Battle of Karbala

The Battle of Karbala 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH of the Islamic calendar between the army of the second Umayyad Caliph Yazid I (LAANAT) and a small army led by imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammed, at Karbala, modern day Iraq.

Prior to his death, the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I (LAANAT)  had nominated his son Yazid (LA) as his successor. Yazid’s nomination was contested by the sons of a few prominent companions of Muhammad, including Hussain, son of the Maula Ali, Upon Muawiyah’s death in 680 CE, Yazid demanded allegiance from Hussain and other dissenters. Imam Hussain did not give fidelity and traveled to Mecca. The people of Kufa, an Iraqi garrison town and the center of Ali’s caliphate, were averse to the Syria-based Umayyad caliphs and had a long-standing attachment to the house of Maula Ali. They proposed Hussain overthrow the Umayyads. On Hussain’s way to Kufa with a retinue of about 70 men, his caravan was intercepted by a 1,000-strong army of the caliph at some distance from Kufa. He was forced to head north and encamp in the plain of Karbala on 2nd Moharram, where a larger Umayyad army of thousands arrived soon afterward. Negotiations failed after the Umayyad governor Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad refused Hussain safe passage without submitting to his authority, a condition declined by Hussain. The battle ensued on the 10th of Moharram during which Imam Hussain was killed along with most of his relatives and companions, while his surviving family members were taken, prisoner. The second Fitna followed the battle, during which the Iraqis organized two separate campaigns to avenge the death of Hussain; the first one by the Tawwabin and the other by Mukhtar al-Thaqafi and his supporters.

The Battle of Karbala galvanized the development of the pro-Alid party (Shi’at Ali) into a unique religious sect with its own rituals and collective memory. It has a central place in Shi’a history, tradition, and theology, and has frequently been recounted in Shi’a literature. For the Shi’a, Imam Hussain’s suffering and death became a symbol of sacrifice in the struggle for right against wrong, and for justice and truth against injustice and falsehood. It also provides the members of the Shi’a faith with a catalog of heroic norms. The battle is commemorated during an annual ten-day period during the Islamic month of Muharram by Shi’a, culminating on the tenth day of the month, known as the Day of Ashura. On this day, Shi’a Muslims mourn, hold public processions, organize religious gatherings, and perform Matam. Sunni Muslims likewise regard the incident as a historical tragedy; Imam Hussain and his companions are widely regarded as martyrs by both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

The March Towards Karbala

History has not been kind to Yazid I, and the perceptions of contemporary observers were not favorable either. His political ineptness, coupled with distasteful stories of his moral sense, convinced many to stand against his accession. Both Abdullah and Imam Hussain left Medina for Mecca following Yazid’s failed attempts to receive their allegiance. Yazid sought to force submission out of his opponents and assume absolute control over the reins of power as his father had done, but he would fail at both.

In Mecca, news reached Imam Hussain that the people of Kufa (in Iraq), his father’s capital, which had ever since sunk under the shadows of Damascus, the new caliphal metropolis, were willing to support him and had accepted him as their leader.

En route to Kufa, the group met the vanguard of the Umayyad forces, some 1000 men, who continued to follow them, and on 2nd Moharram, the Imam Hussainid forces entered the desert plain of Karbala, where the rest of the Umayyad force arrived by the next day. To force Imam Hussain and his followers into submission, the Umayyads blocked access to the Euphrates River with 500 cavalry troops. Some claim that at this point, Imam Hussain presented three proposals to settle the dust:

  • Either, they let him return to Mecca
  • Or, he is given a border post, away from the rebellious region
  • Or, lastly, he is allowed to meet Yazid in person and settle the matter with him

Others have contested the validity of this claim and instead asserted that by this point, Imam Hussain was ready to fight to the death. Both sides prepared for battle on 9th Moharram. Imam Hussain offered his men the option to slip out of the camp under the cover of dusk, but they were not willing to desert him. The Imam Hussainids tied their tents together and dug a defensive ditch behind this line of tents, filled with wood to be set alight if the opponent attacked from the rear. The combatants then stationed themselves in front of the tents, with the ditch and the tents securing all sides but the front.

Imam Hussain’s side comprised around 70 cavalry soldiers, the Umayyad troops vastly outnumbered the Imam Hussainid force. In hand-to-hand combat, however, the Imam Hussainids appear to have bested their foes by some Muslim accounts,

Fighting commenced on the 10th of Moharram when at dawn the Imam Hussainids set the ditch alight and manned their positions, fighting off enemy assaults. Though steadfast, Imam Hussain’s forces soon began to wither. The cavalry troops on Imam Hussain’s side dismounted when they lost their horses and continued to fight on foot, and forced the Umayyad bands to retreat several times. It was after one such retreat that their foes set Imam Hussain’s camp alight, hoping that with the tents burned to the ground, their flanks would be exposed to attack, allowing an encirclement. Sometime after noon, Imam Hussain’s companions were surrounded and killed, and many non-combatants rushed to their aid; these were young lads, barely at the cusp of manhood, but were not spared, The enemies even killed the 6 months old infant Ali Asghar a.s.

After the Martyrdom of Imam (a)

After Sinan gave the head of Imam (a) to Khawli, the army of ‘Umar b. Sa’d looted everything Imam (a) was wearing. Qays b. Ash’ath and Bahr b. Ka’b took the clothes and Aswad b. Khalid Awadi took the shoes, Jami’ b. Khalq Awadi took the sword, Akhnas b. Murtha took the turban, Bajdal b. Salim took the ring and ‘Umar b. Sa’d taken Imam’s (a) armor.

Looting the Tents

After the martyrdom of Imam al-Imam Hussain (a), the army of the enemy attacked the tents and took anything they could as booties. They competed with each other in that. Shimr rushed to the tents of the family of Imam (a) with a group of soldiers to kill Imam al-Sajjad (a), but Lady Zaynab (a) did not let them do so. In another report, some of the soldiers of ‘Umar b. Sa’d objected to this. ‘Umar b. Sa’d ordered to gather women in a tent and appointed some guards to them.

Trampling over the Body of Imam (a) with Horses

To follow the order of Ibn Ziyad, ‘Umar b. Sa’d ordered 10 volunteers from the army of Kufa including Ishaq b. Haywa and Akhnas b. Murthad trampled over the body of Imam al-Imam Hussain (a) with their horses.

Sending the Heads of Martyrs to Kufa

On the same day, ‘Umar b. Sa’d sent Khawli b. Yazid al-Asbahi and Humayd b. Muslim al-Azdi with the head of Imam (a) to ‘Ubayd Allah b. Ziyad. He also ordered to behead all the martyrs of Karbala and sent them -which were 72 heads- with Shimr b. Dhi l-Jawshan, Qays b. Ash’ath, ‘Amr b. Hajjaj and ‘Uzra b. Qays to Kufa.

Capturing the Family of Imam (a)

By the order of ‘Umar b. Sa’d, the bodies of those who were killed by the army of Kufa were buried but they left the bodies of Imam (a) and his companions unburied. Imam al-Sajjad (a) who was very ill at that time, was captured together with Lady Zaynab (a) and others and sent to the court of ‘Ubayd Allah b. Ziyad in Kufa and then to the court of Yazid in Syria.

Burial of the Martyrs

Muharram 11th or 13th has been reported as the time when the martyrs of Karbala were buried. According to some reports, after Ibn Sa’d and his soldiers went, a group of Banu Asad who were living near Karbala entered the battlefield and sometimes at night that was safe from enemies, prayed upon the bodies of Imam al-Imam Hussain (a) and his companions and buried them.

Timeline of the Battle of Karbala
Rajab 15Death of Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan
Rajab 28Departure of Imam al-Husayn b. ‘Ali (a) from Medina.
Sha’ban 3Arrival of Imam al-Husayn (a) to Mecca.
Ramadan 10Arrival of Kufiyans’ first letter to Imam (a)
Ramadan 12Arrival of 150 letters from Kufa
Ramadan 14Arrival of the letter from leaders of Kufa
Ramadan 15Departure of Muslim b. ‘Aqil from Mecca toward Kufa.
Shawwal 5Arrival of Muslim b. ‘Aqil to Kufa.
Dhu l-Hijja 8Departure of Imam al-Husayn (a) form Mecca
Dhu l-Hijja 8Uprising of Muslim b. ‘Aqil in Kufa
Dhu l-Hijja 9Martyrdom of Muslim b. ‘Aqil
Muharram 1Asking for help of ‘Ubayd Allah b. al-Hurr al-Ju’fi and ‘Amr b. Qays in Banu Maqatil
Muharram 2Arrival of Imam (a) to Karbala
Muharram 3Arrival of ‘Umar b. Sa’d with 4,000 people to Karbala
Muharram 6Habib b. Muzahir’s asking for help of Banu Asad
Muharram 7Banding of water by ‘Umar b. Sa’d
Muharram 7Muslim b. ‘Awsaja al-Asadi joined Imam (a)
Muharram 9Arrival of Shimr b. Dhi l-Jawshan to Karbala
Muharram 9Shimr’s Safe conduct for Umm al-Banin’s children
Muharram 9Announcing of the Battle by ‘Umar b. Sa’d and Imam’s (a) asking for a delay
Muharram 10Events of Ashura
Muharram 11Moving the captives towards Kufa
Muharram 11Burial of martyrs by Banu Asad
Muharram 12Burial of a few member of martyrs
Muharram 13Arrival of captives to Kufa
Muharram 19Moving the captives from Kufa towards Syria
Safar 1Arrival of the captives to Syria
Safar 20Arba’in
Safar 20Return of Ahl al-Bayt (a) to Karbala
Safar 20Moving from Karbala toward Medina (in some accounts)

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