Devotion in pictures:
Muslim popular iconography

Sacred narratives of Shia Islam

The Kerbela tragedy

Shia Islam has its own sacred narratives. The "key narrative" itself tells how Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed on the Plain of Kerbela beside the Euphrates, in what is now Iraq. When the prophet Muhammad died in 632, a group of Muslims believed that he had identified Ali as his successor. However, Ali was not elected Caliph until 656, after Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. When Ali was murdered in 661, his supporters threw their weight behind his son Hasan, and later his younger son Husain.

In 680, Husain went to Iraq to join his supporters there. He was accompanied by a small troop of soldiers and by his family, women and children. The little group was surrounded on the road to Kufa. According to the Shia legend, they were denied access to water and were made to suffer greatly. One by one, the men were killed, the last to die being Husain himself. The only male survivor was one of Husain's sons, who was too ill to take part in the fighting.

The picture shows a central scene of the story, in which Husain has just asked the enemy to let at least his little son, who is dying of thirst, to be allowed to drink. The absolute evil of the enemy is illustrated by one of them immediately firing an arrow that kills the little child. (Purchased in Turkey.)

The hero Abbas

One of the great heroes of Kerbela was Abbas, Husain's half-brother and a famous fighter, from whom the enemy in the picture is fleeing. Nevertheless, Abbas was killed by the superior power of the enemy when he fought single-handedly to reach the river's edge to fetch water for Husain's daughter. On his shield we can read the Shiite affirmation of faith, which is the same as that of the Sunni, but which bears an additional text concerning Ali: "There is no God but God, Muhammad is His Prophet, Ali is the friend of God" (i.e. the guardian of God's religion). On the flag is written: "God's help and an imminant breakthrough", which is a quotation from the Koran's Sura 61, verse 13. In the background we see the encampment with Hussein's green tent in the centre, where the women are standing, and all round them we see the overwhelming enemy army. (Purchased in Iran.)


Hussein's horse Zuljanah is a popular subject. It was Zuljanah that returned riderless from the battlefield, and in this way told that Hussein had been killed. In the picture, he turns to the viewer, bearing his message.

Asjura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram and the day of Hussein's death, is the most important festival in the Shiite religious calendar. The day is marked by rituals, funeral rites, singing and recitations. (Indian poster purchased in Zanzibar.)

The Imams

In Shia Islam, the Imams are the infallible religious leaders. The first Imam was Ali, the second was Hasan and the martyred Husain the third. The rest of the Imams are the descendents of Husain.

In this picture we can see Ali on the left; above him is written: "He whose lord I am also has Ali as his Lord". This text is taken from a story about the prophet Muhammad: Shortly before the prophet Muhammad died he made his last pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way home to Medina, Muhammad and his companions stopped at a place called Ghadir Khumm. There, the Prophet took Ali's hand and held it up in front of his followers, saying: "He whose lord I am, also has Ali as his Lord. O lord, be a support for all who are the support of Ali, and be the enemy of all who oppose him."

This narrative is one of the texts that Shia Muslims use in the arguments that Ali is the rightful heir to the leadership, and the first imam.

On the right-hand side of the picture we see Husain. Above him is written: "His Highness Hussein, son of Ali; peace be on him."

In Shia Islam, the death of Husain is regarded as a martyrdom of redemption. Husain always knew what his fate would be, but he chose death in order to become the key to Paradise. He will intercede for everyone who believes in his acts of redemption and who mourns his death. (Purchased in Turkey.)

Site map

Back to start