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HUSAYN IBN ‘ALI (626-68o), the third Shi’i imam, son of `All ibn Abi Talib and grandson of the prophet Muhammad. As Muhammad had no male heirs, Husayn and his elder brother Hasan are believed to have continued the Prophet’s line through his daughter Fatimah and his cousin `Ali. Hagiographical tradition abounds with tales of love and affection of the Prophet for his two grandsons.

`Ali was assassinated in 661 after a short and turbulent caliphate and was succeeded by his elder son, Hasan. But Hasan soon abdicated as he realized the disunity and fickleness of his followers and the superiority of Mu’awiyah’s well-organized forces.

Husayn reluctantly accepted his brother’s compromise and refused to pay allegiance to Mu’awiyah. However, during Mu’awiyah’s long reign (661-68o), Husayn honored his brother’s agreement with the Umayyad caliph. Among the stipulations of this agreement was that after Mu’awiyah’s death his successor would be either chosen through shura (consultation) or that-according to Shi’i reports-the caliphate would revert to one of the two sons of `Ali.

Hasan died in 671 and Mu’awiyah appointed his own son Yazid as his successor. Yazid is reputed to have been a lewd character given to drinking and other illicit pleasures. Many, particularly in the Hejaz andIraq, opposed Yazid’s appointment, and a small number of notables, including Husayn, withheld their allegiance. Wishing to assert his authority and quell opposition at any cost, Yazid in 68o ordered his governor inMedinato take everyone’s oath of allegiance and execute anyone who refused.

Husayn leftMedina(Madinah) secretly and sought protection in the sanctuary ofMecca(Makkah). There, he received numerous letters from the Shi’ah of Kufa inviting him to lead them in an insurrection against Yazid. Husayn sent his cousin Muslim ibn `Aqil to Kufa to investigate the situation. Muslim sent word that support for Husayn was strong and that he should hasten to Kufa without delay.

Apprised of these developments, Yazid dismissed the governor of Kufa and extended the authority of `Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, the governor ofBasra, to include Kufa. Ibn Ziyad was a shrewd and ruthless politician. By means of threats and bribes he quickly contained the uprising and sent a small detachment to prevent Husayn from reaching Kufa. He captured Muslim and had him executed with some of his close supporters.

Husayn now set out forIraqwith his women and children and a small band of followers. Learning of Muslim’s fate along the way, he released his relatives and followers from all obligations and advised them to go. Many did, and he was left with a small group of loyal supporters and family members. He was intercepted by a small detachment and diverted away from Kufa to a spot calledKarbalaon the banks of theEuphrates.

An army of about four thousand men was then assembled to confront Husayn and his band of seventy-odd followers. The army was headed by `Umar ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, the son of a respected companion of the Prophet. Ibn Ziyad also made sure that some of Husayn’s Kufic supporters were conscripted.

Husayn arrived atKarbalaon the second of Muharram. After a week of fruitless negotiations between Husayn and `Umar ibn Sa’d, Ibn Ziyad sent an alternative leader called Shamir ibn Dhi al-Jawshan with instructions to execute the reluctant `Umar ibn Sa’d should he refuse to carry out his orders. Husayn, Ibn Ziyad ordered, should either surrender and be brought to him as a war-captive or be killed in battle. For some days, Husayn and his followers were denied water from theEuphratesin order to force them to surrender.

On the morning of io Muharram AH 61/68o CE, the battle began. Greatly outnumbered, Husayn and his followers were annihilated by the early afternoon. One by one, Husayn witnessed his own children and other relatives fall. Even an infant whom he held in his arms was slain. Finally, after a brave fight, Husayn himself fell. On orders from Ibn Ziyad, Husayn’s corpse was trampled by horses and his head and those of his followers were paraded in Kufa as a warning to others.

Few personalities in Muslim history have exerted as great and enduring an influence on Islamic thought and piety as Imam Husayn. For Sunni, and particularly Sufi piety, Husayn is the revered grandson of the Prophet and member of his household (ahl al-bayt). Husayn’s shrine-mosque in Cairois a living symbol of Sunni devotion to the martyred imam.

Husayn’s revolt against Umayyad rule inspired not only religious Muslims, but also secular socialists. A powerful portrayal of Husayn the revolutionary was made by the socialist Egyptian writer `Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi in his two-part play, “Husayn the Revolutionary” and “Husayn the Martyr.”

Although these ideas are also shared by many educated Shi’is Husayn occupies a central place in Twelver ShM faith and piety. Pilgrimage (ziyarah), actual or ritualistic, to his tomb is second in importance to the hajj pilgrimage. Moreover, the `Ashura’ and other ta`ziyah (passion play) celebrations have given the Shi’i community an ethos of suffering and martyrdom distinguishing it sharply from the rest of the Muslim community.

The meaning and significance of the revolution, struggle, and martyrdom of Imam Husayn continues to grow with changing times and political circumstances of Muslim society. He has become a symbol of political resistance for many Muslims, regardless of their ideological persuasion or walk of life. For Shi`i Muslims Husayn is also a symbol of eschatological hope, as the expected Mahdi (messiah) will finally avenge his blood and vindicate him and all those who have suffered wrong at the hands of tyrannical rulers.

Since the middle ages special mosque annexes appropriately called husayniyahs have served as centers for the memorial observances of the sufferings and martyrdom of Husayn and his family and the social and political lessons that can be learned from this tragedy. It was in such centers inBeirutand southLebanonthat the first Shi’i resistance movements were born. It was also in the Husayniyah-yi Irshad that the ideas of `All Shari ati kindled the final spark of theIran’s Islamic Revolution. Indications are that the example of Husayn will continue to inspire Muslim resistance and religious fervor for a long time to come.

[See also Husaytuyah; Ithna `Asharlyah;Karbala; Shi`i Islam, historical overview article; Ta`ziyah; and the biography of `Ali ibn Abi Talib.]


Ahmad, Fazl. Husain: The Great Martyr.Lahore, 1969. Useful source for a concise presentation of pious Shi i views of martyrdom. Alsarat. The Imam Husayn. Vol. 12. Edited by the Muhammadi Trust ofGreat BritainandNorthern Ireland.London, 1986. Collection of papers presented at the Imam Husayn Conference from a variety of Shi’i and Sunni scholars representing both traditional and modern views of Husayn’s personality and martyrdom.

Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of `Ashfera’ in Twelver Shi’ ism.The Hague, 1978. Offers a useful discussion of the development of the `Ashura’ celebrations and their place in Shill popular piety and culture.

Mufid, Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-. Kitab al-Irshdd: The Book of Guidance. Translated byI.K. A. Howard.Elmhurst,N.Y., 1981. Classic work presenting a generally balanced account of Husayn’s life and martyrdom, by a respected tenth-century Shi’i scholar. See part 2, chapter 2, “Imam al-Husayn Ibn `All” (pp. 296-379).

Naqvi, `Ali Naqi. The Martyraom ofKarbala. Translated by S. Ali Akhtar.Karachi, 1984. Controversial and very important work representing the views of a noted Indian Shi i scholar.

Shams al-Din, Muhammad Mahdi. The Rising of Husayn: Its Impact on the Consciousness of Muslim Society. Translated byI.K. A. Howard.London, 1985. Stimulating study of the influence of Husayn’s revolution on the social and political consciousness of Muslim society, by a contemporary Lebanese Shi`i scholar.

Tabari, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-. The History of al-Tabari, vol. 19, The Caliphate of Yazid b. Mu`awiyah. Translated byI.K. A. Howard.Albany,N.Y., 1990. The earliest account by an authoritative classical historian, based on the oldest sources.

Taleqani, Mahmud, et al. Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam.Houston, 1986. See especially chapters 5-8 in the book by `Ali Shari’ati.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/husayn-ibn-ali/

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