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The Battle of Karbala took place on Muharram 10, in the year 61 AH of the Islamic calendar (October 10, 680 AD) 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 Umayyad caliph.

Battle of Karbala
Brooklyn Museum - Battle of Karbala - Abbas Al-Musavi - overall.jpg
Abbas Al-Musavi's Battle of Karbala, Brooklyn Museum
Date10 Muharram 61 AH, October 10, 680 AD

Umayyad victory

  • Death of Husayn ibn Ali and members of his family and companions
  • Incident is mourned by Muslims (Mostly Shiites) to date
Umayyad Caliphate Husayn of Banu Hashim
Commanders and leaders
Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad
Umar ibn Sa'ad
Shimr ibn Dhil-Jawshan
Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi
Husayn ibn Ali 
Al-Abbas ibn Ali 
Habib ibn Muzahir 
Zuhayr ibn Qayn 
Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi 
4,000[1][2] 70–145
Casualties and losses
88 killed, several wounded[3] 72–110 casualties Including a six month old baby
^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

When Muawiyah I died in 680, Husayn did not give allegiance to his son, Yazid I, who had been appointed as Umayyad caliph 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 Shia Muslims. 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 the Shia and turned them into a sect with "its own rituals and collective memory." For the Shia, 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." Hence, the battle becomes more than a politically formative moment of the Shia faith within Islam. It also defines the theological origin of the Shia martyr ethos, and it provides members of the faith with a catalogue of heroic norms. Therefore Gölz argues that the commemoration of the Battle of Karbala must be seen as a paradigm (i. e. the "Karbala paradigm"), since the view of history conveyed by it claims to provide a self-contained cosmology applicable to all aspects of life.


Political background

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.[4] 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.[5][6][7] After the death of Hasan in 670, his younger brother Husyan became the head of Banu Hashim.[8] His father's supporters in Kufah gave him their allegiance. However, he told them he was still bound by the peace treaty between Hasan and Muawiyah as long as the latter was alive.[4]

Yazid's succession to Mu'awiyah

The Battle of Karbala occurred within the crisis environment resulting from the succession of Yazid I.[9][10] In 676, Muawiyah announced his nomination of Yazid.[11] With no precedence in Islamic history, hereditary succession aroused opposition from different quarters and the nomination was considered the corruption of the caliphate into monarchy.[12] Muawiyah summoned a shura in Damascus and persuaded representatives from various provinces by diplomacy and bribes.[13] He then ordered Marwan ibn al-Hakam, then the governor of Medina, to inform the people of Medina of the decision. Marwan faced resistance to this announcement, especially from Husayn, Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, Abd Allah ibn Umar and Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr, the sons of Muhammad's prominent companions, all of whom, by virtue of their descent, could also lay claim to the caliphal title.[14][15] Muawiya himself went to Medina and pressed the four dissenters to accede, but they fled to Mecca. Muawiya followed and threatened some of them with death, but they still refused to support him. Nonetheless, he was successful in convincing the people of Mecca that the four had pledged their allegiance, and received allegiance for Yazid. On his way back to Damascus, he secured allegiance from the people of Medina as well. Yazid's opponents were silent thereafter.[16][13] According to historians Fitzpatrick and Walker, Yazid's succession, which was considered as an "anomaly in Islamic history", transformed the government from a "consultative" form to a monarchy.[17] Before his death in April 680, Muawiyah cautioned Yazid that Husayn and Ibn al-Zubayr might challenge his rule and instructed him to defeat them if they did. Yazid was further advised to treat Husayn with caution and not to spill his blood, since he was the grandson of Muhammad.[18]


Before the battle near Karbala. Ottoman miniature

On his succession, Yazid charged the governor of Medina, Walid ibn Utbah ibn Abu Sufyan, to secure allegiance from Husayn, Ibn al-Zubayr and Abd Allah ibn Umar, with force if necessary. Walid sought the advice of his close relative Marwan ibn al-Hakam. He suggested that Ibn al-Zubayr and Husayn should be forced to pay allegiance as they were dangerous, while Ibn Umar should be left alone since he posed no threat.[19][20] Walid summoned the two, but Ibn al-Zubayr escaped to Mecca. Husayn answered the summons but declined to pay allegiance in the secretive environment of the meeting, suggesting it should be done in public. Marwan threatened to imprison him, but due to Husayn's kinship with Muhammad, Walid was unwilling to take any action against him. A few days later, Husayn left for Mecca without paying the allegiance.[21] He arrived in Mecca in the end of the month of Rajab 60 AH [22] and stayed there until the beginning of Dhu al-Hijjah.[23]

Husayn had considerable support in Kufa, which had been the capital during the reigns of his father and brother. The Kufans had fought the Umayyads and their Syrian allies during the First Fitna.[24] They were dissatisfied with Hasan's abdication[22] and strongly resented Umayyad rule.[24] While in Mecca, Husayn received letters from pro-Alids of Kufa inviting him to lead them in revolt against Yazid. To assess the situation, Husayn sent his cousin Muslim ibn Aqil. Ibn Aqil attracted large scale support in Kufa and informed Husayn of the situation, suggesting he join them there. Yazid removed Nu'man ibn Bashir al-Ansari as governor due to his inaction, and installed Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, then governor of Basra, in his place. Ibn Ziyad suppressed the rebellion and killed Ibn Aqil.[25]

Husayn was unaware of the changing circumstances of Kufa and decided to depart. Abd Allah ibn Abbas and Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr advised him not to move to Iraq, or if he was determined, not to take women and children with him in this dangerous journey. Sincerity of Ibn al-Zubayr's advice has been doubted by many historians, however, as he had his own plans for the future and was supposedly happy to get rid of Husayn.[4][23][26] Nevertheless, he offered him support if he would stay in Mecca and lead the opposition to Yazid from there. Husayn refused this citing his abhorrence for bloodshed in the sanctuary,[27] and decided to go ahead with his plan.[26]

Journey towards Kufa

Husayn left Mecca on 8 Dhu al-Hijjah 60 AH (9 September 680 AD), just a day before Hajj and was contented with Umrah.[23][26] He took the route north through the Arabian desert.[28] On the way to Kufa, the small caravan received the news of the execution of Muslim ibn Aqil and the indifference of the people of Kufa. Husayn at this point is reported to have considered turning back, but was persuaded to push forward by Ibn Aqil's brothers who wanted to avenge Ibn Aqil's death.[2][23] According to historian Wilferd Madelung, these reports are doubtful.[4] Some time later at a place called Zubala, Husayn learned of the capture and execution of his messenger Qays ibn Musahir Al Saidawi, whom he had sent from Hejaz to Kufa to announce his arrival. He informed his followers of the situation and asked them to leave. Those who had joined him on the way left, while his companions from Mecca decided to stay with him.[2]

Battle of Karbala, Iranian painting, oil on canvas, 19th century from the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam

Ibn Ziyad had stationed troops on routes coming to Kufa. Husayn and his followers were two days away from the city when they were intercepted by the vanguard of Yazid's army; about 1,000 men led by Hurr ibn Yazid al-Tamimi.[2] Husayn said:

I did not come to you until your letters were brought to me, and your messengers came to me saying, 'Come to us, for we have no imam.' ... Therefore, if you give me what you guaranteed in your covenants and sworn testimonies, I will come to your town. If you will not and are averse to my coming, I will leave you for the place from which I came to you.[29]

He then showed them letters he had received from Kufans. Hurr exclaimed that they knew nothing of the letters and that Husayn must go with him to Ibn Ziyad, which Huasyn refused. Hurr responded that Husayn can neither enter Kufa nor go back to Medina but can go in any other direction he wished. Nevertheless, he did not prevent four Kufans from joining Husayn. Husayn's caravan started march left towards Qadisiyyah and Hurr kept following them. At a place called Nainawa, Hurr received orders from Ibn Ziyad to force Husayn's caravan to halt in a desolate place without fortification and water. One of Husayn's companions suggested that they attack Hurr and move to the fortified village of al-Aqr. Husayn refused to follow the advice stating that he did not want to start the hostilities.[2] On 2 Muharram 61 AH (2 October 680 AD), Husayn arrived at Karbala, a desert plain seventy kilometers north of Kufa, and made camp.[30][28]

On 3 Muharram, a 4,000-strong Kufan army arrived under the command of Umar ibn Sa'ad. He had been appointed governor of Ray and was sent to fight local rebels there, but was recalled to deal with Husayn. Initially, he was unwilling to undertake the task of fighting Husayn, but Ibn Ziyad's threat of revoking his appointment of governorship forced him to comply. After negotiations with Husayn, Ibn Sa'ad wrote to Ibn Ziyad that Husayn was willing to go back. Ibn Ziyad wrote back that Husayn must surrender else he should be subdued by force,[31] and that Husayn and his companions be denied access to the Euphrates river.[4] Ibn Sa'ad stationed 500 horsemen on the route leading to the river. Husayn and his companions remained without water for three days before a group of fifty men led by his half-brother Abbas was able to access the river. They could fill twenty water-skins.[2][32]

Husayn and Ibn Sa'ad met during the night to negotiate some settlement. Although nobody else was present during the meeting, it was rumored that Husayn made three proposals: either he be allowed to go back to Medina, or that he go and submit to Yazid himself, or that he be sent to a border post where he would fight alongside the Muslim armies. According to Madelung, these reports are probably untrue as Husayn at this stage is unlikely to have considered submitting to Yazid. A mawla of Husyan's wife, who survived the battle, later claimed that Husayn had only suggested that he be left alone to wander around until the situation changes.[4] Ibn Sa'ad sent the proposal, whatever it was, to Ibn Ziyad. He is reported to have accepted the proposal but was persuaded otherwise by Shemr ibn Ziljawshan, who argued that Husayn was in his domain and letting him go would be tantamount to weakness.[32] Ibn Ziyad then sent Shemr with orders to ask Husayn for allegiance once more and to attack, kill and disfigure him if he was to refuse, for he was "a rebel, a seditious person, a brigand, an oppressor and he was to do no further harm after his death".[2] Moreover, if Ibn Sa'ad was unwilling to carry out the attack, he had to hand over the command to Shemr. Ibn Sa'ad cursed Shemr and accused him of foiling his attempts to reach a peaceful settlement but agreed to go ahead with the orders. He remarked that Husayn will never submit because there was "a proud soul in him".[2][4]

The army started advancing toward Husayn's camp in the evening of 9 Muharram. Husayn sent Abbas to ask Ibn Sa'ad to wait until the next morning, so that they can consider the matter. Ibn Sa'ad agreed to the respite.[33] Husayn told his men that they were all free to leave under cover of the night and that they can take his family with them, since the opponents only wanted him. Very few availed the opportunity. Thereafter defense arrangements were made: tents were brought together and tied with one another, a ditch was dug from behind the tents and filled with wood ready to be burned in case of attack. They spent rest of the night praying.[34][4]


Military tactics in day of the battle (The oldest painting about battle of Karbala)

After the morning prayer of 10 Muharram, both parties took up battle positions. Husayn appointed Zuhayr ibn Qayn to command the right flank of his army, Habib ibn Muzahir to command the left flank and his half-brother Abbas as the standard bearer.[34] Husayn's companions according to most accounts numbered thirty-two horsemen and forty infantrymen, although forty-five horsemen and one hundred foot-soldiers or a total of a few hundred men have been reported by some sources.[35] Ditches containing wood were set alight.[36] He then delivered a speech on a horseback reminding the people of his status as Muhammad's grandson and reproaching them for inviting and then abandoning him. He asked to be allowed to leave. He was told that first he had to submit to the authority, which he refused.[34] His speech affected Hurr, who had earlier stopped him from entering Kufa. He abandoned Ibn Sa'ad and joined Husayn.[36]

The Battle of Karbala

After Husayn's speech, Zuhayr ibn Qayn attempted to dissuade them from killing Husayn, but in vain. Ibn Sa'ad's army started shooting arrows. This was followed by duels[34] in which Husayn's companion Burayr ibn Khudhayr[37] and a few others were slain. Right wing of Kufans led by Amr ibn al-Hajjaj attacked Husayn's army, but was repulsed by pointed spears and arrows. Duels were stopped and arrow shots resumed. Thereafter Shemr, who commanded the left wing of government troops, attacked but after some losses on both sides, he too was repulsed.[34][38] This was followed by cavalry attacks. Husayn's cavalry put serious resistance and Ibn Sa'ad brought in armoured cavalry and five hundred archers. After their horses were wounded by arrow shots, Husayn's cavalrymen dismounted and started fighting on foot.[39] Since government forces could approach Husayn's army from the front only, Ibn Sa'ad ordered the tents to be burned. All except the one in which Husayn and his family were residing were set on fire. Shemr wanted to burn that too, but was prevented by his own comrades. The plan backfired and flames hindered their own advance for a while. After the noon prayers, Husayn's companions were encircled and almost all of them were killed fighting. His relatives, who had not taken part in the fighting so far, joined the battle. Husayn's son Ali Akbar was killed, then sons of Aqil ibn Abi Talib, Jafar ibn Abi Talib and Hasan ibn Ali,[34] and half-brothers of Husayn, including Abbas, were slain.[40] The account of latter's death is not given in the primary historical sources like al-Tabari and Baladhuri, although a prominent Shia theologian Shaykh Al-Mufid states in his work Kitab al-Irshad that Abbas went to the river together with Husayn but got separated from the latter, was surrounded and killed.[41][40] At some point, a young child of Husayn, who was sitting on his lap, was hit with an arrow and died.[41]

The Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala

Death of Husayn ibn Ali

Shrine to those killed at the battle of Karbala

The first wound that Husayn received was from an arrow hitting his mouth while he was moving to river in order to drink.[4] He collected the blood in cupped hand and cast towards the sky complaining to God of his suffering.[41] The opponents were hesitant of attacking him directly. Later, he was surrounded and someone called Malik ibn Nusayr struck him on the head. The sword cut through his hooded cloak and the hood was filled with blood. Cursing the attacker, Husayn removed the cloak, put a cap on head and wrapped a turban on it. Ibn Nusayr seized the cloak and went away.[41][42]

Finally, Shemr advanced towards Husayn with a group of foot soldiers. Husayn now prepared to attack as few others were left on his side. A young boy from Husayn's camp escaped from the tents and ran to him. When a soldier intended to slay Husayn, the boy tried to defend him with his arm and it was cut off. Ibn Sa'ad approached the tents and Husayn's sister Zaynab complained to him: "'Umar b. Sa'd, will Abu 'Abd Allah (the kunya of Husayn) be killed while you stand and watch?"[41] Ibn Sa'ad wept but did nothing to prevent it. Husayn is said to have killed many of the attackers. They were, however, still unwilling to kill him and each of them wanted to defer the task to somebody else. Long time elapsed before Shemr shouted: "Shame on you! Why are you waiting for the man? Kill him, may your mothers be deprived of you!"[43] Then they attacked Husayn together and he was struck on hand and shoulder. He fell on the ground face-down. A man named Sinan ibn Anas stabbed and then decapitated him.[41][43]

The place that Zaynab bint Ali viewed Battle

Length of the battle

Based on an official report sent to caliph Yazid, which describes the event in briefest possible terms and states that the battle lasted for no longer than a siesta, historian Henri Lammens concludes that there was no battle at all but a quick massacre that was over in an hour and the excessively detailed accounts found in the primary sources are Iraqi fabrications, since the people of Alid sympathies were unsatisfied with their hero being killed without putting a fight.[44] This is countered by Laura Veccia Vaglieri, who argues that despite there being some invented accounts, considering all accounts together forms "a coherent and credible narrative". She criticizes Lammens' hypothesis as being based on a single isolated report and being devoid of critical analysis.[34] Similarly, Madelung and Julius Wellhausen assert that the battle lasted from sunrise to sunset and the overall account of the battle is reliable.[4][45] Vaglieri and Madelung explain the length of the battle despite the numerical disparity between the opposing camps as Ibn Sa'ad's attempt to prolong the battle and pressure Husayn into submission instead of attempting to quickly overwhelm and kill him.[34][4]


Seventy or seventy-two people died on Husayn's side. About twenty of them were Talibites (descendants of Abu Talib, father of Ali). This included two of Husayn's sons, six of his paternal brothers, three sons of Hasan ibn Ali, three sons of Jafar ibn Abi Talib and three sons and three grandsons of Aqil ibn Abi Talib.[4] Following the battle, Husayn's belongings were looted: his clothes were taken off, and his sword, shoes and baggage were taken. Women’s jewelry and cloaks were also seized. Shemr wanted to kill Husayn’s only surviving son Ali Zayn al-Abidin, who being sick had not taken part in the fighting, but was prevented by Ibn Sa’ad.[41][36] It is said that more than sixty wounds were found on Husayn’s body,[36] which was then trampled with horses per prior instructions of Ibn Ziyad.[4] Dead in Ibn Sa'ad's army numbered eighty-eight whom he buried.[3] After his departure, people of Banu Asad tribe from the nearby village of al-Ghadiriya buried the headless bodies of Husayn's army.[41] Their heads had already been cut off by Ibn Sa'ad's army.[46]

Husayn's family along with the heads of the dead were sent to Ibn Ziyad.[46] He poked Husayn's mouth with a stick and wanted to kill Ali Zayn al-Abidin but spared him after pleading of Husayn's sister Zaynab.[47] The heads and the family were then sent to Yazid,[46] who is also reported to have poked Husayn's mouth with a stick. Lammens has suggested that this is duplication of the report regarding Ibn Ziyad.[48] Yazid was, however, compassionate towards the women and Ali Zayn al-Abidin,[46] and cursed Ibn Ziyad for murdering Husayn stating that had he been there, he would have spared Husayn.[49][50] One of his courtiers asked for the hand of a captive woman from Husayn's family, which resulted in heated altercation between Yazid and Zyanb, and Yazid had to shut the man up.[51][52] Women of Yazid's house joined the captive women in their lamentation for the dead. After a few days, they were compensated for their belongings looted in Karbala and were sent back to Medina.[53] According to Wellhausen, the compassion that Yazid showed them and his cursing of Ibn Ziyad was only for show. He argues that if killing Husayn was a crime its responsibility lay with Yazid and not Ibn Ziyad, who being governor was only preforming his duty.[54] Madelung holds a similar view. According to him, early accounts take the responsibility of Husayn's death away from Yazid and blame Ibn Ziyad. Yazid, he argues, wanted to end Husayn's opposition but as a caliph of Islam could not afford to bear the responsibility and diverted it to Ibn Ziyad by hypocritically cursing him.[4]

A tilework inside Mu'awin ul-Mulk Hussainiya, Kermanshah, Iran, depicting Ali ibn Husayn, Zaynab and other prisoners taken to Yazdi court

Later uprisings

Battle of Karbala and Husayn's death proved to be the start of the Second Islamic Civil War and Umayyads faced opposition from various quarters of the caliphate.

Ibn al-Zubayr's revolt

Following Husayn's death, Yazid faced increased opposition to his rule from Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr. Ibn al-Zubayr secretly started taking allegiance in Mecca,[55] although on the surface called for a shura to elect a new caliph.[56] Ibn al-Zuabyr's influence reached Medina, where citizens were already disillusioned with Umayyad rule and Muawiyah's agricultural projects,[56] which included confiscating lands from them to increase the government's revenue.[57] Yazid invited the notables of Medina to Damascus and tried to win them over with gifts. They were unpersuaded, however, and on their return to Medina narrated tales of Yazid's lavish lifestyle and practices considered by many to be impious. The Medinese, under the leadership of Abd Allah ibn Hanzala, renounced their allegiance to Yazid and expelled the governor and the Umayyads residing in the city. Yazid sent an army of 12,000 men under the command of Muslim ibn Uqba to reconquer Hejaz. After failed negotiations, the Medinese were defeated in the Battle of al-Harrah, and the city was plundered for three days. Having forced the rebels to renew their allegiance, the Syrian army laid siege to Mecca.[58][59] With Yazid's death in November 683, besiegers retreated to Syria and Ibn al-Zubayr declared himself caliph, receiving widespread recognition throughout the caliphate.[60] Nevertheless, Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, his former ally, captured Iraq from Ibn al-Zubayr's governor,[61] and Kharijites in Iraq, Persia and Arabia weakened his authority.[62][63] Although he was able to defeat Mukhtar, Umayyad Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who assumed power in Syria in 685, eventually defeated and killed him in 692. The defeat of Ibn al-Zubayr re-established Umayyad control over the caliphate.[64][65]

Tawwabin uprising

A few prominent Alid supporters of Kufa were struck by a sense of guilt for abandoning Husayn after having invited him to revolt. To atone for what they perceived to be a sin, they began a movement under Sulayman ibn Surad, a companion of Muhammad, to fight against the Umayyads. As long as Iraq was in Umayyad hands, the movement remained underground. After the death of Yazid in November 683, the people of Iraq drove out the Umayyad governor Ibn Ziyad. Tawwabin now came out in the open and called on the people to avenge Husayn's death, attracting large-scale support.[66] Lacking any political program, they intended to either punish the Umayyads or sacrifice themselves. Their motto was "Revenge for Husayn".[67] Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, another prominent pro-Alid of Kufa, attempted to dissuade Tawwabin from this endeavor in favor of an organized movement to take control of the city, but Ibn Surad's stature as a companion of Muhammad and an old ally of Ali, prevented most of his followers from accepting Mukhtar's proposal.[68] Although 16,000 men enlisted to fight, only 4,000 came to the mustering location. In November 684, the Tawwabin left to face the Umayyads, after mourning for a day at Husayn's grave in Karbala. The armies met in January 685 at the Battle of Ayn al-Warda in northern Syria. The battle lasted for three days during which most of the Tawwabin, including their leader Ibn Surad, were killed. A few successfully retreated to Kufa and joined the movement of Mukhtar.[66]

Revolt of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi

Mukhtar al-Thaqafi was an old settler of Kufa, having arrived in Iraq following early Muslim conquests of the region.[69] He had participated in the failed rebellion of Muslim Ibn Aqil, for which was imprisoned by Ibn Ziyad for some time before being released upon intervention of Abdullah ibn Umar. Mukhtare then went to Mecca and had a short-lived alliance with Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr. After Yazid's death, he returned to Kufa where he advocated revenge against Husayn's killers and the establishment of an Alid caliphate in the name of Husayn's half-brother Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, and declared himself his representative.[70] The defeat of the Tawwabin left the leadership of the Kufan pro-Alids in his hands. In October 685, Mukhtar and his supporters, a significant of number of whom consisted of local converts (mawali), overthrew Ibn al-Zubayr's governor and seized control of Kufa. His control extended to most of Iraq and parts of north-western Iran.[71] His attitude towards mawali, whom he awarded many favors and equal status with Arabs, provoked rebellion of dissatisfied Arab aristocracy. After crushing the rebellion, Mukhtar executed Kufans involved in the killing of Husayn, while thousands of people fled to Basra.[72] He then sent his general Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar to fight an approaching Umayyad army, led by Ibn Ziyad, which had been sent to recapture the province. The Umayyad army was routed at the Battle of Khazir (August 686) and Ibn Ziyad was killed.[73] Meanwhile, Mukhtar's relations with Ibn al-Zubayr worsened and Kufan refugees in Basra persuaded Mus'ab ibn al-Zubayr, the governor of the city and younger brother of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, to attack Kufa. After facing defeat in open battles, Mukhtar and his remaining supporters took refuge in the palace of Kufa and were besieged by Mus'ab. Four months later in April 687, Mukhtar was killed along with some 6,000–8,000 of his supporters.[74] According to Mohsen Zakeri, Mukhtar's attitude towards mawali was one of the reasons behind his failure as Kufa was not ready for such "revolutionary measures".[75]

Historiography of the battle of Karbala

Primary sources

The primary source of the Karbala narrative is the work of the Kufan historian Abu Mikhnaf titled Kitab Maqtal Al-Husayn.[26] Although his date of birth is unknown, he was an adult around the time of the revolt of Ibn al-Ash'ath which occurred in 82 AH, some twenty years after the battle of Karbala. As such he knew many eyewitnesses and collected the firsthand accounts and occasionally those with very short chains of transmitters; usually with one or two intermediaries.[76] The eyewitnesses were of two kinds: those from Husayn's side and those from Ibn Sa'ad's army. Since few people from Husayn's camp survived, most eyewitnesses were from the second category. According to Wellhausen, most of them regretted their actions in the battle and embellished the accounts of the battle in favor of Husayn in order to dilute their guilt.[77] Although as an Iraqi, Abu Mikhnaf had pro-Alid tendencies, these do not generally produce significant bias in his reports.[78] Abu Mikhnaf's original seems to have been lost and that which has reached today has been transmitted through secondary sources like History of Prophets and Kings, also known as The History of Tabari, by Muḥammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari and Ansab al-Ashraf by Ahmad ibn Yaḥya al-Baladhuri. Tabari quotes either directly from Abu Mikhnaf or from his student Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, who took most of his material from Abu Mikhnaf.[26] Tabari occasionally takes material from other primary sources as well, which however, does not add much to the narrative.[46] Baladhuri also uses same sources as Tabari. Information on the battle found in the works of Dinawari and Ya'qubi is also based on Abu Mikhnaf's Maqtal,[26] although they occasionally provide some extra notes and verses.[46]

There are four manuscripts of Maqtal attributed to Abu Mikhnaf, located at Gotha (No. 1836), Berlin (Sprenger, Nos. 159–160), Leiden (No. 792), and Saint Petersburg (Am No. 78) libraries.[79]

Shia writings

Salwa Al-Amd has classified Shia writings in three groups:[80]

  1. The legendary character of this category associates the chronological history of Husayn ibn Ali with notions relating to the origin of life and the Universe, that have preoccupied the human mind since the beginning of creation, and in which Al-Husayn is eternally present. This category of writing holds that a person's stance toward Husayn ibn Ali and Ahl al- Bayt is a criterion for reward and punishment in the afterlife. It also transforms the historical boundaries of Husayn ibn Ali's birth in 4 AH and his death in 61 AH to an eternal presence embracing the boundaries of history and legend.
  2. This category comprises the literary works common in rituals and lamentations (poetic and prose) and is characterized by its melodramatic style, which aims to arouse pity and passion for Ahl al- Bayt's misfortunes, and charge feelings during tempestuous political circumstances on the memory of Ashura.
  3. This category is the nearest to Sunni writings because it fully cherishes the historical personality of Husayn ibn Ali and regards the Karbala incident as a revolt against oppression; dismissing the legendary treatment, while using the language of revolt against tyranny and despotic sovereignty. A model writer of this category is Mohamed Mahdi Shams Al-Din.


Muharram Mourning in Iran, 2014.

Shia Islam

Prior to the battle of Krabala, Muslim community was divided into two political factions. Nonetheless, a religious sect with distinct theological doctrines and specific set of rituals found in the latter Shi'a Islam had not yet developed.[25][56][81] Karbala gave this early political party of pro-Alids a distinct religious identity and helped transform it into a unique religious sect.[82][83] Historian Heinz Halm writes: "There was no religious aspect to Shi'ism prior to 680. The death of the third imam and his followers marked the 'big bang' that created the rapidly expanding cosmos of Shi'ism and brought it into motion."[83]

According to anthropologist Michael Fischer, commemoration of the Battle of Karbala by the Shi'a is not only the retelling of the history, but it presents them with "life models and norms of behavior" which are applicable to all aspects of life, which he calls the "Karbala Paradigm".[84] According to Olmo Gölz, the Karbala Paradigm provides the Shi'a with heroic norms and martyr ethos, and represents an embodiment of the battle between good and evil, and justice and injustice.[85] Husayn death at Karbala is believed by them to be a sacrifice made to prevent corruption of Islam by the tyrannical rulers and to protect its ideology.[86] Historian G. R. Hawting describes Battle of Karbala as a "supreme" example of "suffering and martyrdom" pattern for Shi'a.[87] According to Abdulaziz Sachedina, it is seen by the Shi'a as the climax of suffering and oppression, revenge of which came to be one of the primary goals of many Shi'a uprisings. This revenge is believed to be one of the fundamental objectives of the future revolution of the twelfth Shi'a Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, whose return is awaited.[88] With his return, Husayn and his seventy-two are expected to be resurrected along with their killers, who will then be punished.[89]

Shi'a observances

Shi'a Muslims consider visiting the tomb of Husayn as a source of divine blessings and rewards.[90] According to Shi'a tradition first such visit was performed by Husayn's son Ali Zayn al-Abideen and the surviving family members on their return from Syria to Medina. The first historically recorded instance of such visitation is Sulayman ibn Surad and the Penitents going to Husayn's grave before their departure to Syria. They are reported to have lamented and beaten their chests and having spent a night over there.[91] Thereafter this tradition remained limited to the Shi'a Imams for several decades, before gaining momentum under the sixth Shi'a Imam Jafar Sadiq and his followers. Buyids and Safavids also encouraged this practice.[90] Special visits are paid on 10 Muharram and 40 days after the anniversary of Husayn (Arbaeen Pilgrimage).[92] The soil of Karbala is considered to have miraculous healing effects.[90]

Mourning for Husayn is considered by the Shi'a to be a source of salvation in the afterlife,[93] and is taken as a means of continuous remembrance of his suffering.[94] After the death of Husayn, when his family was being taken to Ibn Ziyad, Husayn's sister Zaynab is reported to have cried out after seeing headless body of Husayn: "O Muhammad! O Muhammad! May the angels of heaven bless you. Here is Husayn in the open, stained with blood and with limbs torn off. O Muhammad! Your daughters are prisoners, your progeny are killed, and the east wind blows dust over them."[95] Shi'a Muslims consider this first instance of wailing and mourning over the death of Husayn.[92] Husayn's son Zayn al-Abideen is reported to have spent rest of his life weeping for his father. Similarly, Husayn's mother Fatima is believed to be weeping for him in the paradise and the weeping of believers is considered to be a way of sharing her sorrows.[94] Special gatherings (majalis) are arranged in places specially reserved for this purpose, called husayniyya.[92] In these gatherings the story of Karbala is narrated and various elegies are recited by professional reciters.[96]

During the month of Muharram, elaborate public processions are performed in commemoration of the Battle of Karbala. In contrast to pilgrimage to Husayn's tomb and simple lamenting, these processions do not date back to the time of the battle, but arose during 10th century. The earliest recorded instance of such processions occurred in Baghdad in 963 during the reign of the first Buyid ruler Mu'izz al-Dawla.[97] The processions start from a husayniyya and the participants parade barefoot through the streets, wailing and beating their chests and heads before returning to the husyaniyya for a majlis.[98][99] Sometimes, chains and knives are used to inflict wounds and physical pain.[100] In South Asia, an ornate horse called Zuljenah representing Husayn's battle horse is also led riderless through the streets.[101] In Iran, the battle scenes of Karbala are performed by actors on stage in front of an audience in a ritual called Taziya (passion play), also known as Shabih.[102][103] In India however, word Taziya is used to mean coffins and replicas of Husayn's tomb carried in processions.[102][104]

Most of these rituals take place during the first ten days of Muharram, reaching climax on the tenth day, although majlis can happen during other days of the year as well.[103][105] According to Yitzhak Nakash, rituals of Muharram have an "importance" effect on the "invoking the memory of Karbala", as these help consolidate the collective identity and memory of the Shi'a.[106]


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).[107] Moḥarram festival then became a unifying force for the nation.[108]

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.[109] 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.[110][111]


Cameleer tells people about events he witnessed in Karbala.

Bengali Literature

In 1885-1891, Mir Mosharraf Hossain wrote a novel named Bishad Shindhu (the Ocean of Sorrow) regarding Karbala.[112][113]

Persian literature

Va'ez Kashefi's Rowzat al-Shohada (Garden of Martyrs) authored in 1502, is one of the main sources used for quoting the history of the battle and aftermath in later histories. Kashfi's composition was "a synthesis of a long line of historical accounts of Karbala," such as Said al-Din's Rowzat al-Islam (The Garden of Islam) and al-Khawarazmi's Maqtal nur 'al-'a'emmeh (The Site of The Murder of the light of The Imams). Kashefi's composition was an effective factor in formation of rowzweh khani, a kind of ritual.[107] The name of Husayn ibn Ali appears several times in the work of the first great Sufi Persian[citation needed] poet, Sanai. According to Annemarie Schimmel, the name of the martyred hero can be found now and then in connection with bravery and selflessness, and Sanai sees him as the prototype of the shahid (martyr), higher and more important than all the other martyrs who are and have been in the world.[114]

The tendency to see Husayn ibn Ali as the model of martyrdom and bravery continues in the poetry written in the Divan of Attar.[citation needed] When Shiism became the official religion of Iran in the 15th century, Safavid rulers such as Shah Tahmasp I, patronized poets who wrote about the Battle of Karbala, and the genre of marsia, according to Persian scholar Wheeler Thackston, "was particularly cultivated by the Safavids."[115]

Azeri and Turkish literature

Muhammed's grandsons played a special role in Sufi songs composed by Yunus Emre in the late 13th or early 14th century.[116]

Sindhi literature

Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai of Bhitshah (1689–1752) devoted "Sur Kedaro" in his Shah Jo Risalo to the death of the grandson of Muhammed, and saw the battlet of Karbala as embedded in the mystical tradition of Islam. A number of poets in Sindh have also composed elegies on Karbala, including Sayed Sabit Ali Shah (1740–1810).[117]

Urdu literature

In the Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi kingdom of Deccan, marsia flourished, especially under the patronage of Ali Adil Shah and Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, marsia writers themselves, and poets such as Ashraf Biyabani.[citation needed] Urdu marsia written during this period are still popular in South Indian villages.[118] Ghalib described Husayn ibn Ali, by using metaphors, similar to the ones he used in his odes.[citation needed] Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Rafi Sauda wrote marsia in which the Battle of Karbala was saturated with cultural and ceremonial imagery of North India.[118]

Josh Malihabadi known as "Shair-i inqilab", or the poet of revolution, used the medium of marsia to propagate the view that Karbala is not a pathos-laden event of a bygone era, but a prototype for contemporary revolutionary struggles.[citation needed]

Vahid Akhtar, formerly Professor and Chairman, Dept. of Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University,[119] has been crucial in keeping the tradition of marsia dynamic in present-day South Asia.[citation needed] Akht disagrees with the interpretation of the deaths at Karbala as mere Islamic history; but sees them as part of the revival of an ideal Islamic state of being.[120]

Albanian literature

The events of the battle and the following rebellion of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi of 66 AH have been the subject of major works in the Albanian Bektashi literature of the 19th century. Dalip Frashëri's Kopshti i te mirevet (Garden of the martyrs) is the earliest and longest epic so far written in Albanian language. It seems that Frashëri's initial idea was to translate and adapt Fuzûlî's work with the same name, it ended up as a truly national and comprehensible composition on its own. The poem is made of around 60,000 verses, is divided in ten sections, and is preceded by an introduction which tells the story of the Bektashism in Albania. The poem cites the sect's important personalities, latter additions, and propagation. It follows with the history of the Arabs before Islam, the work of the Prophet, his life and death, and events that led to the Karbala tragedy. The Battle of Karbala is described in detail; Frashëri eulogizes those who fell as martyrs, in particular Husayn ibn Ali.

His younger brother Shahin was the author of Mukhtarnameh (Book of Mukhtar), Albanian: Myhtarnameja, an epic poem of around 12,000 verses. It is also one of the longest and earliest epics of the Albanian literature.

Both works established a subgenre in the Albanian literature of the time, and served as the model for the better known work Qerbelaja (Karbala) of Naim Frashëri, the Albanian national poet and a Bektashi Sufi follower as well.[121][122]

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External links