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KARBALA. One of the holiest places of Shin pilgrimage in Iraq, some 6o miles (95 km) southwest of Baghdad, Karbala (Karbala’) derives its fame from the fact that Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third ShN imam, was killed there, along with his supporters, in the district of Ninawah on `Ashfira’, the tenth day of Muharram AH 61/680 CE. The name Karbala’ probably comes from the Aramaic name Karbala. However, Shi`i pious literature suggests that the word is made up of two parts: karb (sorrow) and bald’ (calamity), joined by a conjunction wa (and). Many famous dirges lamenting the martyrdom of Husayn mention karb wa bald’ as his mashhad (shrine). Karbala attained great importance in Shi piety as early as 63/682, when Husayn’s family, having been released from an Umayyad prison in Damascus, decided to perform the ziyarah (“visitation” for pilgrimage) to the mashhad before returning to Medina. By 65/684-685, when Sulayman ibn Surad, the prominent Shi’i leader from Kufa, and his followers visited the burial site as penitents (to purge themselves of the feeling of shame as a consequence of their failure to help Husayn on `Ashfira’), the practice of visitation had been religiously legitimized through several traditions related on the authority of the imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja’far alSadiq, encouraging ShMs to undertake the hardship of the journey to Karbala. Some traditions went as far as to compare the virtue of visitation to Karbala with the performance of hajj.


By 236/850-851 the practice had become so widespread that al-Mutawakkil, the `Abbasid caliph, destroyed the tomb and prohibited visits to Karbala under heavy penalties. Apparently, the Sunni `Abbasids were concerned about the growing sanctity and piety connected with the martyr’s shrine, which generated radical activism among the downtrodden Shi’is. There were also messianic traditions about Karbala being the cornerstone of the Mahdi’s eschatological revolution in the Final Days. Moreover, this revolution would, as predicted in these apocalyptic traditions, take place on the day of `Ashfira’ to redress the wrongs committed against the imams and their adherents. Consequently, both the visitation to Karbala and the annual mourning for Husayn were treated by the Sunni authorities with suspicion. This suspicion continues to dominate the Sunni “puritanism” of the Wahhabiyah, who regard both these practices as ShM bid’ah (innovation meaning “sinful deviation” from the sunnah) and who raided and destroyed the shrines at Karbala and Najaf in 1216/1801.

Besides Husayn, Karbala also enshrines the tomb of al -`Abbas ibn ‘Ali, Husayn’s half brother, whose shrine is famous for the miraculous powers attributed to it in curing the sick. Both these shrines are richly endowed, and lavish gifts have been given by different Muslim rulers, especially the Shi’i dynasties of Iran.

The shrines, greatly adorned with magnificent and costly ornamentation, have become the center of the spiritual and commercial lives of the inhabitants of Karbala, whose number has steadily grown to more than a hundred thousand. During `Ashfira’ celebrations the number swells to twice as many. Half of this population is Persian, and there is a large number of Indian and Pakistani Shi’is in residence. Many aged pilgrims have sojourned in Karbala, waiting to die there to secure entrance to Paradise, because Karbala is believed to be one of the gates of the Garden promised to the righteous in the Qur’an.

Karbala is a particularly rich city, with religious endowments all over the ShN world to support the shrines and the pilgrims visiting them. By virtue of their sanctity, until recently these shrines were a place of refuge for those who feared reprisal from the tyrannical rulers of Iran and Iraq.

Of all the holy sanctuaries in the Shi’i world, Karbala has served a unique place in ShN piety with its message of salvation and spiritual power through sacrifice. This essential religious truth has inspired thousands of Slu`is. Karbala has functioned as a paradigm expressed through diverse cultural forms mirrored in ritual and personal piety throughout the world. It shapes the trajectory of history and has a certain historical resiliency. Large collective remembrances, such as the `Ashfira’ commemoration every year, place the story of Karbala in the wider context of the human suffering and human emancipation from all kinds of exploitation in changing sociopolitical and religious circumstances. ShN leaders have appropriated and codified the Karbala paradigm in ways that serve their own interests. They have given eloquent expression to Husayn’s confidence in the moral authority of his cause, while appealing to collective Shi`i discontent, whether living under Sunni or other, often tyrannical authority. The result is that the political dimension of the Karbala paradigm is well developed in the ShM collective memory. In recent times, Karbala has served as a metaphor for the Iranian Revolution of 1979 under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (19021989).

[See also `Ashfira’; Mashhad; Shrine; Ziyarah; and the biography of Husayn ibn ‘Ali.]


Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley, 1969. Discusses Karbala in the politics of Muslim powers.

Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of `Ashura’ in Twelver Shi ism. The Hague, 1978. Covers Karbala in Shl i’i piety.

Honigmann, Ernest. “Karbala’.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4, pp. 637-639. Leiden, 1960-.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/karbala/

  • writerPosted On: July 20, 2014
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