The Battle of Karbala: A Brief History
Imam al-Husayn’s (as) sacrifice during the Battle of Karbala was meant to delegitimize corrupt political rule and protest the hijacking of Islam at the hands of a small but powerful and corrupt group of rulers.
Bismillāhir Rahmānir Rahīm, As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh. Peace be upon you brothers and sisters.
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Modern day Karbala, is a Muslim holy city in Iraq. It is best known for hosting the largest religious gathering of humans in the world. As of the year 2016, almost 30 million people converged unto this city.
In a previous lesson, we looked over the philosophy of Imam al-Husayn’s (as) sacrifice in Karbala and what lessons we could draw from it in our contemporary lives.
With that in mind, here we wish to briefly go over the history of the battle of Karbala in terms of what the catalyst for the battle was, and how the battle unfolded on that tragic day of Ashura.
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The battle of Karbala took place in the 10th of Muharram, 680 A.D, otherwise known as Ashura, meaning the 10th. Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar.
The battle of Karbala took place between Imam al-Husayn (as) and a small group of his family members and 72 of his companions on the one hand, and the Caliph of the time, Yazid ibn Muwiyah.
In light of Imam Husayn’s (as) small group of supporters in Karbala, Yazid’s army counted in the thousands. Unfortunately, Imam Husayn (as) and his companions were almost all slaughtered. Only a few were spared from the massacre.
So what led the Ahl al-Bayt (as) to this tragic end? There were a number of catalysts that brought it about.
Muawiyah, Yazid’s father, had led a coup against the Caliphate of Imam al-Hasan (as) who was Imam al-Husayn’s brother. As Muawiyah had bribed most of Imam al-Hasan’s core military supporters, Imam al-Hasan (as) was left with no choice but to accept a forced treaty with Muawiyah that would have handed over power to Muawiyah himself. However, part of this agreement was that Muawiyah would hand over the Caliphate to Imam al-Husayn (as).
This, however, did not materialize. Muawiyah broke every single point of the agreement he had made with Imam al-Hasan (as). Instead of designating Imam al-Husayn (as) as his successor, he designated his own corrupt son Yazid to power and therefore turning the Caliphate into a dynasty.
The breaking of the treaty was only the first step in bringing about the tensions that would lead to the tragedy of Karbala. Imam al-Husayn (as) may have settled with this kind of trickery if it was just that. However, the corrupt nature of Yazid’s personality was simply too much for Imam al-Husayn (as) and he could not, as a result, submit to the request of giving him his oath of allegiance.
Yes, corrupt rulers had existed before, but Yazid completely stood out. Although Muawiyah had been an enemy of Islam, he nevertheless kept some kind of a semblance of Islam in his rule no matter how distorted or mocking it was.
Yazid on the other hand would publically ridicule and mock Islam. He would recite poetry against the Prophet Muhammad (s) and would lead Friday prayers while in a state of intoxication. Subverting Islam as a hypocrite was one thing, but to subvert it openly was a level of shamelessness that had not been seen before.
This wasn’t all. Yazid brutally oppressed Muslims from innocent men to innocent women. He would kill and torture anyone who would question him. At least Muawiyah did it discreetly most of the time, but Yazid would openly commit massacres and violate people’s honor in the streets.
Yazid was also involved in the highest level of financial corruption the Caliphate had ever seen and appointed the most immoral and corrupt of human beings to sensitive political posts. He was, in a sense, Muawiyah on steroids.
Despite the open mockery of Islam and the open oppression of Muslims living under him, Yazid nevertheless asked Imam al-Husayn (as) to pledge allegiance to him. Naturally, Imam al-Husayn (as) could not under any circumstances do such a thing.
Yazid, however, would not tolerate any form of dissent and set a plan to kill Imam al-Husayn (as) and massacre his family or use them as leverage against him. Imam al-Husayn (as) did not want to have blood shed either in Mecca or Medina, the two cities that he was usually present in.
Faced with this dilemma, Imam al-Husayn (as) received a letter from his supporters in Kufa. A number of the Kufans claimed to be able to give him and his family shelter and support him against the oppressor Yazid.
In order to save Islam’s holy cities from bloodshed, Imam al-Husayn (as) headed to Kufa along with his family members. Yazid’s army, however, found out about Imam al-Husayn’s (as) plans and intercepted him before he reached Kufa in a town called Karbala.
Although Yazid was not present in Karbala, he had instructed his army to give him the option of pledging allegiance to him or death. Imam Husayn’s (as) strong sense of morality and justice could not allow him to pledge allegiance to a tyrant as bad as Yazid.
As a result of this refusal, Yazid’s army went into battle against Imam al-Husayn (as). Although the Imam inflicted a lot of damage on the attacking army, their sheer number ensured that Imam al-Husayn, his family and his small group of companions were slaughtered in the field of Karbala.
Imam al-Husayn (as) himself was beheaded and his infant children were slaughtered. Only a handful survived and they were taken captive. Among these were his son Ali Zayn al-Abidin, the future fourth Imam, and his sister Zaynab.
An important question that has to be asked is the following: what did Imam al-Husayn’s sacrifice achieve? Why didn’t he just give allegiance and in the process, spare his life and that of his family’s?
The reason is because although Yazid subverted and mocked Islam publically, he was nevertheless considered a representative of God on earth by virtue of being a Caliph. The Caliph’s word was sacred and gospel. Imam Husayn, by virtue of his respected position in the Muslim community, shattered this perception through his martyrdom as his death sent shockwaves across the Muslim Ummah.
As a result, a whole new generation of scholars, both Shia and Sunni, were born that were not only independent of the Caliphate, but at times defined themselves in opposition to it.
The corrupt rulers of the Muslim Ummah were no longer to define Islam and Imam al-Husayn’s (as) sacrifice took away the authority over Islam that the rulers had and gave it back to the people.
Before we let you go, it’s important to clarify that this short recounting of the history of Karbala is by no means exhaustive. It is only a small glimpse as to what happened in this tragic event. Please check out our further reading section to learn more about Imam al-Husayn (as) and the battle of Karbala.
Until Next Time, Thank you for watching. As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh
Son of Muawiyah, Caliph responsible for the murder of Imam al-Husayn (as).
Town where Imam al-Husayn, his family and his close companions were massacred in.
City which Imam al-Husayn (as) headed to in order to to avoid bloodshed in Mecca and Medina.
Tenth day of Muharram, the day the battle of Karbala took place and Imam al-Husayn (as) was killed.
First month of the Islamic calendar, the month in which Imam al-Husayn (as) was killed.
What made Yazid different from other corrupt rulers?
Yazid openly mocked Islam and took corruption to a level that no one previous to him had done before.
Who was Yazid’s father?
Who put Yazid in power?
What is the significance of Muawiyah appointing his son as the next Caliph?
It turned the Caliphate into a dynasty.
Why didn’t Imam al-Husayn (as) leave his family behind?
Because they would have been killed anyways and used as leverage if he had left them behind.
Yazid ibn Muawiyah
battle of Karbala
Day of Ashura