“I have taken this stand not out of arrogance or pride, neither out of mischief or injustice. I have risen to seek reform in the community of my grandfather. I would like to bid good, forbid evil, and follow the tradition of my grandfather and my father ‘Ali bin Abi Talib.” — Imam Hussein (a.s.)
Editor’s note: The following introduction is taken from Dr. Azim Nanji’s article on Imam Hussein that was published on the website of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. The link is currently unavailable.
INTRODUCTION: Imam Hussein (a.s.) was born in Medina in 626 CE and, as a child, is believed to have been held in great affection by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.). As a young man, he participated in the work of his father, Imam ‘Ali (a.s.), including in his military campaigns. After the death of his father in 661 CE and the accession to power of Muawiyah, Imam Hussein maintained a low profile and, although dismissive of the usurpation of power by Muawiyah, did not seek to foment open rebellion. However, when Muawiyah sought to impose his son Yazid as successor and thereby to institutionalise the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, Imam Hussein declined to offer allegiance (baya). He was approached by the people of Kufa to oppose Yazid and accept the mantle of leadership, which they believed was his right. In response to their call, Imam Hussein left Mecca for Kufa. On his way, he learned of the executions of some of his closest supporters by the Umayyads and decided to urge those from his group who were not willing to put their lives at risk to voluntarily depart. He continued on his way to Kufa with the rest of the group, camping at a place called Karbala. In the meantime, a contingent from Yazid’s army of about four thousand members arrived at the scene and ordered Imam Hussein’s small band to acknowledge Yazid’s authority while also cutting off their access to the river for water.
The final confrontation is the tragic account of the encirclement and massacre of Imam Hussein and his small army, which was said to number seventy-two men. They fought gallantly, but they were soon overpowered, and Imam Hussein, his brother, and some of his closest relatives were slaughtered. Imam Hussein’s head was taken to Damascus to be displayed before Yazid and his court.
Imam Hussein’s memory and death is commemorated in particular with great religious fervour and intensity during the first ten days of the Islamic month of Muharram, known as Ashura, which simply means tenth in the Arabic language. The 10th day marks the climax of the remembrance of Muharram.
The minute and stunning details of this tragic event have been written and survived from the very first day by eye witnesses. For the last fourteen hundred years, the battle of Karbala reflects the collision of the mind of Yazid and the Faith of Hussein.
Muslim and Non-Muslim Expressions on the Karbala Tragedy
It is interesting to see the wider human appeal of the truth that Imam Hussein stood for. Here are some expressions and quotations from notable Muslim and non-Muslim personalities and scholars with reference to Imam Hussein.
1. Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, 48th Shia Imami Ismaili Imam, writing in his “Memoirs”
“Mr. Justice Arnold’s judgment gives a lucid and moving account of the effect on Muslim life and thought of [Ali’s] assassination and of the subsequent murders – nine years and twenty years after their father – of Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet’s beloved grand children whom he himself had publicly hailed as “the foremost among the youths of Paradise;” of the tragic and embittered hostility and misunderstanding that developed between the two main Muslim sects, and all the sorrow and the strife that afflicted succeeding generations.”
2. Hussein Rashid, ‘The Mind of Yazid, The Faith of Hussein’, Simerg.com series, “I Wish I’d Been There”
“There are so many moments in history that I would love to be a part of. To be near the Prophet (s.a.s.) when he received the first revelation; at Ghadir-e Khumm; at the battle of Siffin; at Karbala; when Imam Jafar (a.s.) refused to be an Abbasid figurehead; I think that eventually these stories will be told better. That is the job of the historian.
“I still want to be at some of these moments, but with a different focus. I want to be the close companion of Yazid. What possesses Yazid to kill the Prophet’s favorite grandson after torturing the Prophet’s family? This thought is something I absolutely cannot understand. I want Yazid to explain to me what evil is in his heart to call himself a Muslim while denying and slaughtering the blessed family of the Prophet.
“I want to know how, after God says the Prophet is a beautiful role-model (33:21), that so many of the earliest Muslims turned against his family. To kill the family of the Prophet became a sport from within the community. I wish I had been there to understand that, because no historian will be able to answer the question.”
Excerpted from Simerg series: I Wish I’d Been There
3. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Muslim poet, philosopher and politician
“Imam Hussein uprooted despotism forever till the Day of Resurrection. He watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, and indeed he awakened the sleeping Muslim nation.
“If Imam Hussein had aimed at acquiring a worldly empire, he would not have traveled the way he did (from Medina to Karbala). Hussein weltered in blood and dust for the sake of truth. Verily he, therefore, became the bed-rock (foundation) of the Muslim creed; la ilaha illa Allah (There is no god but Allah).”
Ronay wala hoon Shaheed-e-Kerbala key gham men main,
Kya durey maqsad na dengey Saqiye Kausar mujhey…..!!
I am one who weeps at the plight of the Martyr of Kerbala
Won’t the reward be given to me by the Keeper of Kauser…!!
4. Hamid Algar, Professor of Persian and Islamic Studies, University of California, Berkeley, writing in “Grade 7 History”, Section 3, Special Occasions, Madrasat Ahlul’Bait Islamic School
“On the 10th of Muharram (Ashura) Imam made a final appeal to the army of Yazeed, not to save his own life, but to allow the soldiers to redeem themselves and prevent them from carrying out the heinous crimes they 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 (a) camp, which while very small in number, presented stiff resistance. One after the other, his followers were killed. Then the family members of the Imam (a) were killed; his son ‘Ali Akbar, the sons of Muslim b. ‘Aqil, a son of Imam Ali (a), the sons of Imam Hassan (a). Eventually only Imam Hussein (a) and his brother Abbas were left. When Abbas too was martyred, Imam bid a final farewell to his family. Some of the soldiers in Yazeed’s army continued to be reluctant to kill the Imam, but when Imam (a) 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 (a), and beheaded the bodies of all the martyrs. There remained from the family of Imam Hussein (a) only one male who was very sick at the time, his son Imam Zain ul ‘Abideen (a). Imam Zain ul ‘Abideen (a) 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 Medina. The heads of the martyrs were taken to Syria. It was not until 2 or 3 days after Ashura that local tribesmen buried the bodies of the martyrs in a mass grave.
“Kerbala is the cruelest tragedy humanity has ever seen. Yet, the startling (though appalling) events in Kerbala proved like a powerful volcano that shook the very foundation of Muslims, it stirred their consciousness, ignorant or learned alike. For sincere Muslims, Kerbala turned into a triumph. The tragic event became the very beacon of light to always remind Muslims to practice Islam honestly and sincerely, to do what is right irrespective of consequences, and fear no one except Allah (swt).”
5. Washington Irving, American essayist, author, biographer and historian. Author of ‘Life of Mahomet’, the first sympathetic biography of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) ever to appear in America.
“Imam Hussein could have saved his life by surrendering to Yazid’s will, but, his responsibility as the leader of the Islamic movement did not permit him to recognize Yazid as the ruler. He made himself well-prepared for any other tribulation to free Islam from the clutches of Bani Omayyeh. I know, Imam Hussein’s soul will remain forever under the scorching sun and on the hot sands of Karbala. I honor you, O, my Lord, the shining lesson of bravery and sacrifice!”
6. Simon Ockley, ‘The History of the Saracens’, London, 1894, pp. 404-5
“Then Hussein mounted his horse, and took the Koran and laid it before him, and, coming up to the people, invited them to the performances of their duty, adding:
‘O God, thou art my confidence in every trouble, and my hope in all adversity!’…
“He next reminded them of his excellencies, the nobility of his birth, the greatness of his power, and his high descent, and said:
‘Consider with yourselves whether or not such a man as I am is not better than you; I who am the son of your prophet’s daughter, besides whom there is no other upon the face of the earth. Ali was my father; Jaafar and Hamza, the chief of the martyrs, were both my uncles; and the apostle of God, upon whom be peace, said both of me and my brother, that we were the chief of the youth of paradise’.”
7. Peter J. Chelkowski, ‘Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran’, New York, 1979, p. 2
“Hussein accepted and set out from Mecca with his family and an entourage of about seventy followers. But on the plain of Karbala they were caught in an ambush set by the … caliph, Yazid. Though defeat was certain, Hussein refused to pay homage to him. Surrounded by a great enemy force, Hussein and his company existed without water for ten days in the burning desert of Karbala. Finally Hussein, the adults and some male children of his family and his companions were cut to bits by the arrows and swords of Yazid’s army; his women and remaining children were taken as captives to Yazid in Damascus.
“The renowned historian Abu Reyhan al-Biruni states “… then fire was set to their camp and the bodies were trampled by the hoofs of the horses; nobody in the history of the human kind has seen such atrocities.”
8. Edward G. Brown, ‘A Literary History of Persia’, London, 1919, p. 227
“… a reminder of the blood-stained field of Karbala, where the grandson of the Apostle of God fell at length, tortured by thirst and surrounded by the bodies of his murdered kinsmen, has been at anytime since then sufficient to evoke, even in the most lukewarm and heedless, the deepest emotions, the most frantic grief, and an exaltation of spirit before which pain, danger and death shrink to unconsidered trifles.”
Continued after image…
9. Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian and essayist
“The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Hussein and his companions were rigid believers in God. They illustrated that the numerical superiority does not count when it comes to the truth and the falsehood. The victory of Hussein, despite his minority, marvels me!”
10. Charles Dickens, English novelist
“If Hussein had fought to quench his worldly desires…then I do not understand why his sister, wife, and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore, that he sacrificed purely for Islam.”
11. Antoine Bara, Lebanese writer
“No battle in the modern and past history of mankind has earned more sympathy and admiration as well as provided more lessons than the martyrdom of Hussein in the battle of Karbala.”
12. Dr. K. Sheldrake, quoted in ‘Know Your Islam’, by Youssef N. Lalji, page 32
“Of that gallant band, male and female knew that the enemy forces around were implacable, and were not only ready to fight, but to kill. Denied even water for the children, they remained parched under the burning sun and scorching sands, yet not one faltered for a moment. Hussein marched with his little company, not to glory, not to power of wealth, but to a supreme sacrifice, and every member bravely faced the greatest odds without flinching.”
13. Ignaz Goldziher, ‘Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law’, Princeton, 1981, p. 179
“Ever since the black day of Karbala, the history of this family … has been a continuous series of sufferings and persecutions. These are narrated in poetry and prose, in a richly cultivated literature of martyrologies – a Shi’i specialty – and form the theme of Shi’i gatherings in the first third of the month of Muharram, whose tenth day (‘ashura) is kept as the anniversary of the tragedy at Karbala. Scenes of that tragedy are also presented on this day of commemoration in dramatic form (ta’ziya). ‘Our feast days are our assemblies of mourning.’ So concludes a poem by a prince of Shi’i disposition recalling the many mihan of the Prophet’s family. Weeping and lamentation over the evils and persecutions suffered by the ‘Alid family, and mourning for its martyrs: these are things from which loyal supporters of the cause cannot cease. ‘More touching than the tears of the Shi’is’ has even become an Arabic proverb.”
14. Edward Gibbon, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, London, 1911, volume 5, pp. 391-2
“In a distant age and climate the tragic scene of the death of Hussein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.”
15 Robert Durey Osborn, ‘Islam Under the Arabs’, Delaware, 1976, pp. 126-7
“Hussein had a child named Abdallah, only a year old. Touched by its cries, he took the infant in his arms and wept. At that instant, a shaft from the hostile ranks pierced the child’s ear, and it expired in his father’s arms. Hussein placed the little corpse upon the ground. ‘We come from God, and we return to Him!’ he cried; ‘O Lord, give me strength to bear these misfortunes!’ … Faint with thirst, and exhausted with wounds, he fought with desperate courage, slaying several of his antagonists. At last he was cut down from behind.”
16. al-Fakhri, Arab historian
“This is a catastrophe whereof I care not to speak at length, deeming it alike too grievous and too horrible. For verily, it was a catastrophe than that which naught more shameful has happened in Islam. There happened therein such a foul slaughter as to cause man’s flesh to creep with horror. And again I have dispersed with my long description because of it’s notoriety, for it is the most lamented of catastrophes.”
17. Charles Le Gai Eaton, ‘Islam and the Destiny of Man’, 1985, pp. 145-146
“The Governor of Iraq dispatched a great army against him [Husayn], and the people of Kufa, cowed and frightened, left Husayn to his fate. ‘The heart of Kufa is with thee,’ reported a messenger, ‘but its sword is against thee.’ On the plain of Karbala by the Euphrates river he drew up his little band in battle order, facing 4,000 troops. The Governor demanded unconditional surrender. He and his people resolved to die.
“He fought as his father [Ali] had fought when young, a lion-hearted man, dazzled by a vision in which ordinary mortals would be glad to share, brave beyond any common notion of courage. Early in the battle his ten-year-old nephew was struck by an arrow and died in his arms. In a short time two of his sons, four half-brothers, five nephews and five cousins fell; mortally wounded, he charged the enemy with such fury that they scattered on either side of him until he fell. Then they drove a spear into his back and cut off his head.
“The martyrdom of the Prophet’s beloved grandson at the hands of these Muslims had repercussions which still roll through the world like the waves which follow an earthquake on the sea-bed, and like Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, it has burnt itself into the conscience of a great sector of mankind.
“To this day Husayn’s death is commemorated annually…by an outpouring of grief which leaves the Western observer appalled… But this grief has a universal significance. The Shi’a weep and wail not only for the death of this gallant, doomed man, but also for a world in which such things can happen, in which the good are put down while the wicked prosper. They lament this cruel world’s destruction of so much that is beautiful, noble and precious. They grieve over the triumph of naked power and over the insult offered to bright hope.”
18. Frithjof Schuon, ‘Islam and the Perennial Pholosophy’, p. 95 (quoted in ‘Islam and the Destiny of Man’, p. 148)
“The Sunnis resign themselves to this fatality [i.e the establishment by the Umayyads of a political administration very different from that inaugurated by the Prophet in Medina], whereas the Shi’ites enwrap themselves in the bitter memory of lost purity, which combines with the recollection of the drama of Karbala and, on the level of mystical life, with the noble sadness aroused by the awareness of our earthly exile – an exile which is then seen above all in its aspects of injustice, oppression and frustration as regards primitive virtue and divine rights” [the ‘divine rights’ of the family of the Prophet, and therefore the descendants of Ali].
19. Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti, Sufi Saint of the Christi Order
“Verily, Hussein is the foundation of la ilaha illa Allah. Hussein is lord and the lord of lords. Hussein himself is Islam and the shield of Islam. Though he gave his head (for Islam) but never pledged Yazid. Truly Husayn is the founder of there is no Deity except Allah Ta’ala.”
Shah hast Hussain, Badshah hast Hussein
Deen hast Hussain, Deen Panah hast Hussein
Sardad na dad dast, dar dast-e-yazeed,
Haqaa key binaey La ila hast Hussain
It’s Hussein the Prince, it’s Hussein the king,
He is Faith, and Faith’s Defender most daring,
He preferred death to Yazid’s allegiance,
With his blood, Islam has verily been living
Date reading originally posted: December 15, 2010
Last updated: August 12, 2021.
Excerpts compiled from articles on the Internet.
We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.
Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.