Who Killed Al-Hussain?

Unmasking the other villains of Karbal

Retelling the tragedy of Karbal has traditionally been an important feature of Sh spirituality. The passion plays of Iran and the Indian subcontinent, the literature, both prose and poetry, composed upon the subject of the martyrdom of Sayyidun Husayn radiyallhu anhu and the general atmosphere of mourning that reigns amongst the Shah during the month of Muharram, all bear eloquent testimony to importance of that event in the Sh calendar. To the Shah, Âshur is probably the most important day of the year.

However, it is regrettable that despite the huge amount of attention the subject of Karbal enjoys, the event is persistently portrayed as two-sided. It is always depicted as Husayn against Yazd, 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 Shah against Ahl as-Sunnah.

In this partial retelling that concentrates upon what actually happened at Karbal, and conveniently draws attention away from the other guilty party in the Âshr 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 Karbal, upon whom this article seeks to cast light.

It was in Ramadn 60AH that the letters from Kfah started to arrive at the house of Abbs ibn Abd al-Muttalib in Makkah where Husayn ibn Al was staying after his flight from Madnah, letters urging him to lead the K fans into revolt against Yazd ibn Muwiyah, and assuring him of their loyalty and allegiance. Muwiyah died two months earlier, and there was much resentment for his son Yazd for whom the bayah was taken as his successor. The people of Kfah especially were looking at Husayn for leadership, and soon there was stream of letters coming in from Kfah. On certain days there would be as many as 600 letters, with messengers who enthusiastically described the support he would receive from the Kfans.

Kfah was a unique place, and the Kfans a peculiar people. In 37AH Sayyidun Al radiyallhu anhu shifted his capital from Madnah to Kfah, and ever since that city became the home of those who claimed partisanship of the Ahl al-Bayt. After the reconciliation between Hasan and Muwiyah in 41AH many of those who had been in Sayyidun Hasan's army settled in Kfah. At the time of Muwiyah's death in 60AH pro-Alid sentiments were still to be found in abundance in Kfah. At the time of Muwiyah' s death in 60 AH Kfah was still very strongly pro- Alid. Thus when the opportunity arose the Kfans, who still regarded themselves as the Shah (supporters) of the Ahl al-Bayt, turned to Husayn to lead them against Yazd.

Sayyidun Husayn decided to send his cousin Muslim ibn Aql to investigate the situation in Kfah. If he found it feasible he would write to inform Husayn, who would depart with his family from Makkah to join him in Kfah. Muslim arrived in in Dhul Qadah. The Kfans, when they learnt of his arrival presented themselves at the residence of Muslim ibn Awsajah al-Asad where he was staying. Soon there were 12 000 Kfans 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 bayah of the Kfans, and urging him to proceed from Makkah.

Rumours of what was happening in Kfah soon reached Yazd in Damascus. He immediately replaced Num n ibn Bashr, the governor of Kfah, with the ruthless Ubaydullh ibn Ziyd with orders to find Muslim ibn Aql and kill him. Ibn Ziyd entered Kfah 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 Kfah, who were expecting Sayyidun Husayn, mistook him for Husayn. " Peace upon you, o son of Raslullh," they hailed him. Thus it was that Ibn Ziyd learnt the truth of the rumours. It was only when one of his mounted men shouted at them, " Stand back! This is the governor Ubaydullh ibn Ziyd!" that the Kfans realised the seriousness of their blunder.

Soon after reaching the governor's residence Ubaydullh 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 Aql. He located Muslim in the house of Hn ibn Urwah, and took the pledge of allegiance at his hands. The money he handed over to Ab Thummah al-Âmir 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 Ziyd and informed him. Hn 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 Aql was.

In the meantime Muslim came to hear about the arrest of Hn ibn Urwah. Realising that the hour for a decisive encounter had arrived, he raised his battle cry " Y Mansr" , 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 Aql with the Kfans at his gate, Ubaydullh sent some of the tribal leaders of Kfah 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 Yazd and his Syrian armies, the men upon the strength of whose oaths of allegiance and loyalty Sayyidun Husayn was on that very moment making his way to Kfah with his nearest and dearest, the resolve of those men of Kfah could not hold in the face of such threats and discouragement. One by one they deserted Muslim ibn Aql 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 Kfah. 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 Kfah. Of all those who had so anxiously and enthusiatically written to Husayn to come and lead them in revolt against Yazd, 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 Raslullh (may Peace Be Upon Him), not a single one was there to offer Muslim ibn Aql 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 Aql. 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-Rahmn ibn Muhammad ibn al-Ashath, 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 Ziyd. 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-Ashath to send someone to Husayn with the following message: Ibn Aql has sent me to you. He says to you: Go back with your family. Do not be deceived by people of Kfah. They are those same supporters of your father from whom he so dearly wished to part, by death or by being killed. The Kfans 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 Aql was taken up to the highest ramparts of the fort. As he was being led up, he recited the tahll, tasbh, takbr and istighfr. His last words reflect his intense disappointment with the people of Kfah, " O Allh, 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

Ubaydullh ibn Ziyd had entered Kfah 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 Aql. 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 Muslims letter, Sayyidun Husayn started making arrangements to travel to Kfah. He immmediately despatched a messenger, Qays ibn Mus-hir, to inform the Kfans of his imminet arrival. This messenger was captured by Ubaydullh ibn Ziyd, who ordered him to mount the walls of the fort and publicly curse Husayn and his father. Instead he praised Sayyidun Al and Sayyidun 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 Ziyd. Upon the order of Ibn Ziyd he was flung from the ramparts and killed. Despite this impassioned plea, the men of Kfah were unmoved.

In Makkah, a number of the eminent Sahbah and children of Sahbah tried to dissuade Husayn from going to Kfah, and reminded him of the fickleness of the Kfans with both his father and his brother. Abdullh ibn Abbs, Abdullh ibn Umar, Jbir ibn Abdillh, Ab Sad al-Khudr, his own brother, Muhammad, and his brother-in-law and cousin , Abdullh ibn Jafar 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 Aql.

After an arduous jorney of almost a month, his party reached Iraq. It was there that he first heard of the treachery of the Kfans and the death of Muslim ibn Aql. 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 Kfah was already practically his. Husayn addressed them, saying, " Our Shah 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 Kfah.

Meanwhle Kfah was placed under heave surveillance by Ibn Ziyd. When news of Husayns 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 Sad. There can be little doubt that the Kfans witnessed the departure of this force from Kfah 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 Aql. This was the final opportunity to rush to the side of the grandson of Raslullh (may Peace Be Upon Him). 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 Kfah. Only a handful emerged to join Husayn at Karbal.

And when the sun set on the 10th of Muharram, it was too late for the faithless Shah of Kfah to make amends, for the sands of Karbal was stained red with the blood of Sayyidun Husayn and his seventy-one followers.

L :

Four years later the Shah of Kfah attempted to make amends for their desertion of the family of Raslullh (may Peace Be Upon Him). There emerged a group of Kfans calling themselves the Tawwbn (Penitents) who made it their duty to wreak vengeance upon the killers of Husayn. On their way to Syria in pursuit of Ibn Ziyd they passed by Karbal, the site of Sayyidun 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 Islm might have taken a different course.

There have been attempts by certain writers to absolve the Shah from the crime of deserting Husayn. Some find an excuse for them in Ibn Ziyds blockade of Kfah. S. H. M. Jafri writes in his book The Origins and Early Developments of Shiah Islam:

it should be noted again that the blockade of all the roads coming into Kfa and its vicinity made it almost impossible for the majority of those Shs of Kfa 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 bayah at the hands of Muslim ibn Aql. Ibn Ziyd, as we have seen, entered Kfah with only 17 men. Even the force that he dispatched to engage the party of Sayyidun Husayn at Karbal consisted of only 4000 men.3 Furthermore, that force was not recruited specifically for Karbal; it was only passing through Kfah on its way to fight the Daylamites. It is not at all credible to assume that Ibn Ziyd was able to cow the Kfans 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 Sayyidun Husayn. This can be clearly seen in the manner they deserted Muslim ibn Aql.

There is also the tendency of claiming that those who deserted Sayyidun Husayn were not of the Shah. Jafri writes:

of those who invited Husayn to Kfa, and then those 18,000 who paid homage to his envoy Muslim b. Aql, not all were Shs in the religious sense of the term, but were rather supporters of the house of Al for political reasons - a distinction which must be kept clearly in mind in order to understand the early history of Sh Islam.4

Jafri' s motive in excluding the deserters of Sayyidun Husayn from the ranks of the religious (as opposed to the political) supporters of the house of Sayyidun Al is quite transparent. He is clearly embarrassed by the fact that it was the Shah themselves who abandoned their Imm 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 Sayyidun Husayn himself, on more than one occasion, referred to the Kfans as his Shah. There are also the numerous references to the people of Kfah 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 Shah in the religious sense, the question which next presents itself is: Where were the real Shah when their Imm required their help? Were they only that handful who emerged from Kfah? It is strange that while there is so much reluctance on the part of the Shah to accept the deseof Kfah as their own, they are quite proud and eager to identify themselves with the movement of the Tawwbn. The speeches made at the inception of the movement of the Tawwbn very clearly prove that they were the same people who invited Sayyidun Husayn and then deserted him.5 Their very name is indicative of their guilt in this regard. The attempt by the Shah to absolve themselves from the crime of deserting Sayyidun Husayn is therefore at best nothing more than pathetic.

Karbal was not to be the last act of treason by the Shah against the Family of Raslullh (may Peace Be Upon Him). Sixty years later the grandson of Sayyidun Husayn, namely Zayd ibn Al ibn Husayn, led an uprising against the Umayyad ruler Hishm ibn Abd al-Malik. He received the oaths of allegiance of over 40 000 men, 15 000 of whom were from the very same Kfah that deserted his grandfather. Just before the battle could start they decided upon a whim to ask his opinion about Ab 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 imm could only be his nephew Jafar as-Sdiq. 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 Shah of Kfah.6 This time there could be no question as to whether those who deserted him were of the Shah or not.

The fact that the thousands of Shah who deserted Zayd ibn Al looked upon Jafar as-Sdiq as their true Imm shows that by and large they were the same as the Ithn Ashar, or alternatively Imm or Jafar Shah of today. Why then, if he had so many devoted followers, did Imm Jafar not rise up in revolt against the Umayyads or the Abbsids? The answer to this question is provided in a narration documented by Ab Jafar al-Kulayn in his monumental work al-Kf, which enjoys unparallelled status amongst the hadth collections of the Shah:

Sudayr as-Sayraf says: I entered the presence of Ab Abdillh alayhis salm and said to him: By Allh, you may not refrain from taking up arms. He asked: Why not? I answered: Because you have so many partisans, supporters (Shah) and helpers. By Allh, if Amr al-Muminn (Sayyidun Al) had as many Shah, helpers, and partisans as you have, Taym (the tribe of Ab Bakr) and Ad (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 salh arrived and he said: Dismount, Sudayr. Let us perform salh. Then he remarked: The ground here is overgrown with moss. It is not permissible to make salh 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 Allh, if I had as many Shah as there are sheep here, it would not have been acceptable for me to refrain from taking up arms. We then dismounted and performed salh. 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 Karbal taught Imm Jafar as-Sdiq something about those who claimed to be his followers which the Shah of today are still refusing to come to terms with: that in the trials and misfortunes of the Family of Raslullh (may Peace Be Upon Him) the role of the Shah 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 Imms after Husayn ever attempted an armed insurrection against the rulers of their times. Karbal had taught them the fickleness and treacherousness of those who claimed to be their Shah. It is about them that Imm Jafar is reported to have said:

No one bears us greater hatred than those who claim to love us.8

Imm Jafar is also reported as having said:

No verse did Allh reveal in connection with the Munfiqn, except that it is to be found in those who profess Shism.9

Before Sayyidun Husayn, his elder brother Sayyidun Hasan was the victim of the treacherousness of the Kfans. In his book al-Ihtijj the prominent Sh author Ab Mansr at-Tabars has preserved the following remark of Sayyidun Hasan:

By Allh, I think Muwiyah would be better for me than these people who claim that they are my Shah.10

When Sayyidun Hasan eventually became exasperated at the fickleness of his so-called Shah, he decided to make peace with Muwiyah. When someone protested to him that he was bringing humiliation upon the Shah by concluding peace with Muwiyah, he responded by saying:

By Allh, 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 Allh decides between us. But I know the people of Kfah. 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

Imm Ms al-Kzim, the son of Imm Jafar, and the seventh of the supposed Imms of the Shah, describes them in the following words:

If I had to truly distinguish my Shah 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 Shah of Al."

If today Âshr 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 Yazd ibn Muwiyah, Ubaydullh ibn Ziyd, Umar ibn Sad and Shamir ibn Dhil Jawshan are mentioned and curses invoked upon their memories, then let us not forget the treachery of the Shah of Kfah. The time has long been due for the Shah to reintroduce into their Âshr ceremonies an aspect that was in fact part of the very first commemoration ceremony of the Tawwbn. That lost aspect is the admission of their own guilt, along with that of Ibn Ziyd, Yazd and others, in the shedding of the holy blood of Sayyidun Husayn ibn Al radiyallhu anhum.

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. The historical material for this study has been taken largely from al-Bidyah wan-Nihyah of Ibn Kathr. The Sh source Maqtal al-Husayn by Abd ar-Razzq al-Msaw al-Muqarram (5th edition published by Maktabah Basrat, Qum in 1382) was also consulted.

  2. See S. H. M. Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shiah Islam p. 198 (Ansariyan Publications, Qum, n.d.)

  3. The figure of 80 000, given in certain Sh 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 Shah is self-evident.

  4. Jafri, p. 195

  5. ibid. p. 223

  6. Muhammad Ab Zahrah, Trkh al-Madhhib al-Islmiyyah, p. 613 (Dr al-Fikr al-Arab, Cairo, n.d.)

  7. al-Kulayn, al-Kf (Usl) vol. 2 p. 250-251 (Dr al-Adw, Beiru1992)

  8. Abdullh al-Mmaqn, Miqbs al-Hidyah vol. 2 p. 414 (Muassasat Âl al-Bayt li-Ihy at-Turth, Beirut 1991) quoting from Rijl al-Kashsh.

  9. ibid. vol. 2 p. 407

  10. Ab Mansr at-Tabars, al-Ihtijj vol. 2 p. 290-291 (Muassasat al-Alam, Beirut 1989

  11. al-Kulayn, Rawdat al-Kf vol. 8 p. 288