The month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, brings with it the memory of the sacrifice of Imam Husayn [radiallahu anhu], the grandson of Prophet Muhammad , and his noble family and friends. This short text reflects the deep admiration of its author towards Imam Husayn [radiallahu anhu] and an insight into the tragedy of Karbala, its reasons and its consequences. It is presented with the hope that it will foster the Islamic unity and the brotherly love that the author seeks in his preface.
The following pages are based on a report of an address which I delivered in London at an Ashura Majlis on Thursday the 28th May, 1931 (Muharram 1350 A.H.), at the Waldorf Hotel. The report was subsequently corrected and slightly expanded. The Majlis was a notable gathering, which met at the invitation of Mr. A. S. M. Anik. Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan, Tiwana, presided and members of all schools of thought in Islam, as well as non-Muslims, joined reverently in doing honour to the memory of the great Martyr of Islam. By its inclusion in the Progressive Islam Pamphlets series, it is hoped to reach a larger public than were able to be present in person. Perhaps, also, it may help to strengthen the bonds of brotherly love which unite all who hold sacred the ideals of brotherhood preached by the Prophet in his last Sermon. A. Yusuf Ali.
This article is a shorter version and has been excerpted from Progressive Islam Pamphlet No. 7, September, 1931.
Imam Husain And His Martyrdom
When we invite strangers or guests and make them free of our family circle, that means the greatest out-flowing of our hearts to them. The events that I am going to describe refer to some of the most touching incidents of our domestic history in their spiritual aspect. We ask our brethren of other faiths to come, and share with us some of the thoughts which are called forth by this event. As a matter of fact all students of history are aware that the horrors that are connected with the great event of Kerbela did more than anything else to unite together the various contending factions which had unfortunately appeared at that early stage of Muslim history. You know the old Persian saying applied to the Prophet:
Tu barae wasl kardan amadi; - Ni barae fasl kardan amadi.
"Thou camest to the world to unite, not to divide."
That was wonderfully exemplified by the sorrows and sufferings and finally the martyrdom of Imam Husain.
I propose first to give you an idea of the geographical setting and the historical background. Then I want very briefly to refer to the actual events that happened in the Muharram, and finally to draw your attention to the great lessons which we can learn from them.
Cities and their Cultural Meaning
The building of Kufa and Basra, the two great outposts of the Muslim Empire, in the 16th year of the Hijra, was a visible symbol that Islam was pushing its strength and building up a new civilization, not only in a military sense, but in moral and social ideas and in the sciences and arts. The old effete cities did not content it, any more than the old and effete systems which it displaced. Nor was it content with the first steps it took. It was always examining, testing, discarding, re-fashioning its own handiwork. There was always a party that wanted to stand on old ways, to take cities like Damascus readymade, that loved ease and the path of least resistance. But the greater souls stretched out to new frontiers - of ideas as well as geography. They felt that old seats were like dead wood breeding worms and rottenness that were a danger to higher forms of life. The clash between them was part of the tragedy of Kerbela. Behind the building of new cities there is often the burgeoning of new ideas. Let us therefore examine the matter a little more closely. It will reveal the hidden springs of some very interesting history.
Vicissitudes of Mecca and Medina
The great cities of Islam at its birth were Mecca and Medina. Mecca, the centre of old Arabian pilgrimage, the birthplace of the Prophet, rejected the Prophet's teaching, and cast him off. Its idolatry was effete; its tribal exclusiveness was effete; its ferocity against the Teacher of the New Light was effete. The Prophet shook its dust off his feet, and went to Medina. It was the well-watered city of Yathrib, with a considerable Jewish population. It received with eagerness the teaching of the Prophet; it gave asylum to him and his Companions and Helpers. He reconstituted it and it became the new City of Light. Mecca, with its old gods and its old superstitions, tried to subdue this new Light and destroy it. The human odds were in favor of Mecca. But God's purpose upheld the Light, and subdued the old Mecca. But the Prophet came to build as well as to destroy. He destroyed the old paganism, and lighted a new beacon in Mecca - the beacon of Arab unity and human brotherhood. When the Prophet's life ended on this earth, his spirit remained. It inspired his people and led them from victory to victory. Where moral or spiritual and material victories go hand in hand, the spirit of man advances all along the line. But sometimes there is a material victory, with a spiritual fall, and sometimes there is a spiritual victory with a material fall, and then we have tragedy.
Spirit of Damascus
Islam's first extension was towards Syria, where the power was centered in the city of Damascus. Among living cities it is probably the oldest city in the world. Its bazaars are thronged with men of all nations, and the luxuries of all nations find ready welcome there. If you come to it westward from the Syrian desert the contrast is complete, both in the country and in the people. From the parched desert sands you come to fountains and vineyards, orchards and the hum of traffic. From the simple, sturdy, independent, frank Arab, you come to the soft, luxurious, sophisticated Syrian. That contrast was forced on the Muslims when Damascus became a Muslim city. They were in a different moral and spiritual atmosphere. Some succumbed to the softening influences of ambition, luxury, wealth pride of race, love of ease, and so on. Islam stood always as the champion of the great rugged moral virtues. It wanted no compromise with evil in any shape or form, with luxury, with idleness, with the seductions of this world. It was a protest against these things. And yet the representatives of that protest got softened at Damascus. They aped the decadent princes of the world instead of striving to be leaders of spiritual thought. Discipline was relaxed, and governors aspired to be greater than the Khalifas. This bore bitter fruit later.
Snare of Riches
Meanwhile Persia came within the Muslim orbit. When Medain was captured in the year 16 of the Hijra, and the battle of Jalula broke the Persian resistance, some military booty was brought to Medina - gems, pearls, rubies, diamonds, swords of gold and silver. A great celebration was held in honor of the splendid victory and the valor of the Arab army. In the midst of the celebration they found the Caliph of the day actually weeping. One said to him, "What! a time of joy and thou sheddest tears?" "Yes", he said, "I foresee that the riches will become a snare, a spring of worldliness and envy, and in the end a calamity to my people." For the Arab valued, above all, simplicity of life, openness of character, and bravery in face of danger. Their women fought with them and shared their dangers. They were not caged creatures for the pleasures of the senses. They showed their mettle in the early fighting round the head of the Persian Gulf. When the Muslims were hard pressed, their women turned the scale in their favor. They made their veils into flags, and marched in battle array. The enemy mistook them for reinforcements and abandoned the field. Thus an impending defeat was turned into a victory.
Basra and Kufa
In Mesopotamia the Muslims did not base their power on old and effete Persian cities, but built new outposts for themselves. The first they built was Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf, in the 17th year of the Hijra. And what a great city it became! Not great in war and conquest, not great in trade and commerce, but great in learning and culture in its best day, - alas! also great in its spirit of faction and degeneracy in the days of its decline! But its situation and climate were not at all suited to the Arab character. It was low and moist, damp and enervating. In the same year the Arabs built another city not far off from the Gulf and yet well suited to be a port of the desert, as Kerbela became afterwards. This was the city of Kufa, built in the same year as Basra, but in a more bracing climate. It was the first experiment in town-planning in Islam. In the centre was a square for the principal mosque. That square was adorned with shady avenues. Another square was set apart for the trafficking of the market. The streets were all laid out intersecting and their width was fixed. The main thoroughfares for such traffic as they had (we must not imagine the sort of traffic we see in Charing Cross) were made 60 feet wide; the cross streets were 30 feet wide; and even the little lanes for pedestrians were regulated to a width of 10.5 feet. Kufa became a centre of light and learning. The Khalifa Hazrat Ali lived and died there.
Rivalry and poison of Damascus
But its rival, the city of Damascus, fattened on luxury and Byzantine magnificence. Its tinsel glory sapped the foundations of loyalty and the soldierly virtues. Its poison spread through the Muslim world. Governors wanted to be kings. Pomp and selfishness, ease and idleness and dissipation grew as a canker; wines and spirituous liquors, skepticism, cynicism and social vices became so rampant that the protests of the men of God were drowned in mockery. Mecca, which was to have been a symbolical spiritual centre, was neglected or dishonored. Damascus and Syria became centers of a worldliness and arrogance which cut at the basic roots of Islam.
Husain the Righteous refused to bow to worldliness and power
We have brought the story down to the 60th year of the Hijra. Yazid assumed the power at Damascus. He cared nothing for the most sacred ideals of the people. He was not even interested in the ordinary business affairs of administration. His passion was hunting, and he sought power for self-gratification. The discipline and self-abnegation, the strong faith and earnest Endeavour, the freedom and sense of social equality which had been the motive forces of Islam, were divorced from power. The throne at Damascus had become a worldly throne based on the most selfish ideas of personal and family aggrandizement, instead of a spiritual office, with a sense of God-given responsibility. The decay of morals spread among the people. There was one man who could stem the tide. That was Imam Husain. He, the grandson of the Prophet, could speak without fear, for fear was foreign to his nature. But his blameless and irreproachable life was in itself a reproach to those who had other standards. They sought to silence him, but he could not be silenced. They sought to bribe him, but he could not be bribed. They sought to waylay him and get him into their Power. What is more, they wanted him to recognize the tyranny and expressly to support it. For they knew that the conscience of the people might awaken at any time, and sweep them away unless the holy man supported their cause. The holy man was prepared to die rather than surrender the principles for which he stood.
Driven from city to city
Medina was the centre of Husain's teaching. They made Medina impossible for him. He left Medina and went to Mecca, hoping that he would be left alone. But he was not left alone. The Syrian forces invaded Mecca. The invasion was repelled, not by Husain but by other people. For Husain, though the bravest of the brave, had no army and no worldly weapons. His existence itself was an offence in the eyes of his enemies. His life was in danger, and the lives of all those nearest and dearest to him. He had friends everywhere, but they were afraid to speak out. They were not as brave as he was. But in distant Kufa, a party grew up which said: "We are disgusted with these events, and we must have Imam Husain to take asylum with us." So they sent and invited the Imam to leave Mecca, come to them, live in their midst, and be their honored teacher and guide. His father's memory was held in reverence in Kufa. The Governor of Kufa was friendly, and the people eager to welcome him. But alas, Kufa had neither strength, nor courage, nor constancy. Kufa, geographically only 40 miles from Kerbela, was the occasion of the tragedy of Kerbela. And now Kufa is nearly gone, and Kerbela remains as the lasting memorial of the martyrdom.
Invitation from Kufa
When the Kufa invitation reached the Imam, he pondered over it, weighed its possibilities, and consulted his friends. He sent over his cousin Muslim to study the situation on the spot and report to him. The report was favorable, and he decided to go. He had a strong presentiment of danger. Many of his friends in Mecca advised him against it. But could he abandon his mission when Kufa was calling for it? Was he the man to be deterred, because his enemies were laying their plots for him, at Damascus and at Kufa? At least, it was suggested, he might leave his family behind. But his family and his immediate dependants would not hear of it. It was a united family, pre-eminent in the purity of its life and in its domestic virtues and domestic affections. If there was danger for its head, they would share it. The Imam was not going on a mere ceremonial visit. There was responsible work to do, and they must be by his side, to support him in spite of all its perils and consequences. Shallow critics scent political ambition in the Imam's act. But would a man with political ambitions march without an army against what might be called the enemy country, scheming to get him into its power, and prepared to use all their resources, military, political and financial, against him?
Journey through the desert
Imam Husain left Mecca for Kufa with all his family including his little children. Later news from Kufa itself was disconcerting. The friendly governor had been displaced by one prepared more ruthlessly to carry out Yazid's plans. If Husain was to go there at all, he must go there quickly, or his friends themselves would be in danger. On the other hand, Mecca itself was no less dangerous to him and his family. It was the month of September by the solar calendar, and no one would take a long desert journey in that heat, except under a sense of duty. By the lunar calendar it was the month of pilgrimage at Mecca. But he did not stop for the pilgrimage. He pushed on, with his family and dependants, in all numbering about 90 or 100 people, men, women and children. They must have gone by forced marches through the desert. They covered the 900 miles of the desert in little over three weeks. When they came within a few miles of Kufa, at the edge of the desert, they met people from Kufa. It was then that they heard of the terrible murder of Husain's cousin Muslim, who had been sent on in advance. A poet that came by dissuaded the Imam from going further. "For," he said epigrammatically, "the heart of the city is with thee but its sword is with thine enemies, and the issue is with God." What was to be done? They were three weeks' journey from the city they had left. In the city to which they were going their own messenger had been foully murdered as well as his children. They did not know what the actual situation was then in Kufa. But they were determined not to desert their friends.
Call to Surrender or Die
Presently messengers came from Kufa, and Imam Husain was asked to surrender. Imam Husain offered to take one of three alternatives. He wanted no political power and no revenge. He said "I came to defend my own people. If I am too late, give me the choice of three alternatives: either to return to Mecca; or to face Yazid himself at Damascus; or if my very presence is distasteful to him and you, I do not wish to cause more divisions among the Muslims. Let me at least go to a distant frontier, where, if fighting must be done, I will fight against the enemies of Islam." Every one of these alternatives was refused. What they wanted was to destroy his life, or better still, to get him to surrender, to surrender to the very forces against which he was protesting, to declare his adherence to those who were defying the law of God and man, and to tolerate all the abuses which were bringing the name of Islam into disgrace. Of course he did not surrender. But what was he to do? He had no army. He had reasons to suppose that many of his friends from distant parts would rally round him, and come and defend him with their swords and bodies. But time was necessary, and he was not going to gain time by feigned compliance. He turned a little round to the left, the way that would have led him to Yazid himself, at Damascus. He camped in the plain of Kerbela.
Water cut off; Inflexible will, Devotion and Chivalry
For ten days messages passed backwards and forwards between Kerbela and Kufa. Kufa wanted surrender and recognition. That was the one thing the Imam could not consent to. Every other alternative was refused by Kufa, under the instructions from Damascus. Those fateful ten days were the first ten days of the month of Muharram, of the year 61 of the Hijra. The final crisis was on the 10th day, the Ashura day, which we are commemorating. During the first seven days various kinds of pressure were brought to bear on the Imam, but his will was inflexible. It was not a question of a fight, for there were but 70 men against 4,000. The little band was surrounded and insulted, but they held together so firmly that they could not be harmed. On the 8th day the water supply was cut off. The Euphrates and its abundant streams were within sight, but the way was barred. Prodigies of valor were performed in getting water. Challenges were made for single combat according to Arab custom. And the enemy were half-hearted, while the Imam's men fought in contempt of death, and always accounted for more men than they lost. On the evening of the 9th day, the little son of the Imam was ill. He had fever and was dying of thirst. They tried to get a drop of water. But that was refused point blank and so they made the resolve that they would, rather than surrender, die to the last man in the cause for which they had come. Imam Husain offered to send away his people. He said, "They are after my person; my family and my people can go back." But everyone refused to go. They said they would stand by him to the last, and they did. They were not cowards; they were soldiers born and bred; and they fought as heroes, with devotion and with chivalry.
The Final Agony; placid face of the man of God
On the day of Ashura, the 10th day, Imam Husain's own person was surrounded by his enemies. He was brave to the last. He was cruelly mutilated. His sacred head was cut off while in the act of prayer. A mad orgy of triumph was celebrated over his body. In this crisis we have details of what took place hour by hour. He had 45 wounds from the enemies' swords and javelins, and 35 arrows pierced his body. His left arm was cut off, and a javelin pierced through his breast. After all that agony, when his head was lifted up on a spear, his face was the placid face of a man of God. All the men of that gallant band were exterminated and their bodies trampled under foot by the horses. The only male survivor was a child, Husain's son Ali, surnamed Zain-ul-'Abidin - "The Glory of the Devout." He lived in retirement, studying, interpreting, and teaching his father's high spiritual principles for the rest of his life.
Heroism of the Women
There were women: for example, Zainab the sister of the Imam, Sakina his little daughter, and Shahr-i-Banu, his wife, at Kerbela. A great deal of poetic literature has sprung up in Muslim languages, describing the touching scenes in which they figure. Even in their grief and their tears they are heroic. They lament the tragedy in simple, loving, human terms. But they are also conscious of the noble dignity of their nearness to a life of truth reaching its goal in the precious crown of martyrdom. One of the best-known poets of this kind is the Urdu poet Anis, who lived in Lucknow, and died in 1874.
Lesson of the Tragedy
That briefly is the story. What is the lesson? There is of course the physical suffering in martyrdom, and all sorrow and suffering claim our sympathy, - the dearest, purest, most out-flowing sympathy that we can give. But there is a greater suffering than physical suffering. That is when a valiant soul seems to stand against the world; when the noblest motives are reviled and mocked; when truth seems to suffer an eclipse. It may even seem that the martyr has but to say a word of compliance, do a little deed of non-resistance; and much sorrow and suffering would be saved; and the insidious whisper comes: "Truth after all can never die." That is perfectly true. Abstract truth can never die. It is independent of man's cognition. But the whole battle is for man's keeping hold of truth and righteousness. And that can only be done by the highest examples of man's conduct - spiritual striving and suffering enduring firmness of faith and purpose, patience and courage where ordinary mortals would give in or be cowed down, the sacrifice of ordinary motives to supreme truth in scorn of consequence. The martyr bears witness, and the witness redeems what would otherwise be called failure. It so happened with Husain. For all were touched by the story of his martyrdom, and it gave the deathblow to the politics of Damascus and all it stood for. And Muharram has still the power to unite the different schools of thought in Islam, and make a powerful appeal to non-Muslims also.
Explorers of Spiritual Territory
That, to my mind, is the supreme significance of martyrdom. All human history shows that the human spirit strives in many directions, deriving strength and sustenance from many sources. Our bodies, our physical powers, have developed or evolved from earlier forms, after many struggles and defeats. Our intellect has had its martyrs, and our great explorers have often gone forth with the martyrs' spirit. All honor to them. But the highest honor must still lie with the great explorers of spiritual territory, those who faced fearful odds and refused to surrender to evil. Rather than allow a stigma to attach to sacred things, they paid with their own lives the penalty of resistance. The first kind of resistance offered by the Imam was when he went from city to city, hunted about from place to place, but making no compromise with evil. Then was offered the choice of an effectual but dangerous attempt at clearing the house of God, or living at ease for himself by tacit abandonment of his striving friends. He chose the path of danger with duty and honor, and never swerved from it giving up his life freely and bravely. His story purifies our emotions. We can best honor his memory by allowing it to teach us courage and constancy.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali is a renowned English translator and commentator of the Holy Qur'an. He died in 1952 in England. Little would he have known that his English translation and commentary of the Qur'an would become so popular in the West and East alike, wherever English is read and understood. This article has been excerpted from a longer version that was published in the Progressive Islam Pamphlet No. 7, September, 1931. The complete article can be viewed at al-islam.org.
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For the battles in the Iraq War, see Battle of Karbala (2003) and Battle of Karbala (2007).
|Battle of Karbala|
Abbas Al-Musavi's Battle of Karbala, Brooklyn Museum
|The Umayyads||Husayn of Banu Hashim and his Shi’ah|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad|
Umar ibn Sa'ad
Shimr ibn Thil-Jawshan
Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi(left his army and joined Husayn during the battle)A
|Husayn ibn Ali †|
Al-Abbas ibn Ali †
Habib ibn Muzahir †
Zuhayr ibn Qayn †
Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi †
|4,000 or 5,000 – 30,000||70–150 (general consensus 110; including six-month-old baby). The common number '72' comes from the number of heads severed.|
|Casualties and losses|
|88 killed, plus some wounded||72–136 casualties|
|^A Hurr was originally one of the commanders of Ibn Ziyad's army but changed allegiance to Husayn along with his son, servant and brother on 10 Muharram 61 AH, October 10, 680 AD|
The Battle of Karbala took place on Muharram 10, in the year 61 AH of the Islamic calendar (October 10, 680 AD)a in Karbala, in present-day Iraq. The battle took place between a small group of supporters and relatives of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, and a larger military detachment from the forces of Yazid I, the Umayyadcaliph.
When Muawiyah I died in 680, Husayn did not give allegiance to his son, Yazid I, who had been appointed as Umayyadcaliph by Muawiyah; Husayn considered Yazid's succession a breach of the Hasan–Muawiya treaty. The people of Kufa sent letters to Husayn, asking his help and pledging allegiance to him, but they later did not support him. As Husayn traveled towards Kufa, at a nearby place known as Karbala, his caravan was intercepted by Yazid I's army led by Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi. He was killed and beheaded in the Battle of Karbala by Shimr Ibn Thil-Jawshan, along with most of his family and companions, including Husayn's six month old son, Ali al-Asghar, with the women and children taken as prisoners. The battle was followed by later uprisings namely, Ibn al-Zubayr, Tawwabin, and Mukhtar uprising which occurred years later.
The dead are widely regarded as martyrs by Sufi, Sunni and ShiaMuslims. The battle has a central place in Shia history, tradition and theology and it has frequently been recounted in Shia Islamic literature. Mainstream Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, do not regard the incident as one that influences the traditional Islamic theology and traditions, but merely as a historical tragedy.
The Battle of Karbala is commemorated during an annual 10-day period held every Muharram by Shia and Alevi, culminating on its tenth day, known as the Day of Ashura. Shia Muslims commemorate these events by mourning, holding public processions, organizing majlis, striking the chest and in some cases self-flagellation.
The Battle of Karbala played a central role in shaping the identity of Shia and turned the already distinguished sect into a sect with "its own rituals and collective memory." Husayn's suffering and death became a symbol of sacrifice "in the struggle for right against wrong, and for justice and truth against wrongdoing and falsehood."
See also: Succession to Muhammad and First Fitna
During Ali's Caliphate, the Muslim world became divided and rebellion broke out against the ruling Ali by Muawiyah I. When Ali was assassinated by Ibn Muljam (a Kharijite) in 661, his eldest son, Hasan, succeeded him but soon signed a peace treaty with Muawiyah to avoid further bloodshed. In the treaty, Hasan was to hand over power to Muawiya on the condition that he be just to the people and keep them safe and secure and that he would not establish a dynasty. This brought to an end the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and Hasan ibn Ali was also the last Imam for the Shias to be a Caliph.[not in citation given] Husayn ibn Ali became the head of Banu Hashim after his older brother, Hasan ibn Ali, was poisoned to death in 670 (50 AH). His father's supporters in Kufah gave their allegiance to him. However, he told them he was still bound by the peace treaty between Hasan and Muawiyah I as long as Muawiyah was alive.
Yazid's succession to Mu'awiyah
The Battle of Karbala occurred within the crisis environment resulting from the succession of Yazid I. Mu'awiyah persuaded several leading companions to swear loyalty to his son, Yazid, and appointed him as his successor both in breach of the peace treaty and the Shura succession principle, for many Muslims instead wanted Husayn ibn Ali to be their Caliph.
Later, Husayn ibn Ali did not accept Muawiyah's request for his son Yazid's succession, referring to the peace treaty.[self-published source] The legitimacy of Yazid's succession as well as his "worthiness" for this position was questioned at the time, and people like Said ibn Uthman,Ahnaf ibn Qais, denounced the Yazid caliphate. Also, Husayn ibn Ali along with the sons of several other well known companions of Muhammad namely, Abd Allah ibn Umar, and Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr rejected the caliphate of Yazid, because he considered the Umayyads an oppressive and religiously-misguided regime. He insisted on his legitimacy based on his own special position as a direct descendant of Muhammad and his legitimate legatees. As a consequence, he left Medina, his home town, to take refuge in Mecca in 60 AH. Mu'awiyah warned Yazid specifically about Husayn ibn Ali, since he was the only blood relative of Muhammad. Abd Allah ibn Abbas and Abdullah ibn Umar did not want to start another civil war and wanted to wait. Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr challenged them and went to Mecca.[unreliable source]
According to Fitzpatrick et al. the Yazid succession, which was considered as an "anomaly in Islamic history", transformed the government from a "consultative" form to a monarchy, named the Umayyad dynasty, with its capital in Damascus.
Yazid instructed his Governor Walid in Medina to force Husayn ibn Ali as well as the other prominent figures to pledge allegiance to Yazid. Husayn refused it and said that "Anyone akin to me will never accept anyone akin to Yazid as a ruler." Husayn departed Medina on Rajab 28, 60 AH (680 AD), two days after Walid's attempt to force him to submit to Yazid I's rule. He stayed in Mecca from the beginnings of the month of Sha'aban and all of the months of Ramadan, Shawwal, as well as Dhu al-Qi'dah.
It is mainly during his stay in Mecca that he received many letters from Kufa assuring him their support and asking him to come over there and guide them. He answered their calls and sent Muslim ibn Aqeel, his cousin, to Kufa as his representative in an attempt to consider the exact situation and public opinion.
Husayn's representative to Kufa, Muslim ibn Aqeel was welcomed by the people of Kufa, and most of them swore allegiance to him. After this initial observation, Muslim ibn Aqeel wrote to Husayn ibn Ali that the situation in Kufa was favorable. However, after the arrival of the new Governor of Kufa, Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, the situation changed. Muslim ibn Aqeel and his host, Hani ibn Urwa, were executed on Dhu al-Hijjah 9, 60 AH (September 10, 680 AD) without any real resistance of the people. This shifted the loyalties of the people of Kufa, in favor of Yazid and against Husayn ibn Ali. Husayn ibn Ali also discovered that Yazid had appointed `Amr ibn Sa`ad ibn al Aas as the head of an army, ordering him to take charge of the pilgrimage caravans and to kill al Husayn ibn Ali wherever he could find him during Hajj, and hence decided to leave Mecca on 8th Dhu al-Hijjah 60 AH (9 September 680 AD), just a day before Hajj and was contented with Umrah, due to his concern about potential violation of the sanctity of the Kaaba.
He delivered a sermon at the Kaaba highlighting his reasons to leave, that he didn't want the sanctity of the Kaaba to be violated, since his opponents had crossed any norm of decency and were willing to violate all tenets of Islam.
When Husayn ibn Ali was making up his mind to leave for Kufa, Abd Allah ibn Abbas and Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr held a meeting with him and advised him not to move to Iraq, or, if he was determined to move, not to take women and children with him in this dangerous journey. Husayn ibn Ali, however, had resolved to go ahead with his plan. He gave a speech to people the day before his departure and said:
... Death is a certainty for mankind, just like the trace of necklace on the neck of young girls. And I am enamored of my ancestors like eagerness of Jacob to Joseph ... Everyone, who is going to devote his blood for our sake and is prepared to meet Allah, must depart with us...
On their way to Kufa, the small caravan received the news of the execution of Muslim ibn Aqeel and the indifference of the people of Kufa. Instead of turning back, Husayn decided to continue the journey and sent Qays ibn Musahir Al Saidawi as messenger to talk to the nobles of Kufa. The messenger was captured in the vicinity of Kufa but managed to tear the letter to pieces to hide names of its recipients. Just like Muslim ibn Aqeel, Qays ibn Musahir Al Saidawi was executed.
Husayn and his followers were two days away from Kufa when they were intercepted by the vanguard of Yazid's army; about 1,000 men led by Hurr ibn Riahy. Husayn asked the army, "With us or against us?" They replied: "Of course against you, oh Aba Abd Allah!" Husayn ibn Ali said: "If you are different from what I received from your letters and from your messengers then I will return to where I came from." Their leader, Hurr, refused Husayn's request to let him return to Medina. The caravan of Muhammad's family arrived at Karbala on Muharram 2, 61 AH (October 2, 680 AD). They were forced to pitch a camp on the dry, bare land and Hurr stationed his army nearby.
Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad appointed Umar ibn Sa'ad to command the battle against Husayn ibn Ali. At first Umar ibn Sa'ad rejected the leadership of the army but accepted after Ibn Ziyad threatened to take away the governorship of Rey city and put Shimr ibn Thil-Jawshan in his place. Ibn Ziyad also urged Umar ibn Sa'ad to initiate the battle on the sixth day of Muharram. Umar ibn Sa'ad moved towards the battlefield with an army and arrived at Karbala on Muharram 3, 61 AH (October 3, 680 AD).
Order of battle and water denial
Ibn Ziyad sent a brief letter to Umar ibn Sa'ad that commanded, "Prevent Husain and his followers from accessing water and do not allow them to drink a drop [of water]". Ibn Sa'ad followed the orders, and 5,000 horsemen blockaded the Euphrates. One of Husayn's followers met Umar ibn Sa'ad and tried to negotiate some sort of access to water, but was denied. The water blockade continued up to the end of the battle on Muharram 10th (October 10, 680 AD).
Umar ibn Sa'ad received an order from Ibn Ziyad to start the battle immediately and not to postpone it further. The army started advancing toward Husayn's camp on the afternoon of Muharram 9th. At this point Husayn sent Al-Abbas ibn Ali to ask Ibn Sa'ad to wait until the next morning, so that he and his men could spend the night praying. Ibn Sa'ad agreed to the respite.
On the night before the battle, Husayn gathered his men and told them that they were all free to leave the camp in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, rather than face certain death if they stayed with him. None of Husayn's men defected and they all remained with him. Husayn and his followers held a vigil and prayed all night.
The day of the battle
On Muharram 10th, also called Ashura, Husayn ibn Ali completed the morning prayers with his companions. He appointed Zuhayr ibn Qayn to command the right flank of his army, Habib ibn Muzahir to command the left flank and his half-brother Al-Abbas ibn Ali as the standard bearer. Husayn ibn Ali's companions numbered 32 horsemen and 40 infantrymen. Husayn rode on his horse Zuljanah.
Husayn ibn Ali called the people around him to join him for the sake of God and to defend Muhammad's family. His speech affected Hurr, the commander of the Tamim and Hamdan tribes, who had stopped Husayn from his journey. He abandoned Umar ibn Sa'ad and joined Husayn's small band of followers.
On the other side, Yazid had sent Shimr ibn Thil-Jawshan (his chief commander) to replace Umar ibn Sa'ad as the commander.
The battle begins
Umar ibn Sa'ad advanced and shot an arrow at Husayn ibn Ali's army, saying: "Give evidence before the governor that I was the first thrower." Ibn Sa'ad's army started showering Husayn's army with arrows. Hardly any men from Husayn ibn Ali's army escaped from being shot by an arrow. Both sides began fighting. Successive assaults resulted in the death of a group of Husayn ibn Ali's companions.
The first skirmish was between the right flank of Husayn's army and the left of the Syrian army. A couple of dozen men under the command of Zuhayr ibn Qayn repulsed the initial infantry attack and destroyed the left flank of the Syrian army which in disarray collided with the middle of the army. The Syrian army retreated and broke the pre-war verbal agreement of not using arrows and lances. This agreement was made in view of the small number of Husayn ibn Ali's companions. Umar ibn Sa'ad on advice of 'Amr ibn al Hajjaj ordered his army not to come out for any duel and to attack Husayn ibn Ali's army together.
`Amr ibn al-Hajjaj attacked Husayn ibn Ali's right wing, but the men were able to maintain their ground, kneeling down as they planted their lances. They were thus able to frighten the enemy's horses. When the horsemen came back to charge at them again, Husayn's men met them with their arrows, killing some of them and wounding others. `Amr ibn al-Hajjaj kept saying the following to his men, "Fight those who abandoned their creed and who deserted the jam`a!" Hearing him say so, Husayn ibn Ali said to him, "Woe unto you, O `Amr! Are you really instigating people to fight me?! Are we really the ones who abandoned their creed while you yourself uphold it?! As soon as our souls part from our bodies, you will find out who is most worthy of entering the fire!
In order to prevent random and indiscriminate showering of arrows on Husayn ibn Ali's camp which had women and children in it, Husayn's followers went out to single combats. Men like Burayr ibn Khudhayr, Muslim ibn Awsaja and Habib ibn Muzahir were slain in the fighting. They were attempting to save Husayn's life by shielding him. Every casualty had a considerable effect on their military strength since they were vastly outnumbered by Yazid I's army. Husayn's companions were coming, one by one, to say goodbye to him, even in the midst of battle. Almost all of Husayn's companions were killed by the onslaught of arrows or lances.
After almost all of Husayn's companions were killed, his relatives asked his permission to fight. The men of Banu Hashim, the clan of Muhammad and Ali, went out one by one. Ali al-Akbar ibn Husayn, the middle son of Husayn ibn Ali, was the first one of the Hashemite who received permission from his father.
Casualties from Banu Hashim were sons of Ali ibn Abi Talib, sons of Hasan ibn Ali, a son of Husayn ibn Ali, a son of Abdullah ibn Ja'far ibn Abi-Talib and Zaynab bint Ali, sons of Aqeel ibn Abi Talib, as well as a son of Muslim ibn Aqeel. There were seventy-two Hashemites dead in all (including Husayn ibn Ali).
Death of Al-Abbas ibn Ali
There are two accounts regarding the death of Abbas ibn Ali; One is by Abu Mikhnaf which mentions no detail on the death and, however, the other well known report clearly details how he was killed somewhere near the river and far from the camp while fetching water with a large skin of water, since the besieged Ahl al-Bayt were thirsty. Al-Abbas ibn Ali advanced towards a branch of the Euphrates along a dyke. Al-Abbas ibn Ali continued his advance into the heart of ibn Sa'ad's army. He was under a shower of arrows but was able to penetrate them and get to the branch, leaving heavy casualties from the enemy. He immediately started filling the water skin. In a gesture of loyalty to his brother and Muhammad's grandson he did not drink any water despite being extremely thirsty. He put the water skin on his right shoulder and started riding back toward their tents. Umar ibn Sa'ad ordered an assault on Al-Abbas ibn Ali saying that if Al-Abbas ibn Ali succeeded in taking water back to his camp, they would not be able to defeat them till the end of time. An enemy army blocked Al-Abbas' way and surrounded him. He was ambushed from behind a bush and his right arm was cut off. Al-Abbas ibn Ali put the water skin on his left shoulder and continued on his way but his left arm was also cut off. Al-Abbas ibn Ali now held the water skin with his teeth. The army of ibn Sa'ad started shooting arrows at him, one arrow hit the water skin and water poured out of it, now he turned his horse back towards the army and charged towards them but one arrow hit his eyes and someone hit his head with a gurz and he fell off the horse. In his last moments when Al-Abbas ibn Ali was wiping the blood in his eyes to enable him to see Husayn's face, Al-Abbas ibn Ali said not to take his body back to the camps because he had promised to bring back water but could not and so could not face Bibi Sakinah, the daughter of Husayn ibn Ali. Then he called Husayn "brother" for the first time in his life. Before the death of Abbas, Husayn ibn Ali said: "Abbas your death is like the breaking of my back". Zayd ibn Varqa Hanafi and Hakim ibn al-Tofayl Sanani are reported to be Abbas ibn Ali's murderers.
Death of Husayn ibn Ali
Husayn ibn Ali told Yazid's army to offer him single battle, and they gave him his request. He killed everybody that fought him in single battles. He frequently forced his enemy into retreat, killing a great number of opponents. Husayn and earlier his son Ali al-Akbar ibn Husayn were the two warriors who penetrated and dispersed the core of ibn Sa'ad's army, a sign of extreme chaos in traditional warfare.
By the afternoon of the tenth day, Husayn was left alone surrounded by the enemy. There were hesitation among the individuals over accepting the responsibility of Husayn's death. According to Lohuf, Husayn advanced very deep in the back ranks of the Syrian army shouted:
Woe betide you oh followers of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb's dynasty! If no religion has ever been accepted by you and you have not been fearing the resurrection day then be noble in your world, that's if you were Arabs as you claim.
They continuously attacked each other, until his numerous injuries caused him to stay a moment. At this time he was hit on his forehead with a stone. He was cleaning blood from his face while he was hit on the heart with an arrow and he said: "In the name of Allah, and by Allah, and on the religion of the messenger of Allah." Then he raised his head up and said: "Oh my God! You know that they are killing a man that there is son of daughter of a prophet on the earth except him." He then grasped and pulled the arrow out of his chest, which caused heavy bleeding.
A man from Banu Badaa' tribe, reportedly Malik ibn al-Nusair, struck Husayn's head with his sword causing it to bleed.
According to Sayyed Ibn Tawus, the enemies hesitated to fight Husayn, but they decided to surround him. At this time Abdullah ibn Hasan, an underage boy, escaped from the tents and ran to Husayn. When a soldier intended to slay Husayn, Abdullah ibn Hasan defended his uncle with his arm, which was cut off. Husayn hugged Abd-Allah, but the boy was already hit by an arrow.
Husayn got on his horse and Yazid's army continued pursuit. According to Shia tradition, a voice came from the skies stating: "We are satisfied with your deeds and sacrifices." Husayn then sheathed his sword and tried to get down from the horse but was tremendously injured and so the horse let him down. He then sat against a tree. Husayn's attempt to reach water of Euphrates failed and he was soon after injured on his neck by an arrow thrown by a man reportedly, Husayn ibn Numair.
Husayn's murder is attributed to either Sinan ibn Anas or Shimr bin Thiljoshan. According to Sayyed Ibn Tawus, Umar ibn Sa'ad ordered a man to dismount and to finish. Khowali ibn Yazid al-Asbahiy preceded the man but became afraid and did not do it. Then Shimr bin Thiljoshan dismounted from his horse to do the job. Husayn ibn Ali asked for the permission to do Asr prayers. Shimir gave the permission to say the prayers and Husayn ibn Ali started prayer and when he went into Sajda, Shimr ibn Dhiljawshan betrayed and said: "I swear by God that I am cutting your head while I know that you are grandson of the Messenger of Allah and the best of the people by father and mother." He cut off the head of Husayn ibn Ali with his sword and raised the head. Then ibn Sa'ad's men looted all the valuables from Husayn's body.
Following the battle, Umar ibn Sa'ad's army stormed the camp of the family of Husayn, looting any valuables and setting fire to the tents. They captured the family of Husayn and sent Husayn's head and the deceased to ibn Ziyad in Kufa in the afternoon. Subsequently, Husayn's family were moved to the Levant by the forces of Yazid.
Prisoners' Journey to Damascus
The sermon of Zaynab bint Ali in the court of Yazid
Main article: Sermon of Zaynab bint Ali in the court of Yazid
According to an account by Rasheed Turabi, on the first day of Safar, they arrived in Damascus and the captured family and heads of the dead were taken to Yazid. Yazid asks identity of each dead and then notices a woman with a defiant demeanour and asks "who is this arrogant woman?" The approaches him and retorts: "Why are you asking them [the woman]? Ask me. I will tell you [who I am]. I am Muhammad’s granddaughter. I am Fatima’s daughter." People at the court were awestruck by her oratory skills. Zaynab bint Ali then proceeds to give a sermon which according to Turabi is among the three most memorable sermons by the family of the Prophet According to narration of Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid, a man with a red skin asked Yazid one of the captured woman as bondwoman. Yazid is also so to have knapped at Husayn's teeth with the staff of his hand while saying: "I wish those of my clan who were killed at Badr, and those who had seen the Khazraj clan wailing (in the battle of Uhud) on account of lancet wounds, were here. At this time, Zaynab bint Ali began to give her sermon to stop Yazid.
The sermon of Ali ibn Husayn in Damascus
Main article: Sermon of Ali ibn Husayn in Damascus
According to Bihar al-Anwar, in Damascus Yazid ordered a pulpit to be prepared. He appointed a public speaker to bash Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. The public speaker sat on the pulpit and began his lecture by praising Allah and insulting Ali and his son, Husayn. He devoted a long time to praising Yazid and his father Muawiyah. In the meantime Ali ibn Husayn seized the opportunity and began to give a sermon by Yazid’s permission, introducing himself and his ancestors. He also related the story of Husayn ibn Ali's murder.
Burial of dead bodies
After ibn Sa'ad's army went out of Karbala, some people from Banu Asad tribe came there and buried their dead, but did not mark any of the graves, with the exception of Husayn's which was marked with a simple plant. Later Ali ibn Husayn returned to Karbala to identify the grave sites. Hurr was buried by his tribe a distance away from the battlefield. The prisoners were held in Damascus for a year. During this year, some prisoners died of grief, most notably Sukayna bint Husayn. The people of Damascus began to frequent the prison, and Zaynab and Ali ibn al-Husayn used that as an opportunity to further propagate the message of Husayn and explain to the people the reason for Husayn's uprising. As public opinion against Yazid began to foment in Syria and parts of Iraq, Yazid ordered their release and return to Medina, where they continued to tell the world of Husayn's cause.
Battle of Karbala and Husayn's death was a stimulus for further movements in Kufah with many people expressing their regret for their "apathy".
Ibn al-Zubayr's revolt
Main article: Ibn al-Zubayr's revolt
Following the Battle of Karbala, Husayn ibn Ali's second cousin Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr confronted Yazid. The people of Mecca also joined Abdullah to take on Yazid. Eventually Abdullah consolidated his power by sending a governor to Kufa. Soon Abdullah established his power in Iraq, southern Arabia, the greater part of Syria and parts of Egypt. Yazid tried to end Abdullah’s rebellion by invading the Hejaz, and he took Medina after the bloody Battle of al-Harrah followed by the siege of Mecca. But his sudden death ended the campaign. After the Umayyad civil war ended, Abdullah lost Egypt and whatever he had of Syria to Marwan I. This, coupled with the Kharijite rebellions in Iraq, reduced his domain to only the Hejaz.
Following the sudden death of Yazid and his son Mu'awiya II took over and then abdicated and died in 683 Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr was finally defeated by Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who sent Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. The defeat of Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr re-established Umayyad control over the Empire.
Main article: Tawwabin uprising
After the killing of Husayn ibn Ali in Karbala, Shia were regretful and blamed themselves for not doing anything to help their Imam. Due these emotions a first uprising was begun by a group of Shia of Kufa that came to be known as Tawwabin. The uprising started under the leadership of five followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, father of Husayn ibn Ali, with a following of one hundred of Kufa's people. They held the first meeting in the house of Sulayman ibn Surad Khuzai, one of the Sahabahs of Islamic prophetMuhammad, in 61 AH. In this meeting, Sulayman was elected as the uprising's leader. They also decided to keep their uprising a secret. This conspiracy remained hidden until 65 AH. One of the reasons given to explain the absence of Sulayman at the battle of Karbala was that he had been imprisoned by Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad at the time of the battle.
In Rabi' al-thani of 65 AH, Sulayman summoned to Nukhayla the men who had joined his army. It is said that of the 16,000 Shia who had promised to show up, only 4,000 arrived. One of the reasons was that Mukhtar al-Thaqafi believed that Sulayman had no experience in war, so many Shia, especially Shia from Mada'in and Basra, from Khuzai's army began to desert in large numbers. Finally, 1,000 others left the army. The remainder spent three days in Nukhayla then went to Karbala to pilgrimage to the tomb of Husayn. The Tawwabin army fought an Ummayad army in the battle of 'Ayn al-Warda. Their leaders were killed in this battle and they were defeated.
While Tawwabin uprising was based on "feelings and was hasty," and led to failure from a military viewpoint, it had significant impact on the larger Muslim community. The uprising had also real effect on other Shia movements, such as the Mukhtar uprising, which finally led to the decline of the Ummayad. Those Shia movements lacked military "tactics and techniques" as they believed that their "sacred" goal sufficed.
Mukhtar al-Thaqafi led a revolt centered on Kufah, one considered to be on behalf of Mohammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, a son of Ali. The uprising which lasted from 685 to 687, was against Ibn Zubayr in the first instance. The goal of the uprising was to avenge Husayn's blood in Karbala and to defend the Ahl al-Bayt.
Mukhtar was imprisoned by Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, when the Tawwabin uprising was defeated in battle of 'Ayn al-Warda. Mukhtar contacted the remaining members of Tawwabin from prison and promised to help them very soon. They replied that they could break into prison and release Mukhtar, but Mukhtar rejected the offer. He was released later via his sister's husband, Abdullah ibn Umar's mediation. After Mukhtar was released, he gathered Shia leaders such as Ibrahim ibn Malik al-Ashtar, who was an influential figure and thus very effective in recruiting men. Mukhtar was considerably supported by Mawali, non-Arab Muslims, mostly from Kufah, Basra and Al-Mada'in.
In the night before 14th Rabi' al-awwal of 65 AH, Mukhtar's followers began the revolt by shouting Ya Mansur-o Amet (O victorious, make [them] die!), a slogan originally used by Muslims in battle of Badr, and Ya Lisarat al-Husayn (O Those Who Want to Avenge the Blood of Husayn). Forces allied with Mukhtar entered Kufah. Iranian forces called Jond-o-l Hamra'a (Red Army) were the core of Mukhtar's forces. Finally, Mukhtar captured Ibn Ziyad's palace and announced the victory of his uprising on the following day, when he led prayers in a mosque, as well as holding a lecture regarding the goals of his uprising.
Mukhtar's uprising had large scale participation by a client class. His reliance on clients and Persians, as they were "more obedient" and "more faithful and swift in performance" according to Mukhtar, and raising the social status of Mawalis to that of Arabs, made the Ashraf of Kufah revolt against Mukhtar. According to Mohsen Zakeri, Kufa were not ready for such "revolutionary measures" and this may be counted as one of the reasons behind Mukhtar's failure. Finally, Mukhtar was attacked by Mus'ab ibn al-Zubayr, Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr's brother, he urged on by some leaders in Kufa. Mus'ab besieged Mukhtar in his palace for four months. Mukhtar was finally killed on 14th Ramadan, after he had left the palace.
Impacts on culture and politics
Battle of Karbala played a central role in shaping the identity of Shia and turned the already distinguished sect into a sect with "its own rituals and collective memory." Husayn's suffering and death became a sacrifice symbol "in the struggle for right against wrong, and for justice and truth against wrongdoing and falsehood."
The battle was a determining event in the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
As the "height of oppression" and "the peak of Umayyad brutality against the Prophetic family", "Karbala paradigm" had its own political impacts since pre-Safavid times and oppressors were often called "Yazids of the age." Revenge for battle of Karbala became "the core of the Shia collective memory and sentiment" since then and it had a determining role on "shaping religious perceptions." From political viewpoint, "Karbala-oriented epic literature" acted as an ideological stimulus to the Safavid revolution and Mourning of Muharram kept its political functions under the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The first political uses of Karbala symbols date back to the year of the battle. Buyid rulers promoted the public rituals of Muharram, the earliest documented account of Muharram procession, along with a celebration of Ghadir Khumm "to promote their religious legitimacy and to strength of Shia identity in and around Baghdad." Similarly, Safavid rulers fairly used the rituals to promote their legitimacy, with their Sunni rivals in east (the Uzbeks) and west (the Ottomans). Moḥarram festival then became a unifying force for the nation.
The Islamic revolution of Iran was inspired by Ashura uprising with its first sparks lit during Muharram. June 5, 1963 demonstrations in Iran, a turning point in history of Iranian revolution, happened two days after Khomeini’s speech on the afternoon of Ashura. Ashura uprising was not merely a historical issue at the time and was "the axis of mobilization" against Pahlavi regime. In Bahrain, calling for Muharram processions and commemorating Husayn ibn Ali's memory in public led to 1979 Qatif Uprising, when the procession was "brutally" repressed by the Saudi government.
Historiography of the battle of Karbala
See also: Maqtal al-Husayn
The first historian to systematically collect the reports of eyewitnesses of this event was Abu Mikhnaf