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Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī (626–680)

Mahmoud M. Ayoub
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī (626–680)

Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī (626–680) was the third Shīʿī imām, son of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and grandson of the prophet Muḥammad. As Muḥammad had no male heirs, Ḥusayn and his elder brother Ḥasan are believed to have continued the Prophetʾs line through his daughter Fāt.imah and his cousin ʿAlī. Hagiographical tradition abounds with tales of love and affection of the Prophet for his two grandsons.

ʿAlī was assassinated in 661 after a short and turbulent caliphate and was succeeded by his elder son, Ḥasan. But Ḥasan soon abdicated as he realized the disunity and fickleness of his followers and the superiority of Muʿāwiyahʾs well-organized forces.

Ḥusayn reluctantly accepted his brotherʾs compromise and refused to pay allegiance to Muʿāwiyah. However, during Muʿāwiyah's long reign (661–680), Ḥusayn honored his brother's agreement with the Umayyad caliph. Among the stipulations of this agreement was that after Muʿāwiyah's death his successor would be either chosen through shūrā (consultation) or that—according to Shīʿī reports—the caliphate would revert to one of the two sons of ʿAlī.

Ḥasan died in 671, and Muʿāwiyah appointed his own son Yazīd as his successor. Yazīd is reputed to have been a lewd character given to drinking and other illicit pleasures. Many, particularly in the Hejaz and Iraq, opposed Yazīd's appointment, and a small number of notables, including Ḥusayn, withheld their allegiance. Wishing to assert his authority and quell opposition at any cost, Yazīd in 680 ordered his governor in Medina to take everyoneʾs oath of allegiance and execute anyone who refused.

Ḥusayn left Medina (Madīnah) secretly and sought protection in the sanctuary of Mecca (Makkah). There, he received numerous letters from the Shīʿah of Kufa inviting him to lead them in an insurrection against Yazīd. Ḥusayn sent his cousin Muslim ibn ʿAqīl to Kufa to investigate the situation. Muslim sent word that support for Ḥusayn was strong and that he should hasten to Kufa without delay.

Apprised of these developments, Yazīd dismissed the governor of Kufa and extended the authority of ʿUbayd Allāh ibn Ziyād, the governor of Basra, to include Kufa. Ibn Ziyād was a shrewd and ruthless politician. By means of threats and bribes he quickly contained the uprising and sent a small detachment to prevent Ḥusayn from reaching Kufa. He captured Muslim and had him executed with some of his close supporters.

Ḥusayn now set out for Iraq with his women and children and a small band of followers. Learning of Muslimʾs fate along the way, he released his relatives and followers from all obligations and advised them to go. Many did, and he was left with a small group of loyal supporters and family members. He was intercepted by a small detachment and diverted away from Kufa to a place called Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates.

An army of about four thousand men was then assembled to confront Ḥusayn and his band of seventy-odd followers. The army was headed by ʿUmar ibn Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqāṣ, the son of a respected companion of the Prophet. Ibn Ziyād also made sure that some of Ḥusaynʾs Kufic supporters were conscripted.

Ḥusayn arrived at Karbala on the second of Muḥarram. After a week of fruitless negotiations between Ḥusayn and ʿUmar ibn Saʿd, Ibn Ziyād sent an alternative leader called Shamir ibn Dhī al-Jawshan with instructions to execute the reluctant ʿUmar ibn Saʿd should he refuse to carry out his orders. Ḥusayn, Ibn Ziyād ordered, should either surrender and be brought to him as a war-captive or be killed in battle. For some days, Ḥusayn and his followers were denied water from the Euphrates in order to force them to surrender.

On the morning of 10 Muḥarram a.h. 61/680 CE, the battle began. Greatly outnumbered, Ḥusayn and his followers were annihilated by the early afternoon. One by one, Ḥusayn witnessed his own children and other relatives fall. Even an infant whom he held in his arms was slain. Finally, after a brave fight, Ḥusayn himself fell. On orders from Ibn Ziyād, Ḥusaynʾs corpse was trampled by horses and his head and those of his followers were paraded in Kufa as a warning to others.

Few personalities in Muslim history have exerted as great and enduring an influence on Islamic thought and piety as Imam Ḥusayn. For Sunnī, and particularly Ṣūfī piety, Ḥusayn is the revered grandson of the Prophet and member of his household (ahl al-bayt). Ḥusaynʾs shrine-mosque in Cairo is a living symbol of Sunnī devotion to the martyred imam.

Ḥusaynʾs revolt against Umayyad rule inspired not only religious Muslims, but also secular socialists. A powerful portrayal of Ḥusayn the revolutionary was made by the socialist Egyptian writer ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sharqāwī in his two-part play, “Ḥusayn the Revolutionary” and “Ḥusayn the Martyr.”

Although these ideas are also shared by many educated Shiʿis, Ḥusayn occupies a central place in Twelver Shīʿī faith and piety. Pilgrimage (ziyārah), actual or ritualistic, to his tomb is second in importance to the hajj pilgrimage. Moreover, the ʿĀshūrāʿ and other taʿziyah (passion play) celebrations have given the Shīʿī community an ethos of suffering and martyrdom distinguishing it sharply from the rest of the Muslim community.

The meaning and significance of the revolution, struggle, and martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn continues to grow with changing times and political circumstances of Muslim society. He has become a symbol of political resistance for many Muslims, regardless of their ideological persuasion or walk of life. For Shīʿī Muslims Ḥusayn is also a symbol of eschatological hope, as the expected Mahdī (messiah) will finally avenge his blood and vindicate him and all those who have suffered wrong at the hands of tyrannical rulers.

Since the Middle Ages, special mosque annexes appropriately called husaynīyahs have served as centers for the memorial observances of the sufferings and martyrdom of Ḥusayn and his family and the social and political lessons that can be learned from this tragedy. It was in such centers in Beirut and south Lebanon that the first Shīʿī resistance movements were born. It was also in the Ḥusaynīyah-yi Irshād that the ideas of ʿAlī Sharīʿatī kindled the final spark of the Iranʾs Islamic Revolution. Indications are that the example of Ḥusayn will continue to inspire Muslim resistance and religious fervor for a long time to come.



  • Alsarat. The Imam Ḥusayn. vol. 12. Edited by the Muhammadi Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. London, 1986. Collection of papers presented at the Imam Ḥusayn Conference from a variety of Shīʿī and Sunnī scholars representing both traditional and modern views of Ḥusaynʾs personality and martyrdom.
  • Ayoub, Mahmoud M.Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿĀshūrāʿ in Twelver Shīʿism. The Hague, 1978. Offers a useful discussion of the development of the ʿĀshūrāʿ celebrations and their place in Shīʿī popular piety and culture.
  • BukhārĪ, Muhammad ibn Ismāʿīl. The English Translation of Sahīh al Bukhārī with the Arabic Text. Translated from the Arabic by Muhammad Muhsin Khān. Alexandria, Va., 1996.
  • Gordon, Matthew. The Rise of Islam. Greenwood Press, 2005.
  • Mufīd, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-. Kitāb al-Irshād: The Book of Guidance. Translated by I. K. A. Howard. Elmhurst, N.Y., 1981. Classic work presenting a generally balanced account of Ḥusaynʾs life and martyrdom, by a respected tenth-century Shīʿī scholar. See part 2, chapter 2, “Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī” (pp. 296–379).
  • Ṭabarī, Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-. The History of al-Ṭabarī. Vol. 19, The Caliphate of Yazīd b. Muʿāwiyah. Translated by I. K. A. Howard. Albany, N.Y., 1990. The earliest account by an authoritative classical historian, based on the oldest sources.
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