Retelling the tragedy of Karbalâ has traditionally been an important feature of Shî‘î spirituality. The passion plays of Iran and the Indian subcontinent, the literature, both prose and poetry, composed upon the subject of the martyrdom of Sayyidunâ Husayn radiyallâhu ‘anhu and the general atmosphere of mourning that reigns amongst the Shî‘ah during the month of Muharram, all bear eloquent testimony to importance of that event in the Shî‘î calendar. To the Shî‘ah, ‘Âshurâ is probably the most important day of the year.
However, it is regrettable that despite the huge amount of attention the subject of Karbalâ enjoys, the event is persistently portrayed as two-sided. It is always depicted as Husayn against Yazîd, Right rising up against Wrong, the Quest for Justice against the Forces of Oppression. Many an opportunist has even gone to the extent of superimposing upon the event the theme of Shî‘ah against Ahl as-Sunnah.
In this partial retelling that concentrates upon what actually happened at Karbalâ, and conveniently draws attention away from the other guilty party in the ‘Âshûrâ tragedy, lies another tragedy in itself. For while Husayn's martyrdom has been oft commemorated, and his physical opponents and killers identified, cursed and eliminated, no one has spared a moment's anger for those who deserted him at the crucial hour. It is these men in the shadows, who squarely deserve to be called the real villains of Karbalâ, upon whom this article seeks to cast light.
It was in Ramadân 60AH that the letters from Kûfah started to arrive at the house of ‘Abbâs ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib in Makkah where Husayn ibn ‘Alî was staying after his flight from Madînah, letters urging him to lead the Kû fans into revolt against Yazîd ibn Mu‘âwiyah, and assuring him of their loyalty and allegiance. Mu‘âwiyah died two months earlier, and there was much resentment for his son Yazîd for whom the bay‘ah was taken as his successor. The people of Kûfah especially were looking at Husayn for leadership, and soon there was stream of letters coming in from Kûfah. On certain days there would be as many as 600 letters, with messengers who enthusiastically described the support he would receive from the Kûfans.
Kûfah was a unique place, and the Kûfans a peculiar people. In 37AH Sayyidunâ ‘Alî radiyallâhu ‘anhu shifted his capital from Madînah to Kûfah, and ever since that city became the home of those who claimed partisanship of the Ahl al-Bayt. After the reconciliation between Hasan and Mu‘âwiyah in 41AH many of those who had been in Sayyidunâ Hasan's army settled in Kûfah. At the time of Mu‘âwiyah's death in 60AH pro-‘Alid sentiments were still to be found in abundance in Kûfah. At the time of Mu‘âwiyah' s death in 60 AH Kûfah was still very strongly pro-‘ Alid. Thus when the opportunity arose the Kûfans, who still regarded themselves as the Shî‘ah (supporters) of the Ahl al-Bayt, turned to Husayn to lead them against Yazîd.
Sayyidunâ Husayn decided to send his cousin Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl to investigate the situation in Kûfah. If he found it feasible he would write to inform Husayn, who would depart with his family from Makkah to join him in Kûfah. Muslim arrived in in Dhul Qa‘dah. The Kûfans, when they learnt of his arrival presented themselves at the residence of Muslim ibn ‘Awsajah al-Asadî where he was staying. Soon there were 12 000 Kûfans who had given their solemn pledge to support and protect Husayn with their lives and all they possessed. When this number rose to 18 000 Muslim felt confident enough to dispatch a messenger to Husayn informing him of the bay‘ah of the Kûfans, and urging him to proceed from Makkah.
Rumours of what was happening in Kûfah soon reached Yazîd in Damascus. He immediately replaced Nu‘mâ n ibn Bashîr, the governor of Kûfah, with the ruthless ‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd with orders to find Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl and kill him. Ibn Ziyâd entered Kûfah early in Dhul Hijjah, accompanied by seventeen men on horseback. With the end of his turban drawn over his face he was unrecognisable, and the people of Kûfah, who were expecting Sayyidunâ Husayn, mistook him for Husayn. " Peace upon you, o son of Rasûlullâh," they hailed him. Thus it was that Ibn Ziyâd learnt the truth of the rumours. It was only when one of his mounted men shouted at them, " Stand back! This is the governor ‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd!" that the Kûfans realised the seriousness of their blunder.
Soon after reaching the governor's residence ‘ Ubaydullâh sent a servant of his own with a bag containing 3000 dirhams to pose as a newcomer from the Syrian town of Hims eager to join the imminent revolution, and thereby discover the whereabouts of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. He located Muslim in the house of Hânî ibn ‘Urwah, and took the pledge of allegiance at his hands. The money he handed over to Abû Thumâmah al-‘Âmirî who was acting as Muslim' s treasurer. After staying with them for a few days, during which he learnt most of what there was to know about their intrigue, he returned to Ibn Ziyâd and informed him. Hânî ibn ‘Urwah was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of Muslim' s whereabouts, but when the " newcomer from Hims" was brought before him he confessed. But he still refused to reveal where Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl was.
In the meantime Muslim came to hear about the arrest of Hânî ibn ‘Urwah. Realising that the hour for a decisive encounter had arrived, he raised his battle cry " Yâ Mansûr" , at which 4000 of the men who had given him their oath of allegiance and loyalty to Husayn gathered around him and proceeded towards the governor' s fort. When he saw Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl with the Kûfans at his gate, ‘Ubaydullâh sent some of the tribal leaders of Kûfah to speak with their people and draw them away from Muslim and warn them of the wrath that would descend upon them when the armies from Damascus arrived. Soon Muslim' s army was upon by mothers telling their sons, " Come home , there are enough other people here," and fathers ominously warning their sons, " What will happen tomorrow when the Syrian armies start arriving from Damascus? What will you do?" The resolve of the men who had taken a sacred oath to support and defend the cause of Husayn and the Ahl al-Bayt against Yazîd and his Syrian armies, the men upon the strength of whose oaths of allegiance and loyalty Sayyidunâ Husayn was on that very moment making his way to Kûfah with his nearest and dearest, the resolve of those men of Kûfah could not hold in the face of such threats and discouragement. One by one they deserted Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl under the gates of the governor' s fort. At sunset he was left with only 30 men. He led them in Maghrib, and then moved away to the doorway of the Kindah quarter of Kûfah. He went through that door with no more than 10 men, and before he knew it, he was all on his own in the streets of Kûfah. Of all those who had so anxiously and enthusiatically written to Husayn to come and lead them in revolt against Yazîd, and out of the 18 000 men who but days before placed their right hands in his, solemnly pledging allegiance to the cause for which they had invited the grandson of Rasûlullâh , not a single one was there to offer Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl the solace of their company or refuge from the night.
Eventually, parched with thirst, he knocked at a door. The occupant, an old lady, took him in when she learnt that he was Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. She hid him away in her house, but her son, from whom she extracted a promise not to tell anyone of his presence there, waited only till the morning to take the news to the governor' s residence. The next thing Muslim realised was that the house was surrounded. Thrice he managed with his sword to drive the attackers out of the house, but when they started putting fire to the house he was forced to face them outside. It was only when ‘Abd ar-Rahmân ibn Muhammad ibn al-Ash‘ath, one of those sent to arrest him, promised him the safety of his life, that he lowered his sword. It was a mistake, for they took away his sword and mounted him upon an ass to be taken to Ibn Ziyâd. Muslim knew his death was at hand. Tears flowed from his eyes, not at hisown fate, but at the thought of Husayn and his family travelling through the harsh, merciless desert towards a fate much more harsher and merciless, to an enemy firmly resolved to bring an end to his venture, and to the most treacherous of partisans whose desertion at the hour of need had brought his life to this tragic end. He begged Ibn al-Ash‘ath to send someone to Husayn with the following message: “Ibn ‘Aqîl has sent me to you. He says to you: ‘Go back with your family. Do not be deceived by people of Kûfah. They are those same supporters of your father from whom he so dearly wished to part, by death or by being killed. The Kûfans have lied to me and have lied to you, and a liar has no sense.’ ”
Later that day —the Day of ‘ Arafah, the 9th of Dhul Hijjah— Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl was taken up to the highest ramparts of the fort. As he was being led up, he recited the tahlîl, tasbîh, takbîr and istighfâr. His last words reflect his intense disappointment with the people of Kûfah, " O Allâh, You be the Judge between us and our people. They deceived us and deserted us." From high upon the ramparts his head fell down in the dust, in full view of those whose invitations and oaths of allegiance had given him so much to hope for, but whose cowardice and treachery had left him with nothing but despair. And Husayn was on his way…
‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd had entered Kûfah with only seventeen men. For each man that came with him there was over a thousand who had taken the oath of allegiance at the hands of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. Yet not a single sword was raised in his defence. Not a single voice had the courage to protest his execution. And these were the same men who had been telling Husayn, “Come, we are with you.”
Upon receipt of Muslim’s letter, Sayyidunâ Husayn started making arrangements to travel to Kûfah. He immmediately despatched a messenger, Qays ibn Mus-hir, to inform the Kûfans of his imminet arrival. This messenger was captured by ‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd, who ordered him to mount the walls of the fort and publicly curse Husayn and his father. Instead he praised Sayyidunâ ‘Alî and Sayyidunâ Husayn, telling them that Husayn was on his way, and exhorting them to assist him as they had promised. He ended his brief address by imprecating curses upon Ibn Ziyâd. Upon the order of Ibn Ziyâd he was flung from the ramparts and killed. Despite this impassioned plea, the men of Kûfah were unmoved.
In Makkah, a number of the eminent Sahâbah and children of Sahâbah tried to dissuade Husayn from going to Kûfah, and reminded him of the fickleness of the Kûfans with both his father and his brother. ‘Abdullâh ibn ‘Abbâs, ‘Abdullâh ibn ‘Umar, Jâbir ibn ‘Abdillâh, Abû Sa‘îd al-Khudrî, his own brother, Muhammad, and his brother-in-law and cousin , ‘Abdullâh ibn Ja‘far all remonstated with him and tried to persuade him not to go to Iraq. His mind, however, was made up. He set out from Makkah on the 8th of Dhul Hijjah, not knowing of the sad end of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl.
After an arduous jorney of almost a month, his party reached Iraq. It was there that he first heard of the treachery of the Kûfans and the death of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. Later he also learnt of the death of Qays ibn Mus-hir. A large number of desert Arabs had by that time attched themselves to his party, thinking that Kûfah was already practically his. Husayn addressed them, saying, " Our Shî‘ah have deserted us. Therefore, whoever wants to leave is free to do so." Soon he was left with only those who left Makkah with him. With them he continued towards Kûfah.
Meanwhle Kûfah was placed under heave surveillance by Ibn Ziyâd. When news of Husayn’s appraoch reached him, he despatched a 4000 strong contingent, which was on its way to fight the Daylamites, to stop Husayn. This contingent was put under the command of ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d. There can be little doubt that the Kûfans witnessed the departure of this force from Kûfah with their own eyes. This would be their last chance to honour the oaths of allegiance to Husayn which they had taken upon the hands of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. This was the final opportunity to rush to the side of the grandson of Rasûlullâh . It was after all their invitations and assurances of support that encouraged him to abandon the safety of Makkah for the precarious battlefields of Iraq. But once again faithfulness, courage and commitment was found lacking in the people of Kûfah. Only a handful emerged to join Husayn at Karbalâ.
And when the sun set on the 10th of Muharram, it was too late for the faithless Shî‘ah of Kûfah to make amends, for the sands of Karbalâ was stained red with the blood of Sayyidunâ Husayn and his seventy-one followers.
Four years later the Shî‘ah of Kûfah attempted to make amends for their desertion of the family of Rasûlullâh . There emerged a group of Kûfans calling themselves the Tawwâbûn (Penitents) who made it their duty to wreak vengeance upon the killers of Husayn. On their way to Syria in pursuit of Ibn Ziyâd they passed by Karbalâ, the site of Sayyidunâ Husayn' s grave, where they raised a great hue and cry, and spent the night lamenting the tragedy which they allowed to happen four years earlier. Had they only displayed that same spirit of compassion for Husayn when he was so much in need of it the history of Islâm might have taken a different course.
There have been attempts by certain writers to absolve the Shî‘ah from the crime of deserting Husayn. Some find an excuse for them in Ibn Ziyâd’s blockade of Kûfah. S. H. M. Jafri writes in his book The Origins and Early Developments of Shi’ah Islam:
…it should be noted again that the blockade of all the roads coming into Kûfa and its vicinity made it almost impossible for the majority of those Shî‘îs of Kûfa who were in hiding, and also for those residing in other cities like Basra.2
This explanation of their desertion does not seem plausible when one considers the large number (18 000) of those who had taken the bay‘ah at the hands of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. Ibn Ziyâd, as we have seen, entered Kûfah with only 17 men. Even the force that he dispatched to engage the party of Sayyidunâ Husayn at Karbalâ consisted of only 4000 men.3 Furthermore, that force was not recruited specifically for Karbalâ; it was only passing through Kûfah on its way to fight the Daylamites. It is not at all credible to assume that Ibn Ziyâd was able to cow the Kûfans into submission with forces such as these, whom they outnumbered by far. It was rather their own treacherousness and fickleness that led them to abandon Sayyidunâ Husayn. This can be clearly seen in the manner they deserted Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl.
There is also the tendency of claiming that those who deserted Sayyidunâ Husayn were not of the Shî‘ah. Jafri writes:
… of those who invited Husayn to Kûfa, and then those 18,000 who paid homage to his envoy Muslim b.‘Aqîl, not all were Shî‘îs in the religious sense of the term, but were rather supporters of the house of ‘Alî for political reasons - a distinction which must be kept clearly in mind in order to understand the early history of Shî‘î Islam.4
Jafri' s motive in excluding the deserters of Sayyidunâ Husayn from the ranks of the “religious” (as opposed to the “political”) supporters of the house of Sayyidunâ ‘Alî is quite transparent. He is clearly embarrassed by the fact that it was the Shî‘ah themselves who abandoned their Imâm and his family after inviting him to lead them in revolt. What leads us to reject this distinction between “religious” and “political” supporters is the fact that Sayyidunâ Husayn himself, on more than one occasion, referred to the Kûfans as his Shî‘ah. There are also the numerous references to the people of Kûfah as the followers (albeit capricious followers) of his father and brother. And were we to assume that many, or even most of them were not Shî‘ah in the “religious” sense, the question which next presents itself is: Where were the real Shî‘ah when their Imâm required their help? Were they only that handful who emerged from Kûfah? It is strange that while there is so much reluctance on the part of the Shî‘ah to accept the deseof Kûfah as their own, they are quite proud and eager to identify themselves with the movement of the Tawwâbûn. The speeches made at the inception of the movement of the Tawwâbûn very clearly prove that they were the same people who invited Sayyidunâ Husayn and then deserted him.5 Their very name is indicative of their guilt in this regard. The attempt by the Shî‘ah to absolve themselves from the crime of deserting Sayyidunâ Husayn is therefore at best nothing more than pathetic.
Karbalâ was not to be the last act of treason by the Shî‘ah against the Family of Rasûlullâh . Sixty years later the grandson of Sayyidunâ Husayn, namely Zayd ibn ‘ Alî ibn Husayn, led an uprising against the Umayyad ruler Hishâm ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. He received the oaths of allegiance of over 40 000 men, 15 000 of whom were from the very same Kûfah that deserted his grandfather. Just before the battle could start they decided upon a whim to ask his opinion about Abû Bakr and ‘Umar. Zayd answered: “I have never heard any of my family dissociate himself from them, and I have nothing but good to say about them.” Upset with this answer, they deserted him en masse, deciding that the true imâm could only be his nephew Ja‘far as-Sâdiq. Out of 40 000, Zayd was left with only a few hundred men. On the departure of the defectors he remarked: “I am afraid they have done unto me as they did to Husayn.” Zayd and his little army fought bravely and attained martyrdom. Thus, on Wednesday the 1st of Safar 122 AH another member of the Ahl al-Bayt fell victim to the treachery of the Shî‘ah of Kûfah.6 This time there could be no question as to whether those who deserted him were of the Shî‘ah or not.
The fact that the thousands of Shî‘ah who deserted Zayd ibn ‘Alî looked upon Ja‘far as-Sâdiq as their true Imâm shows that by and large they were the same as the Ithnâ ‘Asharî, or alternatively Imâmî or Ja‘farî Shî‘ah of today. Why then, if he had so many devoted followers, did Imâm Ja‘far not rise up in revolt against the Umayyads or the ‘Abbâsids? The answer to this question is provided in a narration documented by Abû Ja‘far al-Kulaynî in his monumental work al-Kâfî, which enjoys unparallelled status amongst the hadîth collections of the Shî‘ah:
Sudayr as-Sayrafî says: I entered the presence of Abû ‘Abdillâh ‘alayhis salâm and said to him: “By Allâh, you may not refrain from taking up arms.” He asked: “Why not?” I answered: “Because you have so many partisans, supporters (Shî‘ah) and helpers. By Allâh, if Amîr al-Mu’minîn (Sayyidunâ ‘Alî) had as many Shî‘ah, helpers, and partisans as you have, Taym (the tribe of Abû Bakr) and ‘Adî (the tribe of ‘Umar) would never have had designs upon him.” He asked: “And how many would they be, Sudayr?” I said: “A hundred thousand.” He asked: “A hundred thousand?” I replied: “Yes, and two hundred thousand.” He asked again: “Two hundred thousand?” I replied: “Yes, and half the world.” He remained silent.
Then he said: “Would you accompany us to Yanbu‘?” I replied in the affirmative. He ordered a mule and a donkey to be saddled. I quickly mounted the donkey, but he said: “Sudayr, will you rather let me ride the donkey?” I said: “The mule is more decorous and more noble as well.” But he said: “The donkey is more comfortable for me.” I dismounted. He mounted the donkey, I got on the mule, and we started riding. The time of salâh arrived and he said: “Dismount, Sudayr. Let us perform salâh.” Then he remarked: “The ground here is overgrown with moss. It is not permissible to make salâh here.” So we carried on riding until we came to a place where the earth was red. He looked at a young boy herding sheep, and remarked: “Sudayr, by Allâh, if I had as many Shî‘ah as there are sheep here, it would not have been acceptable for me to refrain from taking up arms.” We then dismounted and performed salâh. When we were finished I turned back to count the sheep. There were seventeen of them.7
It seems from this narration that the tragedy of Karbalâ taught Imâm Ja‘far as-Sâdiq something about those who claimed to be his followers which the Shî‘ah of today are still refusing to come to terms with: that in the trials and misfortunes of the Family of Rasûlullâh the role of the Shî‘ah was as great, if not greater, than that of their physical enemies. It therefore does not come as a surprise that none of the supposed Imâms after Husayn ever attempted an armed insurrection against the rulers of their times. Karbalâ had taught them the fickleness and treacherousness of those who claimed to be their Shî‘ah. It is about them that Imâm Ja‘far is reported to have said:
No one bears us greater hatred than those who claim to love us.8
Imâm Ja‘far is also reported as having said:
No verse did Allâh reveal in connection with the Munâfiqîn, except that it is to be found in those who profess Shî‘ism.9
Before Sayyidunâ Husayn, his elder brother Sayyidunâ Hasan was the victim of the treacherousness of the Kûfans. In his book al-Ihtijâj the prominent Shî‘î author Abû Mansûr at-Tabarsî has preserved the following remark of Sayyidunâ Hasan:
By Allâh, I think Mu‘âwiyah would be better for me than these people who claim that they are my Shî‘ah.10
When Sayyidunâ Hasan eventually became exasperated at the fickleness of his so-called Shî‘ah, he decided to make peace with Mu‘âwiyah. When someone protested to him that he was bringing humiliation upon the Shî‘ah by concluding peace with Mu‘âwiyah, he responded by saying:
By Allâh, I handed over power to him for no reason other than the fact that I could not find any supporters. Had I found supporters I would have fought him day and night until Allâh decides between us. But I know the people of Kûfah. I have experience of them. The bad ones of them are no good to me. They have no loyalty, nor any integrity in word or deed. They are in disagreement. They claim that their hearts are with us, but their swords are drawn against us.10
Imâm Mûsâ al-Kâzim, the son of Imâm Ja‘far, and the seventh of the supposed Imâms of the Shî‘ah, describes them in the following words:
If I had to truly distinguish my Shî‘ah I would find them nothing other than pretenders. If I had to put them to the test I would only find them to be apostates. If I were to scrutinise them I would be left with only one in a thousand. Were I to sift them thoroughly I would be left with only the handful that is truly mine. They have been sitting on cushions all along, saying: " We are the Shî‘ah of ‘Alî."
If today ‘Âshûrâ will be commemorated as a day of struggle and sacrifice, let it also be remembered as a day of treachery and desertion. When the names of Yazîd ibn Mu‘âwiyah, ‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd, ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d and Shamir ibn Dhil Jawshan are mentioned and curses invoked upon their memories, then let us not forget the treachery of the Shî‘ah of Kûfah. The time has long been due for the Shî‘ah to reintroduce into their ‘Âshûrâ ceremonies an aspect that was in fact part of the very first commemoration ceremony of the Tawwâbûn. That lost aspect is the admission of their own guilt, along with that of Ibn Ziyâd, Yazîd and others, in the shedding of the holy blood of Sayyidunâ Husayn ibn ‘Alî radiyallâhu ‘anhumâ.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- The historical material for this study has been taken largely from al-Bidâyah wan-Nihâyah of Ibn Kathîr. The Shî‘î source Maqtal al-Husayn by ‘Abd ar-Razzâq al-Mûsawî al-Muqarram (5th edition published by Maktabah Basîratî, Qum in 1382) was also consulted.
- See S. H. M. Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shi’ah Islam p. 198 (Ansariyan Publications, Qum, n.d.)
- The figure of 80 000, given in certain Shî‘î sources, and quoted recently on local radio, is clearly fictitious. Apart from contradicting reliable historical sources, its origin in the emotionally charged hyperbolism of the Shî‘ah is self-evident.
- Jafri, p. 195
- ibid. p. 223
- Muhammad Abû Zahrah, Târîkh al-Madhâhib al-Islâmiyyah, p. 613 (Dâr al-Fikr al-‘Arabî, Cairo, n.d.)
- al-Kulaynî, al-Kâfî (Usûl) vol. 2 p. 250-251 (Dâr al-Adwâ, Beiru1992)
- ‘Abdullâh al-Mâmaqânî, Miqbâs al-Hidâyah vol. 2 p. 414 (Mu’assasat Âl al-Bayt li-Ihyâ’ at-Turâth, Beirut 1991) quoting from Rijâl al-Kashshî.
- ibid. vol. 2 p. 407
- Abû Mansûr at-Tabarsî, al-Ihtijâj vol. 2 p. 290-291 (Mu’assasat al-A‘lamî, Beirut 1989
- al-Kulaynî, Rawdat al-Kâfî vol. 8 p. 288