The Battle of Karbala (10 October 680 CE) was a small-scale military conflict conducted near the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq, in which the army of the Umayyad Dynasty massacred vastly outnumbered Alid warriors under the command of Husayn ibn Ali (l. 626-680 CE and also given as Hussayn) (661-750 CE).
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Battle of Karbala
Even though the conflict was one-sided and resulted in a crushing Umayyad triumph, the Husaynid faction’s fallen men, including Husayn himself, have been honored as martyrs of Islam ever since. This conflict also became one of the main grounds for hostility to the Umayyads, who were ousted in a bloody revolt roughly 70 years later. The contest is still one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Islamic culture today. And we’re about to talk about the battle of karbala
About Battle of Karbala: It is uncertain when the two prominent branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shi’ism, split apart as separate sects in history; however, political disputes divided the embryonic Muslim community almost soon after Prophet Muhammad’s death (l. 570-632 CE).
The succession of the Islamic Prophet’s temporal position became a point of contention because he had no male successors, and Caliph Abu Bakr (r. 632-634 CE) gained power. However, a group known as the Shi’at Ali (the Ali Party) backed Ali ibn Abi Talib (l. 601-661 CE), the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, and the spouse of Prophet’s daughter Fatimah bint Muhammad (l. 605/615-632 CE), for the role of Caliph.
Ali was eventually elevated to the position, but only after three of his forefathers – Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman – had died, the last of whom was assassinated in cold blood by rebels.
The assassination of Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656 CE) destabilized the empire’s political environment, leaving Ali to manage a massive task on thin ice. Muawiya (l. 602-680 CE), subsequently Muawiya I (r. 661-680 CE), Uthman’s cousin and Syria’s ruler, refused to accept anything less than justice for his slain cousin. Still, when Ali declined, the schism between them widened.
Only Ali’s death brought an end to the battle of karbala, as he was assassinated by a renegade tribe known as the Kharijites, who had previously supported him. The Rashidun Caliphate era ended with this (as Sunnis collectively refer to the first four caliphs).
Hassan ibn Ali’s death and Yazid I’s accession
Battle of Karbala: After Ali’s death, Muawiya’s path was simple, and he quickly took the title of Caliph, uncontested by any other significant leader of the day. Hasan (also written Hassan, meaning “beautiful”), Ali’s eldest son, momentarily hung on to his father’s status before abdicating in favor of Muawiya in exchange for a large annuity.
Muawiya also reached an agreement with Hasan on some provisions, known as the Hasan-Muawiya Pact. One of these criteria was that the throne would transfer to Hasan if Muawiya died (which was reasonably expected given his advanced age), but fate had other plans.
According to some historians, Muawiya held Hasan and his younger brother Husayn ibn Ali (l. 626-680 CE) and lavished them with gifts and honors. However, Hasan was poisoned by one of his wives in 670 CE for still contested reasons. There is no direct historical evidence that Muawiya was engaged in the murder, but given that he stood to benefit the most from it and that he would not do it if he didn’t have to, he probably was.
With Hasan’s death, Muawiya regarded his agreement with him as null and void and actively sought support for his son, the future Yazid I (r. 680-683 CE), as his heir apparent, much to the chagrin and frustration of prominent Muslim figures such as Husayn ibn Ali and Abdullah ibn Zubayr (l. 624-692 CE), the son of Zubayr ibn al-Awam (
Muawiya’s influence won out in the end. According to historian Firas Al-Khateeb, the stability he provided to the empire after years of political turmoil following Caliph Uthman’s murder allowed Yazid to take the throne after his father’s death in 680 CE.
The March Towards battle of Karbala
History has not been kind to Yazid I. Neither have contemporary observers’ opinions of him:
“charges such as the pleasure of singing females and toying with a pet monkey are raised against him in the tradition” (Hawting, 47).
Many people were compelled to oppose his ascension because of his political ineptness, which was compounded by disagreeable allegations about his moral sense. Following Yazid’s fruitless attempts to gain their allegiance, Abdullah and Husayn fled Medina for Mecca. Yazid attempted, like his father, to compel submission from his opponents and take complete control of the reins of power, but he failed miserably.
Battle of Karbala
Yazid had gotten wind of Husayn’s scheme by the incident and quickly moved to stop it. He gathered all available warriors, assembling a considerable force, maybe in preparation for a large-scale uprising, albeit this army would only fight in a bit of skirmish.
On this occasion, estimates for Umayyad forces range from a modest 4,000 to a staggering 30,000 strong; current estimates put the number at around 5,000. Like all other military excursions throughout his rule, Yazid stayed away from this one, maybe to avoid blame for what was about to happen. He gave the command to his cousin Ubaidullah ibn Ziyad on this occasion (d. 686 CE).
On their way to Kufa, the Husaynid forces encountered the Umayyad vanguard, a point of about 1000 men, who proceeded to follow them. On October 2nd, the Husaynid details entered the desert plain of the battle of karbala, where the rest of the Umayyad force arrived the next day. The Umayyads used 500 cavalry troops to restrict access to the Euphrates River to force Husayn and his followers to submit. A group did manage to get some water, but only about 20 waterskins. Some believe Husayn made three suggestions to end the dispute at this point:
- They let him return to Mecca or assigned him to a border station away from the insurgent territory.
- Finally, he could be allowed to meet Yazid in person.
Husayn’s army consisted of 40 infantry and 32 cavalry warriors; however, some sources claim it was closer to 100 feet and had 45 horse-mounted soldiers. In either scenario, the Umayyad army outnumbered the Husaynid military by a large margin. By some Muslim accounts, the Husaynids appear to have defeated their foes in hand-to-hand combat, but “it is virtually impossible to disentangle history from the legend and hagiography with which it is associated” because the event has been quoted so frequently and blended with fiction over the years (Hawting, 50). And this is the summary of the battle of karbala