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The Massacre of Karbala: A historical recount

Date: 05/12/2011 A.D - H

Translated by: Manal Samhat

A historical approach

1- Karbala throughout History

Karbala’ is a city in central Iraq, situated at a distance of 150 kilometers from Baghdad. The origin of the word ‘Karbala’ is Assyrian and it is composed of two syllables: ‘Karb’; meaning ‘near’, and ‘ala’; a derivation from ‘Iyle’; an Aramaic word standing for 'God'. Hence, the term ‘Karbala’ signifies ‘near God’. Based on the name of the city, we come to the conclusion that some Assyrians had inhabited this place; a conclusion strengthened by the fact that this same region embraces a village called Ninawa after the well-known Ninawa or Nineveh; capital of the ancient kingdom of Assyria which is, nowadays, located near Mosul or Al-Mawsil; a city in northern Iraq.

The name ‘Ninawa’ is repeated in the elegies of Al-Hussein (a.s.), and it designates the city of Karbala along with two other names as well, which are: “At-Taff” and “Al-Ghadiriyyah”. The first noun literally means ‘a place that gives a view down over something,' referring to the Iraqi countryside bordering the land of the Arabs, which is the point joining the edges of the Arab Hill and the Iraqi plain; the geographical location of Karbala. The other name is related to “Ghadirah”; a person descending from ‘Bani Assad’ who inhabited the place at the time.

Actually, Karbala has another name: “Al Ha’ir” meaning ‘the perplexed’ which is a description of the city’s topography. It is very likely that the word Karbala derives originally from the word “Al-Karbat” which means ‘loose’, and the city was called Karbala for it had a loose or limp soil. Another possibility is that the word Karbala was meant to inspire ‘purity’ since ‘karbalta’ means “to sift or to sieve” and which might be used in the following context: to sift the wheat; that is, to riddle and to purify it. In this sense, it is possible that the soil of Karbala was sieved of stones and defects and that is why it was called so. Furthermore, “Al-Karbal” is the name of a sharp-tasting plant called sorrel, and it is possible that this kind of plants was widely spread in that area, which urged people to name the city after it.

2- The general dominating circumstances on the eve of Al-Hussein’s (a.s.) rebellion

As Imam Ali (a.s.) was martyred, the equations of the conflict changed drastically. A forceful trend towards adopting the Umayyad’s proposition was clearly emerging. The Umayyads worked towards consolidating their power as the first military operations, which took place outside the land of Al-Hijaz, were launched. The Umayyads saw that some crucial obstacles were hindering the implementation of their project and the presence of Al-Hussein (a.s.) was the most significant factor amongst these obstacles. Hence, they exerted all their efforts right from the beginning to overcome these obstacles.

 They started by launching a pitiless and relentless war against their enemies, nourishing the tribal conflicts, touching on a sensitive spot which constitute people’s self-interest and benefits, resorting to money and the psychological publicity to buy people’s conscience, and adopting a tyrannical and repressive policy against their opponents.

 In order to achieve their aim, the Umayyads did not hesitate to make some intrinsic changes in the way their power and authority operated. Those changes were extremely fundamental to the extent that justice was way far from being carried out, and despotism and oppression became the Umayyad’s primary trends. Numerous revolts and riots were led against the Umayyads, but the most considerable rebellion was that of Imam Al-Hussein (a.s.) who raised the slogan of reform in the nation of his grandfather, Muhammad (p.), to enjoin good and forbid evil.

3- Al-Hussein (a.s.): The challenges and the confrontation

Thanks to Ziad and his son, Ubaidullah; two of the Umayyad’s most arbitrary and authoritarian governors, Al-Kufa was brought totally under the control of Muawiyah and it was subjugated to all forms of oppression. Upon Muawiyah's death, Ubaidullah Bin Ziad was on a visit to Al-Basra and An-Nu’man Bin Bachir Al-Ansari, one of the Prophet (p.)’s companions who enjoyed no importance or competence, substituted him during his absence.

In view of the existing situation, the Shiite leaders met in Al-Kufa and decided to call for Al-Hussein (a.s.); so they wrote him a letter in which they refuted and denounced the Umayyad’s policy and invited him to come to Al-Kufa and lead the rebellion. Al-Hussein (a.s.) responded to the call and informed the people who had sent him the letter that he intends to join them. However, before heading towards Iraq, Al-Hussein (a.s.) dispatched his cousin, Muslim Bin Aqil, to Al-Kufa. By the time Muslim reached Al-Kufa, An-Nu’man Bin Bachir was gone. Muslim was about to head back towards Al-Hussein (a.s.), to report to him the homage and allegiance of the people of Al-Kufa, but instead he decided to write to him, confirming the Kufis’ support and invitation.

Ubaidullah Bin Ziad returned from Al-Basra, wearing a disguised costume, and he managed to sneak into Al-Kufa, and then into the palace of the Emirate. After fortifying and entrenching the palace very well, Ubaidullah, surrounded by his supporters, revealed himself to the public from the balcony of the palace. Some stories relate that Muslim approached the palace and tried to besiege it with the help of the Kufis. Nevertheless, Ubaidullah was able to disperse them by bribing the leaders of the clans, tribes and the notables of the city which was still plunged in tribal divisions. It did not take too long, until Muslim found himself standing alone and had to hide. Before receiving the news on the death of Muslim, Al-Hussein (a.s.) was already inside the Iraqi territories. Al-Hussein set off for Al-Kufa accompanied by a group of men from his family and by seventy to ninety persons of his companions. After having crossed a short distance towards Karbala, Al-Hussein (a.s.) and his followers were attacked by a flock of Umayyad soldiers led by Al-Hur Bin Yazid Al-Riyahi who was charged with preventing Al-Hussein (a.s.) from changing the course of his destination.

The stream of events had, later on, redounded to the benefit of Al-Hussein’s (a.s.) opponents. The plan of Ubaidullah Bin Ziad aimed to impose a blockade on Al-Hussein (a.s.) in a certain place outside Al-Kufa, after keeping him from taking another direction or route. The plan intended to make sure of keeping Al-Hussein (a.s.) outside the city of Al-Kufa, fearing that its people might follow him, once again because, as Al-Farazdak said that although the swords of the Kufis were set against Al-Hussein (a.s.), their hearts did acknowledge his cause. As Al-Hussein (a.s.) approached the area of Karbala, which is about eighty kilometers away from Al-Kufa, the main force which was charged with getting back at Al-Hussein (a.s.) had finally arrived.

The Umayyad soldiers who were sent to fight Al-Hussein (a.s.) at Karbala were led by Amr Bin Saad Bin Abi Wakkas - commanded by Ubaidullah Bin Ziad - and their number varies, according to the different related stories, between four thousand and thirty thousand soldiers. It is known that Saad, the father of Amr, was one of the opponents of Ali Bin Abi Talib (a.s.) and he refused to pledge allegiance to him. As Ubaidullah Bin Ziad came to learn that Al-Hussein (a.s.) has embarked on his journey towards Al-Kufa along with his followers, he called for Amr Bin Saad and proposed appointing him the governor of Al-Rey; a large Iranian city, now situated near Tehran, provided that he fights Al-Hussein (a.s.) before he actually holds the reins of government in the province. Amr Bin Saad accepted the conditions of Ubaidullah so as not to loose the governorship. However, when he reached Karbala, he waited for a long time before giving the army the order to attack. He preferred first to conduct negotiations with Al-Hussein (a.s.) in an attempt to resolve the problem peacefully by convincing him that any fight would be vain and useless.

4- The journey of heroism and bravery

Then, Al-Hussein (a.s.) delivered his brief and powerful sermon in which he said: "Verily, that claimer, the son of a claimer, [pointing to Ubaidullah Bin Ziad] is overwhelmed by shame and disgrace! And how far disgrace is from us! Allah refuses us the life of disgrace, His Messenger and believers do too. Indeed, proud, exalted and lofty spirits will never prefer to obey the vile people rather than the death of the honorable ones."

The combat began with dual sword fighting in which Imam Al-Hussein (a.s.) and his companions had shown extreme courage and had defied death boldly. Afterwards, the army led a comprehensive and hostile attack that resulted in the killing of fifty persons of Al-Hussein’s (a.s.) companions. Ibn Saad hastened immediately to order his army to stop the fight because he was hoping that Al-Hussein (a.s.) would surrender and yield after the bloodshed of such a great number of his companions, which left him with few efficient combatants. However, Al-Hussein (a.s.) refused to comply, and he went on with the fight, which turned into a siege, as well as prompt and swift attacks from both sides. This round of the combat ended up in the slaying of the rest of Al-Hussein’s (a.s.) companions and family members.

The final round was the most dramatic and tragic one, for Al-Hussein (a.s.) stood alone in the face of an entire army. Some sources report one of the witnesses of the battle, as having said: “Deity by Allah! Never have I seen a man, standing alone amidst a crowd of people attacking him, conquering him; killing his sons, his family and his companions, who maintained a more balanced composure and self-possession. Truly, if men were to harass him hard, he would respond by tormenting them even harder, making them dispel just like goats are dispelled by the attack of a wolf. He fought them in such a way that forced them to be dispersed everywhere, as if they were the widespread locusts. Then, he would draw back and say: "There is no might nor power except by the will of Allah, the Most High, the Most Exalted."

5- The cause and the stand

This scene highlights several points of concern: Al-Hussein (a.s.) was, in fact, an advocate of a cause, while the opposing party was fighting as an organized and directed army which means that a lack of harmony between the spirits of both parties prevailed. Another important element, pointed out by the studies that handled the cause of Al-Hussein (a.s.), was that the entire army tried to avoid killing Al-Hussein (a.s.), and most probably the fact that they were dispelled as he attacked them was, more or less, was the result of their caution and self-restraint. Actually, little facts and information were reported to us regarding those who harmed Al-Hussein (a.s.).

Some sources had mentioned their names and it is conveyed that most of them fell prey in the hands of Al-Mukhtar Bin Ubaid Al-Thakafi during his short stay at Al-Kufa, where he punished them severely before killing them. Being able to recognize and learn all the names of Al-Hussein’s (a.s.) slayers is a clear sign that they were too few and the Shiites deem those people as the worst of disbelievers. As for the rest who only participated in the fight, Shiites consider that they deserve the torture of hell for they ‘increased Al-Sawad (the multitude) that attacked the family of the Messenger of Allah (p.)’ meaning that, by being present in the battle, the army became larger and mightier; that is what is meant by the word ‘Al-Sawad’ which, in the Semitic languages, signifies ‘the crowd’.

During the last phase of the fight, which took more than half the day of Muharram 10th, 61 H., Al-Hussein (a.s.) was weakened by inflicting wounds, afflicted by fatigue and exhaustion and overtaken by thirst. He soon lost the capacity of moving; however, he endeavored to stay on his feet, struggling not to fall. Some people started to throw stones at him and to pelt him with their arrows, so he fell on the ground and remained lying face down for a period of three hours, as the narrators estimate. After lots of argumentation and hesitation, some men rushed towards him and beheaded him.

Thus, Al-Hussein (a.s.) was martyred in his late fifties. The head of Al-Hussein (a.s.) was carried to Al-Kufa along with the heads of the rest of the murdered persons and the captives of women and children, while the bodies were left to be disfigured by the hooves of horses.

Three days after the departure of the army, a group of Bani Assad, who lived near Karbala, arrived at the spot and buried the bodies. After the collapse of the Umayyad dynasty, shrines were built on the graves of the martyrs. Those shrines are still standing straight upward in the middle of the new city of Karbala after having gone through reparation several times, and after having its minarets and cupolas plated with gold. Afterwards, the head of Al-Hussein (a.s.) was transported with the heads of his companions to Damascus to be presented to the Umayyad governor.

There are different stories as to what happened to the [blessed] head of Al-Hussein (a.s.) thereafter. While some of these accounts relate that it was brought back to Karbala; others claim that it was interred in Damascus. Some people maintain that the head of Al-Hussein (a.s.) is preserved in a little dome that lies somewhere in the Umayyad Mosque. Another story says that the Fatimides had carried it to Cairo after seizing Damascus; and based on this story, the Great Mosque of the ancient Cairo was called the Mosque of Al-Hussein (a.s.), because it is claimed to have been built on the place in which the head was buried.

6- A lesson and an example

The assassination of Al-Hussein (a.s.) gave rise to a violent reaction against the authority in power. This event represented a real test to whether Muslims can be subdued by a despot Sultan; something that was unfamiliar to them during Al-Jahilliyah. Al-Tubbari said that Ubaidullah Bin Muti’; one of the leaders of Al-Hijaz, has begged Al-Hussein (a.s.) not to go to Al-Kufa saying: “Deity by Allah, if you perish, we will be enslaved after you.” And he said so, because he believed that once the Umayyads destroy Al-Hussein (a.s.), subjugating Muslims will then follow, being an easy job to fulfill. Nevertheless, the resistance and the extreme courage that Al-Hussein (a.s.) had shown in the combat turned into a lesson to be taught and an example to be followed...

Under the slogan “Al-Hussein must be revenged”, numerous revolts and rebellions had erected against the Umayyads up till the end of their rule and the coming of the Abbasids who considered themselves as the avengers of Al-Hussein (a.s.)’s martyrdom from the Umayyads. Throughout all the Islamic eras, the example of Al-Hussein (a.s.) inspired lots of revolting movements against the Abbasids and other oppressive rulers. His figure represents the positive element that lifts spirits up, especially during critical and desperate moments. And up till this very day, he is still the influential example to be patterned after.

* Historical recount

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