The Tragedy of Karbala and Lessons we should learn

Image source: Shafaqna India/ Indian Shia News Agency

In the Battlefield of Karbala (Iraq), on the banks of the river Euphrates, almost fourteen centuries ago, Imam Hussain, the beloved grandson of the Prophet Muhammadﷺ along with his followers refused to bow down against one of the most powerful tyrants of his time, Yazid.


Owing to the exalted status of Imam Hussain, Yazid had ordered the then governor of Medina to forcibly take the oath of allegiance from Imam Hussain. This was done because Imam Hussein’s allegiance would have given credibility to the newly established system of ‘Malookiat’(kingship) which started after the fall of Rashidun Caliphate. Yazid knew that the support of Imam Hussain would help him in several ways. To comply with the same, Imam Hussain was offered luxury, power, and everything but he didn’t compromise. He was threatened about the security of his family and women but Imam Hussain didn’t kneel and denied to accept the filthy, tyrant, and oppressive kingship of Yazid. He didn’t recognize him nor his system.


Prophet Muhammad’sﷺ love for Imam Hussain was unconditional. The second rightly guided caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab reported that “Allah’s Messengerﷺ would lift up Hussain Ibn Ali onto his shoulders, once I saw this and remarked to Hussain, ‘A great person you have rode upon O child!’ The Prophetﷺ replied, ‘And how great is the one who is riding on me.”


In another narration quoted by Imam Nasai in his Sunan, Abdullah Bin Shaddad reported that his father said: ‘The Messengerﷺ of Allah, came out to us for one of the evening prayers and he was carrying his grandson Hussain Ibn Ali. The Prophetﷺ came forward and put him down, then began the prayer with exaltation and prayed. He prostrated at the end of his prayer for a long time. I raised my head and the child was upon the Prophet’s back while he was prostrating, so I returned to my prostration. When the Prophet finished the prayer, people said, “O Messengerﷺ of Allah, you prostrated at the end of your prayer for a long time, until we thought something happened or you received a revelation.” The Prophetﷺ said, “None of that happened. Rather, my grandson was riding on my back and I disliked to rush him before he met his needs.” Such was the love of the Prophetﷺ for Imam Hussain.


We often hear of the courageous struggle of Imam Hussain against evil and almost every group of Muslims remembers him every year for the significant sacrifice. But on introspecting the current situation of Muslims around the globe it won’t be an exaggeration if we say that we have limited the sacred movement of Imam to theory only. We lay more emphasis on the scenes of the battlefield than learning and teaching the essence of the whole movement for which Imam Hussain left his beloved hometown, Medina.


Al-Tabri quotes that while leaving Medina Imam Hussain was reciting this verse of the Quran:


“So Moses departed from the city, fearful and vigilant, and prayed, My Lord, save me from these unjust people.” and while entering the holy city of Mecca he recited, “When Moses made his way towards Midian, he said I hope my Lord will guide me to the right path.”


After a short stay at Mecca, he decided to leave Mecca as well, that too in the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, when Muslims around the world were heading towards Kabah for the holy pilgrimage. But Imam Hussain was stepping away from it, this shows how important was this resistance against the newly established kingship. The question here arises “What had caused Imam Hussain to take such a grave step to revolt?” History informs us that all canons of Islam namely – Salah (prayer), Sawm (Fasting), Hajj (Pilgrimage), and Zakat (Charity} were being performed the same way they used to be and the Muslim armies were also conquering new territories; then what made Imam Hussain to revolt against the rule of Yazid? 


The answer to this question is something we miss in our discussions, the purpose of Imam Hussain. The purpose which drew a line between righteousness and evil. The purpose of Imam Hussain was something that this Ummah was supposed to incur both at an individual level and at the level of the society at large; but the fact is we have taken everything from Karbala except the purpose, we are lost in the useless customs, cultural practices, traditional debates and filth of sectarianism all that become hindrances to understand the movement of Imam Hussain. 


When Yazid bin Muawiya came to know about the departure of Imam Hussain from Mecca towards Iraq, he immediately replaced the then Governor of Kufa Nu’man Bin Bashir and appointed his own stooge Ubayd’Allah Ibn Ziyad, and wrote him in code words to kill Imam Hussain. Al-Baladhuri in his Ansab Al-Ashraf and Al-Dhahbi in Tarikh Al-Islam quotes that after receiving this letter of Yazid, Ibn Zayad decided to kill Imam Hussain in Karbala and sent his sacred head to Yazid in Damascus. The same is quoted by Imam Ibn Asakir in Tareekh Madina Damishq


On the day of Ashura, 10th of Muharram 61 AH, Imam Hussain came out of his canopy and raised his hands to supplication to Almighty Allah and said, “O Lord! You are my trust in every adversity, my hope in every hardship! You are to me my trust for whatever afflicts me! How many worries have You removed and dissipated that over-burdened my heart, exhausted my plans, betrayed my friends, and elated my enemy which I complained to You, having placed my hope upon You? You are the Originator of every blessing and the ultimate end of every wish.”


Later on the same day, after sacrificing all of his friends and family members, Imam Hussain gave a final call, “Is there anyone, who will come to our help? He kept repeating this several times. We wish, we had something otherwise to write but the cruel history tells us that nobody responded to his call; thus, he all alone had to enter the battlefield. Imam Hussain stood alone against an army that was no less than four thousand in number. He taught us the most valuable lesson to mankind – ‘to take a stand against injustice’. He taught us that no matter how powerful and tyrant the ‘Batil’ is, we must stand against injustice even if we are alone.


Ibn Athir in his Al-Kamil Fi Tarikh quotes the statement of Ibn Ziyad regarding the killing of Imam Hussain, “Yazid threatened me and gave options either to kill Imam Hussain or get killed myself instead. I opted to kill Imam Hussain.” Yazid was adamant to kill Imam Hussain because he knew that Imam Hussain wouldn’t let him establish an unjust system that is against the foundations of Islam and in contradiction with the system of Khilafat E Rashidah (the pious Caliphate). He wanted to cease the movement initiated by Imam Hussain.


This movement wasn’t only against an individual or against a cruel government. The movement was against an ideology that promoted corruption, nepotism, discrimination, and vulgarity. Yazid’s governance was a scheme set up against the pious system of Islam, based upon tyranny, injustice, oppression, and falsehood. At that point, how Imam Hussain, who was nourished by the Prophetﷺ himself and brought up in the enlightened company of the best of his companions, could silently witness the distortion of Islam before his own eyes. Thus, even after foreseeing the consequences, he decided not to give up and sacrifice everything he had just to protect the essence of Islam.

Ibn Kathir in his history Al-Bidaya Wal-Nihaya quotes, at Damascus – the sacred head of Imam Hussain was presented before Yazid, he began to poke the mouth of Imam Hussain with a cane. Abu Barzah al-Aslami, a companion of the Prophetﷺ was nearby cried out to him, 

“Take your cane away! By God! How often I have seen the Prophetﷺ of Allah kissing that mouth.” With minor differences this incident it also reported by Imam Abu Nu’aym Al-Isfahani in his book Marifat Al-Sahabah, by Ibn Jawzi in ‘Al-Radd Ala Al-Mutasab’ and by Ibn Athir in Al-Kamil Fi Tarikh 


Now, let’s imagine for a moment what if Imam Hussain had surrendered before the tyrant rule and had given his hand into the hand of Yazid, though hypothetically but one can easily conclude that had this been the case then students & scholars of Islam, making it a base, would have been preaching us to accept the oppression and it would have gained the official status for Muslims to be with tyrants or to bow down for wealth, power and luxury. It was Imam Hussain who taught the world this pure message that Islam and injustice, Islam and Oppression, or Islam and Tyranny cannot exist together. 



Karbala is an institution for whole mankind in general and Muslims in particular. The call of Imam Hussain fourteen centuries ago, in the desert of Karbala is being responded by millions from every corner of the world even now. Such is the impact of the movement. After the incident of Karbala when the caravan of Ahlulbayt was brought in the court at Damascus, Sayyidah Zainab despite being a captive shouted on the face of the tyrant Yazid as a representative and supporter of Imam Hussain. This brave granddaughter of Prophet like her brother didn’t accept the oppressive regime. She kept encouraging his brother Imam Hussain. The movement initiated by Imam Hussain might have been lost in the desert of Karbala; if the Lady Zainab had not taken this legacy along with her to sow the seeds of revolution for every generation of every land.


Keeping this role of Lady Zainab and her brother Imam Hussain in mind, allow us to confess with a heavy heart that even today most of us are ignorant of their character. We know everything about our favorite celebrities but not about Imam Hussain or Sayyidah Zainab. We merely know their names and nothing beyond. Mere sloganeering and remembrance is not enough to pay tribute to Imam Hussain and other martyrs of Karbala. The real tribute and the claim to be the lover of Imam Hussein is an allegiance to separate righteousness from evil, truth from lie, and knowledge from ignorance. It is an allegiance not to involve ourselves in corruption, dishonesty, vulgarity, or any other wrongs. It is a pledge with ourselves not to indulge in racism, sectarianism, and any other discrimination which is prohibited by the Prophet Muhammad. It is a commitment to stand with the oppressed of any nation, religion, race or identity against the tyrant oppressive regime of the time. 

This is what it takes to be a follower of Imam Hussain but when we look around, all we see is cruelty and oppression where people are being lynched for their religion and women are being raped and paraded naked by shameless crowds whereas on the other side corruption, dishonesty, appeasing falsehood, ignorance, sectarianism, and casteism is deep-rooted in our society. At such a corrupted state it is important for all those who claim to be the follower of Imam Hussain to enlighten the world with the light of Islam, the last message of the Creator to all human beings. This is the divine light that could remove the darkness from our lives, the light which is the answer to all corruption, racial discrimination, and crimes against women. It has transformed cruel and unjust societies into the most just and kind. To protect this great message for the generations to come Imam Hussain sacrificed everything he had. Now it is our responsibility to become part of his movement to spread it to all corners of the world to enjoin good and forbid evil the way Imam Hussain did and still does, as the great message of Karbala is for every generation and every land.



[01] Al-Tabri, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk 6:24; Ibn Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh 4:14

[02] Al-Bazzar, al-Musnad 1:418; Al-Haythami,  Majmu al-Zawaid 9:181

[03] Al-Nasai, al-Sunan, Hadith 1141

[04] Al-Tabri, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, 4:143

[05] Al-Quran, 28:21

[06] Al-Quran, 28:22

[07] Al-Tabrani,  al-Mujam al-Kabir 3:115; Al-Baladhuri, Ansab al-Ashraf, 3:160

[08] Al-Baladhuri, Ansab al-Ashraf, 3:160

[09] Al-Dhahbi, Tarikh al-Islam, 5:10

[10] Ibn Asakir, Tarikh Madinat Dimashq, 14:213

[11] Al-Tabri, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, 4:207-210

[12] Ibn Athir, al-Kamil Fi Tarikh, 3:474

[13] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya 8:192

[14] Ibn Jawzi, al-Raddu Ala al-Mutassab al-Aneed al-Maney min Zamm Yazeed, 57-58

[15] Ibn Athir, al-Kamil Fi Tarikh, 4:84-85

[16] Al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wa al-Maluk 3:339; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya wa al-Niahaya 8:194-195






Note: This is collaborative work of Sajid Bukhari and Uzma Bukhari (currently pursuing Master’s in English Literature from Aligarh Muslim University)



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