karbala ..The everlasting Stand.

karbala ..The everlasting Stand.



Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and spiritual leader of the Shi’a people.

Husayn’s martyrdom is a sad day for all Muslims especially the Shi’a, who mourn the massacre of their “Prince of Martyrs” and his family in Karbala in 61AH/680CE.

Husayn, who held the title of Imam, meaning spiritual leader of Islam, refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, the second Umayyad Caliph. He tried to travel from Medina to Kufa but was surrounded by forces loyal to Yazid in the desert at a place now known as Karbala.

Husayn’s followers were greatly outnumbered and dying of thirst, indeed his brother ‘Abbas was killed trying to bring water back to the camp. On the 10th day of Muharram, Husayn’s followers were massacred and their leader beheaded after declaring, “death with dignity is better than life with humiliation”.

The commemoration of this brutal massacre begins on the first day of Muharram and continues for 40 days. During the first 10 days of Muharram millions of Shi’a (and Sunni) Muslims remember the massacre at Karbala and strive to feel some of Husayn’s pain.

The 10th day of Muharram is known as ‘Ahsura’ which recalls the day of the massacre in Karbala, a town in modern day Iraq which is second only to Mecca and Najaf as a spiritual beacon to the Shi’a.

Just 100km south of Baghdad, Karbala houses the shrine of Husayn and his brother Al-Abbas. For centuries Shi’a pilgrims flocked here during Muharram, a practice which was severely limited under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

This year for the first time in nearly 30 years Shi’a can openly commemorate Muharram in the streets of Karbala without fear of repercussions. For many pilgrims this will be their first taste of religious freedom in post-war Iraq.


“O God! Here is the place where our blood will be shed. Here is the place where our graves will be.” – Imam Husayn

This is a day by day account of Husayn’s time in Karbala leading up to the massacre on Ashura.

Day 1 AH 61 (1st October 680)
Husayn and his followers are prevented from reaching Kufa by Caliphate general, al-Hurr, at-Tamini’s 1,000-strong army, and are forced to make camp in the desert at Karbala, 75km from Kufa. It is here at this fateful place that Husayn and his followers’ torment began.

Day 2
Husayn speaks to his followers at the camp and assures them of their goodness and truth. In return, they pledge their loyalty to him. Then, foreseeing his death, Husayn purchases about four square miles of land to be the site for his and his family’s graves from the local residents of the area.

Day 3
Four thousand additional troops under the command of Umar ibn Sa’d arrive with instructions from Ubaydu’llah ibn Ziyad that they should prevent Husayn from leaving until he signs a pledge to the Caliph, Yazid. Ibn Sa’d’s men prepare for battle and surround Husayn’s party, cutting them off from the river, their only source of water.

Day 4
Husayn begins negotiations with ibn Sa’d stressing he has no desire to initiate bloodshed and asks to be allowed to withdraw to Arabia but ibn Sa’d refuses to relent. Meanwhile the situation in Husayn’s camp is becoming more and more desperate due to the lack of water and fresh supplies.

Day 5
The size of the army facing Husayn’s small band of followers swells as even more troops arrive to join their brothers in arms on the banks of the Euphrates River.

Day 6
The lack of water leads to desperate measures. Husayn uses a tent pole to dig a well, but their relief is short-lived as it dries up. Ibn Ziyad sensing their anguish, sends 500 troops to reinforce the cordon around the Euphrates.

Day 7
Fearing for the health of the women and children, Husayn asks his brother ‘Abbas to conduct a midnight raid past the Caliphate troops to bring back water from the river. Despite a brief skirmish ‘Abbas brings back some precious water to camp earning himself the title, ‘Saqqa’, or water bearer. The water is a godsend but does little to assuage the thirst of the entire camp.

Day 8
In desperation Husayn sends a message to Sa’d requesting they meet, he questions Sa’d’s allegiance to Yazid by asking, “Don’t you fear God on the Day of Judgement? You know who I am”. Sa’d’s loyalty is unshaken; he considers trying to act as a peacemaker between Husayn and Yazid but is dissuaded when his supporters urge him not to compromise.

Day 9
After a long, hot day in the desert filled with the cries of children for water, Husayn’s camp prepares for the attack they know is coming and are powerless to stop. Husayn gathers his companions together and pleads with them; “Whoever remains with me will be killed tomorrow; so consider this opportunity as Allah sent and take advantage of the darkness and go home to your villages.” He then extinguishes all the lights in the camp to allow those who want to leave to do so. His followers weep and reply, “Oh master do not thus shame us before Allah..were we to desert you, may the wild beasts of the jungle tear us to pieces.”

Husayn sends one last message to Sa’d asking to be spared one last night so that they may pray to Allah and recite the Qur’an. Sa’d reluctantly agrees and the Imam gathers his followers together for one last sermon. Again, his followers protest their loyalty and vow to die alongside their master.

Such was the power of their faith that when the enemy saw them praying 32 soldiers switched sides and joined them including Hurr, the commander of the original army that had routed Husayn from Kufa. He became one of the first martyrs to fall.

Day 10 ‘Ashura’
Friday 10th Muharram, 61 AH (10th October AD680) On what was to be his last day Husayn and some of his followers implore the ibn Sa’d troops for the final time not to shed the blood of the Prophet’s house. Leading by example, ibn Sa’d is the first to shoot an arrow into the pitifully small camp. Despite their lack of numbers, Husayn’s followers fight ferociously refusing to give up.

By mid-afternoon Husayn and his relatives face the marauding army, their defence spent. One by one they fall including Husayn’s sons aged just 11 and 13. Husayn continues to appeal to the enemy’s humanity; he takes his six-month-old baby son and pleads for water. The enemy respond by shooting poisoned arrows which pierce the neck of the baby killing it instantly.

Finally Husayn is the last left standing finally falling on the battlefield next to his dead comrades. Covered in wounds, Husayn is then decapitated and his body is mutilated in order to send souvenirs back to Yazid. His followers suffer a similar fate. Their bodies are trampled by enemy horses and left where they fell denying them a Muslim burial.

Yazid’s soldiers then loot and plunder the remains of the camp taking the women and children prisoner including ‘Ali, the only surviving son of Husayn.



Find out more about the key people mentioned in the historical events surrounding the Ashura massacre in Karbala.
(NB: Hijri dates are given beforehand followed by Gregorian dates, thus 132AH/750CE)

Ali (Abu’l – Hasan ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib)
Though not directly involved at Karbala, ‘Ali is a vitally important character in Islamic history. The fourth Caliph and the first Shi’a Imam his place in Shi’a history is guaranteed. The cousin of the Prophet and husband of Fatima, Ali inspired the name Shi’a ( Shi’a at Ali – the party of ‘Ali). It was the usurpation of Ali’s rights preventing him from succeeding the Prophet Mohammad as leader of the Islamic community which is looked upon by Shi’a as the event that sparked their movement. Shi’a historians emphasise the strong bond that existed between the Prophet and ‘Ali. It was ‘Ali’s father who looked after the Prophet after his parents died and thus Mohammad became very close to his young cousin. Aside from Khadija, the Prophet’s wife, ‘Ali was the first person to acknowledge the Prophet’s mission and convert to Islam. In the eyes of both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims ‘Ali has acquired an almost legendary reputation as a paragon of virtue and a veritable fount of knowledge.

Hasan – Imam Hasan ibn Ali
Known as the chosen (al – Mujtaba) Hasan is considered by Shi’a to have become the religious leader (Imam) following the death of ‘Ali. Hasan was born in the year 3AH/625CE in Medina and was raised with his younger brother Husayn in the Prophet’s household. Mohammad said of his beloved grandchildren, “he who has loved Hasan and Husayn has loved me and he who has hated them has hated me”. Hasan was declared Caliph after the assassination of his father but relinquished the Caliphate to his political rival Mu’awiya to prevent a rift in Islamic society. Some have criticised Hasan for relinquishing control but Shi’a historians claim his abdication was realistic, compassionate and avoided bloodshed. Hasan, after his abdication in 41AH/661CE retired to Medina and led a quiet life away from the spotlight. Hasan died in 50AH/670CE aged 47, Shi’a say he was poisoned by his wife at the instigation of Mu’awiya but it can’t be proved.

Husayn – Imam Husayn ibn Ali
The ‘Master of Martyrs’ (Sayyid ash – Shuhada) as many Shi’a call him was born on the ‘3rd of Sha’ban’ in the fourth year of the Hijra (626CE). His grandfather, the Prophet Mohammad named him Husayn, meaning one of beautiful character. Husayn was brought up with his older brother Hasan in the household of the Prophet who referred to the two children as the “chiefs of the youths of paradise”. When his brother Hasan died, Husayn became head of the household but did not act against the ruling Caliph at the time, Mu’awiya. Upon Mu’awiya’s death the Caliphate was controversially passed to his son Yazid. Husayn could not accept Yazid’s rule which led to his murder by Yazid’s forces on the 10 Muharram AH61/680CE, a day known as Ashura. His body lies in a holy shrine in Karbala and has become a pilgrimage site for millions of Shi’a.

He became Caliph at the age of 59 after ‘Ali’s assassination in 661CE. He engineered an agreement with Hasan to relinquish the Caliphate in return for promising peace and not requiring the members of the House of the Prophet to swear allegiance to him. The peace treaty asserted that, “he (Mu’awiya) would harbour no evil or harmful schemes towards Husan..his brother Husayn, or any of the people of the House of the Messenger of God”. Some say part of the agreement was that the Caliphate would revert to Hasan on Mu’awiya’s death. Instead, prior to Mu’awiya’s death in 60AH/680CE, he arranged for his son, Yazid, to succeed him as part of the Umayyad dynasty which ruled until 132AH/750CE.

Son of Mu’awiya, Yazid was born in 21AH/642CE and inherited the Caliphate from his father. He ruled for just three years amidst reports of bribery and threats. Most historians view Yazid as a drunkard who openly flouted the laws of Islam. Despite his father’s wishes to respect the agreement that he had made with Imam Hasan, Yazid required the Prophet’s grandsons to swear allegiance to him to ensure his credibility. Husayn refused to swear allegiance to Yazid which resulted in the massacre at Karbala on Ashura.

‘Ubaydu ‘llah ibn Ziyad
Ziyad was the governor of Basrah who was appointed by Yazid to take control of Kufa. Under his tough leadership, Ziyad successfully intimidated the Kufans, who had declared their support for Husayn, into not joining him. It was his orders, relayed to the armies at Karbala that resulted in the Ashura massacre.

Zaynab (Zainab)
The sister of the Imam, Zaynab was taken prisoner after the massacre at Karbala by ibn Ziyad on behalf of Yazid. She reportedly conducted herself with dignity and courage. When there was the possibility of ibn Ziyad killing her nephew, ‘Ali, the only surviving son of Husayn, she threw her arms around ‘Ali’s neck exclaiming, “by God, I will not be parted from him and so if you are going to kill him, then kill me with him”. Ibn Ziyad imprisoned the captives and did not kill ‘Ali but sent them to Yazid with the head of Husayn. Although ibn Yazid mocked ‘Ali and Zaynab he eventually allowed them to return to Medina.

Al-Hurr at Tamimi
He was the young commander of a 1000-strong military detachment who intercepted Husayn’s party as it approached Kufa. But on the morning of Ahsura, Hurr was one of the 32 troops once loyal to Yazid who switched sides when faced with the emotive words of Husayn and the enormity of act of violence he was about to commit. He was one of the first martyr to fall fighting to protect Husayn. His shrine now lies in Karbala, Iraq.

Muslim ibn Aqeel
He was Husayn’s cousin who was sent ahead as an envoy to Kufa to see if the people could be trusted to be loyal. He sent word back saying that the Kufans were loyal but was murdered by the governor Ziyad who was loyal to ibn Yazid.

Al – Abbas
‘Abbas was the half-brother of Husayn who was given the title of water bearer (Saqqa) and was killed at Karbala when he was ambushed whilst trying to get badly needed water to his brother and his followers. His shrine, as with Husayn’s, is in Karbala.


“A person like me can never pay allegiance to a person like him” – Imam Husayn

Islam includes two main branches, the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. The main difference revolves around the contentious question of who has the authority to rule over the Islamic community.

In Shi’a law, the legitimate ruler and the one who will hold the position as leader of the Islamic community (Caliphate) must be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. Husayn, who was martyred at Karbala, was thought by many to be the rightful leader of Islam. His position as Caliph had been usurped by the political ruler Yazid.

Faced with this aberration, Husayn refused to pay allegiance (Bay’at) to Yazid which lead to the massacre at Karbala. This tragedy was then intimately bound up with the question of legitimate authority and the right to rule. In order to understand how Husyan arrived in Karbala we need to go back to the Prophet’s death and the resulting crisis of the Caliphate. Only then can we truly understand what Muharram is all about.

When the Prophet Mohammad died in 11AH/632CE his followers were distraught and confused. Some even renounced Islam. Abu Bakr father of Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, called out to the assembled in the Medina mosque and said, “O people, those of you who worshipped Mohammad, Mohammad has died. And those of you who worshipped God, God is still living”.

Sunnis believe that the Prophet had died without naming a successor whilst Shi’a believe that he appointed his son-in-law, ‘Ali. There was much debate about who would lead the Islamic community (Ummah). This went to the very heart of the question of whether the ruler should be political or religious. To the Sunni Muslims the leader of the Ummah was more political than religious; and to the Shi’a Muslims the position of the leader (Caliph) was more religious and spiritual.

Following the Prophet’s death, an assembly of Muslims nominated Abu Bakr as Caliph. This was a political rather than the religious appointment but there were many Muslims who disagreed with this model believing that the Caliphate should also be the spiritual head of the Ummah.

Furthermore, the only man that they recognised as embodying these two roles was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. Those supporters of ‘Ali became known as the Shi’a. Indeed, the word Shi’a is an abbreviation of “Shi’at Ali” meaning “the party of ‘Ali”.

However, there were to be three Caliphates before ‘Ali, namely Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman who had all been close companions of the Prophet.

‘Ali’s Caliphate began in 35AH/656CE, 24 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. He was the first Shi’a Imam, which for Shi’a represented the true successor of the Prophet Mohammad.

The belief that the leader of Islam after the Prophet had to be a direct relative stems from the Divine Scriptures which bestow the role of executorship and successorship of a Prophet to his immediate household thereby keeping alive a pure, endless chain of righteous servants leading up to the first of them, Adam.The importance of a true descendent of the Prophet, ‘Ali, leading the people cannot be underestimated for Shi’a Muslims. For Shi’a then only ‘Ali and not the previous three Caliphs fitted these criteria. It was the usurpation of ‘Ali’s rights that is looked upon by Shi’a as the event initiating their movement.

‘Ali’s succession to the Caliphate was accepted by the majority of Muslims. He was revered by Sunnis and Shi’a alike even Umar the second Caliph regarded him as the “best of judges” and for Shi’a the brief period of his Caliphate is looked upon as the Golden Age when the Muslim community was led by the divinely-chosen Imam.

Ali’s rule as the fourth Caliph and the first Shi’a Immam ended in 40AH/661CE with his assassination in a mosque in Kufa. With Ali’s death the Caliphate passed to Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria and the son of Mohammad’s most powerful enemy, rather than Ali’s sons Husan and Husayn, the grandchildren of the Prophet.

Shi’a opposed Muawiya’s appointment, they considered Ali’s son Hasan to have become the second Imam after the death of his father. But from a political point of view in order to avoid bloodshed Hasan had little choice but to abdicate and give up the Caliphate to the powerful rival Mu’awiya.

Hasan signed a peace treaty with Mu’awiya guaranteeing the family’s safety. When he died in 49AH/669CE Hasan’s younger brother, Husayn became the leader of the Prophet’s household and for the Shi’a, the third Imam.

Mu’awiya broke with tradition by deciding to nominate his own son Yazid to be his successor, the next Caliph. By doing so he established the first Islamic monarchy, the Umayyads. The Caliphate passed to Yazid instead of the Prophet’s progeny which many pious Muslims found offensive, especially as Yazid was a drunkard who openly flouted the laws of Islam.

As opposition to Yazid grew the people of Kufa began to stir and soon there were calls urging Husayn to come to Kufa and assume leadership. Hasayn set out with an army of 50 men and a number of women and children (numbers range from 70-200). Yazid got wind of this plan and instructed his delegate ‘Ubaydu’llah ibm Ziyad to take control of Kufa and kill anyone who dared revolt against him.

Due to the terror and bribery that Ziyad wielded over the Kufans most of them rescinded their pledges of support for Husayn. It fell to al – Hurr at -Tamimi, the young commander of a 1000-strong military detachment to intercept Husayn’s party before they entered Kufa. After negotiations, Husayn agreed to proceed in a direction away from Kufa travelling instead to the plain of Karbala, arriving on the second day of Muharram in the year 61AH/680CE.

On the following day Husayn was met by some 4,000 men sent from Ziyad with the instructions that they should not allow Husayn to leave alive until he had signed a pledge of allegiance to Yazid. This was something that his father Mu’awiya had never asked of the house of the Prophet and it was something that the Imam could not and would not do.

Yazid stood as the embodiment of corruption and treachery. He defiled Islamic law and had no respect for Muslim traditions. Faced with this, Husayn would not pledge allegiance to Yazid and he and his family were left to fight and die for their principles.


The captives were taken to Kufa where Zaynab, Husayn’s sister is defiant in the face of ibn Ziyad, one of battlefield commanders. They are forced to travel to Damascus where Yazid gloats over the head of Husayn and insults Ali and Zaynab, the only family who survived the massacre at Karbala. They are later released and allowed to return to Medina after Yazid begins to fear the backlash as news of the massacre spreads.

Karbala was a watershed for Yazid. The bloodbath at Karbala, the imprisonment of the women and children of the Household of the Prophet, their parading in chains from town to town, and the speeches made by Zaynab, Husayn’s sister, all contributed to the end of Yazid’s rule and the overthrow of the dynasty Muawiyah founded.

Whilst it would seem that the birth of Shi’a can be linked to the assertion that only ‘Ali could succeed Mohammad as Caliph, the tragedy of Karbala revitalised the official Shi’a movement. The tragedy played an enormous role in the galvanising of Shi’a identity. The fate of Husayn was destined to become the most important agent in the propagation and comparatively rapid spread of Shi’a Islam.

In giving his life, Husayn ensured the survival of his faith.

The holy city of Karbala, situated 100 km south of Baghdad, derives its name from the ancient Babylonian meaning “sacred place of God” from the two shrines it houses of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Husayn and his brother ‘Abbas.

The brothers and 72 of their followers were massacred here by troops loyal to Caliph Yazid some 1300 years ago. This event had far-reaching effects for Islam, led to the downfall of the Umayyad dynasty and consolidated the Shi’a identity. Commemoration of this event at Karbala is one the most important events in the Shi’a calendar.

For Shi’a Muslims Karbala is second only to Mecca and possibly Najaf as a sacred site and millions of the faithful throughout history have flocked to the shrines of Husayn and ‘Abbas especially during the month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of their “Master of Martyrs”.

But Karbala has a long history as a sacred city. On the edge of the Syrian desert, this trading town has a rich history going back to Babylonian times when it was used as a Christian graveyard.

Construction of the present city of Karbala began on 12th Muharram 61AH/680CE when the people from the local Bani Asad tribe buried the bodies of Husayn and his companions on the spot where the massacre had occurred.

Over the years, the burial place became known as a shrine and Muslim rulers constructed a dome, galleries, gardens and a mosque around the tomb. Defensive walls followed to protect the city.

The tombs of Husayn and his doomed supporters with their lofty minarets became a symbol of grace and hope for the destitute. They also transformed Karbala into a thriving oasis town and a focus of Shi’a scholarship in Iraq.

Not everyone shared the Shi’a reverence for the final resting place of Husayn and his followers which have been subjected to numerous acts of vandalism.

The original shrine was destroyed by the ‘Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil in 235AH/850CE and the site ploughed over. After the death of this Caliph, a shrine of some sort was again erected but the bulk of the present shrine probably dates from the time of ‘Adudu’d-Dawla, the Buyid prince, 369AH/979CE. The building was subjected to further violations including the dome burning down in the 11th century.

The most serious damage to the shrine was inflicted by the Wahhabis in 1801 and the Ottoman army under Najib Pasha in 1843 when Karbala was sacked and the tombs of Husayn and ‘Abbas stripped of all their gold and precious ornaments. This was quickly restored by contributions from Persians and other Shi’a Muslims.

The last important restoration of the shrine occurred at the behest of Nasiru ‘d-Din Shah in the 1850s when the dome was gilded and other important structural work carried out. The enclosed area around the shrine is called the Ha’ir and is strictly off limits to non-believers.

In addition to the Shrine of Husayn lies the equally imposing Shrine of ‘Abbas, the half brother of Husayn, where he and the other members of the family of ‘Ali are said to have been buried.



Muharram commemorates the events that took place in Karbala in 61AH/680CE which culminated in the massacre of Husayn and his followers.

As a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad Imam Husayn was considered by Shi’a Muslims to be their spiritual leader and their tradition dictated he should lead the Islamic community as Caliph (political and spiritual leader).

But when Husayn was to have assumed the Caliphate his claim was dismissed by the then ruling Caliph, Mu’awiyah, the son of one of the Prophet’s enemies. He claimed that his superior military strength, political abilities and age made him a better candidate than either Hasan (Husayn’s older brother) or Husayn himself.

On Mu’awiyah’s death, the Caliphate passed to his son Yazid who required Hasan and Husayn to pay homage (Bay’at) to him as rightful leader.

Husayn was unwilling to swear allegiance to Yazid and decided to travel to Kufa in Iraq to lead his supporters there against the Caliphate.

Yazid ordered an army to intercept Husayn and stop him from reaching Kufa. The martyr’s family and supporters got as far as Karbala before they were surrounded by a large number of Yazid’s troops.

Husayn, still refusing to swear allegiance to an authority he did not believe was legitimate, faced a desperate situation. His party of 72 armed men, 18 family members and 54 supporters were stranded in the harsh desert without water or supplies.

Desperate to avoid bloodshed, Husayn put his case to Yazid’s generals over eight long days, appealing to their sense of humanity and faith to no avail.

At dawn on the 10th day – Ashura – after Husayn addressed his followers for the last time, Yazid’s troops fired arrows at the camp and the battle was underway.

Hopelessly outnumbered Husayn’s followers were unable to resist the onslaught, one by one all of the men fell including Husayn, his brother ‘Abbas had been killed earlier, only the women and children were spared.

Husayn was decapitated, his body mutilated and trampled by horses. After the troops left, the desert people around what was to become Karbala retrieved Husayn and ‘Abbas’ bodies and buried them. Pilgrims have come to Karbala ever since and it is now one of the most important Shi’a shrines in the world.

Taken from http://www.aimislam.com


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