Answering the question of who killed Hussain ibn Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, at the battle of Karbala is difficult. Whenever the issue is raised, it causes sectarian tension and anger. People have even been killed because of the version of history they believe in.
Understanding the Nature of History
The history of any event has different versions. There is rarely ever the case that everyone unanimously agrees on a particular event in history with all its details. The Battle of Karbala is no different. Sunni and Shia are heavily divided into certain aspects of this event, such as:
- The reasons the battle took place
- The motives of the individuals involved in the battle
- Who is responsible for killing Hussain ibn Ali
The Battle of Karbala: An Unbalanced View
The purpose of this article isn’t to prove who is right and wrong. When we say unbalanced view, we mean we want to present both sides of the story. The reader is free to make his or her own judgements and do their own further reading and research. The topic deserves attention because it is one of the reasons Muslims remain divided today. Furthermore, the people involved, namely Hussain, is the grandson of the Prophet. And he died an extremely gruesome death (which both sides agree on). Asking ‘how did it get to this?’ is an important duty for all Muslims.
Believing in a Certain Portrayal Does Not Make Someone a Kafir
Unfortunately, both Sunnis and Shias have takfir’d (called each other kafirs) over this and other issues. This is not in the spirit of Islam. As long as someone believes in:
- One God;
- the Quran;
- Prophet Muhammad;
- The hereafter/Day of Judgement;
they are to be deemed Muslim. Believing in a specific version of history does not take someone out of the fold of Islam. Both Sunni and Shia scholars have urged and recommended having a healthy and civil dialogue about things they disagree on. Muslims should be able to respectfully disagree without calling each other unbelievers.
The Sunni portrayal of the events of Karbala is taken from two notable Sunni historians: ibn Hajar and ibn Kathir. The senior contemporary Sunni scholar Dr Yasir Qadhi relies on these two historians on the topic of Karbala. Everything mentioned in the Sunni account of Karbala is either from ibn Hajar or ibn Kathir unless otherwise stated.
Events Prior to The Battle of Karbala
The caliph Muawiya died and designated his son Yazid as the next caliph of the Muslims. Yazid wanted allegiance from Hussain. To achieve this, he requested the governor of Medina to approach Hussain and get his allegiance. The governor approaches Hussain and relays the message. After a bit of dialogue, it is settled that Hussain will give allegiance in public the next day. This does not happen. Hussain leaves Medina for Mecca in the middle of the night, opting not to give allegiance.
A Note on Yazid
Sunni scholars don’t regard Yazid as a Sahabi, although his father, Muawiya, was. Some Sunni scholars admit there were more qualified people than Yazid to assume leadership (one such being Hussain). However, on the whole, they believe Yazid had his flaws. Based on that, they can understand why Hussain opposed his leadership. Another reason for this view is the Sunni approach to the caliphate. They believe an individual’s Islam can only be judged by God, but their political decisions are open to scrutiny and debate. For example, Abdullah ibn Umar (the son of the second caliph) stayed away from politics. He readily accepted Yazid as his leader and advised that if the caliph turned out to make some wrong decisions and choices, the Muslims have to exercise patience. Furthermore, one of the last requests of Muawiya to his son was to go and fight the Romans in Constantinople, which is a battle prophesied by the Holy Prophet. In Bukhari, the Prophet says: The first army to attack the Caesar will be forgiven. On this basis, Yazid’s Islam is left to God.
Hussain Leaves for Mecca
As mentioned, Hussain makes his way to Mecca. Once the people of Kufa hear about this, they are overjoyed. The people of Kufa are against the Ummayad government and are happy to know Hussain is not giving his allegiance. Hussain receives approximately 60 messages of support from Kufa, citing they will fight with him.
Hussain Scopes Out The Situation in Kufa
In Kufa, there was a political movement known as ‘Shiat Ali’ (the followers of Ali). These people supported Ali at Siffin against Muawiya. They were unhappy that Hussain’s older brother Hasan brokered a peace treaty with Muawiya and were happy Hussain was choosing an alternative route. Hussain sends his cousin Muslim ibn Aqil to Kufa to ascertain how serious the Kufans were.
Muslim arrives in Kufa, and 12,000 people give allegiance to the cause of Hussain (according to the historian Tabari).
Events in the City of Kufa
Yazid learns about Hussain/Muslim’s intentions and sends Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad with 17 other people to scope out the situation. Yazid has no interest in killing Muslim or Hussain and wanted to quell the potential uprising as Yazid wanted to retain his seat of power. Sunnis note that although Yazid didn’t want bloodshed, he made a mistake in sending ibn Ziyad. Ubdaydullah ibn Ziyad was 28 at the time and historians note he was a very rash, viscous and hot-tempered person. Not someone who could sit down, mediate and peacefully bring about a resolution.
Ubdaydullah’s first task was to find out where Muslim ibn Aqil was. Through his network of spies, he came to know he was at the house of Hani bin Urwa. When Hani refused to give up Muslim, he was beaten up and imprisoned.
Muslim realises that things have escalated and decides to rise. Out of 12,000 that initially pledged allegiance, 4,000 come out and are ready to fight. They enter the vicinity of the residence of Ubaydullah, ready to overthrow him. Ubaydullah manages to dissuade them from doing so by speaking with each tribal leader, whose decision would be followed by all members of his tribe. Other people were also emotionally blackmailed by their family members to not take part.
We can say the initial gathering of people either happened in the late morning or the early afternoon. History notes that after Maghrib prayers of the same way were over, only 10 people were left, and even they abandoned Muslim.
Muslim has nobody to protect him. He eventually manages to take refuge at an old lady’s house. However, her son exposes Muslim’s location to Ubaydullah. They kill Muslim brutally. Before dying, Muslim asks one of the soldiers of Ubaydullah to promise to tell Hussain not to come to Kufa because the Kufans have abandoned them. His last words were to the effect of crying out to Allah (SWT) to judge between him and them and to say that his own Shias betrayed him (and Hussain).
Hussain Warned not to go to Kufa
Even before Muslim died, Hussain was warned by many not to go to Kufa. Including senior companions like Abdullah bin Abbas, Jabir ibn Abdullah and Saeed al Khudri. They reminded him of how they betrayed his father Ali (at the Battle of Siffin) and would do so again.
Hussain is determined to go to Kufa. He still doesn’t know Muslim has died and also wants to avoid any bloodshed potentially taking place in Mecca and by the Kaaba. The son of Umar ibn Khattab also reminded him of the incident where the Prophet was on his deathbed and was asked by Jibrail, whether he wants to return to God or continue living in the dunya. The Prophet chose to return to God, and ibn Umar used this as an argument to say your family is meant for the hereafter; you’re not meant for worldly spoils.
Hussain Makes His Way to Kufa
Hussain still makes his way to Kufa. Here, Sunni scholars note, this was a rash decision given everything that has happened. Hussain even sent another two messengers on a similar mission to Muslim who were also killed. Before dying, the second messenger managed to tell people about the impending arrival of Hussain. The soldier who took the last will of Muslim (to tell Hussain he has been betrayed) arrived and communicated that message.
The children of Muslim (who were with Hussain) decide they want to continue and exact revenge for what happened to their father. Other people that travelled with Hussain encouraged Hussain to continue to Kufa. Their argument was that once the Kufans actually see you there, their loyalty will be renewed.
Hussain is Intercepted by an Army
Yazid had sent an army to fight a war with the Turks. Ubaydullah asks permission to use that army to stop Hussain instead. Yazid agrees. At this point, Hussain realises continuing is not the wisest of choices. The army intercepts Hussain at Karbala and is led by Umar ibn Saad.
Hussain tells the members of his caravan they can leave. They all do, except his close family members. Umar doesn’t want war, and neither does Hussain. Hussain offers one of three solutions:
- To let him go back to Mecca where he will live the rest of his days
- To let him speak to Yazid and resolve this matter without bloodshed
- To let him go to a faraway land, away from the Ummayads and the politics, where he will live out the rest of his life
Umar was more than happy with any of these solutions because he didn’t want to kill anyone. He took these options back to Ubdaydullah ibn Ziyad, yet the latter rejected all of them. For Ubaydullah, it was either allegiance or death.
Recognising the softness of Umar ibn Saad, Ubdaydullah dispatches Shimr ibn Dhi ‘l-Jawshan (a ruthless individual) to get the results Ubaydullah personally wants.
Hussain Dies at Karbala
The army (initially meant for the Turks) is around 4,000 large battles Hussain and the 70-80 people with him as Hussain maintains that doesn’t want to give allegiance. The actual person that dealt the blow that killed Hussain was a solder known as Sinan ibn Anas. Hussain and his family members are killed. Hussain’s head is sent to Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad. The womenfolk of Hussain and his unwell son Ali, are allowed to return to Medina.
Sunni Conclusions Based on this Narrative
On the basis of the following account, Sunni scholars (and layman) conclude the following:
Hussain Was Killed by His own Shia
Hussain was indirectly killed by the Kufans. They rejected Muslim. They rejected another two messengers sent by Hussain. And when Ubaydullah sent Shimr to kill or get the allegiance of Hussain, nobody from Kufa even bothered to turn up to help. Hussain’s death was down to the betrayal of his own Shia. Even those with him in the caravan from Mecca left.
They further back this up by citing that many years after Hussain’s death, there was a movement of the tawabun. These were Kufan Shias who felt guilty of betraying Hussain. One of the things they did was to visit Hussain’s grave and beat their chest.
Yazid Did Not Want Bloodshed
There is nothing to suggest Yazid wanted bloodshed. Hussain presented three very reasonable offers of resolution to Umar ibn Saad. These were rejected by Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad because of his rashness and hunger for war and death. If these options fell on the ears of Yazid, he might have accepted them (but we will never know).
Hussain Was Rash and in Search of Power
Sunnis assert Hussain was rash and walked to his own death. Despite the killing of three messengers, he still carried on. He should not have left for Kufa in the first place, as advised by several prominent people. His desire to assume the caliphate contributed to his death.
In the interest of brevity and to avoid repetition, we will not mention the elements of the Shia portrayal of Karbala, which matches the Sunni narrative. Because the Shias agree on the overall order of events:
- Yazid asked for allegiance
- Hussain goes to Mecca from Medina
- Hussain sends Muslim bin Aqil to Kufa
- Muslim dies in Kufa
- Hussain goes to Kufa but is intercepted at Karbala, where he dies
The major point of contention isn’t necessarily in the narratives but in some of the details of what occurred and the motives and characters of certain individuals. Here, we present the areas Shias disagree on.
Objection 1: Hussain was Killed/Betrayed by his Shia in Kufa
Shias state that the conclusion Hussain was killed or betrayed by his own Shia in Kufa is based on the assumption that everyone in Kufa was a Shia. They turn to a study of the demographic of Kufa, which shows the city was diverse in belief and political affiliation:
- Supporters of the Ummayad government led by Yazid. The people belonging to this group were leading and influential tribes that could influence others to their way of thinking (Baztab-i-Tafakkur-i-Uthmani Vaqi’ah-yi Karbala, pages 31, 78, 199 and 186)
- People of other religions/non-Arabs (Qarashi, The life of Imam Husayn and Majmah al-Bahrayn).
- Khawarij. A group that did not care for the Ummayads or the cause of Hussain.
- Neutrals. People who didn’t care about choosing a side and were solely interested in their safety and comfort. This means they would choose the side that could guarantee their needs.
From this, Shias assert that:
- Everyone in Kufa was far from being a Shia, As a result;
- not everyone would have joined in to help. As a result;
- Ubaydullah’s tactics of appealing to tribal leaders who later changed their mind is not a reflection of the Shia
This is not to say that there were a few Shia who changed their mind, but these were outweighed by the betrayal of tribal leaders who were not Shias and, in some cases, supported the Ummayads. The resulting death of Hussain, therefore, cannot be attributed to Shias.
Objection 2: Hussain was Rash and Wanted Power
The second objection of Shia Muslims is the notion Hussain was after worldly gain, with there being nothing clear and outright in historical and hadith literature that proves Hussain was after power i.e. there are no words or sermons recorded where he clearly states that. But they say there are statements on the contrary:
I have risen up with the intention of reforming the Ummah of my grandfather.”
[Futūḥ Ibn Aʿtham, vol. 5, p. 33.]
In another place, Hussain says something similar:
I never revolted in vain, as a rebel or as a tyrant, but I rose seeking reformation for the nation of my grandfather Muhammad.”
(Majlisi, Biharul Anwar, vol.44, p.329)
Further to this, Shia Muslims present some rationale/logical arguments:
- If Hussain wanted power, why bring his sister and children (which included a six-month-old baby) to the battle? Which individual, when in search of power, takes his women and little children into the battlefield?
- Hasan (Hussain’s brother) died 11 years before Karbala. Why would Hussain wait so long to rise if it was for power?
- Hussain received 12,000 letters pledging allegiance to him to help dispose of Yazid. It’s when he saw this support he decided to rise against Yazid’s tyrannical rule. His predecessor (Ali, his father, and Hasan) did not enjoy this level of support.
Hussain had Prior Knowledge of His Martyrdom
Furthermore, Shias claim Hussain already had prior knowledge of his martyrdom. He was informed of this by none other than his grandfather, the Holy Prophet. In Ahmad, volume 1, page 85 (Sunni reference), the following is reported from Ali ibn Abi Talib:
I entered upon the Prophet one day while his eyes were shedding tears. I said ‘what is it with your eyes shedding tears?’ He (the Prophet said) ‘Rather, Jibreel was here earlier and told me that al-Hussain will be killed by the bank of the Euphrates.”
Shia scholars accept that the above Sunni narration is rejected by some Sunnis. They cite another narration that is accepted by all Sunnis, found in Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, volume 6, page 294. The Prophet says:
An angel entered the house on me, he never entered on me before, and he said to me, ‘this son of yours, al-Hussain, will be killed, and if you wish I can show you the soil from the earth where he will be killed’. Then he took out some red soil.”
Al-Albani accepts this narration stating: The chain of this narration has all trustworthy narrators, narrators of the two Sheikhs. Therefore, this narration is authentic.
Shia Muslims say that Hussain’s knowledge of his martyrdom isn’t a “guess” but comes from Prophetic knowledge given to his grandfather. For this reason, Shias reject the notion Hussain was searching for power.
Objection 3: The Character of Yazid
Shia Muslims do not subscribe to the fact Yazid didn’t want bloodshed or the like. Shias assert Yazid needed to be overthrown because his character was not Islamic at all:
- He killed and tortured for pleasure (Ruhul Islam, page 296)
- Enjoyed hunting with dogs (al-Fakhri)
- Drank alcohol and would enjoy the company of women who would sing for him. Cited in multiple sources such as:
- Jawahirul Matalib dar Manaqib Imam Ali Ibne Abi Talib
- Al Aghani
Shias Muslims have reason to believe that Yazid was not even Muslim and did not believe in Islam. The following is a recording of Yazid gloating after the killing of Hussain:
If only my ancestors who died in Badr had been alive and seen how their opponents (Ahlul Bayt of Prophet) were suppressed, they would have screamed in joy: O Yazid! May your hands never tire! We have killed their leader and in this way took revenge of Badr. And I won’t be eligible to be called the descendant of the fighters of the Ditch (Khandaq) if I had failed to take revenge from Muhammad and his relatives.”
[Tabaqat ash-Shura and Iqdul Farid]
Furthermore, in Tabari, he is quoted to have said:
Hashim (meaning the trible of the Prophet) played with rule (claiming to have a Prophet in their midst), otherwise nothing came from God, nor any revelation was sent.”
Shia Muslims conclude Yazid wasn’t Muslim by raising the following questions:
- If Yazid was Muslim, why is he describing the killing of Hussain as revenge for Badr? Why would a Muslim want revenge for a battle his fellow Muslims won?
- He is clearly talking about taking revenge on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his family. Why would a Muslim take revenge against their own Prophet?
- It is even clearer in the Tabari quote, where he rejects revelation and the Holy Qur’an.
In the eyes of the Shia, it is not correct for a man with such beliefs and actions to have a position of leadership in the Ummah. Hussain rose to fight that.
What Happened After Karbala?
Shia Muslims say examining what happened to Hussain’s family after Karbala provides further insights into character profiles and motives. Shias do not follow the narrative that Hussain’s womenfolk and children were allowed to return home. They assert the family was captured and taken to Damascus at the palace of Yazid and were imprisoned.
Hussain’s Family Taken Captive
In Bihar al-Majlisi, the state of the family taken captive is described by an eyewitness:
I saw Ali ibn al-Husayn on a camel without a saddle. Both sides of his neck were bleeding because of chains around it and he was handcuffed. He was weeping and saying, “O evil nation! Curse on you! You have not regarded us in favour of our grandfather. What will you say on the Day of Resurrection when Allah will gather us with the Prophet? As if we have not guided you to the religion, you are now taking us by force on bare-backed camels.”
It was in Damascus where the above words of Yazid reportedly were spoken. In addition to this, Yazid poked the head of Hussain (ibn-Athir)
Shia Conclusions of the Narrative of Karbala
In summary, Shias say the following:
- Hussain was not after power because he had prophetic knowledge of his death
- Hussain can’t have been after power if he took little children and women with him through Medina, Mecca and eventually Karbala
- Yazid is an evil personality and wanted Hussain dead. His actions and words support this statement. Hussain rose to raise awareness of Yazid
- Hussain was betrayed by people in Kufa, but the vast majority were not Shias
- Yazid is responsible for killing Hussain by commanding his army and generals, even if he was not physically present at Karbala
With this article, we have not sought to prove one party correct but have merely presented both sides of the story and their proofs for the benefit of the reader who may wish to further investigate the incident. The unity of Muslims isn’t in agreeing on everything but in seeking to understand differences.09