Battle of Karbala

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Battle of Karbala
Part of: Islamic Civil Wars ( Fitna )
Scène de la bataille de Karbalâ, par Mohammad Modabber, deuxième fondateur de l'école picturale ghahveh-khâneh.jpg
date October 10, 680
place Karbala
output Decisive victory for the Umayyads
Parties to the conflict

Umayyads ( Yazid I. )

Aliden ( al-Husain ibn ʿAlī )


Umar ibn Sa'ad
Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad
Shimr Ibn Thil-Jawschan
Hurr ibn Yazid † (then fought for Hussein ibn Ali)

al-Husain ibn ʿAlī †
al-Abbas ibn Ali
Habib ibn Muzahir

Troop strength
clear superiority, maybe 4,000 72


devastatingly beaten

The Prophet's grandson Hussein was killed in the Battle of Karbala , which took place on October 10, 680 near the central Iraqi town of Karbala . With this battle, the Shiite hope to install their third imam in place of Yazid I as caliph , head of the Islamic community, failed. In Islamic history after the Shia, the battle of Karbala symbolizes the struggle between “good and evil” - “oppressed against oppressor” - and is considered to be one of the most tragic incidents for the Shiites. Since many supporters of Hussein no longer stood by Hussein at the time of the battle and fell away from him - for fear of the overwhelming strength of Yazid's troops - Hussein and his army were defeated. From the Shiite side it is reported that the troop ratio in this battle was 10,000 to 72 to the disadvantage of Hussein.

Shiites and Alevis commemorate this battle on the annual Ashura Day (on the 10th day of the month of Muharram ), during which they mourn the apostasy of Hussein's followers from his side through many rituals of symbolic mourning.


After the killing of the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan , Ali ibn Abi Taleb became the fourth caliph. Since he abolished some privileges for some of Mohammed's companions , which the earlier caliphs had introduced, and dismissed Muawiya as governor of Damascus because of his corruption and tyranny, inter- Islamic wars were waged. For example, since Muawiya refused to give up his position, the battle of Siffin took place . After the assassination attempt on Ali and his death one or two days later in 661, Muawiya continued to insist on the caliphate and did not want to cede it to Ali's son Hasan ibn Ali . Muawiya and his troops went to Iraq to attack Hasan. Hasan ordered his generals to march, but few joined him, and those who did join had different interests. At the same time, the Byzantine rulers mobilized their troops because they saw a good opportunity to destroy rising Islam. Hasan prevented this and concluded a peace treaty with Muawiya. Muawiya bribed Hasan's wife so that she should have poisoned her husband and Hasan died in 670. Hasan's brother Husain ibn Ali became his successor and thus the third Imam of the Shiites. In the year 680, Muawiya died. Contrary to the agreement in the peace treaty, Muawiya introduced the hereditary monarchy, installed his son Yazid I as his successor and thus founded the Umayyad dynasty .

As soon as Yazid became caliph, he sent a letter to the then governor of Medina asking him to seek the oath of allegiance from Husain. He is said to have done this so that no one could accuse him of having unlawfully taken over the caliphate. Husain and his companions, including women, children and the elderly, left the city in the direction of Mecca on pilgrimage in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. He is said to have refused allegiance to Yazid because this would have meant the approval of his deeds and his lifestyle and because that would have destroyed Islam. The people of Kufa had heard of the events in Medina and sent numerous letters to Husain, inviting him to Kufa and promising loyalty to him. Husain set off for Kufa with his caravan, wrote a letter to the citizens of Kufa and sent this Muslim ibn Aqil as his ambassador in advance. Muslim ibn Aqil traveled with his two sons to underline his peaceful intentions and was received with great hospitality in Kufa. More than 18,000 Kufites are said to have sworn an oath of allegiance to Husain before Muslim ibn Aqil, and Muslim ibn Aqil informed Husain that the majority were behind him and that he should come to Kufa.

Course of the battle

Tropical Museum Amsterdam , "Battle of Karbala", Iranian painting, oil on canvas, 19th century

In the autumn of 680, Hussein marched with a small army from Mecca towards Kufa in Mesopotamia , whereupon Yazid also set out with an army in Damascus. Hussein believed himself to be sure of the support of the Mesopotamian people; Numerous letters and messengers from Kufa had reached him in Mecca, telling him that the situation was favorable and that thousands of supporters in Mesopotamia were ready to rise up against Yazid under his leadership. Hussein's cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel, whom he had then sent ahead to Kufa, had confirmed this assessment. Therefore, Hussein left Mecca in September, accompanied only by his family and a small group of supporters, and set out for Mesopotamia.

When Hussein got there, the situation had changed. The Umayyad ruler there, Ubaid Allah Ibn Ziyad , had entered Kufa and now had the leaders of the revolt, including Hussein's cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel, executed. The hoped-for comrades-in-arms for Hussein's army were a long time coming.

Soon the Umayyad troops succeeded in cutting off Hussein's train the way to Kufa, so that Hussein was stranded at Kerbela. Negotiations about a surrender failed, Hussein and his people were separated from the Euphrates by the Umayyad troops and suffered severe thirst for days.

The day before, Hussein ibn Ali said to his remaining soldiers that it would be better if they left at midnight; they are now free from him. They would all die tomorrow and if they left today they would still live. But the soldiers, it is reported, were not concerned with survival, but with loyalty and faith. They all stayed with him after all. Before the start of the battle - so the reports - Hurr ibn Yazid, a leader of the Umayyad troops, came to Hussein and asked his forgiveness for cutting off his path; Hussein forgave him.

On 10th Muharram 61 according to the Islamic calendar (10th October 680 of the Julian calendar ) the battle broke out. All of Hussein's supporters were killed in the battle. The women and children were captured and taken to Damascus. The dead were buried on the spot where the Kerbela shrines now stand. According to Shiite doctrine, Hussein threw himself into a hopeless battle with the Koran in one hand and the sword in the other, in which he and all his fellow combatants were bloodily slaughtered. It is reported that Hussein's head was first brought to the ruler in Kufa and then buried in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. According to another tradition, he was later brought to safety from Askalon in Cairo .

Abū Michnaf († 774), who came from Kufa, was the first to collect and record the oral traditions about what happened.

Importance of the battle for Shiites

To this day, the battle is considered one of the central events in the early history of Islam for Shiites. The heroic deeds and subsequent martyrdoms of each individual member of the group around Hussein are just as much the subject of the stories of that battle as the demonizing depiction of the atrocities of the opponents and the sufferings of the children and women of the group around Hussein, stylized as innocent victims. The battle remembered in this narrative thus not only becomes a political-formative moment of the Shiite doctrine of faith in Islam, but on the one hand defines the theological origin of the Shiite martyr ethos and on the other hand offers the believers a catalog of norms of the heroic that is still effective today. In today's Shiite communities, one can therefore speak of the "Kerbala paradigm", which must also be granted a high political potential in the present.

The hopeless struggle of Hussein against an overpowering opponent had a major influence on the Shiite ideology that was later developed; Shiites developed and transfigured the concept of the religious martyr more than the Sunnis. From the hopeless struggle of Hussein, numerous understandings of jihad by Shiite militias and radical groups are derived today - martyrdom, death in the name of religion in a hopeless fight against an overpowering enemy is in many places also with the fight of the Palestinians / Lebanese against Israel or of Iran equated against the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini's supporters chased the Iranian Shah out of the country in 1979 with loud “Yazid!” Shouts. At the same time, the concept of external jihad developed into a political term that calls for the fight against a Muslim but unjust ruler. The internationalization of this definition, its application to non-Muslim enemies, was only advanced under thinkers like Abdallah Azzam at the end of the 20th century.


  • Reza Aslan: No god but God. The Faith of Muslims from Mohammed to the Present. Translated by Rita Seuss. CH Beck, Munich 2006. ISBN 3-406-54487-8 .
  • William L. Cleveland: A History of the Modern Middle East . Westview Press, Boulder 1999. ISBN 0-8133-3489-6 .
  • Muhammad ibn Garîr Abû Gafar al-Tabarî: Les Omayyades. In: La chronique. Volume 2. Histoire des prophètes et des rois . Translated by Hermann Zotenberg. Arles 2001. ISBN 2-7427-3318-3 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. See Battle of Karbala in Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. Olmo Gölz: Kerbala paradigm . In: Ronald Asch et al. (Ed.): Compendium heroicum . Collaborative Research Center 948 “Heroes - Heroizations - Heroisms” of the University of Freiburg, Freiburg April 26, 2018, doi : 10.6094 / heroicum / kerbalaparadigma ( ).
  3. Sheikh al-Mufid: Kitab al-Irschad - The book of guidance . M-haditec, Bremen 2006, ISBN 978-3-939416-02-9 , p. 248-256 (Original title: كتاب الارشاد . Translated by Özoguz, Fatima).
  4. Rahim, Bashir .: Journey of Tears . Ed .: M-haditec. Verlag, Bremen 2006, ISBN 978-3-939416-03-6 , pp. 24-34 .
  5. Olmo Gölz: Kerbala paradigm . In: Ronald Asch et al. (Ed.): Compendium heroicum . Collaborative Research Center 948 “Heroes - Heroizations - Heroisms” of the University of Freiburg, Freiburg April 26, 2018, doi : 10.6094 / heroicum / kerbalaparadigma ( ).