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Exegesis of the Agnomen – Abu Abdillah

The ‘Chief of Martyrs’ (Sayyadus Shohada), ‘the one who was
made to weep before being killed” (Qateel-al-Abra’a), Imam Husain has an
interesting agnomen (kunniyah) – Abu Abdillah. This agnomen means ‘the father
of Abdullah’. The Arabs had the habit of addressing each other in various ways.
One method was to call the person by his name, another was to refer to the
person by his title and the third was to address the person by his agnomen. For
instance the name of our first Imam is Ali (a.s.), his titles were “Asadullah”,
“Haider” while his agnomen was “Abul Hasan” or “Abul
Hasnain”. In the same way, the agnomen of Imam Husain (a.s) was “Abu Abdillah”
but his titles were many viz. “Ash-Shahid-us-Saeed” (the heavenly
martyr) or “As-Sibt-us-Thaani” (the second grandson) or Al-Imam-o-Thaalis
(the third Imam) or “Ar-Rasheed” (the intelligent one) or “Al-Wali-e-Sayyad”
(the chief master) or “the one who follows the desire of Allah and is His
proof”. You have most surely recited this phrase a number of times in Ziarate-Aashoora
“Salutations be upon you, O Aba Abdillah!.”  Let us try to increase
our knowledge and recognition of this agnomen of Imam Husain (a.s) through this

The agnomen is derived from the word “Kunyah” which
means “to address something by a gesture”. It is for this reason that
in Arabic grammar, the words used for pointing out to something are also
referred to as “Kinaayaa”. The people of Basra used to refer to
“pronouns” as “kinaayaa”. When a person does not want to
take the name of the one whom he is addressing, then he uses an agnomen while
talking with him. It means that he alludes to that person through his father,
mother or his son and uses words like “Abu”, “Umme” or
“Ibne”.  Like “Abu Talib” (father of Talib), “Ibne
Abbas” (son of Abbas) or “Umme Dawood” (mother of Dawood). Such
words are called as “agnomen”. This is because generally, the names
of the forefathers are linked with the name of a person.  Titles like “Sayyed”,
“Shaikh”, “Khan”, “Mirza” etc, which are commonly
used among the non – Arabs were not prevalent among the Arabs. Hence, an
agnomen was very widely used among them. In fact its usage was the yardstick of
good manners and ethics. 

Thus a poet says:

“When I call out to him I address him by his agnomen so
that I may respect him. And I don’t call him by his title because it is
considered disrespectful. I kept on using this method till it did not become a
second nature for me. Verily, I have found this manner to be the proper ethic”

It is for this very reason that when a child was born and
was named, the agnomen of the father was also established. In fact on many
occasions, the agnomen of a person was decided even before the child was born.
Frequently, the agnomen of the person would become more popular then the actual
name. Many a time the agnomen of a person was selected based on some special
characteristic found in him. As is well known about the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.)
that he has the agnomen of “Abul Qasim” because it is said about him

“He is addressed as ‘Abul Qasim’ because on the Day of
Judgement he (s.a.w.a.) will ‘distribute’ paradise.

Numerous traditions indicate that the agnomen “Abu Abdillah”
of Imam Husain (a.s) was ascribed to him right from his childhood. Asma binte Umais
narrates that when Imam Husain (a.s) was born, the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.)
picked him up from his cradle and addressed him thus

“O Abu Abdillah! You are precious to me”

And after saying like this he (s.a.w.a.) began to weep.
Janabe Asma narrates “I said, O Prophet, why are you crying like this on
this auspicious day?” Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) replied

“I am weeping for this son of mine, who will be killed
by a rebellious group from the Bani Umayyah.”

(Behaarul Anwaar, vol. 43, chp 11; Oyoone
Akhbare Reza; Ibne Shahre Aashoob in his ‘Manaqib’)

The point to be noted here is that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.)
never utters even a word nor does he perform any action without divine
revelation and divine sanction. Surely there is some divine secret concealed in
this particular agnomen and it may be that Imam Husain(a.s) has been attributed
this agnomen (of Abu Abdillah) for the same reason that his (a.s) grandfather
(Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.)) has been attributed with the agnomen of “Abul
Qasim”. In other words, it is possible that Imam Husain (a.s) has been
credited with this agnomen due to his distinguished acts of worship.  It is
noteworthy that before Imam Husain (a.s) there was none among the Prophets or
their successors who gave such a radiant example of divine worship as
demonstrated by Sayyadush Shohada (a.s) himself. His complete submission
(before Allah’s decree), his divine worship, his steadfastness under the banner
of divine Unity (Tauheed) and his devotion to Allah, are acts that are
unmatched by any other divine representative. All past prophets and their
successors have unanimously mentioned

“If I try to come even a step close to this status, I
would be scorched (to death)”.

The worship and devotion of Imam Husain (a.s) was
particularly evident on the day of Aashoora, which is a compilation of all
apparent and concealed acts of worship. His each and every act, whether it was
prayers or fasting, zakat or Haj, enjoining good or forbidding evil, each one
of them was an example and a lesson for the people of intellect. In particular
his manner of jehad, exhorting towards goodness and prohibiting from evil. It
was a lesson for the world that if evil and immorality exist in the world, then
it is not only because of the corrupt people who commit those indecent acts,
but also because of the good people who remain silent in face of such
indecencies and do not counter the oppressors. Thus he was such a symbol of
good morals, bravery, forbearance, compassion, compunction, advice,
rectification, certitude, contentment, courtesy that even the angels, who are
pure and infallible themselves, and are the honored servants of Allah, the
Almighty,  were amazed by his acts of devotion. It would not be wrong to say
that the slogan

“There is no day similar to your day (Aashura) O Aba  Abdillah!”

points towards all these virtues and excellence.

Such types of agnomen were very common among the Arabs of
the earlier era. For instance, if the courage and valour of some particular
person was to be discussed then it would be said: “I saw among them a

Or if someone’s generosity was being cited, then it would be
said: “So and so person is the father of generosity”

The second reason for the agnomen of Sayyadush Shohada (a.s)
being “Abu Abdillah” is that had he (a.s) not struggled and endeavored
in Karbala, then most certainly the Islamic Shariat would have been trampled by
the atrocities and the injustices of the Bani Umayyah and the people would have
reverted to the pre-Islamic customs of polytheism and ignorance. Tyrant and
oppressive kings and the lust and desire for the world would have overpowered
one and all. No Muslim would have profited from the guidance of the Holy
Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and the Holy Quran. There would have been none to combat the
oppression heaped by the Bani Umayyah nor counter the (ideological) assaults of
individuals like Ibne Taimiyyah.  Thus, today, whoever worships Allah and
follows Prophet Mohammed (s.a.w.a.), then it is purely because of the grace of
Imam Husain (a.s). He is the same Husain about whom it is said:

“If you would not have been there then Allah would not
have been worshipped. If you would not have been there then none would have
obtained the (true) recognition of Allah.”

(Faraid-us-Simtain; vol1, pg. 46)

Hence the truth is that Sayyadush Shohada (a.s) is the
father of all the servants of Allah. (Here the word “father” is used
in the sense of “trainer” as it is commonly used among the Arabs).
The term “Abu Abdillah” refers to the servants of Allah – whether the
word “Abd” is interpreted in the sense of ‘humbleness’ or
‘submissiveness’ or in the sense of ‘worship’ and ‘prayers’. Both the
interpretations do not negate the concept and the idea of the term “Abu Abdillah”

The third reason for the agnomen “Abu Abdillah” is
– as mentioned by most historians and traditionalists – is that Imam Husain
(a.s) had a son by the name of Abdullah who we refer to by the name of
“Ali Asgar”. He was only six months old when his father arrived with
along with him at Karbala. At that tender age, Ali Asgar was
made the target of an arrow shot by the accursed Hurmula, while he lay in the
arms of his father. Thus often it is found in the books referring to the event
of Karbala, phrases like “And then he
(a.s) came out with his son Abdullah Ibne Husain”
. It is for this very
reason that Imam Husain (a.s) is also referred to as “Abu Abdillah”


Before concluding this article we present to our readers a
tradition from Imam Reza (a.s) wherein he says

“When you address a person while he is present before
you then use his agnomen. And if you refer to a person who is not present
before you then address him by his name.”

(Behaarul Anwaar vol 78, pg 335)

Hence whenever we recite Ziarate Aashoora then we should
always bear in our minds that when we address the martyr of Karbala as ‘Ya Aba Abdillah’ then he (a.s)
is present in front of us. Secondly, it should also be borne in mind that an
agnomen is used as a mark of respect. For instance in the days of the second
caliph, when someone made an accusation against Ameerul Momeneen (a.s) and when
he (a.s) was presented before the Caliph, the Caliph addressed Ameerul Momeneen
(a.s) as “Abul Hasan”. Immediately, Ameerul Momeneen (a.s) objected
and said “Justice should be observed in the court of justice. It is against
the norms of justice that you refer to me by my agnomen while you address the
other person by his name.” 
If we are heedless and negligent during the
recitation of Ziarat and do not use the agnomen, then this would be a sign of
disrespect and Allah does not accept such supplications. This can be concluded
from the tradition of Ameerul Momeneen (a.s) in which he says

“Allah does not accept the prayers from an inattentive

(Behaarul Anwaar, vol. 93, Pg. 314)

Therefore we should be focused at all times and should
strive to protect ourselves and ensure that the heart does not become heedless
while reciting the Ziarat of Imams (a.s.). We should pray to Allah at all time
that He should accept our Ziarat and all other acts of worship. And that He
should hasten the reappearance of the one who is a symbol and embodiment of
worship, viz. Hazrat Baqiyatullah (a.t.f.s.). And through his reappearance, He
should remove all the sorrows and sufferings of the believers of the world.

September 2, 2020