Imam Husayn (a) [Lecture 7]

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Hamid Algar

Rajab 10, 1422 2001-09-27

Occasional Paper

by Hamid Algar

Summary of Lecture 7


- Imam Husayn, the son of Imam Ali (a), was born on the 3rd of Sha'ban, 4AH (626 CE). Like his brother Hasan (a), the Imam was very close to his grandfather the Prophet (s), and resembled him in appeareance. His name was given to him by the Prophet, and is the dimunitive form of the Arabic 'Hasan'. The Prophet recited adhan in his ear at birth, and foretold the fated of the Imam at Karbala, calling him "Sayyid ash- Shuhada".

- After the death of the Prophet Imam Hasan and Husayn did not participate in Islamic affairs during the reign of the first three caliphs. They did however guard the house of Uthman when his house was under seige by Muslims. During the caliphate of their father Imam Ali, the 2nd and 3rd Imams participated in all the battles.

- Between the death of the 2nd Imam in 49 AH and the death of Muawiyah, Imam Husayn continued to live a quiet life, even at the nomination of Yazid which was a violation of the treaty between Muawiyah and Imam Hasan. However, a number of delegations from Kufa came to Madinah pledging support for Imam Husayn, and requesting him to rise up against the Umayyads. One of the supporters of the Imam in Kufa, Hujr b. 'Ali, rose up against the Umayyads against the ritual of cursing Imam Ali. While he was swiftly captured and killed, it indicated a growth of Shi'a resistance to the caliphate. After the murder of Hujr, Muawiyah warned Imam Husayn not to give support to any of these uprisings. The Imam replied that this was not his goal. Why did the Imam not support any of these uprisings? For two main reasons: a) the Imam believed that the treaty of his brother continued to be legally binding b) Imam acknowledged the unequal balance of support between his followers and Muawiyah's men, as well as the fickle nature of many Shi'as who betrayed both his father and brother.

- 56 AH: Muawiyah appointed Yazid as his successor, violating the terms of the treaty with Imam Hasan. Yazid was utterly irreligious, openly drinking and mocking Islamic beliefs, so much so that Muawiyah himself expressed worry about his nomination. 4 years before his own death Muawiyah demanded that Muslims give allegiance to Yazid. Those that refused to do so were: son of Abu Bakr, Abdullah ibn Umar, Abdullah ibn Zubayr, and Imam Husayn. Muawiyah was unsuccesful in forcing their allegiances during his lifetime. In 60 AH when Yazid came to power, he instructed the new governer of Madinah Walid b. 'Utba to force an allegiance from the four, and especially from Abdullah ibn Zubayr and Imam Husayn. When Imam Husayn refused to give allegiance to Yazid even at the repeated insistence of Walid, Yazid commanded to Walid to get an allegiance or to kill the Imam. Walid replied that he would never kill the Imam, however much wealth he received in return.

Journey of Imam Husayn from Madinah to Iraq

- A few days later, on th 20th of Rajab 60AH, Imam Husayn left for Makkah with all his family and many of his friends. At hearing this, many Kufans invited the Imam to come to Kufa, and offered their help in fighting Yazid. But the Imam was aware of their unreliability and fickle nature, and instead sent them letters outlining his role as an Imam, and agreeing to come only if they allow his to carry out his true purpose. In addition to the letters, Imam Husayn sent his cousing Muslim b. 'Aqil to Kufa to assess the situation. On the 5th of Sha'ban, Muslim b. 'Aqil arrived in Kufa. At the time between 12,000-30,000 Kufans gave him their allegiances. However the current Kufan governer was replaced by Yazid, and the new governer Ubaydullah b. Ziyad began threathening and persecuting those who supported Muslim. Gradually the number of supporters dwindled, as some were bought over by Ubaydullah and others became tired or afraid, leaving only 30 devotees. Then Muslim b 'Aqil's place of hiding was betrayed, and on 8th or 9th of Zulhijjah he was martyred. This was the same day that Imam Husayn left from Makkah for Kufa, as he had yet only received positive letters from Muslim b 'Aqil reporting at the favorable events in Kufa. On his way, however, the Imam met Farazdaq the poet, who said about the people of Kufa "their hearts are with you, but their swords are with the Umayyads".

- Soon thereafter Imam Husayn was informed of his cousin's death and other prominent Shi'as in Kufa. Despite this, Imam continued on his way to Iraq, telling his followers they were free to leave him if they wanted. He arrived in Karbala on th 2nd of Muharram 61AH, and was compelled to set up camp in an unprotected area without direct access to water, under the command of Hurr b. Yazid and 1000 of his men. Soon the army of Umar b. Sa'd arrived, bringing the total of the enemy to 5000 men. Imam's army consisted of 72 people. At first Umar b. Sa'd said that if Imam agreed to swear allegiance he could return to Makkah. Imam Husayn refused. Umar b. Sa'd was stil reluctant to take action, and as a result the leadership was given to Shamir (commonly known as Shimr), who had fought with Imam Ali in battle of Siffin.


- On the 10th of Muharram (Ashura) Imam made a final appeal to the army of Yazid, not to save his own life, but to allow the soldiers to redeem themselves and prevent them from carrying out the heinous crimes there were about to commit. Upon their refusal, the battle began. It lasted less than a day, and began in the traditional manner with single combat between the two sides. At noon 2 major assaults were carried out against the Imam's camp, which while very small in number, presented stiff resistance. At this time Imam prayed Salat al-Khawf (Prayer when in great fear). One after th other, his followers were killed. Then the family members of the Imam were killed, 1st of whom was his son 'Ali Akbar, but then also the son of Muslim b. 'Aqil, a son of Imam Ali, Qasim the son of Imam Hasan. This left only Imam Husayn and his brother Abbas. When Abbas too was martyred, Imam bid a final farewell to his family. Some of the soldiers in Yazid's army continued to be reluctant to kill the Imam, but when Imam fell to the ground, a man by the name of Sinan carried out the murder. The army then proceeded to trample upon the body of the Imam, and remove the heads from the bodies of all the martyrs.

- There remained from the family of Imam Husayn only one male, his son Imam Zaynul 'Abidin, who was very sick at the time. Imam Zaynul 'Abidin who took on the role of the Imam at the death of his father, was taken with the women who remained, first to Syria and then eventually to their homes in Madinah. The heads of the martyrs were taken to Syria. It was not until 2 or 3 days after Ashura that the bodies of the martyrs were buried by local tribesmen in a mass grave. Yazid upon hearing of the killings in Karbala, pretended to be shocked, but as he neither reprimanded Ubayduallah, nor Shimr or any of the others, shows that the killings had been carried out on his order.


- Among the general Muslim community there was no serious reaction or outcry agains the actions of the caliphate that had murdered the grandson of the Prophet, less then 50 years after the death of the Prophet.

- The events of Karbala had a very important impact on Shi'i view of early Islamic history. Sunni Islam, with its belief in the general virtue of all the companions, often idealizes the first century of Islam, and looks to it to provide an ideal of model worthy of imitation. Shi'i Islam, on the other hand, recognizes that the events in the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet, were far from ideal. Rather early Islam was inauguarated by tragedy, and should not be seen as a model to be imitated. Combined with the belief in the coming of the 12th Imam, Shi'is instead look to the future for a time when Islam will be established throughout the world. This negates a view of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which says that the goal of the leaders of the revolution was to revert society back to the 1st century of Islam. Rather the Islamic Revolution can be seen as a preparation, or a step towards the coming of the 12th Imam (a).

- Finally Ashura became an extremely important date, both for its historical events, and the symbols for which the battle between Imam Husayn and Yazid stand for, ie. the continual struggle between justice and injustice. Thus a hadith of the 6th Imam says "Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala". Prior to 61AH there were numerous events associated with Ashura that occurred during the times of earlier Prophets, but the events of Karbala took precedence over all these other events.

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