The Foreknowledge of Imam Hussain Regarding His Death: Was it Suicide?

One of the major questions that has come up since antiquity regarding the revolution of Imām Hussain (as) pertains to the perceived conflict between the steps he took towards his death and his occult foreknowledge about his impending martyrdom.

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One of the major questions that has come up since antiquity regarding the revolution of Imām Hussain (as) pertains to the perceived conflict between the steps he took towards his death and his occult foreknowledge about his impending martyrdom.

One of the major questions that has come up since antiquity regarding the revolution of Imām Hussain (as) pertains to the perceived conflict between the steps he took towards his death and his occult foreknowledge about his impending martyrdom.

In the below question, Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh[1] answers this question in a very descriptive manner, presenting the major opinions of Shī’ah scholars regarding ‘ilm al-Imām (the knowledge of the Imām) in the process. As needed, we have supplemented his answers with some footnotes.


It is said that the Imāms (peace be upon them) possessed a type of intuitive knowledge regarding the unseen. Should this claim be true, this would also subsume knowledge regarding the place, time, and manner of their martyrdom.

The question then imposes itself regarding why they themselves proceeded towards the circumstances of their demise. Is this not a form of suicide!?[2]


This contention is simultaneously novel and ancient. Some companions have even asked the Imāms (as) about this very issue,[3] and our scholars have been discussing it since antiquity.[4] In order to understand the framework of this issue in a rational way, I will make some simple categorizations[5] so that we can arrive at a solution to this supposed problem:

There are indeed some who say that the Prophets and Imāms (as) do not know the occult and therefore do not know anything about their death; if this is presupposed, the question becomes irrelevant, and the contention does not hold any weight.[6]

Others propose that they have knowledge of the unseen, including knowledge of their death. Vis-à-vis this view, there is a myriad of hypotheses and corresponding conclusions regarding the nature of this knowledge. There is no harm in presenting the most important theories on this frontier, as your question is relevant to merely some of them:

1. The Hypothesis of Summative Knowledge

This is the view that the infallibles know about their martyrdom only in general and not in detail. This is a view derived from the statements of certain pioneering scholars such as Shaykh al-Mufīd, Ibn Shahrāshūb, Allāmah al-Ḥilli, and others. In other words, it is stated that Imām Ḥusayn (as) knew that he will die as a martyr in Karbala and that the Prophet had predicted that; this is also what many narrations have indicated.

Nonetheless, he did not precisely know when exactly that would be. Therefore, when he traveled toward Iraq from Makkah, he knew that his eventual demise would be in Karbalā. However, the Prophetic ḥadīths did not tell the Imām when exactly this would be: for instance, would it have been in the year 61, 62, or even 80 AH?

The Imām, therefore, advanced while knowing that his martyrdom was in Karbalā, but he did not know whether this martyrdom would be in the same year in which he had risen or in the subsequent years. Therefore, he rose to overthrow the corrupt regime given it was his Islamic responsibility. He knew that he would be killed in Karbalā, but it was possible that he would be killed twenty years after his uprising (i.e. he did not have definitive knowledge of the precise year).

There are some aḥādīth that scholars rely upon to prove his knowledge of his martyrdom through the prophecy of the Holy Prophet. However, most if not all of these aḥādīth merely indicate that he knew of his ultimate martyrdom at Karbalā. As for whether his death would occur in a particular year, this group of narrations do not indicate that he knew this fact (of course, this would not subsume narrations such as the one which states: “God has destined to see me martyred…”)[7].

En route to his destination, perhaps the Imām began to gather the circumstantial evidence that rendered preponderance that the Prophetic prediction of his martyrdom would be actualized that very year. We may substantiate this by the fact that he inquired about the name of Karbalā when he arrived at this destination, for instance. Therefore, in this hypothesis of general knowledge regarding his death, there is no contradiction between this knowledge and the activities of the infallible. There is no presupposition that he knowingly caused his own self-destruction.

In other words, it is like someone prophesizing that you will die one day in a traffic accident; does this rationally require that you should never ride in a car?!

2. The Hypothesis of Detailed Knowledge

This view presumes that the Imāms had intricate knowledge of how they would pass away, whether through acquired or intuitive means. There are several sub-theories proposed under this heading, the most prominent of which are as follows:

A. Contingent Detailed Knowledge

This view is wrought from the conception that the infallible does not definitively know the unseen. Rather, it is only if he desires to know of a particular issue that he is given knowledge of it. In this case, it is assumed he did not request detailed knowledge about his martyrdom in the first place. Therefore, there is no inconsistency with access to the unseen and his taking steps towards his demise.

His approaching his fate then becomes quite ordinary, as he had not requested occult foreknowledge of it. The proposed conflict only arises if he had requested detailed knowledge from God, and the response to this possibility will follow.

B. Semi-Contingent Detailed Knowledge[8] 

This view has been proposed by some scholars such as Shaykh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Kāshif al-Ghiṭā’ — in opposition to ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī[9] — that the infallible knows the time of his death as listed in the Tentative Tablet (lawḥ al-maḥw wa al-ithbāt) only.[10] This tablet is contingent upon the Divine will (al-badā’), meaning its information is subject to change.[11] Therefore, he knew the detailed circumstances of his death, however, the knowledge was tentative in nature.

Therefore, he went to Karbalā knowing that his death could possibly be there, but given that this knowledge is subject to change, he theorized that God might change the decision (e.g., he may die five years later instead). In other words, the infallible knew of the original fate destined by God, however, this knowledge was contingent upon circumstances and was amenable to revision. Your question is still relevant here, but to a lesser degree; it would be analogical to the infallible drinking poison while knowing that it may or may not kill him, subject to God’s Will.

C. Definitive Detailed Knowledge with Sequestration

This view is derived from a narration that some scholars have interpreted to mean the infallible is stripped of knowledge of his death prior to his demise. Therefore, he proceeds toward the preliminaries of his death without knowledge.

If this opinion is correct, then your contention shall be obviated as well. However, the narration relied upon here has several different forms and there is a possibility that word substitution occurred. Therefore, it is difficult to develop confidence in the interpretation sought in this regard.[12]

D. Absolute Definitive Detailed Knowledge

This hypothesis states that the Imām had absolute final and nuanced knowledge of his demise (without presuming the doctrine of al-badā’). Your question is relevant here, and its response has been recorded by multiple scholars such as ‘Allāmah al-Majlisī, the muḥaddith Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī, and others. They state that there is no evidence of absolute prohibition of throwing oneself into perdition; for instance, jihād is technically proceeding towards self-destruction but is nonetheless obligatory. Similarly, a criminal’s turning himself into the authorities for the penalties of flogging, stoning, or hand-severing is a duty according to some jurists, even though it leads to self-peril.

Some scholars have mentioned that both reason and Islamic law prohibit casting oneself towards destruction only when there is no ultimate higher cause that must be actualized. It is said that the infallible therefore exposes himself to death because there is an underlying purpose, and there is absolutely no issue with doing so.

In other words, we might say that the infallible was legally obligated to proceed towards his demise or expose himself to danger and destruction. Sacrificial military operations are permitted with precisely this justification. In applying this reasoning, the contention is also alleviated.[13]

We should not find this type of reasoning contrived from a religious perspective per se; we see Ibrāhīm (as) for instance informing his son that he had been commanded to sacrifice him. Nonetheless, his son accepts this commandment and in fact requests him to do so! When we find Ibrāhīm’s son interpreting this decision as the Divine Will and exposing himself to perdition, what is the problem in proposing the same situation for the other Prophets and Imāms?

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In conclusion, it is possible to discuss your contention on the backdrop of these several outlined theories regarding the knowledge of the unseen possessed by the infallibles. There are further conclusions we may derive, however many of them are not quite convincing and we will not belabor the discussion further.

This article was originally published on Iqra Online, translated by Sayyid Burair Abbas and reviewed, annotated, and edited by Muhammad Jaffer. You can find the original article here.


[1] The original question and answer can be found here in Arabic: https://tinyurl.com/y3pe3reb

[2] The questioner means to reference the Qur’ānic prohibition which reads: “And do not throw yourself with your own hands into perdition.” (2:195)

[3] Generally speaking, there are 5 groups of narrations regarding the nature of the occult knowledge of the Imams, all of which have authentic chains: 1) The Imām knows what is in the heavens and what is on the earth; 2) Some occult knowledge is withheld from the Imām and he does not know some things; 3) If the Imām wants to know something, Allah (swt) will teach him; 4) The Imām is constantly gaining knowledge, and if not for that, his knowledge would be exhausted; 5) The Imām does not know the unseen. For examples of these aḥādīth, the reader is recommended to check out al-Kāfī, under the chapter: أن الأئمة عليهم السلام يعلمون متى يموتون وأنهم لا يموتون إلا باخيار منهم [Regarding that the Imāms (as) know when they will die and that they do not die except by their own choice]. One may find these aḥādīth with translation here: www.thaqalayn.net/chapter/1/4/47

[4] One of the scholars who has written beautifully on this topic presenting the various views of the Shī’ah scholars over the centuries is Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā al-Jalālī in his Arabic article entitled علم الأئمة بالغيب والاعتراض عليه بالإلقاء إلى التهلكة والإجابات عنه عبر التاريخ. For advanced readers, the article may be found here: http://www.jalaali.ir/arabic/article/8778/

[6] This was a view proposed by Āghā Ṣāleḥī Najafābādī in his controversial book “Shahīd-e-Jāvīd.” In this book, he discussed his view that Imām Ḥusayn (as) did not have occult foreknowledge about his death, but rather simply launched a political uprising that eventually failed and led to his martyrdom. Najafābadī used his historical analysis of Karbalā as a platform to claim that believing in the occult knowledge of the Imāms was ghuluww; to support his view, he incorrectly claimed that early Shī’ah theologians such as Sharīf Murtaḍā and al-Mufīd did not believe Imam Ḥusayn (as) had this foreknowledge. For interested readers, Dr. Hasan Ansari has a series of great critiques on the book from both historical and theological angles. His Persian blog posts on the topic can be accessed here: https://ansari.kateban.com/post/4632

[7] al-Luḥūf, pg. 39, taken from the original book of Aḥmad bin Ḥusayn bin ‘Umar bin Yazīd Al-Thiqah. There is yet another narration found in al-Luḥūf wherein the Imam reportedly states in a khutbah before leaving to Iraq that he sees the wolves of the desert cutting up his body at Karbala, however its reliability is somewhat disputed. Advanced readers of Arabic can see the Q&A here: https://tinyurl.com/2p8uj2e2

[8] In the Arabic, the phrase “contingent and definitive knowledge in combination” is used, however we believe that the phrase “semi-contingent” is more succinct here.

[9] The view of ‘Allāmah Ṭabātabā’ī is somewhat nuanced, derived from mystical philosophy. He espouses that owing to the Imāms’ existence as primordial cosmic lights, they had supernatural definitive knowledge of everything derived from God. However, in their Earthly existence, they had a mortal type of knowledge; when they sought to know something, they would connect with their cosmic existence and obtain whatever they sought to know. Therefore, this type of knowledge was contingent upon their desire to know. They had been commanded to act in accordance with this latter type of knowledge as it pertained to their religious obligations. Thus, Imām Ḥusayn (as) acted according to the dictates of this latter type of knowledge in his uprising. Advanced readers can reference his book, “Baḥthi-ye-Kūtāh Darbāre-ye-ilm-e-Imām.”

[10] This is a type of register that is subject to changes in fate, as suggested by the verse: “God erases and affirms what He wills; and with Him is the Source of the Book.” (13:39)

[11] Al-badā’ is a famous theological doctrine; although one’s ultimate fate is definitively known by God it is proposed that there are intermediate changes of fate that may occur based on one’s deeds. This is the mechanism whereby charity, establishing family relations, or supplication are thought to affect one’s destiny.

[12] It seems the narration being referenced here is found in al-Kāfī, where Imām al-Riḍā (as) is asked by a companion why Imām ‘Alī (as) went to the mosque when he knew about his death. In response he states:

وَلَكِنَّهُ خُيِّرَ فِي تِلْكَ اللَّيْلَةِ لِتَمْضِيَ مَقَادِيرُ الله عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

“…However, he (Imām ‘Alī) was given the choice on that night that God Almighty’s determinations would come to pass.”

There are some versions of this riwāyah that read حُيِّرَ (“Imam ‘Ali was confounded [on that night]”).

Other such narrations allude to the same point:-

(i). قال قلت للرضا عليه السلام الامام يعلم إذا مات قال نعم يعلم بالتعليم حتى يتقدم في الامر قلت علم أبو الحسن بالرطب والريحان المسمومين الذين بعث إليه يحيى بن خالد قال نعم قلت فاكله وهو يعلم قال أنساه لينفذ فيه الحكم

‘I said to Imam Riḍa (a) “Does the Imām know when he’d expire?’ He said: ‘Yes, he knows by the teaching until he advances in the matter’.

I said, ‘Did Abu Al-Ḥasan know of the poisoned dates and basil, which Yaḥya bin Khālid had sent to him?’ He said: ‘Yes’. I said, ‘So, he ate it although he knew?’ He said: ‘Yes. He was made to forget it to implement the Decree regarding him.

(ii). قال قلت الامام يعلم متى يموت قال نعم فقلت حيث ما بعثه إليه يحيى بن خالد برطب وريحان مسمومين علم به قال نعم قلت فاكله وهو يعلم فيكون معينا على نفسه فقال لا يعلم قبل ذلك ليتقدم فيما يحتاج إليه فإذا جاء الوقت القى الله على قلبه النسيان ليقضى فيه الحكم.

He said, ‘The Imām (a) knows when he’d be passing away?’ He said: ‘Yes’. I said,

‘Did your father know when Yaḥya bin Khālid sent him the poisoned dates and basil?’ He said: ‘Yes’.

I said, ‘He ate it although he knew, so he

became assisting against himself (suicide)’.

He said: ‘No, he knew before that in order to advance regarding what he’d be required of him. So, when the time came, Allah bestowed the forgetfulness upon his heart to implement the Decree regarding him…

[13] Sayyid ‘Alī Abū al-Ḥasan has also discussed this issue in brief here in a video subtitled by the Youtube channel “The Purified Truth:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFiuvnkk9oQ&t=1s.

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