Chapter 8 - At Karbala

In this chapter, we will describe what happens in Karbala during the next eight days since the arrival of Imam Husein (as) and his group and the incoming forces of Yazeed.

8.1 Buying the land 

  • A day after his arrival, on 3 Muharram 61 AH (3 October 680 AD), Imam Husein (as) calls the people of Karbala and the neighbouring villages of Nainawa, Ghadariyyah and Shafayyah.
  • He offers to pay sixty thousand dinars for a freehold ownership of a piece of land of Karbala - belonging to the tribe of Banu Asad; this is an extremely generous price at the time.
  • He imposes three conditions for the purchase of the land.
  • First, he explained to the people of Banu Asad that soon he and his group would be killed and their bodies would be left unburied; he asked them to bury them after the army of Yazeed has left.
  • Second, the land should remain as a cemetery and not cultivate the land around the gravesites.
  • Third, they should host and be hospitable to pilgrims who will come to pay homage at their graves. 
  • The people of Banu Asad agree to this; Imam Husein (as) pays for the land; he then immediately gives it back to them as a gift.
  • Until today, the conditions of Imam Husein (as) are being honoured by the local population of Karbala.

8.2 Appointment of Umar Saad

  • Yazeed in Damascus is the Commander-in-Chief of the Muslim army; he has ordered Ubaydullah in Kufa to get the allegiance of Imam Husein (as) by any means.
  • Imam Husein (as) in Karbala is surrounded by about one thousand soldiers under the command of Hurr.
  • Meanwhile, Ubaydullah’s first priority in Kufa is to very quickly mobilise an army unit and appoint a commander to take over from Hurr (for reasons explained in Section 7.7).
  • There is a unit of about four thousand soldiers led by Umar Saad, stationed just outside Kufa, all prepared and ready for action.
  • This unit is ready to head for Iran to recapture the province of Dastab (between present-day Tehran and Hamadan) which rebelled against the Syrian rule; Umar Saad is the commander of this unit; he is given a letter of appointment to be the governor of Rayy (a province of present-day Tehran), which will be his base.
  • Ubaydullah orders him to go to Karbala first, take charge of the forces and obtain the allegiance of Imam Husein (as); he can then go to Iran.
  • Umar Saad says he is not prepared to confront the grand-son of the Prophet; Ubaydullah then gives him an ultimatum - either go to Karbala or he will replace him for the Iranian campaign and thereby lose the governorship of Rayy.
  • Umar Saad asks for a day to think over the matter; he consults his family and friends; they all advise him that he should not even think of going to Karbala to confront Imam Husein (as), the grand-son of the Prophet.
  • The next day, Umar Saad tells Ubaydullah that he does not wish to go to Karbala, but gives him the names of other army officers who are willing to do so; Ubaydullah tells him that he has not asked for his advise, and as he does not want to go to Karbala, then he loses the governorship of Rayy. 
  • When Umar Saad realises that he will lose the governorship office, he agrees to go to Karbala first.
  • Umar Saad with a unit of about four thousand soldiers heads for Karbala and arrives there on 3 Muharram 61 AH (3 October 680 AD).

8.3 Numbers on both sides

  • There are about one thousand soldiers with Hurr when they stop at Karbala, on 2 Muharram 61 AH (2 October 680 AD).
  • The next day, 3 Muharram, another unit of about four thousand soldiers arrive under Umar Saad who is to be the General of Yazeed’s army in Karbala.
  • For the next six days, from 4 Muharram to 9 Muharram, more and more soldiers from Kufa arrive in Karbala; army officers lead the units of cavalry, foot soldiers, archers and lancers.
  • In Kufa, the ironmongers are working all hours to supply the armoury - hooves for the horses, spears, lances, swords, arrows and shields. 
  • It is about forty fives miles between Karbala and Kufa and a journey by horse takes about half a day.
  • There are varying estimates (from about twenty thousand to one hundred and twenty thousand) in the literature about the total number of soldiers in Karbala on the side of Yazeed; however, the consensus is that there are about thirty thousand soldiers.
  • All the soldiers are from Kufa; there are two reasons for this.
  • First, Kufa was founded as a garrison town predominantly populated by soldiers; many of them still live there.
  • Second, as Karbala is very near to Kufa, it makes sense to deploy local soldiers rather than dispatching them from Damascus or other cities.
  • There are also varying estimates (from about seventy to one hundred and fifty) in the literature about the total number of males who died with Imam Husein (as).
  • The consensus from the literature is that about one hundred and ten (other reports indicate one hundred and twenty) males, men and children, died with Imam Husein (as); their names are also available (see Section 9.9).
  • A figure of seventy two martyrs is usually quoted; the explanation is that only seventy two severed heads (from a total of about one hundred and ten martyrs) were brought to Kufa by Umar Saad’s army; his soldiers refused to sever the heads of the rest of the martyrs as they had family or tribal relations with them.
  • There were about forty women and children who survived the Karbala massacre.

8.4 Reasons for imbalance in numbers

Yazeed’s side

  • A question that comes to mind is this: how can a known tyrant and evil person like Yazeed assemble such a huge army against the grand-son of the Prophet?
  • There are about thirty thousand soldiers of Yazeed compared to about one hundred men with Imam Husein (as); this gives a ratio of three hundred to one; this is a huge imbalance between the two sides as far as manpower is concerned.
  • This imbalance is explained by three factors.
  • First, most of the army is composed of conscripts, that is, people are forced to take part because Ubaydullah has issued a decree that all able bodied men must enlist in the army; anyone evading this call faces punishment.
  • Second, they are promised a government cash allowance on their return; so they are motivated to serve in the army.
  • Third, Kufa has many reserves since the population is composed of professional soldiers who served in previous campaigns.

Imam Husein’s (as) side

  • There are five reasons to explain the small number on Imam Husein’s (as) side.
  • First, the core support for the Prophet’s Household is from the people of Kufa; however since 41 AH (661 AD) when Muawiya was the political leader of the Muslims, they have been systematically sidelined and subjugated; this intensified over the years and especially in 60 AH (680 AD) when Ubaydullah came to Kufa (as we saw in Section 6.5) and imprisoned many of them.
  • Second, Ubaydullah imposes a news blackout and misinformation in Kufa - this is a classic military strategy used to gain advantage over the enemy; so Imam Husein’s (as) supporters, who are not in prison, are kept in the dark of his whereabouts and the danger he is in.
  • Third, there are roadblocks around Kufa and Karbala to stop the supporters of Imam Husein (as) to get to him.
  • Fourth, because of the change of destination from Kufa to Karbala, some of the supporters of Imam Husein (as) are unable to reach him in time.
  • Fifth, Imam Husein (as) does not force people to join him or to remain with him; he encourages them to leave him for his mission is one of sacrifice and not of any gain.

8.5 Intermediary meeting between Imam Husein (as) and Umar Saad

  • Umar Saad wants to explore a way out of his commitment to confront Imam Husein (as).
  • On the day of his arrival in Karbala, 3 Muharram 61 AH (3 October 680 AD), he sends one of his men, Qurra Hanzali, to find out from Imam Husein (as) what has brought him to Karbala and what is his plan of action now.
  • Imam Husein (as) tells him that he did not want to come to Karbala, but was to go to Kufa at the invitation of many people there; since the situation has changed there, he is ready to go back to his hometown in Madinah.
  • It should be noted that Imam Husein (as) is offering a peaceful and amicable solution without having to compromise his principled stand not to pledge allegiance to Yazeed; he is trying to avoid a confrontation if at all possible.
  • Umar Saad is surprised at this very accommodating position of Imam Husein (as), for the impression given to him by Ubaydullah is that Imam Husein (as) is a rebel and is out to cause problems, at any cost, for Yazeed and his government.
  • Umar Saad senses a chance to diffuse the crisis; he writes to his commander Ubaydullah in Kufa that there is no need to force a confrontation with Imam Husein (as) for he is willing to go back to Madinah.
  • Ubaydullah replies that since Imam Husein (as) has been cornered, he is trying to find a way out; he commands Umar Saad to “get the allegiance from Imam Husein (as) and then we will decide what to do with him”.
  • This order shows very clearly that even if Imam Husein (as) were to pledge allegiance to Yazeed, his freedom and safety are not guaranteed.
  • When Umar Saad receives this order, he realises that the prospect of a battle with Imam Husein (as) is now real and unavoidable.

8.6 Direct meeting between Imam Husein (as) and Umar Saad

  • Imam Husein (as) sends Amr Qarazah to Umar Saad to ask for a one-to-one meeting in private. 
  • This is unheard of in a battle zone, where two leaders on the opposite side engage in a one-to-one private meeting; either it takes place in the open with others present, or it is the deputies of the leaders who meet.
  • Imam Husein (as) is asking for this private meeting for two reasons.
  • First, he wants to explore all avenues for peace; he wants to ensure that history records he is not intent on a battle, but is willing to find a peaceful solution (without compromising his principled opposition to Yazeed).
  • Second, he wants to avoid talking to intermediaries in case there is any manipulation, distortion or exaggeration of his position.
  • This meeting takes place at night on the eve of 8 Muharram 61 AH (7 October 680 AD); this date is inferred by the timing of the subsequent events.
  • Imam Husein (as) and Umar Saad each come with about twenty of their men; they meet about halfway between the two camp sites.
  • Imam Husein (as) asks his men to leave and so does Umar Saad; the two men now meet in private. 
  • Imam Husein (as) repeats what he had told Qurra Hanzali on 3 Muharram; he emphasises that he is ready to go back to Madinah and now offers even to leave Arabia.
  • Umar Saad now hears first-hand of Imam Husein’s (as) very accommodating position; he writes to Ubaydullah that a solution has been found to avoid any battle with Imam Husein (as) for he has even agreed to leave Arabia. 
  • Meanwhile, Ubaydullah sends an order to Umar Saad which reaches him on 7 Muharram 61 AH (7 October 680 AD); the order is to cut off completely any water supply to Imam Husein’s (as) side; as it is, the water supply was very restricted from the day of their arrival in Karbala.
  • Even more armed soldiers are now positioned along the river bank to stop any attempts  by the men of Imam Husein (as) to get any water.

8.7 Arrival of Shimr Ziljawshan

  • The letter of Umar Saad reaches Ubaydullah, by inference of events, on 8 Muharram 61 AH (8 October 680 AD) in the presence of an army officer by the name of Shimr Ziljawshan.
  • Ubaydullah appears to be impressed by the efforts of Umar Saad in trying to avoid a confrontation with Imam Husein (as), but Shimr stiffens his resolve.
  • Ubaydullah replies to Umar Saad that he was not sent as a negotiator or an intercessor; the order is to get Imam Husein’s (as) allegiance, bring him as a prisoner to Kufa and then a decision will be made about his fate.
  • He orders that if no allegiance is forthcoming from Imam Husein (as), then he should be engaged in a battle, killed, mutilated and his body trampled by horses.
  • Furthermore, Umar Saad is to carry out this order immediately or hand over the command of the army to Shimr Ziljawshan.
  • Abdullah Abi Muhil, another army officer, is present when this order is made.
  • Ummul Baneen, the wife of Imam Ali (as) is the aunt of Abdullah Abi Muhil; her four children - Abbas, Jaffer, Othman and Abdullah - are brothers of Imam Husein (as) and they are with him in Karbala (see Chart 1 on the inside back cover); he asks Ubaydullah for a letter to guarantee the safety for his four cousins; this is given.
  • Shimr, with a unit of about four thousand soldiers, arrives in Karbala on Thursday, 9 Muharram 61 AH (9 October 680 AD) late in the afternoon.
  • He goes to Umar Saad immediately and presents him with the order; he challenges him to carry it out or to give up his command and hand it over to Shimr; Umar Saad tells him that he will carry out the orders immediately.
  • Shimr then goes to see the sons of Ummul Baneen and guarantees their safety if they leave Imam Husein (as); they are outraged and curse Shimr for not offering such a guarantee of safety to the grand-son of the Prophet.
  • Umar Saad, with a contingent of his army officers and soldiers, come over to the camp of Imam Husein (as).
  • Imam Husein (as) sends his brother Abbas (see Chart 1 on the inside back cover) - the flag bearer of Imam Husein’s (as) group - with about twenty other supporters, to enquire about their aggressive approach so late in the day.
  • Umar Saad informs Abbas of the ultimatum from Ubaydullah: Imam Husein (as) has got to pledge his allegiance to Yazeed now, either peacefully or extracted forcefully in a battle.
  • When informed of this, Imam Husein (as) sends Abbas to request a postponement for the night and for the matter to be decided the following morning.
  • Umar Saad consults with his officers and the request is granted.

8.8 The last night

  • Dusk has now set in; it is Thursday, eve of 10 Muharram 61 AH (9 October 680 AD).
  • Imam Husein (as) is requesting a postponement for four reasons.
  • There is no question of him asking the postponement in order to consider if he is going to pledge allegiance to Yazeed; this is completely out of the question.
  • He never will and never would, in any circumstances, pledge allegiance to Yazeed.

First reason for postponement

  • Imam Husein (as) wants both sides to reflect in the quiet of the night.
  • The soldiers on the opposite side are now all psyched up in preparation for the battle; now that the actual moment is here, he wants them to reflect on what they are planning to do, and the consequences of their actions.
  • He is giving them a chance to reconsider their plan, so they cannot give the excuse they had no time to reflect because they had been overwhelmed with a momentum of the ensuing battle.
  • The companions of Imam Husein (as) are also given the chance to decide whether they want to stay with him or leave him.
  • This night of reflection has the desired effect on both sides; both sides now make their decision in a calm and unhurried way and choose their destiny.

Second reason for postponement

  • Imam Husein (as) wants to talk to his group; there are about ninety male adults with him, and about twenty males (adults, youths and children) from his own family.
  • He gathers them all, and talks to them; his talk is simple, factual and minimal for he wants them to make a decision rationally; he covers five points. 
  • First, he draws their attention to the sounds from Yazeed’s camp; it is the sound of war drums beating and armoury being sharpened; he tells them that they are after him and him alone, but they will not spare anyone who gets in their way; so they should leave and they will get a safe passage back to their homes, for the opposite side will be glad to see people abandoning him.
  • Second, he acknowledges that he could not wish for any better relatives or supporters, for they are the best; he gives them his full blessings and permission to leave him and he promises them that he will hold no grudges against them, either in this world or in the Hereafter.
  • Third, he completely absolves them of any social or moral obligation they have towards him as their relative, friend or Imam.
  • Fourth, he prays to Allah to grant them great rewards for their support so far.
  • Fifth, he tells them that should anyone be hesitating to leave him because they feel ashamed, he is going to get all the lamps turned off, so they can leave in the darkness unnoticed; after a while he asks for the lamps to be lit and sees that not even one person has left him.
  • Note that this approach is very different from the conventional; here, a leader is asking his supporters to leave freely and unhindered, whereas normally a leader would be energising his troops to stick together and fight the enemy; he wants people with him who are truly and deeply committed to his mission.
  • Three persons now answer Imam Husein (as); each one of them echoes the sentiments of the three groups of people they represent.
  • Abbas, the brother of Imam Husein (as) and the spokesman of his family speaks first.
  • He says the family gives a solemn promise that they will never leave Imam Husein (as) out of their sight, for it will never be that they are alive and see him killed first.
  • Muslim Awsaja, an elder from Kufa and the spokesman of the friends of the Prophet’s family speaks next. 
  • He says they will never leave Imam Husein (as) to face the enemy alone; he asks what answer they would give to Allah on the Day of Judgement when asked why they did not help and defend Imam Husein (as).
  • He says they are prepared to endure all sufferings on the battlefield, and they will fight to their death with all their strength and weapons at their disposal, even if they are just left with stones.
  • Next to speak is Zuhayr Qayn, the spokesman of the group of people who joined Imam Husein (as) en-route from Makkah and those who joined him from Kufa.
  • He says that if it is possible to die once, come alive and die again, then they are prepared to die a thousand such deaths to save Imam Husein (as) and his family from the enemies.

Third reason for postponement

  • Imam Husein (as) puts up a defence around his tents for the safety of the women and children for he anticipates an attack from the rear.
  • He wants all the tents pitched closer together and inter-connected by tying them to one another.
  • Finally, he gets a trench dug behind the tents filled up with firewood; when set alight this will slow down any surprise attacks.

Fourth reason for postponement

  • When all the defences are in place, Imam Husein (as) gathers his group.
  • He tells them that this is their last night in this world.
  • They spend the night worshipping Allah, engaged in supplications and recitation of the Quran.
  • Literature records that the sounds of the prayers like the humming of the bees.
  • By contrast the army of Yazeed spend the night in laughter, merry making, and sharpening their armoury.

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