KARBALA , a city located sixty-five miles southwest of Baghdad, constitutes the pivot of devotion for more than a hundred million Shīʿī Muslims. Although the estimated population of this palm-grove-laden city is approximately 500,000, during seasons of pilgrimage it draws more than a million devotees. The city owes its significance to the battle that was waged on its soil in 680 ce between Ḥus b. ʿAli, the younger grandson of the prophet Ṃuhammad, and Yazid b. Muʾawiya, the ruling head of the Ummayad dynasty at the time. During the battle, Ḥusayn and a small group of followers and family members were killed by the forces of Yazid after refusing to acknowledge the latter as a legitimate authority. Ḥusayn, for his devotees, has remained the most significant martyr of Islam, Sayyid al-shuhada, and Karbala, the site of this martyrdom, Mashhad al-Ḥusyan. For the Shīʿī Muslims, Ḥusayn is also one of the legitimate spiritual leaders (imāms ) of the community, who protected Islam from decay. Notwithstanding his significance in Shīʿī piety, Ḥusayn and his Karbala battle have also had a strong appeal in various Sunnī, Ṣūfī, and non-Muslim contexts.
Although the etymology of Karbala is most likely rooted in Aramaic and Assyrian, in the Shīʿī devotional lore it is invoked as a combination of two Arabic words, karb (anguish) and balā (calamity). In all likelihood Karbala rose in the devotional hierarchy of Ḥusayn's followers right after his martyrdom in 680 ce. That the Prophet had loved his grandson and bestowed upon him various honorific titles was never doubted in the Muslim world. After the battle of Karbala, Ḥusayn's family members and friends journeyed to the site of his martyrdom and burial, commencing the cherished tradition of ziyārah (pilgrimage to a sacred site) to Karbala. The high season of pilgrimage has remained around the day that marks Ḥusayn's martyrdom (ʿāshura, tenth day of the first Islamic month, Muḥarram) and the fortieth-day commemoration of this martyrdom (arbaʿen, forty days after ʿāshura ).
Pilgrims to Ḥusayn's grave also make the rounds of graves of other companions of Ḥusayn, especially his half-brother ʿAbbās. Prescribed prayers and lamentation accompany the pilgrims as many wish that they had fought alongside Ḥusayn. The soil and clay from Karbala acquires a remedial touch and is fashioned into tablets upon which Shīʿah prostrate during their prayers. Not only do Shīʿah wish to make a pilgrimage to Karbala in their lifetime, many also aspire to be buried in Karbala. Corpses of devotees from all over Asia and Africa have been sent to Karbala in order to atone for a sinful life and secure for the deceased an enduring stamp of redemption. Some Shīʿah have devotionally conceded that a pilgrimage to Karbala is more meritorious than the pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥājj). Karbala along with its sister city Najaf (where Ḥusayn's father and the first Shīʿī imām, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, is buried), and the two Iranian cities of Qom and Mashhad, also house important centers of Shīʿī learning (madrasahs or hawzas ). Students from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, India and Pakistan make up most of the student body at these institutions.
In the course of a millennium and three centuries, Karbala changed hands many times. As a center of Shīʿī piety, it was often seen by Sunnī political authorities as a threat to their rule. The ʿAbbāsid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, for example, had Ḥusyan's shrine destroyed in 850 ce. Severe restrictions were placed on the pilgrims who desired to visit Karbala. The Shīʿī Buyid rulers who wrested power from the ʿAbbāsids restored the architectural as well as the devotional aura to Karbala. Subsequent generations of Shīʿī Muslims, from Iran to India, festooned the shrines of Karbala with golden and silver sarcophaguses, expensive chandeliers and carpets, and exquisite tile work and ornamentation. The endowments for the maintenance of the Karbala shrines came not only from the Shīʿī rulers of Iran and India but also from the Sunnī Ottoman leaders who ruled over this region from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Many times during these four centuries, the Ottoman rulers and their Shīʿī Safavid rivals from Iran sought to control Karbala in order to consolidate their respective political clout in the region. Karbala during this time remained a testimony to the riches of its patrons. In 1801, the Wahhābī forces, comprised of anti-Shīʿah and anti-shrine culture Sunnī Muslims, wreaked havoc on various pilgrimage sites and killed scores of inhabitants of this city. But as in the past, Ḥusyan 's devotees from around the world once again garnered resources to restore the regal aura to the shrines. In 1919, after the defeat of the Ottomans, Iraq came under the British mandate. At the 1921 Cairo Conference, the British named Prince Faisal, a Mecca-based Sunnī descendant of the Prophet, as Iraq's ruler. In 1932 the nation-state of Iraq was born amidst much dismay and contested geographical borders. These borders, mostly drawn at the discretion of the British, have continued to remain the cause of several political conflicts in the Arab world. Various ethnic groups living in the newly created nation state of Iraq, including the Kurds and the Shīʿah (who are a majority) felt disenfranchised at various levels. Such a feeling was compounded by the policies of various leaders, most notably Ṣaddām Ḥusayn. Ruling from 1979 to 2003 as Iraq's president, Ṣaddām Ḥusayn, dealt brutally with any challenge to his authority. To assure that the Shīʿī majority of the country was in check, Ḥusayn imposed severe restrictions on the cultural practices of the city of Karbala. Prominent Shīʿī opponents of the Iraqi government were killed, put under surveillance, or driven into exile as Ṣaddām Ḥusayn and his Baath Party created a climate of intimidation. Life in Karbala only got worse after the beginning of the eight-year Iraq-Iran war in 1980. This war, in which Iraq was supported in part by the United States, drained Iran and Iraq of valuable resources and especially devastated the city of Karbala, which was economically dependent to a great degree on the Iranian pilgrims. Ṣaddām Ḥusayn imposed his presence on Karbala by lacing the walls of the Shīʿī shrines with his own pictures and forbidding large commemorative assemblies. These assemblies resurfaced after Ṣaddām Ḥusayn was defeated by the United States and its allies in 2003. Over a million Shīʿah marked the day of Ḥusyan's martyrdom in 2004 by walking in the pathos-laden processions at Karbala. The Shīʿī sense of relief after the fall of Ṣaddām Ḥusayn, however, quickly gave way to dismay as the U.S. armed forces battled anti-American elements in Karbala, causing many deaths. Not withstanding a long history of conflict, Karbala is likely to retain its importance as a center of pilgrimage and scholarship.
Karbala, apart from standing as a bustling pilgrimage city, also holds status as a metaphor for a righteous struggle. Although physically contained in Iraq, its spiritual, aesthetic and political ramifications transcend geographical confines and narrow religious allegiances. It has inspired traditions of theater (the taʻziyah of Iran), paintings and modern political movements of Lebanon, Iran, Central Asia and South Asia. It has spoken to a wide range of reformist and revolutionary yearnings from a variety of traditions, including those of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ṃuhammad Iqbal and Mohandas Gandhi. To those drawn to Karbala as a metaphor and trope, it seems to provide testimony to the sentiment that numerical strength does not necessarily insure a spiritual and moral victory. In spite of suffering at the hands of Yazīd's massive force, Ḥusayn and his small band of companions secured enduring legacies through the rich idioms of Karbala.
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Karbala is the second largest town in Iraq, with over 350,000 inhabitants in the early twenty-first century. It is situated about sixty miles southwest of Baghdad, where the mausoleum of Muhammad's grandson Husayn (Mashhad Husayn) was erected and frequently destroyed and restored during the early centuries of Islam.
When the first Umayyad Sunni caliph, Mu˓awiya, died in 680 c.e., his son Yazid came to power. The majority of Muslims saw the nomination of Yazid to the caliphate as an usurpation of the notion of consensus (ijma˓), the legitimate means of choosing a caliph. When Husayn received confirmation of the loyalty of the Kufis from his cousin Muslim Ibn ˓Aqil, he headed toward Kufa. On his way, Husayn learned that his cousin had died at the hands of Yazid's men and that the Kufis had shifted their allegiance to Yazid.
Husayn nevertheless continued in the direction of Kufa. Ibn Ziyad, the governor of Kufa, with one thousand soldiers at his command, told Husayn that he could neither go to Kufa nor return to Mecca, and was permitted only to go to Damascus, the capital. Instead, Husayn led his heavily outnumbered and underequipped followers to battle in Karbala, where they were slain mercilessly on the battlefield. This event played an important role in the development of Shi˓ite theology and has been the source of dissension among Muslims. The battle of Karbala accentuated the split between the two major branches of Islam. The event forged in Shi˓ite Muslims an identity as believers who are subjected to persecution for the sake of the true succession of Muhammad.
A cult of martyrdom is linked to the death and downfall of Husayn at Karbala. The ˓Ashura (date of Husayn's death) was elaborated upon and systematized in the articulation of Shi˓ite theology. Every year during the first ten days of the month of hijra, the battle of Karbala is commemorated by Shi˓ite Muslims during Muharram, and many go on pilgrimage to Karbala. Husayn's martyrdom has become a source of strength and endurance for Shi˓ite Muslims in times of suffering, persecution, and oppression.
During its long history the tomb of Husayn was desecrated several times and had to be restored. In 850 and 851, the Sunni Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil destroyed the tomb of Husayn and prohibited pilgrimages to the sanctuary. Sulayman the Magnificent visited the tomb in 1534 and 1535 and participated in its restoration. At the end of the eighteenth century Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, covered the dome in gold and the manara of the sanctuary. In April 1802, twelve thousand Wahhabis under Shaykh Sa˓ud invaded Karbala, killed over three thousand inhabitants, and sacked the city.
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Site of sanctuary honoring Husayn ibn Ali's martyrdom.
Karbala is the name of a plain located in Iraq, approximately 55 miles (88.5 km) south-southwest of modern Baghdad and close to the west bank of the Euphrates. The plain is the recorded site of the infamous mass killing, in 680 c.e. (a.h. 61), of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn ibn Ali and his small band of supporters by the forces of Yazid ibn Muʿawiya, the second Umayyad caliph. According to tradition, the decapitated body of Husayn was buried in a spot not far from the battlefield. As a result, Karbala and its environs quickly became known as Mashhad al-Husayn (the tomb shrine of Husayn), and today it is still one of the principal pilgrimage centers for Twelver Shiʿite Muslims, who revere Husayn as one of the great imams, or divinely inspired leaders, of the Muslim community.
Each year, for example, beginning on the first and culminating on the tenth of the Muslim month of Muharram, large numbers of pilgrims gather at the shrine complex at Karbala and perform solemn passion plays and other commemorations of Husayn's great martyrdom (other Twelver Shiʿites around the world do the same). According to the common belief of Twelver Shiʿites, Husayn's suffering and death constitute a source of redemption for all who are sincerely devoted to Husayn and his fellow imams. Many Twelvers believe that such practices as ritual visitation to Karbala as well as to other sacred tombs are excellent means of realizing this devotion to the imams and the salvific blessings it entails.
Throughout its long history, Karbala has generally prospered as a richly endowed pilgrimage site. A few notable exceptions to this sanctuary's history of good fortune include its destruction by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil in 850 c.e. (a.h. 236), its storming and looting by the muwahhidun (wahhabis) in 1801 c.e. (a.h. 1215), and the widespread devastation it suffered as a consequence of the confrontation after the Gulf War between Iraq's Republican Guard and Shiʿite rebel forces in March 1991.
see also gulf war (1991); husayn ibn ali; muharram.