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September 9, 2019

Battle of Karbala


September 9, 2019

The battle of Karbala fought on the 10th day of the Islamic month of ‘Muharram’ in the year 680 AD is hard to be described as just a military encounter. On the contrary, it was more of a massive overkill given the stark contrast between the opposing force levels.

Facing Imam Hussain (a.s) and his 72 companions were anywhere between 30 thousand and 70 thousand soldiers – according to different historical accounts – from the army of Yazid bin Muawaiya, the Ummayad caliph of that time. And on the day of the encounter, Imam Hussain’s (a.s) companions ranged from able-bodied young men to the elderly.

Even a six-month-old child was not spared. Towards the end of the day Imam Hussain (a.s) carried his infant son, Ali Asghar, to face the army of Yazid. Within minutes, the child was slaughtered with a three-pronged arrow usually reserved for taking aim at vicious wild animals and horses especially bred for battle. Despite the vastly differing numbers on both sides, so powerful was the impact of that historical day that the legacy of ‘Ashura’ – the 10th day of Muharram – has become synonymous with the idea of good versus evil or right versus wrong.

After the encounter ended, by the evening came the burning of tents where women and children had taken shelter. The only surviving male member of the household of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was Imam Zain ul Abideen (a.s), the young son of Imam Hussain (a.s), who was too frail to join other members of his household, having endured recurring illness en-route to Karbala.

The very fact that millions of Muslims worldwide remember Imam Hussain (a.s) and his companions with reference to Karbala only testifies to the unique nature of this very powerful event. Karbala continues to be commemorated as a turning point in the history of Islam.

It was an event that drew the line between those who followed the teachings of Islam as revealed through Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) against those who followed tribal customs and pre-Islamic traditions. Not only that, the events following this colossal human tragedy also unleashed undercurrents that eventually brought down not just the caliphate of Yazid bid Muawiya but also marked the end to the Ummayad dynasty.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle, it was hardly surprising that elevated with a sense of victory, Yazid proclaimed events in Karbala as revenge for the blood of his ancestors.

But part of the ever-enduring legacy of Karbala comes from how Imam Hussain’s (a.s) message was carried forward by his sister, Bibi Zainab (a.s) who took charge of the contingent of mostly women and children left behind. So powerful was her impact following the monumental tragedy on ‘Ashura’ that the story of Imam Hussain cannot be told in its entirety unless Bibi Zainab’s towering role is mentioned in detail.

For Muslims who mourn Imam Hussain (a.s) a powerful moment for remembrance dates back to Bibi Zainab’s sermon, so eloquently delivered in Yazid’s court in Damascus that it is widely known to this day as a centre-point of the aftermath of Karbala.

Standing in captivity in the Damascus court, Bibi Zainab (a.s) told Yazid: “Our reliance is on Allah. He alone is our relief and place of protection, and in him is our relief and place of protection and in him alone do we repose our hope. You may contrive and try however much you can. By Him (Allah) who honoured us with his revelation, the Book (Quran) and Prophethood (of Muhammad pbuh), you cannot achieve our status, nor reach our position, nor can you effect our mention nor remove from yourself that shame and dishonour that is now your lot because of perpetrating excess and oppression on us”.

Bibi Zainab’s powerful words spoken in the court of Yazid, began resonating across the Islamic world as one notable figure after another present there realized that the prisoners of war, introduced as rebels were in fact the family members of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Soon, the encounter at Karbala which was widely publicized as a regular battle between the caliphate of the time and regular dissidents, became exposed as a blatant attack on the founding family of Islam.

Yazid lived for three years after the encounter at Karbala but his empire began crumbling shortly after Bibi Zainab’s sermon unleashed a powerful impact on society at large. Subsequent historical accounts speak of not only Yazid’s military ventures targeting the cities of Mecca and Medina after the encounter at Karbala. A revolt led by Ameer Al-Mukhtar ibn abi Ubayd al-Thaqafi, a widely respected tribal leader, sought to take revenge upon every individual involved in the massacre at Karbala. Yazid’s departure also brought down the house of Ummayad – a once powerful clan that ruled over a large Muslim empire.

Today, the accounts from Karbala and thereafter are not just a story narrated year after year. This single event represents a powerful account that provides comfort and solace to humanity in crisis and faced with repression anywhere on the face of the earth. As narrated by Hazrat Ali (a.s) and recorded in the Nahjul Balagha – a book of sermons and letters attributed to Hazrat Ali (a.s) – oppressive regimes cannot last for long. “An unIslamic government can last for a while but a government based on tyranny cannot last for long” said Hazrat Ali (a.s) in a repeatedly cited quote.

For individuals and communities faced with injustice anywhere on the face of the earth, the encounter at Karbala provides hope for the future – unlike any other event before or after the example led by Imam Hussain (a.s).

The writer is an Islamabad-basedjournalist who writes on political and economic affairs.

Email: [email protected]