Hasan ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib was the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the second Shi_ite imam. Born in Medina in 624, three years after the hijra, he died at age forty-six in Medina in 670. In Shi_ite parables he and his brother Husayn, the third imam, are figured as two alternative political strategies against injustice in the world and in politics. Hasan embodies the path of patience, which allows the enemy slowly to demonstrate unworthiness and lose any claim to legitimacy.
Husayn embodies the path of armed revolt. After the death of his father, _Ali bin Talib, the first imam, Mu_awiya became caliph. According to the Shi_ite account, Hasan should have succeeded his father. Hasan was an important rawi (reciter) and interpreter of the hadith and sunna (sayings and practices) of the Prophet and his Companions, reflecting the role of the imams in having access also to the divine meanings of revelation. But Hasan was too weak politically to challenge Mu_awiya for the leadership of the community. After Mu_awiya attempted to have him assasinated, and many of his followers abandoned him, Hasan came to an understanding with Mu_awiya, wherein Hasan was sent to live in Medina, while Mu_awiya promised that leadership would revert to the family of the Prophet upon his death. But Mu_awiya broke his promise by appointing his son Yazid to succeed him, and convinced Ja_da, Hasan’s wife, to poison the imam. In addition to paying Ja_da, Mu_awiyya also promised to marry her to his son and heir, Yazid. The giving of poisoned water is the inverse of the denial of water to Husayn on the battlefield of Karbala, where the third imam was martyred by the forces of Yazid. Imam Husayn’s revolt subsequently disgraced Yazid, and created in him the archetypal figure of evil in Shi_ite stories of injustice.
This parable structure is also encoded in a hadith quoted by Mohammad Baqer Majlesi, the preeminent mujtahed of the seventeenth century. On Id al-Fitr, according to the hadith, Gabriel descended with a gift of new white clothes for each of the Prophet’s grandsons. The Prophet said that the grandsons were used to colored clothes. So Gabriel asked each boy what color he wanted. Hasan chose green, Husayn red. While the clothes were being dyed, Gabriel wept. He explained: Hasan’s choice of green meant that he would be martyred by poisoning, and his body would turn green, and Husayn’s choice of red meant he would be martyred and his blood would turn the ground red.
Hasan is buried in Medina with a green banner on his mausoleum. Husayn is buried in Karbala with a red banner, the sign of a martyr whose revenge is yet to come. Sunni accounts of early Islamic history deny that Hasan was poisoned, claiming he died of consumption. Sunni accounts also stress the temporary shift of power to Damascus under Mu_awiya and Yazid, but since revenues came mainly from Iraq, power eventually shifted to Baghdad. For Shi_a, Hasan’s story is a precursor to Husayn’s martyrdom,
which is the overarching cosmic and paradigmatic story of existential tragedy, of injustice in this world triumphing often by force over justice, and of the duty of a true Muslim to sacrifice himself, to witness for truth and justice.