The blood-stained banners of Ashura


Shia Muslims at Hussain Mosque in Karbala  during Arba'een. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Shia Muslims at Hussain Mosque in Karbala during Arba’een.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

January 1979 and Iran was on the verge of a major revolution set to shape its nature for the next forty years. The Shah had fled to exile, and change was imminent. From exile in France, Khomeini had found a way to craft a revolutionary narrative that would sweep him to power. On exact day of the Shi’a religious observance of Arba’een – forty days after the day of mourning on the Day of Ashura – Khomeini referred to those revolutionaries dead at the hands of the Shah, as a continuation of the martyrs who died with Hussein at Karbala. He had written:

“Let the bloodstained banners of Ashura be raised where ever possible as a sign of the coming day when the oppressed shall avenge themselves on the oppressors.”

Thirty years later, December 2009, the Day of Ashura, protestors lined the streets to protest the suspect outcome of the Iranian Presidential election. The authorities opened fire, police vans ran down protestors, and arrests of the dissenters followed. It was this day, that Khamenei may have regretted his predecessor’s use of the Ashura metaphor thirty years prior, because reporters noted:

“They compared Ayatollah Khamenei to Yazid, the Sunni caliph who killed Imam Hossein. Film clips showed demonstrators trying to tear down Ayatollah Khamenei’s portrait and trampling on a street sign bearing his name.”

– The metaphor from Karbala in 680ad is a powerful one. It helped topple the Shah in 1979, it was also used to stir up Shia rebellion in south Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982, and it came close to toppling Khamenei in 2009.

The traditional story of the battle of Karbala is a detailed one. It began on the death of the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya in 680ad. For a brief time, Ali and Muawiya shared a claim to the caliphate. On Ali’s death, Muawiya was the sole caliph. Ali’s older son Hassan had given up his claim to the Caliphate after a series of battles between muslims in Kufa in Iraq, and Muawiya’s forces. One of the conditions of Hasan giving up his claim, was that Muawiya would not name a successor. On the death of Hasan, Muawiya went back on his word and soon transformed the Caliphate into a dynasty, by appointing his son Yazid heir to the Caliphate. Ali’s younger son Hussain – and the Arabian elite in general – took offence at this, and refused to pledge allegiance to the new Caliph. Whilst in Medina, Hussein began to receive letters from the people of Kufa in Iraq, who were equally horrified that they’d fallen under the control of another Umayyad. They believed the caliphate would fall back into the line of Ali, at the death of Muawiya. The people of Kufa promised their support – in the name of his father Ali – to Hussain’s claim to the Caliphate, and ensured they would rise up, should he ride into Kufa to overthrow Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, the pro-Yazid governor in Kufa. These were the first Shi’at Ali. The followers of Ali. They had no particular doctrine, just a leader and his progeny. Hussein sent his cousin, Muslim ibn Aqeel to Kufa to measure public opinion. Upon reaching Kufa, the Shi’a welcomed Muslim and had him stay with one of their leaders; Mukhtar ibn Abi ‘Ubayd. However, things soon turned sour and Muslim never left Kufa alive, executed at the command of Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, the pro-Umayyad governor.

After the execution of his cousin, Hussein left Medina upon hearing of a threat on his own life for refusing to swear allegiance, and decided to ride to Kufa and confront the governor. Despite supporters telling him it was a suicide mission, that there was going to be no uprising on his behalf, and that he’d almost certainly be cut down – including the women and children that he took with him – he pushed on anyway. Two days from Kufa, Hussain and his 72 supporters reached Karbala. They were met by tens of thousands of Yazid’s soldiers. After weeks of dead end negotiations, and Hussain’s refusal to acknowledge Yazid as Caliph, a battle ensued. The Caliph’s soldiers cut off water supply to Hussain’s camp, and held siege for days. On Muharram 10th (The Day of Ashura), all of Hussain’s men – starved and thirsty – went out of the encampment to fight and die. Hussain rode out last, and was eventually cut down with an arrow, and stabbed to death thirty-three times. His body was then trampled on by horses. The women and children placed in chains and marched to Kufa.

The Shi’a narrative then takes on a more colourful tone, to add substance to the idea that Hussain was indeed chosen by God, and killed by the enemies of Islam. Upon Hussain’s death, it is said that his horse – Lahik – dipped his head in Hussain’s blood, and according to Imam Abu Ja’far al-Baqir, the horse said:

“What an injustice was done to the grandson of the Prophet by his own umma.”

– The commander of the forces tasked with defeating Hussain, Shimr ibn Dhi ‘l-Jawshan, beheaded Hussein and the head placed on a spike, and carried back to Ubayd Allah, who menacingly laughed as he kicked it around. Other’s claim it was Yazid who poked and kicked the head of Hussein. And so with that, the brutal murder of the a beloved member of the Ahl al-Bayt – Hussein – created a martyr that inspires great sadness and devotion to this day.

So detailed and colourful a story, but what do we know for sure, or at least, what can we deduce from the recorded history?

The earliest source for the battle of Karbala comes from Abu Mikhnaf. He was a founder of the Akhbari school of Islamic history. Mikhnaf died around 95 years after the battle of Karbala took place. Tradition holds that his grandfather died fighting for Ali at the battle of Siffin against the Umayyad’s. He wrote specifically on the life and death of Hussain in ‘Kitab Maqtal Al-Husayn’. His works no longer exist, and so the earliest mention of the battle of Karbala is Volume 19, of al-Tabari’s ‘History of the Prophets and Kings’. As well as relying on Mikhnaf, al-Tabari uses Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi. Al-Kalbi was born 57 years after Karbala, a student of Mikhnaf and relies heavily on oral traditions for his works as well as referencing Mikhnaf’s work. As for the reliability of Mikhnaf, 14th century Muslim historian Ismail ibn Kathir writes:

“And the Shia and Rafidah had devised many false and fabricated long narrations regarding Hussain [ra]’s murder; and what we have quoted (here) is enough, in which few are those that are questionable (not reliable), had Ibn Jarir or other scholars etc not mentioned it (in their works) then I too haven’t had mentioned it; and its maximum portion is narrated from Abu Mikhnaf Lut bin Yahya who was a Shia and according to Scholars of Hadith was Da’eef (weak) in Hadith (reports), but he was a learned Akhbari.”

– Incidentally, ibn Kathir presents his own history of the battle of Karbala, a history that anti-semitic Dean of Academic Affairs at the Al-Maghrib Institutem, Yasir Qadhi prefers (along with other medieval Sunni histories) to rely on, despite being written 700+ years after the event. You can Yasir Qadhi’s discussionhere.

Similarly, according to N.K Singh’s “Encyclopedia of the Muslim World”:

“Abu Mikhnaf is not very particular about and scrupulous in authority chains. He has abundantly incorporated in his narratives, especially in the narration of Siffin episode, the tribal stories and the local gossips.”

– This becomes clear when we notice the conversations Mikhnaf records, in detail and in full, despite them being decades old and not recorded:

‘Hussein said: “We are from God and to God shall we return. As for the oath of allegiance that you have demanded of me, it would not be appropriate for a person of my stature to do so in private. Further, you would not consider it sufficient unless I was to do so in a public forum.” Walid agreed and Hussein continued: “When you come out to the people to announce and obtain their oath of allegiance, then at that time summon us as well such that it will be a single affair.”
Walid desired to choose an easy option and said: “Go then in the name of God and return to us when we assembled the people”.
Marwan exclaimed: “By God! If he departs here without pledging allegiance you will never get a similar opportunity without much bloodshed between you and he. Seize him and do not allow him to leave without pledging allegiance or execute him!”
At this, Hussein jumped up and said: “Son of a blue-eyed woman, you or he wish to kill me? By God you are a liar and a sinner!” ‘

– This is an unusually in depth dialogue for an historian writing decades after the events he speaks of. Later, we find the apparent exact words Hussain spoke as he saw the cavalry approach on that fateful day:

“O God, it is You in Whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, (no matter) how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish (my hope) in it, the friend may seem to desert (me) in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in (everything) and have revealed its (significance to me). You are the Master of all grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire.”

– The tone is one of absolute devotion to God rather than power. It is a show of the power of faith in the God of Islam, and yet it seems a little bit too long to have been remembered perfectly, word for word, and then recited decades later for Mikhnaf to write down, rewritten by his student, and eventually rewritten again by al-Tabari. In fact, practically everything Hassain supposedly said that day, appears in al-Tabari.

We also find the antagonist (Ubayd Allah) sounding like a villain in a bad movie. After Hussain writes to Ubayd Allah insisting that he will turn back now if the people of Kufa no longer want his support, Ubayd writes back:

“Now when our claws cling to him, he hopes for escape but he will be prevented now from getting any refuge!”

– This is the tone of Mikhnaf’s works as described by later historians like al-Tabari, throughout. The tone is perhaps directly related to the context of the period in which it was composed. Mikhnaf was from Kufa, presenting clear Shia bias. His information and dialogue is predictably anti-Yazid. The conversations he records have Hussain saying profound words of wisdom. “We are from God, and to God we shall return”. We must rely on Mikhnaf’s word for the earliest mentions of the battle of Karbala, and the words and language of Hussain and others, because there are no earlier sources, or sources directly related to the battle itself. The tone of the historical narrative presented by Mikhnaf is one of Shia bias. He was writing at a time of the political ascent of the Umayyad’s and it is clear that Mikhnaf is presenting anti-Umayyad tradition. The opposition was fierce especially in Kufa and Mikhnaf plays his part in that, undoubtedly relying on – as Singh suggests – tribal stories and local gossips in and around Kufa and dedicated to preserving and enhancing the memory of their fallen martyr. We see this particular bias again, when Mikhnaf recites a poem supposedly by Ali ibn al-Hussain, the son of Hussain:

“I am ‘Ali son of Hussein son of Ali;
We and the household of God are closer to the Prophet
Than Shabath and Shmir the vile.
I strike you with the sword until it bends,
The blows of a Hashimite youth, an ‘Alid,
And today I will not stop defending my father.
By God, son of the bastard shall not rule over us.”

– It was supposedly recited by Ali ibn al-Hussein as he rode into battle that day. But as suggested earlier, Mikhnaf is not particular about the chain of authority. Indeed, al-Tabari begins his history (Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk), with a warning to readers about presuming authenticity of sources he uses:

“Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader or listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us.”

– Al-Tabari invites us to investigate for ourselves the claims made by those he cites. He does not claim to be reporting historical fact, only tradition.

Mikhnaf – through al-Tabari – tells us that just after the death of Muawiya, Hussain had a vision of his grandfather the Prophet. In the dream, Muhammad said:

“My beloved Hussain, I foresee you when you will be, in the very near future, covered with blood, slain at the land of Karbala, whilse thirsty, being deprived of water. This will be done to you by people who claim that they are from my followers.”

“My beloved Hussain, there are degrees which you will not acquire except through martydom.”

– This sets up Hussain as a sort of quasi-Prophet, the chosen hero of Muhammad, and a necessary sacrifice for the sake the righteous few, at the hands of those who a dreamland Muhammad considers enemies. All ‘monotheisms’ seem to have their secondary Gods.

Mikhnaf and later, al-Tabari do not mention Hussein’s horse dipping its head in the blood of Hussein. Nor do they mention later myths, like a dove dragging its wing in the blood of Hussein and flying back to Mecca to deliver the bad news. These supernatural elements are later additions far removed from the events itself, and strengthening the martyr narrative.

It is perhaps also worth noting that al-Tabari was writing during the Abbasid Caliphate, 250 years after the battle of Karbala. The Abbasid’s were Arabian rulers who took over from the Syrian Umayyad’s and reasserted the ‘right’ of Arabs to the leadership of the faithful. Indeed, the Umayyad regime had been overthrown by members of the Hashimiyya movement led by the Abbasid’s. The movement was named after the grandson of Ali; Abu Hashim. Hashim was said to have died in the home of Muhammad ibn Ali, the head of the Abbasid family at that time, in 717 (about 33 years prior to their ascension to the caliphate). Muhammad was the father of the first two Abbasid Caliphs; As-Saffah and al-Mansur. The Abbasid caliphs were no friend of the Shia that spawned them, but it is notable that al-Tabari focuses his account of Yazid’s caliphate, entirely on the opposition to him, rather than offering conflicting versions from different sources. He also focuses a large amount of time on the opposition lead by Hussain in a relatively small and unimpressive battle. And so the history of Yazid and the Umayyad’s at that time, is forever seen through the eyes of the early Abbasid opposition to Yazid. One study found that of al-Tabari’s 790 sources used for his history, 440 were Abbasid period texts.

There would be no real reason to doubt the fundamental basis of the story, that something happened at Karbala and a man called Hussain was killed. But the exact truth of just what happened at Karbala in 680ad may never be known. There is no known contemporary source or first hand account, or any completely reliable early mention free from obvious bias. We don’t know what was said and by whom. We don’t know if Hussain was driven by a desire to overthrow an oppressive regime, by his devotion to his God, or by his own obsessive grab for power at all costs (including the lives of those who followed him to Karbala) We don’t know if Hussain actually died at the hands of soldiers at all. If he did die at their hands, we don’t know if Hussain’s decapitated head was placed on a spike, and poked with a stick by the caliph’s governor back in Kufa or not. The language attributed to Hussain and to his enemies, shows clear bias in the retelling. The supernatural elements were propaganda techniques. For the history itself, we just don’t know. But that perhaps doesn’t matter. As is often the case – we really know nothing of the life of Muhammad either – the legend takes on a life larger than the historical truth itself for those who believe it. Hussain was immortalised a martyr, much like the Jesus figure of Christianity. The Karbala story – whether fact, fiction, or as I suspect a mixture of both – is a story that commands great devotion from Shia groups. It unites them all. The story has proven to be a powerful weapon in mobilising the people against a perceived tyranny, especially in Iran. One wrong move can bring an entire government to its knees, at the cry of the ‘bloodstained banners of Ashura’.

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