(Persia Digest) - The 60 AH uprising of Imam Hossein (AS) against the corrupt and tyrannical rule of Yazid bin Muaaviyeh and the martyrdom of the Imam and his disciples in Karbala have sparked a variety of debates in the course of history. Numerous books have been written on the uprising and its root causes. Over the centuries, the incident has affected people’s lives and become one of their fundamental beliefs and traditions, which adds to its sensitivity.
The following report relies on the statements of Imam Hossein (AS) during the rules of Muaaviyeh and his son Yazid about the incidents that occurred during his journey from Medina to Karbala. By doing so, it clarifies the uprising from Imam Hossein’s perspective and offers brief analyses of his remarks.
Many think that Imam Hossein decided to fight the Bani Ommaya establishment after Muaaviyeh’s death and Yazid’s rise to power. However, historical accounts indicate that he had been thinking of it years before the day of Ashura and that he was looking for the right time to act.
After Imam Hassan’s (AS) martyrdom, some Kufiyans sent condolence messages to his brother Imam Hossein (AS). In one of these letters, Ja'd bin Hubairah's sons urged Imam Hossein (AS) to rise up against the ruling establishment and offered to assist him. In response, Imam Hossein (AS) wrote: “Today I have no intention to do so. May God bless you all! Stay put and on the alert in your homes, and do nothing suspicious as long as Muaaviyeh is alive. If God wanted something to happen to him (Muaaviyeh) and if I were alive I would inform you of my plan.”
Two important points emerge from the analysis of this letter. Imam Hossein (AS) was committed to his covenant with Muaaviyeh although that agreement was reached under special and unusual circumstances after the peace treaty of Imam Hassan (AS). Many Shiites were disappointed by Imam Hassan’s peace treaty, and a group of them asked Imam Hossein (AS) to become their commander in the war against Muaaviyeh. The Imam, however, rejected their offer and defended the peace accord his older brother Imam Hassan (AS) had signed. For example, he told Hujr bin Uday: “We have made a deal and signed an agreement and there is no way we could break it.”
The second point in Imam Hossein’s letter to the Kufiyans is his emphasis on the people’s readiness for the post-Muaaviyeh era. He wants them to stay alert and not provide Muaaviyeh and his agents with any excuse to attack them. The Imam urges the people to protect their lives and be ever ready ideologically and politically for the days after Muaaviyeh’s death.
Among other points that can be cited as examples is Imam Hossein’s line of reasoning against Muaaviyeh on various occasions. After Hujr bin Uday and his men were killed by Muaaviyeh, the latter traveled to Mecca where he met with Imam Hossein (AS) and told him: “We killed your father’s disciples and said prayers over their bodies before burying them.” Imam Hossein (AS) replied: “These people are your enemies, but if we kill your followers, we will not say prayers over their bodies and will not bury them.”
Imam Hossein’s (AS) answer is very thought provoking as he clearly voices his enmity with Muaaviyeh and his way of thinking. He speaks of killing Muaaviyeh’s men and refuses to say prayers over their bodies as though Muaaviyeh and his men did not belong to the Islamic community and so did not deserve prayers over their dead bodies in the Muslim tradition.
Elsewhere, in response to a letter from Muaaviyeh concerning the covenant with Yazid, the Imam writes: “I have no intention of war and friction, but I seek refuge in Allah from fighting with you and your party who are among the oppressors. The tyrant people who are around you belong to the party of oppressors and are followers of the devil. In your letter, you tell me not to cause sedition and turmoil for the Prophet’s followers (but) I know no sedition bigger than your rule and administration.”
In another letter to Muaaviyeh, he writes: “I do not suppose I would need any excuse before God for jihad against you, and I see no sedition bigger than you and your government.”
These cases clearly show that Imam Hossein’s acceptance of Muaaviyeh’s government was based on the specific conditions of the time and that the Imam did not truly believe in the rule of Al-Sufiyan. He used every opportunity to voice his views explicitly and questioned the rule of Muaaviyeh in very clear terms. Imam Hossein (AS) called Muaaviyeh “seditious” in one place and elsewhere described him as the “devil.” This, of course, caused great pressure on the Imam, his disciples, and his clan, Bani Hashem. After Imam Hossein’s opposition to Yazid’s takeover as Muaaviyeh’s successor at the Medina mosque, and in the presence of Muaaviyeh and a large group of people, the allowance to Bani Hashem was cut off on Muaaviyeh’s orders. When Abdullah bin Abbas asked Muaaviyeh why he had cut the allowance, he replied that as long as the chief of Abdullah’s household (Imam Hossein) refused to vow allegiance (to Yazid), the policy would continue.
Muaaviyeh passed away in 60 AH after appointing his son Yazid his successor. For many years, Muaaviyeh had worked to arrange for his son’s leadership, and he persuaded the majority of the Muslim community of his time to promise loyalty to Yazid. Only four persons refused to do so.
In his last will addressed to his son, Muaaviyeh refers to his opponents and explains the methods of coping with each one individually: “My son, I want you to know that I did all I could and got the backing of everyone except four persons. Now I tell you how to cope with each of these people to force them to promise loyalty to you. 1. Abdul Rahman bin Abi Bakr: he is a man of pleasure; give him whatever he wants to keep him entertained. 2. Abdullah bin Omar: he is a man of worship and is not after power. 3. Abdullah bin Zubair: he is worse than all; try to make him support you even by force, but try to refrain from war to the extent possible. 4. Hossein bin Ali: you must know that we owe our rule to them; if he promises loyalty, treat him nicely but if not, let him alone. My concern is that the Iraqis would not sit idle and encourage him to rise up. I hope the people who treated his father and brother like that [mistreated and martyred them] would protect you against any harm from their side.”
All four persons mentioned had already voiced their opposition to the rule of Yazid bin Muaaviyeh and Marvan bin Hakam, his administrator in Medina. In the session Muaaviyeh held in Medina to garner support for Yazid, each of them made strongly worded statements questioning Yazid’s takeover. Imam Hossein (AS), for instance, said: “Yazid drinks wine and talks nonsense; therefore, he cannot become the ruler of Muslims as long as a person like me is here.”
The Imam’s behavior made Muaaviyeh so indignant that he lost his temper and used foul language against him. In response, Imam Hossein (AS) said: “Show restraint; I do not deserve what you tell me!”
As mentioned earlier, Muaaviyeh in his last will had clearly instructed Yazid how to treat the opposition. Yazid, however, took a different approach. As a first step, he decided to force Imam Hossein (AS) and Abdullah bin Zubair into supporting him. To that end, he sent a letter ordering his Medina administrator Walid bin Utbah to summon the two and force them into allegiance, and to behead them if they refused.
Walid called upon them and asked them for allegiance after showing them Yazid’s letter. Imam Hossein (AS) replied: “A person like me would not pledge allegiance alone and at this time of the night. Raise this issue in the presence of others. If they promise loyalty, then ask us for the same.”
The day after, in response to Marvan bin Hakam’s request to promise loyalty to Yazid, Imam Hossein (AS) made a statement that clarified his beliefs and position. He said: “From God we come and to Him we shall return. When the Muslim Ummah is entrapped by a ruler like Yazid, it means that we must forget all about Islam!”
When Imam Hossein (AS) decided to depart from Medina, Mohamad Hanaifah advised him to go to Mecca instead. “Go to Mecca and if you are not treated kindly, move to the sandy lands and mountain peaks and from one town to another to find out what will eventually happen to the people.”
Imam Hossein (AS) told him in response: “I swear to God that I will not vow allegiance to Yazid bin Muaaviyeh even if I had no shelter in the world.”
Upon leaving Media, Imam Hossein (AS) in a letter to Mohamad Hanaifah clearly explained the philosophy of his uprising. Part of the letter states: “I am not leaving out of egoism, unruliness, seditiousness, and tyranny. Instead, my intention is to make reforms in my ancestor’s ummah. I mean to direct others to what is good and enjoin them not to commit what is unlawful. I intend to follow the course taken by my ancestors and father.”
Imam Hossein’s letter to Mohamad Hanaifah was a full reflection of his movement from the outset to the day of Ashura and the time of his martyrdom. Later on and during his journey from Medina to Mecca and from Mecca to Karbala, Imam Hossein (AS) in all his statements stressed that among his ultimate goal for leaving Medina were opposition to Yazid and his despotic rule, remedying the corruption of the Islamic Ummah and their liberation from ignorance and oppression, and campaigning against the changes introduced into the religion of the Prophet (S).
Imam Hossein (AS) left Medina for Mecca in the middle of the day, along with his family members and household, so that everyone would see them departing. While leaving, he cited a Quranic verse: “So he left it, fearful and anticipating (apprehension). He said, ‘My Lord, save me from the wrongdoing people.’” (28:21)
Upon arriving in Mecca, Imam Hossein (AS) was welcomed by the people. The Imam arrived in the city at the time of the Hajj pilgrimage. This provided him with a golden opportunity to enlighten the people about his thoughts. The arrival of Abdul Rahman bin Zubair in Mecca concurrently with Imam Hossein’s (AS) presence weakened Yazid’s status in the city. This situation provided relative freedom in Mecca and enabled the people to gather around Imam Hossein (AS) who, as a great man and son of the Prophet’s daughter, was unrivaled at the time.
During the Imam’s presence in Mecca, the first emissaries of the Kufiyans carrying invitation letters arrived in the city. Kufa was the center of the rule of Imam Ali (AS) and Imam Hassan (AS), and the Shiites were in the majority in the city. Following military defeats under the rule of Imam Hassan (AS), the Kufiyans had become disenchanted. The transfer of the power center from Kufa to Damascus, followed by the chasing and persecution of pro-Ali (AS) Shiites at the time of Muaaviyeh, had caused deep animosity against Bani Ommaya (the Ommayads). After Muaaviyeh’s death, there was renewed motivation among the people of Kufa. In the first days after Muaaviyeh’s death, the Shiites gathered at the house of Sulayman bin Khazai and decided to invite Imam Hossein (AS) to Kufa to lead them against Yazid. At that meeting, Sulayman addressed the chiefs of Kufa and said: “You are Shiites and followers of Hossein bin Ali and his father. If you are positive that you will assist him and fight against his enemies, invite him, otherwise do not deceive him.”
They said that they were confident about what they were doing and therefore sent their first letters to Imam Hossein (AS). One letter said: “Oh Hossein! We want you to know that we have no Imam (leader). Rush to us! May God lead us to the camp of justice, truth, and honesty because of you.” In another letter, they wrote: “Fruits are ripe, gardens are green, and the vanguards of the crops are ready. So rush if you want to join us!”
Imam Hossein (AS) replied: “I have read your letters and become aware of your intention. The subject matter of all the letters was that you have no leader. I have dispatched my cousin Muslim bin Aqeel to you. If he writes to me after meeting you that you are all united, I would come to you.”
Later in the same letter, Imam Hossein (AS) referred to a point that revealed his thoughts about the type of government. He explained the signs of a real ruler in the following words: “I swear on my own life that Imam is none but the one who acts upon the book of God, administers justice and equity, commits to rightfulness, and must beware of his ego in serving the people and in obeying God.”
After Imam Hossein’s close aides and disciples were informed of his decision to travel to Kufa, they visited him and advised him against such a decision out of goodwill and foresight and recalling the record of the people of Kufa in breaching their covenants.
The first of his well-wishers was Amr bin Abdul Rahman Makhroumi, who said to the Imam: “I am worried about such a journey. You are setting out to a city that has agents and chiefs who love its government treasury. The people, too, are servants of money. I am worried that those in Kufa who have promised to help you would join those who love your opponents more than you, and wage a war against you.”[Remark 5]
Abdullah bin Abbas also advised the Imam against traveling to Kufa. He told Imam Hossein (AS): "I am worried you would lose your life in this trip. If you do not want to stay in Mecca, then go to Yemen which is a vast land where the Shiite followers of your father live. You can send emissaries to other cities from there and remain hopeful that you would attain what you have on your mind without any risk.”
After noticing Imam Hossein’s persistence in going, Abbas told him: “Now that you have made up your mind, do not take your wives and children. I fear that you would be killed before their eyes.”
Abdullah bin Omar was another person who advised Imam Hossein (AS) against going. He told the Imam: “Yazid will not live long. It would be better for you if you reconcile with him. I am worried that their sword would land on your face and you would see things from his people that you do not want to see. Return to Medina with us. If you do not want to promise loyalty, then don’t, and stay in your home.”
In response, Imam Hossein (AS) told Omar: “It is not what you say. They would not let me alone until I promise loyalty, and if I don’t do so, they would kill me…”
Before leaving Mecca, however, he wrote a short letter to his stepbrother Mohamad Hanaifah, the contents of which indicated that Imam Hossein (AS) was fully aware of the trend of his movement and its ending and that his actions were based on logic and quite premeditated: “Whoever from Bani Hashem joins me will be martyred and whoever turns away from me will not see victory.”
This statement clearly reveals that Imam Hossein (AS) knew what was going to happen to him. The Imam was also aware of the fact that the despotic Sufiyan rule would not let him carry out his plans. At the same time, the Imam knew that his uprising would shake the foundations of the tyrant rule and awaken the deviant and ignorant people of his time.
After the arrival of Muslin bin Aqeel in Kufa, the Shiites promised loyalty in groups. This prompted Muslim to write to Imam Hossein (AS) saying: “The people of Kufa have vowed allegiance to you. Come to Kufa immediately after you receive my letter. All the people are siding with you and have no inclination toward Yazid.”
Upon receiving Muslim’s letter, Imam Hossein (AS) set out toward Kufa and, against the advice of his associates, took his family along. After Yazid learned about the situation in Kufa and its people’s correspondence with Hossein bin Ali (AS), he appointed Ubaidullah bin Ziyad as the new ruler of the city. Immediately upon arriving in Kufa, Ziyad scattered the promise-breaking Kufiyans from around Muslim bin Aqeel by instituting a policy of intimidation, and eventually arrested and martyred Muslim.
In the Safah region, Imam Hossein (AS) met Farazdaq, a famous poet of the time, who was returning from Iraq. The Imam inquired about the situation of the people of the land, and Farazdaq told him: “The people’s hearts are with you, but their swords are with Bani Ommaya!”
In another caravanserai, Abdullah bin Muti met with Imam Hossein (AS) and asked him why he was leaving Mecca. The Imam replied: “The people of Kufa have written to me and asked me to go to them. I hope they will restore justice and do away with innovations.”
Bin Muti said: “Do not go to Kufa, for the love of God, because if you do they will kill you. If they kill the son of the Prophet of God, there would remain no respect for Islam, Arabs, and Quraish.”
What Abdullah bin Muti said was correct. The first part of his statement was similar to the advice of others who feared that the Kufiyans would break their promise. The latter part of Muti’s statement proved to be right later. After the martyrdom of Imam Hossein (AS) in Karbala, the Islamic world experienced a long power struggle. There was no more respect, and bloodshed became the order of the day.
All those who advised Imam Hossein (AS) against traveling to Kufa only considered the obvious aspect of the Imam’s movement. They were concerned that this may end in the Imam’s death but were unaware that his goal was not to seek power. For Imam Hossein (AS), life was not precious enough to sacrifice his freedom and honor for it. Statesmen as a rule are after material aims, but Hossein bin Ali (AS) sought something beyond materialism. He could not tolerate the emergence of innovations in the religion of God and the elimination of the values for which his ancestor and noble father had worked so hard.
An honorable death in the eyes of Imam Hossein (AS) was so precious that in the course of his journey he repeatedly spoke of the priority of a dignified death to a disgraceful life.
In the Zabala caravanserai, Imam Hossein (AS) received the news of the martyrdom of Muslim bin Aqeel and his other emissaries. The Imam gathered his disciples together and informed them of what had happened to Muslim and how the Kufiyans had broken their promise. He then addressed the audience thus: “It is now clear that the Shiites have left us alone. If any of you wants to leave me now I would not blame him.” Many of those who had accompanied Imam Hossein (AS) in the hope of victory left him.
In Kufa, meanwhile, Ubaidullah bin Ziyad forced the people to join his troops in the war against Imam Hossein (AS) and appointed Omar bin Saad as their commander.
In continuation of its journey toward Kufa, Imam Hossein’s caravan reached Horr bin Yazid Riyahi and his troops. The Imam ordered his own troops and their horses take refreshment. After the two armies said prayers led by Hossein bin Ali (AS), it became known that Horr bin Yazid Riyahi had been assigned to watch Imam Hossein (AS) and his caravan and prevent them from proceeding towards Kufa or returning to Medina. After Horr bin Yazid Riyahi blocked the Imam’s way to Kufa, the two sides agreed that the Imam would choose a direction that would end in neither Kufa nor Medina until Ubaidullah’s order to Horr was issued.
After a few days, Ubaidullah’s letter reached Horr. The letter ordered Horr to make life difficult for Hossein (AS) and force him into a desert area with neither water nor shelter. Thus, they had to remain in Karbala.
On the same day, a letter reached the Imam from Ubaidullah, which said: “Yazid has ordered me not to leave you alone for a moment until Hossein promises loyalty or is killed.” After reading the letter, Imam Hossein (AS) said: “This letter does not deserve an answer.”
After arriving in Karbala with the Kufa army, Omar bin Saad first wanted to solve the issue peacefully. To that end, he sent an emissary to Hossein bin Ali (AS) to ask him why he was there. The Imam replied: “The people of your city have written to me asking me to join them; if they do not want this, I can return.”
This answer made Omar bin Saad hopeful and he wrote the following to Ubaidullah: “I sent an emissary to Hossein bin Ali and asked him what he was up to. He says the people of Kufa have invited him, and if they have changed their mind he would go back.”
Ubaidullah bin Ziyad replied: “I got your letter. I got your message. Tell Hossein that he and his companions should vow allegiance to Yazid, and then I will decide what to do with them.”
Omar bin Saad informed the Imam of Ubaidullah’s response. Imam Hossein (AS) made a brief and explicit remark: “Oh the son of Saad! The last blow Ubaidullah bin Ziyad can inflict on me is the death blow; so, bravo death!”
On the sixth day of Moharram, after Kufa troop reinforcements arrived, Bin Ziyad wrote a letter to Omar bin Saad: “With the army you have under your command besiege Hossein and his disciples and do not let them drink even a drop of water.”
On the seventh day of Moharram, on the order of Imam Hossein (AS), Abbas bin Ali (Imam Hossein’s stepbrother) accompanied by 30 others broke the water siege, temporarily solving the problem. Ubaidullah wrote another letter to Omar Saad saying that if Hossein still refused to promise loyalty to Yazid, Omar should attack him at once, and after killing him, let his body be trampled upon by horses or delegate the commandership of the corps to Shemr bin Zil Joshan.
The Imam’s response to Ubaidullah was explicit and transparent: “Beware! This filthy man, this filthy son, has left me with two choices: war or submission, and indeed it is impossible for us to give in to humiliation.”
Negotiations ended without any results, and Omar bin Saad decided to go for war, a war which in his own words would end in amputation of legs and hands.
On the ninth evening of Moharram, the Kufa army started its march. Upon hearing the noise, Imam Hossein (AS) assigned his brother Abbas to go to them and ask their intention. They replied that the deadline was over and they were ready for war. The Imam asked for one night’s respite to say prayers. He said that he loved to say prayers, and Yazid’s army agreed to the request.
On that night, Imam Hossein (AS) summoned his disciples and household and talked to them for the last time. “Tomorrow is the last day of our lives. I ask you all to leave me and go your own way, and I will not prevent you. The night is a good cover for you, and you can take my children with you as well.”
However, the faithful disciples of Imam Hossein (AS) did not break their promise of loyalty to him and stayed with him at that fateful juncture of history.
The night before Ashura passed with all its beauty and sincerity for Imam Hossein (AS) and his close disciples, and the day of Ashura arrived. On the one side was the huge army of Kufa and on the other side was a small group but probably the most noble in entire human history whose only arm was love and dedication. This was one of the most unequal battles in the history of mankind.
As he rode his horse, Imam Hossein (AS) opened a copy of the Quran he was holding and prayed. Then he addressed the army of Omar bin Saad and said: “Oh people! Listen to me and make no hurry in fighting me. Let me give you some advice and tell you why I am here. After you accept what I say, you have no excuse for war; if you don’t and do not want to be fair, then you join each other and finish your job; give me no break.” The enemy, who felt humiliated and had nothing to say, did not let the Imam finish his words and attacked the Imam’s army on the orders of Omar bin Saad.
Among the interesting incidents of Ashura is the repentance of Horr bin Yazid and his decision to join Imam Hossein’s troops. The first person who had blocked Imam’s way suddenly wanted to be the first martyr of the Imam’s path. Imam Hossein (AS) kindly accepted his remorse and said: “God will accept your remorse and forgive your sins. You are ‘free’ as your mother called you Horr (meaning free in Arabic).”
Horr and after him the Imam’s followers and household members went to the battlefield and were all martyred, one by one. It was the noon hour. When one of the disciples informed Imam Hossein (AS) that it was time for prayers, he told his disciple to ask for respite from the enemy for prayers, but the enemy refused. The Imam and his followers who held the prayers anyway were showered with arrows even as other adherents stood in front and behind the worshippers as a shield.
After all the followers of Imam Hossein (AS) were martyred, it was his turn to go to the battle ground. The Imam said: “To get killed is better than giving in to disgrace…”
Imam Hossein (AS) was attacked from all directions. He was showered with arrows, spears, and swords. The Imam suddenly noticed that a group of enemy troops were attacking the tents of the women and children. He shouted: “Alas for you followers of Al Sufiyan. If you have no faith and fear not the Day of Judgment, be freemen in your world at least…”
That group, too, attacked Hossein. It was the last moments of his life. Zainab called Omar bin Saad from a mount and shouted: “O’ Omar, they are killing Aba Abdullah, and you are just watching?” Omar remained silent and turned his face away. Zainab shouted again: “Alas for you army men! Isn’t there even one Muslim among you?”
In the last moments of his life, Imam Hossein (AS) said: “You have all gathered to kill me. After me do not kill any creature of God. I will be held dear by the Lord against this humiliation of yours. God will take my revenge upon you in a way you would not imagine. If you kill me, God will shed your blood and will double the pain and agony of the next world for you.”
The enemy troops did not heed those words and martyred Imam Hossein (AS). They brutally beheaded him and placed his head over a spear and paraded it from place to place.
In this way, one of the most tragic events in history apparently ended. Hossein bin Ali (AS) sacrificed his life for the cause of human ideals and divine beliefs. He taught all free people in the world that an honorable death is better than life under the oppressors’ yoke. Hossein’s blood turned into a boiling spring to encourage all the nations in chains not to give in to humiliation and not to go under any government’s yoke of oppression.
The small convoy of Karbala became, in the course of history, a great caravan for all the oppressed nations to follow and free themselves from corrupt governments.
*This article was first published on 19 September 2018 in Persia Digest.
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