Husayn, the Mediator

A Structural Analysis of the Karbala Drama according to Abu Ja´far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923)

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Keyword: Humanities, Philosophy, Ethics and Religion, Religious Studies, Humaniora, Filosofi, etik och religion, Religionsvetenskap, Historiography, History and myth, History, Husayn Ibn 'Ali (629C–680), Islam, Karbala' (Iraq), Lévi-Strauss Claude, Mediator (theology), Myth, Shiites, Structuralism, Tabari 838C–923
Publication year: 2007
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The present study has a twofold purpose: Firstly, it is an analysis of the Karbala´ Drama—i.e. the death of Husayn b. `Ali in the hands of an army which had been sent out by the Umayyad authorities, at Karbala in 60/680—as it is retold by the Muslim jurist and historiographer Abu Ja`far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923). Despite its importance, especially to Shi`ite Islam, this text as such has received relatively little attention among scholars of Islam. In this study, the Karbala´ Drama is regarded as a myth and the method used to analyze it is inspired by the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Straussian structuralism has probably never before been ap-plied to early Arabic material to the extent that it is used here. The second purpose of the study, then, is to investigate to what extent and in what mode such a method is applicable to this material. A portion of the text, called the “Text of Reference,” has been selected and thoroughly analyzed. In that analysis, a number of structural features such as codes, oppositions, mediations, and transformations have been identified and made the basis for a more cursory study of the rest of the story. An important structural feature that is detected in this way is the way the argument of the story is forwarded. By the transformation of metaphors into metonyms, the story attempts to make arbitrary relationships look natural and intrinsic. Such a relationship is that between water and blood—two liquids which are at times shed, at times withheld in the story. Husayn takes a mediating position in that he gives his water and his blood. He acts as mediator both in a negative sense (he establishes the basic Islamic opposition of good and evil), and in a positive sense (as religious guide he acts as a bridge between them).


Torsten Hylén

Högskolan Dalarna; Religionsvetenskap; Uppsala universitet
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