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What Really Happened in Karbala?

Published on: 18 September 2018
written by: Raya Shokatfard

What Really Happened in Karbala?
No doubt that Imam Al-Hussein, by giving his life, was teaching Muslim generations to come not to bow down to unworthy rulers
who will do more harm to Islam than good.

One of the most heinous tragedies in Islamic history happened on the day of Ashura.

The love of fame and power by a so called Muslim ruler did not let him spare even the life of the grandson of the Prophet of Islam.

Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein were the two grandsons of Prophet Muhammad.

None of his own sons survived after birth, leaving Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein more beloved to him than anyone else. They were the sons of Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) and Ali, his son-in-law and cousin.

Al-Hussein was born on 4th Hijri (4 years after the Prophet’s migration from Makkah to Madinah).

The love and respect of the Prophet for his two grandsons were so much that even some times when he was in prostration during prayers, his grandchildren would climb on his back and the Prophet would remain in prostration for some time. After completing the prayers, he would lift them onto his lap.

Once, the Prophet was delivering the Friday sermon in the mosque when Hussein entered. The Prophet saw him. He stood down from the pulpit from where he was delivering the sermon, lifted Hussein and placed him against his chest. He would especially pray for his grandchildren:

O Allah, I love both of them, Thou, too, love them similarly. (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet would say:

Whoever loves them loves me and whoever bears a grudge against them bears a grudge against me. Hussein is mine and I am Hussein’s. Whoever loves Hussein will be loved by Allah. (Ibn Majah)

Al-Hussein was blessed with closeness and initial teaching of his grandfather, the Prophet of Islam. The subsequent Caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar looked upon Hussein with respect. In the time of the third Khalifah, Hussein waged war in Tabaristan (or Tapuria). (Ibn Kathir, vol.3, p.45).

During the besiegement of Uthman’s home, Hussein and Al-Hassan were ordered by Ali to guard his home and to keep rebellious people away. (Tarikh Al-Khulafa, Jalaludin Suyuti).

Ali was chosen by people as the 4th. Caliph. Muawiyah rose against him in two battles at the onset of Ali’s Caliphate. Later, Ali was martyred at the hands of so called Muslims, which were later labeled by Muslim majority as Khawarij or (outsiders).

His son, Al-Hassan became the Caliph after him. Muawiyah rose against him as well. Al-Hassan abdicated after signing a treaty with Muawiyah which would revert the khilafah (caliphate) to Al-Hassan after Muawiyah’s death.

Al-Hassan was poisoned and Muawiyah chose his son Yazid as the next ruler before his death and asked people not to oppose him.

Yazid’s Qualifications

Muawiyah who claimed he was a Caliph after Ali, appointed his son Yazid as his successor. While Al-Hussein understood the true meaning of Islam and was the manifestation of pure faith after his grandfather, Muhammad (peace be upon him), Yazid was known to be shallow in faith and lacked honesty and justice.

He was willing to do whatever it took to gain power, even to the extent of murdering the Prophet’s household.

The Incident of Karbala

Al-Hussein’s intention to go forth and claim Caliphate was by no means a desire to rule.

Upon claiming Caliphate, Yazid ordered all to take pledge of allegiance at his hand. Many willingly or reluctantly took the pledge. However Hussein, Abdullah ibn Zubair and some others, felt that due to Yazid’s impiety, he was not worthy, nor possessed the right to the Caliphate. Yet people were fearful to reject Muawiyah’s order.

At the same time numerous letters were sent from Iraq to Al-Hussein stating a desire to take the pledge of allegiance at his hand. He sent Muslim ibn Aqeel to Kufah to find out about the 18,000 apparently ready to take the pledge of allegiance.

He intended to go to Kufah, but Abdullah ibn Abbas and other elders opposed this decision and warned him of the dangers of doing so. Al-Hussein, after performing Istikhara prayers, decided to go to Kufah.

When Yazid found out that the people of Kufah had taken the pledge of allegiance of Imam Al-Hussein through Muslim ibn Aqeel he sent the governor of Basra, Ibn Ziyaad, to Kufah who ultimately killed Muslim ibn Aqeel.

Standing for Justice

Al-Hussein’s intention to go forth and claim the Caliphate was by no means a desire to rule. However, he saw his duty to protect Islam and stand firmly against someone who was not qualified to rule the Muslims. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the defense of Islam.

Al-Hussein found out about Muslim ibn Aqeel’s murder. Aqeel’s brother went to Kufah to exact revenge. Al-Hussein who was already on the way to Kufah, gave everyone in his group the choice to return. The general public dispersed and only the Ahlu-l-Bait (family of the Prophet) and a few Companions remained – there were in total approximately 72 people in Al-Hussain’s camp. In the meantime, Yazid brought an army of 1,000 soldiers, and wanted to detain Hussein’s group and take them to Kufah.

Those who chose to travel with him knew that once moving on with the journey, the option of returning was no longer possible.

On hearing this, Al-Hussein said, death is better…

On the 3rd. day of the month of Muharram, Ibn Sa’ad arrived with an army of 4,000 men. He read out the directive of Ibn Ziyaad:

“Hussein should come to Kufah and pledge allegiance to Yazid”. (Ibn Kathir)

On hearing this, Hussein said, death is better than this.

On the 7th of Muharram they turned off the water source to Hussein and his family. His family started becoming extremely distressed due to this. In fact, one person from Yazid’s camp could not tolerate this act of cruelty and defected to Imam Hussein’s group.

The threats, starvation, thirst did not deter Hussein and his family to give into a tyrant.

The 10th. of Muharram was the last night of the esteemed delegation of Imam Al-Hussein. Al-Hussein and his people prepared to fight until death. They prepared their weapons and spent the night in deep worship.

Upon seeing his sister Zainab, sadness, tears started flowing from Hussein’s eyes. Zainab also started crying. Hussein told her to be patient and said:

One day we all have to return to our Lord. Promise by God that after my death you will not act contrary to the example of the Holy Prophet. Do not defame anyone, saying anything untowardly. (Tarikh Ibn Kathir, p.514)

Finally, on the morning of Ashura (the 10th of Muharram), the unforgettable day arrived. There were only 72 people with Hussain against 4,000 soldiers. The flag of the Hussein camp was in the hands of Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet.

Once again Hussein demanded safe passage to a peaceful place from the enemy, however they insisted he pledge allegiance to Yazid first.

He went towards the river to quench his thirst, when an arrow fired at him hit him on his face.

Heavy fighting then ensued. Hussein’s companions came forward and were killed fighting, desperately trying to defend him. Then the family of the Prophet were martyred one by one in a grossly outnumbered battle.

Imam Hussein was now left alone. He went towards the river to quench his thirst, when an arrow fired at him hit him on his face, causing blood to spurt out like a fountain. Yet, he fought valiantly until his last breath.

Horse riders instructed by Umar bin Sa’d, rode forth and trampled upon the dead body of Imam Hussein to the extent that his chest and back were completely disfigured.

Imam Hussein had been hit 45 times by arrows, 33 times by spears and over 40 times by sword blows. In an act of excessive cruelty, Imam Hussein’s head was severed and sent to Kufah, where the governor had it displayed for public view.

Greatest Tragedy in Islamic History

Tragedy of Karbala marks the greatest shameful tragic day in Islamic history, when the blood of the noble people of God was shed in this merciless slaughter.

No doubt that Imam Al-Hussein, by giving his life, was teaching Muslim generations to come not to bow down to unworthy rulers who will do more harm to Islam than good.

Imam Hussein’s Stand Against Yazid

Unfortunately, a minority of Muslims consider Hussein’s rejection of Yazid as rebellion, and ignore the real reason why he was opposing the rulership of Yazid.

While the Sunni Muslims called the first 4 Caliphs, rightly guided, no one would give such title to Yazid. Imam Al-Hussein’s resistance was in order to remove a tyrannical despot, a self-appointed Caliphate, and thus safeguard the religion.

While Yazid was power hungry and blinded by the love of the world, Hussein was truthful and provided a pure model for future Muslims to follow.

Yazid died of an incurable disease only 3 years after he tasted his short-lived power.

Karbala and Drift Between Muslims

The Sunnis believe in the rulership of the 4 Caliphs starting with Abu Bakr.

The event of Karbala further deepened the Shia-Sunni split, with the Shias holding that Imamate (leadership) of the Muslim followers belonged to Ali and his family, whereas the Sunnis believe in the rulership of the 4 Caliphs starting with Abu Bakr. Many other differences later emerged in each group.

Each year in the first ten days of Muharram, many Shias around the world commemorate the martyrdoms of Imam Hussein, his family and companions. They recall and mourn that dreadful event that took place in the fields of Karbala over 1300 years ago.

Some take to the streets and wail excessively, beating their chests with their hands and other tools. Others take part in processions, specially organized functions and other events and gatherings in mosques and halls.

The media around the world is showing such processions with disgust while the Sunnis celebrate the days of Ashura as the day of victory Allah gave to Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, and the children of Israel and saved them from the tyrant Pharaoh. They fast for two days and serve sweets and are jubilant.

It is sad to see that both groups are ignorant of both events. One very happy one that happened a few thousand years ago and one very sad one that happened much later. Fasting may be great while remembering both events and pondering on lessons we can all learn from.

Lessons not Learned

We have observed divisions among the Muslims immediately after the Prophet’s death – which has continued to this day.

Every ruler, just or unjust, faced death at some point and will be facing his Creator with the Book of Deeds open in front of him. He will realize that the life of this world was so short compared to the ever-lasting life after death. He would clearly see how his justice or injustice affected multitude or may be even generations of humans.

Perhaps a ruler tried to safeguard continued succession for his own progeny. Yet all the power, fame and glory would avail them nothing but the fire of Hell if they were unjust. This may include many of them.

A closer look at history reveals that the two major powers after the four Caliphs were Bani Ummayah and Bani Abbas. Both managed to continue their oppression of the Prophet’s household, fearing to lose their so called kingdom to some righteous individuals. Many such great people were killed, poisoned or simply wiped out of existence.

Instead of following the footsteps of the rightly guided companions and family of the Prophet, such rulers turned their rule into kingdom and dynasties – only to be disgracefully defeated by subsequent rulers at some point.


The outrageous bloodshed among the Muslims within the same nations today is only indication that we have not learned any lessons from the past.

While millions are spent by each sect in propaganda against the other, which further inflames hatred among the sects, one would wonder if people decided to have a dialogue and understand each other. This does not mean to agree but only come from the position of understanding of why history turned the way it did and what we can do to learn and avoid further enmity.

Only if the earlier generations had heeded to Prophet’s comments about Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein, perhaps much of the future injustice would have been avoided.

(From Reading Islam archive.)

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