ʿALĪ AKBAR, Imam Ḥosayn’s eldest son, killed at the age of 18, 19, or 25 at the battle of Karbalā on the day of ʿĀšūrā (10 Moḥarram 61/10 October 680). According to most historical sources, ʿAlī Akbar was the first of the Talebites to go out to the battle-field and be killed (Ṭabarī, II, pp. 356ff.; Dīnavarī, al-Aḵbār al-ṭewāl, Cairo, 1330/1912, p. 254; Mofīd, al-Eršād, Tehran, 1377/1957-58, pp. 222ff.). His mother was Laylā bent Morra b. ʿOrwa b. Masʿūd Ṯaqafī (Ṭabarī, II, p. 387; Mofīd, al-Eršād, pp. 222ff.; idem, al-Eḵteṣāṣ, Tehran, 1379/1959-60, p. 82; Tārīḵ-eQom, ed. S. J. Tehrānī, Tehran, 1313 Š./1934, pp. 195ff; in this last work “ʿAlī Akbar” refers to ʿAlī Zayn-al-ʿābedīn and “ʿAlī Aṣḡar” to ʿAlī Akbar). His heroic deeds on the battlefield are told in semi-legendary accounts, and his fame as a valiant warrior of the Ahl-e Bayt might have preceded that of ʿAbbās b. ʿAlī. Thus, according to Baḷʿamī (p. 267; Chronique IV, pp. 42ff.) ʿAlī Akbar charged the enemy ten times before his father’s eyes and killed two or three men each time. Exhausted and parched with thirst, he came back to Ḥosayn, who put his own tongue in his mouth. When he returned to the fight, a man called Morra b. Saʿd struck him from behind; he fell and was immediately surrounded by foes who cut him to pieces. Seeing his son fall, Ḥosayn, who had never been known to weep, burst into tears. According to most traditions, his murderer was called Morra B. Monqeḏ ʿAbdī. His head, along with those of the other martyrs, was brought to Ebn Zīād in Kūfa and then to Yazīd in Damascus, where, according to a tradition, it was buried in the Bāb al-Ṣaḡīr cemetery (H. ul-Ameene, Islamic Shi’ite Encyclopaedia IV, Beirut, 1973, p. 180; on the “Torbat-al-šohadā” in Bāb al-Ṣaḡīr, see J. Sourdel-Thomine, “Les anciens lieux de pèlerinage damascains d’après les sources arabes,” in Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales de l’Institut Français de Damas 14, 1952-54, p. 79, note 5). Their bodies were buried by the Banū ʿAżera, a branch of the Banū Asad (Masʿūdī, Morūǰ V, p. 147). The Arabic “historical romance” of Ebn Ṭāʾūs Ṭāʾūsī (tr. F. Wüstenfeld, Der Tod des Husein ben ʿAli und die Rache, Göttingen, 1883), probably composed in the late ʿAbbasid period, contains further accounts of ʿAlī Akbar’s heroic deeds. Here, as in other such narratives, ʿAlī Akbar is one of the last to fall (just before ʿAlī Aṣḡar and Ḥosayn), killed treacherously after having dispatched eighty-one of his foes (Wüstenfeld, Der Tod, p. 90). The circumstances of his martyrdom are generally the same in subsequent popular literature (on 8th/14th century Turkish narratives, see I. Mélikoff, “Le Drame de Kerbéla dans la littérature épique turque,” REI, 1966, p. 142). In the most comprehensive compilation of these early narratives, the Rawżat al-šohadāʾ (completed 908/1502-03; ed. M. Ramażānī, Tehran, 1341 Š./1962, pp. 336-42), Wāʿeẓ Kāšefī gives a detailed account of ʿAlī Akbar’s death, making him the 70th martyr at Karbalā and the 17th among the Talebites. ʿAlī Akbar shows his eagerness to sacrifice his life; at first Ḥosayn prevents him, but he finally yields and equips him for the fight. Weeping tears of blood, ʿAlī Akbar’s mother and sisters try vainly to hold back his horse. Ḥosayn orders them to let his seventeen-year-old son meet his fate. ʿAlī Akbar heads toward the battlefield, his face shining like the sun and his hair as black as pure musk; nobody resembles the Prophet more than he (hence his surname Šabīh-e Payḡambar, the “Prophet’s Likeness”). Upon seeing his face and hearing him sing his mofāḵara (“boast”), none of the enemies dares to attack him; he throws himself upon them and slaughters many. Exhausted by thirst, he returns to Ḥosayn, who places the Prophet’s ring, upon which is the miraculous seal of Solomon, in ʿAlī Akbar’s mouth. He returns to the fight and kills many enemies; ʿOmar b. Saʿd is able to send these against him only by promising great worldly rewards (e.g., Ṭāreq b. Šayṯ is promised governorship of Raqqa and Mosul). ʿAlī defeats all his foes and even kills the valiant Meṣrāʿ b. Ḡāleb, cleaving him in two with a single blow of his sword. After hearing from Ḥosayn that his thirst will soon be quenched from the water of Kawṯar in Paradise, ʿAlī Akbar goes forth for the third time and is killed by numerous foes. Ḥosayn hears him cry out, rushes to the field, and brings him back to the camp. Kāšefī’s account contains many features from the Iranian national epic, such as stereotyped battle scenes and the episode where ʿAlī Akbar’s horse guides Ḥosayn to its dying master (Rawża, p. 341). Kāšefī’s failure to mention ʿAlī Akbar’s mother Laylā while describing Šahrbānū’s lamentation may have influenced the belief, sometimes encountered (according to Gobineau, not before Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah’s reign; Les religions et les philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale, 10th ed., Paris, 1957, p. 347), that the latter was ʿAlī Akbar’s mother.

ʿAlī Akbar’s memory is celebrated in Moḥarram ceremonies from the West Indies to Southeast Asia. Of all the young men of the Ahl-e Bayt, he is “the Persians’ most beloved, most exalted, most regretted; for he is Imam Ḥosayn’s own son, he is the fatherland’s blood” (Gobineau, Religions, p. 347). Many features of his story appear in taʿzīa (passion play) rituals, such as the love and devotion shown ʿAlī Akbar by his sisters (Sakīna/Sokayna at Karbalā, and Fāṭema Ṣoḡrā, who was sick and remained in Medina) and his aunt Zaynab; separate platonic love stories have also developed (on Khotanese or Egyptian princesses in love with ʿAlī Akbar see Rossi and Bombaci, Elenco, indices, p. 355). He is pictured as a brave and unfortunate youth martyred before he could marry; allusions to worldly and heavenly marriage abound. Chronology is reshuffled, and ʿAlī Akbar is martyred before Qāsem, who competes with him in his eagerness to sacrifice his life for Ḥosayn. In the dramatization of Qāsem’s marriage and martyrdom, the dead bodies of ʿAbbās, ʿAlī Akbar, and Zaynab’s children appear on stage (see I. N. Berezin, Puteshestvie po severnoĭ Persii, Kazan, 1852, p. 322). Zaynab’s offering of her own children in sacrifice for ʿAlī Akbar was first dramatized as part of ʿAlī Akbar’s martyrdom (ibid., pp. 316ff.; P. Chelkowski, Tārīḵ va ǰanba-ye adabī-e taʿzīa, thesis, Tehran University, 1347 Š./1968, pp. 230-35) before becoming a separate play (Rossi and Bombaci, Elenco, indices, p. 356). ʿAbbās is shown testing and training ʿAlī Akbar before the battle (a scene apparently performed only in Caspian coastal areas; see Chelkowski, Tārīḵ, pp. 180-86; Rossi and Bombaci, Elenco, no. 716). A parallel has been observed between Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Esmāʿīl and Ḥosayn’s sacrifice of ʿAlī Akbar (Lassy, Muharram Mysteries, pp. 79ff.; Chelkowski, Tārīḵ, p. 211). In Jawharī’s Ṭūfān al-bokāʾ, the story of Esmāʿīl is related within that of ʿAlī Akbar (Tehran, n.d., pp. 249ff.). The actor playing ʿAlī Akbar had to be a young and handsome man with a slim waist, and melodious voice (ʿA. Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendegānī-e man I, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1341 Š./1962, p. 289). In popular iconography, ʿAlī Akbar appears in a coat of mail (sometimes covered with a shroud) dying in Ḥosayn’s lap, arrows stuck in his chest and his head wounded by a sword. Young Boys were often dedicated to ʿAlī Akbar as naḏr or ex-voto, and thus were made Moḥarram ceremony celebrants for ʿAlī Akbar. A tradition says that ʿAlī Akbar wore a scalp lock; young boys, especially in villages, used to wear scalp locks in his memory (B. A. Donaldson, The Wild Rue, London, 1938, p. 187). Persons who do not expect to meet again may express the wish to meet on Judgment Day by quoting ʿAlī Akbar’s farewell words to the Ahl-e Bayt (ʿA. A. Dehḵodā, Amṯāl o ḥekam, Tehran , 1352 Š./1973, II, p. 849).

ʿAlī Akbar should not be confused with the brother and vizier of Moḥammad b. Ḥanafīya in the latter’s own saga (see for instance L. F. Brakel, The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah, a Medieval Muslim—Malay Romance, thesis, Leiden, December, 1975, index). His grave lies under the central dome of Imam Ḥosayn’s mausoleum in Karbalā. The two tombs are placed at right angles and are surrounded by railings (E. Aubin, La Perse d’aujourd’hui, Paris, 1908, p. 380). Bāb ʿAlī Akbar is one of the seven gates of the shrine (H. ul-Ameene, Islamic Shiʿite Encyclopaedia, Beirut, 1973, IV, p. 207).


See also Ḥabīb al-sīar (Tehran) II, pp. 52, 54ff., 61.

Y. Lassy, The Muharram Mysteries among the Azerbeijan Turks of Caucasia, Helsingfors, 1916, pp. 39ff., 99ff., 106, 124.

R. H. de Genneret, Le Martyre d’Ali Akbar. Drame Persan (ed. and tr. of drama no. 18 from Chodzko’s manuscript), Liège and Paris, 1947.

E. Rossi and A. Bombaci, Elenco di drammi religiosi persiani (fondo mss. Vaticani Cerulli), Vatican City, 1961, indices (mostly p. 355).

J. Calmard, Le Culte de l’Imām Ḥusayn, Etude sur la commémoration du drame de Karbalā dans l’Iran pré-safavide, thesis, University of Paris III (Sorbonne), May, 1975, index and Tableau A, Tableau B.


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(J. Calmard)

Originally Published: December 15, 1985

Last Updated: August 1, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 855-856

Cite this entry:

J. Calmard, “ʿALĪ AKBAR,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 855-856, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ali-akbar-imam-hosayns-eldest-son (accessed on 30 December 2012).