From oceans of Light

Among Shia works of the Safavid era, Baqir Majlisi’s writings (his most popular work is the Bihar al Anwar, 10th century collection of Ahadis) on Karbala are characterized by an insistence on the predestinarian quality of Imam Hussain’s sacrifice.

In the chapter “The ways in Which God informed his Prophets of the forthcoming martyrdom of Hussain” – Majlisi relates a Hadith (a report concerning deeds and sayings of the Prophet and his family) to the effect that Umm Salamah, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, entered her husband’s quarters one day to find him weeping and clasping his infant grandson Hussain to his breast. Alarmed, Umm Salamah sought the reason for his distress, and her husband replied that he had just been visited by the angel Gabriel, who had announced to him the future martyrdom of Hussain. Umm Salamah suggested, “O Prophet of God, ask Him to lift this fate from Hussain.” Muhammad replied: “I have already done so. But God has revealed to me that Husayn will attain to a spiritual rank never reached by any other created being. Furthermore, he will have a Shiah, a band of followers, who will attach themselves to him in devotion, and who will therefore benefit from his intercession on their behalf. In addition, the Mahdi will be one of his descendants.”

To support his view of Karbala Majlisi subjected passages of the Quran to ta’wil, the process of reading scripture with an eye to its esoteric meaning. In doing so Majlisi articulated a typology in which events from ancient history could be seen to prefigure the life and death of Hussain. In the Bihar al-anwar Majlisi expands the Quran’s relatively brief references to Noah and the Flood so as to establish a link with Karbala. Majlisi’s account has Gabriel descend from heaven to direct Noah in the construction of the Ark. First Noah, in accordance with divine instructions, hews lengths of teakwood for planking. The angel then hands Noah a chest filled with nails to be used in the ship’s construction. When the vessel is finally completed, five nails remain in the chest, each of them aglow with a curious light, “just as the glittering stars give forth light on the horizon” (an echo of the celebrated “light verse,” Quran 24.35). Intrigued, the patriarch asks about these spikes and learns that they symbolize the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, her sons Hassan and Hussain, and her husband Ali.

One nail in particular draws Noah’s attention, for it glistens as if wet with dew.
“This is blood,” Gabriel explained; and he told Noah the story of Hussain and of what the members of his own Muslim community would do to Hussain in the future. The angel instructs Noah to fasten all five spikes to the forepart of his teakwood vessel. This is an appropriate symbolic action, for the Ark typologically foreshadows the salvific action of the Imam’s family: like the Ahl-e Bayt (the members of the Prophet’s household), this vessel becomes the means whereby a righteous minority achieves deliverance from a fallen world. Knowledge of the esotericist linking of the Flood with Karbala is by no means limited to an educated few: in Shia shrines as far apart as Damascus and Hyderabad, inscriptions proclaim, “Hussain is the lamp of guidance and the Ark of salvation.”






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *