The Battle of Karbala was a huge turning point in Islamic history. Unfortunately, many are either not aware of the narrative or have misconceptions about it. In this article, the Karbala narrative is looked at from the sources in history available to us to dispel myths.
Addressing Common Misconceptions About the Day of Ashura
The story of Karbala is one of, if not the most, tragic story in the history of Islam.
On the 10th of Muharram, known as the day of Ashura, Imam Hussain (as) – the grandson of the Holy Prophet – was martyred in the most horrifying way along with his family members, including a six-month-old baby and 92 other companions.
The surviving family members, people who are direct descendants of the Holy Prophet that included young children, were taken as captives and paraded on the streets as common criminals under the orders of the Yazid, who was caliph at the time.
It’s a story not all Muslims are aware of. In this article, I will provide a brief overview of what happened on the day of Ashura and then go into a discussion where I debunk some of the common misconceptions people have about the Karbala narrative.
What happened on the Day of Ashura?
Yazid’s caliphate divides opinions and is problematic. In the words of the famous historian Al Masudi, Yazid is described as the following:
“Yazid was a pleasure-seeking person. He was a man who kept beasts of prey. He had dogs, monkeys, and panthers. He always arranged wine-drinking parties.”
After the death of his father Muawiya, Yazid was handed the caliphate and he immediately sent an envoy to obtain a pledge of allegiance from Imam Hussain (as), by force if necessary. If Imam Hussain (as) continued to refuse, orders were given to kill him.
Imam Hussain (as) was privy to Yazid’s unislamic lifestyle did not approve of it and thus his conscious and the teachings instilled by his father Imam Ali (as), the fourth caliph, and grandfather The Holy Prophet (pbuh) prevented him from having any sort of association with Yazil or endorse him in any way.
With the threat of death, Imam Hussain (as) decided to leave his hometown of Medina and proceed to Mecca and perform the Hajj pilgrimage. However, upon reaching Mecca news reached Yazid was planning his assassination. Imam Hussain (as) knew Yazid would do what it took to kill him, even if it meant spilling his blood on the Kaaba. Imam Hussain (as) did not want to desanctify the holy land and decided to head to Kufa, where he had received letters of support.
On his way to Kufa, he was stopped by an army assigned to prevent him from advancing to Kufa or going back to Mecca/Medina. Eventually, the army agreed for Imam Hussain (as) to stop at a place known as Karbala. With him were 17 other family members including women and children and 92 other companions. Under Yazid’s orders, Imam Hussain (as) was not allowed to leave the camp. Indeed by the 7th of Muharram, they had entirely surrounded Imam Hussain’s (as) tent and cut off all access to water.
By the eve of the 10th of Muharram, it was clear to Imam Hussain (as) that he would have to fight in order to protect his family and show a stand for justice against an evil and oppressive regime. On the day itself, Imam Hussain (as) was severely outnumbered. The battle started a little after fajr time and ended post-Dhuhr. There was a complete massacre.
Not only was Imam Hussain (as) and his companions killed, their bodies were trampled on by horses after they were already dead, and Imam Hussain (as)’s clothing and accessories were removed from his body. Moreover, he was not permitted an Islamic burial until three days after the battle.
Imam Hussain (as) had come to restore the Islamic values brought by his grandfather, The Prophet. Although he was martyred, his death and the manner of it sent shockwaves throughout the ummah.
Today, he is visited in Karbala, Iraq by millions of people. His story is remembered and mourned over and lessons are extrapolated for us to apply today.
Unfortunately, this story is misunderstood and misremembered in some circles. This is a huge injustice on Imam Hussain (as) and the legacy left behind by his family and companions.
I will now examine some of these misconceptions and present arguments to show they have no real basis or value.
Imam Hussain (as) was after Yazid’s power and caliphate
Before Yazid came to power Imam Hasan (as), the brother of Imam Hussain (as) and Muawiya, Yazid’s father, settled a peace treaty. It was a lengthy document with many conditions with one such condition being that after Muawiya’s death the caliphate should be given to Imam Hasan (as) and should he not be alive at the time, it should be given to Imam Hussain (as).
Muawiya broke this term of the treaty and handed power to Yazid instead. As a result, some say Imam Hussain (as) was after the seat of the caliphate, something that was rightfully his own, according to the treaty.
This is entirely untrue for many reasons, both logically and after a brief examination of history.
First, to look at it logically. Imam Hussain (as) had no army. By the time he reached Karbala, he had a little over 100 fighters including himself, whilst Yazid had thousands of men at his disposal. Fighting was guaranteed to result in a loss and a premature end to his mission to apparently seize power.
If he really wanted a caliphate, the most logical thing to do would be to give an oath of allegiance to Yazid, befriend him and hope for a senior position in his government and eventual caliphate, even more so given that the consequence of refusal to pledge allegiance was death. What’s more is on the eve of Ashura, Imam Hussain (as) even gave the little number of people he had in his camp permission to leave. In Muqarram, it is mentioned the Imam said the following:
“I have given you permission to leave. You are all free to go. I do not and will not reproach any of you for doing so.”
It doesn’t really make sense for someone who is trying to win a battle for power to give his already depleted army permission to leave.
Next, we look at who was in his camp. Have you ever seen anyone bring women and small children to a battle with them? Amongst the people Imam Hussain (as) brought with him included his 6-month-old baby, his wife, and sister. What would be the reason for bringing them to a battlefield which you allegedly want to win to gain power, knowing you’re already outnumbered?
We also examine the speeches and sermons of Imam Hussain (as) himself. None of them indicate he was after power. For brevity, I bring the sole statement where Imam Hussain (as) summarises his motives:
“I never revolted in vain, as a rebel or as a tyrant, but I rose seeking reformation for the nation of my grandfather Muhammad” (Biharul Anwar).
Lastly, Imam Hussain (as) never indicated or instigated a battle or any form of violence. It was Yazid who had sent people to kill the Imam in Mecca/Medina and later trapped him in Karbala. The Imam had no choice but to fight to defend himself.
Anyone who looks at these factors with an objective set of eyes would never conclude that these are the actions and statements of someone hellbent on claiming power for himself.
Imam Hussain (as) committed wilful suicide
In some circles, it is stated Imam Hussain (as) committed the sin of suicide, citing he approached a situation that was certain to lead to death and didn’t avert himself and his companions and family from danger when he could and before he was trapped at Karbala. Even then, he could have feigned a pledged allegiance to save himself, even under taqiyah, which permits lying to save one’s life.
In response to this, I would say Imam Hussain (as) was carrying out the duty of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, which is a duty burdened to all Muslims. Imam Hussain says so himself in Bihar:
“I intend to enjoin good and forbid the evil, to act according to the traditions of my grandfather, and my father Ali ibn Abi-Talib.”
Islam is a religion that prioritises the greater good of the religion and its preservation over the individual self. So, if doing taqiyah results in the destruction of the religion it becomes forbidden to practice it. Was Yazid that bad that his actions could destroy the religion?
His reign only lasted a little three years, yet he caused absolute havoc:
- He mercilessly killed Imam Hussain (as) at Karbala (61 AH)
- He laid siege and attacked Medina, killing thousands of companions of the Holy Prophet, known as the event of Harra (62 AH). Details of what happened can be found by searching ‘The Incident of Harra’.
- He attacked Mecca and damaged the Kaaba by firing shots into it (64 AH) (reported by the historial Tabarri).
Here are some his characteristics:
- He openly drank wine (reported by historian Baladhuri).
- Hired female singers (also reported by Baladhuri)
- Played chess and drank beer (reported by Shaykh al-Saduq)
Doing taqiyah and letting a man carry on such activities was simply not an option. Imam Hussain (as) had to take a stand.
It is important to stress that Imam Hussain (as) led a defensive rather than an offensive battle. If he fought, it was certain death, if he didn’t it was certain death of the religion. There really was no other option.
The Prophet was actually faced with a similar situation at the Battle of Badr. He only had 313 fighters, whereas the opposition had thousands of skilled army personnel. If the Prophet didn’t fight, the army would have destroyed them, he had to engage in a defensive battle to save the religion as the opposition were set on effacing it.
The battle either did not happen or is severely distorted
As the battle took place over 1,000 years ago, we don’t have sources that explain the narrative in its finest details and there are undoubtedly distortions and exaggerations caused by Chinese whispers.
An additional problem with historical narratives is that historians, whether consciously or unconsciously, will struggle to be objective. Furthermore, there will be people who want to paint a picture of events that further their own personal or political narrative.
Having said that, we still do have enough information to depict an accurate overview of the events leading up to and on the day of Ashura. The main sources of information are the following:
The surviving family members and companions
The entire camp of Imam Hussain (as) was not martyred on the 10th of Muharram. Many of Imam Hussain’s (as) companions and family members survived and were taken captive. They then lived to tell the tale. This included Imam Hussain’s (as) son Imam Sajjad (as) who lived for around 30 years after Ashura and his aunt, Imam Hussain’s (as) sister, Sayeda Zainab (as), who lived for 2 years or so after Karbala.
Naturally, some people will think the family of Imam Hussain (as) may have a bias in how they explain the narrative, yet other sources do exist. In the camp of Yazid, there was a person known as Hameed bin Muslim who in today’s definition would be considered a reporter or journalist. He was responsible for recording and collecting the narrative as it unfolded.
Survivors from Yazid’s camp
There were many survivors in the camp of Yazid including people who played a notable role in the battle such as Shimr ibn Thil Jawshan (attributed to having beheaded Imam Hussain (as)), Umar bin Saad (Yazid’s chief officer on the day), and Humala (responsible for shooting an arrow into the neck of Imam Hussain’s (as) six-month-old baby).
These individuals and others were captured and killed by Muqtar al-Thaqqafi many years after Karbala in Muqtar’s mission to avenge the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as). Before being killed, they mentioned some of the things that happened on the day.
These, and other sources, were compiled by early historians (such as Tabarri) and others and are scattered throughout history books and maqtals (books dedicated solely to reporting the events of Karbala).
It’s important to note that another reason why books painting a comprehensive narrative don’t exist today is because many were burned. This in itself alludes to a malicious attempt to cover up and distort the events of the day.
What we can be confident about is that we have a full picture of the overall narrative.
Imam Hussain (as) sinned because he revolted against the caliph of his time
People say it is a sin and unjust of Imam Hussain (as) to revolt against the caliph of his time. This is perhaps the weakest argument put forward to dismiss the battle of Karbala.
Firstly, there is an argument to suggest that Yazid wasn’t even a legitimate caliph. As explained earlier, the legally-binding terms of the treaty between Imam Hasan (as) and Muawiya stipulated the caliphate would go to go to Imam Hasan (as) after Muawiya’s death or Imam Hussain (as), if Imam Hasan (as) is no longer alive.
Muawiya broke this treaty and gave the caliphate to his son. This makes Yazid an illegitimate caliphate in the first place.
Secondly, other people also went against the caliph of the time. Notably, Aisha – who fought Imam Ali (as) at the battle of Jamal and Muawiya and who also fought Imam Ali (as) in a couple of battles. The same people who blame Imam Hussain (as) for fighting are strangely silent on these issues.
Imam Hussain (as) was killed by his own followers who betrayed him, not Yazid
Some Muslim circles attribute commemorating the battle of Karbala as something only Shia Muslims do because they feel guilty about betraying and killing him. What they’re referring to is the initial pledge of allegiance by the citizens of Kufa, Iraq to help Imam Hussain’s (as) cause who later betrayed him. They say it is these Shias who were alive in Kufa at the time who sent him letters of support and ended up not fulfilling their end of the bargain.
This is a skewed narrative on many fronts.
It’s important to note Kufa was not a majority Shia city. There were people of different faiths and denominations living at the time. People paint a narrative that Kufa is a ‘Shia’ city. It’s true that at the time the majority of the Shia’s who existed lived in Kufa but they still didn’t make up the majority of the city.
The letters of support Imam Hussain (as) received were from Shia and non-Shia leaders. This was not a ‘Shia’ thing. Many non-Shia’s were unhappy with Yazid’s rule given his characteristics mentioned above, so they wanted to take a stand against him.
The question that arises now is why didn’t the people who wrote the letters turn up at Karbala? Or why did only a small segment appear on the day? The reasons are as follows:
Yazid appointed Ubaydullah bin Ziyad as the ruler of Kufa. His job was to quash the dissident voices by any means necessary. He entered Kufa pretending to be Imam Hussain (as), as not many people knew what he looked like, and captured as many as 6,000 people who were put in prison.
Furthermore, he set up a blockade in the city that prevented people from escaping and joining Imam Hussain (as). With technology and communication not being like it is today, a further deterrence was caused by people not knowing Imam Hussain (as) had ended up in Karbala.
Many of the letters were also written by hypocrites – those who secretly supported Yazid. Their intentions were to exaggerate the amount of support there actually was for Imam Hussain (as) in the hope that following this false sense of support would eventually get him killed.
Lastly, if you examine the origins and ethnicities of martyrs of Karbala from the side of Imam Hussain (as) you will find most of them were from Kufa. It’s a myth to suggest ‘Kufan Shia’s’ betrayed Imam Hussain (as).
Yazid didn’t want to kill Imam Hussain (as) / regrets killing him
The last misconception I’d like to address is the notion that Yazid didn’t want to kill Imam Hussain (as) or later regretted it – there is simply no source that suggests this and his actions and words leading up to and post-Battle suggest the contrary.
The famous historian Suyuti, who is attributed to be a Sunni, writes in his book that Yazid ordered the killing of Imam Hussain (as) should the latter not give his allegiance. This clearly shows that the idea of killing Imam Hussain (as) was premeditated and was an option on the table right from the get-go.
After the battle, Yazid did not show the slightest hint of regret. After capturing the surviving members of Imam Hussain’s (as) family he brought them to his palace in Sham, Syria. There he brought the severed head of Imam Hussain (as) in front of the court, started poking it with a stick, and said the following lines recorded in the works of the scholar Al-Biruni:
“I wish those of my clan who were killed at Badr, and those who had seen the Khazraj clan wailing in (in the battle of Uhud) on the account of lancet wounds, were here. They would have hailed me with loud cries and said ‘O Yazid! May you hands never stupefy’, for we have killed the chiefs of his (the Prophet’s) clan. I did so as revenge for Badr, that has now been completed. The Bani Hashim only played a game with sovereignty. There has come no Message nor was anything revealed (as wahy). I would not belong to the Khandaq family, if I had not taken vengeance upon the descendants of Ahmad for their needs.”
In another instance, he turned towards the tomb of the Holy Prophet and said:
“Muhammad, this is for that day (the battle of Badr)” (Ibn Abil-Hadid’s Sharh(u) Nahj al-Balaghah).
These statements are quite telling. Apart from a lack of regret at killing Imam Hussain (as) the statements show he did not even really believe in Islam and the whole battle was so that he could take revenge for his forefathers, the idolaters of Quraysh, who were killed at Badr/Uhud.
To conclude, I’d like to present some hadith from the Holy Prophet regarding his grandson Imam Hussain (as). Imam Hussain (as) and Imam Hasan (as) were promised paradise by their grandfather. The following hadith is from Tirmidhi:
“Al-Hasan and Al-Hussain are the leaders of the youth of paradise.”
If Imam Hussain (as) being in paradise is a foregone conclusion, it’s impossible for his stand at Karbala to be seen as the sin of suicide or going against the caliph of his time. In fact, in the light of this hadith, one can only look at Karbala in a different way because it was his stand against the evil that earned him a lofty position.
In Tirmidhi, the Prophet is reported to have said:
“Hussain is from me, and I am from Hussain.”
The first part of this hadith makes sense, for Imam Hussain (as) is his grandson but what could the Prophet possibly mean by saying he is also from Hussain. It’s open to interpretation yet in my view the Prophet is essentially saying that we’re both cut from the same cloth and are so connected – and not only because of genetics – but due to sharing our character, beliefs and values.
This year, I really want every Muslim to look into the events of Karbala objectively. It is the least the grandson of the Holy Prophet deserves. I hope I have piqued the interest and curiosity for the Muslim who sincerely seeks to know the truth about a major turning point in the history of Islam.
- A Probe into the History of Ashura, Ibrahim Ayati.
- The Life of Imam Hussain (as): Research and Analysis, Baqir Qureshi
- The Life of Imam Hassan (as), Baqir Qureshi
- Muqarram, Maqtal al-Husayn (as), p. 212
- Majlisi, Biharul Anwar, vol.44, p.329
- Bihar al- Anwar, Vol. 44, P. 329
- Balādhurī, Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā al-. Ansāb al-ashrāf. Edited by Max Schlossinger. volume 4. Jerusalem: 1938.
- Tabarī, Tārīkh al-umam wa l-mulūk, 1352 Sh, vol. 7, p. 3120; Yaʿqūbī, Tārīkh al-Yaʿqūbī, vol. 2, p. 191
- Balādhurī, Ansāb al-ashrāf, vol. 5, p. 297
- Balādhurī, Ansāb al-ashrāf, vol. 5, p. 297
- Ṣadūq, ʿUyūn akhbār al-Riḍā, vol. 1, p. 25
- Tabari, Volume 6
- Ibn al-Athīr, Usd al-ghāba, vol. 4, p. 347
- Mufīd, al-Irshād, vol. 2, p. 37-39
- Balādhurī, Anasāb al-ashrāf, vol. 2, p. 80-81
- Did the Shia Kill Imam Hussain (as)?
- Asarul Baqiyah, Abu Rayhan (al Biruni)
- Ibn Abil-Hadid’s Sharh(u) Nahj al-Balaghah
- Tirmidhi (Volume 1, Book 1, Hadith 143)
- Tirmidhi (Volume 1, Book 46, Hadith 3775)