Battle of Karbala

A key event in the Shia-Sunni schism is the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD (61 years post-Hijra). The historical context of the Battle is the power struggle that emerged upon the death of Muhammad.

In those ten final days of Muhammad’s life, everyone who plays a major role in this story was in and out of that sickroom, in particular one woman and five men, each of them a relative, and each with a direct interest in the matter of who would succeed the Prophet. The men included two of his fathers-in-law, two of his sons-in-law, and a brother-in-law, and indeed all five would eventually succeed him, claiming the title of Caliph—the khalifa, or successor, of Muhammad. But how that would happen, and in what order, would be the stuff of discord and division for fourteen centuries to come. Whatever divisions may have existed between the men as Muhammad lay dying, however, they paled compared with that between Aisha, the childless favorite whose room they were in, and Ali, the youngest of the five men. As Muhammad’s first cousin and his adopted son as well as his son-in-law, he was the Prophet’s nearest male relative.

Lesley Hazleton, After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (2009). Chapter 1.

Upon his death in 632, there was a crisis of succession. The main challenges facing the young Muslim community were who should succeed the Prophet and in what capacity. Also unclear was who had the right to select a successor. The ruling institution that evolved out of this crisis was called the “caliphate,” in which one man, the caliph, held both temporal and religious authority. The caliph did not, however, possess any of the supernatural or metaphysical qualities of the Prophet, such as infallibility, supernatural knowledge and ability, or the power to receive revelation. While some Muslims supported the ruling caliphs, others believed that the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin Ali Ebn-e Abi Taleb should have succeeded the Prophet, and later they believed that Ali’s descendants should be his successors, beginning with his two sons, Hasan (d. 669) and Hoseyn (d. 680). They believed that the Prophet, before his death, selected Ali as his successor on more than one occasion.

Aghaie, K. S. (2004). The martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i symbols and rituals in modern Iran. Seattle, Wash: University of Washington Press, p. 4.

The question of succession to Muhammad’s authority was ultimately resolved via an impromptu tribal council that selected Muhammad’s close companion and a respected elder of the community, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, as his successor. Abu Bakr considered himself a Khalifat al-Rasul Allah (Representative of the Messenger of God), and reigned just two years, from 632 until 634. A similar tribal gathering decided the fate of leadership in the Muslim community after the death of Abu Bakr and concluded that Umar ibn al-Khattab, who reigned from 634 to 644, should succeed him, again as Khalifat al-Rasul Allah. Uthman ibn Affan then followed Umar in a similar manner, reigning from 655 until 656, and then after his death it was the turn of Ali ibn Abi Talib, reigning 656–661, who was selected via the same communal consensus.

Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (2011). p. 59.

The Battle of Karbala resulted in the death of Hussein ibn Ali. Hussein’s father, Ali, was the first cousin, adoptive son, and son-in-law of Muhammad. The crux of the initial dispute between the Shiites and the Sunnis is over the proper first Caliph: whether Ali (the Shiite belief) or Abu Bakr (the Sunni belief). Ali had two sons with Fatima al-Zahra: Hasan and Hussein. Fatima was Muhammad’s daughter.

One party favored the process of election by a circle of advisors and community leaders; the other espoused the cause of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who had married the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. The latter group referred to themselves as shi’at ‘Ali (“supporters of Ali”) or simply as al-shi’a. They maintained that the Prophet himself, guided by divine inspiration, had designated Ali as his successor. Moreover, Ali’s ties by marriage and blood bound him more closely than anyone else to the family of Muhammad. Despite his qualifications, Ali was blocked repeatedly from power: first the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr became caliph, then Umar, then Uthman. Ali did not contest their election, apparently out of a desire to avoid civil war. Finally, he did obtain the caliphate and ruled for some five years, only to be murdered in 661. His wife Fatima predeceased him: so devoted was she to her father that she died of grief within a few months of the Prophet’s death. During this final period of her life, according to Shia sources, Fatima had been abused by Ali’s rivals. Abu Bakr prevented her from inheriting property bequeathed her by the Prophet; and Umar, in a confrontation at Ali’s home over the right to the caliphate, suddenly shoved open the door of the house, thereby striking Fatima and breaking several of her ribs. Upon Ali’s death the caliphate passed to Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, governor of Damascus and Syria. Muawiya was a Qurayshi (a member of the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe) but also belonged to the wealthy Umayyad clan, notorious for its late conversion to Islam and its obstinate hostility to Muhammad in the early days before the Prophet’s final success in Mecca. The Shias’ hopes now focused on Hasan and Husain, the two sons of Ali and Fatima.

Pinault, D. (2016). Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India, p. 11-12.

Shias believe that the Prophet possessed special spiritual qualities, was immaculate from sin (ma’soum), and could penetrate to the hidden meaning of religious teachings. Shias further believe that Ali and his descendants had these special spiritual qualities too. They bore the light of Muhammad (nur-e Muhammadi). They were his “trustees” (wasi) and were privy to his esoteric and religious knowledge. They could understand and interpret the inner meaning of Islam, as opposed to merely implementing its outward manifestations. Since it was the Prophet’s will for Ali to succeed him as caliph, loyalty to the Prophet has to mean refusing to accept any other outcome. The caliphate of the Sunnis encompassed far less of the prophetic function than the imamate of the Shias. The Sunni conception of authority has centered on a preoccupation with order. Religion does not depend on the quality of political authority but only on its ability to help the faith survive and grow. Medieval Sunni jurists developed a theory of government according to which clerics would uphold the government’s authority so long as the rulers provided stability and order and protected the Muslim community. Sultans did not have to be spiritual leaders or pretend to create a perfect Islamic order. One might even say that their main job was to protect Islam’s values and interests rather than realize its spiritual ideals. This distinguished the Sunni attitude toward power from that of the Shia, who denied such legitimacy to the caliphs and sultans. … After Ali’s death, the caliphate became the possession of dynasties—first the Umayyads and later the Abbasids. The Shia rejected the authority of the caliphs in Damascus and Baghdad and continued to argue that the rightful leaders of Islam could come only from the marriage between Ali and Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. The Shias’ insistence on the Prophet’s progeny as the only legitimate holders of authority obviously posed a grave challenge to the caliphs. The resulting conflict profoundly shaped both Sunnism and Shiism.

Vali Nasr (2006). The Shia Revival, How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, p. 39.

The reign of Ali bore the marks of a counter-caliphate. By the norms of the early caliphate it lacked legitimacy. Ali was not chosen by a shura of the most eminent Early Companions which Umar had stipulated as a condition for valid succession. Nor had he the backing of the majority of Quraysh who under Abu Bakr’s constitution had been recognized as the ruling class solely entitled to decide on the caliphate. Yet Ali himself was firmly convinced of the legitimacy of his own claim based on his close kinship with the Prophet, his intimate association with, and knowledge of, Islam from the outset, and his merits in serving its cause. The criteria for legitimate rule laid down by Abu Bakr and Umar were irrelevant from his perspective. He had told Abu Bakr that his delay in pledging allegiance to him as successor to Muhammad was based on his belief in his own prior title. He had not changed his mind when he finally gave his pledge to Abu Bakr and then to Umar and to Uthman. He had done so for the sake of the unity of Islam when it was clear that the Muslims had turned away from him, the rightful successor of Muhammad. Whenever the Muslim community, or a substantial part of it, would turn to him, it was not only his legitimate right, but his duty, to take upon himself its leadership.

Wilferd Madelung, The Succession of Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (1997), p. 141.

Uthman had meant little to [Muawiya], he had done nothing to aid him, and felt no personal obligation to seek revenge. Yet he immediately sensed the political utility of a claim of revenge for the blood of the wronged caliph, as long as he, Muawiya, could decide on whom to pin the blame.

Wilferd Madelung, The Succession of Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (1997), p. 186.

There are allegations that Ali’s oldest son, Hasan, was tricked into ceding power to Muawiya, founder of the Umayyad Caliphate. Muawiya wanted possession of Syria, which Ali denied him (Madelung, p. 241). Muawiya objected to Ali holding the title “Commander of the Faithful” (ameer al mu’mineen) seeing as Ali took up arms against him (Madelung, p. 242).

Beginning with the caliphate of Uthman (reigned 644–656), poor and disenfranchised Muslims became disgruntled with his favoritism towards the Banu Umayyad tribe and began to gather their sentiments and political force around Ali ibn Abi Talib. Devout ascetics like Abu Dharr a-Ghifari and Salman the Persian were attracted to Ali and his proverbial piety and began propagating his cause among the poor and the Mawali, namely the masses of impoverished Arabs and non-Arabs left disenfranchised by the rising tribal fortunes of the political elite. In 656, fially a group of Muslims disaffected by Uthman’s rule conspired against the caliph and murdered him. By communal consensus, Ali succeeded Abu Bakr and became the Fourth Rightly Guided Caliph (Khulafa al-Rashidun). Two Muslim generals, Talhah and Zubayr, in collaboration with the Prophet’s youngest wife Ayeshah, revolted against Ali and accused him of having had a hand in the murder of Uthman. Ali defeated them in the Battle of Camel (so-called because Ayeshah participated in this battle, mounting a camel) near Basra in 656. A year later, in May-July 657, Ali faced yet another rebellious army, this one led by Mu’awiyah, again using the murder of Uthman as a pretext and challenging Ali’s authority. Ali faced Mu’awiyah’s army in the Battle of Siffin on the banks of the euphrates. Ali was about to win this battle too when Mu’awiyah ordered pages of the Qur’an raised on lances, thereby asking for arbitration. Ali agreed, but a band of his followers became so angry at this decision that they parted ways [kharaja] with him and formed the radical sect of the Kharijites. one of these angry Kharijites, a man named Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam, fially killed Ali on 27 January 661. Ali’s son Hasan was in no mood to engage Mu’awiyah in any battle, and thus Mu’awiyah proceeded to establish the Umayyad dynasty, which lasted until the advent of the Abbasid revolution in 750. The battles of Camel and Siffin anticipated the Battle of Karbala and wrote the blueprint for the rest of Shi’i history.

Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (2011), pp. 108-09.

The details of the discussions at Dumat al-Jandal are uncertain… That the caliphate itself was discussed, however, is evident from the poem of al-Salatan. It is certain that the meeting…broke up in disarray without agreement. As the failure of the negotiations, Abu Musa’s concessions and ‘Amr’s intransigence became known, the Kufans present reacted with fury. Shurayh b. Hani’ attacked Amr b. al-As with his whip. One of Amr’s sons hit back at Shurayh before they were separated by the people. Shurayh later used to say that his only regret was not having used his sword instead of his whip. Abu Musa was disgraced and fled to Mekka. Amr and the Syrians, in contrast, departed triumphantly to Mu’awiya and greeted him as Commander of the Faithful. Before the end of Dhu’l Qaeda 37/April-May 658 Mu’awiya received the general pledge of allegiance of the Syrians as caliph. When Ibn al-‘Abbas and Shurayh reported to ‘Ali, he denounced the conduct of both arbitrators. Preaching to the Kufans, he reminded them of his warnings about both men and the arbitration; now these two arbitrators, whom they had chosen, had thrown the rule of the Qur’an behind their backs, had judged without sound argument or accepted precedent, and in the end had disagreed between themselves. He called on his followers to prepare to march to Syria and to assemble in their military camp on Monday. As it became known that Mu’awiya had accepted the oath of allegiance as caliph, Ali broke off all relations and correspondence with him. He introduced a curse on Mu’awiya, Amr, Abu 1-A’war al-Sulaml, Hablb b. Maslama, Abd al-Rahman b. Khalid b. al-Walid, al-Dahhak b. Qays and al-Walld b. ‘Uqba in the invocation of the morning prayer (qunut). This followed the practice of Muhammad of calling a curse upon some of his enemies in the qunut. Mu’awiya retaliated by introducing a curse on Ali, Ibn al-Abbas, al-Ashtar, al-Hasan and al-Husayn.

Wilferd Madelung, The Succession of Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (1997), p. 258.

The Battle of Karbala is sometimes called “the Tragedy of Karbala” (Faji’at Al-Taf), Taf being another name for Karbala.1Mohammed Ali Banoon, Understanding Karbala (2017), p. 13, 31

Shia poster art, map of Karbala (reproduced in Pinault, Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India (2016)).

The blood of the friends of the Prophet Mohammad is flowing; Our tears rain plentifully. Let there be infinite curses and blame upon his enemies in the past and the future. Distress yourselves about what befell the children. Now listen to the story of the martyrdom and how they deprived Hussein of water; and when he was fighting on the plain of Kerbela how they behaved meanly and unjustly. They cut off the head of a descendant of the Prophet in that fiery land! But the Imam lives, his foot in the stirrup and mounted upon his horse! He will not be killed! Then the sinners and the merciless attacked the Prophet’s Family. Fly to salvation while there is still the chance, hurry! Shemr [the soldier who is represented as the one who actually killed Hoseyn] the bastard of Ibn al-Baghi struck his sword on the ground while laughing. This is a kindness to the Prophet and is pleasing! Then the soldiers of the Banu Hind moved out with the heads of the descendants of the Chosen Prophet fixed to the points of their lances. The angels in heaven bewailed their deaths and have wept so copiously that water was flowing from the leaves of the trees and plants. Then you must weep for a while; for after this tragedy of Taff, laughter is unlawful.

Saheb Ebn-e Abbad (Buyid-era [932-1055 A.D.] Persian poet), as quoted in Kamran Scot Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (2004). (This footnote in original: From Abu Bakr al-Khwarazmi’s Maqtal al-Hoseyn. This translation is from Mayel Baktash, “Ta’ziyeh and Its Philosophy,” in Chelkowski, ed., Ta’ziyeh, 97.)

Those who believe that the tragedy at Karbala was the culmination of a human plan claim that Imam Hussain had orchestrated a revolt driven by personal motivations; that the tragedy that transpired in Karbala was a natural consequence of those ambitions. They hold that Imam Hussain’s methods in dealing with the circumstances of his time and his opponents – Yazid specifically – were the main cause of the events of Karbala. They reject any notion that divine will or inspiration played a role in Imam Hussain’s choices and journey. Some even allege that Imam Hussain’s ambitions had led him to lose his better judgment and miscalculate his course of action. They speculate that he may have been misled by the Kufans’ false promises, or beguiled by ibn AlZubayr’s feigned advice. This strand of analysis has led these historians to believe that Imam Hussain was killed in a struggle for power – that he was killed by his own ambition. They assert that he miscalculated his power, naively underestimated his enemies, and fell into the trap of the deceptive Kufans. They claim that even though some in Medina had the foresight to see the consequences of his campaign, and advised him against it, he unwisely ignored their counsel. Such conclusory judgments have been adopted by a significant group of Muslims who do not ascribe to the Shia school of thought.

Mohammed Ali Banoon, Understanding Karbala (2017) (Introduction)

As soon as the caliphate was rendered to Ali, however, Quraysh once more lit the fires of war to crush him. They did not calm down except after having put an end to him and brought caliphate back to the very worst among their clans, turning it a Kaiser-style monarchy wherein fathers would appoint their sons to succeed them. And when al-Husayn refused to swear the oath of allegiance to Yazid, Quraysh broke out thundering in revolt to deal the death blow to the Prophet’s family and to anyone called an offspring of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, hence the massacre at Karbala…In that massacre, they killed the offspring of the Prophet, including children and infants, and they wanted to uproot the tree of Prophethood in all its branches, but Allah, Glory and Exaltation are His, fulfilled His promise to Muhammad by saving Ali ibn alHusayn [Imam Zain al-Abidin] and brought out of his loins the rest of the Imams.

Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi (2000). The Shia: The Real Followers of the Sunnah. Najafi (transl.), pp. 136-37

Maybe the most characteristic prayer genre of Shi’ite piety is the affectionate rendering of tragic events known as mosibat (tragedy). The events spoken about are exclusively sorrowful occasions in the lives of the Ahl-e beyt of which Imam Hoseyn’s martyrdom at Karbalà, by far, is the most commonly retold. The rendering of mosibat is an advanced proficiency mastered by ‘olamà and laymen. The stories, well known to all listeners, must be expressed in a mournful and emotionally arousing manner. Verses of poetry are often mixed with the exposition of the stories and the voice of the speaker is preferably trembling with grief as it both speaks and sings its words of tragedy. The rendering is usually mixed with exclamations of prayer and devotion and on certain occasions also with comments, which refer to the current political or social situation of the listeners. It is common that the people who listen hide their heads in their hands, cry, groan or beat their chests and foreheads as signs of lamentation. Tragedies are retold in religious meetings especially designed for this purpose, the rowze, in connection to recitation of other supplications, after sermons or in reading sessions. At the mosque, small-scale performances of the prayer genre can be experienced every night and on a large scale every Thursday night and on special holidays.

David Thurfjell (2006). Living Shi’ism: Instances of Ritualisation Among Islamist Men in Contemporary Iran, p. 34

Apart from Ibn al-Zubayr, the second civil war also saw attempts to gain power by, or on behalf of, descendants of ‘Ali and although they had only limited success, in the longer term they turned out to be very important. While Yazid was still alive and Ibn al-Zubayr had not yet put himself forward as caliph, Husayn, the son of ‘Ali and the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, was persuaded to make a bid for power. Since the death of his brother Hasan, he was the most prominent of ‘Ali’s children and, as we have seen, was one of those who refused to accept the caliphate of Yazid. In 680, after fleeing together with Ibn al-Zubayr from Medina to Mecca, he was told that he could expect to receive substantial support in Kufa, his father’s former headquarters and already scene of the abortive revolt of Hujr b. ‘Adi, if he would only go there. Thus encouraged, he set out, but the Umayyad authorities got wind of what was going on. Husayn and his small band of followers were never allowed to get into Kufa but were surrounded at Karbala’ in the desert to the north of the garrison town where they were all killed after fighting broke out. Seventy heads, including that of Husayn, are said to have been displayed in Kufa afterwards, and Husayn’s was then forwarded to Damascus where Yazid had it put up for show. The Umayyad governor of Iraq at the time was ‘Ubayd Allah b. Ziyad and he, in particular, is associated in tradition with the suppression of Husayn’s movement, although the bloodshed is often ascribed to others. The date of the fight at Karbala’ was, according to the Muslim hijri calendar, 10 Muharram 61 (10 October 680).

G. R. Hawting (1986). The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750, pp. 49-50.

Throughout this early period, political and religious divisions constituted an endemic crisis for the ruling caliphs. Beginning with the death of the Prophet Mohammad, political divisions began to manifest themselves right away. During the Ridda Wars of 632–33, Abu Bakr prevented some Arabs from seceding from the Muslim empire and community. During the reign of the third Rashedin caliph, Othman, discontent with his policies escalated until he was killed by an angry mob in 656. However, the conflicts that had the greatest impact on sectarian divisions were a series of challenges to Ali’s authority between 656 and 661. These included the Battle of the Camel in 656, led by the Prophet’s widow A’esheh, and the Battle of Seffin in 657, in which Ali was forced to agree to arbitration with the powerful general Mo’aviyeh, who later established the Umayyad caliphate in 661 after Ali was assassinated by a radical political opposition group called the Khavarej [Kharajites]. These divisions and conflicts intensified during the Umayyad period, culminating in 680 in the Battle of Karbala in which the Prophet’s grandson Hoseyn, along with seventy of his family members and associates, was massacred by the troops of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid.

Aghaie, K. S. (2004). The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran. Seattle, Wash: University of Washington Press, pp. 6-7.

References   [ + ]

1. Mohammed Ali Banoon, Understanding Karbala (2017), p. 13, 31

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