Imam al-Hussain (a) is known as the “Master of Martyrs” (سَيِدُ الشُّهَداء). He was the only Imam from among the Ahlul Bait who was killed in a battle. All the Imams who died were martyred outside of battle and primarily by poison (save Imam Ali [a], whose head was struck by a sword while prostrating). Why is Imam Hussain (a) called the Master of Martyrs? Keep reading this article to find out.
The Significance of Imam al- Hussain’s (a) Martyrdom
وَلَا تَقُولُوا۟ لِمَن يُقْتَلُ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمْوَٰتُۢ ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ وَلَٰكِن لَّا تَشْعُرُونَ
Do not call those who were slain in Allah’s way ‘dead.’ No, they are living, but you are not aware. (2:154 Translation by Qarai)
Therefore, martyrs have a very high status before Allah. Imam al-Hussain’s (a) martyrdom changed the course of history. The tyrant Umayyad ruler of his time, Yazid, was effacing any trace of Islam. He was a drunkard who played with monkeys and dogs and did not practice Islamic laws. He wanted Imam al-Hussain (a) to forcefully accept his caliphate and pledge allegiance to him. However, the Imam stood against him and decided to fight and defend himself against him. Imam al-Hussain’s (a) martyrdom revived Islam and foiled the plots of his enemies.
The Prophesy of the Tragedy of Karbala
The martyrdom of Imam al-Hussain (a) was such a great event that it was prophesized ever since the creation of Adam. When Adam was cast away from paradise due to eating from the forbidden tree and wanted to repent to Allah, Jibreel descended on him and taught him the “Kalimāt,” meaning the special words, as mentioned in the Quran:
فَتَلَقَّىٰٓ ءَادَمُ مِن رَّبِّهِۦ كَلِمَٰتٍ فَتَابَ عَلَيْهِ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ هُوَ ٱلتَّوَّابُ ٱلرَّحِيمُ
Then Adam received certain words from his Lord, and He turned to him clemently. Indeed He is the All-clement, the All-merciful. (2:37 Translation by Qarai)
These special words were the names of the “Pure Five” who lived at the time of the Prophet (s). They were the Prophet (s), Ali ibn Abi Talib (a), Fatima (a), al-Hassan (a), and al-Hussain (a). When Adam uttered the name of al-Hussain, he felt a deep pang of sorrow. He asked Jibreel why it was so. Then the archangel told Adam the story of Imam al-Hussain’s martyrdom.
The angel Jibreel also told the Noble Prophet (s) the story of Imam al-Hussain’s (a) martyrdom right when he was born. Likewise, Imam al-Hassan (a), Imam Hussain’s (a) older brother, also reminded Imam al-Hussain (a) of his martyrdom before he was dying. Imam al-Hussain (a) was weeping copiously over losing his brother, at which Imam al-Hassan (a) said, “The day you will die shall not be like the day anyone would die.” As a result, we realize that this event was of such magnitude that it was prophesized ever since the creation of man. Imam al-Hussain’s great act of bravery will always be remembered.
Why Was Imam al-Hussain (a) Called the Master of Martyrs?
At the time of the Prophet (s), when Hamzah ibn ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib, the uncle of the Prophet (s), was martyred, the Prophet gave him the title “the Master of Martyrs” (سَيِدُ الشُهَداء). After the martyrdom of Imam al-Hussain (a), he was given the title “the Master of Martyrs,” too. In a hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a), one of the inhabitants of Iraq came to Medina to visit the graves of those buried there. Imam al-Sadiq said, “Why do you not visit the grave of the Master of Martyrs in your own country?” The man thinking the Imam meant Imam Ali (a), asked him, “Who is the Master of Martyrs.” Imam al-Sadiq (a) said, “The Master of Martyrs is al-Hussain ibn Ali (a).”
Therefore, we can say that Imam al-Hussain (a) is the Master of Martyrs of all time, while Hamzah was the Master of Martyrs of his own time. It is quite clear why Imam al-Hussain (a) deserves this title more than any other martyr. What Imam al-Hussain (a) did was far beyond any act of bravery throughout history. He was killed while he was extremely thirsty and in the most brutal way. He sacrificed everything he had for Allah. No other martyr comes close to the like of him. However, what is more important is that his martyrdom saved Islam. No other martyr saved Islam to the extent of Imam al-Hussain (a).
Was Imam al-Hussain’s (a) Move Suicide?
Some have argued that the Imam committed suicide because he was clearly outnumbered, and there was no way he could win the battle. It must be noted that Imam al-Hussain (a) did try to recruit forces from different cities, especially Kufa. Initially, he was able to win the allegiance of many, many people from Kufa. The Kufans wrote many letters to the Imam announcing their support for him in fighting Yazid. As a result, the Imam sent Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl to Kufa to see whether they genuinely supported the Imam or not. When Muslim went to Kufa, he first noticed that the Kufans were ready to support him. However, the governor of Kufa, Ibn Ziyād, hatched a plot, and the Kufans withdrew their support for Imam al-Hussain (a). Muslim was left with no supporters and was martyred.
Imam al-Hussain (a) initially set off to go to Kufa because he had received many letters in his support and because Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl did not return to inform him of the Kufans’ disloyalty. However, he was stopped from going to Kufa and eventually landed in Karbala. What Imam al-Hussain (a) did was not suicide by any means. His blood was what saved Islam from destruction. After the martyrdom of Imam al-Hussain (a), his sister Zainab (a) was the one who imparted the message of Imam al-Hussain (a) and the epic of Karbala to all people. When people heard of the story of Karbala, they came to their senses and realized that Yazid had oppressed the Imam and did not deserve to be the caliph of Muslims. Thus, Islam was revived.
Imam al-Hussain (a) is the Master of Martyrs. He has been given this title for various reasons. Imam al-Hussain (a) was the most innocent person martyred. He was not allowed to drink water for three days and was martyred while thirsty and in the most brutal way imaginable. However, more important is that his blood saved Islam from destruction. Through his martyrdom, Islam remains alive, and that is why he is the Master of Martyrs.
 Sheikh Saduq, Thawab al-A‘mal, pp. 97-98.