by Mansoureh Tajik for the Saker Blog
As part of a very thoughtful email last month, the Saker wrote, “In your latest contribution you wrote ‘Every day is Ashura, Every land is Karbala’ twice. Did you know that this is my absolute favorite Islamic saying? I also believe that this belief is the real core of the strength of the Resistance in Lebanon, especially Hezbollah.” He was referring to the article (see here) in which I invoked the spirit of that phrase in relation to two case examples of injustice suffered by the people in North Casper, Wyoming, and the people in eastern North Carolina. These were two seemingly very unlikely candidates to be contextualized oddly in an expression that is very much known to be Shi’a Islam in essence.
The Saker also suggested mindfully that I write a short history about the phrase and explain its meaning for the readers of this blog in order to, as he put it, “make it possible for my readers to get a real insight into the Islamic ethos, especially the Shia ethos,” among other reasons. I was grateful about the suggestion and delighted to yield for several specific reasons. First, the phrase is one of the most cherished expressions for me as well and I would never tire of exploring and reflecting on it.
Second, the month of Muharram and its 10th day, the day of Ashura, are right around the corner (in a few weeks) and this essay could serve as a good introduction to this year’s Ashura as a lot of relevant and interesting events are happening all around us.
Third, this month is one full year since I began writing the monthly essays for the Saker’s blog and the article could serve as an appropriate one-year evaluation and reflection piece for me. It will also be a way to pay tribute to the Saker and his wonderful blog. What better way to show my appreciation for the opportunity he affords the global audience to take a mental path less traveled than to propose the most befitting Shi’a cue to the essence of what he actually does: With his digital pen as his weapon and his passion as its ink, he stands against global injustices and tyrant oppressors with extremely limited material resources. So, zero chance that I would not have agreed to write something on the subject!
In this essay, I hope to explore the literature and speeches of the some of the most influential contemporary thinkers and scholars who have interpreted this expression and employed it in a manner that has become a powerful Shi’a Muslim doctrine guiding an effective struggle against injustices and falsehoods in our modern era. A very brief segment about the history of Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala is presented first.
The History of the Expression and Its Role as a Doctrine
These two verses, کلّ یوم عاشورا، کلّ ارض کربلا [Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala], are among the most widely used expressions by many Shi’a Muslim sages, activists, and religious scholars in one form or another. Some scholars have traced it back to Imam Ja’afar Sadiq (Peace be upon him), the sixth Imam of Shi’a Twelvers, but no actual valid narration, or hadith, exists to corroborate that claim. A few others have attributed it to the contemporaries and students of that beloved Imam, but no solid evidence exists to support that assertion either.
According to the encyclopedia of Imam Hussain, Daneshnameh Imam Hussain, the phrase کلّ یوم عاشورا، کلّ ارض کربلا may be an adaptation of the verses from a poem by the 13th Century Egyptian poet, Muhammad bin Sa’id Busiri. In one of his long qasideh poems, he wrote, کلّ یوم و کلّ ارض لکربی فیهم کربلا و عاشورا , which is translated, “Every Day and Every Land, due to my grief and sadness for them, is Ashura and Karbala.”
Regardless of its genesis, however, the expression has been referenced and interpreted by very well-known Shi’a Muslim scholars like Martyr Morteza Motahari and Ali Shariyati and it has been referenced and reflected upon by two prominent imams and leaders of the Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Khomeini and Imam Khamenei. In a very significant way, Imams Khomeini and Khamenei, who are also two of the most influential Shi’a Muslim leaders of the world in the 20th and the 21st centuries, have defined and put into practice this expression as a potent doctrine and in a decidedly pivotal and successful way. We will delve deeper into this since it could be quite illuminating and would provide a better understanding of the Shi’a Muslims, the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, and Iran’s international politics and stance towards the world’s arrogant oppressors.
Furthermore, it sheds light on why the expression induces “panic attacks” among the most oppressive and corrupt-to-their-core entities, like the British regime, so much so that they invest significant resources on paid religious “scholars” to re-write history and offer utterly compromising interpretations of this expression.
During the early days of the Iranian revolution, Imam Khomeini explained in one of his speeches,
“This expression, ‘Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala,’ is a really important expression but many misunderstand it. They think it means we should mourn and cry every day. But its true meaning is something quite different. What did Karbala do? What role did the land of Karbala play on the day of Ashura? A handful of people came to Karbala and stood up against the injustices of Yazid. They stood against a tyrant ruler and an emperor of their time. They sacrificed themselves and they got killed but they did not accept the injustice and defeated Yazid. Every place must be like this and every day must also be like this. Every day, our nation must reach this realization that today is Ashura and we must stand up against the injustice. And this very place is Karbala and we must make this place, right here, a Karbala. It is not restricted to one land. It is not restricted to one specific person. The story of Karbala is not restricted to a group of seventy some people and a land of Karbala. All lands must play this role. And all days must play the same role.” (Page 122)
In that speech, Imam Khomeini universalized the day of Ashura and the land of Karbala. He defined Ashura and Karbala in a way that a critical and decisive extrapolation from a specific time and place could be made to all times and all places. It reminded the Muslims in general and the Shi’a in particular about their ongoing responsibility and duty to stand up against falsehood and injustice, just like Imam Hussain, in all places and all the times.
A more direct reference was made on the occasion of the 17th of Shahriver event. The 17th of Shahrivar 1357  was the day when thousands peaceful and unarmed demonstrators were all allowed into then Jaleh Square [later renamed Shuhada/Martyrs Square] from every direction. Once the crowd filled the square, the major streets, alleys, and backstreets were blocked by the Shah’s military force. In a matter of just a few minutes the military rained a heavy fire on men, women, children, the young, and the old. A massive reaping and threshing of the crowd. “Rivers of blood” began flowing everywhere. It was the first time since the start of the uprising that the Pahlavi regime had opened fire on the masses. That day became known as the “Black Friday”.
In a powerful speech delivered on the occasion of the 17th of Shahrivar massacre in Shohada Square, Imam Khomeini made a clear and precise reference again to the Ashura and Karbala expression. In his speech, he qualified the event as follows,
“The bitter memory of 17th of Shahrivar, ’57, and the bitter memories of the days of great hardship that were witnessed by the nation bore in them the sweet fruit of the toppling the palaces of tyranny and arrogance and replacing them with the flag of the republic of Islamic Justice. Is it not so that the instructive mandate of “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala” should serve as a paragon for the Islamic Ummah? A rising up of the masses in every day and in every land. Ashura was the rising up of the seekers of justice, few in number but fortified with their strong belief and love against tyrannical palace dwellers and arrogant predators. And the life lesson is that paragon must serve as a plan for life every day and in every place. The days that passed us by were the repeats of Ashura. And the squares, the streets, back streets, and the alleys in which the blood of the children of Islam were spilled, they were the repeats of Karbala. And in this paragon there is both a duty and a good news. It is a duty because the oppressed, even if few in number, have a responsibility, they have a duty to rise up, like the Master of Martyrs [Imam Hussain], against the arrogant powers who may have all sorts of equipment, armaments, and great Satanic power. They are charged with that duty. It is a good news since our martyrs are put in the same rank and file as the martyrs of Karbala. A good news that martyrdom is the key to victory. The 17th of Shahrivar is the repeat of Ashura. Shuhad Square is the repeat of Karbala. And our martyrs are reiterations of the martyrs of Karbala. Our enemies are reiterations of Yazid and his cronies. Karbala smashed the palace of injustice with blood and our Karbala destroyed the palace of Satanic rule. Now, it is time for us who are the inheritors of these bloods and those who have been left behind by these young martyrs not to become lethargic. We must strive to bring into fruition their sacrifice with our unwavering wills and hard fists. It is time for us to bury underneath the feet of the martyrs of goodness the remnants of that tyrant regime and the conspirators of injustice who are beholden to the East and to the West.” (Pages 445-446)
This speech was the most clear and definite way Imam Khomeini directly linked the events of the Iranian Revolution to the events of Ashura and Karbala. Another fine and noteworthy point that was raised in Imam Khomeini’s speech was this point: “the oppressed, even if they may be few in numbers, have a responsibility to rise up against the arrogant powers who may have all sorts of equipment, armaments, and great Satanic power.”
The importance of this key point is appreciated only when people examine how a country like Iran which has neither the most “powerful military in the world” to be reassured, nor is she “the most powerful economy” in the world to buy her way in and out of trouble, nor the most populous nation in the world to have many lives to spare sees it necessary to defend the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Yemenis, the Iraqis, the Venezuelans, and all others in any way that she can.
It also explains how Iran mustered the willpower to take over the United States’ Spy Den masquerading as an embassy in Tehran (1979) and arrest and hold 52 spy agents for 444 days. It clarifies how Iran managed to fight an 8-year war alone (with the exception of Syrian help) with almost empty hands and under all sorts of sanctions with a regime (Saddam’s) that that the backing of all powerful governments of the world at that time (1980-1988). It lays bare the SS Bridgeton explosion (1987), the defeat of Israel and world powers in the 33-Day war by Hizbullah forces (2006), the capture of UK officers in Persian Gulf (2006), the capture of RQ-170 (2011), Syrian resistance (2011-present), Yemeni resistance (2015-present), the capture of US Sailors by Iran in 2016, RQ-4 Global Hawk capture (2019), ballistic missile attack on Ayn al-Asad (Lion’s Eye) Air Base (2020), sending oil tankers to Venezuela (2020), just to name a few examples.
The successor to Imam Khomeini, the current leader of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khamenei, too, has interpreted the expression with the same worldview. His most comprehensive explanation and the philosophy related to the phrase could be found in one of his books titled, Four Discourses: Clarification of the Circumstances, the Causes, and the Consequences of the Event of Ashura.  Here, however, I will bring a short segment of one of his speeches in which he has a very concise and pointed reading:
“That they say, Every day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala, it means the time passes by but the happenings in life as they pertain to humanity, the truths of the creation remain untouched. If in every era, humanity who has a role to play, if they play that role at the right time, exactly when they should play that role, then everything will be reformed. The nations will grow and achieve excellence. The humanity will grow.”
When there is injustice, the role every human being must play to remove the injustice is now, not later. Not when it is convenient but when it is necessary and needed. Not just in places where it is politically correct and materially advantageous to do so but in all places that is right to do so. Not just when and where it costs us nothing but when and where it costs us all worldly things.
Another great Muslim Shi’a scholar, Martyr Morteza Motahhari, who was killed in 1358 [May 1979] by agents of a terrorist organization right after the victory of the revolution, expands on the phrase in this way,
“If we say the prophets are victorious, it does not mean a military victory. If we look at the battle between Hussain Ibn Ali (peace be upon him) with the army of Yazid and Ibn Ziyad from a military perspective, that means on the surface of things and how they appear, then Imam Hussain was defeated and they won. But if we look at the heart of the subject which relates to thoughts and beliefs, that is, Yazid’s establishment represented a movement that wished to destroy the true essence of the Islamic thought and Imam Hussain fought to revive that thought. In this case, we must examine if Imam Hussain reached his goal or not. Was he able to revive a given mindset in the world or not? We see that he could. It is one thousand three hundred years that this movement has gained a new victory every year. That is, every year Ashura is Ashura. And the meaning of Every Day is Ashura becomes this fact that every day, in the name of Imam Hussain, there is a fight against injustice and falsehood, and every day, truth and justice are revived. This is victory. What victory would be greater than this? Yazids and Ibn Ziads disappear but Hussains and Abbasses and Zaynabs remain. Of course, they remain as an idea not as a person. They remain as a guardian and the ruler of their society. Yes, those who are there die. But these who are here remain alive and eternal.”
Martyr Motahhari appraises the expression in terms of its endurance over a millennium and several centuries not just as a worldview but as a lifestyle of choice. Another well-known Muslim Shi’a thinker and sociologist, Ali Shariati defines the phrase in a manner that links it to the school of Intizar, or the expectation of the coming of Imam Mahdi (peace be upon him) at the end of time in a simple but psycho-socially nuanced way:
“What does Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala mean? It is not that wherever we find, we recite the Ashura prayers! It is to expect. The philosophy of expecting means a philosophy that a justice-seeking intellectual thinker, no matter what the circumstances, is not afflicted with philosophical and historical hopelessness and despair. There are no peoples or groups like Shi’a and no school of thought like the Shi’a school of thought that would fight for thirteen, fourteen centuries; all their leaders are slaughtered; they are poisoned; they are put in jail; they are killed; all their movements are all crushed. But they never succumb to despair! Why and what factor has kept these believers still convinced, still believing, and still hopeful despite protracted periods of setbacks, hardships, and adversities,?! The belief in the inevitability of history based on the philosophy of expectation!
What does a human being with expectation mean? Look at it this way. If you are at home and expecting a guest, if it is an army unit expecting an inspector or a call for readiness or a call for war or the arrival of a commander, if it is a city expecting the arrival of a person of importance, if it is someone who is expecting the coming of guest or a friend, any sort of expectation that you examine, to expect means to be prepared and to be ready. It does not mean to be dormant and sluggish! To expect means to be ready, equipped, and responsible. Therefore, the philosophy of expectation is to believe in the inevitability of history and be reassured, in all circumstances, that standing up for justice and in retaliation for spilt innocent bloods must take place all the time. It is a battle that since the beginning of history has been moved from one hand to the other, from one Prophet of God to the other, from one Shi’a Imam to the other. This battle, generation after generation, is propounded and put before every single individual. And despite all desperate condition, this flag is decidedly victorious in the future.”
Shariati points to a historical and unbreakable link among all Prophets of God, Imams, and true believers throughout all times and all places to the coming of Mahdi (peace be upon him). It is useful to open a parenthesis here and make an important note: this very idea that Shia Muslim Twelvers must always evaluate their time and place on a daily basis and see where they stand in terms of their opposition to injustices and at the same time take the necessary measures to rectify and reform in preparation for the coming of Imam Mahdi (peace by upon him) defines their Waiting and Expectation. This approach stands in stark contrast with notions of passive waiting for a savior or helping create chaos and mayhem to engineer an end of time, an approach that inevitably helps and enables corrupt oppressors of every time and every place. Close parenthesis.
In closing of this essay, I would like to include a video of Maddahi, or religious recital, about Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) by Maysam Moti’ei (here) in which he has woven together several key concepts (discussed in the article) in one neat lyrical package. Since the song does not have any English subtitles, I did a translation of the lyrics (below). والسلام.
The master and the leader is Hussain,
The sereneness in hearts is Husssain.
The whisper of his lovers and devotees,
Nothing but Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain.
Besides you, I have no thought or notion,
My kin, my belonging, my life and devotion.
To the somber recital of the killing field,
Like the pouring rain we weep.
Grieving and mourning you these nights,
Alongside the martyrs we weep.
Our tears the elegy of the Euphrates,
Our Imam “Qati’ul Abarat” killed for tears.
By our Molaa, the leader, we remain,
From Ashura is the zeal that we gain.
O Lovers! Bimsillah!
The path to Al-Quds is from Karbala!
In the battlefields, I shall never abandon Ali,
My Molaa, my Leader, Sayyed Ali.
Every Day is Ashura,
Every Land is Karbala.
O the heir to Hussain’s blood!
Mahdi, the son of Zahra, arrive!
The defender of the oppressed,
The proof from God, hasten and arrive!
 Muhammadi Rayshahri M., Daneshnameh Imam Hussain (Aleyhi-Salaam) According to Quran, Hadith, and History. Vol. 6, Page 89. Digital Copy, Available online at: http://lib.eshia.ir/27254/6/89
 Ruhullah Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Noor, Vol. 10, Pages 122. Available online at: https://farsi.rouhollah.ir/library/sahifeh-imam-khomeini/vol/10/page/122
 Ruhullah Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Noor, Vol. 9, Pages 445-446. Available online at:
 Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Four Discourses: Clarification of the Circumstances, the Causes, and the Consequences of the Event of Ashura. Digital Copy, Institute for Cultural Research in the Islamic Revolution, the Office of Preservation and Publication of Ayatullah Ali Khamenei’s Works, Enghlab Islami Publication, Tehran, Iran. Book ID#: 978-964-2951-55-0.
 Ayatollah Khamenei, Speech during the joint educational ceremony of the students in Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) University on Farvardin 26, 1388 (2009). Available online at: https://www.leader.ir/fa/speech/5172
 Martyr Morteza Mottahari, “The Battle of Truth and Falsehood.” Cultural and Scientific Foundation of Martyred Teacher Morteza Mottahari, Pages 40-41. Available online at: https://3danet.ir/morteza-motahhari-books-pdf/
 Ali Shariati, The Philosophy of History in Islam, Section 4. Available online at: http://www.shariati.com/farsi/tarikhdarislam/tarikhdarislam4.html