The Battle of Karbala was a military engagement that took place on 10 Muharram, 61 A.H. (October 10, 680) in Karbala (present day Iraq) between the Prophets of Islam, led by Muhammad’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali, and a military detachment from the forces of Yazid I, the second Umayyad caliph. The battle is often marked as the event that separated Sunni and Shi’a Islam.
The Battle of Karbala is particularly central to Shi’a Muslim belief. In Shi’a Islam, the martyrdom of Husayn is mourned by an annual commemoration, called Ashurah. They represent the battle as one between good and evil, light and darkness with evil winning. Yazid becomes the epitome of evil. Yazid is by no means an heroic figure among Sunnis, who regard his appointment as caliph as irregular and generally see him as a secular ruler. Karbala itself, some Shi’a say, will eventually be raised to paradise as the dwelling place of prophets and saints.
The battle was a defining moment in Islamic history. It has been described as “indescribably tragic” and as “casting its shadow over all subsequent Muslim history” (Bennett 1998, 149). Shi’a believe that, with the exception of one Imam (inspired leader of the community, male descendant of Muhammad), all were martyred. Subsequently, what has been called the “Karbala paradigm” emerged. This refers to a profound “sense of sectarian uniqueness, of group loyalty, faith in the leadership, readiness for sacrifice” and to the view that somehow Shi’a history “went awry at the source” (Ahmed 2002, 56-57). The Battle of Karbala is viewed differently by Sunni and Shi’a. Both regard it as deeply tragic but for Shi’a it marks the definitive point of departure from Sunni Islam, although history has seen many efforts to re-unite these two main strands of Islam.
Background and summary
After the death of Muhammad, there was dissension within the Muslim community as to who should succeed him. Most of the community eventually accepted the rule of the caliph Abu Bakr and then of the caliphs Umar al-Khattab and Umar ibn al-Khattab. However, there were always those who felt that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law was the better choice. A few years later, when the caliph Uthman was killed by dissident rebels, Ali became the next caliph. However, he was challenged by a faction affiliated with Uthman and the community fell into the First Islamic civil war. Ali was assassinated and power was eventually grasped by his opponent Muawiya I.
Muawiya tried to ensure that his son, Yazid, would be accepted as the next caliph. Contrary to previous processes for choosing a caliph, Muawiya required all his supporters to pledge their allegiance to Yazid I before his own death. This was also controversial because Yazid was perceived as a hedonistic sinner by some of the Muslim community. Meanwhile, Husayn, the son of Ali, was seen as the embodiment of the virtues and qualities impressed by Muhammad and the Qur’an. Upon ascension to the throne, Yazid wrote a letter to the governor of Medina, asking him to demand allegiance from his rival Husayn or to threaten him with death.
Gathering his supporters, Husayn set out from Medina with about one hundred friends and family members. He is said to have received letters from the Muslims from the garrison town of Kufa saying that they would support him if he claimed the caliphate. On his journey, Husayn was intercepted by a force from Yazid’s army. The Battle of Karbala ensued, in which Husayn and all of his men were killed, and his remaining family taken prisoner.
This version of events attempts to relate matters as documented by scholars.
Account of the battle
A military dispatch sent by Yazid surrounded the family and supporters of Husayn ibn Ali. A battle ensued which ended with Husayn and his entire force falling as casualties. Because of the centrality of martyrdom to Shi’a Islam and the questions of authority in Sunni and Shi’a Islam, many of the details attributed to the event are disputed.
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, their claim to 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 that Husayn would try to reassert his claims. Therefore he sent an emissary to Husayn demanding his pledge of allegiance, his bay’ah. Husayn believed that he had a duty to refuse to do so, and wanted to flee from Medina to Mecca before he could be seized.
When letters came from Kufa assuring him of Kufan support, Husayn set out to raise his banner and stake his claim. On his way towards Kufa, word came to Husayn that Yazid had sent a new governor, Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad, with an army, and that the Kufans had surrendered rather than fight.
Nevertheless, 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 and martyrdom, 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 72 men—finally pitched camp at Karbala, close to the city of Kufa in present-day Iraq.
Husayn is surrounded
Yazid’s governor, Ibn Ziyad, is said by the Shi’a to have sent a huge force 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’s rebellion or face death himself.
On the seventh day of the month of Muharram, Ibn Sa’ad moved his troops closer to Husayn’s camp, cutting it off from the Euphrates River. The camp now had no supply of water and, they hoped, would be forced to surrender from thirst.
Choice between life and death
On the ninth day of Muharram, the camp had exhausted its water stores and could choose only between surrender and death. Husayn asked Ibn Sa’ad for yet another delay, until the next morning. Again, Ibn Sa’ad granted his 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 the battle
The next day, Husayn’s followers went to the front lines and one by one, addressed those whom they knew who were part of the enemy forces, asking them to lay down their arms. 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 hastened to start the battle.
One by one, men loyal to Husayn men such as 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. Other 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 said to have huddled in tents, waiting for the battle to end. Husayn’s son Imam Ali ibn Husayn was with them, because he is said to have been too ill to fight.
Husayn had his infant son Ali Asghar, who was six months old and close to death from lack of water, in his arms when he 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, who 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 a temporary retreat. Eventually, however, Husayn’s force dwindled. He was attacked and eventually killed by a man named Shimr ibn Dhil-Jawshan, one of Umar ibn Sa’ad’s commanders, who approached Husayn and beheaded him.
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 Karbala to Kufa, and from Kufa to Damascus, Husayn’s sister Zainab bint Ali and son Ali ibn Husayn gave various speeches that vilified Yazid and told the Muslim world of the various atrocities committed in Karbala. After being brought to Yazid’s court, Zainab 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 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 Shi’a commemoration of Ashurah thus began and has persisted to this day.
List of casualties as accepted by the Shi’a
- Hussain ibn Ali
- Abduallah ibn Muslim
- Muhammad ibn Muslim
- Jaffar ibn Aqeel
- Abdul Rehman ibn Aqeel
- Abduallah ibn Aqeel
- Moosa ibn Aqeel
- Aun bin Abdullah
- Mohammed bin Abdullah
- Qasim ibn Hassan
- Abdullah ibn Al-Hassan
- Abdullah bin Ali
- Usman bin Ali
- Jafar bin Ali
- Abbas ibn Ali (Husayn’s half brother)
- Ali Akbar ibn Husayn
- Muhammad Ibee Saeed bin Aqeel
- Ali Asghar ibn Hussain
- Hurr (the officer who changed sides)
- Habib ibn Mazahir
Shi’a say that there were 72 victims in all.
The 10th of Muharram, the day of the battle, is commemorated by Shi’a Muslims as Ashurah. It is a day of speeches, public processions, and great grief. Men chant and beat their chests, 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 readily associated with Shi’a culture.
Size of army that surrounded Husayn’s force
Shi’a writers say that that Yazid’s army was 30,000 strong, and that all 30,000 men surrounded Husayn and his 72 men. However, there is no way to corroborate these numbers and it is likely that they are formulaic, meaning to indicate a vast force of men which outnumbered Husayn’s small group of supporters.