What happened in Karbala and what is the essence of it?

What happened in Karbala and what is the essence of it?

Painting depicting the Battle of Karbala


Mahatma Gandhi, founder of modern India, said: Imam Hasan and Husayn became martyrs in order to preserve their honors. 

Prominent English historian and politician Edward Gibbon wrote: In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.

Everyone live in Azerbaijan knows very well that on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, also known as the day of Ashura, thousands of Muslims gather in mosques to remember and commemorate the tragic events Imam Husayn lived in Karbala. This is a centuries-old tradition in Azerbaijan. Also, French traveler Jean Chardin, who came to Azerbaijan in the second half of the 17th century, emphasized that Ashura was celebrated with special solemnity in the Safavid Empire. Despite the fact that Ashura has been commemorated for a long time, many people in Azerbaijan either do not have detailed information about this event, or the information they know is not enough to fully comprehend the event. In this article, I will answer a key question from a more historical perspective. "What, why, and how did it happen in Karbala?" Secondly, the article may contain a few small but necessary questions or issues that arise from the first question.

Banu Hashim and Umayyads

Karbala is the result of many years of events. If these processes are should be summarized, it can be called "confrontation between Banu Hashim and Umayyads". 

The Banu Hashim, also known as the Hashemites, or sons of Hashem, is a large family from the Quraysh tribe, which also include Prophet Muhammad. Thus, the Ahl al-Bayt, known as the family of the Prophet Muhammad, including Imam Ali, Hazrat Fatimah, Imam Hasan, Imam Husayn and his descendants, are also from the family of Banu Hashim. 

Umayyads, also known as Banu Umayya, is a family from the Quraysh tribe too. They are known for their opposition to Banu Hashim. At the forefront of such opposition were Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan and Yazid ibn Muawiyah, whose names you will read in the article. 

In fact, because they belong to the same tribe, the Banu Hashim and the Banu Umayya came from the same lineage. Hashim, who was the son of Abd Manaf ibn Qusai, was the ancestor of Banu Hashim and Umayya, who was the nephew of Hashim (son of his brother Abd Shams ibn Abd Manaf) was the forebear of Umayyads. 

According to historians, Hashim and Abd Shams were twins. When they were born, Hashim's finger was stuck to the forehead of his brother Abd Shams. Bleeding occurred when they were separated. Many people saw this as a sign that blood would be shed in the future among the descendants of newborns.

Shortly, these two opposing sides throughout the article are, in fact, distant cousins.

Confrontations between Banu Hashim and Umayyads

1)    Confrontation of Hazrat Ali ibn Abu Talib and Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan
One of the main reasons for the occurrence of Karbala incident was the opposition between Hazrat Ali ibn Abu Talib and Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan. 

During the reign of second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan became the governor of Damascus. During the reign of third caliph Uthman ibn Affan, he was able to take control of all of Syria. After the assassination of third caliph Uthman ibn Affan, Muawiyah did not recognize Imam Ali as the new caliph and opposed him. The situation worsened after Imam Ali fired him as governor of Damascus and Syria. As a result, in 657, the battle of Siffin took place between the armies of Ali and Muawiyah. The result of the Battle of Siffin, which had very interesting and strange course, unexpectedly resulted in a draw when Ali was about to win. 

After the battle, Muawiyah's supporters proclaimed him caliph in Damascus. Therefore, the Islamic State was divided into two parts. On the one hand, The Kufa administration, which recognized Ali as caliph, and the Damascus administration, which declared Muawiyah as caliph. 

Hazrat Ali ibn Abu Talib’s political support was decreasing day by day. As a result, in 661, Hazrat Ali was stabbed from his head in a mosque in Kufa by a member of the "Khawarij,” a group that had left Hazrat Ali’s army in the Battle of Siffin and opposed him. He passed away two days later.

The impact of the event on the Battle of Karbala is that the political opposition between the two families intensified and paved the way for another issues in the future.

2)    Confrontation between Hazrat Hasan ibn Ali – Muawiyah 
This confrontation played one of the biggest roles in the occurrence of the Battle of Karbala. 

Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib had repeatedly stated that a member of the Prophet's family should succeed him.

After his assassination, the Muslims pledged allegiance to his son, Imam Hasan ibn Ali. 

Muawiyah had been proclaimed himself as caliph in Damascus for several years with his supporters. Muawiyah did not recognize Hazrat Ali as the caliph, nor Hazrat Hasan ibn Ali. As a result, the war broke out again.

During the war, opposition arose in Hazrat Hasan's army, and some of his comrades in arms sided with Muawiyah in exchange for money. Even though the armies met several times, none of them was decisive.

The opposition within Hazrat Hasan's army expanded so much that an assassination attempt was even made against him. Although he was wounded in the knee with a dagger, he was saved by his close bodyguards. Hazrat Hasan began negotiations with Muawiyah after he knew that he would not be able to win the war with the army that first chose him as their caliph, but then opposed him. As a result of the negotiations, the peace treaty was signed and Hazrat Hasan, after many conditions and guarantees, gave his authority of state administration to Muawiyah.

I would ask readers to read the agreement carefully, especially second article because it has a significant connection with the Battle of Karbala. 

According to the eminent medieval historian Al-Tabari, the articles of the agreement between Hazrat Hasan and Muawiyah are as follows:

1.    Hazrat Hasan (as) would hand over the rule, or government, to Muawiyah provided he acts according to the Holy Book of God, the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (saws) and the character of pious and virtuous caliphs.

2.     Muawiyah does not have a right to nominate anyone after him. The rule would be handed back to Hasan (as) after him, and if something happens, to Husayn ibn Ali or according to some narrations, it would be left to a consultative body (shura) of Muslims.

3.     The life, property and honor of the general public, whether black or white, belonging to Syria, Iraq, Tihama, Hijaz or whichever area, would be safeguarded.

4.     The life, property, and honor of supporters of Imam Ali (as) and their family members, will be protected and Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan is bound by the covenant of Almighty God in this respect and he will honor his covenant with Almighty God in this regard.

5.     Muawiyah will not take any open or secret action against Imam Hasan bin Ali (as) or against Ahl al-Bayt (as) of the Holy Prophet (saws) and he will not try to terrorize them anywhere on earth.

6.     Imam Ali (as) will be remembered with honor and dignity and he will not be reviled.

However, Muawiyah did not abide by any of the terms of the contract. Although he wanted to declare his son Yazid as the heir to the caliphate, Hazrat Hasan was the biggest obstacle to this decision. For this reason, according to many sources, Muawiyah encouraged Hazrat Hasan's wife, Ja'da bint al-Ash'at, to poison Hazrat Hassan in exchange for great wealth and marriage to his son Yazid. Consequently, Hazrat Hasan, who was poisoned by his wife, passed away in 670. Although Muawiyah gave the promised wealth to her, Ja'da bint al-Ash'at did not marry with Yazid. 

Appointment of Yazid as heir

Muawiyah, a few years before his death, proclaimed Yazid his successor, which was a clear violation of the treaty he had signed with Hazrat Hasan. For the first time in the history of Islam, heredity succession was declared. This decision was opposed by many influential people in the Islamic world, including, Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the brother of Imam Hasan ibn Ali. 

The main reason for their protest against the announcement of Yazid’s succession was not only the fact that Muawiyah violated the treaty he signed with Hazrat Hasan but also about Yazid himself. First of all, Yazid was very young and inexperienced, compared to Hazrat Husayn and many other influential candidates who could lead the state and religion. Although he took part in the wars against the Byzantine Empire and the attack on Constantinople, this did not make him known as an experienced figure among other influential candidates. In addition, Yazid's drinking and other addictions, which were contrary to the most basic Islamic rules, made people believe that he could never be the leader of Islam.

Yazid’s Accession to Power 

After Muawiya's death in 680, Yazid became the new caliph. Despite his father's advice to treat Hazrat Husayn ibn Ali with kindness and respect, he demanded that Hazrat Husayn ibn Ali, who lived in Medina, recognize him as caliph. In exchange for Hazrat Husayn's refusal to recognize him as caliph, Yazid informed his envoys that he would resort to violent means if necessary. However, Hazrat Husayn did not accept this and moved to Mecca, thinking that his stay in Medina would endanger his family.

During his stay in Mecca, Hazrat Husayn received hundreds of letters from Kufa, the strongest center of his father's followers, in addition to the support of the people of the city where he lived. The content of the letters did not differ from each other. Each of them declared their allegiance to Hazrat Husayn, called him to action against Yazid in Kufa, and wrote that there were tens of thousands of people waiting to fight. After such letters arrived for several months and when the number of letters was not hundreds but was thousands, Hazrat Hussain sent his cousin Muslim ibn Aqil as his envoy to Kufa.

The Presence of Muslim ibn Aqil in Kufa

Muslim ibn Aqil, who had been sent as a messenger to check the sincerity of the letters sent by the people of Kufa, entered to the city secretly and stayed at the house of Hazrat Husayn's supporters. Speaking against the Umayyads, he called on the people not to submit to Yazid, and in a short time prepared thousands of people around him ready for war. Aware of all this, Yazid fired the governor of Kufa, Numan ibn Bashir because he could not stop the activities of Muslim ibn Aqil, and replaced him with the governor of Basra, Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad. Although Muslim ibn Aqil revolted in front of the palace with thousands of rebels with him, Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad managed to disperse the thousands of people gathered around Muslim ibn Aqil with just a few harsh words and great promises. Muslim ibn Aqil, who was summoned and left alone by thousands of people who declared their readiness to revolt against the Umayyads under the leadership of Hazrat Husayn, was executed.

Hazrat Husayn’s Departure For Kufa

When he was supported by thousands of people, Muslim ibn Aqil sent a letter to his cousin, Hazrat Hussain, saying that the situation was good. Based on the possibility that his stay in Mecca could cause a major confrontation in this holy city at any time, and on the letter of Muslim ibn Aqil that the situation was good, Hazrat Husayn left Mecca without being aware of the recent events with his family.

When Yazid learned that Hazrat Husayn had left for Kufa with a letter from the governor of Mecca, he demanded that Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad prepare an army, take an oath of allegiance when he met Hazrat Husayn, and not show mercy if he would not recognize him as caliph. There were hundreds of people who wrote letters summoning Hazrat Husayn in order to lead the uprising in Kufa in that army. 

Writings of Edward Gibbon About Battle Karbala

Eduard Gibbon, a famous English politician, Member of Parliament, historian and writer of the 18th century, wrote extensively about the events of Karbala in the second volume of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and described Hussein's coming to Kufa.

“He traversed the desert of Arabia with a timorous retinue of women and children, but as he approached the confines of Irak, he was alarmed by the solitary or hostile face of the country, and suspected either the defection or ruin of his party. His fears were just. Obeidollah, the governor of Cufa, had extinguished the first sparks of an insurrection, and Hosein, in the plain of Kerbela, was encompassed by a body of five thousand horse, who intercepted his communication with the city and the river. Hosein was informed that he must either submit as a captive and a criminal to the commander of the faithful, or expect the consequences of his rebellion. “Do you think,” replied he, “to terrify me with death?"

Hazrat Husayn asked for a respite one day before the battle and received a positive answer. An interesting event took place that night. Stating that no one would survive tomorrow, Hazrat Hussein said that those who wanted to save their lives could leave and extinguished the candles so that those who left would not be ashamed. For this reason, the number of those with him was further reduced. As a result, not even one hundred of the tens of thousands of people who expressed their support were present. Edward Gibbon describes this event and the martyrdom of Hazrat Husayn. It is very interesting how emotionally he writes.

“During the short respite of a night, he prepared with calm and solemn resignation to encounter his fate. He pressed his friends to consult their safety by a timely flight. They unanimously refused to desert or survive their beloved master, and their courage was fortified by a servent prayer and the assurance of paradise. On the morning of the fatal day, he mounted on horseback, with his sword in one hand and the Koran in the other. His generous band of martyrs consisted only of thirty-two horse and forty foot, but their flanks and rear were secured by the tent-ropes, and by a deep trench which they had filled with lighted faggots, according to the practice of the Arabs. In every close onset, or single combat, the despair of the Fatimites was invincible, but the surrounding multitudes galled them from a distance with a cloud of arrows, and the horses and men were successively slain. A truce was allowed on both sides for the hour of prayer, and the battle expired by the death of the last of the companions of Hosein. Alone, weary, and wounded, he seated himself at the door of his tent. His son, nephew, and two beautiful youths were killed in his arms. He lifted his hands to heaven, they were full of blood, and he uttered a funeral prayer for the living and the dead. The boldest of his soldiers fell back on every side as the dying hero threw himself among them. The remorseless Shamer, a name detested by the faithful, reproached their cowardice, and the grandson of Mahomet was slain with three and thirty strokes of lances and swords. After they had trampled on his body, they carried his head to the castle of Cufa, and the inhuman Obeidollah struck him on the mouth with a cane : “Alas!” exclaimed an aged mussulman, “on these lips have I seen the lips of the apostle of God!” In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader”.

Religion or Power?

Some people claim that the main reason for Imam Husayn's revolt was his desire to seize power. However, from my own perspective, this is wrong.

In general, in order to answer this question correctly, it is necessary to understand how the seventh-century Muslims viewed the position of caliph.

The caliph was a name and position given to the head of the religion and state, the successor of the Prophet Muhammad, after the death of the Prophet. At that time, undoubtedly, the religious aspect of the position of the caliph was stronger than its political side. As a small side-note, after Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan, Yazid ibn Muawiyah, and the transfer of power based on blood relationship, the caliphate began to lose its religious aspect and became almost entirely a political office.

People at that time saw the caliph as the leader of Islam after the Prophet. However, Yazid made it clear that he could not be the leader of the religion because of his drinking and other habits which were contrary to the simplest Islamic laws, and Hazrat Huseyn did not recognize him as caliph, even though he knew that his fate would be a tragic death. He stood behind his word until the end, knowing that the religion founded by his grandfather would face serious problems with the new leader. Over the years, Muslims realized how right Hazrat Husayn was and not only Muslims but also people from diverse cultures followed his example of defending his rights till the end.

In addition, if the position of caliphate was the main goal, Hazrat Husayn would not have fought with an army of less than a hundred men.

In short, although the caliphate was one of Imam Husayn's rights, the main reason for his revolt was not to seize the caliphate.

Opinion On The Battle Of Karbala From Different Angles

Although it is a very important event from a religious point of view, we need to look at what happened in Karbala not only from a religious point of view but also from a historical and political standpoint, so that we can fully understand what this event is.

From a religious point of view, it is quite understandable why Muslims commemorate Ashura with special sadness. Because the Prophet's grandson and many family members were tragically killed, tortured, and taken prisoner.

From a political perspective, this can be called one of the worst political betrayals in history. The reason is that the people of Kufa, who sent thousands of letters, not only took a step back but also joined the army against Hazrat Husayn, whom they wanted his support. On the other hand, Yazid ibn Muawiyah thought that he would defend his power by repelling Hazrat Husayn, but he died only a few years later. In these two years, it is possible to understand why some people did not want him to come to power, and especially, why Hazrat Husayn revolted. The massacre in Medina, as well as the burning and damage of part of the Kaaba, the holiest site of Islam, during the siege of Mecca, were events that Yazid committed and caused even more hatred towards Yazid by Muslims after the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. His son Muawiyah ibn Yazid, who came to power after Yazid, was assassinated, and as a result, Yazid's generation did not continue.


Although it seems to be a solely religious event, the Battle of Karbala also has a political, historical, and humanitarian significance. Hazrat Husayn conveyed an important message to humanity to always stand for the truth, no matter what. It is no coincidence that many people throughout history, including the founder of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, and one of Africa's most memorable leaders, Nelson Mandela, have emulated Hazrat Husayn's stance against injustice. For example, Mahatma Gandhi said: I learnt from Husayn how to achieve victory while being oppressed.”

The Battle of Karbala also has a great impact on Azerbaijani literature. Many Azerbaijani poems, including Khagani Shirvani, Imadaddin Nasimi, Mahammad Fuzuli, Shah Ismail Khatai, Khurshidbanu Natavan, Mirza Fatali Akhundov, Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and Huseyn Javid have dedicated several poems to this event. Even the Kitabi-Dada Gorgud, one of the most important written works of the Azerbaijani Turks, wrote about the Battle of Karbala. 

However, Karbala is not just a topic to be mourned and commemorated with sadness. Apprehending the main idea of the Battle of Karbala, which is also a lesson for humanity, is crucial. One of the most prominent figures in the history of Azerbaijan, the founder of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, Muhammadamin Rasulzadeh, rightly notes this issue in his article published in the “Iqbal” newspaper on November 14, 1914.

“We have heard a lot about the event of Karbala. We have heard the oppression of the Ahl al-Bayt in a thousand ways. We come to Ashura every year with tears and blood. There is only one thing that we use the least about the event that will cause a great storm until the Day of Judgment: the mind!

However, in order to be able to take advantage of such social and political event and to understand its essence and wisdom, one must turn to this great power that will wipe away the tears and bestow peace to the nations with a mind that can produce useful results in addition to tears and one must think about Ashura.   

Even though we mourn Imam Husayn, and weep, and only weep for his calamities and misfortunes, we have never dreamed emulate Imam Husayn. Even, maybe this situation is disturbing the grave of the martyr of Karbala.”

Muhammadamin Rasulzadeh emphasized very well that understanding what Karbala is more important rather than sadly remembering the incident.  

Finally, as it is clear from the article, there is a basic idea to be learned from the event of Karbala: to be with the truth until the end, no matter what. However, it is very difficult to do so.