No event in the history of mankind has, perhaps, stirred human sentiments more deeply than the tragedy of Karbala. The martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet of Islam at Karbala, is being celebrated for the last 14 centuries with tears and wails throughout the world of Islam. The sacrifice of the pious Imam for the cause of truth and righteousness was so colossal and the tragedy which resulted from it was so poignant that it continues to serve as a beacon light to all fighters for freedom and truth. This has inspired not only Muslim but also non-Muslim writers, including Shelley, Chakbast, Sarshar and Nasim.
Husain was born in the 4th A.H. in Medina. His mother, Fatima, was the favourite daughter of the Prophet of Islam and his father, Hazrat Ali, was one of the most talented and outstanding personalities of early Islam. Brought up by this ideal couple under the fostering care of the Prophet, Husain soon distinguished himself as a promising scholar, warrior and saint. The ideal training which he received from his parents and maternal grandfather made him as one of the noblest sons of Islam. Even in his early teens, he was noted for his piety and nobility, chivalry and scholarship.
The two brothers, Imam Hasan and Husain, continued to flourish during the time of the first four Caliphs. They commanded great respect of all classes of Muslims for their sterling traits. They were shown great consideration even by the successive Caliphs. It was during the Caliphate of their father, Ali, that trouble arose when Ameer Muawiya revolted against the Central authority of Islam which led to the division of Muslim Caliphate into two-one led by Hazrat Ali and the other by Ameer Muawiya. The martyrdom of Hazrat Ali left the field open for Ameer Muawiya. Imam Hasan, who succeeded his father compromised with and abdicated in favour of Ameer Muawiya in the larger interests of Islam. He was soon poisoned to death.
Muawiya dealt the greatest blow to the democratic spirit of Islam during the closing years of his reign when, on the advice of Mughira, the Governor of Basra, he nominated his son Yazid as his successor. The democratic spirit of Islamic Caliphate degenerated into monarchy. It was also a breach of contract with Imam Husain. He obtained the oath of fealty to Yazid through questionable means. He himself visited Medina for the purpose and was successful in his efforts to some extent. But the four notable personalities of Islam who took exception to his un-Islamic practice were Husain, the son of Ali, Abdulla, the son of Umar, Abdur Rahman, the son of Abu Bakr and Abdulla, the son of Zubair. “Two men threw into confusion the affairs of the Muslims”, says Imam Hasan of Basra, “Amr, the son of Aas, when he suggested to Muawiya the lifting of the Koran on the lances and Mughira, who advised Muawiya to take the covenant of allegiance for Yazid. Were it not for that, there would have been a Council of Election till the day of resurrection, for those who succeeded Muawiya followed his example in taking the covenant for their sons” (History of Saracens).
Yazid, the most cursed personality in the annals of Islam, ascended the throne of Damascus in April 683 A.C. He was a tyrant who revelled in vicious pleasures of life. He hated and took delight in persecuting Muslim divines. He tried to obtain the allegiance of the four notable Muslims including Imam Husain through intrigue and force. But, Husain, who had inherited the virtuous and chivalrous disposition of his father, Ali, was not a man to be won over by force or favour. He remained adamant and refused to acknowledge such a vicious and dissolute person, as the Caliph, supposed to be the spiritual as well as political Head of the world of Islam.
Immediately after his accession, Yazid ordered Waleed ibn Utaba, the Governor of Medina, to force Imam Husain for the oath of fealty to him. Meanwhile, Husain received messages from the citizens of Kufa imploring him to free them the tyrannical Omayyad rule. He received hundreds of such letters from the residents of Kufa offering him their allegiance. The kind hearted virtuous Husain considered it his duty to respond to the call of the oppressed. He sent his cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel as his emissary to Kufa. Thousands of Kufis rushed to swear fidelity to Husain on Muslim’s hands. The reports sent by Muslim from Kufa were highly heartening. He invited Husain to come to Kufa.
But the Kufis were soon won over through force and favour and turned their backs on Muslim, the emissary of Husain. He met a pitiable death. In the meantime, Imam Husain, along with his family members, relations and companions left for Kufa. When he approached the borders of Iraq, he was surprised at the absence of the promised Kufi soldiers. A few stages from his destination he learned the tragic end of his emissary. Eager, fierce and impetuous, the Kufis were utterly wanting in perseverance and steadfastness. “They knew not their minds from day to day. One moment, ardent as fire for some cause or person, the next day they were as cold as ice and as indifferent as the dead.” He was confronted with a strong detachment of Omayyad army under the command of Hur, who, under the orders of Ubaidullah ibn Zayad, forced Husain and his party to march towards Karbala, a place about 25 miles north-east of Kufa. Here, close to the bank of the Euphrates, Husain encamped along with his companions. The circle of steel formed by the Umayyad soldiers closed in around him. The Umayyad Governor, Ubaidullah ibn Zayad wished to persuade or force Husain to surrender. He cut off all access to the Euphrates, hoping to reduce him to thirst. But Husain, the son of Ali was made of a different metal. He remained obdurate and firm in his resolve not to acknowledge a vicious tyrant as the Caliph of Islam.
This small band of 72 souls which included respectable ladies, men and children of the House of Fatima, encamped on the western bank of the Euphrates at Karbala surrounded by a powerful Umayyad army of 4,000 soldiers commanded by Amr bin Saad. A showdown seemed imminent as Husain was determined to shed the last drop of his blood for the sake of truth and righteousness and Ubaidullah was also bent upon preventing the flower of Muslim nobility escaping from his hands. Diabolical forces had arrayed themselves against the few members of the Prophet’s house-hold. Husain, therefore, allowed his companions to leave him and go to places of safety. But who could bear to leave the grandson of the Prophet in the lurch!
Now started a period of trials and tribulations for the descendants of Muhammad (PBUH). For days, the vicious army of Ibn Saad surrounded their tents but dared not come within reach of Husain’s sword. They immediately cut off their water-supply with a view to reducing them to hunger and thirst, thus forcing them to surrender. For four days, commencing from the 7th to the 10th Muharram not a drop of water entered the mouth of Imam Husain and his companions who were dying of thirst in the grilling heat of the Arabian desert, without their fortitude and perseverance for a noble cause being impaired in the least. Faced with this dire catastrophe which would have made the stoutest heart shudder and, strongest feet stagger, Husain and his companions did not wince at all. The restraint and patience and the power of endurance exhibited by this heroic band of Karbala were indeed superhuman. These noble qualities of theirs stand unrivalled.
At last the fateful hour arrived. This was on the 10th of Muharram, a memorable day in the history of Islam. One of the enemy’s chief named Hur, horrified at the miserable plight of the grand children of the Prophet, deserted along with thirty followers to meet the inevitable death. None could dare face the Fatimides in single combats. But the enemy archers picked them off from a safe distance. One by one the defenders fell—friends, cousins, nephews and sons-until there remained the grandson of the Prophet and his infant son, Asghar. He was crying with thirst. Carrying him in his arms he drew near the enemy positions and delivered a memorable sermon. But, instead of giving water to the crying child, they transfixed him with a dart. Husain brought the dead child smeared with blood and placed him in the lap of his mother.
He knew that the end was near. During his last moments Husain demonstrated the highest spiritual and moral greatness by praying for the very persons who had killed his infant child and other family members. Coming out of the tent, he made a desperate charge. The enemy soldiers fell back as they could not stand up against fierce attack of Husain, the son of the “Lion of God”. But he was too much exhausted due to loss of blood and excessive thirst. The valiant Imam got down from his horse and offered his last prayers to his Creator. As he prostrated, the murderous crew rushed upon him and Saran ibn Uns struck the fatal blow. “They cut off his head, ruthlessly trampled on his body, and with savage ferocity subjected it to every ignominy”. His tents were pillaged. His head was carried to the inhuman Obaidullah, who struck his lips with a cane. “Alas”! exclaimed an aged Muslim, “On these lips have I seen the lips of the Apostle of God”. “In a distant age and climate”, says Gibbon, “the tragic scene of the death of Husain will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.”
Thus, fell on the 10th Muharram 61 A.H., one of the noblest personalities of Islam and along with him perished the members of the House of Fatima, the flower of Muslim nobility, piety and chivalry. The only male survivor was sickly Zainul Abedin, son of Husain who escaped general massacre at the intervention of Husain’s sister, Zainub.
The female members of Husain’s family were despatched to Damascus along with Zainul Abedin. Their pitiable condition evoked sympathy even from alien quarters and Yazid, fearing an outburst in his capital in favour of the oppressed and persecuted family, hurriedly sent them back to Medina.
The massacre of the Prophet’s family at Karbala sent a wave of horror and indignation throughout the world of Islam. Medina rose in revolt against the Umayyad Caliph. Abdullah ibn Zubair installed himself as the Caliph in Makkah. It gave birth to a new movement in Persia which ultimately brought about the doom of Omayyad rule and paved the way for the establishment of the Abbasside Caliphate.
The martyrdom of Husain at Karbala provided the moral victory of virtue over vice. It was a triumph of good over evil. It continues to serve as a beacon light for all strugglers for truth and righteousness. It leaves behind the message that it is glorious to die for a just and noble cause. It also establishes the moral victory of right over might. It revived the virtues of Islam, which were slowly being enveloped by evil. Maulana Muhammad Ali, the celebrated Muslim patriot, has rightly observed:
“Katl-e-Husain asl main marg-e-yazid hai Islam zinda hota hai her Karbala ke bad.”
“The martyrdom of Husain actually means the death of Yazid, as every such Karbala leads to the revival of Islam.”
How truthfully says a Persian poet:
“They initiated a noble example of tossing in dust and blood May God bless these well-intentioned lovers (of His).”