Islam has witnessed so many events over the course of its history that entrenched itself deep into our collective conscious, starting from the political events that followed the Prophet’s death, passing through military conquests and defeats of the different Sultanate dynasties during the middle ages, and ending with the current role of Islam in our post-modern world. But Karbala’ with its appalling events has found a special place in the heart of our rich and complicated history.
If a newly converted Muslim with a good understanding of Islam’s theology but little knowledge of its history, was told that the Prophet’s grandson Al-Hussien ibn Ali (RA) was killed and body mutilated in front of thousands by the Caliph and his men only after the Prophet’s death by 50 years, he would be thunderstruck.
Such tragedy helped divide the Ummah into two competitive theological sects that shaped the political structure of the region at the time and still help influence decision making of our today’s regional powers in a non-direct way.
Karbala’ can be best understood through the light of the political events that preceded it and the familial rivalry between the Hashemides, of which Al-Hussien (RA) belonged to, and the Umayyads, of which Caliph Yazid belonged to.
The Hashemides Vs The Umayyads
The rivalry between the two Quraysh clans date back to the Prophet’s great-grandfather Hashim ibn Abd Manaf of whom the Hashemides were named after, and Umayyah ibn Abd Shams ibn Abd Manaf of whom the Umayyads were named after. The two men competed for Quraysh leadership of which Umayyah gave in and migrated to the Levant while Hashim’s influence spread through Al-Hijaz and the Hashemids became the custodians of Makkah and the Arabs most sacred relic, the Kaaba.
Years passed by and Abu Sufyan ibn Harb ibn Umayyah increased his influence in Al-Hijaz and revived the Hashemid/Umayyad rivalry in Makkah. But then Islam descended upon the Hashemid merchant Muhammad ibn Abdullah PBUH and Abu Sufyan perceived this as a sign of an unprecedented threat to the Umayyad influence. If the past competition between the two clans was manageable, then how the Umayyads are now supposed to compete with the Hashemid Prophethood “Nubuwwah”?
But The Message was formidable and Abu Sufyan couldn’t stop the Prophet PBUH and his Madinah army from entering Makkah in 630 A.D with the Uamayyad clan becoming one of the last to embrace Islam.
The rivalry between the two clans subsided during the reign of the first two rightly guided Caliphs Abu Bakr (RA) and Umar (RA). But signs of trouble first appeared when Uthman ibn Affan (RA) who was an Umayyad became the Caliph. There’s no shadow of a doubt that Uthman (RA) was a just leader, but unfortunately he couldn’t stop the increasing influence of his wealthy family that caused in return a rebellion and led to the unfortunate event of his martyrdom in his house. Therefore, the killing of Caliph Uthman served as a pretext for Damascus’s governor Muawyiah ibn Abu Sufyan, the Umayyad, to not give Uthman’s successor Caliph Ali (RA), the Hashemid, bay’ah for not arresting the perpetrators of Uthman’s assassination.
Such schism caused horrible events that historians called Al-Fitnah where it ended with the assassination of Caliph Ali (RA) and Muawiyah becoming the second Umayyad Caliph and the founder of the Umayyad ruling dynasty through bequeathing the Caliphate to his son Yazid, an act never done before by any Caliph and made many dissatisfied, therefore, Yazid’s reign started off on a shaky ground.
Bay’ah to Yazid
Yazid ibn Muawiyah was appointed Caliph in the year 60 AH at the age of 35. Unlike his father, Yazid lacked wisdom, talent for political maneuvering, and resourceful advisors who can counsel him on how to solve the predicament of not being able to secure bay’ah from Al-Hussien (RA), who thought of Yazid as unsuitable for such an esteemed position as the spiritual and political chief of the Ummah.
Al-Hussien witnessed the golden age of the rightly guided Caliphs who were chosen by public consensus, and hated to see the Caliphate reduced to a Sultanate resembling that of the Persians where the title gets passed on from father to son.
But Yazid was adamant to get bay’ah from Al-Hussien at any cost knowing that Al-Hussien held a high rank among Muslims as the Prophet’s grandson, so he sent Waleed ibn Utba to Madinah to force Al-Hussien to swear allegiance to him, but Al-Hussien left Madinah for Makkah and started considering his next move.
Support from Kufa
While Al-Hussien was in Makkah, he received news that the people of Kufa are swearing allegiance to him. He started to consider traveling to Kufa but first sent his cousin Muslim ibn Aqil to know how many are standing by his cause. According to Ibn Kathir, Ibn Aqil counted around 18,000 in Kufa alone who gave bay’ah to Al-Hussien. Such a huge number gave Al-Hussien a strong enough motive to leave for Kufa, despite Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA) warnings. He advised him to stay in Makkah, or to travel to Yemen if he was tenacious enough to leave, but Ibn Abbas’s advices were in vain.
Yazid heard of the news about Kufa, so he appointed a new sanguineous governor, Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziad, who persecuted the people of Kufa and killed Ibn Aqil. Al-Hussien received the news of his cousin’s death very late while in the middle of the journey but chose to proceed with his family knowing for certain that martyrdom awaited them.
On the 2nd of Muharram, Yazid’s army led by Ibn Ziad was able to prevent Al-Hussien from reaching Kufa and denied them access to the Euphrates river, so Al-Hussien camped in a dry area called Karbalaa.
Many of Yazid’s soldiers didn’t like that they were at war with the Prophet’s grandson, so many deserted and stayed behind at Kufa, and so Ibn Ziad appointed one of his associates Sa’ad ibn Abdel-Rahman Al-Manqari to scan the army for deserters and to behead whoever gets caught.
Yazid’s army was formed of around 5000 soldiers, while Al-Hussien’s was 32 knights and 40 infantrymen. On theory, a battle that should be over in matter of minutes, but this wasn’t the case. Yazid’s side was full of doubt, while Al-Hussien’s was firm.
Al-Manqari’s threats to behead deserters didn’t stop one of Yazid’s army commanders Al-Hurr ibn Ziad to defect, repent, and join Al-Hussien. So another of Yazid’s army commanders, Umar ibn Sa’ad ibn Aby Waqas, the son of the great Sahabi (companion), realized the dangers of postponing the attack so he approached Al-Hussien’s camp and shot an arrow at it, asking whoever’s around to witness that he was the first to initiate the battle.
Yazid’s army attacked but Al-Hussien’s men, despite the unbearable thirst, repelled the attack. But there was no chance for Al-Hussien to be victorious for his bravery only postponed what was certain to come. His men started to fall one by one while Yazid’s army knew no honor, for when Al-Hussien held his baby son Abdullah and attempted to approach the river to water his thirst, one of Yazid’s men shot an arrow that pierced through Abdullah, vowing to force Al-Hussien and his men to die of thirst.
This was no ordinary battle; it was the attempt of an Umayyad army to annihilate what was left of the Prophet’s bloodline. If Al-Hussien saw this as a battle to restore the spirit of Islam, Yazid saw it as the old familial rivalry between the Umayyads and the Hashemides.
On the 10th of Muharram, one of Yazid’s men, Shimr ibn Dhiljawshan beheaded Al-Hussien (RA) after being exhausted by more than 33 stabs and placed his blessed head on a spear to be roamed around in the cities. A day that shall never be forgotten in the history of Islam. Al-Hussien’s son Ali Zayn Al-Abidin survived the battle miraculously and through him came all of the Prophet’s offspring today, fulfilling the Qur’anic prophecy
““Surely (O Muhammad) We have given you abundance*Therefore to your Lord turn in Prayer and Sacrifice*Surely your enemy is the one who will be without posterity”.
The story of Karbala’ is the story of men who stood by their principles knowing that nothing but death awaited them, and others, who like the Faustian legend, sold their souls for worldly gains like Umar ibn Sa’ad ibn Aby Waqas who battled Al-Hussien because he was promised the governorship of Rey by Yazid.
Al-Hussien was defeated in Karbala’, but his cause was the foundation of the Abbasid revolution and a source of legitimacy, even if doubted, for the Fatimids, and an inspiration for the Ayyubid and Ottoman dynasties. His defeat was momentary, but his memory lives in our hearts and minds, and a symbol for the struggle against tyranny and injustice.
– Father of the martyrs – Abbas al-Akkad
– On the origins of the Caliphate – Hamza M. Zafer