ʿABBĀS B. ʿALĪ B. ABŪ ṬĀLEB, a half brother of Imam Ḥosayn who fought bravely at the battle of Karbalā. ʿAbbās was killed, according to most traditions, on the day of ʿĀšūrā (10 Moḥarram 61/10 October 680) while trying to bring back water from the Euphrates river to quench the unbearable thirst of the besieged Ahl-e Bayt (holy family). As in the case of other martyrs of Karbalā, the heroic conduct and death of this outstanding figure have given rise, in both Sunni and Shiʿi circles, to legendary accounts from which it is very hard to unravel the historical truth. The major difficulty arises from the fact that the main primary sources on the events of Karbalā (Ṭabarī and Balāḏorī) do not mention the details of ʿAbbās’s death. A brief reference by Shaikh al-Mofīd says that, in the ultimate episode of the battle, ʿAbbās went together with Ḥosayn toward the river; separated from his brother, he fought boldly before being killed. His body was buried by people from Banū Asad at the place where he was killed and where his tomb (and later his shrine) was erected (see al-Eršād, Tehran, 1377/1957-58, pp. 224-25, 227). As in the case of other martyrs of Karbalā, his head was brought to Yazīd in Damascus. One tradition claims that his head was later buried in the cemetery of Bāb al-Ṣaḡīr in Damascus. His mother, Omm-al-banīn, belonged to the Vahīd family of the tribe of the Banū ʿĀmer; and he had three full brothers who were killed just before him: ʿAbdallāh, Jaʿfar, and ʿOṯmān (Mofīd, loc. cit.; Dīnavarī, al-Aḵbār al-ṭewāl, Cairo, 1330/1911-12, pp. 254f.).
The early evolution of his saga is difficult to trace, although his surname Saqqā (“Water Carrier”) appears in ancient sources (Mofīd, al-Eḵteṣāṣ, Tehran, 1379/1959-60, p. 82). The traditions later followed regarding the circumstances of his martyrdom seem to go back to a nucleus of narratives popular in circles practicing fotovvat (a kind of chivalry) in the late ʿAbbasid period; these spread to Turco-Persian areas among various socioreligious groups (aḵī, fetyān, etc.) and ultimately among Sufi orders. Most of these narratives are known by their titles, but an idea of their contents may be gathered from the Arabic historical romance of Ebn Ṭāʾūs al-Ṭāʾūsī (tr. F. Wüstenfeld, Der Tod des Husein ben ʿAlī und die Rache, Göttingen, 1883). Its author claims to transmit traditions from Abū Meḵnaf, the main authority for most historical writings on the period. According to this account—which may reflect some historical truth—ʿAbbās was killed on the eve of ʿĀšūrā in a desperate attempt to provide water for the besieged. Fighting alone against numerous foes, he had his right hand severed by a sword cut, then the left; seizing his sword in his mouth, he went on fighting until he was killed. In the Rawżat al-šohadā (q.v.; completed in 908/1502-03), the major source for the recitation of the passions of the martyrs of Karbalā during the mourning months (rawżat-ḵānī), Ḥosayn Vāʾeẓ Kāšefī seems to follow the “historical” tradition more strictly than other writers by mentioning ʿAbbās’s death on 10 Moḥarram and by shuffling the chronology only slightly, making ʿAbbās the sixty-eighth martyr (before Moḥammad b. ʿAlī, ʿAlī-Akbar and ʿAlī-Aṣḡar). Nevertheless, Kāšefī mentions ʿAbbās’s heroic sally on 9 Moḥarram and follows essentially the “Mesopotamian” tradition regarding the water motif (ed. Ramażānī, Tehran, 1341 Š./1962).
As they appear in later narratives, ʿAbbās’s semilegendary figure and character result from a mingling of the aforesaid heterogeneous elements with frequent extrapolations. He is often called by his konya, Abu’l-Fażl, or by his surname, Qamar Banī Hāšem (“Moon of the Hashemites”). He is described, according to fotovvat ideals, as a very handsome man, brave, strong, and tall, his legs reaching the ground when he rode his white stallion (a tradition believed in Azerbaijan and India). ʿAbbās is said to have inherited ʿAlī’s boldness, to have always carried the victorious standard on the battlefield (thence his surname ʿAlam-dār, “Standard-Bearer”), and to have killed many enemies (eighty, according to the Rawżat al-šohadā) before being martyred. Traditions say that when Ḥosayn heard him cry at the last gasp he uttered the words: “My backbone is broken.” The names of his murderers, Zayd b. Varqāʾ Ḥanafī and Ḥakīm b. al-Ṭofayl Sanānī (see al-Eršād), are sometimes erroneously transmitted by popular narratives.
As one of the central participants in the drama of Karbalā, ʿAbbās is celebrated both in taʿzīa and related Moḥarram mourning rituals as the water carrier of the Ahl-e Bayt and the standard-bearer of Ḥosayn. A certain parallel has been noticed between Moḥammad b. al-Ḥanafīya—standard-bearer and champion of ʿAlī in his own saga—and ʿAbbās fulfilling the same warrior functions near Ḥosayn, who is seen as essentially involved in a spiritual combat (see bibliog.: Calmard, p. 368, n. 813). Taʿzīa scripts dedicate a complete cycle to ʿAbbās’s deeds from birth to martyrdom (see bibliog.: Rossi and Bombaci, Elenco). From the blessing (baraka) attached to his person derive some “miracle” themes celebrated in taʿzīa. The representation of his martyrdom, generally performed on the eve of ʿĀšūrā (i.e., the evening of the ninth day, Tāsūʿā), features the most dramatic scenes found in taʿzīa acting, particularly the scene picturing the veiled ʿAbbās testing ʿAlī-Akbar’s valor. There is even a kind of theater in the theater in the story of a purported Hindu actor playing the role of ʿAbbās (ʿAbbās-e Hendī, Elenco, no. 3).
The cult of ʿAbbās incorporates many features related to water and fertility. In Kāšefī’s Fotovvatnāma-ye solṭānī (ed. M. J. Mahīūb, Tehran, 1350 Š./1971), he ranks in the selsela (lineage) of the saqqā saints, second in line after ʿAlī; those who, out of devotion for the martyrs of Karbalā, becomesaqqā, i.e., give water to the thirsty as an act of charity, “do it in imitation of ʿAbbās-e ʿAlī.” But there is no mention of his name in a later treatise on water carriers popular in Indo-Persian corporations (see A. M. Kassim, “Etudes sur les corporations musulmanes indo-persanes,” REI, 1927, pp. 249f.). Invocations such as “Ya Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās!” (O, exalted ʿAbbās) or “Ya Abu’l-Fażl!” are generally engraved on the metal hand (panǰa) with outstretched fingers symbolizing the Ahl-e Bayt fixed on top of the standards (ʿalam) carried in Moḥarram processions. Special votive ribbons are attached to these ʿalams, and ex-votos are brought to their bases by women on the eve of ʿĀšūrā to obtain protection for their infant children. Parents dedicate their young sons to the activity of supplying water to attendants at the Moḥarram ceremonies in memory of Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās. Such acts fulfill vows made when seeking children’s recovery from illness. Devotees used to offer special oblation (naḏr) consisting of a certain amount of bread and yoghurt—nān o māst, colloquially nūn-o-mās (naḏr-e Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās)—to be increased each year. ʿAbbās’s popularity among social groups such as the Dāš (short for dādāš “brother”) of Tehran, who had special devotion and invocations for ʿAbbās and Ḥorr (q.v.), is probably a remote reminder of the fotovvat ideology. The Dāš’s attachment to ʿAbbās was particularly motivated by his refusal to receive from the accursed Šemr the ultimatum addressed by Ebn Zīād to Ḥosayn. In taʿzīa-ḵānī, the actor representing ʿAbbās could play the part of Ḥorr also (on these naḏrs and the Dāš, see Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī-ye man, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1343 Š./1964, I, pp. 285f.). Other widespread practices of invocation to ʿAbbās have been observed in Persia. Thus, to avenge oneself or to harm somebody, one may say: “Yā Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās!” or “Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās kūr-et kone!” (“May H. A. blind you!”). It is believed that ʿAbbās punishes wicked people by blinding them (see Henri Massé, Croyances et coutumes persanes, Paris, 1938, I, p. 121). It seems that in recent years the making of a vow in relation to ʿAbbās has become more common among women, who, to fulfill a vow, organize religious gatherings called sofra Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās (see SOFRA), during which food is shared (see Gustav Thaiss, “Religious Symbolism and Social Change: The Drama of Husain,” in Scholars, Saints and Sufis, ed. Nikki R. Keddie, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1972, pp. 352ff.).
ʿAbbās’s likeness, generally as a warrier riding his white stallion, has been represented in many ways (sometimes while cleaving his enemies to the waist with a single blow of his sword) in frescoes, paintings on wooden tablets, glass, and cloth (qalamkār), oil-painted šamāyelused for pardadārī (q.v.), on standards, in ceramics, lithographed illustrations, and so on. Saqqāḵānas (water fountains), often built near a tekya (hall for the Moḥarram ceremonies), are generally dedicated to Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās. Such votive chapels (few are extant) are sometimes decorated with tilework (kāšīkārī) scenes depicting ʿAbbās’s heroic deeds and martyrdom similar to those found on tekya walls.
ʿAbbās’s shrine is located in the town of Karbalā on the northeast side of Imam Ḥosayn’s mausoleum. Both shrines are built on a mound overlooking the town. Since they are visited by many pilgrims practically all year long, both have numerous servants (sayyeds, mollās, etc.) for upkeep and administration. ʿAbbās’s shrine is built in a vast enclosure. Access to it is obtained through a succession of portals richly decorated with stalactites and enameled tiles, some of which copy ancient originals. The grave itself, covered with a golden dome (formerly an enameled faience cupola), has been recently renovated (1385/1965-66). As is the case for other martyrs of Karbalā, there are special prayers and rituals to be performed at his grave; and important Muslim personalities (ʿolamāʾ, sultans, ministers, are buried in the precinct of his shrine.
ʿAbbās’s memory is further celebrated in various other areas and communities—for example, among the Azerbaijanis of Caucasia; in many parts of Indo-Pakistani subcontinent, where Sunnis and Hindus participate actively in most Shiʿi rituals; and, more broadly speaking, wherever Moḥarram ceremonies are performed (i.e., in countries ranging from the West Indies to the island of Java).
See also: Eugène Aubin, La Perse d’aujourd’hui, Paris, 1908, pp. 376f.
Ivar Lassy, The Muharram Mysteries among the Azerbeijan Turks of Caucasia, Helsingfors, 1916, pp. 38f., 52, 113, etc. J
affur Shureef, Islam in India, or the Qanun-i Islam , tr. Herklots, Oxford, 1921, pp. 160, 162.
Henri Massé, Anthologie persane, Paris, 1950, pp. 390-92.
Ettore Rossi and Alessio Bombaci, Elenco di drammi religiosi persiani (fondo mss. Vaticani Cerulli), Vatican City, 1961 (on the Chodzko, Pelly, and Litten collections, see index, pp. 354f.).
Javād Ṣafīnežād, Ṭālebābād (monograph on a village), Institute of Social Studies and Researches, no. 38, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, p. 446.
Peter Chelkowski, Tārīḵ va ǰanba-ye adabī-e taʿzīa (diss., University of Tehran, 1347 Š./1968), pp. 180-92.
Hassan ul-Ameene, Islamic Shiʿite Encyclopaedia IV, Beirut, 1973, pp. 172, 180f., 192, 197, 209f.
Jean Calmard, Le cult de l’ Imām Ḥusayn: étude sur la commémoration du drame de Karbalā dans l’Iran pré-safavide (diss., University of Paris [Sorbonne], 1975), pp. 347, 364, 368f., and index (for late popular narratives).
Originally Published: December 15, 1982
Last Updated: July 13, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 1, pp. 77-79
J. Calmard, “ʿABBĀS B. ʿALĪ B. ABŪ ṬĀLEB,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, I/1, pp. 77-79, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abbas-b-ali-b-abu-taleb (accessed on 30 December 2012).