The Battle of Karbala — who, what, why

Painting depicting the battle of Karbala

What was the battle?

1,337 years ago on 10 October 680 AD a battle took place on the plains of Karbala, a city in Iraq, a group of 300 against an army of 30,000. The fight was over in hours, the dead lay alone while the army marched on with it’s captives.

Muslims worldwide remember this battle as if it took place yesterday, and those killed as dear to them as their kin. Each year on 10 Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, the story is retold. Known as ‘Ashura’ (عاشوراء) meaning ‘the tenth’ referring to the 10th day.

The ‘Maq’tal’ (مقتل) translated to ‘The Killing’ is the retelling of this battle, crowds gather as vivid details are narrated. How the group’s leader was left alone, witnessing friends and family massacred, deprived of water, his six month old the youngest to die.

This was a killing in every sense of the word.

Who was involved?

The group was led by a man called Hussain along with his companions, family, including women and children. Significantly, Hussain was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the son of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

The bigger army was led by Umar, son of Sa’ad who took orders from Ubayd Allah, son of Ziyad, the governor of Kufa, a city now located in Najaf, Iraq. The caliph of the time was Yazid, son of Mu‘awiya.

Why did this battle occur?

The leader of the Islamic world, Yazid had assumed office after the death of his father, Mu’awiya. Under Yazid’s leadership the following atrocities occurred;

Yazid’s character was known even before the events of 683 AD, upon taking the throne he demanded Hussain’s allegiance as this would improve his position as leader.

Hussain refused to offer his support instead rose up where in his own words “restore the teachings of his grandfather”, this did not serve Yazid’s agenda.

How do we know what happened?

As with today’s wars, reporters were present, their role to write down what occurred.

Abu Mikhnaf was the first known historian to collect reports, he died in 773 AD, 93 years after the battle. His compilation was based on eyewitness accounts from the following;

  • Mohammed, son of Qays
  • Harith, son of Abd Allah
  • Abd Allah, son of Asim
  • Abu Janab Al-Kalbi

Details of the battle are also known via Hussain’s son, Ali (who survived due to illness) and his sister Zaynab.

The most famous work today is by Abdul Razzaq Al Moosawi Al Muqarram (1894–1971). He compiled events before, during and after the battle of Karbala in his book ‘Maqtal Al-Hussain’

Al Muqarram

Today the retelling of the battle is done so with a familiar tone that has become synonymous with the recital. This was made famous by Abd Al Zahra Al Ka’bi (1909–1974) where he narrated the battle every year in the city of Karbala.

Al Ka’bi

So what were the key moments of the battle?

The following are in chronological order; it is worth mentioning Hussain’s camp were deprived of water and fought thirsty.

  • Men prepare for war in the morning.
  • Hussain makes the first speech to the army, he informs them of his lineage, his grandfather. He asks them to ask each other about who he was.
  • Hussain’s companions offer speeches.
  • Hussain makes the second speech, places the Quran on his head, takes the sword and armour of his grandfather. Again reminding them of his status.
  • Al Hur, a general from the army, switches side and joins Hussain.
  • Umar, son of Sa’ad, throws the first arrow and begins the battle.
  • 50 of Hussain’s companions killed in the initial shower of arrows.
  • Hussain asks companions to fight 1 on 1 duels.
  • Umar notices men are losing and brings an end to dueling.
  • Time of afternoon prayers, during this, Umar orders the killing of Hussain’s horses.
  • Hussain’s companions fight on foot.
  • All companions now dead, Hussain’s family begin to fight with his eldest son Ali Akbar the first and his brother Al Abbas the last.
  • Hussain is left alone, he takes his 6 month baby to the battlefield asking for water.
  • With the baby in visible distress the army begin discussing what to do. Harmalah ibn Kahil al-Asadi kills the infant with an arrow.
  • Hussain fights alone until he is killed.

What happened next?

After Hussain’s killing the army beheaded the bodies and paraded them on spears. The women and children, now their captives were taken to Damascus, the capital, there they were taken to the courtyard of Yazid.

To find out more about Hussain, visit whoishussian.org, this article has been compiled with the help of the Hussaini Encyclopedia and the English translation of Al Muqarram work by Yasin T. al-Jibouri

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