The Shi'ites' martyrs are a lot more recent. Their favorite disaster happened in 680 AD, at the battle of Karbala. Yup, THAT Karbala -- the same city where we've been fighting Shi'ites for the last few months. Karbala means "anguish." That should tell you something about the way Shi'ites see the world, that they named one of their holiest cities after something we'd call "clinical depression." They're not smiley-face optimists. If a Shi'ite coached your kid's soccer team, he'd start every practice with a video of the team's biggest defeat: "Yet again we see Jason missing the goal! Truly we AM/PM Minimart Big Gulps are out of the playoffs forever and a day!"
For the Shi'ites, the battle of Karbala is like Christ's crucifixion and the Alamo, all rolled into one: a doomed last stand with God on the losers' side. Karbala was a fight over leadership, the kind you get when an empire based on one man has to deal with that man's death. Muhammad's armies blasted out of the desert in the early seventh century and ended up in control of most of the Middle East. When he died, he left a power vacuum like a black hole centered on Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic world. The winner would become "Caliph" -- a pretty cushy job, sort of like Pope and Emperor rolled into one, with total control over everything, religion and government both.
With that kind of power at stake, the feuding got pretty intense. Ali got himself assassinated, which was a tradition for Caliphs -- life insurance salesmen ran from Caliphs like they were motocross riders. His killers, a rich, mean clan called the Umayyads grabbed the Caliphate. This is the key moment for the Shi'ites. The Umayyads won, Ali's family lost. It's time to face facts, right? You can't argue with success, right?
Wrong. The whole Shia psychology is that you CAN argue with success, and you DON'T have to face facts. Ali's son, Husain, stayed calm when the Umayyad killed his dad; he even accepted the first Umayyad Caliph. But when that Caliph died and the Caliphate went to another Umayyad, Husain realized he had to take back the Caliphate or die trying. Husain was riding to a rendezvous with some rebels with only about 30 men guarding him when he found himself facing the Caliph's whole army near Karbala.
Victory was impossible. Escape was impossible. So Husain did what any red-blooded boy would do: he charged. And naturally, the Caliph's soldiers did a Benihana on Husain and his men.
That's the key moment for Shi'ites. The way they see, everything that happened after Husain's martyrdom is sleazy, dirty, worthless. The real world is trash; the only good people are the martyrs. In Shia culture, you ain't nobody till you're dead. The world won't be worth living in until the return of the "Mahdi," the messiah. (You may remember that Sadr's posse is called the "Mahdi Army.") The Shia are the Travis Bickles of Islam: "someday a real rain will come, to wash the scum off the streets," and if they can help it along with a car bomb or two, so much the better.
They have a huge death wish, so naturally their holiest places are tombs. That's why Shi'ites make that pilgrimage to Karbala, to visit the tomb of Husain. Shi'ites commemorate Husain getting himself sliced and diced for ten days every year, slashing themselves with knives and bashing themselves with chains to celebrate that glorious defeat. Ayatollah Khomeini, the biggest Shi'ite hero of the 20th century, used to preach "Every day is the anniversary of the battle, and every place is Karbala." The inspirational message was: wherever you are, go get yourself massacred. What are you doing sitting around breathing? Why ain't you out there getting slaughtered, you lazy godless bum?