What happened at Karbala – Lessons from an enduring tragedy
“O Allah! It is Thee in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. Thou are my refuge and provision in everything that happens to me. How many grievances weaken the heart, leaving me with no means to handle them, during which friend deserts me, and enemy rejoices in it. I lay it before Thee and complain of it to Thee, because of my desire in Thee, Thee alone. You relieve me of it and remove it from me. Thou are the Master of all Grace, the Essence of Goodness, and the Ultimate Resort of all Desire.”
This was the moving dua’ made by Imam Hussein (ra) just before the massacre in Karbala. Just before his martyrdom at the hands of the forces of Yazid bin Mu’awiya.There are certain events in history that shape the emotions of a nation; moments that stir passions and produce personalities that mould the destiny of peoples. The massacre of Karbala is one such event. As Muslims all over the world in the month of Muharram remember the bravery of Imam Hussein (ra), we should understand the lessons to be learnt from Karbala.
Succession to the Throne (Wilayatul A’hd)
Near the end of Mu’awiya’s (ra) reign as Khalifah, he opted for hereditary rule and took steps to introduce this into the mechanics of rulership in his polity. It may be inferred that he did this because he understood state leadership and stability in a certain way and this mirrored what we’ve since come to know as the monarchical system of handing down rule. Relevantly, to have a system of monarchy in rulership, by force or otherwise, is something which Islam does not allow. Indeed, Islam put in place guidelines for the election of subsequent rulers.
Mu’awiya (ra) tried to place his son, Yazid over the Caliphate. Historians like Imam Ibn Kathir and Ibn al-Athir narrated that after his Walis had failed to pledge the Bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Yazid in Hijaz, Muawiya went there himself accompanied by the army and bearing lots of wealth. He summoned the prominent figures and said to them:
You have known my conduct towards you and my family ties with you; Yazid is your brother and your cousin. I want you to propose Yazid for the Khilafah, so that you would be the ones who remove and appoint; who put people in authority and collect and distribute the funds.
Abdullah b. Al-Zubayr (ra) – the companion of the Prophet ﷺ – replied to him that he should either choose what the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) did (by not designating anyone), or what Abu Bakr (ra) did, or what Umar (ra) did. Muawiya became angry, and when he asked the rest of the people their reply was the same as Ibnul-Zubayr. Upon this Muawiya said:
You have been warned! I am going to speak a word, and I swear by Allah that if any of you replied to me by uttering a word on that occasion, he would not utter another word before the sword had reached his neck. So every man has only to spare himself.
Then he ordered the chief of his guards to place two men behind every prominent person of Hijaz and every opponent, with the instructions that if any of them answered back, to strike his neck with their swords. He then climbed up to the podium and said:
This group of people are the leaders and the best among the Muslims and no decision is taken without them, and no matter is settled without their consultation. They have consented and given the Bay’ah. So, do give your Bay’ah in the name of Allah.
This is the basis on which Mu’awiya established the system of appointing a crown prince. However the Sahabah as a whole didn’t agree with him. Umar (ra) described appointing a crown prince, by saying:
If a man gave authority to someone because of a relationship or a friendship between them while there were among the Muslims men better qualified than him, he would betray Allah, His Messenger and the believers.
Muawiya (ra) was getting older day by day. At the age of 75, he became seriously ill and died in the middle of the month of Rajab 60 AH.
The road to Karbala
As Imam Hasan (ra) had already died before Mu’awiya, a political vacuum had developed, as he was the only other possible candidate for the position of Khalifah. Yazid took advantage of this situation and wrote a letter to Waleed bin Utba bin Abu Sufyan, who was appointed the Governor of Madinah by Mu’awiya, to demand the bay’ah from Imam Hussein (ra) or else upon refusal, his head.
Waleed invited Hussein to a meeting for this purpose, but Hussein did not give his word at this meeting and decided to leave Medina along with his family to proceed to Mecca. When Hussein reached Mecca he received letters from Kufa urging him to go to there to become the Khalifah. Hussein sent an emissary, his cousin Muslim Ibn Aqeel, to Kufa to ascertain first-hand information about the situation in Iraq. Imam Hussein also knew that giving the bay’ah to a usurper like Yazid would certainly place Islam at great jeopardy.
Therefore he decided to leave Mecca for Kufa. Many friends and relatives urged Imam Hussein not to go to Kufa, but he insisted on going. Imam Hussein, along with his family, friends, and companions began the journey towards Kufa, 1,100 miles away, in a long caravan in the blistering heat of summer.During the early phase of the journey, the caravan came upon Al-Farazdaq (a famous poet) at a place called al-Sifah. Al-Farazdaq advised the Imam not to go to Kufa because though people’s hearts were with him, their swords would be against him.
But the Imam continued with the journey, and he received the first letter from his emissary Muslim Ibn Aqeel with good news. The letter indicated that the people were more than ready to welcome the Imam in Kufa and were looking forward to his leadership. Hussein decided to send another emissary to Kufa with a message.
The caravan kept proceeding toward Kufa. Many days passed but the Imam did not receive any more responses from Muslim Ibn Aqeel.In Kufa, Muslim Bin Aqeel with the help of Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi and Hani Ibn Urwah continued to hold meetings with the supporters of the Imam. Within a short period of time the gatherings started to gain momentum. Yazid learned about Muslim ibn Aqeel’s successes in Kufa and appointed Ubaidullah Ibn Ziyad to replace al-Nu’man Ibn al-Basheer (ra) as Wali of Kufa.Meanwhile, as Hussein’s caravan got closer to its destination (Kufa), coming to a place called Zubalah, Hussein unexpectedly received shocking news.
The shocking news was about Muslim Ibn Aqeel and the person who provided him shelter, Hani Ibn Urwah, both of whom were arrested and beheaded by the Governor Ibn Ziyad. Mukhtar was also arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Ibn Ziyad. Hussein gathered his companions and disclosed to them the bad news. Becoming scared, some companions left the caravan. Imam Hussein continued with the journey along with close companions and family members until he was face to face with 1,000 horsemen led by Hur al-Riyahi, representing Yazid’s forces, who had by now caught up with the caravan.
The army blocked the camps of Hussein from advancing and tension started to rise between the two sides. Hussein addressed the enemy explaining to them his motive for going to Kufa was in response to the invitation of the people. He even showed them a bag full of letters he had received from Kufa. Hur said that he and his men were not the writers of those letters. The Imam told them that if they did not like him to advance with the journey, he was prepared to return to Hijaz.
Hur replied: “We are commissioned to follow you until we take you to Governor Ibn Ziyad”, and suggested to the Imam to go somewhere that is neither Kufa nor Medina.Hussein found the proposal fair and turned the caravan away from Kufa. Hur and his army marched parallel to the Imam. The two sides reached a village called Nainawa where Ibn Ziyad’s messenger delivered a new message to Hur. The message read:
…force Hussein to a halt. But let him stop in an open space, without vegetation or water.
Hur conveyed the contents of the letter to Imam Hussein. The Imam defiantly resumed his journey and reached a place where another force blocked his move and forced him to stop. When Imam Hussein learned that the place was called Karbala, he ordered his camp to be setup. This was the 2nd of Muharram, Hijri 61.
Upon learning that his army had succeeded in laying siege around the Imam’s camp, Governor Ibn Ziyad sent additional military units to Karbala and appointed Umar Ibn Sa’ad in charge.
Imam Hussein opened a dialogue with Umar Ibn Sa’ad and convinced him to lift the siege so that the Imam with his family and companions could leave Iraq. Umar Ibn Sa’ad liked the Imam’s proposal and sent a message to Governor Ibn Ziyad notifying him about the results of the talks with Imam Hussein. Ibn Ziyad also found the Imam’s proposal acceptable.
However before agreeing to it officially, Shimr Bin Dhil-Jawshan, opposed it strongly. As a result Ibn Ziyad wrote a letter to Umar Ibn Sa’ad commanding him to either go to war with Imam Hussein or be relieved of his duties as commander of the army and Shimr would not only replace him but despatch Ibn Sa’ad’s head to Kufa as well.
Umar Ibn bin Sa’ad got the letter. After pondering over the consequences he decided to fight Imam Hussein. On the 7th day of Muharram he moved his troops closer to the camp and began to surround the camp. Ibn Sa’ad laid a blockade around the camp to cut it off from access to the river Euphrates, to deprive it of water in a move to force them to surrender.Two days later, (on the 9th of Muharram), the forces loyal to Yazid closed in on the camp of Imam Hussein.
He asked his brother, Abbas, to talk to Ibn Sa’ad and request a delay of the aggression by one night. Umar Ibn Sa’ad agreed to the request. He ordered his troops to delay the aggression until the following morning. Imam Hussein and his companions spent that night in prayer.
The Dawn of ‘Ashuraa
Finally, the day of ‘Ashuraa, the 10th of Muharram, dawned upon the soil of Karbala. It was the day in which Muslim blood would be shed and 72 innocent lives would be sacrificed.In the morning Imam Hussein went out of the camp and saw Umar Ibn Sa’ad mobilising his troops to begin the battle. He stared at the intimidating army, and as large as it was Hussein showed no signs of compromise. Hussein (ra) raised his hands to Allah:
O Allah! It is Thee in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. Thou are my refuge and provision in everything that happens to me. How many grievances weaken the heart, leaving me with no means to handle them, during which friends desert me, and my enemy rejoices in it. I lay it before Thee and complain of it to Thee, because of my desire in Thee, Thee alone. You relieve me of it and remove it from me. Thou are the Master of all Grace, the Essence of Goodness, and the Ultimate Resort of all Desire.
Umar Ibn Sa’ad shot an arrow in the air to indicate the start of the battle.
The tragedy of Karbala
Imam Hussein’s supporters insisted on being the first to fight. Therefore, they took the brunt of the enemy attack. The battle was ferocious. Within a short time the Imam’s supporters slew a large number of enemy fighters, were on the offensive and had the enemy on the defensive. This caused apprehension and confusion in the Ibn Sa’ad’s forces.
The 72 people of Hussein’s force were pitted against a 5,000 strong enemy force. So worried and nervous did the enemy become that their commander-in-chief ordered his army to set fire to the Imam’s tents, which were occupied mostly by frightened females and children, and he reinforced his fighters with more troops.
By noontime, the Imam stopped the fight to perform the Salah. By this time those left were mainly his family and a few supporters. They performed the Salah together. Two supporters were guarding the performers of the Salah. When the Salah finished, one of the guards fell dead; there were 17 arrows in his back.Ali Akbar, Hussein’s son, obtained permission to fight and dashed toward the enemy.
He engaged them in fierce combat and he continued to move forward, deep inside the enemy line. The enemy eventually overpowered him, cutting him with swords and spears, and his body became nothing but wounds gushing blood, until death. Imam Hussein rushed to him and picked up the wounded limp body and brought it to his camp. His sister and others in the camp were horrified and shocked to see this.Abbas and five other brothers of Imam Hussein went to fight next.
They also engaged the enemy in fierce fighting. Abbas went towards the river to bring some water for the thirsty children. While he was returning on his horse with the water, he was attacked by a large horde of the enemy, overwhelming and severely wounding him. As much as he tried Abbas could not save the water and he fell from his horse to breathe his last. Next to the battlefield went the sons of Hasan (ra) and Zainab (ra) and their cousins; about 17 of them in all. They were all in their teens but each fought bravely.By the afternoon 70 people from the family and companions of Hussein had sacrificed their lives in Karbala.
All had fought under nerve-racking conditions: severe thirst, dehydration, exhaustion, and agonizing feelings of what would happen to the family of the Prophet (ﷺ) afterwards. Hussein endured all that and more, for he saw all his beloved ones brutally cut to pieces, including children.
Being the only one left, Hussein was to face the enemy head on. Precisely at that moment Hussein heard his baby crying incessantly, agonizing because of the thirst. Hussein’s love for his family was unbound, especially for a suffering baby. He held the six month old baby, his youngest son, Ali Asghar, in his arms, and appealed to the enemy fighters for some water for the baby.
The Imam wanted to awaken their Islamic feelings but the stone-hearted forces of Ibn Sa’ad had been corrupted by political intrigue, and instead of giving water, fired an arrow toward the agonizing baby and killed him instantly. Imam Hussein was shocked. He felt an unbearable wave of pain. He filled his palm with the blood of the baby, and threw it upwards toward the sky, beseeching Allah:
O Allah, O my Lord! My consolation is the fact that Thou in Thine Majesty are witnessing what I am going through.
Imam Hussein was alone: one man against thousands.
He took them on, fighting them bravely, and kept fighting, receiving many wounds in the process. Thousands of enemy fighters were surrounding him but none dared to move towards him. The silence was broken when Shimr screamed for an attack, and then screamed again, threatening. In response they attacked collectively, and one sword fell on Imam Hussein’s left wrist and deeply cut his left hand. Blood gushed like a fountain. Another sword was soon to follow and it hit his upper back.
Imam Hussein felt numb as he fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. He was at the point of shock, even though staggering he tried to stand by leaning on his sword. Then he received the fatal blow.It was at this point that Shimr came forward and sever Imam Hussein’s (ra) noble head from his body, the noble head kissed often by the Prophet (ﷺ)! Shimr and others had the audacity to carry it on the tip of a spear to Yazid, 600 miles away. At this, it is reported that an old man in the assembly cried out, in some semblance of humanity:
Gently! It is the Prophet’s grandson. By Allah, I have seen these very lips kissed by the blessed mouth of RasoolAllah (ﷺ).
Yazid the Usurper (Mutasallit)
Yazid never received the bay’ah by consent and selection, and thus never held the seat of Khalifah validly. He was a usurper (Mutasallit).From a fiqhi perspective, if a usurper were to seize power by force he would not become Khalifah, even if he declared himself to be the Khalifah of the Muslims. This is because the Khilafah in this case would not have been contracted to him by Muslims properly.
If he were to take the Bay’ah from the people by force and coercion he would not become Khalifah even if the Bay’ah was given to him (taken by him). This is because a Bay’ah that is taken by force and coercion is not considered valid and the Khilafah cannot be legitimised that way. It is a contract based on mutual consent and choice, and cannot be concluded forcefully, or by coercion.
The Khilafah cannot therefore be concluded except by a Bay’ah of consent and choice.However, if the usurper managed to convince the people that it would be in the interest of the Muslims to give him their Bay’ah and that the implementation of Shar’a rules obliges them to give the Bay’ah, and they were convinced of that and accepted it and then gave him the Bay’ah by consent and free choice, he would become Khalifah from the moment that the Bay’ah was given to him by consent and choice.
This had never happened in the case of Yazid, and the Muslims were correct in trying to secure the Bay’ah for the man whom they wished to pledge allegiance to.
Lessons from the tragedy of Karbala
Karbala is among one of the worst tragedies humanity has ever seen. However, there is much to learn about how dynamics in such an expansive and hectic Islamic political environment should work and it is imperative that we learn these vital lessons.
- The institution of the Khilafah is matter of life and death. A matter which Imam Hussein (ra) gave his life, his family’s lives and the life of his son for. This was done in order to ensure that the seat of Khilafah not be abused or usurped.
- Bay’ah is the only method to appoint the Khalif – It must be given by consent and choice. The Bay’ah is the only Islamic method to appoint the Khalifah. We can see clearly that Yazid never received the Bay’ah by consent and choice. Indeed his father took the Bay’ah by force for him, and he subdued any opposition to his power by force. A vital lesson to learn is that, just like any contract, the Bay’ah cannot be taken by coercion, but must be based on consent and choice.
- Rotating Walis frequently. It can be seen that one of the reasons that allowed Muawiya (ra) to gain such popularity and build a strong support base in Syria (which later allowed him to appoint Yazid) was that he was allowed to remain in the position of Wali for over 20 years. It would be considered wise political maneuvering for the Khalifah to change his Walis regularly.The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to appoint Walis for a period of time and then relieve them, and no Wali remained at his Wilaya during the whole era of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). This indicates that the Wali should never be appointed permanently, but only for a short spell after which he is removed. However, evidence about the length of this period (i.e. whether it should be long or short) has not been gleaned by the actions of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). All that is related to this matter is that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) did not keep a Wali at his post during the whole of his life. What has been established as a fact is that he (ﷺ) used to appoint the Walis and then relieve them. However, the civil strife (fitna) that shook the Ummah was caused by the lengthy period of Mu’awiya’s Wilaya over Ash-Sham during the times of Umar (ra) and Uthman (ra). This leads us to the conclusion that a lengthy period of Wilaya could harm the Muslims and the Khilafah.
- Constantly accounting subordinates. Umar (ra) was known to be strict when accounting the Walis and the Amils. He would even remove some of them on just a suspicion without conclusive evidence. He even used to remove a Wali on the slightest doubt that did not even reach the level of suspicion. He was asked about this one day and he said: “It is easy to swap an Amir for another so as to amend the people’s affairs.”
Another lesson we can learn is that the Khalifah must constantly enquire about the work of his Walis and he should monitor them closely. The Khalifah should appoint someone who would check their state of affairs and carry out inspections. The Khalifah should also meet with all of them or some of them from time to time and listen to the complaints of the subjects against them.It has been confirmed that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to examine the Walis when appointing them, as he did with Mu’adh (ra) and Abu Musa (ra). He used to explain to them how they should conduct their duties, as he did with ‘Amr b. Hazm (ra). He also drew their attention to some important matters as he did with Aban b. Sa’id (ra) when he appointed him Wali over Bahrain and said to him: “Look after Abd Qays and honour their leaders”. Likewise it has also been confirmed that he (ﷺ) used to hold the Walis to account, inspect their situation and listen to news brought to him about them. He (ﷺ) used to ask the Walis to account for the revenues and expenses spent.Umar (ra) used to closely monitor the Walis, and he appointed Muhammad Ibnu Maslama (ra) to examine their state of affairs and inspect them. Umar (ra) used to gather the Walis during the Hajj season to review their performance and to listen to the complaints from the people about them, and he also used to discuss with them the affairs of the Wilayahs and ask about their own conditions. It has been reported that Umar (ra) once said to people around him: “Would you say that my duty would be fulfilled if I appointed over you the best from amongst you, and ordered him to be just?” They said: “Yes.” He said: “No. Not until I had checked his performance, and seen whether or not he did what I had ordered him to do.”
- Walis should have restricted sovereignty. Muawiya (ra) was appointed Wali over Syria and Iraq with general powers, i.e. a general Wilaya. He had full control over the armed forces, the finances, the judiciary, the police force, the economy, the administration and all other aspects of ruling. It can be seen that had the powers of Muawiya (ra) been limited, he might not have been able to muster the support needed to fight Ali (ra) or award his son eventual leadership. In the wake of Uthman’s (ra) death, Ali (ra) had problems getting Muawiya to come under his authority. This was because, Muawiya had built a strong power base when he was a Wali over Al-Sham. Therefore, giving a general Wilaya causes a known harm to the Islamic State. Thus, the Wali should be given a restricted Wilaya in a way that would prevent him from becoming autonomous of the Khalifah and strengthening the Khalifah himself.This can be further seen in the latter Khulafah of the Abbasid period where the Wilayah became autonomous from the centre, further weakening the Khilafah state itself.The main factors contributing to a breakaway would be the armed forces, funds and the judiciary, because the armed forces represent the power, the funds represent the “life blood” and the judiciary demonstrates the safeguarding of the rights and the execution of the penal codes. Therefore the Walis should be given a specific (Khass) Wilaya that excludes the judiciary, the armed forces and the funds. Delegating these to the Wali would encourage a potential breakaway and this would undermine the State’s authority.
- Conditions of the Wali. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to select his Walis from among the good people, and those who had knowledge and were known for their piety. He used to select them from among those who were experts in their field, and who would fill people’s hearts with Iman and respect for the State. Sulayman Ibnu Barida reported on the authority of his father that he said: “Whenever the Messenger of Allah (saw) appointed an Ameer over an army or an expedition, he used to advise him regarding himself to fear Allah, and to be good to the Muslims who accompany him,” [Muslim]Since the Wali is, in fact, an Ameer over his Wilaya, the Hadith would then apply to him as well. Appointing Walis and rulers devoid of these qualities could lead to the problems mentioned earlier.
- The massacre of Karbala has highlighted the importance to Muslims to always stand steadfast in dealing with oppressive rulers. The rulers of the Muslim world today have not been appointed by the will of the Muslims, but imposed upon the Ummah. They are usurpers and have taken the authority away from the Ummah. In order for the Ummah to realise her full potential, and restore the honour that Islam has given her, these false rulers need to be replaced with a just Khalifah.
These are some points of reflection on the tragedy that was Karbala. We ask Allah swt to enable to us as an ummah to learn important lessons from this historical calamity that still causes pain in the hearts of many Muslims today.
This article has been sourced from an original piece by Ustadh Kamal Abu Zahra, with updates and editions.
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