Lecture 7

Imam Husayn (a)


- Imam Husayn, the son of Imam Ali (a), was born on the 3rd of Sha'ban, 
4AH (626 CE). Like his brother Hasan (a), the Imam was very close to his 
grandfather the Prophet (s), and resembled him in appeareance. His name 
was given to him by the Prophet, and is the dimunitive form of the 
Arabic 'Hasan'. The Prophet recited adhan in his ear at birth, and 
foretold the fated of the Imam at Karbala, calling him "Sayyid ash-

- After the death of the Prophet Imam Hasan and Husayn did not participate 
in Islamic affairs during the reign of the first three caliphs. They did 
however guard the house of Uthman when his house was under seige by 
Muslims. During the caliphate of their father Imam Ali, the 2nd and 3rd 
Imams participated in all the battles. 

- between the death of the 2nd Imam in 49 AH and the death of Muawiyah, 
Imam Husayn continued to live a quiet life, even at the nomination of 
Yazid which was a violation of the treaty between Muawiyah and Imam Hasan. 
However, a number of delegations from Kufa came to Madinah pledging 
support for Imam Husayn, and requesting him to rise up against the 
Umayyads. One of the supporters of the Imam in Kufa, Hujr b. 'Ali, rose up 
against the Umayyads against the ritual of cursing Imam Ali. While he was 
swiftly captured and killed, it indicated a growth of Shi'a resistance to 
the caliphate. After the murder of Hujr, Muawiyah warned Imam Husayn not 
to give support to any of these uprisings. The Imam replied that this was 
not his goal. Why did the Imam not support any of these uprisings? For two 
main reasons: a) the Imam believed that the treaty of his brother 
continued to be legally binding b) Imam acknowledged the unequal balance 
of support between his followers and Muawiyah's men, as well as the fickle 
nature of many Shi'as who betrayed both his father and brother.

- 56 AH: Muawiyah appointed Yazid as his successor, violating the terms of 
the treaty with Imam Hasan. Yazid was utterly irreligious, openly drinking 
and mocking Islamic beliefs, so much so that Muawiyah himself expressed 
worry about his nomination. 4 years before his own death Muawiyah demanded 
that Muslims give allegiance to Yazid. Those that refused to do so were: 
son of Abu Bakr, Abdullah ibn Umar, Abdullah ibn Zubayr, and Imam Husayn. 
Muawiyah was unsuccesful in forcing their allegiances during his lifetime. 
In 60 AH when Yazid came to power, he instructed the new governer of 
Madinah Walid b. 'Utba to force an allegiance from the four, and 
especially from Abdullah ibn Zubayr and Imam Husayn. When Imam Husayn 
refused to give allegiance to Yazid even at the repeated insistence of 
Walid, Yazid commanded to Walid to get an allegiance or to kill the Imam. 
Walid replied that he would never kill the Imam, however much wealth he 
received in return.

Journey of Imam Husayn from Madinah to Iraq

- A few days later, on th 20th of Rajab 60AH, Imam Husayn left for Makkah 
with all his family and many of his friends. At hearing this, many Kufans 
invited the Imam to come to Kufa, and offered their help in fighting 
Yazid. But the Imam was aware of their unreliability and fickle nature, 
and instead sent them letters outlining his role as an Imam, and agreeing 
to come only if they allow his to carry out his true purpose. In addition 
to the letters, Imam Husayn sent his cousing Muslim b. 'Aqil to Kufa to 
assess the situation. On the 5th of Sha'ban, Muslim b. 'Aqil arrived in 
Kufa. At the time between 12,000-30,000 Kufans gave him their allegiances. 
However the current Kufan governer was replaced by Yazid, and the new 
governer Ubaydullah b. Ziyad began threathening and persecuting those who 
supported Muslim. Gradually the number of supporters dwindled, as some 
were bought over by Ubaydullah and others became tired or afraid, leaving 
only 30 devotees. Then Muslim b 'Aqil's place of hiding was betrayed, and 
on 8th or 9th of Zulhijjah he was martyred. This was the same day that 
Imam Husayn left from Makkah for Kufa, as he had yet only received 
positive letters from Muslim b 'Aqil reporting at the favorable events in 
Kufa. On his way, however, the Imam met Farazdaq the poet, who said about 
the people of Kufa "their hearts are with you, but their swords are with 
the Umayyads". 

- Soon thereafter Imam Husayn was informed of his cousin's death and other 
prominent Shi'as in Kufa. Despite this, Imam continued on his way to Iraq, 
telling his followers they were free to leave him if they wanted. He 
arrived in Karbala on th 2nd of Muharram 61AH, and was compelled to set up 
camp in an unprotected area without direct access to water, under the 
command of Hurr b. Yazid and 1000 of his men. Soon the army of Umar b. 
Sa'd arrived, bringing the total of the enemy to 5000 men. Imam's army 
consisted of 72 people. At first Umar b. Sa'd said that if Imam agreed to 
swear allegiance he could return to Makkah. Imam Husayn refused. Umar b. 
Sa'd was stil reluctant to take action, and as a result the leadership was 
given to Shamir (commonly known as Shimr), who had fought with Imam Ali in 
battle of Siffin. 


- On the 10th of Muharram (Ashura) Imam made a final appeal to the army of 
Yazid, not to save his own life, but to allow the soldiers to redeem 
themselves and prevent them from carrying out the heinous crimes there 
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 camp, which while very small in number, presented stiff resistance. 
At this time Imam prayed Salat al-Khawf (Prayer when in great fear). One 
after th other, his followers were killed. Then the family members of the 
Imam were killed, 1st of whom was his son 'Ali Akbar, but then also the 
son of Muslim b. 'Aqil, a son of Imam Ali, Qasim the son of Imam Hasan. 
This left only Imam Husayn and his brother Abbas. When Abbas too was 
martyred, Imam bid a final farewell to his family. Some of the soldiers in 
Yazid's army continued to be reluctant to kill the Imam, but when Imam 
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, and remove the 
heads from the bodies of all the martyrs.

- There remained from the family of Imam Husayn only one male, his son 
Imam Zaynul 'Abidin, who was very sick at the time. Imam Zaynul 'Abidin 
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 Madinah. The heads of the martyrs were taken to Syria. It was not 
until 2 or 3 days after Ashura that the bodies of the martyrs were buried 
by local tribesmen in a mass grave. Yazid upon hearing of the killings in 
Karbala, pretended to be shocked, but as he neither reprimanded 
Ubayduallah, nor Shimr or any of the others, shows that the killings had 
been carried out on his order.


- Among the general Muslim community there was no serious reaction or 
outcry agains the actions of the caliphate that had murdered the grandson 
of the Prophet, less then 50 years after the death of the Prophet. 

- The events of Karbala had a very important impact on Shi'i view of early 
Islamic history. Sunni Islam, with its belief in the general virtue of all 
the companions, often idealizes the first century of Islam, and looks to 
it to provide an ideal of model worthy of imitation. Shi'i Islam, on the 
other hand, recognizes that the events in the Muslim community after the 
death of the Prophet, were far from ideal. Rather early Islam was 
inauguarated by tragedy, and should not be seen as a model to be imitated. 
Combined with the belief in the coming of the 12th Imam, Shi'is instead 
look to the future for a time when Islam will be established throughout 
the world. This negates a view of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which 
says that the goal of the leaders of the revolution was to revert society 
back to the 1st century of Islam. Rather the Islamic Revolution can be 
seen as a preparation, or a step towards the coming of the 12th Imam (a). 

- Finally Ashura became an extremely important date, both for its 
historical events, and the symbols for which the battle between Imam 
Husayn and Yazid stand for, ie. the continual struggle between justice and 
injustice. Thus a hadith of the 6th Imam says "Every day is Ashura, every 
land is Karbala". Prior to 61AH there were numerous events associated with 
Ashura that occurred during the times of earlier Prophets, but the events 
of Karbala took precedence over all these other events.