The Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain, opposed the undermining of basic Islamic values of egalitarianism, justice, and equity, triggering the Battle of Karbala that ended with his massacre along with 72 of his companions and family members in the month of Muharram
In the seventh-century Arabia of entrenched ideas of ethnic and tribal superiority, the Prophet Muhammad went against the tide. He challenged inequalities determined by kinship, affiliation, and wealth while seeking to create a society that took care of its weak and treated them with respect.
The Prophet’s revolutionary ideas provoked fierce opposition. His own dominant Meccan Quraysh tribe turned against him. But his egalitarian message eventually prevailed after first finding resonance with marginalised people such as women and slaves.
The Prophet struck a balance between idealism and pragmatism to win even his fierce enemies over and to successfully uproot an oppressive power and social structure. Nasab or kinship or lineal descent no longer determined an individual’s low or high social status.
The Prophet also ended a vicious cycle of reprisals and constant warfare in Arabia. He helped usher in unity, order, peace, and justice by uniting warring tribes and giving them a sense of community, overcoming the persecution, which forced his flight to Medina, assassination attempts, and wars by much more powerful adversaries.
The Prophet reiterated his vision for Muslims in his last sermon saying there is no superiority of one person over another. He urged his followers to be just and to treat women well…’ Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s moral and ethical mandate for the community.
Khulafa Rashidun (the four rightly-guided caliphs), who succeeded the Prophet, provided the budding Muslim community with effective leadership and helmed its rapid advancement on the back of solid foundations of social justice.
Muslims would rapidly extend their realm by bringing Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia, and the North African coast under their control. 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—ruling from Damascus (661-750) pushed north into Western Europe until the Battle of Tours-Poitiers in 732 stopped its advance. It nonetheless conquered a vast region from the peripheries of India and China to Central Asia, Spain, and North Africa by 750.
The Umayyads facilitated the opening of new routes. They 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 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 egalitarianism, justice, and equity.
As Islam’s spiritual custodian, the Prophet’s favourite grandson, Imam Hussain, 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 the latter inherited the empire from his father Muawiya. The refusal triggered 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. He gave Yazid’s 30,000-strong force a run for their money. His heroics on the Battle of Karbala field fended off the enemy for 10 days and 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 relatives and followers when Yazid dispatched his forces from Damascus. Yazid wanted to intercept them before they could reach their destination and join a brewing rebellion. His forces besieged Hussain and his companions from the first to the 10th of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar)—Ashura—in the desert plains of Karbala in what is now Iraq.
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 the supply of water on their general Shimr’s orders.
The move sealed the fate of Hussain and his companions. They were now forced to fight in the open but put up a valiant fight before beginning 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.
Hussain 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 Battle of Karbala, 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. Had not it been for Zainab, the Battle of Karbala would have gone unreported. Zainab played a key in memorializing Hussain’s fight for the essence of the Muslim faith and supreme sacrifice challenging illegitimate authority.
Moinuddin Chishti, South Asia’s preeminent Sufi saint who traced his lineage to Hussain, wrote a poem calling Hussain a protector of religion who ‘gave his head but not his hand to Yazid’. The saint’s description in the poem alludes to Hussain’s refusal to legitimize an unjust ruler and preferring to die to uphold foundational Islamic ideals— egalitarianism, piety, and justice.
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.
Hussain’s mausoleum in Karbala has stood for centuries as a representation of these ideals 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 Battle of Karbala—suffering, sacrifice, and unwillingness to surrender to tyranny. Imam Hussain’s shrine has been Karbala’s centrepiece and dominated its skyline for centuries while rulers have come and gone.
Thousands of devotees visit Hussain’s shrine in Karbala to pay homage to the spiritual leader. The rush peaks annually on Arbaeen when millions of people march through Iraq to reach the holy city to mark the end of Hussain’s 40-day mourning period. The march is one of the biggest pilgrimages globally. It is even bigger than Haj for which around 2.5 million people gathered in Mecca in 2023.
Wearing black clothes, symbolising sorrow, devotees chant threnody for Hussain in Karbala to mark Arbaeen in the shadow of his shrine. They raise their hands in unison and thump their chests in collective mourning for Hussain.
The Arbaeen march has gone from strength to strength. In 2016, the number of marchers ranged from between 17 million and 20 million over several days. The number was 17 million two years earlier in 2014. It grew instead of going down when ISIS overran Iraq.
More and more devotees joined Arbaeen in defiance of the terror group even when Karbala was particularly vulnerable with ISIS occupying the neighbouring Anbar desert and using it to mount attacks. Jurf al-Sakhar, a town located 60 km from Karbala, was briefly under ISIS’s occupation until Iraqi forces liberated it in 2014.
The pilgrims take up to a fortnight to walk to the holy city for Arbaeen carrying flags, including those bearing the depiction of Hussain with blood on his brow. They trek from places as far as Baghdad, 90 kilometres to the north, and Najaf, 70 kilometres away to the south.
Arbaeen triggers an outpouring of collective generosity. Practically everything is taken care of. Iraqis pitch tents for the pilgrims to rest along the way and set up stalls to ensure they are well-fed with helpings of rice, bread, stewed lamb, grilled fish, dates, and tea for their walk.
Some host the pilgrims in their homes as Hussein’s guests and offer whatever they need—food, water, lodging, medical care— free of cost during Arbaeen. Many set aside up to 10% of their savings for the purpose.
Arbaeen is essentially a re-enactment of the journey Imam Hussain’s surviving family undertook after the Battle of Karbala to bring his remains for burial from Damascus, where they were taken to the Umayyad capital, to Karbala for burial.
Arbaeen marchers make a beeline for Karbala from different corners of Iraq as far as Basra, around 500 kilometres away. They take weeks to walk to the site of Hussain’s burial. Young and old; men and women; families and individuals dressed in different shades of black clothes eulogise the Prophet and his family as they trek to the holy city.