Shi'a

Husayn


   Abu Muhammad Hasan ibn 'Ali is considered by Shi'ites as the second Imam, or spiritual head, of Islam. He was the grandchild of Muhammad and was raised in his household along with his brother Husayn. After the death of 'Ali in 661 AD/41 AH, Hasan was named Caliph but instantly abdicated the title. He retired to Medina and led a quiet life until his death in 669 AD/49 AH. At his death, Abu 'Abdu'llah Husayn ibn 'Ali, or Husayn, became the head of his family and, in Shi'ite history, the third Imam. The Shi'ites call him Sayyid ash-Shuhada , or the "Prince of Martyrs," for it is his defeat and death at the hands of the Umayyads that have defined the Shi'ite character.

   Under Mu'awiyya, the fifth Caliph of Islam and the man responsible for the overthrow of 'Ali, the Umayyads began to publicly decry 'Ali in religious ceremonies; this was too much for the partisans of 'Ali, the Shi'ites, who were concentrated in the Iraqi city of Kufa. When Mu'awiyya died in 680 AD/60 AH, he was succeeded by his son Yazid, who was a brutal, drunken, and thoroughly corrupt individual. Yazid was also a deeply pragmatic and shrewd governor, and, fearing more uprisings in Kufa, sent his general, 'Ubaydu'llah ibn Ziyad, to rule over Kufa with an autocratic and brutal hand. The Kufans sent for Husayn and promised to back him in a bid for the Caliphate and, against all the advice of his friends, Husayn agreed.

   With a large entourage of private citizens and soldiers, Husayn was intercepted at the Iraqi border by al-Hurr at-Tamimi, who was leading an army of one thousand people. al-Hurr convinced Husayn to not go to Kufa and Husayn soon departed in another direction. al-Hurr followed and on the second day of Muhurram in the year 61 AH (October 2, 680), Husayn and his entourage entered the plain of Karbala in Iraq and set up camp. On 3 Muhurram, a new detachment of Yazid's army appeared under the command of Umar ibn Sa'ad; this army number four thousand men. Umar had been commanded to force Husayn to declare his loyalty to Yazid or not let him leave Karbala. On 10 Muhurram, the most significant day on the Shi'ite calendar, Ashura, Umar's and al-Hurr's men, five thousand in all, attacked Husayn's entourage. Husayn had a grand total of seventy-two fighting men. All day the fighting lasted in sporadic forays, but just about all of Husayn's soldiers were killed not by soldiers but by the continual rain of arrows shot down upon them. By the afternoon, only Husayn and his half-brother, 'Abbas, remained, but 'Abbas got separated from Husayn and the enemy surrounded Husayn. Cradling his dead infant son in his arms, Husayn was cut down. At first no soldier wished to kill him, since he was the grandson of Muhammad, but he was soon dispatched.

   Husayn's followers were decapitated, and the women and children were led back to Yazid in chains. Among them were Husayn's widow, Zaynab, and his young son, 'Ali. The triumphant Umayyads carried back the heads, including Husayn's, on spear points, and Yazid gloated for days over the head of his dead rival. Eventually he released Zaynab and 'Ali, and the incident at Karbala came to a close.

   It is nearly impossible to characterize the importance of Ashura for the Shi'ite mind, since it is so engrained in Shi'ite history, culture, and religion. It is the great tragedy of Shi'ite history, and is celebrated every year. It represents in part the evil of the illegitimate Islam, the Islam that has been ruled by a degenerate Caliphate since the beginning. However, it is also an occasion of great guilt among Shi'ites, for the death of Husayn was the direct result of the inaction of the Partisans of 'Ali in Kufa. While the Shi'ites had called on Husayn for help, they did nothing for him when his hour of need arrived in Karbala. So the celebration of Ashura is a festival of collective guilt. Processions carry models of the Karbala tomb of Husayn, but the general atmosphere is one of mourning and weeping. Ashura also includes processions of devout Shi'ites who, out of guilt and mourning over the death of Husayn, flagellate themselves in the street with chains or ropes of razors. There is another aspect to Ashura : the veneration of martyrdom. The events at Karbala have inscribed permanently in the Shi'ite historical consciousness the idea that to be a Shi'ite is to be a martyr to the correct faith. The Iranian Revolution, although it started in January of 1978, erupted out of control in the month of Muhurram (December, 1978), and Ashura saw the greatest outbreak of violence. By the end of Muhurram, the government of the Shah of Iran was all but finished.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97