Book review: Martyrdom: Arise and Bear Witness

This book is a compilation of lectures by Dr. Ali Shariati, a well-known Iranian revolutionary and sociologist. It discusses the concept of martyrdom and its importance in the Shia school of thought, and has then been translated into English from Farsi.

Dr. Shariati believes that people need to look at Imam Husayn (a) and the battle of Karbala from its historical and ideological context, and not to view the tragedy as merely something for us to mourn over, as it is in fact an eternal and unequalled phenomenon.

Staying neutral has no place in this revolutionary movement.

The lectures in this book are beautiful examples of Dr. Shariati’s groundwork for conveying the ideology which influenced the common Iranian people during the uprising of the Islamic Revolution. Using a fascinating storytelling style and a timeline of historical events, he explains his point of view to both a lay and an academic audience.

As with his other books, such as Jihad and Martyrdom, this book is a perfect example of Dr. Shariati’s reinterpretation of Imam Husayn’s (a) martyrdom. He makes contemporary connections with Ashura and Arba’een commemorations in Iran, despite the complex and contradictory cultural, social and political conditions during the reign of the Shah Pahlavi.

Dr. Shariati made me realize that there are only two positions we can take in life: either die like Imam Husayn (a), or live like Sayeda Zaynab (a). This is why Sayeda Zaynab’s (a) mandate was heavier than that of her brother Imam Husayn (a). We have to choose either blood, or the message. To be a martyr like Imam Husayn (a), or a messenger like Sayeda Zaynab (a). Staying neutral has no place in this revolutionary movement.

Through this book, I realized that there is never any excuse for pessimism in the face of loss and tragedy, never-ending changes and uncertainty. Despite the immeasurable trauma from the unprecedented horror of the tragedy she experienced, never did Sayeda Zaynab (a) lose hope or give up. She remained steady throughout. This is what gives hope and optimism to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. Sayeda Zaynab (a) forever remains a pristine model of strength, leadership, and vision for men and women alike.

Artwork depicting Sayeda Zaynab (a) and Sakina in Karbala on the day of Ashura.

Dr. Shariati looks forward to a new type of religious leader — one who particularly understands the social message of the Holy Quran. He believes in a traditional clergy leader who could apply Islamic ideals to the particulars of a Muslim society. 

These ideas of Dr. Shariati were accepted by the common people. It prepared the way for the acceptance of Imam Khomeini as a revolutionary leader, and culminated in the blazing victory of the Islamic revival that shook the world in 1979.

Millions of people celebrating the victory of the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979.

It has been such a pleasure to accompany Dr. Shariati, a gifted orator with fluid prose and insightful thoughts, during this emotional journey as he explains his thoughts on what led to Imam Husayn’s (a) stance and his martyrdom. 

I found it interesting how Dr. Shariati categorized the prophets and leaders, who have appeared throughout the history of humanity, into two different classes: Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic leaders of social class. 

We see that Abrahamic Prophets came with unity of vision: it was one spiritual struggle, one religion, one spirit and one slogan throughout the whole of human history. The Prophet’s (s) movement was dedicated against deception, falsehood, polytheism, creation of discord, hypocrisy, aristocracy and class differences.

Dr. Shariati points out that when this last appointed Prophet (s) died, everything suddenly changed. “The most despicable elements of the rejected aristocracy” took up the power bases in society. 

I could easily follow Dr. Shariati as he drew out his arguments using the terms ‘neo-ignorance’ and ‘neo-aristocracy,’ which Imam Ali (a), the base of resistance, had to confront and eventually become the first victim of the revival of the Age of Ignorance.

Imam Hassan (a) inherited Imam Ali’s (a) administration and soon became the commander of an army. Enemies existed even within this army as hypocrisy infiltrated some of his closest friends as well. Sadly, he was left alone in a society that called itself “Islamic.” 

By the time of Imam Husayn (a), nothing was left to inherit: “no army, no weapons, no wealth, no power, and no force, not even an organized following. Nothing at all.”

Dr. Shariati points out that “Imam Husayn’s (a) purpose is neither to run nor to seek shelter.” If Imam Husayn (a) remained silent, Islam would have changed into a military-economic power and nothing more. There was only one effective way to stop this from happening, and that required him to be killed.

“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’.”

Although Dr. Shariati left this world before seeing the success of his groundwork, his ideas continue to be influential amongst Iranians and revolutionary people around the world.

Dr. Ali Shariati, author of Martyrdom: Arise and Bear Witness, and one of the most influential Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century.


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