Martyrdom of Prophet’s Grandson Ḥusayn

The betrayal and massacre of the Prophet Muḥammad’s grandson and dozens of his followers at the Battle of Karbalā՚ is one of the most significant events in the history of Islam’s electrifying early expansion, contributing to the split between the Sunni and Shīՙite sects of Islam.

Summary of Event

With the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 632, the burgeoning Islamic Empire lost its charismatic leader and began to show signs of internecine strife that, within a generation, would see intrigues, assassinations, and massacres. The reigns of the “ideal” or “rightly guided” caliphs (Abū Bakr, r. 632-634; ՙUmar I, r. 634-644; ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān, r. 644-656; and ՙAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, r. 656-661) kept these struggles to a minimum until the succession of ՙAlī ՙAlī (fourth caliph) , son-in-law of Muḥammad and the last of the ideal caliphs. [kw]Martyrdom of Prophet’s Grandson Ḥusayn (October 10, 680)
[kw]Ḥusayn, Martyrdom of Prophet’s Grandson (October 10, 680)
[kw]Prophet’s Grandson Ḥusayn, Martyrdom of (October 10, 680)
Iraq;Oct. 10, 680: Martyrdom of Prophet’s Grandson Ḥusayn[0410]
Religion;Oct. 10, 680: Martyrdom of Prophet’s Grandson Ḥusayn[0410]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 10, 680: Martyrdom of Prophet’s Grandson Ḥusayn[0410]
MuՙĀwiyah I
Yazīd I

ՙAlī’s moral and spiritual authority as caliph was challenged by MuՙĀwiyah I Muՙāwiyah I , the wealthy and politically puissant governor of Syria. The resulting bloody battles and politics left a bad taste in the mouths of some who were used to the relative purity of the Islamic world under Muḥammad. When ՙAlī was assassinated by the Khāijites Khāijites[Khaijites] , a group of warriors, his elder son, Ḥasan Ḥasan (Islamic caliph) , succeeded ՙAlī as caliph. Ḥasan soon abdicated in favor of MuՙĀwiyah, retiring to Medina. In 680, Ḥasan was poisoned, possibly by his wife at the behest of MuՙĀwiyah. With Ḥasan out of the way, MuՙĀwiyah founded the Umayyad Dynasty Umayyad caliphate , which would dominate Islam until 750.

Although MuՙĀwiyah was now the legitimate caliph, or political head, of Islam, the imamate (spiritual authority) of Islam remained with Ḥasan until his death, when it passed to his brother Ḥusayn. Ḥusayn, by all accounts a thoughtful and pious man, felt bound by his brother’s oath and made no challenge to MuՙĀwiyah. MuՙĀwiyah’s rule ended with his death in 680, and his son Yazīd I Yazīd I succeeded to the caliphate. Muslim leaders across the peninsula were made to sign oaths of allegiance to Yazīd; Ḥusayn refused to do this on the grounds that the caliphate should not become a hereditary monarchy, mimicking the Persian and Byzantine patterns. With supporters and his family, Ḥusayn fled his home in Al-Kufa for the relative safety of Mecca.

The Kufans Kufans , however, chafing under Syrian rule, soon invited Ḥusayn to return. They promised he would find vast support for a reassertion of his rights as caliph. Ḥusayn sent an emissary, Muslim ibn Aqeel, to gather intelligence. Muslim sent word assuring Ḥusayn that some twelve thousand Kufans had sworn allegiance to him. Against the advice of his friends in Mecca, Ḥusayn undertook the three-week journey back to Al-Kufa, accompanied only by his household and entourage of some one hundred persons, many of whom were women and children.

Yazīd’s governor in Al-Kufa, Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad , responded to this news with a campaign of threat, coercion, bribery, and violence against any dissenters. By the time Ḥusayn reached Zubalah, about halfway to Al-Kufa, word was waiting for him that his support had melted away. Nevertheless, Ḥusayn pressed on, joined by some Bedouins from the desert and some loyal refugees from Al-Kufa, until stopped by an Umayyad army of one thousand men commanded by the young Hur al-Riyahi Hur al-Riyahi .

Hur al-Riyahi approached Ḥusayn’s band and explained to him that he had been ordered to prevent Ḥusayn from entering any town in Iraq. Ḥusayn showed Hur al-Riyahi the letters from Al-Kufa begging him to return, then shared his water with Hur al-Riyahi’s soldiers and invited the Umayyads to pray with him. Moved, Hur al-Riyahi permitted Ḥusayn to travel on while his army followed, awaiting further instructions from Al-Kufa.

On the second day of the month of Muharram in 680, Ḥusayn’s party reached the plain of Karbalā՚, Karbalā՚, Battle of (680)[Karbala, Battle of (680)] skirting the Euphrates River. The following day, a war band of four thousand Umayyad soldiers, led by ՙUmar ibn Saՙad ՙUmar ibn Saՙad , appeared and blocked Ḥusayn’s access to the water. Ibn Saՙad explained to Ḥusayn that he would not allow his party to leave Karbalā՚ until Ḥusayn had signed an oath of loyalty to Yazīd.

Ḥusayn refused, although his party was all but defenseless and beginning to die from thirst. On the tenth of Muharram, a day now known as ՙĀshūrā՚, the Umayyads advanced against Ḥusayn’s loyal followers, who had refused any opportunity to abandon him. Hur al-Riyahi, who still lurked behind Ḥusayn, joined the battle against ibn Saՙad, adding his thousand to the armed men (that tradition numbers at 72) and the women and children who followed the Prophet’s grandson. This addition would avail but little against the four thousand Umayyad archers and cavalry that stood between them and the life-giving Euphrates.

The resulting series of forays against Ḥusayn’s camp was a massacre. Hur al-Riyahi was among the first to fall, and the remainder of Ḥusayn’s supporters were subjected to heavy fire from ibn Saՙad’s archers. Ḥusayn at last approached the Umayyads, begging for water, holding his infant son before him. The baby was killed by an arrow in the throat, and Ḥusayn was then set on by the Umayyad cavalry. According to tradition, he was struck by a blow that forced him to the ground facedown, but the Umayyads hesitated before striking the coup de grace until Shamir, an emissary from Ubaydullah, stepped forward and slew the helpless imam.

All the male members of Ḥusayn’s party were decapitated, and the women were taken prisoner. The sole male survivor of the massacre was Ḥusayn’s son ՙAlī (later known as Zayn-al-ՙĀbidīn) who, afflicted with fever, had not joined the battle. Ḥusayn’s body was trampled by horses, and his head was brought back to Al-Kufa, where it was subjected to further violence by Ubaydullah, until an old man from the crowd called out that he had seen the lips of the Prophet kiss the very face that Ubaydullah was mutilating.


The savagery of this atrocity had immediate consequences in popular uprisings in Mecca and Medina. Yazīd was forced to divert his energies to suppressing these revolts and avenged himself by plundering the holy cities. In addition, Yazīd’s violence and appetite for worldly things is reckoned by some historians to have sewn the seeds of the ՙAbbāsid revolution that would unseat the Umayyads in 750. The more significant result of Ḥusayn’s martyrdom, though, was the creation of the Shīՙite Shīՙite Islam[Shiite Islam] minority in Islam.

Among both Sunni Sunni Islam and Shīՙite Muslims, amazingly, the basic facts of this tragic tale, even down to Yazīd’s cruelty and Ḥusayn’s sanctity, are not disputed. For Shīՙite Muslims, however, the root of an unjust and catastrophic history is manifested in the massacre at Karbalā՚. Most Shīՙites believe that ՙAlī, husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fāṭimah, should have immediately succeeded Muḥammad, and that Abū Bakr and ՙUmar I plotted to keep ՙAlī out of power as long as possible (although many scholars consider this unlikely, since Abū Bakr was famous for carrying out the Prophet’s orders even if it went against his own better judgment or safety). For the Shīՙites, this alleged political machination began to corrupt the purity of Islam even before the Prophet’s death. This corruption was made tragically visible in the massacre, when the keepers of the central principles of Islam were brutally cut down by a worldly tyrant. Among Sunni’, the tale of Ḥusayn is a chastisement and a warning against the temptations of temporal power. For the Shīՙites, however, the story incorporates the quest for a pure Muslim identity defined by sacrifice and suffering.

During the month of Muharram, Shīՙite communities re-enact the sacred story of Ḥusayn in a powerful mass ritual, called a Taziyeh or Karbalā՚ play, involving a complicated procession of public grief and self-flagellation. The participants in the play enact the main events of the story and slash their own heads with swords. Participation in these ceremonies is held to be a sacred and redemptive act that will earn the intercession of Ḥusayn, keeper of the keys of Heaven, at the Last Judgment. Akbar Ahmed writes that

The immense sacrifice [of Ḥusayn] ensured the perpetuation of the myth of Karbalā՚; its political content has made it a powerful and emotional rallying point against tyranny and oppression.

An Urdu poet summed it up in verse: “Islam zinda hota hay har Karbalā՚ key bad” (“Islam is reborn after every Karbalā՚”).

Further Reading

  • Ahmed, Akbar S. Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. A thoughtful, easy-to-read, comprehensive analysis of Islam. Map, chronology, glossary, bibliography, index.
  • Halm, Heinz. Shia Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Translated by Allison Brown. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1997. A concise history of Shiism, from its beginnings during the time of the massacre of Ḥusayn and his followers through the twentieth century. Highlights the massacre, Shiism’s historical development, and its rituals of mourning and atonement, including the Karbalā՚ play and self-flagellation. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs. 10th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974. This is still the standard text for the entire spectrum of Arab history. Illustrations, genealogical tables, maps, bibliographical references.
  • Jafri, Syed Husain Mohammad. The Origins and Early Development of Shia Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A thoroughly researched study of Shiism’s formative period using contemporary and near-contemporary sources. Includes chapters on Al-Kufa, Ḥusayn’s martyrdom, and the after effects of Karbalā՚. Bibliography, index.
  • Jandora, John Walter. Militarism in Arab Society: A Historiographical and Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A somewhat-slanted but detailed military history of Arab military culture focusing on MuՙĀwiyah and his descendants.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last Two Thousand Years. New York: Scribner, 1997. An erudite, comprehensive, controversial text from one of the most prolific Western authors on Islamic history.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shii Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. A balanced and detailed approach to understanding an oft-misunderstood Muslim minority. Bibliography, index.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam, Muslims, Mosques. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. A detailed and extensive study on the institutions of Islam by a Pakistani expert. Bibliography, index.
  • Schacht, Joseph, and C. E. Bosworth, eds. The Legacy of Islam. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. An unusual text that traces the debt the Western world owes to Islamic thought and civilization. Illustrations, bibliography, index.