Mukhayyam al Husayni Mosque, over 400 metres from Imam Hussain’s shrine, stands at what is believed to be the site of the encampment of the Prohet’s grandson and his family during the Battle of Karbala
The replica of an encampment stood out at the camp of Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah or al-Abbas Combat Division of Iraq’s anti-ISIS Popular Mobilization Forces in Karbala in February 2016. It was no ordinary symbolism. The replica represented an immense symbolic value linked to the sufferings of the Prophet’s family in the Battle of Karbala.
The Battle was triggered in 680 over the refusal of Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson to legitimize Umayyad ruler Yazid’s unjust rule. It ended with the massacre of Hussain and 72 of his companions and family members. Over 14 centuries later, the replica sought to remind anti-ISIS resistance forces of the brutalities the Prophet’s family endured at the hands of Yazid’s forces, who were likened to those of ISIS, the modern-day Yazidis.
Yazid’s forces plundered and set fire to Hussain’s encampment or Kheymehgah to force the women and children out. The site where the Kheymehgah is believed to have been is among the pilgrimage places and spaces dotting Karbala.
Scholar Aidan Parkes of the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies writes these places and spaces are ‘imbued with meaning where myth and reason coalesce.’ He adds Karbala’s ‘assemblage of Ashura-oriented spaces, its sites of collective pasts, and places of ritualized—and poetically ritualized—sacred landscape, combine cultural heritage and natural experience.’
The al-Mukhayyam al Husayni mosque, over 400 metres from Imam Hussain’s shrine, now stands at the place of encampment believed to have been spread over a five-kilometre area. We walked to the mosque. ‘…in Arabic, we call it Mukhayyam; this is where Hussain and his family stayed,’ Hassan Mohammad Moussa, our Urdu-speaking interpreter, told us as he escorted us to the mosque.
Moussa showed our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS the spot where Hussain’s men would patrol to ensure Yazid’s forces were kept at bay. Enclosure-like structures made of marble have replaced the tents, where every corner is revered. Women prayed and remembered the martyrs of Karbala at a separate enclosure for women. Moussa especially took us to the place where Hussain’s brother Abbas offered prayers, saying people come there and offer prayers to seek peace and strength.
Karbala’s reproduction, writes Parkes, of collective Shiite identity, is not solely due to Hussain’s shrine. Parkes adds it is not one site, with one spiritual meaning, nor one tomb within the site but rather a complex assemblage of sites which, taken together, reproduce ritualised collective identity:
Several loci of ritualised sacred spaces contribute to the reproduction of collective identity.
Hussain’s encampment is one such locus of ritualised collective identity. Its location at the time of the Battle of Karbala does not precisely match the place where its presence is now a sacralised space—the al-Mukhayyam al Husayni mosque.
The mosque has two large blue-green domes above the position of the tents Hussain, his family and his followers lived in upon their arrival in Karbala from Medina en route to Kufa at the invitation of the Kufan people. Yazid’s governor Obaidullah Ibn Ziyad prevented Hussain’s caravan from reaching Kufa, forcing them to pitch their tents near the Euphrates.
The mosque at the site of their encampment is seen as a symbolic space representing a larger area even as Hussain’s encampment was much vaster ‘spanning in a crescent-shape area.’ The exact encampment, an ephemeral place, is almost impossible to ascertain. The encampment also sheltered Umayyad deserters. The al-Mukhayyam al Husayni mosque was built there as a symbolic structure denoting the approximately five-kilometre space comprising the transient encampment.