The Tragedy of Karbala: The Ultimate Sacrifice for the Sake of Justice

Abbasid threshold in Karbala, Iraq

Shahzad Ahmad & Zafir Malik, UK

 The month of Muharram marks the first month of the Islamic calendar. While the new year is generally welcomed with much celebration, Muslims across the world are also reminded of a grave tragedy that befell the noble family of the Holy Prophet (sa) in the plains of Karbala, in present-day Iraq, when the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa) and his family members were mercilessly martyred. This episode was a turning point in Islamic history because they offered the ultimate sacrifice to uphold the Qur’anic principles of absolute justice. 

But first, some background: When the Holy Prophet (sa) passed away, his first four successors – Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra), Hazrat Umar (ra), Hazrat Uthman (ra), and Hazrat Ali (ra) – led the Muslims for the next few decades.   Upon the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali (ra), this  era – that of the Khilafat-e-Rashidah or the Rightly Guided Caliphate – came to an end, as had been prophesied by the Holy Prophet (sa). At this time, Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra) claimed to be the leader of the Muslims after Hazrat Ali (ra) and in 56 AH (after Hijrah, the Holy Prophet’s (sa) migration from Makkah and the start of the Islamic calendar) proclaimed that his son, Yazid, would be his successor after him. The Holy Prophet’s (sa) noble companions deemed this to be a highly contentious act In their view, Islamic principles dictated that leadership could not simply be inherited; rather, the people had the right to choose their leader. 

In 60 AH, Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah passed away. Some Muslims pledged their allegiance to Yazid in order to avoid any disorder or division amongst the Muslims. But Hazrat Imam Husain (ra), Hazrat Abdullah bin Umar (ra), and Hazrat Abdullah bin Zubair (ra) were among those who opposed this appointment and refused to pledge their allegiance to him. Why? Because they wanted to uphold this fundamental principle of Qur’anic justice. They were not desirous of any authority or position; rather they wanted to uphold the right of the people to choose their leader.

Ascending the throne, Yazid ordered the Amir, or governor, of the city of Madinah to take the pledge of allegiance from these three individuals; however, they refused and Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) and Hazrat Abdullah bin Zubairramigrated to the city of Makkah. The people of Kufa also opposed the appointment of Yazid and expressed their desire to instead pledge allegiance at the hands of Hazrat Imam Husain (ra). After receiving letters from the people of Kufa, Imam Husain (ra) sent Muslim bin Aqil (ra) to Kufa to make further enquiries. Arriving in Kufa, Hazrat Muslim bin Aqil (ra) was given a rapturous welcome, so he wrote to Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) urging him to come to Kufa.

When Yazid learnt of Muslim bin Aqil’s (ra) arrival in Kufa, he sent instructions to the governor of Basra, Ibn Ziyad, to go to Kufa and deal with the situation. Events in Kufa escalated rapidly, resulting in the martyrdom of Muslim bin Aqil (ra). Those in  Kufa who had pledged allegiance to Imam Husain (ra) were killed and the remaining people threatened against doing so.  

In the meanwhile, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) had left for Kufa along with his family and some of the companions of the Holy Prophet (sa). Along the journey, many people who supported him also joined this convoy. Whilst en route, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) learnt of Muslim bin Aqil’s martyrdom and the change of circumstances in Kufa. Upon realising that the situation had dramatically changed and that there would be danger ahead, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) resolved to continue ahead but gave his followers the choice of turning back. Subsequently, many of those who had joined along the way returned, leaving Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) with approximately 72 people, mainly comprising the Ahle Bai’at (the blessed family of the Holy Prophet (sa)) and the companions.  

Meanwhile, Yazid, who was in Damascus, had dispatched an army of 1,000 soldiers to detain Hazrat Imam Husain (ra). When his caravan had arrived near Kufa, the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar) had begun and Hurr bin Yazid, who was the commander of the opposing army, confronted Hazrat Imam Husain (ra). Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) stated that he had only set out at the beckoning of the people of Kufa; however, if their preferences had changed, then he would return. But Hurr refused to let him go back and insisted on taking him to Kufa to pledge allegiance to Yazid. 

On the second day of Muharram, Hurr received orders from Ibn Ziyad, the governor of Basra, to take Hazrat Imam Husain (ra)’s caravan to a barren land whereby they would be deprived of water and shelter, and so they were taken to the barren plains of Karbala. 

On the third day of Muharram, Amr bin Sa’d was sent with an army of 4,000 and ordered to force Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) into pledging allegiance to Yazid. In the face of immense oppression and cruelty, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) did not give in to Yazid’s demands. During this time Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) saw the Holy Prophet (sa) in a vision, who gave him some instructions. He interpreted this dream to mean that whatever may happen to him now, there was no turning back.

The barbaric treatment of the army of Yazid continued to intensify against the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa) and his family members to the extent that on the seventh of Muharram, Yazid’s forces cut off Hazrat Imam Husain’s (ra) access to water. In the scorching desert heat and without any water or provisions, Hazrat Imam Husain’s (ra) family, which included young infants, were forced to undergo intense hardship and cruelty. 

The night before this deeply tragic event of Karbala transpired, Hazrat Imam Husain’s (ra) family and the companions spent the entire night in deep worship and prepared themselves for battle, in order to uphold truth and justice. Witnessing all this, his sister, Zainab (ra), said to Hazrat Imam Husain (ra),

‘If only death would cause my end today! After my mother Fatima, father Ali and brother Hassan (passed away), you alone were our support’.

Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) replied, ‘Zainab, do not hand over your honour to Satan’.

She said, ‘Brother, for you I can sacrifice my life’.

Tears started flowing from Hazrat Imam Husain’s (ra) eyes. Zainab (ra) also started crying. Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) told her to be patient and said, ‘One day we all have to return to our Lord. Promise by God that after my death you will not act contrary to the example of the Holy Prophet (sa). Do not defame anyone or say anything untowardly.’

On the morning of the 10thof Muharram, the 72 devoted servants of Allah stood by Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) ready to face an army of 4,000. Before entering the field of battle, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) raised his hands and prayed: ‘Lord, You are the One I rely on in every affliction, and You are the reliever of every difficulty; You have always been my protector and I have always submitted before You alone. You alone are the Master of all goodness.’

Once again he demanded safe passage to a peaceful place from the enemy, however they insisted he pledge allegiance to Yazid first. Despite the grave danger that lay ahead, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) offered the Zuhr prayer and it was right after this that an intense battle ensued in the plains of Karbala. 

Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) and the courageous and valiant companions battled against an army of 4,000. One by one, they continued to embrace the status of martyrdom. This army of savages did not even spare the beloved family of the Holy Prophet (sa)20 of them were martyred on the plains of Karbala. Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) was now left alone. He went towards the river to quench his thirst, when an arrow hit himin the face, causing blood to spurt out like a fountain. Still he fought valiantly – until his last breath. He said to the enemy:

‘I swear by God, anyone you kill after today will not incur God’s fury to a greater extent than (anyone you kill) today.’

Even after martyring him, the bloodthirsty soldiers of Yazid were not content and they began looting Imam Husain’sracaravan and dishonoured the women of the noble family of the Holy Prophet (sa). What happens next will be enough to give a sense of the savagery and brutality of Yazid’s army; Amr bin Sa’d asked his comrades: ‘who would trample over the body of Husain?’ Ten soldiers volunteered themselves and rode their horses over the dead body of Imam Husain, crushing his chest and back. On that day, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) had been inflicted with 45 arrow wounds, 33 spear wounds and over 40 blows by the sword. Not content with this, orders were given to sever his head, which had once been so affectionately kissed by the Holy Prophet (sa), and was then sent to Yazid. 

On the 10thof Muharram, Muslims across the world are reminded of this deeply sad and heart-wrenching account of the cruelty perpetrated against the blessed family and noble companions of the Holy Prophet (sa). Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) stood bravely and courageously against the intense oppression and persecution of Yazid and his men and offered the ultimate sacrifice in order to stand for the truth and uphold Qur’anic principles. 

Whilst guiding the community of how one ought to commemorate the 10thof Muharram, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community stated, 

‘Hazrat Imam Husain (ra), whom the Promised Messiah (as) declared to be among the chiefs of those dwelling in paradise, has, through his example of patience and steadfastness, demonstrated to us the pathway that leads to paradise.’

His Holiness (aba) also stated,

‘If the month of Muharram teaches us any lesson, then that is for one to always send salutations upon the Holy Prophet (sa) and his family. In order to fulfil our duties towards the grand objectives set out by the Imam of the age, we must strive to send salutations upon the Holy Prophet (sa), occupy ourselves in prayers and try our utmost to bring about a pure change within ourselves. At the same time we must demonstrate steadfastness when faced with adversaries who bear the characteristics of Yazid [son of Mua’wiyah].’ 

He further stated:

‘Invoking blessings on the Holy Prophet (sa) is a key factor for the acceptance of prayer. We should send salutations upon the Holy Prophet (sa) generally; however, during this month we should pay particular attention towards invoking blessings on the Holy Prophet (sa).’ 


About the AuthorsShahzad Ahmad serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK – Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and presents shows on contemporary Islamic issues for MTA International.

Zafir Malik serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK – Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and regularly appears as a panellist on MTA International and Voice of Islam radio station answering questions on Islam.