8 October 2020 (20th Safar 1442)
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town

As our beloved Imam Khomeini (r.a) said: “The mourning of Imam Husain (a.s) and commemorating the tragedy of Karbala is from the best of Ibadah, which takes us closer to Almighty Allah (SWT).”

Indeed, there is absolutely no doubt about this! May Almighty Allah (SWT) accept our Ibadah (acts of worship), our Aza (mourning) and shedding tears for His beloved and the beloved of Rasulullah (SAWA), Husain ibn Ali (a.s).

As this annual period of mourning is drawing to a close, it is time to reflect on what the Ahlul Bait (a.s) really wanted from us, from this Ibadah or other Ibadah we perform. Everything has an external and internal reality. It is therefore very important for us to understand from the point of view of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) directly, regarding what they require from us.

In this regard, I would like to narrate two very beautiful, thought provoking Hadith from the Ahlul Bait (a.s), which will help us in understanding the demand of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) from us.


The great compilation of Hadith, Usul al-Kafi, is highly treasured by us Shia Muslims as one of our main sources of Hadith references. On the other hand, our Sunni brothers place great reliance on Sahih Bukhari.

When it comes to our approach to Hadith, we as Shia Muslims do not believe that everything recorded in Usul al-Kafi is Sahih (authentic). This where our approach to Hadith differs from our Sunni brothers, who regard the compilation of Bukhari as Sahih. We do not say Sahih al-Kafi, for example, as we regard it as open for research and investigation.

There are many different types of Hadith recorded in Usul al-Kafi. It is indeed one of the very precious books for us Shia Muslims, as it contains pearls of wisdom and treasures of knowledge and Ma’rifat for us.

Shaykh al-Kulayni was the one who compiled Usul al-Kafi and is available in English as well. He lived very close to the time of the occultation of our living Imam and awaited saviour, Imam Mahdi (atfs). Shaykh al-Kulayni is undoubtedly a very important personality in our history as Shia, particularly on the compilation of Hadith. He had access to historical records which we no longer have access to.


In the preface of Usul al-Kafi, Shaykh al-Kulayni narrates a Hadith, which will help us address the question of what the Ahlul Bait (a.s) want from us. Ishaq ibn Ammar is one of the students of the 6th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s).

He said to Imam Sadiq (a.s): “May I be sacrificed for you, oh Imam. I have a neighbour who continuously prays Salaah and fasts, and goes for Hajj every year, and gives lots of charity. He is a very good person, and I have not observed anything bad about him, in addition to all the acts of worship noted. What do you think about him, Imam Sadiq (a.s)?”

Now, if we were there, we would be admiring this person and would want to be in his proximity and ask him to make dua (supplication) for us as well. After all, what better person can one ask for, as he is in continuous worship?! Who would not be very impressed with such a holy person?

Now, let us contrast how we feel about this person and his status of continuous worship, with the response of Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) to his student, Ishaq ibn Ammar.

Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) responded as follows: “Tell me what is the state of your neighbour’s intellect (aql)?” Now, one may rightfully wonder what type of question is this? After all, this seems to be the type of person who is guaranteed paradise for all the Ibadah and good deeds he performs? Surely, this cannot be a mad person doing all this good consistently? So then, why does Imam Sadiq (a.s) ask this seemingly strange question regarding such a pious, committed person.


One has to scratch beyond the surface to understand what Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) was asking his student. The question was not about the neighbour’s sound mind or whether he was crazy. Rather, the question which Imam Sadiq (a.s) was asking was regarding the level of depth this neighbour demonstrates in his understanding of religion.

So, it was about how in depth has this neighbour captured the spirit of Islam, or is he simply stuck on the external aspect of religious, dedicated to rituals only. Ishaq ibn Ammar fully understood the essence of the response of Imam Jafar Sadiq’s (a.s) question, to which he responded with the disappointing news that unfortunately, this pious, committed neighbour does not have any depth in understanding religion.

So then, Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) responded by saying that all these Ibadah will not take him to great places. Another version of the same Hadith says that Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) responded by saying that this neighbour will not benefit from all these Ibadah. This is a very short answer but has a world of depth in its essence!

There is no benefit if a person does not understand the purpose and the message and is stuck purely on the external aspect.


Now, to take this understanding back to the question I posed at the start of this discussion, what does the Ahlul Bait (a.s) want from us?

Their demand from us is not to perform Ibadah for the whole night! Before I am misunderstood, let me clarify right away, that this is not bad! However, what they expect is for us to perform Ibadah with deeper understanding (Ma’rifat). They expect us to have rationality in our approach to religion, instead of being transactional or robotic.

This is the demand of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), that we Shia Muslims are rational as their followers, and not blind followers stuck in rituals. There is no doubt, these rituals are very important, but it is absolutely crucial to understand the purpose of these rituals, including Azadari (mourning ceremonies for the tragedy of Karbala).

Our approach has to be rational! We explained earlier that this institution of Azadari is from the greatest of Ibadah, if it is conducted in a rational manner which serves the goals and purpose of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), taking their mission further. Otherwise, we are going against the demands of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) and chasing people away instead of drawing them closer!


Let me explain further by narrating an incident from Imam Husain (a.s) himself. Can anyone make more Ibadah than Imam Husain (a.s)? It is recorded that one day, Imam Husain (a.s) was busy praying, and then someone came knocking on his door, asking for help. It is recorded that Imam Husain (a.s) completing his Salaah faster than normal, in order to address the call at his door seeking his help.

This is because Imam Husain (a.s) understood the soul of Salaah!

What I am trying to say is that rationality, reasoning and understanding should always be guiding the direction we take.

In another Hadith, our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) said that if someone goes to the mosque to perform his Salaah to the full extent, which includes all the recommended Salaah to beautify the mandatory prayers, with the greatest focus and attention to detail, his Ibadah will not be worth even the wing of a mosquito. Rasulullah (SAWA) then compares this person to another one who goes to the mosque and performs Salaah which is equivalent to the Mount of Uhud!

So then, the people asked from Rasulullah (SAWA) what the difference between these two examples are, because the one person’s Ibadah has so much value whereas the other person’s Ibadah is practically worthless.

Rasulullah (SAWA) answered saying that the difference is because the one has intellect and the other one does not have any rationality, reasoning, understanding or depth and is simply stuck in the rituals!

With this explanation, the people then asked Rasulullah (SAWA) how will we be able to determine whose intellect is sharp and whose is defective? Rasulullah (SAWA) responded with this deeply thought-provoking statement, saying the one who has greater powers of abstaining from Haraam and is always greedy to do something good for others is the one with sharper intellect!

These words are the choicest pearls from the blessed tongue of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA)!

This is the message of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), that rationality and deep reasoning in understanding the priorities beyond rituals is crucial to take their mission forward.


One of the beauties of the Shia approach to Islam is that spirituality is not dry Ibadah in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), as it is always paired with rationality and academic excellence. A mystic in the Shia approach to Islam is not a blind worshipper! If such a person is all night in Sajdah, it is because he/she has understood the meaning and message of Sajdah properly and comprehensively.

There was a great personality in the latter part of Shia history by the name of Jamal-us-Saliheen Sayyidul Arifeen Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a). He was truly an outstanding personality who was extremely pious. However, before he is spiritually at such an elevated status, he first qualified as a Mujtahid (Islamic jurist).

In the Shia approach to Islam, achieving this Akhlaq (noble, moral character) through purification of the soul and reaching this level of spiritual status is not possible without Ijtihad – thoroughly immersing yourself into the deep understanding of religion, to the point where you are capable of deriving an informed opinion on a matter.

This is an interesting point worth pondering for a moment, because these days, everyone likes to speak about Akhlaq, which is a topic I have the greatest difficulty speaking about! It is the MOST DIFFICULT topic and is not achieved through only reading a couple of books! You simply HAVE TO be an expert in religion in order to fully encapsulate resplendent Akhlaq.

This is the beauty of the Shia approach to Islam, where a mystic (Arif) is not an illiterate person who has removed himself from society to focus on spirituality. Rather, in the Shia approach to Islam, a mystic has great depth of knowledge.


Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) is a fine example in this regard. He was born in the city of Shooshtar in the south of Iran. He migrated to Najaf for his Islamic studies, where he achieved the expert academic level of Mujtahid. He then moved back to his home city of Shooshtar and started his community service by providing leadership and guidance.

Apparently, he was quite a wealthy person as well. It is believed that he inherited significant wealth but gave everything in the service of the poor and downtrodden.

This great man was also a judge (Qadi), where he would pass legal judgement based on Islamic law. He was clearly very highly regarded in Shooshtar, but lived in a very small house.

One night, someone knocked on his door during the middle of the night ie. at a most unexpected time to ever find someone knocking on your door! Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) went to check who it is at this time of the night, and the person at the door said, “I want to see Agha”, referring to the revered Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a).

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) suggested to the person at the door to come in the morning as it is the middle of the night already. This person insisted that he needs to see Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) right away.

What then happened was that the wife of Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) said that if someone is knocking on the door at this strange hour, then it can only mean that it is an emergency. Since they only had a one-bedroom house, his wife, out of her kindness, suggested that she will move to the courtyard, in order to create space for this person to come to the room, so that his issue can be addressed.

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) double-checked with his wife if she is really ready to take this trouble. So, she went to the courtyard and the door was then opened for this poor man to enter. He was like a vagrant, wearing tattered clothing, while Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was a big Ayatollah.


This vagrant man is now sitting in front of this grand Ayatollah, and he says to Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) that he (Sayyid) is going to the Hellfire. Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was completely shocked and flabbergasted. This was the only piece of news that this vagrant man wanted to relay, and nothing else. He then left!

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari’s (r.a) wife then came and asked what this vagrant wanted, to which he replied that this guy was a bit crazy, showing up here in the middle of the night to say that I am going to hell! He and his wife then simply laughed it off and went back to sleep.

A couple of days later, at around the same strange time of the night, this vagrant man returns, knocking on the door, requesting to see Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) again. Guess what, this man again repeated the same message that Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) is going to Jahannam!!!

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a), naturally perplexed, requested from this vagrant to explain a bit more about why he is repeating that Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) is destined for the Hellfire. This vagrant man explains to Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) that he gave judgement in the court regarding a property which does not belong to the people in whose favour he has ruled.

The vagrant further explained that the property belongs to an orphan and it is therefore property for the benefit of that orphan. This vagrant further explained that the people, in whose favour Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) ruled, are lying and hiding those papers where it is stated that the owners dedicated this land to the orphan.


Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was visibly shocked and taken aback, thinking that indeed, he passed a judgement like that. Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) asked this vagrant for the evidence to his claims, to which the vagrant responded with the address and how deep he will need to dig to reach the broken clay pot from where this important document can be retrieved, which has been stamped by the grand religious authorities of that time.

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was a clearly shaken by this, as this vagrant is certainly not a crazy person, as he originally thought.

Anyway, the vagrant left at that strange hour at the middle of the night. The next day, Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) went back to his work (the court) and got his team together, to visit the address provided by the vagrant and follow his directions to get to the broken clay pot. They were able to retrieve the documents exactly as described by the vagrant.

Now Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was in deep, deep stress at the incorrect judgement he passed, stating that he was referring to the vagrant as mad, but in fact, this vagrant was clearly a Wali of Allah (SWT)!

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) returned to the court and superseded his earlier incorrect judgement with the correct one.

He was extremely keen to meet this vagrant again but could not find him. However, this vagrant man returned another time, again in the middle of the night, at a most strange time. Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) invited him inside and sat in front of this vagrant with complete humility, like a baby! This was the grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a), who was the foremost judge in the city of Shooshtar, sitting in front of an unknown beggar like this, completely stunned!

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a), sitting in this humbling position, asked this vagrant for advice. This vagrant man advised him to sell all his belongings and settle any outstanding debts, and pack up from Shooshtar, suggesting to Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) to move back to Najaf al-Ashraf, Iraq. The vagrant man promised to meet him there.


Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) followed the advice of this unknown vagrant and packed his belongings and resigned from the judiciary, to move back to Najaf, Iraq. He was in Najaf for circa six months, and then one day, he was making dua (supplication) in the cemetery of Wadi-us-Salaam. As we know, this cemetery of Wadi-us-Salaam has deep history and filled with spiritual secrets!

All of a sudden, while making dua, this same vagrant man from Shooshtar appears in front of him. Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was excited to see him and asked him what the order is that he should now follow. This vagrant man gave Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) a list of things, and he then concluded by saying to Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) that he will be dying the next day in Shooshtar. This vagrant man said this and disappeared!

Bear in mind, Wadi-us-Salaam in Najaf, Iraq is easily a few hundred kilometres away from Shooshtar, in the south of Iran.

Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) returned home from Wadi-us-Salaam and started implementing the advice of this vagrant man. Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was a Mujtahid and a jurist, but now became the greatest of mystics!


Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was the student of Sayyid Murtadha Ansari (r.a). It is no exaggeration to say that in the last 200 years of history of Shia Islam, there is no greater academic giant than this man, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Murtadha Ansari (r.a).

For those who have gone for Ziyarah, when you enter the Haram of Imam Ali (a.s) in Najaf, from Babul Qibla, you will find the grave of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Murtadha Ansari (r.a) on the left side. One thing which I was unaware of until recently is that at the same door, you will find the grave of Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) on the right side!

So, Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) was the student of Sayyid Murtadha Ansari (r.a). However, would you believe it, Sayyid Murtadha Ansari (r.a) was the student of his student (Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a)) in Wilayat, Ma’rifat, and Irfan!!!

Do we now understand the beauty of this school of Tashayyu?! This intellectual giant, Sayyid Murtadha Ansari (r.a) was a teacher at one point, and a student at another point. And the same goes for Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a).


Then, Sayyid Ali Shooshtari (r.a) trained a very, very highly regarded, great mystic by the name of Mulla Husayn-qali Hamadani (r.a), from who further intellectual and spiritual giants were trained. Then, amongst them is the very highly regarded mystic, Allama Qazi Tabataba’i (r.a), who is also buried in Wadi-us-Salaam!

Mulla Husayn-qali Hamadani (r.a) was also a Mujtahid and a sound expert academically, but at the same time, he was so great in these areas of spirituality to the extent where he trained 300 representatives!

There is a very long list of supreme spiritual luminaries that have emanated from this Shia approach to Islam through their academic excellence.

You know, there was this great spiritual luminary by the name of Ayatollah Sayyid Murtadha Kashmiri (r.a) who very interestingly said that he learned how to perform Salaah from Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Karbala’i! This is coming from a Mujtahid!

If I were to ask anyone whether you know how to perform Salaah, then even the youngest child in this audience will give an affirmative answer. However, what we find here is that this grand Ayatollah Sayyid Murtadha Kashmiri (r.a) is saying that after being an Ayatollah, Mujtahid and Marja, he learned how to perform Salaah from Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Karbala’i!

What Salaah is this? Is it the Salaah which we know, or is it the Salaah which only they know?


To crystalize the essential point I am trying to make by listing these examples, in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), academic excellence is jointly with Ibadah!

This is Azadari – understanding the rational approach! When one reflects sometimes on the extremely irrational approach adopted by some Shia, then it naturally begs the question of how it is possible for these people to really be Shia with such irrationality?!

We see a classic example of this with some people attaching themselves to conspiracy theories on coronavirus!!! Or they will say “Our Maula will protect us from this virus”! Where does this laughable logic come from, because our Maula taught us rationality and sound reasoning, requiring us to exercise our intellect!

The balanced approach in the understanding of religion is simply non-negotiable.

We all know how beautiful and crucial the Arba-een walk is, which millions of people do every year at this time. But now, if the lives of millions of followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) is in danger, then the rational principles of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) teach us to make our homes feel like Arba-een!

The point I wish to repeat again is that our Azadari and Ibadah should be in a manner that we are able to take the purpose of Imam Husain (a.s) to the people around us and the communities at large. Our Azadari MUST be conducted in a manner which becomes relevant for the time and society to relate to, such that it becomes the messenger of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) on its own.

Only through Azadari with this focus can we achieve. Spirituality is not dry Ibadah without a soul! When we move in this focused direction of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), we see that Arba-een and this love for the Ahlul Bait (a.s) becomes global, reaching the furthermost remote corners of the world!

Let me conclude this mourning period of Aza, by this deeply thought-provoking statement by that highly revered intellectual and spiritual giant, Allama Qazi Tabataba’i (r.a):

“If I have achieved anything, it is due to the Holy Quran and the Ziyarah of Imam Husain (a.s)!”

Indeed, Arba-een is the time to understand the philosophy of Ziyarah of Imam Husain (a.s) and the rationality involved!
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