Karbala symbolises for Muslims the foundational Islamic values—egalitarianism, justice, and equity—for which the Prophet’s Muhammad favourite grandson, Imam Hussain, laid down his life there in the seventh century resisting Umayyad ruler Yazid
Karbala is not just any city. It is a metaphor for suffering, sacrifice, and unwillingness to surrender to tyranny. For Muslims, the central Iraqi city conjures up images of the golden-domed tomb of the Prophet’s favourite grandson, Imam Hussain. It symbolises for them the foundational Islamic values—egalitarianism, justice, and equity—he laid down his life for in the seventh century in the Battle of Karbala, resisting Umayyad ruler Yazid violating these ideals.
Indian poet Mohammad Ali Jauhar has best encapsulated the philosophy that Karbala represents. Hussain’s killing was in essence the death of Yazīd; Islam is rejuvenated after every Karbala, wrote Jauhar metaphorically to emphasise how the ideals the Imam sacrificed his life for are the lifeblood of the true Muslim faith.
Arab armies defeated the mighty Egyptian and Persian empires and forced the Byzantines out of the Near East within a generation after the Prophet. They moved across North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, and controlled the Iberian Peninsula.
The first Arab Empire—Umayyad—that ruled from Damascus (661-750) pushed north into Western Europe until the Battle of Tours-Poitiers in 732 stopped its advance. The Umayyads nonetheless conquered a vast region from the peripheries of India and China to Central Asia, Spain, and North Africa by 750.
They facilitated the opening of new routes and linked India and the Mediterranean to unite the vast region politically and economically for the first time since Alexander the Great’s reign. The linkages helped remove barriers, boosted trade, and created wealth through it and an agricultural revolution.
The rapid rise, however, also created a moral crisis. It transformed Muslim society and led to the creation of elites, who were now more interested in power and wealth than upholding the foundational ideals of their faith.
Imam Hussain, as Islam’s spiritual custodian, opposed the distortion of basic Islamic values including through the inauguration of the dynastic Umayyad Empire on the lines of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires.
The situation came to a head when Hussain refused to legitimize Yazid as he inherited the empire from his father Muawiya, triggering the Battle of Karbala in 680, which ended with the massacre of Hussain and 72 of his companions and family members.
Hussain went down fighting giving a 30,000-strong force a run for their money. His heroics on the battlefield fended off the enemy for 10 days. They have since immortalized him in Muslim lore as the ultimate symbol of courage and commitment to the essence of Islam.
Hussain was on his way to Kufa in modern-day Iraq with his 72 relatives and followers when Yazid dispatched his forces from Damascus to intercept them before they could reach their destination and join a brewing rebellion. They were besieged from the first to the 10th of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar)—Ashura—in the desert plains of Karbala.
With their weapons pointed out, they hoped the flames would force the horses of Umayyad forces into the entry of the trap laid for them in case they came forward. The strategy worked and repelled Yazid’s soldiers until the seventh day when the soldiers blocked the Euphrates and cut off supply of water on their general Shimr’s orders. This sealed the fate of Hussain and his companions by forcing them to fight in the open; they put up a valiant fight but soon began to die painfully slow deaths of thirst.
Hussain reacted quickly to the situation and devised a plan that involved pitching tents near a hilly terrain to guard the rear of their camp. He kept Yazid’s forces at bay by digging a semi-circular ditch around the three sides of the campsite and having it filled with wood. He would set the wood afire and gather his party in the centre kneeling tightly together.
On the 10th day of the battle, an exhausted and wounded Hussain collapsed outside his tent. With an arrow stuck in his arm and a dart injuring his face, he was thirsty and wobbly. Hussain somehow gathered the strength to lift himself off the ground. He raised his hands to heaven as soon as he was back on his feet. ‘We are for God, and to God shall we return,’ he shouted before mounting his horse.
Hussain soon charged at Yazid’s soldiers a few hundred away and put them to sword one after other. He overwhelmed the enemy until Shimr ordered his troops to regroup, surround Hussain, and have horses trample his body after knocking him off his steed.
Hussain’s sister, Zainab, rushed to his aid. But Hussain asked her to go back. Shimr soon executed Hussain but not before the Prophet’s grandson prayed: ‘Forgive, O merciful Lord, the sins of my grandfather’s people and grant me, bountifully, the key of the treasure of intercession…’
The surviving women and children accompanying Hussain were imprisoned in Damascus, where an undeterred Zainab challenged Yazid in his court despite being in chains. Zainab’s eyewitness account detailed the events of the Battle of Karbala and its aftermath and move Muslims to tears to this day.
She protected the lone surviving male member of her family, Hussain’s son Ali, who later succeeded his father as the fourth imam. The Karbala tragedy would have gone unreported had not it been for Zainab.
Zainab’s contribution, writes academic Hassan Abbas in The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, to ‘fighting for the essence of the Muslim faith was as critical as that of Hussain’, whose ‘unprecedented sacrifice was intended to shake the Muslim conscience and expose the misleading path introduced in the name of Islam.’
An armed struggle, writes Abbas, was never Hussain’s intended route, and he believed in conveying the message through love and compassion. Abbas has argued it was a message ‘motivated truly by humanity’ and Indian national movement leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi acknowledged this by saying: ‘I learned from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed.’
Academic Vali Nasr has fleshed out the symbolism in his book The Shia Revival – How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, saying Karbala is ‘an emblem of suffering and solace but also connotes the refusal of true Muslim authority to be caged by pragmatic considerations and its willingness to challenge illegitimate authority.’
Moinuddin Chishti, South Asia’s preeminent Sufi saint who traced his lineage to Hussain, celebrated the imam in a poem. Chishti called Hussain a protector of religion who ‘gave his head but not his hand to Yazid’, alluding to the Imam’s refusal to legitimize an unjust ruler and preferring to die to uphold foundational Islamic ideals— egalitarianism, piety, and justice.
Hussain’s shrine in Karbala has stood for centuries as a representation of the values and a rallying point against tyranny. Dictator Saddam Hussein restricted religious rituals centred around the tomb over his decades-long rule when Karbala emerged as a bastion of resistance against him.
Saddam was not the only ruler to fear the symbolism attached to the shrine, which has been the city’s centrepiece and dominated its skyline for centuries while rulers have come and gone.