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We have tried so far to set the martyr of Karbala in his religio‑devotional context. It is hopefully clear from what has been said up to this point, that Imam Husain, before being a martyr, was a man of special status in the religious and social history of Islam.
His martyrdom, moreover, was not the death of just any martyr or hero, but the death of one with a special divine mission in the dynamic life of Islam, and the Imam whose primary role is not only to be a ruler but a teacher also.
Before returning to all these points, it is necessary to sketch the actual historical events of the great tragedy of Karbala to which we now turn.
From Medina to Mecca: Prelude
In reconstructing the historical events of the revolution of Imam Husain, one must at least refer to earlier history. This cannot be undertaken here for many obvious reasons.
In the first place, the real beginning of the events leading to this episode go back to the earlier Caliphs, especially the Caliphates of ‘Uthman and ‘Ali.
It Was agreed between Hasan and Mu’awiya that at the death of the latter the Caliphate should go to Imam Hasan or to his brother Imam Husain.
So during the Caliphate of Mu’awiya, Imam Husain honoured this agreement and did not stir the people to revolt although this would have been quite possible.
Mu’awiya died in the middle of Rajab 60 A.H. He had before his death begun to secure the Caliphate for his son; Yazid.
This led to many secret schemings and dissensions on many sides. Imam Husain himself received a large number of letters and emissaries from the people of Kufa asking him to come to them and lead their revolt against the rule of Yazid.
He considered this proposition seriously, and from the beginning, he refused to give allegiance (Ba’ya) to Yazid in spite of all pressures and threats from Yazid himself and his governor in Madina, al‑Walid ibn ‘Utbah, and also Marwan B. al‑Hakam who advised the former to imprison Imam Husain until he consented or to behead him.
As events took such a turn Imam Husain saw himself justified in rising against this new and unjust rule. He thus left Medina at night and took the main road to Mecca. Here the drama of the tragedy begins to unfold itself with all its powers and richness.
Here we begin to have sharp points of contrast between Imam Husain and every other character in this drama. Ibn az‑Zubayr, for instance, who was another claimant to the Caliphate, after pretending sickness and in every other way trying to delay coming before the authorities to give his Ba’yah, escaped during the night taking instead a by‑road.
Before setting out, Imam Husain went to the graves of his grandfather the Prophet, his father, mother and his brother to bid them all farewell.
Like every good drama, the revolution of Imam Husain had its moral dilemma. The moral problem here was the choice to say yes to an unjust rule, to accept something which would directly violate his basic principles, or oppose it and try, even knowing that he would fail, to destroy it.
He, of course, chose the latter and more heroic course, and in the end, paid with his life to keep the spirit of revolution and change alive in Islam. The martyr is often reassured in his resolve in ways that the historian chooses to reject or at least disregard as unscientific evidence.
But for those to whom martyrdom is more significant than life to them, it is this supernatural aspect of martyrdom that provides the strength to face life, and the meaning to what is otherwise just an intellectual religious ideology.
So Imam Husain, the martyr of Karbala, while at his grandfather’s grave got his reassurances in dreams where the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a) spoke to him in words of affection and great sorrow;
“Oh Husayn my beloved, I see thee soon spattered in thy blood, slain in the spot of Karbala, the spot of “Karb” (sorrow) and “Bala” (calamity) by a wicked gang of my community (ummah), thirsty with no one to give thee water to drink. Will they nonetheless seek my intercession nay, may Allah not grant them my intercession on the day of judgement.”(1)
Weeping bitterly, still in his dream, Imam Husain cried out: “Oh my grandfather I have no need of this world. Take me now with thee into thy tomb”. The Prophet answered: “No my son, there is a high station for thee in Paradise which thou canst not attain except through martyrdom”.(2)
Thus Imam Husain left the city of the Prophet with his wives, children and others of his close relatives and set out for Mecca, repeating as he went the verse:
“So he escaped from thence, fearing, vigilant. He said: “My Lord! Deliver me from the wrongdoing folk”.(3)
In his last testament to his brother Muhammad Ibn’al‑Hanafiyya, Imam Husain bears witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. Then he briefly sets forth his own position, that is of abiding by the religion of Islam, not seeking power or wealth or creating discord in the community of his grandfather, but rather upholding the truth and opposing falsehood.
From that time on, he answered those who advised him against rising up in revolt or going to Iraq:
“I saw the Messenger of Allah in a dream, he sent me on a mission and I shall proceed, whether it be for me or against me”.
Tabari reports this statement of Imam Husain in Mecca when Ibn Ja’far, his cousin secured a letter of surety for him from the governor of the Holy City. Imam Husain read the letter and answered with the statement above quoted. To the question of Ibn Ja’far as to what that mission was, he replied:
“I am not telling anyone of that until I meet my Lord.” (4)
Tabari again reports that when Imam Husain, went to the tomb of the Prophet (s.a.w.a) to pray and where he saw the dream just mentioned, he was leaning on two men one on each side. This suggests that he may have been ill. This must be borne in mind against the accounts of heroic fighting attributed to him by most writers, both classical and modern.
Imam Husain reached Mecca in Ramadan 60 A.H. and stayed in it till the Hajj season in Dhul‑Hujjah of the same year. He cut short his pilgrimage however making it instead an ‘Umrah and set out for Iraq.
Earlier, he had sent his cousin Muslim Ibn Aqil to Kufa in Iraq to take in person the allegiance of those who wrote several letters to Imam Husain and prepared the grounds for his coming.
Muslim was at first received enthusiastically by the people who came to him in large numbers promising complete support to Imam Husain even with their lives.
Nu’man Ibn Bashir, then governor of the city, did nothing to oppose except that he threatened strong retaliation in case of any direct confrontation. Soon however the success of Muslim ibn Aqil was reported to Yazid who dismissed Nu’man and appointed ‘Ubayd Allah Ibn Ziyad in his place.
The latter had Muslim arrested after a valiant fight and put to death with his host and partisan Hani b. ‘Urwa al‑Muradi. Muslim’s heroism and integrity are dramatically portrayed by most writers on the subject.
Later sources tend to explain away any illusion to the hesitation of his friend Hani,(5) Imam Husain’s hurried departure from Mecca before the end of the pilgrimage season may be regarded by historians as an act of clever politics.
He left then, one may say, so as not to attract attention when people were busy with the pilgrimage. There are however other arguments for this action, and perhaps ones more fitting the character of the man and the situation. He himself gives this reason for this departure:
“By Allah, if I am killed outside it (the Ka’ba) even to the length of a palm (that is the palm of the hand), it is preferable to me to being killed inside it to the length of a palm. By Allah! Even if I hide in the hole of a vermin (Hama), they would seek me out and execute their desire on me . . . “ (6)
1. Al‑Khawarizmi, op. cit., Vol. I, 187
2. Al‑Khawarizmi, op. cit., Vol. I, 187.
3. The Qur’an 28, 21.
4. Al‑Khawarizmi, op. cit., Vol. I, 192
5. Tabari, Tarikh Vol, VI, 219.
6. Tabari, Tarikh Vol, VI, 219.