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Husayn ibn Ali

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Husayn ibn Ali

    626 – 680 Shi'i Muslim leader

    Husayn ibn Ali was Muhammad's grandson and son of Fatimah , the Prophet's daughter. His father was Ali ibn Abi Talib , Muhammad's cousin and devoted follower, who became the fourth Muslim caliph and the first imam of the Shi'i branch of Islam. The Shi'i revere Husayn as their third imam and as a martyr.

    After Ali's assassination in 661 , Husayn's older brother, Hasan , became caliph and second imam. Hasan soon abdicated, however, in favor of Mu'awiyah, a powerful clan leader and political rival who established the Umayyad caliphate. While Husayn reluctantly recognized Mu'awiyah's rule, he refused to pledge allegiance to him. Husayn believed that, as direct descendants of Muhammad, Ali's sons were the rightful heirs to the caliphate. When Mu'awiyah died in 680 , the caliphate passed to Yazid, Mu'awiyah's son and chosen successor. Husayn refused to recognize the legitimacy of Yazid's rule and again withheld his allegiance to the Umayyads. Yazid, however, threatened to kill anyone not loyal to him, prompting Husayn to flee to Mecca seeking sanctuary.

    Shi'i Muslims in Kufa, a city in Iraq, asked Husayn to lead them in a revolt against Yazid and to claim his rightful position as caliph. Husayn's cousin, Muslim ibn Aqil , verified that he had strong support in Iraq. Husayn then set out for Kufa with family members and followers. The governor of Iraq, a supporter of Yazid, sent 4,000 men to intercept the caravan. At Karbala, this force trapped Husayn's small band, which numbered less than 100. He refused to surrender, however, and led his men out into battle, where they were massacred. The Iraqi governor displayed the heads of Husayn and his followers in Kufa as a warning to other Umayyad enemies.

    Husayn's martyrdom is considered a defining event in Shi'i Islam. Few personalities in Muslim history have had as enduring an influence on Islamic thought and piety as Husayn. His death provided his followers with a new passion. Shi'i Islam gained in strength, ensuring the continuance of Husayn's legacy. Shi'i Muslims still consider a pilgrimage to his tomb in Karbala second in importance only to the hajj. Modern Muslim political groups draw inspiration from Husayn as a symbol of resistance against tyranny. See also Ali ibn Abi Talib ; Karbala and Najaf; Shi'i Islam; Umayyad Caliphate.

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