Arise and Bear Witness: Dr Ali Shariati - An Overview

Much has been said and written about Imam Hussein and the event of Karbala, examining the historical role of the Imam but rarely have the purpose for which Hussein sacrificed himself been particularly inspected. In Arise and Bear Witness, Dr Ali Shariati examines the concept of sacrifice, that idea we call ‘martyrdom’ from an intellectual, philosophical and scientific point of view.  

In order to understand the true meaning of martyrdom, the ideological school from which it originates is first clarified. We understand from the first few pages the choice of the title Arise and Bear Witness, the Islamic meaning to martyrdom, in opposition to ‘death’ or ‘to die’ in non-Islamic rites. Therefore, Shariati dissects the concept of martyrdom within the context of its school of thought, viewing Hussein and the battle of Karbala as an eternal and transcendent phenomenon rather than solely a tragic event to cry about.  


According to Shariati, the prophets are classified into two difference classes: Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic prophets. The first chain of prophets arose from the masses, for the missions of these prophets were aimed towards the people. The latter group were aristocrats, messengers directly related to the power structure. The ultimate mission of the prophets from the chain of Abraham was to establish one religion and its name is Submission “Islam”. Shariati beautifully states that “…the Prophet himself began his efforts to destroy all of the values of ignorance and aristocratic thinking … His movement is dedicated against deception, falsehood, polytheism, creation of discord, hypocrisy, aristocracy and class differences, to declare equality for all”. This brief historical flashback to illuminate to the reader that after the death of the Prophet (pbuh), discrepancies returned, and deviations appeared, which induced the uprising of Imam HusseinUnder the ruling of Othman, the Omayyids took positions in the Religion and Ali had to confront the ‘neo-ignorance’ and ‘neo-aristocracy’: “Ali is the base of resistance”. Time moves forward and the eldest son of Fatima (A) is the inheritor of Ali's administration sits in resistance to the reawakened neo-ignorance, "he is the manifestation of loneliness and isolation in Islamic society..." Now it is the Hussein's turn. 

The approach taken by Shariati for the description of the period of Imam Hussein is an essential part of the chapter. Fifty years after the death of the Prophet (pbuh), the Omayyids have occupied every base of society and the disciples of the school of Mohammad (pbuh) fall into three groups. The first group are the people who stood against the perversion such as Ammar, Abdullah ibn Mas'oud, Hojr ibn Adi (the leader of the second generation of the Revolution). If the reader is interested in discovering the biographies of such figures that remained loyal to the message of Islam and Ahl al -Bayt, I suggest you read The Ten Granted Paradise (Google Books) by Sayyed Ammar Nakshawani. The second group by Shariati are those who have retreated into the quiet corners of the mosques, busy themselves with prayers and meditations, along with long fasting and mortification. Finally the third group are those Companions who abandoned the battlefield in full awareness at Badr, Uhud and Hunayn. Shariati postulates that two horrible cancers fell upon the people "in the Name of God" and "the religion of God". The analogies between that period, sixty years A.H and the crisis the Middle East is facing today with ISIS are tremendous if we examine these two cancers indicated by Shariati.

The first cancer is the cancer of religious authorities, the pseudo-Islamic scholars and clergymen. Their thesis is that regardless of what anyone has done wrong, deceitful he/she may have been, one should have hope for the forgiveness and mercy of God. Therefore, it is forbidden for you and me to call them bad names or fight against them. If you do call a criminal or an oppressor and condemn him it is a if you claim to be God, so you do not have the right to judge the oppressor and conspirator. The obvious result of such reasoning is total acceptance and obedience, consequently we should be patient and "leave everything to God". Shariati marvelously states that "this disease of hope or cancer of the religious authorities paralyzes the second generation of Islam.... it is the strict, responsible fundamentalist Muslims, sensing their responsibility every moment to enjoin the good and forbid the bad ".

The second cancer is the cancer of fatalism, the first school of thought created in the time of the Omayyids: The Divine Fate. In basic form, whatever one does is done according to the wishes of God, no one has any right whatsoever. They conclude that the Omayyids rule because God gave them power, Ali is defeated because of the will of God and so everything is out of our hands. Therefore, any protest and criticism of God's Will is prohibited. This is a continuous debate between intellectuals and scholars, the issue of pre-destination and free-will, and Ahl al-Bayt take a different stand in regards to this jurisprudential debate. So now sixty years after the migration, all of the powers are in the possession of the oppressive ruler, Mo'awiyyah that wants Imam Hussein to sit in the mosques of Damascus and teach theology, history of Islam and culture provided with a budget as long as he does not engage in any political activity.

Shariati finally shifts the focus into trying to define Imam Hussein's Revolution. Shariati dismisses the thesis that Imam Hussein left Medina to undertake a political or military revolt because the Imam did not have the possibilities available to him to make such a Revolution. Imam Hussein leaves Medina to Mecca announcing, "I am leaving Medina to invite people to the good and to forbid evil". In Mecca he announces "I am going to my death". Shariati views the purpose of his movement is neither to run nor to seek seclusion, but rather as a responsible leader sees if he remains silent, Islam will change into a religion of the government. Shariati explains: "He has only one weapon - death.... Hussein, the heir of Adam who gives life to the children of mankind, and the successor of the great prophets, who taught mankind 'how to live', has now come to teach mankind 'how to die' ".

I only find it fitting to conclude my overview by quoting Dr Ali Shariati's summary:
"Martyrdom, in summary, in our culture, contrary to others schools where it is considered to be an accident, an involvement, a death imposed upon a hero, a tragedy, is a grade, a level, a rank. It is not a means but is goal itself. It is originality. It is completion. It is a lift. It itself is mid-way to the highest peak of humanity and it is a culture."

May God bless the souls of our scholars, intellectuals and martyrs that have, are and will continue to spread the message of Islam, Ahl al-Bayt and the life of Imam Hussein. 

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    1. Your comment is much appreciated thank you Syed Mehmood Raza.

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