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The “penitents” (tawwabun) is the self-imposed title of an early Shi’i movement that arose in response to the defeat and martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his companions at Karbala in 61/680. The movement was led by five former close associates of ‘Ali, chief of whom was Sulayman b. Shurad whose honorific Shayk al-shi’a suggests his prestige among his fellows, mostly elderly Arab males of Kufa.

Significance[edit | edit source]

The penitents (tawwabun) were the Kufans who accused themselves of abandoning Hussain after inviting him to take over the caliphate and of thus being responsible for his death in the desert of Karbala. (Halm 1997) Their sense of guilt was undoubtedly what called for penitence and self-abasement in the procession which later became an annual ritual of commemoration in the month of Muharram culminating in the Ashura on its tenth day. The seventh-century penitents’ emphasis on sin and repentance, however, developed into an elaborate theodicy of martyrdom and the suffering of the Shiʿa as (innocent) victims. The guilt for the martyrdom of Hussain and his family, together with usurpation of the rights of the subsequent Imams (and their alleged poisoning), came to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the usurpers and tyrannical governments. It was not the wronged Shiʿite sect but the wrongdoing usurpers who were guilty and sinful. Later development of the theodicy also postulated compensation in the hereafter for Hussain, Lord of the Martyrs, who could intercede for his oppressed Shiʿite flock and obtain salvation for them in the other world. As the Shiʿa considered themselves the saved sect (firqa najiya), the salvational value of Hussain’s intercession came to the foreground.[1]

Formation of the Tawwabun[edit | edit source]

When Imam Hussain was martyred and Ibn Ziyad returned from Nukhaylah to Kufa, the Shi’a disputed with one another in reproach and repentance. They realized their great sin that they invited Imam Hussain and later withdrew their hands from assisting and complying him, while he was killed in their very neighborhood. They realized that until and unless they either killed his murderers or were themselves killed, the sin and disgrace could not be washed off.

They gathered around the five noblemen of Shi’ah in Kufa viz. Sulayman bin Surad Khuza’ee, who was from among the companions of the Prophet; Musayyab bin Najabah Fazari, from among the companions of Imam Ali; Abdullah bin Sa’ad bin Nufayl Azdi; Abdullah bin Waal Tamimi, from the clan of Taym Bakr bin Wael; and Rufa’ah bin Shaddad Bajali, who was from among the best companions of Imam Ali.

They gathered at the house of Sulayman bin Surad Khuza’ee and Musayyab bin Najabah started the speech. After praising Allah he said, “Now then! Allah tried us by means of a lengthy age and delivered us from exposure to various mischiefs. We wish from our Lord that tomorrow in Qiyamah we might not fall prey to chastisement when it will said to us:

“Did not We keep you alive long enough for him who reflected to reflect therein? (Surah al-Fatir, 35:37).”

The faithful Imam Ali has said:

“The age until which Allah accepts apologies from the children of Adam is sixty years.”

While all of us have reached the age of sixty and are self-praising and Allah found us to be treacherous with regards to the circumstances relating to the grandson of the Prophet of Allah. His letters and messengers reached us earlier and he ended his proof upon us and requested us to assist him from the beginning until the end. We remained away from self-sacrifice until he was martyred very close to us.

Neither did we assist him through our hands nor did we side with him by means of our tongues. Neither did we strengthen him with our wealth nor did we solicit help from our families for him. What excuse do we have in the presence of our Lord, and what explanation shall we offer to the Prophet that his beloved son and his progeny were killed. No, by Allah! We have no excuse except that either we kill his murderers or we die in his way. And we desire that Allah might be pleased with us due to this self-sacrifice of ours’, and we should remain safe from His chastisement. O people! One of you should take lead and it is necessary that there should be a commander with whom you may take refuge, as also a standard under which you may gather”.

Then Rufa’ah bin Shaddad Bajali arose and said, “Now then! Allah has placed a best speech in your mouth, while you began your speech with a sane task of fighting against the lewd men and in repentance of a great sin. Your speech is justifiable and acceptable, while whatever you have said regarding the requirement of a commander under whom one would take refuge and a standard under which one would unite is true, and we all too opine likewise.

Then if you accept this task you are likeable, a well-wisher and beloved among the group. And if you opine, as also our group, we shall agree that the noblemen among the Shi’a and a companion of the Prophet of Allah, a senior man like Sulayman bin Surad Khuza’ee should be handed over the charge of this task, whose valor and religiosity is commendable and whose foresight is reliable”.

Abdullah bin Sa’ad confirmed his speech, and Musayyab said, “You have said the truth, appoint Sulayman bin Surad as your commander”. Then Sulayman arose and after praising Allah, said, “Now then! I fear that we shall not reach a better day than this age of short livelihood and the great sin that has enveloped the distinguished chiefs of Shi’a. All of us desired that the Progeny of the Prophet should come to us and we promised to assist him. Then when they came to us, we displayed lethargy and indigence and became negligent. We waited for one another until the son of our Prophet, his progeny, his offspring and the pieces of his body were martyred. He desired justice, but was denied, the lewd men made him the target of arrows and focus of spears, and they galloped towards him and put aside justice. Beware! Now arise, for your Lord is furious with you and shut your eyes from your wives and children so that Allah may be pleased with you. By Allah! I do not presume that He will ever be pleased with you until you fight those who killed him. Do not fear death, for everyone who fears death is humiliated. Then be like the followers of Bani Israel when their Prophets told them: You oppressed your own self when you worshipped the calf, then return back to your Creator and kill your own ego. They refused and knelt down, then rebelled. But then they realized that there was no other way for deliverance from this great sin, except being killed. Then if you are invited towards that which they were invited, then what shall you do? Then sharpen your swords and fix points upon your spears ‘And prepare ye against them whatever (force) you can, and steeds of war at the garrison.’ (Surah al-Anfal, 8:60).”

Khalid bin Nufayl said, “By Allah! If I know that my salvation from my sin and the pleasure of my Lord lies in my being killed, I shall certainly kill myself. All those present bear witness that whatever I have with me, except my arms with which I fight my enemies, I sacrifice it for the Muslims so that they may acquire power in fighting against the lewd men”. Abu Ma’eemar bin Habas bin Rabi’ah Kinani supported his view.

Then Sulayman said, “Enough of speech. Whoever desires donating anything for this task should hand it over to Abdullah bin Waal Taymi. Then when an adequate budget gathers with him, we shall mobilize the Shi’ah destitutes with it”.

Sulayman bin Surad wrote a letter to Sa’ad bin Huzayfah (bin al Yaman) and informed him of their decision and invited him for assistance. Sa’ad read the letter for the Shi’a of Madaen, who consented to it, and in contents of a letter addressed to Sulayman bin Surad agreed to assist him in this expedition. Sulayman wrote another letter with similar contents to Musanna bin Makhrabah Abadi at Basra. Musanna replied back saying, “We, the group of Shi’a, praise Allah for this decision of yours’. And we promise that we shall unite with you at the appointed time”. And at the end of the letter he had written some couplets.

They started their activities in the year 61 A.H. after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. They started gathering requirements for the battle and invited people to seek revenge of Hussain, one after the other people started joining them and they continued their task until Yazid died in 64 A.H. Hearing this the companions of Sulayman rallied around him and informed him that, “Yazid has died and the state of the kingdom had turned sluggish. Then if you permit, we should revolt against ‘Amr bin Hurays, the assistant of Ibn Ziyad, and declare our intention of revenging the blood of Hussain as also pursue his murderers while inviting towards the sovereignty of Ahl al-Bayt, who have been denied their rights”.

Sulayman replied, “Do not make haste. I have pondered upon your proposal and have concluded that all the murderers of Hussain are the noblemen of Kufa and among the valorous Arabs. Then if you try to seek revenge from them and they become aware of your intentions, all of them shall pounce upon you with more severity than anyone else. Then I have measured that if the group among your obedient ones revolt, you shall not be able to seek your revenge, and you shall not heal your hearts but shall fall prey to your enemies. Thus you may dispatch your missionaries and invite people towards our assistance”.

They did as advised and a large number of men rallied around them after the death of Yazid. The Kufans too expelled ‘Amr bin Hurays from Kufa and pledged allegiance for Abdullah bin Zubayr, while Sulayman and his companions remained busy in their missionary activities.

Source[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Halm, H. 1997. Shiʿa Islam. From Religion to Revolution, A. Brown, tr., Princeton: Markus Wiener Publisher.