On 10 Muharram 61/10 October 680 in Karbala, near Kufa, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hussein b. Ali, was murdered along with the close male relatives who were accompanying him. Throughout Islamic history this event had an important effect on religious, political, social and cultural developments.
In order to understand the events at Karbala it is necessary to examine some earlier developments. Shortly after the death of Hasan in 49/669, Muawiyah started efforts to ensure that his son Yazid was accepted by the people as heir apparent to the caliphate. After nearly five years, most of the people had accepted Yazid as the heir. The most serious opponent of Yazid’s appointment as heir were the important names in the opposition in the Hijaz, Hussein b. Ali, Abdullah b. Zubeyr, Abdullah b. Omar and Abdurrahman b. Abu Bakr. These, as children of the first Muslims who had witnessed the time of Prophet Muhammad, were important personages in the era in which they lived.
With the efforts of the administration Yazid was finally officially accepted as heir in 56/676. Those who opposed and did not want to pledge allegiance claimed that the hereditary system was Byzantine and that Yazid was not worthy of the caliphate. One of the important members of the opposition was Hussein, the second son of Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and Ali. He had been educated by his grandfather and he was an important scholar respected by the Muslims in the period in which he lived. Yazid had spent his youth in the desert with his uncles of the Kelb tribe; he might be suitable for being a tribal leader, but he had not had the opportunity to attain an education that would enable him to govern the society at that time; his personality was such that it would be crushed under the responsibilities of the caliphate.
When Muawiyah died in 60/680 news was sent to the provinces that allegiance should be pledged to Yazid as caliph. Yazid put great importance on the allegiance of the leaders of the opposition in the Hijaz, as they were possible rivals. Thus, after not receiving pledges from
Hussein b. Ali, Abdullah b. Zubeyir and Abdullah b. Omar, as soon as Yazid came to the caliphate he wrote a letter to the governor of Medina. In fact, he gave the order that if these men were not to pledge allegiance they should be attacked. Abdullah b. Omar, one of the opposition, stated that he would not oppose the general decision, and after the people had pledged allegiance he would too. Hussein and Abdullah b. Zubeyr answered the request of the Medina governor by taking separate roads and fleeing to Mecca. Their intention was not immediate rebellion, but rather to avoid being attacked by the governor of Medina. They thought that they would be able to move freely in Mecca where the House of Allah, the Kaaba, was located.
After his arrival in Mecca, Hussein started to get letters from Kufa, where many of his father’s supporters lived. It is reported that the people of Kufa sent Hussein letters inviting him there. As the people who sent the letters were the leading members of the city this implies that a large percentage of the people of Kufa supported Hussein. When the invitations increased Hussein sent his cousin Muslim b. Akl to Kufa to find out what the situation was. Muslim, who was warmly welcomed in Kufa, began to receive pledges in Hussein’s name. In a short time the number who had pledged allegiance to Hussein was more than 12,000. Then a letter was written to Hussein, informing him that a great number of people had allied with him and calling him to Kufa.
The governor in Kufa when Muslim went there was Nu’man b. Beshir. Nu’man heard of Muslim’s activities, and gave a speech in the masjid saying that people should not be involved in rebellion and that the cost of this would be great. Nu’man was not in favor of using violence against the opposition, and Yazid was informed of his soft approach by some spies. Yazid immediately dismissed Nu’man and had Ubeydullah b. Ziyad, the governor of Basra, made responsible for Kufa as well as Basra. The new governor was the son of Ziyad b. Ebih, who was accepted as one of the four Arab great intellectuals and known for his connections to the Umayyads; the new governor was also well known for not being afraid to use violence to protect the rule of the Umayyads.
Beydullah immediately took over the governor’s palace and soon had the city under his control. Muslim secretly continued his activities after Ubeydullah’s arrival in Kufa. Ubeydullah found where Muslim was with the help of a spy and had Muslim caught and killed on the roof of the palace.
Hussein, who had set out after receiving Muslim’s letter, met the famous poet Freazdak on the road; he asked him about the situation in Kufa. Ferazdak told of the situation in the famous phrase: “The peoples’ hearts are with you, but the swords are with the sons of Ummayya. Victory is with Allah.” While still on the road Hussein learned of the death of Muslim b. Akl and the betrayal of the people of Kufa. Hussein then consulted with his relatives and friends who were with him about whether or not they should go on to Kufa. Upon their insistence Hussein decided to continue on his way.
A troop of 1,000 people, headed up by Hur b. Yazid, who had been appointed by Ubeydullah to render Hussein ineffective, met Hussein. During the talks they held Hussein reminded the others that the people of Kufa had invited him themselves, but Hur said that it was his duty to take him to Kufa. When Hussein refused to comply with this it was agreed that they would go to a place near Kufa and they would wait for Ubeydullah b. Ziyad’s decision once he had been informed of the situation. This is how Hussein went to Karbala accompanied by Hur b. Yazid’s soldiers. The soldiers of Hur prayed behind Hussein where they rested; in other words, they showed him respect. Ubeydullah, learning that Hussein was staying in Karbala, appointed the son of Sa’d b. Ebi Vakkas, Omar, as commander against Hussein.
The choice of Omar b. Sa’d as the head of the army was not a coincidence. The appointment of someone who was equal to Hussein, of the Quraysh, had great importance in keeping control of the soldiers. Omar, with an army of 4,000 people, went to Karbala where Hussein was. Ubeydullah used pressure and managed to force many people to join the army, including those who had invited Hussein to Kufa. At this time, many hundred people who were on their way to join Hussein, seeing the seriousness of the situation, left him.
It is likely that Omar b. Sa’d did not think that things would develop in such a way that they would end with the murder of Hussein. Perhaps he thought that after the problem was solved with talks he would be able to return to his duty. In fact, immediately after Omar b. Sa’d arrived in Karbala the talks began. Hussein stated that he had been invited by the people of Kufa, and that as he could not fulfill what the invitation required he was requesting permission to return. Ubeydullah b. Ziyad was informed of Hussein’s request; he in turn requested the allegiance of Hussein to Yazid. After this Hussein suggested three alternatives to Omar: he could return to Medina, or he could go to Damascus to speak with Yazid or he should be given permission to go to one of the border regions to wage jihad against the infidels. According to reports, Ubeydullah demanded that Hussein surrender to Omar; if he did not then battle would commence.
The idea of “surrendering to Ubeydullah” was offensive to Hussein and he refused to do so. When he understood that battle was unavoidable, Hussein told those who were with him that they could leave before the fighting started; in fact, he stated that Ubeydullah was only interested in himself, and thus he recommended that they save their lives by going. However, when those who close to him refused to leave, the small number of men, only as many as would make up a detachment, were put into military order.
Before the conflict began there were talks in which the other side was reminded of Hussein’s position and that of his father, as well as the promise he had given to the people of Kufa; unfortunately, these were not very effective. Only Hur b. Yazid and a few people who thought like him showed a reaction when Hussein’s reasonable suggestions were not accepted, crossing over to his side and dying during the battle. After the battle started, those who were close to Hussein were killed, one by one, in front of his eyes. Then one of the arrows hit Hussein. In fact, when Ubeydullah sent Hussein’s severed head to his family in Damascus Yazid, weeping, said “I wanted Hussein’s allegiance without his death. May Allah curse Ibn Sumeyye (Ubeydullah)! I swear if I had been he I would have forgiven him. May Allah give Hussein peace and not hold him accountable!” thus giving the impression that he was saddened by events. At this time,
Yazid put up Ali, Hussein’s son, who was still alive; he invited him to a feast and they ate together. Later, when Ali wanted to go to Medina Yazid sent him accompanied by a detachment of soldiers so that they could assist him and protect him, thus helping him to arrive in Medina.
Immediately after the killing of Hussein the sounds and screams of remorse filled Kufa. When those who had survived Karbala were brought to Kufa, the women came out of the houses and began to cry. When Ali, the son of Hussein, saw this he said “Are they crying for us? Well, then, who murdered us?” confused by their contradictory behavior.
The killing of Hussein was the most important justification for all the uprisings that were subsequently carried out by the Ahl-i Baht. The Karbala event was an important reason leading to the creation of the Shiite belief as a major sect; formerly this had only been political sect.
Both the Sunni and Shiite Muslims have displayed a variety of reactions to this event. The killing of Hussein has been turned into a day of mourning by the Shiites on the Day of Ashura (10 Muharram).