Karbala

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Karbala is a city in Iraq, some 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, celebrated by the fact that the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain b. ʿAli was killed and his decapitated body buried there. In fact, Karbala is one of the four Shi’ite shrine cities (with Najaf, Kazemayn, and Samarra) in Iraq known in Shi’ite Islam as ‘atabat-e ‘aliat. When it became a place of pilgrimage, Karbala became known as Mashhad (al-) Hussain.

Battle of Karbala[edit | edit source]

When the first Umayyad Caliph, Mu’awiya, died in 680 C.E., his son Yazid came to power. The majority of Muslims saw the nomination of Yazid to the Caliphate as a usurpation of the notion of consensus (ijma’), the legitimate means of choosing a Caliph. When Hussain received confirmation of the loyalty of the Kufis from his cousin, Muslim ibn Aqil, he headed toward Kufa. On his way, Hussain learned that his cousin died at the hands of Yazid’s men and that the Kufis had shifted their allegiance to Yazid. Hussain nevertheless continued in the direction of Kufa. Ibn Ziad, the governor of the Kufa, with one thousand soldiers at his command, told Hussain that he could neither go to Kufa nor return to Mecca, and was permitted only to go to Damascus, the Capital. Instead, Hussain led his heavily out-numbered and underequipped followers to battle in Karbala, where they were slain mercilessly on the battlefield. This event played an important role in the development of Shi’ite theology and has been the source of dissension among Muslims. The battle of Karbala accentuated the split between the two major branches of Islam. The event forged in Shi’ite Muslims an identity as believers who are subjected to persecution for the sake of the true succession of Muhammad .

Significance[edit | edit source]

The Karbala tragedy became the constitutive event of Shiʿism as a religion and the symbol of the victory of the oppressive majority over the righteous few, symbolizing whatever went wrong in Islamic history. A cult off martyrdom is linked to the death and downfall of Imam Hussain in Karbala. The ‘Ashura (date of Hussain’s martyrdom) was elaborated upon and systematized in the articulation of Shi’a theology. Every year, during the first ten days of the month of hijra, the battle of Karbala is commemorated by Shi’ite Muslims during Muharram and many go on pilgrimage to Karbala. Hussain’s martyrdom has become a source of strength and endurance for Shi’ite Muslims in times of suffering, persecution and oppression .

History[edit | edit source]

After the end of the Battle of Karbala, tribesmen from a nearby village buried Hussain and ʿAbbas in the battlefield, and as early as 65/684-85 Hussain’s grave became a pilgrimage site for the Shiʿites. Under the early ʿAbbasids, a tomb was built over Hussain’s grave, and its custodians were endowed by the pious benefactions of Omm Musa, mother of the caliph Mahdi (d. 158/764), who attempted to heal the rift between the ʿAbbasids and ʿAlids.[1] However, during its long history the tomb of Hussain was desecrated several times and had to be restored. In 236/850-51, the caliph al-Matawakkil (r. 232-47/847-61), destroyed the tomb of Hussain and prohibited pilgrimage to the sanctuary. However, after his death the graves were rebuilt and Hussain’s tomb restored.[2] Sulayman the Magnificent visited the tomb in 1534 and 1535 and participated in its restoration. At the end of the eighteenth century, Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, covered the dome in gold and the manara of the sanctuary. In April 1802, twelve thousand Wahabbis under Shaykh Sa’ud invaded Karbala, killed over three thousand inhabitants and sacked the city.

Political and Social Significance in Contemporary History[edit | edit source]

Over the past two centuries, Karbala has played a significant political role and witnessed several attacks.

Karbala Under Wahhabi Attack[edit | edit source]

On 18 Dhu’l-hejja 1215/21 April 1801, the anniversary of the event at Qadir Khumm celebrated by the Shiʿites, the Wahhabis of the Najd, who regarded the Shiʿites reverence of the Imams as polytheism, led by Shaikh ʿAbd-al-ʿAziz Saʿud, attacked Karbala. The Mamluk-Ottoman garrison fled, enabling the Wahhabis to loot the shrine and the city and kill about 5,000 people. Fath ʿAli Shah of Iran, while criticizing the Ottomans for their inability to confront the Wahhabis, offered Iranian troops to help defend the town and thereby consolidate his position as protector of the ʿAtabat, but the Ottomans refused.[3] Instead, Fath ʿAli Shah sent 500 Baluchi families to settle in Karbala and defend it.[4]

Najib Pasha’s Attack[edit | edit source]

In 1843, the new Ottoman governor, Najib Pasha, was determined to subdue Karbala as part of the centralizing reform (tanzimat) policy. When the gangs refused to accept an Ottoman garrison, Najib Pasha took the city by force after a harsh siege, killing about 5,000 people and desecrating the shrines. The senior ulama did not participate in rebellion. While Sayyed Kazem Rashti sought to mediate between the gangs and the Ottomans, the leading mojtahed, Ebrahim Qazvini (d. 1262/1846), left town to join the Ottoman side. Iran protested against the massacre but refrained from taking action.[5]

Anti-Colonial Resistance[edit | edit source]

During World War I, Karbala enjoyed practical autonomy under the leadership of the Kamuna family, which established secret contacts with the British. When the Ottomans tried to assert direct control over the town in April 1916, the inhabitants drove them out, leaving the town practically independent. The British occupied Karbala in March 1917, and shortly afterwards they stripped the Kamuna family from all its positions on charges of spreading anti-British activities.[6] The pro-constitutionalist mojtahed, Mirza Mohammad-Taqi Shirazi of Karbala (d. 1920), emerged as a major figure opposing British designs in Mesopotamia. He organized petitions and issued rulings (fatwa), endorsed by seventeen mojtaheds, calling for an independent Arab-Islamic Iraq ruled by a son of Sharif Husyan of Mecca. Following the 1920 declaration of the Mandate over Iraq authorizing the British to run its administration, Shirazi declared service to the British administration to be unlawful and played a leading role in instigating the 1920 rebellion. His son was instrumental in organizing the secret society Haras al-Esteqlal, which served as a link between Shiʿi and Sunni communities. The British responded forcefully to the rebellion, and in October 1920 Karbala surrendered, thereby ending the rebellion.[7]

Karbala Under Baʿth Party[edit | edit source]

The seizure of power by the Baʿth Party on 14 July 1968 exacerbated Sunni-Shiʿi tensions due to its repressive nature, its avowed secularist policy, and continued exclusion of the Shiʿites from senior government ranks. Repressive measures against Shiʿite institutions and ulama led in February 1977 to mass riots in Karbala during the ʿAshura commemorations. Karbala in particular suffered from the Baʿth policy of expelling to Iran thousands of Shiʿites “of Iranian extraction.” As public protests only hardened the Baʿth measures, the Islamic Action Organization, alongside the Najaf-centered al-Daʿwa, resorted to armed attacks against the regime, which responded with increased repression.[8] Karbala played a leading role in the Shiʿite uprising of March 1991 following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War. However, the Baʿth regime defeated the rebels, who lacked internal organization and command structure and did not receive any external support. It inflicted heavy casualties and large-scale destruction upon the city, including the shelling of Imam Hussain’s shrine. During the 1990s, the regime rebuilt Karbala while employing harsh oppression and cooptation of the small clerical community and shrine officials. As part of the Shiʿi south, Karbala suffered disproportionately from the impact of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, since the regime channeled most of its resources to the Sunni areas.[9]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Tabari, III, p. 752.
  2. Tabari, III, p. 1407; Mostawfi, p. 32; tr., p. 39; Ibn Ḥawqal, p. 166.
  3. Eʿtezad-al-Salṭana, pp. 98-100; Litvak, 1998, pp. 120-22.
  4. ʿAzzawi, VI, p. 217; Lorimer, IIA, p. 775; Mirza Abu Ṭaleb Khan, p. 408.
  5. Litvak, 1998, pp. 139-40.
  6. Khalili, pp. 321-27.
  7. Nakash, 1994, pp. 61-72.
  8. Bengio, pp. 1-14; Trip, 202-4.
  9. Trip, pp. 255-56.

BIBLIOGRAPHY[edit | edit source]

  • Honigmann E. “Karbala’.” In Vol. IV, The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978.
  • Jafri, S. H. M. The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam. New York: Longman, 1981.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi’i Islam. New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Mirza Abu Ṭaleb Khan Eṣfahāni, Masir-e ṭālebi yā safar-nāma-ye Mirzā Abu Ṭāleb Ḵān, ed. Ḥosayn Ḵadiv Jam, Tehran, 1973.
  • ʿAbbas ʿAzzawi, Taʾriḵ al-Erāq bayn al-eḥtelālayn, 8 vols., Baghdad, 1354-75/1935-55.
  • Ofra Bengio, “Shiʿis and Politics in Baʿthi Iraq,” Middle Eastern Studies 21/1, 1985, pp. 1-14.
  • ʿAliqoli Mirza Eʿtezad-al-Saltana, Eksir al-tawāriḵ: tāriḵ-e Qājār az āḡāz tā 1295, ed. Jamšid Kayānfar, Tehran, 1991.
  • ʿAbd-al-Jawad Kalidar, Taʾrīḵ Karbalāʾ wa ḥāʾer al-Ḥosayn ʿalayh al-salām, Najaf, 1387/1967. Jaʿfar khalili, Mawsuʿat al-ʿAtabāt al-moqaddasa, Baghdad and Beirut, 1965-70; 2nd ed., 12 vols., Beirut, 1987, the section on Karbalā.
  • Meir Litvak, “Continuity and Change in the Ulama Population of Najaf and Karbala, 1791-1904: A Socio-Demographic Study,” Iranian Studies 23, 1990, pp. 31-60.
  • Ḥamd-Allah Mostawfi, Nozhat al-qolub, ed. Guy Le Strange, Leyden and London, 1915; tr. Guy Le Strange as The Geographical Part of Nuzhat-al-qulub, Leyden and London, 1919.
  • Yitzhak Nakash, The Shiʿis of Iraq, Princeton, 1994.
  • Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq, Cambridge, 2000; 2nd ed., Cambridge and New York, 2002.

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Diana Steigerwald (2004). Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World. Edited by Richard C. Martin. USA: Macmillan; P: 387. ISBN 0-02-865912-0.
  • Encyclopaedia Iranica