The historical background of the battle of Karbala

By Prof. S. E. Hussain

Battles and wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions are nothing but the actions and inter-actions of social, religious and political orders of the time. The Battle of Karbala is no exception to this. In this short article, let us try to go back to the historical facts leading to the tragedy of Karbala in 61 A. H.

At the outset, the message of Islam sent through Prophet Muhammad descended like a bolt from the blues on both the elite and the illiterate masses of Arabian Peninsula, who were mainly idol-worshippers. It was clear that this message of fraternity and equality also laid stress on the unity of mankind in a world-state (Umma) with Muslims under the banner of Islam. The Prophet of Islam was also giving a new concept of leadership by selecting one, based on exemplary character and piety irrespective of one’s wealth, tribe, race or color. Hence, Prophet Muhammad’s (revolution)crusade includes wiping out tribalism, nationalism and feudalism. Though Islam produced a single person, as a leader, guide and ruler in the person of the Prophet of Islam, it does not in any way correspond to the autocratic dictatorship of a Hitler or a Mussolini. Muhammad was a ruler, who was loved by all his devoted followers, as when he had to go to the market, he used to ask his neighbors, if they had any business in the market, which he could carry out for them. Such were the ways of the Prophet of Islam. Imam Ali was also an absolute ruler and during his caliphate, he continued to live the life of a common man. He gave dignity to labor, as he himself worked as a gardener for a Jew. Some of the principles of Islam were for peace, happiness and human welfare. According to the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, gambling, alcoholic drinks and usury were banned. Rightful status was granted to women, it discouraged slavery and forbade hoarding of food grains and other essential commodities for profiteering.

Prophet Muhammad belonged to the family of Bani Hashim, who were very generous and well respected amongst the Arabs. Bani Hashim and Bani Umayya both belonged to the tribe of Quresh, who were the elite of Arabia. The family of Bani Hashim held the keys of the Holy Ka’ba, which further emphasized the veneration and respect they commanded. When the Messenger of God started preaching the unity of God and brotherhood of mankind, opposition to this revolutionary creed grew, spearheaded by Abu Jahl and Abu Sufyan, the chief of Bani Umayya, who was also the father of Muawiyah and grandfather of Yazid. As Prophet Mohammed started attracting converts, the opposition to Prophet Muhammad grew so intense and deep that his very life in Mecca was at stake, when the sapling of Islam had hardly taken root. He was then ordained by Allah to leave Mecca for Medina, which was known in Islamic History as Hijrat and the Islamic Calendar beings from this event. But before leaving Mecca, ProphetMohammed advised his followers to immigrate to Medina. At Medina, the Messenger of God was not left in peace for long. The enemies of Islam gathered forces in Mecca under the leadership of Abu Jahl, another inveterate enemy of Prophet Muhammad, and marched towards Medina to kill the Prophet and thereby uproot Islam. When the Prophet of Islam heard this, he collected a small band of devoted Muslims at Medina consisting of hardly 300 men and proceeded to meet the enemies of Islam, who were well over 1,000 strong. The forces of truth and evil met a Badr-an oasis not far from Medina. Here, what is known as the first Battle of Islam the Battle of Badr was fought. In this battle, some of the well-known leaders of the enemy fell under the swords of Hamza and his nephew Imam Ali. A large number of enemies were killed by the soldiers of Islam, some taken as prisoners and others ran for their live towards Mecca. This bitter defeat of the enemies of Islam rankled in the hearts of the idol-worshippers of Mecca, specially Abu Sufyan and his wife Hindeh, who lost her brother and her uncle under the swords of Imam Ali and Hamza.

The enemies of Islam in Mecca did not wait long but collected a stronger force and once again proceeded to Medina to square the account with ProphetMuhammad. On this occasion, the Islamic forces met their enemies at Uhad-a suburb of Medina, where the battle of Uhad was fought. In this battle, the devoted uncle of the Prophet, Hamza fell and Hindeh, the wife of Abu Sufyan and grandmother of Yazid mutilated the body of Hamza and chewed the liver of this noble martyr. Such was the deep seated hatred and savagery of Bani Umayya against the family of the messenger of God, particularly after their defeat at Badr. Subsequent events at Karbala over 50 years later go to prove that even after such acts of savagery and vengeance at Uhad, the hatred, jealousy and enmity of Bani Umayya towards the family of Bani Hashim still festered in the hearts of these hypocrites, though outwardly they had accepted Islam. However, the battle of Uhad was indecisive and the enemies left the battle field to return to Mecca. After a few years, when Islamic forces grew strong with Allah’s help and with more converts, the Holy Prophet proceeded to Mecca and captured this Holy city without any bloodshed. It was only then that Abu Sufyan and his (tribe)gang of Bani Umayyad pleaded with the Messenger of God to spare their lives as they were now willing to convert to Islam and accept Prophet Muhammad as the Messenger of God. Prophet Muhammad in spite of his strong position forgave all his enemies, including the wretched Hindeh. These conversions of Bani Umayyad and other enemies of Islam after the capture of Mecca were the beginning of infiltration of hypocrites into the fold of Islam. These so called converts were marking their time. They plotted later on to change and dilute those tenets of Islam, which did not suit their way of thinking, though they were unable to do so during the life time of Prophet Muhammad.

During the caliphate of Abu Bakr and Omar, these hypocrites managed to creep into the administrations of Islamic state. It was during the caliphate of the second caliph that Muawiyah, the son of Abu Sufyan, (was appointed) secured the governorship of Syria and made his headquarters at Damascus. By the time the third caliph, who was (also from the tribe of) a Bani Umayyad, was murdered, the administration was almost in full control of Bani Umayyad due to nepotism and corruption. To every student of History who cares at all to disengage the complexities of historic phenomena, two definite forces will appear to be in conflict throughout. During this period too, the revolutionary creed of Islam and those who upheld these were being opposed by evil forces, which sometimes opposed overtly or sometimes veiled as hypocrites, when it suited their tactics. Their main support and leader was Muawiyah who was then the governor of Syria. He continued to hold this office after the murder of the third caliph, when Imam Ali was forced to accept the caliphate. Imam Ali was forced to fight a bloody battle with Muawiyah at Siffin, in an attempt to remove him from the governorship of Syria. When his soldiers were on the verge of defeat at Siffin, Muawiyah used trickery and deceit to check Imam Ali’s victory. This vile son of Abu Sufyan continually plotted and conspired against Islam and Imam Ali, who was the rightful Caliph. Imam Ali during his brief caliphate, did his best to stem the tide of corruption and paganism from the body politic of Islam, but unfortunately he could not succeed to uproot this deep seated rot in spite of his best efforts as very soon he fell under the sword of Ibn Muljim while bowing his head in prayers in the mosque of Kufa. Reinhart Dozy, the well-known orientalist and other European writers on Islamic History have well remarked when they wrote that the coming to power of the Umayyad’s was in fact a victory for paganism and corruption. In short, the teaching of Islam according to the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad were being openly flouted and under the banner of so called Islam, pillage, murder and plunder were the rule of the day. One by one, the small party of pious revolutionaries of Islam, mainly from the family of the Holy Prophet and his companions were being eliminated by murder and poison. Nothing was spared by Muawiyah to achieve his ambition and lust for power for creating a kingdom and a dynasty for Bani Umayyad. Many a wavering was neutralized by bribery and coercion.

After the murder of Imam Ali, his elder son Imam Hasan, in order to avoid bloodshed and civil war, concluded a peace treaty with Muawiyah. Even so, Muawiyah was jealous and afraid of the knowledge and personality of the grandson of the Prophet of God, as he was attracting people from all parts of Arabia to Medina where, he was living peacefully at a distance from the intrigues and paganism prevailing at the court of Damascus. The very presence of such a pious and knowledgeable person, who followed and guided others to the true principles of Islam, was an eyesore and a threat to this vile ruler at Damascus. Being unwilling to conform to the terms of the treaty he had signed with Imam Hasan, Muawiyah adopted his usual tactic of bribery and had the elder grandson of the Prophet poisoned. On hearing the news of Imam Hasan’s death, this enemy of Islam bellowed ‘‘Allah O Akbar’’ (God is Great) in sheer glee. These were the gang of hypocrites who had infiltrated into Islam and seized power. Muawiyah now thought that the road was clear for him and his descendants-the Bani Umayyad -‘‘to play with the ball of Caliphate’’ as they pleased.

But Muawiyah had miscalculated the facts. There was another grandson of Muhammad and the younger brother of Imam Hasan to contend with. One of the terms of the treaty which Muawiyah had signed was to return the Caliphate to Imam Hussain after the death of Muawiyah[1], to where it rightly belonged. But Muawiyah being what he was-a cunning and unscrupulous son of Hindeh violated each and every term of this treaty, after Imam Hasan’s death. When Yazid came to the throne at Damascus after the death of Muawiyah, he knew that the dreams of his father and of his own to uproot Islam and create an Umayyad(Dynasty) Empire would not be possible, as long as Hussain was alive. Hussain stood for the principles of Islam, as taught by his grandfather, the Prophet of Islam, which were against tyranny, oppression and injustice. When Yazid succeeded Muawiyah, Imam Hussain was in Medina. Without any delay Yazid sent his emissary to Medina to compel Hussain to give allegiance to him, failing which to kill him. Imam Hussain knowing Yazid’s evil intentions collected his pious family members, including women folks and children and his few devoted friends and launched on his revolutionary mission towards Karbala to challenge the forces of evil. So, along with his family and his loyal friends, he embarked on a noble (mission) crusade to deliver a death blow to all reactionary forces and to liberate mankind from the shackles of injustice and tyranny. Even after reaching the plain of Karbala, Imam Hussain did his best to avoid conflict. But when all peaceful methods had failed and when he was surrounded from all sides by the enemies of Islam demanding his surrender, he showed he was now ready for martyrdom by keeping the embers of recognition red-hot in an unprecedented manner. It was this band of seventy-two adults and children which crossed swords with the mighty forces of an evil Umayyad Empire and showed once and for all that they would not tolerate evil and ignominy of Umayyad rule, which was corrupt and anti-Islamic to the core. By the evening of the tenth of Muharram-Ashura-this noble grandson of the Messenger of God and beloved son of Fatima was all alone wounded and thirsty on the plain of Karbala and when he was bowing his head in prayers to his Creator, he was beheaded by the most depraved of human species – by the name of Shimar. This unparalleled and unforgettable martyrdom was so aptly described by Khawaja Moinuddin Christie in his famous and immortal couplet:





[1]Actually the treaty stated after the death of Muawiyah it will return to ummah – for them to select their leader.