Battle of Karbala

Battle of Karbala
Brooklyn Museum - Battle of Karbala - Abbas Al-Musavi - cropped.jpg
Abbas Al-Musavi's Battle of Karbala, Brooklyn Museum
Date10 October 680 (10 Muharram 61 AH)
Location
Result

Umayyad victory

Belligerents
Umayyad CaliphateHusayn ibn Ali and his supporters
Commanders and leaders
Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad
Umar ibn Sa'd
Shemr ibn Dhil-Jawshan
Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi (Defected)
Husayn ibn Ali 
Al-Abbas ibn Ali 
Habib ibn Muzahir 
Zuhayr ibn Qayn 
Strength
4,000–5,00070–145
Casualties and losses
8870–72

The Battle of Karbala 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 traveled to Mecca. The people of Kufa, an Iraqi garrison town and the center 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 2 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 Islamic Civil War, during which the Iraqis organized 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 galvanized the development of the pro-Alid[a] 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 catalog 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, organize 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

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).[3] 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.[4] 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.[5][6][7][b] 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.[10] 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.[4]

The Battle of Karbala occurred within the crisis resulting from the succession of Yazid I.[11][12] In 676, Mu'awiya nominated his son Yazid as successor,[13] a move labelled by the historian Wilferd Madelung as breach of the Hasan–Muawiya treaty.[4] With no precedence in Islamic history, hereditary succession aroused opposition from several quarters.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16][17] 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.[18][15] 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.[18][15] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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