Understanding Hussain (AS) in the Post-Nietzschean World

In engaging with the mystery and tragedy of Karbala, such questions as the following are asked: What was God doing when the Prophet’s (PBUH) family suffered a blood-bath? Where is the compensation for the victims? Is there no justice in this world? How can we affirm the whole tragedy without getting profoundly disturbed on moral, aesthetic and religious planes? Isn’t God fully in control and ultimately directing everything towards the Good? If yes, how? Blood, thirst, trampling human dignity – what crime was not committed in Karbala – and still we are required to see divine wisdom? Why is mourning Hussain (AS) such a catharsis if it is pain and sorrow that is relived?  How come the mourning procession accomplishes what could be described as an aesthetic miracle for the participants? In order to approach to resolve these questions, let us examine how Nietzsche, one of the most influential of modern philosophers, approached the question of suffering in life, for, it is only at the heights and in the depths of experience that great philosophers contemplate that we can begin to appreciate Hussain (AS) and Karbala.

The question, ultimately, is how one can be reconciled to life or existence justified. Seeing the harshness of the universe and the tragic character of human life, what justification is there for life? Nietzsche’s famous answer, supposedly thought out in opposition to the traditional Christian answer, is that only an aesthetic justification is possible. We can’t see any palpable meaning or design but should view at the aesthetic plane the whole picture. His Zarathustra accepts everything (the pains and the pleasures) as natural episodes of the world. He has no grudges against existence. Like an artist, he contemplates the creative activity of the cosmic will with perfect equanimity.  What fascinated him in the Aeschylean tragedy was its drive beyond the tragic facts themselves to the cosmic background of the mystery. In his attempt to move beyond and conquer tragic pessimism, he thought that the dark side of our life must appear to us in a new light if we accept the inevitability of suffering. He pleads for seeing the world as it might appear to a cosmic artist who expresses himself freely and creatively, and finds joy in self-expression. Tragic myth’s power lies in bringing us to the presence of the one will expressing itself in the world and lets us share in the joy of super-abundant creation. Tragic myth convinces us that “even the ugly and the discordant are merely an aesthetic game which the will, in its utter exuberance, plays with itself.”

For Nietzsche (as for the Greeks, according to him), transmutation of the world of suffering through the medium of art allowed him to say “yes” to the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. Through the medium of art, life triumphs over death. He championed the Dionysian attitude that triumphantly affirms and accepts existence in all its darkness and horror. Dionysian art wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence despite its terrors and absurdity.  Existence is made into an object of beauty by rising above the mere pain-and-pleasure principle and freeing man from the terrors and tensions of existence by an ecstatic identification of the self with the source of life, the Cosmic Will. Nietzsche advocates a change in the eyes of the beholder. He envisions a view of life willing and able to take suffering upon itself. His Zarathustra laughs away all the pain that the will to live may necessitate. There is a curious echo of the Buddha’s smile in Zarathustra’s laugh at the apparent absurdity of the world. Nietzsche is well aware that this aesthetic transfiguration of the painful aspects of existence is not the prerogative of ordinary mortals.

Nietzsche also states that life is essentially appropriation and injury. Let us face this fact besides the point that “suffering is the swiftest horse that takes one to perfection.” In Islamic doctrine, all that happens, including the most tragic or horrible, are the effects of Divine Names. Nietzsche requires from ideal man not just acceptance of the world of suffering but acceptance of a kind that one is capable of willing it to eternally recur. It implies that he accepts that Karbala and martyrdom are repeated eternally and we don’t blink or shudder. He requires love of Fate not simply to endure, but to wish for, the eternal recurrence of all events exactly as they occurred – all the pain and joy, the embarrassment and glory. This sincere love, this unconditional surrender, this superhuman faculty of attention, this absolute trust, comes by practizing the ascetic discipline that Nietzsche, borrowing from mystics, advocated. Try imagining who illustrates such a love of fate, such raza, such patience. Nietzsche himself failed to reach this limit of endurance. His failure to stand up to his own vision is evident from the following confession, as recorded in his diary:

“I don’t wish to live again. How have I borne life? By creating. What has made me endure? The vision of the superman, who affirms life. I have tried to affirm life myself – but ah!”


It is Hussain (AS) who knows the ecstasy of life, of submission to the Divine Will, and martyrdom. In fact, the very perception of beauty necessitates the sacrifice of the self as it is only the object, and perception of beauty demands a serene contemplating consciousness that becomes one with the object in contemplating a beautiful object. It is not the eye of the subject or the self, but the eye of the heart, that can perceive beauty. Aesthetic justification and transfiguration of the world requires doing away with the ego and subject-object dualism. It is achieved by means of an ascetic denial of the will that defines itself in opposition to the universal will. By appropriating divine attributes (that a Muslim, for instance, is required by the Prophet (PBUH) to do: takhallaqu bi akhlaqallah i.e., cultivate the divine attributes or character), he views the world in a way that converges with the view of the cosmic artist.