The Karbala master narrative is one of the most rich and influential in the Islamic world, specifically among Shi‘a societies. We devoted an entire chapter to it in the book Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, and Kamran Scott Aghaie has penned a wonderful study of it in relation to the history of Iranian identity and nationalism. There is a terrific documentary too, examining the narrative in contemporary Iran and Iraq, which aired on PBS several years ago, called Pilgrimage to Karbala. Nevertheless, despite its prominence and the scholarly attention the narrative has received, I was very much surprised to see Ayman al-Zawahiri invoking this master narrative in his eulogy for Usama bin Laden.
In fact, al-Zawahiri made an explicit analogy comparing Bin Laden to Imam Husayn. He stated:
[Usama bin Laden] departed to his God, stained with the blood of his martyrdom. He was the man, who did not surrender, until the last moment of his life. He was killed among his family and sons. Abu Abdallah Usama Bin Ladin was killed the same way Abu Abdallah al-Husayn [the grandson of Prophet Muhammad], may God be pleased with him, was killed among his family and children. Abu Abdallah al-Husayn cried in pride on the day he was slain in Karbala: “I will never show humiliation.” Abu Abdallah Usama Bin Ladin did the same in Abbottabad, when he cried: “I will never show humiliation to the United States, I will never show humiliation to the arrogance of the Crusaders, I will never show humiliation to the collaborative Pakistanis, and I will never give concessions on the ummah’s sanctities and dignity. (Ayman al-Zawahiri, June 8, 2011)
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s use of the Karbala master narrative is unusual for a number of reasons. The Shi‘a master narrative carries deep cosmic and redemptive significance. These sectarian notions run contrary to several core Sunni Muslim beliefs. Indeed, a common Sunni polemical argument against Shi’ism is that it deifies Husayn and the other Imams and thereby commits the unforgivable sign of shirk (idolatry). As such, Sunnis would reject much of the content found in Shi‘a accounts of the Battle of Karbala, such as those traditionally recounted or performed during Ashura.
These theological disagreements notwithstanding, the tragic death of Husayn at Karbala in 680 (CE) is certainly an acknowledged event in Islamic history that is lamented by Sunni Muslims. Reverence for Husayn as a wali or saint among Sunni Muslims is also particularly strong in Egypt, where an ornate shrine believed to contain his severed head serves as one of the two holiest Muslim sites in the country. The other is the shrine-tomb of Sayyida Zaynab, who was Husayn’s sister. I personally visited the shrine of Husayn, as well as Zaynab, in Cairo back in 2001 and saw the Sunni reverence for Husayn first hand. And as most everyone knows, Ayman al-Zawahiri is Egyptian.
Nevertheless, there is great irony in eulogizing Usama bin Laden, who was a Saudi Wahhabi, by comparing him to Imam Husayn. In 1802 (CE), Saudi Wahhabi zealots from Arabia (later “Saudi Arabia”) launched an attack under Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad bin Saud on the mosque-shrine of Husayn at Karbala in Iraq. The Wahhabis committed a massacre of the Shi‘a Muslim inhabitants in the holy city and proceeded to plunder and destroy Husayn’s sacred tomb-shrine. In their view, Shi‘ism was an infidel heresy and its idolatrous shrines, the foremost being those at Karbala and Najaf, needed to be destroyed under the banner of “true Islam.” They also carried out a similar attack against the mosque-shrine of Husayn’s father, Ali, at the holy city of Najaf in Iraq, and later in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
It must be profoundly disturbing for Shi‘a Muslims to hear a contemporary Wahhabi zealot being explicitly compared to Imam Husayn. If al-Zawahiri was trying to craft an ecumenical message that might unite Sunnis and Shi‘as against the “Crusader” United States, then he most certainly failed.
In addition to his eulogy comparing bin Laden to Sayidna Al Hussein, Zawahiri went so far as to lament the fact that because bin Laden was buried at sea, there won’t be any memorial site to visit! That should also leave the jihadis shaking their heads about what is going on.
However, we should not assume either Wahhabi influence in explaining the ideas or actions of bin Laden or certain religio-cultural practices to Zawahiri’s national origins. Bin Laden was raised in Saudi Arabia, but his ideological formation was greatly influenced by radical teachers from other Arab countries, his readings of Sayed Qutb, his hero Abdulla Azzam as well as by his experiences in Afghanistan. The result is a unique “witch’s brew” that was to become the ideology he spread.
Yes, Zawahiri is Egyptian and the visiting the shrines of revered Muslim figures such as Al Hussein and founders of Sufi sects as well as attending their Moulid celebrations is very much a part of traditional Egyptian culture. However, it is not only extremists who oppose these practices and their embedded notion of intercession with God. Educated Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere find such practices to be backward, superstitious and un-Islamic folklore. This opposition is reinforced by Muslim school systems that what they consider to be the correct interpretation of modern Sunni Islam.
Where governments tolerate such practices, it is often because they are very central to the popular culture of ordinary citizens and often provide symbols that political leaders can appropriate into their own images. By contrast, extremists across the Muslim world use violence to destroy sites of popular religious expression, as we have seen some Salafis do most recently in Egypt.
I don’t know if Zawahiri comes from a family with ties to a Sufi order. If not, given the educational background of Ayman al Zawahiri and his family, it is more likely that the environment he was raised in eschewed such practices.
A more likely motive for Zawahiri’s statements is that he is trying to shape bin Laden’s legacy as one of an Islamic martyr, not just a Sunni sectarian warrior or critic of popular religious devotion. In this regard, we should recall that Zawahiri criticized Abu Musaab al Zarqawi for provoking a sectarianism civil war when AQ was portraying itself as representing the interests of all Muslims.