Karbala, an event not often included in European/American histories, is one of the defining moments for Islamic history.
The year was 680. The newly-conquered Muslim lands had gone through four Caliphs in rapid succession, following Mohammed’s death in 632. These Caliphs had all been Mohammed’s close friends or relatives, and the 4th was his cousin, Ali.
Ali became Caliph over the objections of Muawiyah, a member of Mohammed’s tribe, the Quraysh. Muawiyah was governor of Syria under Caliph Uthman, who had been assassinated. Muawiyah pushed to have the assassins brought to trial, while Ali wanted to let the matter rest. Ali also moved the governing capital from Damascus to Kufa, in Iraq.
Here we see the tribal stress lines: “hereditary royalty” relative, Ali vs. Quraysh tribe; conquered Persians who preferred Kufa vs. original Arabs who had settled into Damascus. The bone of contention was whether or not to hang the assassins, but the real conflict was about tribal and regional power-sharing.
Ali and Muawiyah came to open battle along the Euphrates River, but after a week of fighting, they moved to arbitration of the dispute. It’s at this time that the Kharijites walked away. Ali remained Caliph, but Muawiyah was more powerful in Syria, so it was clear that the showdown was not over. A Kharijite assassinated Ali while he was at prayer, in 661.
Ali’s son Hassan became Caliph, but he made a treaty with Muawiyah to stop the nascent civil war. He ceded the Caliphate to Muawiyah on condition of a line of succession: Hassan himself, then his brother Hussein. If neither of them was still alive, then the Muslims would have an election. That way, there would be no dynasty unless it was Ali’s.
But when Muawiyah died in 680, he appointed his son Yazid as Caliph. Hassan had died in 670, but Hussein was still very much alive. He refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, because of the treaty.
Twice, the Muslims had halted civil war for arbitration, but this time, they went to full battle. Hussein left Mecca to seek Persian reinforcement at Kufa. Along the way, Yazid’s army caught his small army at a town called Karbala.
The Battle of Karbala was hopeless for Hussein. He is a classic case of the rightful-heir as underdog, swept away by much larger, more pragmatic, force. During the battle, he was not only killed but beheaded. His family members were either killed (including a baby) or captured.
One legend about the battle emphasizes Hussein’s status as righteous underdog. In the few days before they opened pitched battle, the army from Damascus prevented Hussein’s men from accessing river water. Suffering from thirst, the men were offered a chance to desert without punishment, but they all stayed to face death with Hussein.
By our calendar, the battle took place on about October 10, 680. Within Islam, the date is commemorated as Ashura. Every detail of the battle is remembered and often there is a ritual re-enactment. Here is one re-enactment of the death of Hussein.
The Kharijites were more like rebellious dissidents than like a separate sect. The Partisans of Hussein (Shia = partisans) eventually became a sect, but at this time, they too were more a scattered, resentful rebellion. For a few years, there were scattered rebellions in Syria, Arabia and Egypt. The power of the Majority (Sunni = majority) was sufficient to put down these rebellions. Muawiyah’s family became known as the Umayyad dynasty.