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The martyr Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein

[ by Charles Cameron — as so often, religious analysis reveals a passionate motivational driver which can help us understand a national security threat — in this case not just from Iran ]

Yes, that’s Soleiman embraced in death by Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the great martyr of Karbala



As we process the death of Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force commander, Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani by today’s US drone strike, it’s worth taking a look at religious aspects of the response to the death of an iconic figure, who is viewed in Iran as a “glorious martyr“.

Narges Bajoghli is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies {SAIS], and author of Iran Reframed” based on ten years of field research on the IRGC. She has a very pointed tweet which shows the illustration above, commenting:

More Art on Soleimani by Iran reg cultural ctrs. Imp to note dead Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein. W/in Iran this circulating w text “Iran’s Rostam” (hero from Persian epic). Nat’lism + rel symbols to rally around flag internally, while image alone communicates to non-Iranian Shia.

Two points here — Martyrdom, and the tale of Sohrab and Rustum.



Martyrdom is a central motif in Shi’ite thinking, which centers on the Battle of Karbala in which a small contingent led by the Prophet’s grandson, Ali’s son Husayn was defeated and martyred by the much greater forces of Yazid, second of the Sunni Umayyad caliphs — conceptually, the founding moment for Shia separation from Sunni Islam.

The death of Husayn is mourned yearly on Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, with the slogan:

Every Day Is Ashura and Every Land Is Karbala

Imam Husayn embracing Soleimani thus pouts him at the very heart of Shia maythology. There could hardly be a more emphatic invocation oa a current of religious thought underlying not just Iranian but all Shi’ite thinking>

Thus Iraq’s usually quietist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, hugely admired outside Iran, may well feel called to request the departure of all US troops from Iraq as a result — should this happen, it would be a great victory, in death, for Gen Soleimani.

For a Christian equivalent, think of the devout Catholic observance of the Stations of the Cross.



The tale of Sohrab and Rustum is an except from the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, “relating how the great warrior Rustum unknowingly slew his long-lost son Sohrab in single combat” —a tale which is even known to English readers in the version by poet Matthew Arnold:

But, with a grave mild voice, Sohrab replied:—
“Desire not that, my father! thou must live.
For some are born to do great deeds, and live,
As some are born to be obscured, and die.
Do thou the deeds I die too young to do,
And reap a second glory in thine age;
Thou art my father, and thy gain is mine.
But come! thou seest this great host of men
Which follow me; I pray thee, slay not these!
Let me entreat for them; what have they done?
They follow’d me, my hope, my fame, my star.
Let them all cross the Oxus back in peace.
But me thou must bear hence, not send with them,
But carry me with thee to Seistan,
And place me on a bed, and mourn for me,
Thou, and the snow-hair’d Zal, and all thy friends.
And thou must lay me in that lovely earth,
And heap a stately mound above my bones,
And plant a far-seen pillar over all.
That so the passing horseman on the waste
May see my tomb a great way off, and cry:
Sohrab, the mighty Rustum’s son, lies there,
Whom his great father did in ignorance kill!
And I be not forgotten in my grave.”

And, with a mournful voice, Rustum replied:—
“Fear not! as thou hast said, Sohrab, my son,
So shall it be; for I will burn my tents,
And quit the host, and bear thee hence with me,
And carry thee away to Seistan,
And place thee on a bed, and mourn for thee,
With the snow-headed Zal, and all my friends.
And I will lay thee in the lovely earth,
And heap a stately mound above thy bones,
And plant a far-seen pillar over all,
And men shall not forget thee in thy grave.

Soleimani, then, is drawn into an embrace by Huseyn, viewed as another Rustum, heroic Iranian icon — and on today’s Middle Eastern battlefields from Lebanon to Iraq a brilliant strategist and warrior..


Reflect, then, on this 2009 quote from Soleimani, to get a sense of the man as he regards his own role:

The war-front is mankind’s lost paradise. One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. … The war-front was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.

Isaac Chotiner describes him thus in the New Yorker:

If he had described himself, it would probably have been as the commander of Iran’s equivalent of CENTCOM, the regional commander of all of Iran’s operations — security, intelligence, military– outside of the Iranian border.

And to return to martyrdom:

The main [Iranian] news channels showed a live gathering at a mosque in Gilan Province, where the preacher reassured worshippers that “the best death is martyrdom for God” and that “great men prefer martyrdom to death by natural causes, cancer, accidents or old age”.


Recommended tweeting:

  • Vali Nasr, until recently dean of SAIS
  • Narges Bajoghli, SAIS Assistant Professor
  • Mohammad Ali Shabani, PhD Researcher at SOAS
  • 10 Responses to “The martyr Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein”

    1. Charles Cameron Says:

      My friend Ali Minai wrote me:

      This was one of the first thoughts that occurred to me. The Shi’a response cannot be understood without appreciating the centrality and glorifying power of martyrdom in Shi’ism. Western analyses that overlook this are going to be very wrong.

    2. Charles Cameron Says:

      Soleimani’s reach:Avi Melamed: The Killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani – Initial Observations:

      Soleimani was the spearhead, the lead strategist – in charge of designing, leading, and implementing Iran’s hegemonic vision in the Middle East. His role was to spread Iran’s reach and influence and make Iran the superpower in the region. And he did so primarily by creating, supporting, and nurturing a network of militias throughout the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Yemeni Houthi forces, Afghan and Pakistani Shi’ites militias, etc. Under Soleimani’s command, Iran deepened its hold in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip.

    3. Sally Benzon Says:

      Thanks for this, Charles. I appreciate also what your friend Ali Minai writes.

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      Sen. Chris Murphy:

      Iran is full of malevolent evildoers, and Soleimani was the worst of them. But Iran is also a nation state. And the reason the U.S. doesn’t kill leaders of other countries is because once you normalize assassinations, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

    5. Charles Cameron Says:

      You’re most welcome, Sally.
      FWIW: In my post, I covered matters that seem important to me, but that are largely ignored by our [largely secular, skeptical] press. I’m using the comments section to drop in a few select pieces on the natsec angle, generally known materials, but succinctly stated.

    6. Charles Cameron Says:

      Studies in deterrence: Why killing Iran’s Qasem Soleimani doesn’t do it

      Soleimani has been t the helm of the elite Quds Force since 1998, and it’s difficult to overstate his importance. In the Atlantic, Andrew Exum, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, wrote that “from a military and diplomatic perspective, Soleimani was Iran’s David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal and Brett McGurk all rolled into one”—referring to two former US military generals and a former special presidential envoy.

      Andrew Exum = Abu Muqawama.

    7. Charles Cameron Says:

      WATCH: Iran unveils red flag of revenge against America at mosque

      A blood-red flag symbolizing vengeance unfurled Saturday above the dome of Jamarkaran Mosque in Qom, Iran, a day after the United States killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis.
      The flag, inscribed with the words “Those who want to avenge the blood of Hussein,” was hoisted above the mosque’s shrine for what local reports claimed was the first time in history, according to the Daily Mail.

      For those of you who read the whole article, Tim Furnish comments:

      Hussein’s death was NOT “met with bloody retaliation.” He was killed by the (Sunni) Umayyads & the Shi`is were forced to hide & practice taqiyya (pretending not to be Shi`is). So the “red flag of revenge” is much ado about little.”

      Nonetheless, retaliation is supposedly mentioned on the flag — and Tim Furnish of all people, having “written the book” on Mahdism and visited Jamkaran, knows how significant a place that mosque has in Shia theology, Tim.
      Here’s Tim Furnish at Jamkaran:

      Watch the flag go up:

    8. Charles Cameron Says:

      Vali Nasr, until recently Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, tweeted a link to the article below with the comment:

      This is a particularly insightful analysis of why Iranians have reacted with so much emotion to the killing of #Soleimani, and where #Iran goes from here. A must read.

      The Day After War Begins in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni — commenting on the death of Soleimani:

      Many consider him responsible for the deaths of thousands, for his intervention in salvaging Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. But to many Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds and others, he was a pivotal figure in vanquishing the Islamic State, helping repel its rapid march across Iraq in 2014.

    9. Charles Cameron Says:

      Robin Wright in the New Yorker, The Breathtaking Unravelling of the Middle East After Qassem Suleimani’s Death

      Iran has not seen such an outpouring of emotion on the streets since the death of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wept openly—as did other political leaders and military officers—as he prayed over the casket. Esmail Gha’ani, Suleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, the élite wing of the Revolutionary Guards, vowed to confront the United States. “We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before, with the help of God, and, in return for his martyrdom, we aim to get rid of America from the region,” Gha’ani said at the funeral.

    10. Charles Cameron Says:


      There were many critiques about this statement, specifically about Trump’s threat to target “the Iranian culture,” but the most striking reply came from Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan in an interview with to CNN.
      “If he says 52 we say 300 — and they are accessible to us,” he said, directly addressing the President’s tweet. “No American military staff, no American political center, no American military base, no American vessel will be safe.”

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