Joseph Campbell, Shiʿism, and the Karbala Narrative

Joseph Campbell Shiism and the Karbala Narrative

Joseph Campbell, Shiʿism, and the Karbala Narrative

Article: “Joseph Campbell, Shiʿism, and the Karbala Narrative”

Author: Amina Inloes

Published in: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

Publisher: Routledge

Joseph Campbell Shiism and the Karbala Narrative


While Islam, like any major religion, should have its own mythos, the idea that Islam has myth has met with resistance. This paper utilizes the ideas of Joseph Campbell to argue that Islam does have mythos, through a study of the Karbala narrative, the story of the martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn ʿAli (d. 61 AH/680 CE), which is particularly central to Shiʿism. This narrative closely parallels Campbell’s archetypal framework of the monomyth. Using Campbell’s definitions of myth, it shows how the Karbala narrative functions as mythos rather than as history, although usually understood as the latter. The narrative of Karbala emerges from the human psyche, as a rich example of Campbell’s cross-cultural mythic structure known as the ‘hero’s journey’. While Shiʿis argue that the Karbala narrative persists because it is spiritually and cosmologically central, this archetypal structure offers a psychological explanation for why the Karbala narrative continues to be compelling. Second, Campbell expressed concerns over the sustainability of mythos in modernity, and mythos in Islam; this paper shows how the Karbala mythos persists despite the challenges of modernity. Lastly, this paper models an approach to exploring mythos in Islam which can be applied to other Islamic narratives.


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