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The Battle of Karbala

The Battle of Karbala

The Battle of Karbala was a military engagement that took place on 10 Muharram, 61 AH (October 10, 680) in Karbala, in present day Iraq, between the prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn ibn Ali and a military detachment from the forces of Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph. This battle is central to Shi'a Muslim belief. The martrydom of Husayn is mourned by an annual commemoration, Ashurah.

Background and summary

After the passing on of Muhammad, there was some dissension in the Muslim community as to who should succeed him. This is described in detail in the article on the Succession to Muhammad. The community eventually accepted the rule of the caliph Abu Bakr and then of the caliphs Umar al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan. However, there were always those who felt that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, who had lived with Muhammad since he was a child, was the better choice. When Uthman was killed by rebels, Ali became the next caliph. However, he was not accepted by all Muslims and the community fell into the First Islamic civil war. Ali was assassinated and power was eventually grasped by his opponent Muawiya I.

Muawiyya tried to ensure that his son, Yazid, would be accepted as the next caliph. He required all his supporters to swear allegiance to Yazid before his death. Upon ascension to the throne, Yazid wrote a letter to the governor of Medina, asking him to demand allegiance from Husayn or threaten him with death. Husayn is said to have received letters from the Muslims of the garrison town of Kufa saying that they would support him if he claimed the caliphate. Accordingly, he left Medina for Kufa with about 100 supporters and family members. However, Husayn's supporters at Kufa, whose numbers may have been seriously overestimated by Husayn, were suppressed before he could reach them, and he was intercepted by a force from Yazid's army. The Battle of Karbala ensued, in which Husayn and all his men were killed, and his remaining family taken prisoner.

The reason this is a controversial breaking point between Sunnis and Shias is because Sunnis believe in the Uprightness of all Sahaba while Shias only trust in the infallible righteousness of the Ahlulbayt. This version of events attempts to remain neutral between the Sunni and Shi'a accounts and to report only such matters as are accepted not only by both sides, but by academic historians.

Account of the battle accepted by non-Muslim academics

A police force, consisting of a several thousand men from the governor's picked troups, or shurta, plus 500 archers, surrounded the family and supporters of Husayn ibn Ali,. The battle ended with Husayn and his entire force falling as casualties. Many of the details attributed to the event are disputed. For example, the Encyclopædia Britannica states that "the facts gradually acquired a romantic and spiritual colouring."

Shi'a version

According to Shi'a historians, Muhammad had charged Ali ibn Abi Talib, and after him Ali's sons Hasan and Husayn, with the duty to lead the Muslim community. However, power was usurped by others. When Muawiya I died, there was again an opportunity for the proper authority to be established. Yazid I, the new ruler, feared lest Husayn should try to assert his claims. Therefore he sent an emissary to Husayn demanding his submission, his bay'ah. Husayn believed that he had a duty to refuse submission, and left from Medina to Mecca to perform the Hajj ritual. When letters came from Kufa assuring him of Kufan support, Husayn set out to raise his banner and stake his claim. Part of the way towards Kufa, word came that Yazid had sent a new governor, Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad, with an army, and that the Kufans had submitted rather than fight. Husayn continued to advance toward Kufa after receiving news of the loss of Kufan support. The Shi'a belief is that he did so in the spirit of self-sacrifice, knowing that he would die and that his death would demonstrate the evil of Yazid's worldly rule. He and his family and his supporters -- a mere seventy two men -- finally pitched camp at Karbala, close to the city of Kufa in what is now Iraq.

Husayn is surrounded

Yazid's governor, ibn Ziyad, is said by the Shi'a to have sent an army of 30,000 men against Husayn. They surrounded his camp and then opened negotiations with Husayn. The leader of the force, Umar ibn Sa'ad, finally agreed to Husayn's proposal that the siege be lifted so that Husayn, his family, and his companions could leave Iraq. He sent word to his superiors, asking them to ratify the offer. The governor, ibn Ziyad, liked the proposal, but another Umayyad grandee, Shimr ibn Dhil-Jawshan, vetoed it. Umar ibn Sa'ad was commanded to destroy Husayn or be killed himself. On the 7th of the month of Muharram, ibn Sa'ad moved his troops closer to Husayn's camp, cutting the camp off from the Euphrates River. The camp now had no supply of water and might be forced to surrender from thirst.

Choice between life and death

On the 9th of Muharram, the camp had exhausted its water and could choose only between surrender and death. Husayn asked ibn Sa'ad for yet more delay, until the next morning, so that he and his men could spend the night praying. Again, ibn Sa'ad granted this request. Husayn then told his men that he did not intend to surrender, but to fight. Since they were so heavily outnumbered, all of them were sure to die. He told them that if they wished to flee the camp in the middle of the night, rather than face certain death, they were free to do so. None of Husayn's men wished to defect.

Day of battle

The next day, Husayn's followers went to the front lines and one by one, addressed their relatives and friends in the enemy forces. They asked them to refuse to fight. Husayn himself addressed the enemy troops. The Shi'a say that his speech was so affecting that one of Yazid's generals, named Hurr, abandoned Yazid's army and joined Husayn's small force. Ibn Sa'ad feared that this might be the first of many defections, therefore hurried to join battle. He shot an arrow towards Husayn and the unequal battle began. First Husayn's friends and followers went out to battle. One by one, loyal men like Hurr, Habib ibn Mazahir, Muslim ibn Ausaja, and Zohair-e-Qain, many of whom were once close companions of Ali ibn Abu Talib, laid down their lives. Then came the relatives' turn. The men of Banu Hashim, the clan of Muhammed and Ali, went out one by one. Casualties included Abbas, the half-brother and flag-bearer of Husayn, Ali Akbar, son of Husayn, Qasim, son of Hasan ibn Ali and nephew of Husayn, and Aun and Muhammad, the sons of Zainab bint Ali.

The women and children were huddled in the tents, waiting for the battle to end. Husayn's son Imam Ali ibn Husayn was there among the women, because he was too ill to fight. Another son, Ali Asghar, was but six months old, and close to death from lack of water. Husayn took the child in his arms and marched out to face Yazid's army. He asked for water for the child. But Hurmala ibn Kahil, on orders of Umar ibn Sa'ad, shot an arrow at the child. It pierced him in the neck and he died in the arms of his father. Husayn buried his son and again went out to face the army. He is said to have demonstrated extreme courage and bravery, forcing the enemy into retreat. Eventually, however, as the time for the Asr prayer approached, Husayn desisted. As he dismounted from his steed to offer the prayer, he was attacked by arrows and spears, even though Yazid's army was still too shaken to approach him. However, he began his prayer. As he prostrated on the ground, Shimr ibn Dhil-Jawshan, one of Umar ibn Sa'ad's commanders, approached Husayn and cut off his head. Husayn's head was raised on a spear for all to see. The men took off all valuables from his person, leaving the corpse semi-naked.


Husayn's head was raised on a pike for all to see. His body was looted and then trampled by horsemen. As night approached, Yazid's army advanced to Husayn's tents. They were looted and set on fire. Jewelry and veils (hijab) were taken from the women, and the children were beaten. The next day, the women and children were loaded on camels and taken to Yazid's court in Damascus via Kufa. The Shi'a say that the captives were humiliated and harried, so that fatigue, hunger, and thirst were added to their grief at the death of Husayn and his men. Yazid believed that by doing so, he could humiliate and ridicule them to the point where Husayn's followers would lose all public support.

However, during the journey from Kerbala to Kufa, and from Kufa to Damascus, Husayn's sister Zaynab bint Ali and son Ali ibn Husayn gave various speeches that vilified Yazid and told the Muslim world of the various atrocities committed in Kerbala. After being brought to Yazid's court, Zaynab courageously gave a famous speech in which she denounced Yazid's claim to the caliphate and eulogized Husayn's uprising.

The prisoners were held in Damascus for a year, during which Husayn's 4 year old daughter, Sakina bint Husayn, is believed to have passed away due to grief and sorrow. The people of Damascus began to frequent the prison, and Zaynab and Ali ibn Husayn used that as an opportunity to further propagate the message of Husayn and explain to the people the reason for Husayn's uprising. As public opinion against Yazid began to foment in Syria and parts of Iraq, Yazid ordered their release and return to Medina, where they continued to tell the world of Husayn's cause and Yazid's atrocities. The Shiites' commemoration of Ashurah thus began and has persisted to this day.

Shi'a observances

The Battle is commemorated each year by Shia Muslims (and often Sunni Muslims also) in the Remembrance of Muharram. The mourning reaches its climax on the 10th of Muharram, the day of the battle, known as Ashurah. It is a day of speeches, public processions, and great grief. Men and women chant and weep, mourning Husayn, his family, and his followers. Speeches emphasize the importance of the values for which Husayn sacrificed himself, his family, and his followers. As a result, resisting oppression, siding with the oppressed, and speaking out against tyranny have become values that are deeply upheld by the Shia.

In South Asia, the Battle of Karbala has inspired a number of literary and musical genres, produced by both Shias and Sunnis, such as marsiya, noha and soaz.

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