What was the Battle of Karbala (680)?


The Battle of Karbala (Arabic: مَعْرَكَة كَرْبَلَاء‎), part of the Second Fitna, was fought on 10 October 680 (10 Muharram in the year 61 AH of the Islamic calendar) between the army of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I and a small army led by Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, at Karbala, Iraq.

Prior to his death, the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I had nominated his son Yazid as his successor. Yazid’s nomination was contested by the sons of a few prominent companions of Muhammad, including Husayn, son of the fourth caliph Ali, and Abd Allah ibn Zubayr, son of Zubayr ibn al-Awam. Upon Muawiyah’s death in 680 CE, Yazid demanded allegiance from Husayn and other dissidents. Husayn did not give allegiance and travelled to Mecca. The people of Kufa, an Iraqi garrison town and the centre of Ali’s caliphate, were averse to the Syria-based Umayyad caliphs and had a long-standing attachment to the house of Ali. They proposed Husayn overthrow the Umayyads. On Husayn’s way to Kufa with a retinue of about 70 men, his caravan was intercepted by a 1,000-strong army of the caliph at some distance from Kufa. He was forced to head north and encamp in the plain of Karbala on 02 October, where a larger Umayyad army of 4,000 arrived soon afterwards. Negotiations failed after the Umayyad governor Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad refused Husayn safe passage without submitting to his authority, a condition declined by Husayn. The Battle of Karbala ensued on 10 October during which Husayn was killed along with most of his relatives and companions, while his surviving family members were taken prisoner. The battle was followed by the Second Fitna, during which the Iraqis organised two separate campaigns to avenge the death of Husayn; the first one by the Tawwabin and the other one by Mukhtar al-Thaqafi and his supporters.

The Battle of Karbala galvanised the development of the pro-Alid party (Shi’at Ali) into a unique religious sect with its own rituals and collective memory. It has a central place in the Shi’a history, tradition, and theology, and has frequently been recounted in Shi’a literature. For the Shi’a, Husayn’s suffering and death became a symbol of sacrifice in the struggle for right against wrong, and for justice and truth against injustice and falsehood. It also provides the members of the Shi’a faith with a catalogue of heroic norms. The battle is commemorated during an annual ten-day period during the Islamic month of Muharram by Shi’a, culminating on tenth day of the month, known as the Day of Ashura. On this day, Shi’a Muslims mourn, hold public processions, organise religious gathering, beat their chests and in some cases self-flagellate. Sunni Muslims likewise regard the incident as a historical tragedy; Husayn and his companions are widely regarded as martyrs by both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

Political Background

Refer to First Fitna.

After the third caliph Uthman’s assassination by rebels in 656, the rebels and the townspeople of Medina declared Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, caliph. Some of Muhammad’s companions including Talha ibn Ubayd Allah, Zubayr ibn al-Awam and Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan (then governor of Syria), and Muhammad’s widow A’isha, refused to recognize Ali. They called for revenge against Uthman’s killers and the election of a new caliph through shura (consultation). These events precipitated the First Fitna (First Muslim Civil War). When Ali was assassinated by Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, in 661, his eldest son Hasan succeeded him but soon signed a peace treaty with Mu’awiya to avoid further bloodshed. In the treaty, Hasan was to hand over power to Mu’awiya on the condition that Mu’awiya be a just ruler and that he would not establish a dynasty. After the death of Hasan in 670, his younger brother Husayn became the head of the Banu Hashim clan to which the Islamic prophet Muhammad also belonged. Though his father’s supporters in Kufa gave him their allegiance, he would abide to the peace treaty between Hasan and Mu’awiya as long as the latter was alive.

The Battle of Karbala occurred within the crisis resulting from the succession of Yazid I. In 676, Mu’awiya nominated his son Yazid as successor, a move labelled by the historian Wilferd Madelung as breach of the Hasan-Muawiya treaty. With no precedence in Islamic history, hereditary succession aroused opposition from several quarters. Mu’awiya summoned a shura, or consultative assembly, in Damascus and persuaded representatives from many provinces to agree to his plan by diplomacy and bribes. He then ordered Marwan ibn al-Hakam, then the governor of Medina, where Husayn and several other influential Muslims resided, to announce the decision. Marwan faced resistance to this announcement, especially from Husayn, Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, Abd Allah ibn Umar and Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr, the sons of Muhammad’s prominent companions, all of whom, by virtue of their descent, could also lay claim to the caliphal title. Mu’awiya went to Medina and pressed the four dissenters to accede. He followed and threatened some of them with death, but they still refused to support him. Nonetheless, Mu’awiya convinced the people of Mecca that the four had pledged their allegiance, and received allegiance from them for Yazid. On his return to Damascus, he secured allegiance from the people of Medina as well. There was no further overt protest against the plan for Yazid’s succession. According to the historians Fitzpatrick and Walker, Yazid’s succession, which was considered as an “anomaly in Islamic history”, transformed the government from a “consultative” form to a monarchy. Before his death in April 680, Mu’awiya cautioned Yazid that Husayn and Ibn al-Zubayr might challenge his rule and instructed him to defeat them if they did. Yazid was further advised to treat Husayn with caution and not to spill his blood, since he was the grandson of Muhammad.

General Background

On his succession, Yazid charged the governor of Medina, Walid ibn Utba ibn Abu Sufyan, to secure allegiance from Husayn, Ibn al-Zubayr and Abd Allah ibn Umar, with force if necessary. Walid sought the advice of his Umayyad relative Marwan ibn al-Hakam, who suggested that Ibn al-Zubayr and Husayn should be forced to pledge allegiance as they were dangerous, while Ibn Umar should be left alone since he posed no threat. Walid summoned the two, but Ibn al-Zubayr escaped to Mecca. Husayn answered the summons but declined to pledge allegiance in the secretive environment of the meeting, suggesting it should be done in public. Marwan told Walid to imprison or behead him, but due to Husayn’s kinship with Muhammad, Walid was unwilling to take any action against him. A few days later, Husayn left for Mecca without acknowledging Yazid. He arrived in Mecca at the beginning of May 680, and stayed there until the beginning of September.

Husayn had considerable support in Kufa, which had been the caliphal capital during the reigns of his father and brother. The Kufans had fought the Umayyads and their Syrian allies during the First Fitna, the five-year civil war which had established the Umayyad Caliphate. They were dissatisfied with Hasan’s abdication and strongly resented Umayyad rule. While in Mecca, Husayn received letters from pro-Alids in Kufa informing him that they were tired of the Umayyad rule, which they considered to be oppressive, and that they had no rightful leader. They asked him to lead them in revolt against Yazid, promising to remove the Umayyad governor if Husayn would consent to aid them. Husayn wrote back affirmatively that a rightful leader is the one who acts according to the Qur’an and promised to lead them with the right guidance. Then he sent his cousin Muslim ibn Aqil to assess the situation in Kufa. Ibn Aqil attracted widespread support and informed Husayn of the situation, suggesting that he join them there. Yazid removed Nu’man ibn Bashir al-Ansari as governor of Kufa due to his inaction, and installed Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, then governor of Basra, in his place. As a result of Ibn Ziyad’s suppression and political manoeuvring, Ibn Aqil’s following began to dissipate and he was forced to declare the revolt prematurely. It was defeated and Ibn Aqil was killed. Husayn had also sent a messenger to Basra, another garrison town in Iraq, but the messenger could not attract any following and was quickly apprehended and executed.

Husayn was unaware of the change of political circumstances in Kufa and decided to depart. Abd Allah ibn Abbas and Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr advised him not to move to Iraq, or, if he was determined, not to take women and children with him. The sincerity of Ibn al-Zubayr’s advice has been doubted by many historians, however, as he had his own plans for leadership and was supposedly happy to be rid of Husayn. Nevertheless, he offered Husayn support if he would stay in Mecca and lead the opposition to Yazid from there. Husayn refused this, citing his abhorrence of bloodshed in the sanctuary, and decided to go ahead with his plan.

Journey Towards Kufa

Husayn left Mecca with some fifty men and his family on 9 September 680 (8 Dhu al-Hijjah 60 AH), a day before Hajj. He took the northerly route through the Arabian Desert. On persuasion of Husayn’s cousin Abd Allah ibn Ja’far, the governor of Mecca Amr ibn Sa’id sent his brother and Ibn Ja’far after Husayn in order to assure him safety in Mecca and bring him back. Husayn refused to return, relating that Muhammad had ordered him in a dream to move forward irrespective of the consequences. At a place known as Tan’im, he seized a caravan carrying dyeing plants and clothes sent by the governor of Yemen to Yazid. Further on the way, at a place called Tha’labiyya, the small caravan received the news of the execution of Ibn Aqil and the indifference of the people of Kufa. Husayn at this point is reported to have considered turning back, but was persuaded to push forward by Ibn Aqil’s brothers, who wanted to avenge his death; according to Madelung and I.K.A. Howard, these reports are doubtful. Later, at Zubala, Husayn learned of the capture and execution of his messenger Qays ibn Musahir al-Saydawi, whom he had sent from the Hejaz (western Arabia) to Kufa to announce his arrival. He informed his followers of the situation and asked them to leave. Most of the people who had joined him on the way left, while his companions from Mecca decided to stay with him.

Ibn Ziyad had stationed troops on the routes into Kufa. Husayn and his followers were intercepted by the vanguard of Yazid’s army, about 1,000 men led by Hurr ibn Yazid al-Tamimi, south of Kufa near Qadisiyya.

I did not come to you until your letters were brought to me, and your messengers came to me saying, ‘Come to us, for we have no imam.’ … Therefore, if you give me what you guaranteed in your covenants and sworn testimonies, I will come to your town. If you will not and are averse to my coming, I will leave you for the place from which I came to you.

He then showed them the letters he had received from the Kufans, including some in Hurr’s force. Hurr denied any knowledge of the letters and stated that Husayn must go with him to Ibn Ziyad, which Husayn refused to do. Hurr responded that he would not allow Husayn to either enter Kufa or go back to Medina, but that he was free to travel anywhere else he wished. Nevertheless, he did not prevent four Kufans from joining Husayn. Husayn’s caravan started to move towards Qadisiyya, and Hurr followed them. At Naynawa, Hurr received orders from Ibn Ziyad to force Husayn’s caravan to halt in a desolate place without fortifications or water. One of Husayn’s companions suggested that they attack Hurr and move to the fortified village of al-Aqr. Husayn refused, stating that he did not want to start the hostilities. On 02 October 680 (2 Muharram 61 AH), Husayn arrived at Karbala, a desert plain 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of Kufa, and set up camp.

On the following day, a 4,000-strong Kufan army arrived under the command of Umar ibn Sa’d. He had been appointed governor of Rayy to suppress a local rebellion, but then recalled to confront Husayn. Initially, he was unwilling to fight Husayn, but complied following Ibn Ziyad’s threat to revoke his governorship. After negotiations with Husayn, Ibn Sa’d wrote to Ibn Ziyad that Husayn was willing to return. Ibn Ziyad replied that Husayn must surrender or he should be subdued by force, and that to compel him, he and his companions should be denied access to the Euphrates river. Ibn Sa’d stationed 500 horsemen on the route leading to the river. Husayn and his companions remained without water for three days before a group of fifty men led by his half-brother Abbas was able to access the river. They could only fill twenty water-skins.

Husayn and Ibn Sa’d met during the night to negotiate a settlement; it was rumoured that Husayn made three proposals: either he be allowed to return to Medina, submit to Yazid directly, or be sent to a border post where he would fight alongside the Muslim armies. According to Madelung, these reports are probably untrue as Husayn at this stage is unlikely to have considered submitting to Yazid. A mawla of Husayn’s wife later claimed that Husayn had suggested that he be allowed to leave, so that all parties could allow the fluid political situation to clarify. Ibn Sa’d sent the proposal, whatever it was, to Ibn Ziyad, who is reported to have accepted but then persuaded otherwise by Shemr ibn Ziljawshan. Shemr argued that Husayn was in his domain and letting him go would be to demonstrate weakness. Ibn Ziyad then sent Shemr with orders to ask Husayn for his allegiance once more and to attack, kill and disfigure him if he was to refuse, as “a rebel, a seditious person, a brigand, an oppressor and he was to do no further harm after his death”. If Ibn Sa’d was unwilling to carry out the attack, he was instructed to hand over command to Shemr. Ibn Sa’d cursed Shemr and accused him of foiling his attempts to reach a peaceful settlement but agreed to carry out the orders. He remarked that Husayn would not submit because there was “a proud soul in him”.

The army advanced toward Husayn’s camp on the evening of 09 October. Husayn sent Abbas to ask Ibn Sa’d to wait until the next morning, so that they could consider the matter. Ibn Sa’d agreed to this respite. Husayn told his men that they were all free to leave, with his family, under the cover of night, since their opponents only wanted him. Very few availed themselves of this opportunity. Defence arrangements were made: tents were brought together and tied to one another and a ditch was dug behind the tents and filled with wood ready to be set alight in case of attack. Husayn and his followers then spent the rest of the night praying.

The Battle

After the morning prayer on 10 October, both parties took up battle positions. Husayn appointed Zuhayr ibn Qayn to command the right flank of his army, Habib ibn Muzahir to command the left flank, and his half-brother Abbas as the standard bearer. Husayn’s companions, according to most accounts, numbered thirty-two horsemen and forty infantrymen; although forty-five horsemen and one hundred foot-soldiers, or a total of a few hundred men have been reported by some sources. The ditch containing wood were set alight. Husayn then delivered a speech to his opponents reminding them of his status as Muhammad’s grandson and reproaching them for inviting and then abandoning him. He asked to be allowed to leave. He was told that first he had to submit to Yazid’s authority, which he refused to do. Husayn’s speech moved Hurr to defect to his side.

After Husayn’s speech, Zuhayr ibn Qayn attempted to dissuade Ibn Sa’d’s soldiers from killing Husayn, but in vain. Ibn Sa’d’s army fired several volleys of arrows. This was followed by duels in which several of Husayn’s companions were slain. The right wing of the Kufans, led by Amr ibn al-Hajjaj, attacked Husayn’s force, but was repulsed. Hand-to-hand fighting paused and further volleys of arrows were exchanged. Shemr, who commanded the left wing of the Umayyad army, launched an attack, but after losses on both sides he was repulsed. This was followed by cavalry attacks. Husayn’s cavalry resisted fiercely and Ibn Sa’d brought in armoured cavalry and five hundred archers. After their horses were wounded by arrows, Husayn’s cavalrymen dismounted and fought on foot.

Since Umayyad forces could approach Husayn’s army from the front only, Ibn Sa’d ordered the tents to be burned. All except the one which Husayn and his family were using were set on fire. Shemr wanted to burn that one too, but was prevented by his companions. The plan backfired and flames hindered the Umayyad advance for a while. After noon prayers, Husayn’s companions were encircled, and almost all of them were killed. Husayn’s relatives, who had not taken part in the fighting so far, joined the battle. Husayn’s son Ali Akbar was killed; then Husayn’s half-brothers, including Abbas, and the sons of Aqil ibn Abi Talib, Jafar ibn Abi Talib and Hasan ibn Ali were slain. The account of Abbas’ death is not given in the primary sources, al-Tabari and Baladhuri, but a prominent Shi’a theologian Shaykh Al-Mufid states in his account in Kitab al-Irshad that Abbas went to the river together with Husayn but became separated, was surrounded, and killed. At some point, a young child of Husayn’s, who was sitting on his lap, was hit by an arrow and died.

The Death of Husayn ibn Ali

The Umayyad soldiers hesitated to attack Husayn directly, but he was struck in the mouth by an arrow as he went to the river to drink. He collected his blood in a cupped hand and cast towards the sky, complaining to God of his suffering. Later, he was surrounded and struck on the head by Malik ibn Nusayr. The blow cut through his hooded cloak, which Husayn removed while cursing his attacker. He put a cap on his head and wrapped a turban around it to staunch the bleeding. Ibn Nusayr seized the bloodied cloak and retreated.

Shemr advanced with a group of foot soldiers towards Husayn, who was now prepared to fight as few people were left on his side. A young boy from Husayn’s camp escaped from the tents, ran to him, tried to defend him from a sword stroke and had his arm cut off. Ibn Sa’d approached the tents and Husayn’s sister Zaynab complained to him: “‘Umar b. Sa’d, will Abu ‘Abd Allah (the kunya of Husayn) be killed while you stand and watch?” Ibn Sa’d wept but did nothing. Husayn is said to have killed many of his attackers. They were, however, still unwilling to kill him and each of them wanted to leave this to somebody else. Eventually Shemr shouted: “Shame on you! Why are you waiting for the man? Kill him, may your mothers be deprived of you!” The Umayyad soldiers then rushed Husayn and wounded him on his hand and shoulder. He fell on the ground face-down and an attacker named Sinan ibn Anas stabbed and then decapitated him.

Aftermath and Legacy

Seventy or seventy-two people died on Husayn’s side, of whom about twenty were descendants of Abu Talib, the father of Ali. This included two of Husayn’s sons, six of his paternal brothers, three sons of Hasan ibn Ali, three sons of Jafar ibn Abi Talib and three sons and three grandsons of Aqil ibn Abi Talib. Following the battle, Husayn’s clothes were stripped, and his sword, shoes and baggage were taken. The women’s jewelry and cloaks were also seized. Shemr wanted to kill Husayn’s only surviving son Ali Zayn al-Abidin, who had not taken part in the fighting because of illness, but was prevented by Ibn Sa’d. There are reports of more than sixty wounds on Husayn’s body, which was then trampled with horses as previously instructed by Ibn Ziyad. The bodies of Husayn’s companions were decapitated. There were eighty-eight dead in Ibn Sa’d’s army, who were buried before he left. After his departure, members of the Banu Asad tribe, from the nearby village of Ghadiriya, buried the headless bodies of Husayn’s companions.

Husayn’s family, along with the heads of the dead, were sent to Ibn Ziyad. He poked Husayn’s mouth with a stick and intended to kill Ali Zayn al-Abidin, but spared him after the pleas of Husayn’s sister Zaynab. The heads and the family were then sent to Yazid, who also poked Husayn’s mouth with a stick. The historian Henri Lammens has suggested that this is a duplication of the report regarding Ibn Ziyad. Yazid was compassionate towards the women and Ali Zayn al-Abidin, and cursed Ibn Ziyad for murdering Husayn, stating that had he been there, he would have spared him. One of his courtiers asked for the hand of a captive woman from Husayn’s family in marriage, which resulted in heated altercation between Yazid and Zaynab. The women of Yazid’s household joined the captive women in their lamentation for the dead. After a few days, the women were compensated for their belongings looted in Karbala and were sent back to Medina.

Later Uprisings

The Battle of Karbala and Husayn’s death signalled the start of the Second Fitna against the Umayyads.

Ibn al-Zubayr’s Revolt

Refer to Battle of al-Harrah (683) and Siege of Mecca (683).

Following Husayn’s death, Yazid faced increased opposition to his rule from Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr. Ibn al-Zubayr started secretly recruiting supporters in Mecca, while overtly calling for a shura to elect a new caliph. Ibn al-Zuabyr’s influence reached Medina, where citizens were already disillusioned with Umayyad rule and Mu’awiya’s agricultural projects, which included confiscating lands from them to increase the government’s revenue. Yazid invited the notables of Medina to Damascus and tried to win them over with gifts. They were unpersuaded and on their return to Medina narrated tales of Yazid’s lavish lifestyle and impious practices. The Medinese, under the leadership of Abd Allah ibn Hanzala, the son of a leading companion of Muhammad, renounced their allegiance to Yazid and expelled the governor and the Umayyads residing in the city.

Yazid sent a 12,000-strong army under the veteran commander Muslim ibn Uqba to reconquer the Hejaz. After failed negotiations, the Medinese were defeated at the Battle of al-Harrah, and the city was plundered for three days. Having forced the rebels to renew their allegiance, the Syrian army besieged Mecca. After Yazid’s death in November 683, the army withdrew to Syria and Ibn al-Zubayr declared himself caliph, receiving widespread recognition throughout the caliphate. Nevertheless, Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, his erstwhile ally, took over Kufa and most of Iraq from Ibn al-Zubayr’s governor, and Kharijites in Basra, Persia and Arabia weakened his authority. Although the Zubayrids defeated Mukhtar, the forces of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who became the Umayyad caliph in Syria in 685, defeated and killed Ibn al-Zubayr in 692. The latter’s defeat marked the reestablishment Umayyad rule over the caliphate.

Tawwabin Uprising

Refer to Tawwabin Uprising and Battle of Ayn al-Warda (685).

A few prominent Alid supporters in Kufa felt guilty for abandoning Husayn after having invited him to revolt. To atone for what they perceived as their sin, they began a movement known as the Tawwabin, under Sulayman ibn Surad, a companion of Muhammad, to fight the Umayyads. As long as Iraq was in Umayyad hands, the movement remained underground. After the death of Yazid in November 683, the people of Iraq drove out the Umayyad governor Ibn Ziyad; The Tawwabin called on the people to avenge Husayn’s death, attracting large-scale support. Lacking any political programme, they intended to punish the Umayyads or sacrifice themselves in the struggle. Their slogan was “Revenge for Husayn”. Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, another prominent pro-Alid of Kufa, attempted to dissuade the Tawwabin from this endeavour in favour of an organised movement to take control of the city, but Ibn Surad’s stature as a companion of Muhammad and an old ally of Ali, prevented most of his followers from accepting Mukhtar’s proposal. Although 16,000 men enlisted to fight, only 4,000 mustered. In November 684, the Tawwabin left to confront the Umayyads, after mourning for a day at Husayn’s grave in Karbala. The armies met in January 685 at the three-day Battle of Ayn al-Warda in present-day northern Syria; most of the Tawwabin, including Ibn Surad, were killed. A few escaped to Kufa and joined Mukhtar.

Revolt of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi

Refer to Battle of Khazir (686) and Battle of Harura (686).

Mukhtar was an early settler of Kufa, having arrived in Iraq following its initial conquest by the Muslims. He had participated in the failed rebellion of Muslim ibn Aqil, for which he was imprisoned by Ibn Ziyad, before being released after the intervention of Abd Allah ibn Umar. Mukhtar then went to Mecca and had a short-lived alliance with Ibn al-Zubayr. After Yazid’s death, he returned to Kufa where he advocated revenge against Husayn’s killers and the establishment of an Alid caliphate in the name of Husayn’s half-brother Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, and declared himself his representative. The defeat of the Tawwabin left the leadership of the Kufan pro-Alids in his hands. In October 685, Mukhtar and his supporters, a significant of number of whom consisted of local converts (mawali), overthrew Ibn al-Zubayr’s governor and seized Kufa. His control extended to most of Iraq and parts of northwestern Iran. His attitude towards mawali, whom he awarded many favors and equal status with Arabs, provoked a rebellion by the dissatisfied Arab aristocracy. After crushing the rebellion, Mukhtar executed Kufans involved in the killing of Husayn, including Ibn Sa’d and Shemr, while thousands of people fled to Basra. He then sent his general Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar to fight an approaching Umayyad army, led by Ibn Ziyad, which had been sent to reconquer the province. The Umayyad army was routed at the Battle of Khazir in August 686 and Ibn Ziyad was slain. Meanwhile, Mukhtar’s relations with Ibn al-Zubayr worsened and Kufan refugees in Basra persuaded Mus’ab ibn al-Zubayr, the governor of the city and younger brother of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, to attack Kufa. Facing defeat in open battle, Mukhtar and his remaining supporters took refuge in the palace of Kufa and were besieged by Mus’ab. Four months later, in April 687, Mukhtar was killed while some 6,000-8,000 of his supporters were executed. According to Mohsen Zakeri, Mukhtar’s attitude towards mawali was one of the reasons behind his failure, as Kufa was not ready for such “revolutionary measures”. Mukhtar’s supporters survived the collapse of his revolution and evolved into a sect known as the Kaysanites. The Hashimiyya, a splinter group of the Kaysanites, was later taken over by the Abbasids and eventually overthrew the Umayyads in 750.


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