups in Twelver Shiʿi Islam and the diversity of Karbala rituals.

  • Szanto, Edith. “Beyond the Karbala Paradigm: Rethinking Revolution and Redemption in Twelver Shi‘a Mourning Rituals.” Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies 6.1 (Winter 2013): 75–91.

    DOI: 10.1353/isl.2013.0007

    This article, with evidence from Syria’s shrine of Sayed Zaynab, contests the political dimension as analyzed by scholars such as Fischer and introduces the idea of salvific affect by highlighting the rituals performed by men and women. Szanto explores how the concepts of “revolution” and “salvation” work together in the field.

  • Takim, Liyakat. The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shiʿite Islam. Albany: State University of New York, 2006.

    The legacy of the Prophet and its routinization and the prophetic authority is a process that tells the history of Shiʿism. Using several biographical texts and scholarship as a device, this book reconstructs the history of the heirs of the Prophet.

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