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Husayn and Alids are massacred at Karbala



The Shi'ites are a small faction of the Muslim population marked by their dedication to martyrdom, who today control only the nation of Iran.  These people originally lived in Kufa, modern-day Iraq, and resisted being under the rule of the Syrians. The Shi'ites consist of the followers of the descendants of an ancient Muslim ruler, 'Ali, whose power as a leader was usurped and initiated this movement within the Islamic nation.  In 680, a Shi'ite revolt was brutally suppressed at the battle of Karbala.  The members of 'Ali's family were brutally murdered.  Modern Shi'ites view the loss of this battle not as a disaster, but as Hasayn's deliberate sacrifice, designed to awaken the Muslim population to the sour, selfish state of the Muslim leadership.  The battle has, therefore, become the single most important event in Shi'ite history and has made martyrdom an enduring part of their religion.

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Muhammed, the renowned founder and prophet of the Muslim religion, was replaced after his death by Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.  These leaders were older than, but less closely related to, 'Ali, the son-in-law, cousin, and adopted brother of Muhammed.  Because of this, a small faction of Muslims thought that 'Ali should have assumed the throne after Muhammed's death and not the other men.  After Uthman's death, 'Ali was made "Caliph", the successor to political leadership. 'Ali married Muhammed's daughter, Fatima, and had two sons, Hasan and Husayn. The eldest, Hasan, succeeded 'Ali and gave up the Caliphate to Mu'awiya, the more powerful governor of Syria, but retained the Imamate, the religious leadership of the Muslim world.  According to tradition, Hasan was then poisoned by his wife at Mu'awiya's behest.  His younger brother, Husayn, succeeded him at the age of 46 in 49/669, and roughly ten years later Mu'awiya died to leave his son Yazid with the Caliphate.

     Yazid was known as a drunkard and as one who did not follow the Muslim law. As a result, the Kufans wanted Husayn, still the Imam (religious leader), to come and rule in their city.  If the Kufans could succeed, their city would become very powerful, independent of Yazid.  Husayn decided to leave Mecca where he had been living to fulfill the Kufan's request, although many of his advisors told him not to go since he had little military support.  Husayn set out to restore the religious leadership amidst this advice, taking fifty armed men and the women and children of his family with him.

     While Husayn was on his way to answer the call of the Kufans, Yazid jumped ahead of him and set up a governor in Kufa to put down the would-be rebellion.  This governor executed some suspected supporters of Husayn, paid off other followers, and sent Al-Hurr (a young military leader), with a thousand men to prevent Husayn from entering any city in the area.  Husayn responded to Al-Hurr by showing him the letters he had received from the Kufans and sharing his water with Al-Hurr's thirsty soldiers.  Then Husayn led the entire group in prayer.  He acquiesced to the order to leave and started traveling,  reaching the plains of Karbala on Muharram 2nd 61 (October 2nd 680).  Al-Hurr's army followed Husayn and interestingly enough, was moved to join Husayn's group where he remained throughout the battle.  The next day four thousand troops showed up under the leadership of Ibn Sa'd with the purpose of making Husayn swear allegiance to Yazid before allowing him to return to Mecca.  This army cut off Husayn's party from water to force them to comply; at this point Husayn asked his family and friends to leave, but they would not.  Husayn told Ibn Sa'd that he wanted to leave to go to Arabia and would cause no trouble.  But Ibn Sa'd had been promised another position if he got Husayn to surrender to Yazid's leadership, and if Husayn did not, Ibn Sa'd would be relieved of his position.  Consequently, on October 10th, the meager army with the prophet Husayn was attacked and slaughtered by the large army accompanying Ibn Sa'd.  Husayn went forward carrying his infant son in his arms and begged for water for him; the army responded by shooting the child through the throat with an arrow.  Then the army converged upon Husayn and murdered him.  The women and children were taken captive and the dead fighting men's heads were put on spears and paraded around Kufa.  Husayn's head was eventually sent on to Yazid in Damascus.  Husayn had one son left to him and his sister begged his life from the governor of Kufa.  Yazid eventually released the captives, probably because he was already hurting his political position by having killed Husayn, the founding prophet's grandson.

     Shi'ites today interpret Husayn's actions as sacrificial.  It was vital for Husayn, as the Imam and religious leader, to let himself be mistreated in order to make the statement that any ruler who governed by military force instead of by the authority of Allah was wicked.  That is why this event, and therefore martyrdom, is still celebrated by Shi'ites today. Consider Ashura, the commemoration of Husayn's martyrdom, when Shi'ite men hit themselves in the forehead to make themselves bleed. "It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact and importance of the martyrdom of Husayn for Shi'ites.  Although it was the usurpation of 'Ali's rights that is looked upon by Shi'ites as the event initiating their movement and giving it intellectual justification, it was Husayn's martyrdom that gave it its impetus and implanted its ideas deep in the heart of the people" (32-33, Momen). The Shi'ites are still traditionally an oppressed faction of Islam, being persecuted by the majority Sunnis.  They remain less educated, poorer, and often more militant than the other groups in Islam.


Moojan Momen,.An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism, (Oxford; George Ronald, 1985). 

Edited by: Elizabeth M. Mosbo
Researched by: Amy N. Grupp
Written by: Peter B. VerHage
November 19, 1997 

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