The Massacre of Karbala – A Historical Analysis

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Shaykh Yasir Qadhi

Dean of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib Institute
Shaykh Yasir Qadhi is a resident Scholar of Memphis Islamic Center. He is also a lecturer at Rhodes College, in the Department of Religious Studies, and the author of multiple books on Islam.

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1. This topic is a very contentious and emotional one. It’s possible to stoke the flame of anger and Shaykh Yasir Qadhi vehemently insists that he’s opposed to any hatred and bigotry. The purpose of this lecture is to educate, and discuss the incident of Karbala.

2. The Karbala massacre is a detailed event of history and history is, by its nature, subjective. We cannot go into a detailed analysis, so it’s going to be a summarized version of this event. The interpretations given are standard Sunni interpretations and by and large, it is agreed upon within Sunni scholarship. Our version will be based upon the works by Ibn Katheer, Ibn Hajar, etc.

Hussain ibn Ali (rta)

He was born in Shaban 4 AH, less than a year after Hasan (rta) was born. There are many Ahadeeth in which Hasan (rta) and Hussain (rta) are praised. Prophet Muhammad (sa) said that they would be the leaders of the young men of paradise, and called them “my two sweet basils”. (Bukhari)

Hussain (rta) lived in Madinah, until Ali (rta) became Khaleefah at which point Hussain (rta) moved to Kufa (Iraq) and lived there along with his brother, Hasan (rta). When Ali (rta) was assassinated by the Khawarij (a deviant sect), Hasan (rta) was given the oath of allegiance by the Kufans. Muawiyah (rta), who was the governor of Damascus at the time, was also given allegiance but by the people of Syria. Muawiyah (rta) and Hasan (rta) were about to go to war. However, Hasan (rta) decided to resign after six months in order to prevent more bloodshed. The Sunni scholarship believes that Hasan (rta) was more worthy of being Caliph at that time. The people of Kufa accepted his decision with great difficulty. Even Hussain (rta) was opposed to this decision but he was calmed down by Hasan (rta). After Hasan’s (rta) resignation, the brothers went back to Madinah, where Hussain lived till the death of Muawiyah (rta) in 60 AH. Hasan (rta) passed away in 51 AH, and during that time, Muawiyah (rta) nominated Yazeed (his son) as his successor.


Yazeed was the grandson of Abu Sufyan (rta) and the son of Muawiyah (rta). He was born in 26 AH and at a very young age, his father put him in charge of the army which attacked Constantinople. Hussain (rta) had also participated in this battle, alongside Yazeed. There is a Hadeeth narrated by Bukhari in which the Prophet (sa) said: “The first army of my Ummah which will attack the city of Caeser will be forgiven.” So we acknowledge that this is the army which was led by Yazeed, and this is one positive thing about him.

Hussain (rta) refuses to pledge allegiance to Yazeed

When Yazeed was nominated as successor, there were three men to whom the Ummah was looking, as to what their reaction will be. They were:

  1. Ibn Umar (rta)
  2. Abdullah ibn Zubair (rta)
  3. Hussain (rta)

Ibn Umar (rta) made the decision to be apolitical in the interest of not shedding more blood of the Muslims. Ibn Zubair (rta) decided to revolt and he went to Makkah. He was killed after the Karbala incident.

Sunni scholarship believes that it is allowed for a person to be Caliph in the Muslim Ummah when there are other people more worthy of the title. Also, we have the right to disagree with the political decisions made by the companions, but we cannot doubt their Niyyah (intention).

The third person was Hussain (rta). After Muawiyah’s (rta) death, the governor of Madinah called him and asked him to give the oath of allegiance to Yazeed. He refused, and the governor wasn’t harsh. Hence, he let it go. Hussain (rta) went straight to Madinah, and news spread that Hussain (rta) has refused to pledge the oath of allegiance. The people of Kufa rejoiced at this news, and started sending letters after letters to Hussain (rta), imploring him to come over to Kufa and promising that they will pledge allegiance to him. Hussain (rta) decided to send his cousin Muslim bin Aqeel to Kufa to check out the situation and confirm what these letters had stated.

Muslim bin Aqeel leaves for Kufa

Muslim bin Aqeel left with a small group of people and reached Kufa in Dhul-Qadah, 60 AH. Here, the response of Kufan residents was tremendous. Thousands of people came to Muslim bin Aqeel and pledged allegiance to Hussain (rta).

Muslim bin Aqeel was overjoyed. He immediately sent a letter to Hussain (rta), confirming the statements of the letters and asking him to come immediately to Kufa. Now, the news that the people of Kufa are preparing to revolt reached Yazeed. He decided to send the most vicious politician he had to Kufa to stop this revolt. That politician was Ibn Ziyad, a man in his late twenties, who only wanted to rise in the ranks of power, and for that, he was prepared to do anything.

Ibn Ziyad isolates Muslim bin Aqeel

Ibn Ziyad reached Kufa with a small entourage of people at Fajr time, and at first, the people of Kufa thought he was Hussain (rta). They started rejoicing and calling out to him, and he immediately understood that the rumors he had heard were indeed true and there was an uprising in the making in Kufa. One of the first things Ibn Ziyad did was to dismiss the present governor, and become governor of Kufa. He employed a shrewd method to find out where Muslim bin Aqeel was hiding. In order to isolate him, Ibn Ziyad negotiated with each tribe’s members who were supporting Muslim bin Aqeel, urging them to call their tribe back from fighting, bribing them with money, increase in ranks, emotional blackmail, or whatever worked. At the end of the day, everybody abandoned Muslim bin Aqeel, and all it had taken for them to do so, was money and power.

When Muslim bin Aqeel was eventually forced to surrender, he conveyed the message to Ibn Ashar (who was one of those who had captured him) to go immediately to Hussain (rta) and warn him that the tide had completely turned in Kufa, and to go straight back to Madinah. He told him to convey to Hussain (rta) that the Kufans had lied and betrayed them.

On 9th Dhul-Hijjah, Muslim bin Aqeel was publicly executed by being thrown off from the highest tower of the city. Before being thrown off, he said, “O Allah, be the judge between us and those who abandoned us…”

Hussain bin Ali (rta) leaves for Kufa

Now Hussain (rta) was on his way. He had left Makkah on the 8th of Dhul-Hijjah, one day before Muslim bin Aqeel was publicly executed. In Makkah, every senior companion tried to dissuade him from this journey. They reminded him that the people of Kufa were not to be trusted, since they had also betrayed his father, Ali (rta). Hussain (rta) insisted that the Kufans had sent him letters of support and so many people cannot betray all at once. Some of the companions who tried to stop him were Ibn Abbas (rta), Abdullah ibn Umar (rta) and Abu Saeed al Khudri (rta). Hussain (rta) also insisted on leaving because his intention was not to have any bloodshed in Makkah.

Hence, Hussain (rta) went and sent a messenger to Kufa, announcing that he will be there soon. He had no clue what had already happened in Kufa. The messenger was caught and was executed in Kufa. Hussain (rta) sent a second messenger, who was also executed. But before his execution, he shouted out to the Kufans that Hussain (rta) was just around the corner!

Now Hussain (rta) got the message by Ibn Ashar (who had promised Muslim bin Aqeel to get the message to Hussain (rta)). Hussain (rta) was now convinced that his journey was indeed in vain and that the whole climate in Kufa was changed. But now, it was rather too late. Even if he wanted to turn back, the sons of Muslim bin Aqeel (who were in his entourage) wanted revenge for the death of their father. Others said to Hussain (rta) that the people of Kufa has done this with Muslim bin Aqeel, but they would surely never ever do this with the grandson of the Prophet (sa). Hence, Hussain (rta) decided to proceed to Kufa.

Sunni scholarship believes that Hussain (rta) did not march on to a suicide mission. He truly believed in the Kufan promises when he made the decision to go forward.

Troops intercept Hussain (rta) at Karbala

Ibn Ziyad heard of this and at this time, a large number of troops had been sent to fight the Daylamites (an Iranian tribe). He intercepted them and sent them to fight Hussain (rta). These troops caught up with Hussain (rta) in the plain of Karbala, very close to Kufa. At this point, many people, who had joined Hussain (rta), left. Around 70 people were left, and they were part of his family. The leader of the troops was Umar bin Sad bin Abi Waqqas (rta). He was the son of a famous companion of the Prophet (sa). He was reluctant to harm these people but he didn’t stand up to the orders given to him by Ibn Ziyad. Umar sent a message to Hussain (rta), asking him why he was here. In response, Hussain (rta) showed him the bags of letters he had received from the Kufans, and explained that this is why he was here. He then said that if the Kufans do not want him, he will go back. This message was sent to Ibn Ziyad. This was 3rd of Muharram, 61 AH. The siege actually lasted only five days.

Exchange of options

Ibn Ziyad, upon receiving Hussain’s (rta) message, sent back this message: Pledge allegiance to Yazeed on my hand. Of course, Hussain (rta) wouldn’t do that and this is expected of him. He gave Ibn Ziyad three options:

  1. Let me go back to Makkah
  2. Let me talk directly to Yazeed
  3. Banish me to a faraway land, where I spend the rest of my days, worshipping Allah.

Ibn Ziyad, in his arrogance, didn’t listen to any of these choices. He refused everything and insisted that Hussain (rta) should give Bayah on his hand or it’s going to be war. Now, a key point to note is that during these five days, it is impossible that a message got to Damascus, and Yazeed got to know of these happenings, and ordered for Hussain (rta) be killed. Hence, Sunni scholarship believes that the main culprit in this was Ibn Ziyad. This doesn’t mean everybody else was free of blame.

Hussain (rta) refused to pledge allegiance on Ibn Ziyad’s hand and Ibn Ziyad sent his most ferocious commander Shimr to Karbala, because he sensed that Umar ibn Sad bin Abi Waqqas was a soft person. Shimr arrived at Karbala on the 9th of Muharram. There was a lot of tension in both camps. Some people among the 4000 troops (sent to fight the Daylamites) fled. They had no intention of fighting the grandson of the Prophet (sa). Some even defected and came over to Hussain’s (rta) side.

Fighting and martyrdom

On the morning of 10th Muharram, it was a brutal scene. Around 70 men were versus an army of 3000-4000 brutal men. The fighting began. Nobody dared to lift a hand against Hussain (rta). It was Shimr who led his team forward and dealt the fatal blow, which martyred Hussain (rta). Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi Rajioon.

Hussain’s head was brought to Ibn Ziyad, who took a stick and poked at it, while saying vulgar things. Anas ibn Malik (rta) couldn’t stand this. He stood up and chastised Ibn Ziyad’s actions and said to him that he had seen the Prophet (sa) kiss the lips that were being poked by Ibn Ziyad in such a vulgar fashion. Some reports say that the head of Hussain (rta) was sent to Yazeed and he poked it, but this is the minority opinion in Sunni scholarship.

There was only one male survivor of that massacre: Ali (Zain ul Aabideen), the son of Hussain (rta) who was in the women’s tent because he was sick. Nobody else survived this brutal act.

Who is to blame?

There are many to be blamed for this brutal act of Islamic history.

1. People of Kufa

They claimed to support Hussain (rta) no matter what. But in the end, while Hussain (rta) was trapped in Karbala for five days, practically next door to them, they didn’t budge. Nobody came out to help Hussain (rta).

2. Ibn Ziyad

He had shown arrogance and brutality in his dealing with Hussain (rta). Allah (swt) punished him during his life. His life was riddled with battles, and his death also resulted in decapitation. His head too, was brought to the court and humiliated. Not only that, but in front of the terrified crowd, a snake slithered up to his head, went up his nose and disappeared.

3. Umar ibn Sad

Some scholars also blame him for not standing up to Ibn Ziyad and refusing to fight Hussain (rta).

4. Shimr and his team

This was the man who dealt the final blows to Hussain (rta) and ultimately murdered him.

5. Yazeed ibn Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan

He is not absolved of this incident. Ultimately, he was the ruler at that time, who had sent Ibn Ziyad to Kufa. We don’t curse him by name, but he takes a good share of the blame for the massacre at Karbala. He may not have intended to kill Hussain (ra). He said that he had not asked for him to be killed when Hussain’s (ra) head was brought to him. Also, he wrapped it up in a cloth, and returned it to Hussain’s family. But he didn’t punish any of the perpetrators, too. So there is no doubt that he takes a good share of the blame.


Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s son asked him whether he should love Yazeed. Imam replied: “Can anybody with Iman love Yazeed?” His son further asked: “Shall we curse him?” The Imam replied: “Have you seen me curse anybody by name?” This is our conclusion. We don’t curse anybody by name, but we do say: “Lanat Al-Allahi ‘Ala Az-Zalimeen” (May Allah’s curse be on the unjust).

Please note that these are the excerpts from the full talk transcribed exclusively for Hiba Magazine’s blog by one of our readers. You can listen to the audio of Shaykh Yasir Qadhi’s talk by downloading it – click here to download. All copyrights belong to AlMaghrib Institute.

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