Muharram and Karbala: An Introduction
The first of Muharram is the first day of the year in the Islamic lunar calendar. For the Shias, it also marks the beginning of the month of mourning for Imam Husain, the son of Imam Ali (peace be on them). During the month of Muharram, they remember and commemorate the life, martyrdom, and the conditions and many events that that led to his martyrdom. They listen and recite to many mournful recitations of poetry and elegies and hold mourning ceremonies for him and his martyred companions.
Imam Husain was the leader of a revolution of the 7th century who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the execution of social justice and in confronting corruption and tyranny. He sacrificed all that he had, including his life to protect human honor and dignity.
Husain (peace be on him) was born in 626 CE and was born into a noble family that possessed the virtues of justice, love and peace. He became a role-model for justice and generosity to all skin colors, social classes and personal beliefs through his upbringing by his grandfather, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his household). It is for this reason that people were attracted towards him and his family.
The 10th year of the Imamate and the last year of the life of Husain b. Ali (peace be on him), the grandson of the Holy Prophet and son of Ali b. Abi Taleb (peace be on them), coincided with the coming to power of Yazid, the son of Muawiyah, a tyrant ruler and oppressor who ruled over the Islamic world.
The Death of the Holy Prophet (saw) and the Imamate of Imam Ali (as)
After the death of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him and his household) in 11 AH/632 CE, most of the Muslims broke the promise and allegiance they had made to him and Imam Ali in the oasis of Ghadir in the Farewell Pilgrimage in 10 AH. There the Prophet had announced, guided by Divine revelation, the successorship and Imamate of the Imam after his death. However, days after his death, the Muslim nation, ignoring his words and their commitment, chose their own leader.
As a result of this act, the course of Islam changed and the Muslims deviated from the Divine path that the Prophet had intended for the nation to take. After the governance of the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman; Imam Ali was chosen by the people to rule the Islamic nation which lasted for a brief period of 5 years. But at the end, he was struck with a poisoned sword in the holy month of Ramadan in the state of prostration in the Mosque of Kufa; an incident instigated by Muawiyah, himself a Muslim.
The Caliphate and Imamate of Imam Hasan (as)
After his death, his son, Imam Hasan (peace be on him) was the next Divinely appointed leader and Imam. Although the Muslims of Kufa and Hejaz paid allegiance to him at first, the people of Damascus and their ruler, Muawiyah did not and a battle took place between the two sides.
However, the Imam was betrayed by his followers who changed sides, leaving him with a limited number of loyal followers and Shias. As a result, when Muawiyah suggested a peace treaty, the Imam, knowing his followers would not be able to fight against the great army of Muawiyah, and to save Islam, agreed on the treaty with certain conditions, including that his followers would be left in peace (among other conditions) and surrendered the caliphate of the Islamic nation (Mufid 1376 AP/1997-8, 2: 353). He was, however, still the Divinely appointed leader and Imam of the people; whether they chose to follow him or not. What he had accepted to give up was only worldly ruling.
Imam Husain and Reforming the Islamic Nation
The treaty lasted after the death of Imam Hasan and up until the final year of the Imamate of Imam Husain (peace be on him). Yazid was a corrupt person who openly defied Islamic rulings and the tree of Islam would have withered under his rule had he been allowed to continue to do. This is while previous rulers, including his father Muawiyah were also not true followers of Islam and brought many deviating and corrupt innovations into it, including the obligation of cursing Imam Ali (peace be on him) after every prayers by the leaders of prayers; a most horrible and unacceptable innovation. Yazid though, was worse and continued the path of his father and other rulers and worse than them.
The situation of the Islamic nation at the time was such that many of the Islamic and moral values had deteriorated and would have continued to do so until Islam disappeared completely, if the situation had continued.
Therefore, when Yazid sent his emissaries to seek allegiance from Imam Husain, he refused and left Madina for the holy sanctuary of Makka. He explains the reasons for his doing so and his uprising and resistance against Yazid in his will which he wrote before leaving his home city of Madina, as the following:
“I have not taken up arms in order to make merry, or be ecstatic over what I possess. I am not making mischief, nor exercising oppression. But I am ready to fight for the sole goal of seeking reform of the Ummah of my grandfather, the Apostle of Allah (S). I want to enjoin good and forbid evil and guide the affairs of the people as my grandfather and father, Ali Ibn Abi Talib (‘a) were doing. One who accepts me with truth, the Almighty Allah is more deserving for truth and one who objects against me, I shall be patient on it. So that the Almighty Allah may judge between me and these people. He is the best of those who judge” (al-Qarashi, ch. Allegience of Yazid).
He spent a few months there and when the hajj (one of the obligatory pillars of faith which becomes obligatory on Muslims under certain conditions. If these are not actualized for a person, it is not obligatory for him/her to perform this act) season (in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Dhul Hijjah) arrived, the Imam intended to perform this holy ritual; however, he learnt that Yazid was sending his forces to capture or kill him and his companions and family in the holy and protected sanctuary of Makkah and the Ka’bah. To prevent this from happening, he changed his intention of hajj to umrah (a recommended ritual) and left for Iraq (Mufid 1376 AP/1997-8, 2: 414-15). Previous to this, the people of Kufa had written letters to the Imam asking him to come to their city and were willing to support him. They sought his help to fight against the oppression of Yazid and his governors ruling over their land. The Imam had sent his ambassador and cousin, Muslim b. Aqil to scope the situation and relay the news to him.
Though the people of Kufa first supported Muslim, under pressure and threats and enticements from the governor of Kufa, they betrayed him and left him alone; save a very small group. His hiding place in Kufa was revealed and when the government forces came for him, he put up a brave fight. However, in the end he was overpowered and captured. He was soon after killed and thrown off the Dar al-Imara (palace of the governor). His body was then beheaded and dragged in the city of Kufa.
Imam Husain left Makka for Kufa on the same day that he was martyred. When Imam Husain (peace be on him) reached close to the city of Kufa, he was faced with an army sent by the governor of Kufa, Ibn Ziyad. The army was led by Hurr b. Yazid al-Riyahi, who had been ordered to bring the Imam to the governor into Kufa (Mufid 1376 AP/1997-8, 2: 415, 427-29).
The Imam did not want to be the first to start a battle with them and therefore, did not start a fight against the army of the enemy there and stopped instead at the burning plains of a desert land. It was the 2nd of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar), 680 CE, 61 AH (Ibid. 432-33)
This land was the land of Karbala or Nainawa as it was also known. And so began the events of the first 10 days of Muharram, culminating on the 10th day, Ashura.
They stayed in Karbala for 8 days and during this time the Imam strengthened his position and ultimately chose his loyal companions. He gathered his companions during the night and in a short sermon, informed them that nothing buy martyrdom and death awaits them and since the enemy only wanted him, he lifted his allegiance from them so that whoever wanted to, could leave in the darkness of night and save his life. He then gave the command for all the lamps to be extinguished. As a result, many of those who had joined him for their own personal benefits scattered and left and only a limited number of those who were the lovers of truth and a group of his Hashemite clansmen (including his sons, brothers, nephews and cousins) remained. The Imam once again gathered those who were left and once again emphasized that the enemy only wanted him and they can leave in the cover of darkness and escape from danger. However, this time each of his loyal companions replied in their own words to the Imam but their message was the same: that they would not turn away from the path of truth even for a moment and would defend the Imam and his family till the last drop of their blood.
On the 9th of Muharram, the enemy demanded that he choose between allegiance and war. The Imam, who did not want to validate Yazid’s government of tyranny and oppression through his allegiance, asked for one night’s respite to engage in God’s worship and decided to fight the enemy the next day.
Perhaps the most extraordinary point of this revolution was that on the 10th of Muharram, Imam Husain stood up against a great army of 30, 000 men with only 72 of his companions and family members. This was because for the Imam, freedom and not submitting to oppression, and for his companions accompanying their Imam and leader, was more valuable than life and this unequal fight – despite the Imam’s few companions and family members – stretched for seven hours because the power and strength of wills is stronger than that of equipment and number of people.
Finally, after three days without food and water, in the heat of the burning desert of what is now Iraq, the Imam stood against the enemy with his small army.
On that day, they fought from morning till their last breaths and the Imam, the Hashemite youths, and his companions were all martyred. The Imam rose and with his bravery stood for all those who are under oppression and always defended the principles of truth.
With this tragic end but brave act, Imam Husain was ultimately victorious. His martyrdom became a factor for a revolutionary transformation and resulted in the downfall of Yazid’s tyrannical government. Imam Husain remained loyal to his principles to the end and his legacy has reached and inspires millions of people of the world even today.
Al-Qarashi, Baqir Sharif. The Life of Imam Husayn (‘a), Research and Analysis. Translated by Athar Husayn S. H. Rizvi. Qom: Ansariyan Publications. Chap: Allegiance of Yazid, part: Imam Husayn’s bequest to Ibn Hanafiyah. Retrieved from: https://www.al-islam.org/life-imam-husayn-research-and-analysis-baqir-shareef-al-qurashi
Mufid, Muhammad b. Muhammad. 1376 AP/1997-8. Al-Irshad. Edited by Muhammad Baqir Behbudi. Translated by Muhammad Baqir Saidi Khurasani. Tehran: Islamiyyah. Retrieved from: https://www.noorlib.ir/View/fa/Book/BookView/Image/30068/1/
Tabatabai, Muhammad Hussain. Shiʿe dar Islam [Shias in Islam].
Compiled by: N. Bayani & Rashed