The Tragedy of Kerbala

Commemorate Imam Hussain (as)This weekend marks the start of the month of Muharram, the first month of the new Islamic year, 1428 AH. However, for many Muslims, particularly the Shia, this is not a time for celebrating. On the contrary hearts are filled with sadness and grief as they commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), a grandson of the Prophet (s), who was killed by the Caliph’s army during Muharram 61 AH (October 680 AD), in the city of Kerbala, Iraq. This article provides a summary of the tragedy of Kerbala, and attempts to explain why over 1300 years later, millions of Muslims across the world continue to commemorate this heartbreaking occasion.


In 656 AD, the 3rd Caliph, Uthman (ra), was assassinated by insurgents. This horrible incident, once again opened up the old rift between two rival clans, the Umayyads and the Bani Hashims. Uthman (ra) had belonged to the former whereas his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib (as), the Prophet’s (s) cousin and son-in-law, came from the latter.

Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan, the governor of Syria, who was now the head of the Umayyad clan (of which the murdered Caliph belonged), refused to pay allegiance to Ali (as), so in an effort to vindicate his authority, Ali (as) engaged Muawiya’s army.

The will to fight was weak as neither side wanted to spill the blood of fellow Muslims. Eventually, Ali (as), was forced into a ceasefire from a winning position by members of his own army. An agreement was reached to refer their dispute to two arbitrators, one from each side. It is claimed that where Ali (as) chose a neutral arbitrator, Muawiya choose someone that would look after his best interests.

In the end, the arbitrators came to an unexpected decision. They announced that both Muawiya and Ali (as) should step down and a new Caliph be elected.

Ali (as) and his followers were shocked; they expected the arbitration would merely be a formal recognition of Ali’s (as) Caliphate. However, from Muawiya’s point of view this was a psychological coup, as he had now raised his political status to the same level as Ali (as), when in fact he was simply a rebel subordinate.

Soon after the arbitration, a group of puritan zealots among Ali’s (as) supporters felt that due to Ali (as) agreeing to the arbitration, the whole concept of the Caliphate had been discredited. They revolted against him forming a separate party, the Kharijites. It was a Kharijite that was responsible for the murder of Ali (as) in 661 AD.

After Ali’s (as) death, his elder son, Hasan (as), was declared to be the legitimate successor to the Caliphate. Muawiya, who had proclaimed himself Caliph the year before, successfully persuaded Hasan (as) to abdicate.

Hasan (as) increasingly unwilling to take the Muslim community into yet another civil war accepted the terms offered by Muawiya, which included the fact that Muawiya would not nominate a successor.

Hasan (as), who is considered by the Shia as their 2nd Imam (Ali (as) being the first) passed away in 669 AD. The Imamate was passed on to his younger brother Hussain (as).

During Muawiya’s Caliphate, the Islamic empire saw many violations of human rights as Muawiya heavily suppressed any dissidence.

The Death of Muawiya and Succession of Yazid

In 680 AD, Muawiya died after a reign of 20 years, and Yazid, having already been nominated by his father, was acclaimed in Damascus as Caliph. Thus, for the first time, the hereditary principle was introduced into the Caliphate, abolishing the principle of seniority and the elective system.

The Shia urged Hussain (as) to challenge the Caliphate, as they believe that only the progeny of the Prophet (s) can rightfully hold the position of Caliph. But Hussain (as) declined, claming that he was not interested in worldly power.

Yazid, like his father dealt harshly with anyone who dared to say anything against him. He was also egotistical and favoured those worthless people who flattered him, installing them as governors and leaders in the mosques.

Dark times enveloped the empire; the chastity of women was no longer safe, with their dignity at the mercy of Yazid’s brutal soldiers. Marriage lost its sanctity, as did the protection of women. If a woman was desired by men of the government, deceitful measures were adopted to force the husband to divorce his wife so that she could be made available to these shameless men.

Human rights were denied and the laws of religion were openly defied by Yazid, who remained in a constant state of intoxication. There was no protection for life or property and looting and persecution was freely practised in the political interests of the state.

Ibn Kathir, the 14th century Sunni Shafi’i Islamic scholar, wrote in his book Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah (The Beginning and the End):

“Traditions inform us that Yazid loved worldly vices… not a day would go by when he was not in a drunken state.”

“Muslims were ordered to ransack Medina for three days. Yazid committed a major sin. Sahaba and their children were slaughtered openly; other heinous acts were also perpetuated.”

Ibn Taymiya, another Sunni 14th century scholar of the Hanbali Salafi mahdab, and author of Minhaj as-Sunnah an-Nabawiyyah (The Pathway of as-Sunnah an-Nabawiyyah), writes:

“Yazid had the sword and hence he had the power to deal with anyone that opposed him. He had the power to reward his subjects with the contents of the treasury, and could also withhold their rights. He had the power to punish criminals; it is in this context that we can understand that he was the Caliph and king. Issues such as Yazid’s piety or lack of it, or his honesty or lack of it, is another matter. In all of his actions Yazid was not just; there is no dispute amongst the people of Islam on this matter.”

Shortly into Yazid’s reign, Yazid sent orders to Walid, his governor in Medina, to demand the oath of allegiance (bay’at) from Imam Hussain (as), who never offered his bay’at to Muawiya. The orders stated that if Hussain (as) refused, his head should be cut off and sent to Yazid in Damascus.

On receipt of the orders, Walid sent his servant to Hussain (as) requesting a meeting.

When Hussain informed his family of the invitation, they were very worried. His sisters, Lady Zainab (as) and Lady Umme Kulthum (as) asked Hussain (as) to take along the youth of Bani Hashim, for protection. Imam Hussain (as) reluctantly allowed his brother Abbas (as) and his son Ali Akbar (as) to accompany him.

When they reached the governor’s house the next morning, Hussain (as) asked the men to remain at the door.

Walid greeted Hussain (as) with respect and offered him a seat beside him. He then read out the letter he had received from Yazid. Imam Hussain (as) responded “Oh Walid, invite the Muslims of Medina tomorrow and ask them if they say I should pay allegiance to Yazid, and then let us decide.”

Walid accepted this reply, but Marwan, the old enemy of Islam who the Holy Prophet (s) had expelled from Medina, said, “Do not let Hussain out of your grip now. Cut off his head here and now and do not let this opportunity pass or you will not get it again.”

Hussain (as) put his hand on his sword and said aloud, “Oh enemy of Allah, will you or Walid touch my head?” On hearing the raised voice of Hussain (as), the young men of Bani Hashim burst into the court room. Abbas (as), who was well known for his skill in combat, had already drawn his sword. Hussain (as) managed to calm down his companions, averting a situation which would have certainly resulted in bloodshed.

Hussain (as) refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, knowing full well that giving bay’at to him would leave Islam and the Muslims in ruins. His famous answer to Walid was,

“A man like me can never give allegiance to a man like him.”

After this confrontation with Walid, the life of Hussain (as) was in danger. So he reluctantly decided to leave Medina. The people of the city could not bear the loss of their dear Imam whose appearance, manner and speech reminded them so much of the Holy Prophet (s).

Imam Hussain Departs Medina for Mecca

Groups of people repeatedly approached Hussain (as) begging him not to go and to ask him why he was leaving. Hussain (as) explained that because of his refusal to give bay’at to Yazid, the tyrant would not hesitate to make Medina a battlefield, and Hussain (as) did not want the bloodshed of innocent Muslims in the city of his grandfather. Therefore, he would go to Mecca for pilgrimage and decide what to do after that. So Imam Hussain (as) left Medina with a small caravan of relatives and companions.

His parting words, and indeed a summary of his mission, were:

“I am not rising (against Yazid) as an insolent or an arrogant person, or a mischief-monger or tyrant. I have risen (against Yazid) as I seek to reform the Ummah of my grandfather. I wish to enjoin the good and forbid the evil.”

Hussain (as) arrive in Mecca on 3rd Shaban 60 AH. While he waited for the Hajj season, messengers approached him requesting that he come to the rescue of Islam.

Many of the messengers were from Kufa (a city born out of a military garrison) and begged Hussain (as) to come to their aid. So Hussain (as) sent his cousin, Muslim bin Aqeel (ra) to Kufa to evaluate the situation there.

When Muslim bin Aqeel (ra) first arrived in Kufa, he was given a very warm reception and thousands of people swore the oath of allegiance to Imam Hussain (as) at Muslim’s hands. He was impressed by the enthusiasm and assurances of the people, so he immediately wrote a letter to the Imam (as) advising him to come to Kufa.

By now, Yazid had received news that Imam (as) was in Mecca for Hajj. He therefore hired 30 men to kill Hussain (as), even if he was within the boundaries of the Holy Ka’ba.

Hussain (as) learnt of the assassination plot at the same time as word arrived from Muslim (ra) that it was safe to go to Kufa, so Hussain (as) performed the shorter Umrah instead of Hajj and departed Mecca, thus avoiding bloodshed on its sacred ground.

Meanwhile, Yazid discovered what was happening in Kufa and so sent Ubaidullah ibne Ziyad as his governor to Kufa with instructions to force the people to withdraw their support for Hussain (as).

At the time of evening prayers, the following message was announced: “The Caliph Yazid will consider anyone who is found associating with Muslim bin Aqeel, the deputy of Hussain, to be a rebel. By way of punishment, such people will be hanged; their families put to sword and their property confiscated. If anyone has extended any help to him up to now, no harm will come to him as long as the support is withdrawn immediately.” The fickle people of Kufa withdrew their support, and Muslim (ra) was executed by Ubaidullah before he was able to send news of the betrayal to Imam Hussain (as).

Hussain (as) Heads for Kufa

Several military parties had been despatched to find Hussain (as). One such party, led by a famous commander, Hur ibne Yazid ar-Riyahi, met the caravan of Imam Hussain (as) on the 1st of Muharram 61 AH (approximately October 680 AD).

When they met, Hur’s army was exhausted and desperately thirsty. Imam Hussain (as) instructed that water from their stores be provided to Hur’s men and horses.

It was time for noon prayers. Imam Hussain (as) led the Jamaat prayers and Hur’s army also prayed behind him.

After the prayers were over, Imam Hussain (as) addressed Hur and his companions. He reminded them that he was only there in response to their written invitations. He also warned them of the consequences of obeying a man like Yazid, and urged them to refrain from staining their hands with the innocent blood of the family of the Holy Prophet (s).

Hur did not accept these words of advice, and although there was no fighting, he prevented Hussain (as) from continuing to Kufa, or from returning home, and so Hussain (as) and his party were forced to travel into the desert.


On Thursday, 2nd of Muharram 61 AH, Imam Hussain’s party reached Kerbala, where Hussain (as) ordered for the caravan to stop and camp next to the banks of the river Euphrates.

The people living in the area were from the tribe of Bani Asad. Imam Hussain (as) purchased the land from them and then gifted it back to them. He then addressed the men of Bani Asad saying,

“On the tenth of this month you will see our dead bodies lying on this plain with our heads severed and taken away. Please bury us, and when our devotees come to visit our graves, treat them with honour and point out to them the places of our burial.”

He then turned to the women of the tribe and said,

“O virtuous ladies! If your husbands, fearing Yazid, do not bury us, then please encourage them to do so or do it yourselves.”

Finally, he turned to the children of Bani Asad and said,

“O innocent ones! If your parents, out of fear of the ruler, do not bury us then, by way of playing, bring some earth and throw it on our bodies to hide them.”

This heartrending appeal of Imam Hussain (as) made all the listeners weep.

When Ubaidullah ibne Ziyad, Yazid’s governor in Kufa, learnt that Hur had brought Imam Hussain (as) and his companions to Karbala, he sent his troops to surround them. The first man to arrive in Karbala on behalf of Yazid was Amr ibne Sa’ad, who was the commander-in-chief of all the forces. He brought with him 6,000 men. After that, regiment after regiment began to pour in onto the plains of Karbala. Historians all agree that at least 33,000 of Yazid’s men gathered to fight Imam Hussain (as) party, which consisted of 32 horses and between 72 – 110 soldiers.

The first act of the enemy was to order Imam Hussain (as) to remove his tents from near the river. As the enemy threatened to march towards their camp, the lion-hearted Abbas (as) stood firm and drew out his sword shouting, “If anyone dares to advance one more step forward, he shall lay headless on the ground.” His bravery was well known and none dared to step closer.

However, Imam Hussain (as) called to his brother saying, “Brother Abbas, do not let the bloodshed be started by our side. When Allah is with us, it does not matter how far the river is.” Imam Hussain (as) then ordered for their camp to be moved further into the interior of the desert.

In the days that followed there were several meetings between Imam Hussain (as) and Amr ibne Sa’ad. Amr kept on insisting that the only way to stop war was for Imam Hussain (as) to give the oath of allegiance to Yazid. However, Hussain (as) remained firm on his stand and replied: “I shall never yield to the one who does not believe in Allah and one who defies Him, both by words and actions. I am willing to meet any calamity but will never surrender Truth to falsehood.”

On the 7th of Muharram, Amr ibne Sa’ad received orders to block all sources of water to Imam Hussain (as). From that day onwards, not a single drop of water was allowed to reach the camp of Imam Hussain (as). The scorching desert sent heat waves everywhere and the little children began to cry with intense thirst. Even little babies could not receive milk, because their poor mothers were themselves suffering from thirst.

The brave group of Imam Hussain (as) suffered these tortures with patience as they watched the enormous army that faced them prepare for war.

The Night of Ashura

On the 9th of Muharram, Ubaidullah ibne Ziyad sent the order that if Imam Hussain (as) did not surrender and give the oath of allegiance at once, he must be fought and killed immediately.

On receipt of these orders, Amr rallied a part of his army and marched towards the camp of Imam Hussain (as). When Hussain (as) saw the army approaching, he sent Abbas (as) with a request asking for an extension of time until the next morning so that they may spend the night praying and asking for forgiveness. Amr reluctantly granted them respite till the next morning. Thereafter the whole camp busied itself in preparation for the events of the next day. The sound of prayers and supplications filled the air.

The Day of Ashura

The 10th of Muharram 61 AH is known as the day of Ashura. On this day in Karbala, the army of Yazid fought the army of Imam Hussain (as). On this day the members of the Holy Prophet’s (s) household were mercilessly killed.

After the morning prayer, Imam’s (as) followers took it in turns to come forward to address Yazid’s army to try and convince them of the terrible crime they were about to commit.

Finally, Imam Hussain (as) came forward. He introduced himself and informed them that he was a peaceful man, living quietly in Medina and not harming anyone. He asked them why they were so bent on killing the grandson of the Holy Prophet (s), in whom they all believed.

Hussain’s plea made Hur bin Yazid ar-Riyahi realise that he had committed a big sin by siding with Yazid. He went to Imam Hussain (as) and begged for forgiveness.

“I seek penitence from Allah for what I did. Do you think that He will accept it?”

Imam Hussain (as) answered, “Yes, he will accept your repentance.”

Hur then addressed Yazid’s army:

“Oh, people of Kufa! You called on this good servant of God. When he responded, you welcomed him and claimed that you do not mind getting killed to spare him. Then you changed your minds, transgressing against him with a view to killing him. You put a stranglehold on him, stretched his patience, and besieged him to prevent him from seeking a safe haven in Allah’s vast land. He became like a hostage. You denied him, members of his household and companions access to the waters of the River Euphrates from which Jews, Christians, and fire-worshippers drink, and pigs and dogs wade in. Yet Hussain, his family, and companion, are dying of thirst. What misery you inherited the offspring of Mohammad (s)! May Allah not give you drink on the day of thirst.”

Amr refused to listen and declared that all should witness that he was casting the first arrow in battle and he shot an arrow towards Hussain (as). This was the beginning of the battle.

After a few single combats, there was a general attack in the mid-morning. Most of Hussain’s (as) army were killed, although they managed to keep the enemy at bay, until the time for Zuhr prayer. Imam (as) prayed Salatul Khawf (prayers under attack) while the battle continued.

In the afternoon, it was the turn of the family of the Holy Prophet (s), to sacrifice themselves. Ali Akbar (as) was the first to go and within an hour, no adult male remained alive in Imam’s (as) camp except his ill son Ali Zainul Abideen (as) and Hussain (as) himself.

Ali Asghar, Hussain’s (as) 6-month old child, had not had a drink in 3 days and was terribly dehydrated. The Imam held the child in his arms and brought him in front of Yazid’s army.  Concerned that the morale of his troops would be affected by the sight of Ali Asghar, Amr ordered the baby be shot with an arrow. The middle prong of a 3-pronged arrow went straight through Ali Asghar’s neck, and into Hussain’s arm. The baby died instantly.

After burying the baby, it was Asr time when Imam Hussain (as) bid the ladies and children farewell and entered the battle-field. He gave his last speech, once more urging the enemy to consider their actions. Yazid’s army did not want to listen, they wanted to fight.

The Imam (as) killed many of Yazid’s men in one-on-one duels, so they set upon him from every direction. They rained him with arrows. Finally, Imam (as) paused. He was dizzy with the loss of blood. He slid off his horse in a little hollow. Here the enemy found him with his head in Sajdah. The accursed Shimr committed the most terrible of crimes when he beheaded Imam (as).

Inna Lillahi wa Inna Ilayhi Raji’oon.

Hussain’s (as) head was removed from his body on the plains of Kerbala, mounted on a spear, and paraded through villages and towns as it was taken to Damascus and presented at the feet of Yazid.

Why Commemorate the Martyrdom of Hussain (as)?

The story of Imam Hussain represents a conscious confrontation and a courageous resistance for a sacred cause. The whole nation had failed to stand up to Yazid, whose actions were regressing the Ummah back towards the pre-Islamic age of ignorance.

Passiveness by Hussain (as) in this situation would have meant the end of Islam as we know it. Thus Hussain (as) took upon himself the responsibility of the whole nation. The greatest tragedy was that, one who stood up for the noblest of causes – the defence of Islam – was cut down in so cruel a manner.

The commemoration of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram every year serves to remind us of the sacrifices of the Prophet (s) and his family (as), and all that they stand for. It also makes us aware of the people, then and now, who have tried to destroy Islam, as well as those who watched, listened, and did nothing.

“Think not of those who are slain in God’s way as dead. Nay, they are living, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord”
The Holy Qur’an 3:169


(s) represents the Arabic phrase “Salla Allah alaihi wa sallam”, meaning “may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him.” It is a standard Muslim expression of love and respect for the Prophet (s).

(as) refers to “Alayhis-salaam” or “Alayhas-salaam”, which means “(Allah’s) peace be with him or her.”

(ra) refers to “Radi Allah anho” meaning “Allah be pleased with him.”


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