In the Name of Allah, The Most Kind, The Most Merciful
A poet says, “The days of Hussain approach once again, bringing with them his eternal memory. Although confined to time he was, through his sacrifice, he became timeless.”
With the holy month of Muharram upon us, the atmosphere in the Muslim world shifts from one of celebration at the culmination of the Hajj to one of sombre and mourning. Almost a billion Muslims around the world will be commemorating the tragic martyrdom anniversary of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (s), Imam al-Hussain (a), at the hands of Caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah, king of the household known as Banu Umayyah.
It is widely held that through his sacrifice, Imam al-Hussain (a) saved Islam from destruction. Not a destruction in the sense of whether the name of the religion would have remained, but a dismantling of any semblance of its principles, goals, spirituality and social system due to its strategic decimation at the hands of Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah. Imam al-Hussain (a) saved Islam.
Such a statement is no small claim. Had there been an event which literally saved Christianity, for example, from eradication – just 50 years after the death of Jesus Christ (a) – as was the Karbala epic only 50 years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (s), those events would be incessantly researched and lauded for their roles in across time and space.
The mourning and remembrance programmes of Imam al-Hussain (a) in Muharram seek to accomplish that. However, with such an important event in the history of Islam, it draws a number of debates over how the Prophet Muhammad (s) himself honoured it, how his followers today commemorate it and what its underlying philosophy was.
Misappropriation of the Karbala movement
Amongst those debates is the question as to whether or not the movement of Karbala was politically motivated. What is meant by this is whether the sacrifices of Imam al-Hussain (a) was a power struggle between two rival households, each seeking legitimacy and authority over the other. It is advanced by some, including Muslims, that Imam al-Hussain (a) sought leadership, and this was the raison d’être for his uprising.
Sadly, this misunderstanding – and sometimes misappropriation of Imam al-Hussain’s (a) struggle for reform and social justice is perpetuated in some corners. This not only obscures the the reality of the movement, but also undermines the grand character of Imam al-Hussain (s), a person far above the need to fight over title and leadership.
This three-part series will be dedicated to answering the question of whether or not the movement of Karbala was a political struggle for power and leadership. In this first part we will identify the theme of the argument that is offered in support of the notion and briefly refute them. In the forthcoming part, we will ask ‘What is the motivation in misrepresenting the movement of Karbala and who benefits from this?’ In the final part we will offer a correct understanding of the purposes of the Karbala uprising, including what Imam al-Hussain (a) himself said about the reasoning for his movement and how the generations immediately after him understood and took up the mantle of his movement.
Through this it is hoped, those who are enlivening the movement of Karbala and engaged in this months remembrances will have a more profound understanding of its underlying causes and aspirations for them to embody in themselves.
The argument for: Imam al-Hussain (a) rose to recapture the authority that Imam al-Hassan (a) abdicated
Yazid inherited power from his father Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. Both Mu’awiyah and Abu Sufyan accepted Islam as a last resort, a decoy to save themselves after the liberation of Mecca.
After Mu’awiyah’s rebellions against Caliph’s Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) and Imam al-Hassan (a), his power grew through a series of mass murders, political assassinations of the companions of the Prophet (s) such as Hujr ibn ‘Aday and bribes to narrators of hadith and tribal leaders. Consequently, Imam al-Hassan (a) was forced to abdicate his position of Caliphate, fearing an irredeemable split in the Muslim community.
As part of that bid to maintain unity in the Ummah, Imam al-Hassan (a) and Mu’awiyah agreed a peace treaty with several conditions. Crucially, one of them was that upon the death of Mu’awiyah, Caliphate must be returned to Imam al-Hassan (a), or in the event of his death, passed to Imam al-Hussain (a). Together, Mu’awiyah and Yazid realised that a return of Caliphate to the Ahl al-Bayt (a) would forever negate any chance of Banu Umayyah’s rule. They decided to murder Imam al-Hassan (a) by proposing to his wife, Jo’dah int Ash’ath that she poison Imam al-Hassan (a) in exchange for 100,000 Dirhams and a promise of marriage to Yazid thereafter. After she committed this most heinous of crimes, Mu’waiyah refused to marry her to Yazid citing that if she could be bribed to kill Imam al-Hassan (a), she could be bribed to kill Yazid too.
Upon the death of Mu’awiyah, the seat of Caliphate was due to return to Imam al-Hussain (a) as per the accord. Instead, he broke this condition, as he did the others and willed the seat of Caliphate to Yazid, thereby commencing the rule of hereditary power, or monarchical dictatorship, for the first time in Islamic history
Though disputed, some historians have cited a written testament from Mu’awiyah to Yazid which read, “My son, I have secured you from mischief coming to you and prepared our future tasks, humiliated for you the enemies, humbled the Arabs before you and arranged [your affairs the like] that none has ever arranged [before].” This is despite knowing their were candidates more qualified, as Mu’awiyah is recorded to have said, “By Allah, if the lushest lands of Damascus were full of better people, even then Yazid would be more preferable to me.”
On account of the broken condition of Caliphate transferring to Imam al-Hussain (a), it is suggested that his uprising was to retrieve power from Yazid. This would, therefore, constitute a ‘political’ movement rooted in the rights over leadership and a long-running rivalry between Banu Umayyah and Banu Hashim, the family of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Let us know briefly respond to this view.
Response 1: People cannot take away that which Allah (swt) has given
Whilst Orientalist or academic historians may observe Islamic history through various methodologies and independent lenses, a Muslim observer is obliged to understand the actions of the Allah (swt) and His Prophet (s) through the Quran. This is because the Word of Allah is perfect, everlasting and a clear guidance. The Qur’an, protected by Allah (swt) does not need to support narrations and history, which is unprotected by Allah (swt), rather it is the other way round. The Hadith literature and its analysis must be in line with the Qur’an for it to be acceptable. A Muslim’s thinking and understanding is grounded in the apparent verses of the Qur’an thus narrations and history works upon the Qur’anic axis.
As such, the leadership, authority and supremacy of Imam al-Hussain (a) has been vested to him by Allah (swt) and is not dependent on the changing tide of people’s whims and preferences. The Qur’an states Allah (swt) has chosen Imam al-Hussain (a) above the rest of the universe, as per the verse, “Indeed, Allah chose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of ‘Imran over the worlds” (3:33). Once Allah (swt) has “chosen” a person, it matters not whether he is recognised by people, he remains chosen and esteemed in the eyes of Allah (swt).
This is summarised beautifully by Imam Musa ibn Ja’far al-Kadhim (a) when during the Hajj season the tyrant Caliph Haroon al-Rashid saw vast numbers of people honouring the Imam at the holy Ka’ba, he asked the Imam, “Are you the one who people gave their allegiance to in a hidden way and were pleased with being their Imam?” Imam al-Kadhim (a) simply replied, “I am Imam of [people’s] hearts, while you are Imam over [their] bodies.”
It is therefore of no consequence to Imam al-Hussain (a) if Yazid or any other person gains worldly dominance or temporary position in the eyes of people, for he has been “chosen” for the guidance of humanity and the Ummah. It is contradictory to the Qur’an to assert that Imam al-Hussain (a) sought temporal power or to regain a seat of authority when a far greater reality has already been bestowed upon him by Allah (swt).
Response 2: Imam al-Hussain (a) rose only after Mu’awiyah threatened his life and at the request of the Ummah to depose a tyrant
The premise of the argument ‘Karbala was a political struggle’ suggests that Imam al-Hussain (a) rose for personal reasons, primarily his desire to recapture temporal leadership, be it because he felt it was his right or he was more qualified. As demonstrated above, though it was his right given the conditions of the peace treaty, and though he was more qualified, as per the verse elevating his status above the worlds, neither of these were motivating factors, rather it was only when the Muslim Ummah demanded from him to bring about a just government did he act.
Imam al-Hussain (a) had seen the fervour of the early Muslim community but also the corruption and inertia creep into it at other times. Despite the Prophet Muhammad’s (s) command to the army of Usama bin Zayd to leave weeks ahead of his death, certain individuals disputed with the Prophet (s). Al-Bukhari mentions, “The Prophet appointed Usama as the commander of the troops. The Muslims spoke unfavourably about Usama.” Imam Ali (a) encouraged his army, on the verges of victory, to defeat Mu’awiyah once and for all, but found them making excuses to which he retorted, “If I call you to fight them in the summer, you would say it is too hot and if I were to call you to fight them in the winter, you would say it is too cold.” He also saw his brother’s army decimated by trickery and bribery, only to disband, leaving Imam al-Hassan (a) with no choice but to abdicate.
Wary of the Muslim’s selective commitment to social justice, Imam al-Hussain (a) tried many ways to bring about change without an uprising. Imam al-Hassan (a) was killed in the year 50 A.H. whilst the movement of Karbala occurred in 61 A.H. Had Imam al-Hussain (a) sought power, he would have risen immediately claiming his right to Caliphate. Rather, during these ten years, the Imam (a) resorted to quietism, correspondence, sermons, bridge building and teaching.
Mu’awiyah then sought to guarantee the rule of Banu Umayyah by forcing the allegiance of Yazid on the Muslims. He summoned to Mecca Imam al-Hussain (a), Abdullah bin Zubayr, Abdul Rahman ibn Abi Bakr and Abdullah ibn Umar and told them, “If one of you speaks a word to refute me, I will not say a word in reply against him but that the sword will be place over his head.” He then called his security chief and said, “Put two guards, each having a sword, over each of these. If any of them utters a word to refute me, strike them with the swords.” Mu’awiyah then emerged with the captive leaders of the Muslim community, ascended the pulpit and said, “These are the leaders and prominent personalities of the Muslim community, such that nothing can be accomplished without their participation. They have expressed their willingness to give allegiance to Yazid.”
Upon Mu’awiyah’s death in 60 A.H. the Muslim community became appalled at his broken promises, threats and his appointment of Yazid, a person completely antithetical to the values of Islam. The Muslim’s all but came together in demanding Imam al-Hussain (a) lead a revolution and bring about a just government to once again realise the Islamic principles. In the year 60 A.H., Imam al-Hussain some 12,000 letters from across the Ummah, at times from individuals and at others as petitions filled with names offering allegiance. Imam al-Hussain (a) then journeyed to Mecca for the Hajj where he was met with delegates from every region of the Ummah begging for him to uprise.
It was only when he received the letter of his ambassador Muslim ibn Aqeel that the once capital of the Ummah, Kufa, had pledged no less than 18,000 swords to this end, did Imam al-Hussain (a) choose to embark on this mission. This movement was therefore a manifestation of the verse, “Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting to all that is good and forbidding evil. And it is they who are the successful” (Qur’an 3:104). The movement was a response to the demand of the Muslim community for justice and righteousness.
Response 3: Had Imam al-Hussain (a) sought temporal victory, he would not have discouraged people joining him or brought his womenfolk or children for a war
The events of Karbala and his impending martyrdom were not unknown to Imam al-Hussain (a). It is a point of agreement amongst Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad (s) had been informed of the brutal martyrdom of his grandson by the Arch Angel Jibrael, who had then conveyed the forthcoming events to his family. Given that Imam al-Hussain (a) was aware that this movement would require sacrificing his life, this begs the question how could he expect temporal authority from it.
In fact, despite the plethora of invites and pledges of allegiance, Imam al-Hussain (a) knew that he would end up with little support in the end. Upon the increase of threats upon his life, he broke his Hajj citing his desire to keep the sanctuary of the Ka’ba free from violence and departed for Kufa. En route meeting Hammam ibn Ghalib, famously known as al-Farazdaq, Imam al-Hussain (a) asked him, “Tell us the news of the people you have left behind you” to which he replied, “The hearts of the people are with you, but their swords are with Banu Umayyah.” The Imam answered, “True. The decree is Allah’s, and Allah will do what He wishes.” Both the foreseen knowledge of martyrdom and his understanding of the reality categorically prove there being no attempt to prize temporal authority from Yazid.
Of particular significance is Imam Al-Hussain’s (a) choice of army. Leaving Medina for the last time, his half brother Mohammed al-Hanafiyyah attempted to dissuade him from his cause. He replied, “The Prophet came to me in a dream and said, ‘Hasten toward Iraq! Allah desires to see you martyred!’” Upon realising he could not alter his path, al-Hanafiyyah asks why then do you bring womenfolk and children, to which the Imam (a) replies, “The Messenger of Allah told me Allah desires to see them in captivity.” Predicting his martyrdom and his families captivity then, does not indicate the expectation of a temporal victory, but rather there was something greater at stake, and that was the awakening of a sleeping and fractured Ummah.
This was testified to on the night before the battle when Imam al-Hussain (a) sought only the very creme of people to join him in his movement, specifically those without intent for worldly reward, but only those who seek to create a movement that would reverberate through the ages. Addressing his companions he said, “The enemy will not spare us for a single day. I permit all of you to go away freely, and I validate this for you. I lift up from you the responsibility of the allegiance and oath you have sworn to me. The darkness of the night covers you. Each of you may take hold of the hand of my family members are disperse into the villages, for these people desire only to kill me.”
After each of the companions re-pledged their allegiance, Qasim (a), the teenage son of Imam al-Hassan (a) stood and asked, “Am I too included in the list of martyrs?” Imam al-Hussain (a) questioned, “How do you consider death?” to which he replied, “It is sweeter than honey!” Crying, Imam al-Hussain (a) replied, “May your uncle be your ransom! You are one of them as will my infant son Abdullah be martyred too!”
Understanding the motivations of the Karbala movement are predicated on a sound cognisance Imam al-Hussain (a), both as a leading theological figure and the historical circumstances he found himself in. Correctly defining the uprising of Imam al-Hussain (a) would also aid in defining its manifestations today, whilst a corrupt understanding would lead to a disjointing between the various denominations the movement effects.
It is clear that both Mu’awiyah and Yazid were driven by megalomaniacal motivations. Proposing that the Karbala uprising against a tyrant regime for power and authority, therefore, equates the motivations of Imam al-Hussain (a) with the despots he sought to remove. This would not only be taking Imam al-Hussain (a) out of his historical context, a very poor form of research but for the believer to do so, taking him out of his theological context, something arguably approaching a blasphemy.
In this first part, we sought to negate the false understandings of the Karbala movement by demonstrating that Imam al-Hussain (a) was called upon by the Ummah to bring about justice. Whether or not they supported him in it is another question, but what pushed his sacrifice was at least the desire from the Ummah for a return to true Islam and when the threats on his life became untenable.
In the second part of this series, we will address the issue of why there has been a hijacking of this narrative and whom it benefits to corrupt the understanding of an uprising against a tyrant government.
There is no strength or power except with Allah. May Allah send his blessings upon the Prophets, especially upon the choicest of them, the Messenger Muhammad and his pure progeny.
 For further details refer to Sulh al-Hasan, Aal-Yasin, Radi, Ansariyan Publications
 For further details refer to The Life and Times of Imam al-Hasan, Qarashi, Baqir, Ansariyan Publications
 Khalifa ibn Khayyat’s History on the Umayyad Dynasty (660-750), pg 238, Liverpool University Press, 2015
 Al-Badayah wa an-Nihaya, Ibn Kathir, vol. 8, pg 79
 As-Sawa’iq Al-Muhriqah, al-Haytami, Ibn Hajar, pg 204
قال هارون ذات يوم للإمام(ع) و قد رآه في جانب الكعبة: هل أنت من بايعه الناس خفية ورضوا به إماماً؟!
فقال الإمام: أنا إمام القلوب وأنت إمام الجسوم
 Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, Book 59, The Book of Military Expeditions led by the Prophet, Hadith no. 744
 Nahj al-Balaghah, ar-Razi, as-Sharif, Sermon 127
 Al-Kamil fi at-Tareekh, Ibn al-Athir, vol. 3, pgs 510-511
 For further reading refer to Ansaab as-Ashraf, vol. 3, pg 370; Al-Imamah wa as-Siyasah, vol. 4, pg 2; Tareekh at-Tabari, vol. 5, pg 352; Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 44, pg 337; Al-Luhoof, pg 15
 For further reading refer to The Life and Times of Imam al-Hussain (a), Qarashi, Baqir, Ansariyan Publications
 History of at-Tabari, vol. 19, The Caliphate of Yazid bin Mu’awiyah, pg’s 70-71, SUNY Press, 1990
 Nafasul Mahmoom, Abbas al-Qummi, pg 186
 Nafasul Mahmoom, Abbas al-Qummi, pg’s 240-243