Last Updated on 28th August 2020
Fazal Malik, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas rested on a charpoy as his children played in the garden, still unaware of the grand status of their beloved father. It was the first third of Muharram and the Promised Messiahas called upon his children – Hazrat Nawab Mubaraka Begumra and Hazrat Mirza Mubarak Ahmadra – and narrated the story of Hazrat Imam Husainra. As he began narrating the story, deep emotions set in. With tears flowing from his blessed eyes, he recounted how the grandchild of his beloved Master, Hazrat Muhammad Mustafasa was martyred in the plains of Karbala; how the ahl-e-bait – members of the house of the Holy Prophetsa – were deprived of food and water before the massacre took place of 10 Muharram(Tahrirat-e-Mubaraka, p. 22). The anguish was visible from his face as he ended the story and expressed, “Yazid the wicked carried out this injustice on the grandchild of the Holy Prophetsa but God rapidly brought His wrath upon them.” (Sirat-e-Tayyiba, Love for the Holy Prophetsa, narration no. 9, pp. 31-32)
His love for the family of the Holy Prophetsa was profound and his respect for the grandchildren equally so.
This article is a humble attempt to encapsulate the events leading up to the battle of Karbala and how Khilafat, the immense blessing of God, was taken away from Muslims for over a thousand years! More so, it is a narration of the sacrifices made by the family of the Holy Prophetsa to “establish the truth” (Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa, Friday Sermon, 10 December 2010) and the honour of Hazrat Imam Hussainra – the blessed grandson.
The events following the demise of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa need to be understood to comprehend the complex developments of the early Islamic world. The departure of Holy Prophetsa of Islam caused great uncertainty and fear among the Muslims. Many tribes across Arabia responded by cutting political ties with the Muslims while some organised military attacks against them, and claimed prophethood, such as Musaylima of Yamama (Fred M Donner, The Oxford History of Islam, Muhammad and the Caliphate). In 632 AD, the communities of Mecca and Medina came together by performing the Bai‘at at the hand of Hazrat Abu Bakrra. He spent the next two years stabilising the tribes of Arabia and was able to reunite them once again under the banner of Islam. However, the roots of discontent were already planted at this stage.
In 634, Hazrat Umarra became the Khalifa and through his impressive political and economic policies, transformed a diverse group of Bedouin tribes and townspeople into an organised community. His piety and his abilities as a leader won over most of the Muslims and he was widely referred to as Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful). The rapid expansion of Islamic State brought with it many challenges, one of which was moral education and deep understanding of faith, as compared with the people of Mecca and Medina, most of whom had spent a greater part of their lives learning from the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa or his closest companions. It is in these times that people like Abdullah bin Saba started gaining popularity and drove a wedge between Muslims (Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, The Outset of Dissension in Islam, pp. 22-70).
In 644, Hazrat Umarra was martyred and the electoral council chose Hazrat Uthmanra as his successor. Throughout Hazrat Uthman’sra twelve years of Khilafat, there was constant political tension between the Umayyads, whose power base would become further enhanced in Syria, and the Hashemites, whose support became stronger in the Hejaz and Kufa. The pre-Islamic rivalries between Syria and Iraq during the Byzantine-Sassanid era resurfaced among the Arabs in the form of a Hashemite-Umayyad conflict. In 656, the situation worsened. The religious and tribal leaders of Kufa were ready to declare their independence from Hazrat Uthmanra, whose position was becoming unstable. However, his assassins would not come from Kufa. Instead, they would come from a group of discontented soldiers from al-Fustat (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Crisis of the Early Caliphate, p. 24), a city that eventually became the first capital of Egypt under the Umayyad rule.
After the martyrdom of Hazrat Uthmanra in 656, most Muslims in the Hejaz and Kufa declared their allegiance to Hazrat Alira immediately. With the support of Muslims in the Hejaz, it seemed as if Hazrat Alira was destined to control the Islamic world. However, the roots of political dissent in the Islamic community were deepening. Amir Muawiyara, the Umayyad governor of Syria, challenged Hazrat Ali’sra authority as the Khalifa, and the empire fragmented further. Amir Muawiyara demanded that the assassins of Hazrat Uthmanra be dealt with firmly and swiftly before the question of Khilafat is discussed. Hazrat Alira announced that only after due process will any action be taken against those found guilty. The situation escalated, leading to a complex series of events resulting in the first civil war, also known as the Battle of the Camel. Hazrat Alira proved himself a brilliant general in defeating the rebels and re-establishing the control. Following the victory, he moved the seat of Khilafat from Medina to Kufa. The stage was set for a confrontation with Hazrat Muawiya’sra forces in Damascus. This confrontation came in the shape of the Battle of Siffin. No swords were drawn in this battle, and after much arbitration between Hazrat Alira and Amir Muawiyara, a consensus was reached. In retrospect, this war symbolises the deepening of the rift between Muslims.
In Kufa, Hazrat Ali’sra alliance had broken into quarreling factions with one denouncing him for his decision to accept the arbitration (Fred M Donner, The Oxford History of Islam, Muhammad and the Caliphate). In 661, after four years of political controversy, when peace was established between the forces of Alira and Muawiyara, a group within the bloc that initially supported Alira rebelled against him and formed their own faction, which came to be known as the Kharijites. Furious at the possibility of peace among the Muslims, three of the Kharijites decided to “do away with the three men in power,” being Alira, Muawiyara and Amr bin Al-Asra. While the other two assassins did not succeed, one assassin – Abdul Rahman ibn-Muljam – struck Hazrat Alira while he was praying in a mosque in Kufa. He passed away shortly thereafter (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, History of Islam, Vol. I).
The demise of Hazrat Alira marked an end of an era, thus fulfilling two prophecies of the Holy Prophetsa – the end of the 30 years of rightly guided Khilafat (Mishkatul Masabih, Kitabul Fitan, Bab al-Malaham, p. 1484, Hadith 5395) and the martyrdom of Hazrat Alira (Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa, Friday Sermon, 29 June 2018). Following the demise of Hazrat Alira in 661, the Khilafat became a dynastic institution based on political, military, and economic legitimacy – not on a religious basis.
After Hazrat Ali’sra assassination, many of his supporters turned to his eldest son, Hazrat Hasanra, as his political successor. His appointment did not ease the tensions and after six tense months, the situation worsened for his supporters. Aware of the bleak situation and peaceful by nature, Hazrat Hasanra met with and formed a pact with Hazrat Muawiyara in Anbar, Iraq – the former Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon (a thriving capital city located southeast of current day Baghdad). Initiating the negotiations, he stated that he was willing to accept the government of Hazrat Muawiyara only on the condition that there be no revenge against the people from the battles during the time of Hazrat Alira. After three attempts, Hazrat Muawiyara agreed to spare all and named Hazrat Hasanra as his official successor (Hafiz Muzaffar Ahmad, Ahl-e-Bait-e-Rasul, pp. 305-306). The treaty was signed and Hazrat Hasanra performed the Bai‘at, thus fulfilling another prophecy of the Holy Prophetsa which stated: “This leader son of mine will cause peace between two groups.” (ibid., p. 304) In 661, Hazrat Muawiyara became the Khalifa and Damascus became the center of a new Arab Empire, known in history as the Umayyad.
After the demise of Hazrat Alira, Hazrat Imam Hasanra understood that the time of spiritual Khilafat had ended. If he had indeed believed Khilafat to be spiritual at that time, he would never have abdicated. Nonetheless, after denouncing his right to Khilafat, Hazrat Hasanra moved back to Medina where he would spend the rest of his life away from politics and working with Hazrat Muawiyara to ensure peace is established in the Muslim nation; he passed away in 670. Imam Hasanra worked tirelessly for the unity of Muslims and “formed a peace agreement with Hazrat Muawiyara and brought peace among the Sahaba [Companions].” (Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Malfuzat, Vol. 2, pp.125-126)
The peace negotiated by Imam Hasanra lasted twenty years leading up to the eve of Karbala. After the demise of Hazrat Muawiyara, the governor of Syria, his younger son, Yazid bin Muawiya, became the Khalifa. Yazid was nominated and accepted as the successor during the life of the late Syrian governor. (The nomination of Yazid as the successor to his father, Muawiyara, ensured that the peace established over twenty years – since the first civil war – remained in place. Yazid’s mother was the daughter of a chief of Kalb tribe, the largest tribe in Syria and Palestine. His nomination was accepted by leaders of all tribes, except five people. For more details, see History of al-Tabari – Vol. XIX and The Caliphate – its Rise, Decline, and Fall by Sir William Muir.)
Yazid, having inherited the Governors of Basra, Medina and Kufa, directed them to accept the oath of allegiance on his behalf from the general population. However, special instructions were dispatched to the Governor of Medina – Walid bin Utbah – to take Bai‘at from Husain bin Alira and Abdullah bin Zubairra, who had not acknowledged him as heir-apparent during the time of Muawiyara. “Seize Hussain… to give the oath of allegiance. Act so fiercely that they have no chance to do anything before giving the oath of allegiance” wrote he (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Crisis of the Early Caliphate, pp. 1-3).
Hazrat Imam Hussainra was a pious, God-fearing person who could not bring himself to accept the morally corrupt Yazid as leader of the Muslims (Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Majmu‘a Ishtiharat, Vol. 3, p. 844).
The departure of Yazid from Islamic values, his consumption of alcohol, coupled with his taste for expensive pleasures were means of repulsion for Muslims who had believed in the values of a simple life. (Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam, p. 28)
Not desiring any confrontation with the soldiers of the new leader, he left for Mecca with his family. The people of Kufa found out about these events and started writing letters of support. They were anti-Umayyad, loyal supporters of Hazrat Alira and desired for Hazrat Imam Hussainra to be their spiritual leader ([Brill] Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol. 3, p. 608). “There is no Imam over us. Therefore come, so God may unite us in the truth through you.” (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. XIX, The Caliphate of Yazid, pp. 1-3)
When 70,000 such letters were delivered, Imam Hussainra decided to send an emissary who would establish the truthfulness of these claims. Acknowledging their letters, he wrote:
“I am sending you my brother, Muslim bin Aqil, who is a trustworthy representative… If he writes to me that the opinion of your leaders and of the men of wisdom and merit among you is united in the same way as the messengers who have come to me have described, and as I have read in your letters, I will come to you speedily, God willing, for, by my life, what is the imam except one who acts according to the Book, one who upholds justice, one who professes the truth and one who dedicates himself to [the essence of] God? Peace be with you.”
Muslimra bin Aqil received a warm welcome in Kufa. Notable persons of the city as well as a large number of people not only swore allegiance to Imam Hussainra but also stated on oath that they would help him every step of the way. Writing to the Imam, he confirmed exceptional support, encouraging the Imam to embark on the journey to Kufa (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 60). A few days later, he was brutally murdered.
What transpired between the time Muslimra bin Aqil arrived, the unwavering support of the people of Kufa and his brutal murder must be understood in order to comprehend the fateful chain of events leading up to the Battle at Karbala.
While the majority of the people of Kufa were pledging their allegiance towards the Imam, a few opponents reported their activities to Yazid. The governor of Kufa at the time was Nu‘manra bin Bashir, a pious sahabi (companion of the Prophetsa) of virtuous personality. When he learned of the secret activity being carried out by Muslimra bin Aqil, he took no civil action, however, he reminded the people that they should remain peaceful and not oppose the Khalifa openly as he might be compelled to take stern action against them (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 61).
Learning of the activities in Kufa, Yazid dismissed Nu‘man bin Bashir and appointed Obaidullah bin Ziyad, instructing him to “go to Kufa at once as Muslim bin Aqil has been taking Bai‘at for Imam Hussain. Make him a captive or kill him and if those who took Bai‘at from him refuse to recant their Bai‘at, they should be put to death…” (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 62)
Within days of the new governor taking charge, the thousands who had taken an oath to stand guard for Imam Hussainra and were in sync with the voice of Muslimra bin Aqil left him standing alone with no protection or support (Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Malfuzat, Vol. 1, p. 375). Muslimra was put to death as were those who harboured him. Many of his supporters were handed out harsh punishments as a lesson for the remainder (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, pp. 62-66).
Unaware of the developing situation in Kufa, Hazrat Imam Hussainra decided to start his journey. Incidentally, the start of the journey occurred on the precise day as Muslimra was being put to death in Kufa. A small caravan of about 74 people, consisting of his wife, children and other devoted men and women, departed on 8 Dhul Hijjah, 60 AH (10 September 680), days before Hajj (Shah Moinuddin Ahmad Nadvi, Sirat-e-Sahaba, Vol. 4, p. 151). Many historians have questioned the haste of departure before Hajj. It appears that the Imamra was mindful of the situation and wanted to avoid any bloodshed in the Holy City. He had sensed that Yazid would send people to force him to perform Bai‘at, causing swords to be drawn and blood to be shed in Mecca. Being a peaceful person by nature, he departed with his family and a small band of followers, taking a path not commonly used by travellers, avoiding any chance of unnecessary confrontations near Mecca.
The journey from Mecca to Kufa is about 1800 kilometers. (The measurement of this distance has varied due to infrastructural transformations and other factors over the ages, and while today the distance is 1800 kilometers, it has also been said to be 1448 kilometers also.) Hazrat Imam Hussainra and his small caravan travelled this distance in a month, making thirteen stops before reaching the plains of Karbala. As the caravan progressed, people started joining them in their cause. It was at the point of al-Thalabiyya that they learned of the death of Muslimra bin Aqil. ([Brill] Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol. 3, p. 609)
This is possibly the turning point in Islamic history. After learning about the fate of Muslimra, almost all people who had joined the small congregation left, leaving the original group from Mecca. People were consulted and some suggested that they should turn back, as it became apparent that the hearts of the people of Kufa had turned. Some historians have attributed the decision to press forward based on a vision he had of the Holy Prophetsa.
Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiahas, writes “Imam Hussainra would pray for the victory [of Islam]. One night, he saw the Holy Prophetsa in a dream, who said to him, ‘Martyrdom is your destiny. If you will not endure your fate with patience, then your name will be struck from the record of those who are piously devoted to God.” (Malfuzat, Vol. 3, pp. 388-389)
With full knowledge of what fate awaited them, this caravan of the faithful pressed forward.
On the way, they were met with al-Hurr bin Yazid Tamimi, Captain of the Kufa Police – sent by the Governor of Kufa, Obaidullah bin Ziyad – with an army of a thousand soldiers; their task was to stop the caravan from reaching Kufa. Addressing al-Hurr and his companions, Imam Hussainra reminded them:
“I did not come to you until your letters were brought to me, and your messengers came to me saying, ‘Come to us, for we have no imam. God may unite us in guidance through you…’ If you are averse to my coming, I will leave you for the place from which I came to you.” (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Caliphate of Yazid, p. 93)
Addressing the army from Kufa, Imam Hussainra reminded them, “We are the Ahl-e-Bait… If you dislike us and your view is different from what came to me in your letters and what your messengers brought to me, I will leave you.” (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Caliphate of Yazid, p. 94) However, al-Hurr came with orders not to allow them to return and led the caravan towards the north, away from Kufa, eventually settling in the plains of Karbala, a dull desolate area on the west bank of the Euphrates. It was the 2 Muharram 61 (2 October 680) when they arrived.
The situation worsened on 3 Muharram when there arrived from Kufa an army of four thousand men under the command of Amr bin Sa‘d, deputy governor of Ibn Ziyad. Amr bin Sa‘d and the Imam immediately met and after lengthy negotiations, Imam Hussainra set out three proposals:
1. Let him go the way he came so that he may remain absorbed in prayer in Mecca
2. Let him move to any border so that he may be martyred while fighting with the unbelievers
3. Leave his way free and let him go to Yazid in Damascus. For their satisfaction, he said, they may follow him. He shall go to Yazid and settle his affairs directly with him as his elder brother, Imam Hasanra, did with Amir Muawiyara.
(I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Caliphate of Yazid, p. 75)
Amr was happy with the outcome and wrote to the governor, Ibn Ziyad, that peace was possible and war was not required. Ibn Ziyad was pleased with the outcome as well.
However, a court advisor – a heartless creature named Shimr – opposed the proposal and encouraged the Governor to declare war. Ibn Ziyad then sent out the orders that “these alternatives cannot be accepted. Let Imam Hussainra surrender before me and take the oath of allegiance for Yazid at my hands as his deputy and then I shall send him to Yazid on my own.” The date was the 4th of Muharram. (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Caliphate of Yazid, p. 110)
On 7 Muharram, the caravan was stopped from filling their depleted water supply, hence worsening the situation. The same night, Imam Hussainra called for Amr and admonished him to pay heed and avoid any bloodshed with the Ahl-e-Bait.
The governor, ibn Ziyad, now increasingly irritated and concerned that Amr might compromise the situation, allowing Imam Hussainra to escape to Mecca, sent a message, saying, “It was your duty to have arrested him and brought him to me. If you were unable to do so, you should have brought his head to me.” (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 72)
In addition, he sent Shimr for additional supervision, who, upon arrival, declared that war should be started immediately. It was the ninth day of Muharram. Once that letter was received, Amr immediately got ready for war and sent out for Imam Hussainra. He read out the instructions from ibn Ziyad; Imam Hussainra requested that they be allowed that night. The night between the ninth of Muharram and the fateful day of the tenth of Muharram was spent in prayers, consoling the women and children and preparing the men for the last battle. Hazrat Imam Hussainra called his small group and said that they were free to leave and that there would be no burden on them, should they have chosen to take this option. They opted to stay and fight to the death. (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Caliphate of Yazid, pp. 112-114)
The morning of 10 Muharram arrived and the battlefields were ready. On one side were more than 70 devoted members of Ahl-e-Bait – the people of the house of Muhammad; on the other, stood 5,000 strong, battle-ready soldiers.
As his last effort to establish peace, Hazrat Imam Hussainra addressed the soldiers:
“When I responded to your call and came here, you revolted against me. If you want to help me even now, I want that you should not kill me and leave me alone so that I may go to Mecca or Medina and become absorbed in prayer, and Allah will judge in this very world who was right and who was wrong.” (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 77)
The darkened hearts seemed to dim the light of the sun that day. No word had a single effect on any soldier, except al-Hurr who had seen the error of his ways and begged Hazrat Imam Hussainra for forgiveness and sought his permission to fight from his side. Being granted what was salvation to him, he fought the battle on behalf of Ahl-e-Bait and died a brave death. (I K A Howard, The History of al-Tabari, The Caliphate of Yazid, pp. 127-128)
Not an hour had passed since the first arrow was drawn and the battle was already over; the casualties, including a six-month-old child, were murdered mercilessly by blinded anger. On the orders of Obaidullah bin Ziyad, the head of Hazrat Imam Hussainra was severed and his body trampled over by horses. (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 79)
اِنَّا لِلہِ وَ اِنَّا اِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُوْنَ
With the severed heads of the Ahl-e-Bait and their women and children held captive, the proud army entered Kufa to present their kill to the Governor. This procession was sent to Damascus to be attended in the court of Yazid. In time, the remaining prisoners, consisting of Imam Hussain’sra family, were returned to Medina.
Three years after the massacre, Yazid died in 64 AH (683 AD). He was about forty years old.
No progress was made during his rule to extend Islam; on the contrary, there were serious disasters in North Africa and the unity of Muslims was shredded beyond any hope of repatriation. In his first year, he killed Imam Hussainra, son of Hazrat Alira – grandson of the Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad Rasulullah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him. In his second year, he attacked Medina, and in his third year, he charged upon the Ka‘bah. While Mecca was under siege, Yazid died and mercifully, the Holy City was spared. His funeral was led by his son, a fragile 21-year-old young man – Muawiya bin Yazid.
Forced to the throne to follow in the footsteps of his late father, he abdicated. Having assembled the council of the important men of court, he stated that when he first entertained the thought of abdicating himself, he wanted to follow the example of Hazrat Abu Bakrra and nominate a successor as the first Khalifa had done, but he did not find, as Abu Bakrra did, men like Umarra.
Thus, he told them, “I have sought for you six men to consult among themselves like the six appointed by Umar, but I have not found them.” He added, “I am therefore resolved to leave the choice entirely to you.” After the meeting was adjourned, he locked himself in his residence, from where his lifeless body would emerge not too long thereafter. (There are two different viewpoints on Muawiya bin Yazid, also known as Muawiya II. For further reading on his short-lived reign, see al-Tabari, Vol XX, pp. 45-49, and [Brill] Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol. 7, pp. 268-9.)
The death of Muawiya bin Yazid threatened the end of the Umayyad dynasty. The house of Umayyad, however, survived and reigned for another 67 years, till they were defeated in 750 by Abbasids. (John Joseph Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam, 2002, p. 106)
One of the reasons that lives of prophets are so extraordinary is their knowledge of the future, which sometimes can range thousands of years. The Holy Prophetsa of Islam, summarising the events from the time of his demise to the time when the Messiah of Islam would be raised in a faithless world, foretold the predestined plans of God in these simple yet profound words:
“Prophethood shall remain amongst you for as long as Allah wills. He will then cause it to end. Then a Khilafat will be established on the precepts of prophethood, which will last for as long as Allah wills. He will then cause it to end. Oppressive kingship will follow [which will inflict great pain and misery on its subjects]. Its rule will last for as long as Allah wills. He will then cause it to end. After this, tyrannical monarchy will follow. Their rule will last for as long as Allah wills. Allah will then cause it to end. Khilafat will then be re-established on the precepts of prophethood. Thereafter, the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) became silent.” (al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 5378)
The darkness that engulfed humanity on the fateful day of 10 Muharram 680 was to last over a thousand years. The blood of men usurped by the land of Karbala took away the peace from hearts of humans – Khilafat had ended in cold blood. The Umayyad dynasty, which started with Muawiyara in 680, came to an end when it was defeated by the Abbasids in 750. The Abbasids were the longest ruling dynasty for about 500 years when in 1258, Baghdad fell to the Mongols. After the relatively short-lived Mongol rule, Islam found a new life and up until 1700, expanded from Europe to the Far East. However, the second age of Islam was remarkably different than the first. The Arabs played little, if any, part in it and were subjugated under the Ottomans. The culture of the Ottomans and the Mughals was largely Persian; an attribute despised by the Arabs. By the 1700s, the Muslim empire was starting to crumble under the relentless pressure of Western powers. In India, the base of the Mughal Empire, the Muslim identity was lost and Islam was being defeated on all fronts by Christian missionaries. It was during these trying times that God, in His infinite mercy, raised the Messiahas who was to save the world from the destruction it was speeding towards.
The peace and guidance that comes with angels spreading their wings to bring down the word of God returned 1200 years later, allowing enlightenment to return to mankind. The desolate town of Qadian became the recipient of the revelations of God, just as Mecca and Medina were during the life of our beloved master, Muhammad Mustafasa.
This guidance that saved humanity took place in the form of “our Mahdi” (Sunan al-Daraqutni, Book of Eidain), the Messiah of Muhammadsa, our beloved Imam, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadianas.
Today, we are fortunate that the spiritual leadership founded on the same principles as prophethood is among us and a Khalifa guides us towards all that is good. How blessed are we to have found this guidance and how blessed are we to be the “Aakharina minhum”!