Unmasking the Other Villains of Karbala’


Unmasking the Other Villains of Karbala’


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

18 May 1997

Retelling the tragedy of Karbala’ has traditionally been an important feature of Shia spirituality. The passion plays of Iran and the Indian subcontinent, the literature, both prose and poetry, composed upon the subject of the martyrdom of Sayyidina Hussain radiyallahu ‘anhu and the general atmosphere of mourning that reigns amongst the Shia during the month of Muharram, all bear eloquent testimony to the importance of that event in the Shia calendar. To the Shia, ‘Ashura is probably the most important day of the year.

However, it is regrettable that despite the huge amount of attention the subject of Karbala’ enjoys, the event is persistently portrayed as two-sided. It is always depicted as Hussain against Yazid, Right rising up against Wrong, the Quest for Justice against the Forces of Oppression. Many an opportunist has even gone to the extent of superimposing upon the event the theme of Shia against Ahlus Sunnah.

In this partial retelling that concentrates upon what actually happened at Karbala’, and conveniently draws attention away from the other guilty party in the ‘Ashura tragedy, lies another tragedy in itself. For while Hussain’s martyrdom has been oft commemorated, and his physical opponents and killers identified, cursed and eliminated, no one has spared a moment’s anger for those who deserted him at the crucial hour. It is these men in the shadows, who squarely deserve to be called the real villains of Karbala’, upon whom this article seeks to cast light.

It was in Ramadan 60 AH that the letters from Kufah started to arrive at the house of ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al Muttalib in Makkah where Hussain ibn ‘Ali was staying after his flight from Madinah, letters urging him to lead the Kufah fans into revolt against Yazid ibn Muawiyah, and assuring him of their loyalty and allegiance. Muawiyah radiyallahu ‘anhu died two months earlier, and there was much resentment for his son Yazid for whom the bay’ah was taken as his successor. The people of Kufah especially were looking at Hussain for leadership, and soon there was a stream of letters coming in from Kufah. On certain days, there would be as many as 600 letters, with messengers who enthusiastically described the support he would receive from the Kufans.

Kufah was a unique place, and the Kufans a peculiar people. In 37 AH Sayyidina ‘Ali radiyallahu ‘anhu shifted his capital from Madinah to Kufah, and ever since that city became the home of those who claimed partisanship of the Ahlul Bayt. After the reconciliation between Hassan and Muawiyah in 41 AH, many of those who had been in Sayyidina Hassan’s army settled in Kufah. At the time of Muawiyah’s death in 60 AH, pro-‘Alid sentiments were still to be found in abundance in Kufah. At the time of Muawiyah’ s death in 60 AH Kufah was still very strongly pro-‘Alid. Thus when the opportunity arose, the Kufans, who still regarded themselves as the Shia (supporters) of the Ahlul Bayt, turned to Hussain radiyallahu ‘anhu to lead them against Yazid.

Sayyidina Hussain radiyallahu ‘anhu decided to send his cousin Muslim ibn ‘Aqil to investigate the situation in Kufah. If he found it feasible he would write to inform Hussain, who would depart with his family from Makkah to join him in Kufah. Muslim arrived in Dhul Qa‘dah. The Kufans, when they learnt of his arrival presented themselves at the residence of Muslim ibn ‘Awsajah al Asadi where he was staying. Soon there were 12 000 Kufans who had given their solemn pledge to support and protect Hussain with their lives and all they possessed. When this number rose to 18 000, Muslim felt confident enough to dispatch a messenger to Hussain, informing him of the bay‘ah of the Kufans and urging him to proceed from Makkah.

Rumours of what was happening in Kufah soon reached Yazid in Damascus. He immediately replaced Nu‘man ibn Bashir, the governor of Kufah, with the ruthless ‘Obaidullah ibn Ziyad with orders to find Muslim ibn ‘Aqil and kill him. Ibn Ziyad entered Kufah early in Dhul Hijjah, accompanied by seventeen men on horseback. With the end of his turban drawn over his face he was unrecognisable, and the people of Kufah, who were expecting Sayyidina Hussain, mistook him for Hussain. “Peace upon you, o son of Rasulullah,” they hailed him. Thus it was that Ibn Ziyad learnt the truth of the rumours. It was only when one of his mounted men shouted at them, “Stand back! This is the governor ‘Obaidullah ibn Ziyad!” that the Kufans realised the seriousness of their blunder.

Soon after reaching the governor’s residence, ‘Obaidullah sent a servant of his own with a bag containing 3000 dirhams to pose as a newcomer from the Syrian town of Hims eager to join the imminent revolution, and thereby discover the whereabouts of Muslim ibn ‘Aqil. He located Muslim in the house of Hani ibn ‘Urwah, and took the pledge of allegiance at his hands. The money he handed over to Abu Thumamah al ‘Amiri who was acting as Muslim’s treasurer. After staying with them for a few days, during which he learnt most of what there was to know about their intrigue, he returned to Ibn Ziyad and informed him. Hani ibn ‘Urwah was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of Muslim’s whereabouts, but when the “newcomer from Hims” was brought before him, he confessed. But he still refused to reveal where Muslim ibn ‘Aqil was.

In the meantime, Muslim came to hear about the arrest of Hani ibn ‘Urwah. Realising that the hour for a decisive encounter had arrived, he raised his battle cry “Ya Mansur”, at which 4000 of the men who had given him their oath of allegiance and loyalty to Hussain gathered around him and proceeded towards the governor’s fort. When he saw Muslim ibn ‘Aqil with the Kufans at his gate, ‘Obaidullah sent some of the tribal leaders of Kufah to speak with their people and draw them away from Muslim and warn them of the wrath that would descend upon them when the armies from Damascus arrived. Soon Muslim’s army was set upon by mothers telling their sons, “Come home, there are enough other people here,” and fathers ominously warning their sons, “What will happen tomorrow when the Syrian armies start arriving from Damascus? What will you do?” The resolve of the men who had taken a sacred oath to support and defend the cause of Hussain radiyallahu ‘anhu and the Ahlul Bayt against Yazid and his Syrian armies, the men upon the strength of whose oaths of allegiance and loyalty Sayyidina Hussain was on that very moment making his way to Kufah with his nearest and dearest, the resolve of those men of Kufah could not hold in the face of such threats and discouragement. One by one, they deserted Muslim ibn ‘Aqil under the gates of the governor’s fort. At sunset he was left with only 30 men. He led them in Maghrib, and then moved away to the doorway of the Kindah quarter of Kufah. He went through that door with no more than 10 men, and before he knew it, he was all on his own in the streets of Kufah. Of all those who had so anxiously and enthusiastically written to Hussain radiyallahu ‘anhu to come and lead them in revolt against Yazid, and out of the 18 000 men who but days before placed their right hands in his, solemnly pledging allegiance to the cause for which they had invited the grandson of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, not a single one was there to offer Muslim ibn ‘Aqil the solace of their company or refuge from the night.

Eventually, parched with thirst, he knocked at a door. The occupant, an old lady, took him in when she learnt that he was Muslim ibn ‘Aqil. She hid him away in her house, but her son, from whom she extracted a promise not to tell anyone of his presence there, waited only till the morning to take the news to the governor’s residence. The next thing Muslim realised was that the house was surrounded. Thrice he managed with his sword to drive the attackers out of the house, but when they started putting fire to the house he was forced to face them outside. It was only when ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn al Ash‘ath, one of those sent to arrest him, promised him the safety of his life, that he lowered his sword. It was a mistake, for they took away his sword and mounted him upon an ass to be taken to Ibn Ziyad. Muslim knew his death was at hand. Tears flowed from his eyes, not at his own fate, but at the thought of Hussain and his family travelling through the harsh, merciless desert towards a fate much more harsher and merciless, to an enemy firmly resolved to bring an end to his venture, and to the most treacherous of partisans whose desertion at the hour of need had brought his life to this tragic end. He begged Ibn al Ash‘ath to send someone to Hussain with the following message: “Ibn ‘Aqil has sent me to you. He says to you: ‘Go back with your family. Do not be deceived by the people of Kufah. They are those same supporters of your father from whom he so dearly wished to part, by death or by being killed. The Kufans have lied to me and have lied to you, and a liar has no sense.’”

Later that day—the Day of ‘Arafah, the 9th of Dhul Hijjah—Muslim ibn ‘Aqil was taken up to the highest ramparts of the fort. As he was being led up, he recited the tahlil, tasbih, takbir, and istighfar. His last words reflect his intense disappointment with the people of Kufah, “O Allah, You be the Judge between us and our people. They deceived us and deserted us.” From high upon the ramparts his head fell down in the dust, in full view of those whose invitations and oaths of allegiance had given him so much to hope for, but whose cowardice and treachery had left him with nothing but despair. And Hussain was on his way…

‘Obaidullah ibn Ziyad had entered Kufah with only seventeen men. For each man that came with him there was over a thousand who had taken the oath of allegiance at the hands of Muslim ibn ‘Aqil. Yet not a single sword was raised in his defence. Not a single voice had the courage to protest his execution. And these were the same men who had been telling Hussain, “Come, we are with you.”

Upon receipt of Muslim’s letter, Sayyidina Hussain started making arrangements to travel to Kufah. He immediately despatched a messenger, Qais ibn Mus-hir, to inform the Kufans of his imminent arrival. This messenger was captured by ‘Obaidullah ibn Ziyad, who ordered him to mount the walls of the fort and publicly curse Hussain and his father. Instead he praised Sayyidina ‘Ali and Sayyidina Hussain, telling them that Hussain was on his way, and exhorting them to assist him as they had promised. He ended his brief address by imprecating curses upon Ibn Ziyad. Upon the order of Ibn Ziyad he was flung from the ramparts and killed. Despite this impassioned plea, the men of Kufah were unmoved.

In Makkah, a number of the eminent Sahabah and children of Sahabah tried to dissuade Hussain from going to Kufah, and reminded him of the fickleness of the Kufans with both his father and his brother. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar, Jabir ibn ‘Abdillah, Abu Sa‘id al Khudri, his own brother, Muhammad, and his brother-in-law and cousin, ‘Abdullah ibn Jafar all remonstrated with him and tried to persuade him not to go to Iraq. His mind, however, was made up. He set out from Makkah on the 8th of Dhul Hijjah, not knowing of the sad end of Muslim ibn ‘Aqil.

After an arduous journey of almost a month, his party reached Iraq. It was there that he first heard of the treachery of the Kufans and the death of Muslim ibn ‘Aqil. Later he also learnt of the death of Qais ibn Mus-hir. A large number of desert Arabs had by that time attached themselves to his party, thinking that Kufah was already practically his. Hussain addressed them, saying, Our Shia have deserted us. Therefore, whoever wants to leave is free to do so. Soon he was left with only those who left Makkah with him. With them he continued towards Kufah.

Meanwhile Kufah was placed under heavy surveillance by Ibn Ziyad. When news of Hussain’s approach reached him, he despatched a 4000 strong contingent, which was on its way to fight the Daylamites, to stop Hussain. This contingent was put under the command of ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d. There can be little doubt that the Kufans witnessed the departure of this force from Kufah with their own eyes. This would be their last chance to honour the oaths of allegiance to Hussain which they had taken upon the hands of Muslim ibn ‘Aqil. This was the final opportunity to rush to the side of the grandson of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. It was after all their invitations and assurances of support that encouraged him to abandon the safety of Makkah for the precarious battlefields of Iraq. But once again faithfulness, courage, and commitment was found lacking in the people of Kufah. Only a handful emerged to join Hussain at Karbala’.

And when the sun set on the 10th of Muharram, it was too late for the faithless Shia of Kufah to make amends, for the sands of Karbala’ was stained red with the blood of Sayyidina Hussain and his seventy-one followers.

Four years later the Shia of Kufah attempted to make amends for their desertion of the family of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. There emerged a group of Kufans calling themselves the Tawwabun (Penitents) who made it their duty to wreak vengeance upon the killers of Hussain. On their way to Syria in pursuit of Ibn Ziyad they passed by Karbala’, the site of Sayyidina Hussain’ s grave, where they raised a great hue and cry, and spent the night lamenting the tragedy which they allowed to happen four years earlier. Had they only displayed that same spirit of compassion for Hussain when he was so much in need of it the history of Islam might have taken a different course.

There have been attempts by certain writers to absolve the Shia from the crime of deserting Hussain. Some find an excuse for them in Ibn Ziyad’s blockade of Kufah. S. H. M. Jafri writes in his book The Origins and Early Developments of Shia Islam:

…it should be noted again that the blockade of all the roads coming into Kufa and its vicinity made it almost impossible for the majority of those Shi‘is of Kufa who were in hiding, and also for those residing in other cities like Basra.2

This explanation of their desertion does not seem plausible when one considers the large number (18 000) of those who had taken the bay‘ah at the hands of Muslim ibn ‘Aqil. Ibn Ziyad, as we have seen, entered Kufah with only 17 men. Even the force that he dispatched to engage the party of Sayyidina Hussain at Karbala’ consisted of only 4000 men.3 Furthermore, that force was not recruited specifically for Karbala’; it was only passing through Kufah on its way to fight the Daylamites. It is not at all credible to assume that Ibn Ziyad was able to cow the Kufans into submission with forces such as these, whom they outnumbered by far. It was rather their own treacherousness and fickleness that led them to abandon Sayyidina Hussain. This can be clearly seen in the manner they deserted Muslim ibn ‘Aqil.

There is also the tendency of claiming that those who deserted Sayyidina Hussain were not of the Shia. Jafri writes:

…of those who invited Hussain to Kufa, and then those 18,000 who paid homage to his envoy Muslim b. ‘Aqil, not all were Shi‘is in the religious sense of the term, but were rather supporters of the house of ‘Ali for political reasons – a distinction which must be kept clearly in mind in order to understand the early history of Shia Islam.4

Jafri’s motive in excluding the deserters of Sayyidina Hussain from the ranks of the “religious” (as opposed to the “political”) supporters of the house of Sayyidina ‘Ali is quite transparent. He is clearly embarrassed by the fact that it was the Shia themselves who abandoned their Imam and his family after inviting him to lead them in revolt. What leads us to reject this distinction between “religious” and “political” supporters is the fact that Sayyidina Hussain himself, on more than one occasion, referred to the Kufans as his Shia. There are also the numerous references to the people of Kufah as the followers (albeit capricious followers) of his father and brother. And were we to assume that many, or even most of them were not Shia in the “religious” sense, the question which next presents itself is: Where were the real Shia when their Imam required their help? Were they only that handful who emerged from Kufah? It is strange that while there is so much reluctance on the part of the Shia to accept the deserters of Kufah as their own, they are quite proud and eager to identify themselves with the movement of the Tawwabun. The speeches made at the inception of the movement of the Tawwabun very clearly prove that they were the same people who invited Sayyidina Hussain and then deserted him. 5 Their very name is indicative of their guilt in this regard. The attempt by the Shia to absolve themselves from the crime of deserting Sayyidina Hussain is therefore at best nothing more than pathetic.

Karbala’ was not to be the last act of treason by the Shia against the Family of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Sixty years later the grandson of Sayyidina Hussain, namely Zaid ibn ‘Ali ibn Hussain, led an uprising against the Umayyad ruler Hisham ibn ‘Abd al Malik. He received the oaths of allegiance of over 40 000 men, 15 000 of whom were from the very same Kufah that deserted his grandfather. Just before the battle could start they decided upon a whim to ask his opinion about Abu Bakr and ‘Umar radiyallahu ‘anhuma. Zaid answered: “I have never heard any of my family dissociate himself from them, and I have nothing but good to say about them.” Upset with this answer, they deserted him en masse, deciding that the true imam could only be his nephew Jafar as-Sadiq. Out of 40 000, Zaid was left with only a few hundred men. On the departure of the defectors he remarked: “I am afraid they have done unto me as they did to Hussain.” Zaid and his little army fought bravely and attained martyrdom. Thus, on Wednesday the 1st of Safar 122 AH another member of the Ahlul Bayt fell victim to the treachery of the Shia of Kufah.6 This time there could be no question as to whether those who deserted him were of the Shia or not.

The fact that the thousands of Shia who deserted Zaid ibn ‘Ali looked upon Jafar as-Sadiq as their true Imam shows that by and large they were the same as the Ithna ‘Ashari, or alternatively Imami or Jafari Shia of today. Why then, if he had so many devoted followers, did Imam Jafar not rise up in revolt against the Umayyads or the Abbasids? The answer to this question is provided in a narration documented by Abu Jafar al Kulayni in his monumental work al Kafi, which enjoys unparalleled status amongst the hadith collections of the Shia:

Sudayr as-Sayrafi says: I entered the presence of Abu ‘Abdillah ‘alayhis salam and said to him: “By Allah, you may not refrain from taking up arms.”

He asked: “Why not?”

I answered: “Because you have so many partisans, supporters (Shia) and helpers. By Allah, if Amir al Mu’minin (Sayyidina ‘Ali) had as many Shia, helpers, and partisans as you have, Taym (the tribe of Abu Bakr) and ‘Adi (the tribe of ‘Umar) would never have had designs upon him.”

He asked: “And how many would they be, Sudayr?”

I said: “A hundred thousand.”

He asked: “A hundred thousand?”

I replied: “Yes, and two hundred thousand.”

He asked again: “Two hundred thousand?”

I replied: “Yes, and half the world.”

He remained silent. Then he said: “Would you accompany us to Yanbu‘?”

I replied in the affirmative. He ordered a mule and a donkey to be saddled. I quickly mounted the donkey, but he said: “Sudayr, will you rather let me ride the donkey?”

I said: “The mule is more decorous and more noble as well.”

But he said: “The donkey is more comfortable for me.”

I dismounted. He mounted the donkey, I got on the mule, and we started riding. The time of salah arrived and he said: “Dismount, Sudayr. Let us perform salah.”

Then he remarked: “The ground here is overgrown with moss. It is not permissible to make salah here.”

So we carried on riding until we came to a place where the earth was red. He looked at a young boy herding sheep, and remarked: “Sudayr, by Allah, if I had as many Shia as there are sheep here, it would not have been acceptable for me to refrain from taking up arms.”

We then dismounted and performed salah. When we were finished I turned back to count the sheep. There were seventeen of them.7

It seems from this narration that the tragedy of Karbala’ taught Imam Jafar as-Sadiq something about those who claimed to be his followers which the Shia of today are still refusing to come to terms with: that in the trials and misfortunes of the Family of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam the role of the Shia was as great, if not greater, than that of their physical enemies. It therefore does not come as a surprise that none of the supposed Imams after Hussain ever attempted an armed insurrection against the rulers of their times. Karbala’ had taught them the fickleness and treacherousness of those who claimed to be their Shia. It is about them that Imam Jafar is reported to have said:

No one bears us greater hatred than those who claim to love us. 8

Imam Jafar is also reported as having said:

No verse did Allah reveal in connection with the Munafiqin, except that it is to be found in those who profess Shi‘ism.9

Before Sayyidina Hussain, his elder brother Sayyidina Hassan was the victim of the treacherousness of the Kufans. In his book al Ihtijaj the prominent Shia author Abu Mansur at-Tabarsi has preserved the following remark of Sayyidina Hassan:

By Allah, I think Muawiyah would be better for me than these people who claim that they are my Shia. 10

When Sayyidina Hassan eventually became exasperated at the fickleness of his so-called Shia, he decided to make peace with Muawiyah radiyallahu ‘anhu. When someone protested to him that he was bringing humiliation upon the Shia by concluding peace with Muawiyah, he responded by saying:

By Allah, I handed over power to him for no reason other than the fact that I could not find any supporters. Had I found supporters I would have fought him day and night until Allah decides between us. But I know the people of Kufah. I have experience of them. The bad ones of them are no good to me. They have no loyalty, nor any integrity in word or deed. They are in disagreement. They claim that their hearts are with us, but their swords are drawn against us. 11

Imam Musa al Kazim, the son of Imam Jafar, and the seventh of the supposed Imams of the Shia, describes them in the following words:

If I had to truly distinguish my Shia I would find them nothing other than pretenders. If I had to put them to the test I would only find them to be apostates. If I were to scrutinise them I would be left with only one in a thousand. Were I to sift them thoroughly I would be left with only the handful that is truly mine. They have been sitting on cushions all along, saying: “We are the Shia of ‘Ali.”

If today ‘Ashura will be commemorated as a day of struggle and sacrifice, let it also be remembered as a day of treachery and desertion. When the names of Yazid ibn Muawiyah, ‘Obaidullah ibn Ziyad, ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d, and Shimr ibn Dhil Jawshan are mentioned and curses invoked upon their memories, then let us not forget the treachery of the Shia of Kufah. The time has long been due for the Shia to reintroduce into their ‘Ashura ceremonies an aspect that was in fact part of the very first commemoration ceremony of the Tawwabun. That lost aspect is the admission of their own guilt, along with that of Ibn Ziyad, Yazid, and others, in the shedding of the holy blood of Sayyidina Hussain ibn ‘Ali radiyallahu ‘anhuma.Download pdf



  1. The historical material for this study has been taken largely from al Bidayah wan-Nihayah of Ibn Kathir. The Shia source Maqtal al Hussain by ‘Abd ar-Razzaq al Musawi al Muqarram (5th edition published by Maktabah Basirati, Qum in 1382) was also consulted.
  2. See S. H. M. Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam 198 (Ansariyan Publications, Qum, n.d.)
  3. The figure of 80 000, given in certain Shia sources, and quoted recently on local radio, is clearly fictitious. Apart from contradicting reliable historical sources, its origin in the emotionally charged hyperbolism of the Shia is self-evident.
  4. Jafri, p. 195
  5. p. 223
  6. Muhammad Abu Zahrah: Tarikh al Mazahib al Islamiyyah, p. 613 (Dar al Fikr al ‘Arabi, Cairo, n.d.)
  7. Al Kulayni: al Kafi (Usul) vol. 2 p. 250-251 (Dar al Adwa, Beirut, 1992)
  8. ‘Abdullah al Mamaqani: Miqbas al Hidayah 2 p. 414 (Mu’assasat Al al Bayt li Ihya’ at-Turath, Beirut 1991) quoting from Rijal al Kashshi.
  9. vol. 2 p. 407
  10. Abu Mansur at-Tabarsi: al Ihtijaj 2 p. 290-291 (Mu’assasat al A‘lami, Beirut 1989
  11. Al Kulayni: Rawdat al Kafi 8 p. 288