Unmasking the other villains of Karbala

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Unmasking the other villains of Karbala

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

Given the level of attention the subject enjoys it would be expected that historical records of the event would be fairly accurate. Despite a profusion of literature, however, the event is consistently portrayed as two-sided. It is always Husayn 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 Shi`ah against Ahl as-Sunnah by claiming that the Ahl as-Sunnah are responsible for the tragedy at Karbala.

In this selective retelling that concentrates upon what actually happened at Karbala, and conveniently draws attention away from the true villains of the Ashura tragedy, lies another tragedy in itself. For while Husayn'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 paper seeks to cast light.

It was in Ramadan 60AH that the letters from Kufah started to arrive at the old house of Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib in Makkah where Sayyiduna Husayn ibn Ali was staying after his flight from Madinah, letters urging him to lead the Kufans into revolt against Yazid ibn Mu'awiyah, and assuring him of their loyalty and allegiance. Mu`awiyah had 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 to Husayn for leadership, and soon there was stream of letters coming in from Kufah. On certain days there would be as many as 600 letters, with messengers who enthusiastically assured him of the support he would receive from the Kufans. Kufah was a unique place, and the Kufans a peculiar people. In the year 37AH Sayyiduna Ali radiyallahu anhu shifted his capital from Madinah to Kufah, and ever since that city became the home of those who claimed to be the partisans of the Ahl al- Bayt. After the reconciliation between Hasan and Mu`awiyah in 41AH many of those who had been in Sayyiduna Hasan's army settled in Kufah. At the time of Mu`awiyah's death in 60AH Kufah was still very strongly pro-Alid. Thus when the opportunity arose the Kufans, who still regarded themselves as the Shi`ah (supporters) of the Ahl al-Bayt, turned to Husayn to lead them against Yazid.

Sayyiduna Husayn decided to send his cousin, Muslim ibn Aqil to investigate the situation in Kufah. If he found it feasible, he would write to inform Husayn, 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. Soon there were 12 000 Kufans who had given their solemn pledge to support and protect Husayn with their lives and all they possessed. When this number rose to 18 000, Muslim felt confident enough to dispatch a messenger to Husayn 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 Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, who was at that time also the governor of Basrah, with orders to kill Muslim ibn Aqil if he found him. Ubaydullah entered Kufah early in Dhul Qa`dah, accompanied by 17 men on horseback. With the end of his turban was drawn over his face, he was unrecognisable, and the people of Kufah, who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of Husayn, mistook him for Husayn. "Peace upon you, o son of Rasulullah!", they hailed

him. Thus it was that Ubaydullah learnt the truth of the rumours. It was only when one of the mounted men with him shouted at them, "Stand back, this is the governor Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad!" that the Kufans realised their blunder.

Soon after reaching the governor's residence Ubaydullah sent a servant of his 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 treasurer for Muslim. 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 Ubaydullah 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 disclose where Muslim ibn Aqil was. Ubaydullah hit him in the face with a spear, splitting his brow and breaking his nose. Outside, his kinsmen thought he had been killed. When Ubaydullah heard their clamour at the gate of the fort he sent someone to inform that Hani was still alive, and that he was merely being detained for interrogation. This satisfied them and they dispersed.

In the meantime Muslim ibn Aqil came to know about Hani ibn Urwah's arrest. 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 Husayn gathered around him and proceeded towards the governor's fort. When he saw Muslim ibn Aqil with the Kufans at his gate, Ubaydullah sent some of the tribal leaders of Kufah to speak to 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 then do?" The resolve of the men who had rallied to the call "Ya Mansur", who had taken a sacred oath to support and defend the cause of Husayn and the Ahl al-Bayt against Yazid and his Syrian armies, the men upon the strength of whose oaths of allegiance and loyalty Sayyiduna Husayn was at that very moment on 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 to 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 on the streets of Kufah. Of all those who so anxiously and enthusiastically wrote to Husayn 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 sallallahu alayhi wasallam, 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 had 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 Ubaydullah. Muslim knew his death was at hand. Tears flowed from his eyes, not at his own fate, but at the thought of Husayn 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 own life to this tragic end. He begged Ibn al-Ash`ath to send someone to Husayn with the following message: "Ibn Aqil has sent me to you. He has been taken prisoner, and does not know when he might be killed. 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 lied to you, and a liar has no sense".

Later that day -which was 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 Husayn was on his way...

Ubaydullah 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 Husayn, "Come, we are with you."

Upon receipt of Muslim's letter Sayyiduna Husayn started making arrangements to travel to Kufah. He immediately dispatched a messenger, Qays ibn Mus-hir, to inform the Kufah of his imminent arrival. This messenger was captured by Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, who ordered him to mount the walls of the fort and publicly curse Husayn and his father. Instead, he praised Sayyiduna Ali and Sayyiduna Husayn, telling them that Husayn 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. On 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 Husayn 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 Ja`far 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 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 daeth of Qays 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. Husayn addressed them, saying: "Our Shi`ah 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 Husayn's approach reached him he dispatched a 4000 strong contingent, which was on its way to fight the Daylamites, to stop Husayn. This contingent was put under the command of Umar ibn Sa`d. There can be little doubt that 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 Husayn which they had given given upon the hands of Muslim ibn Aqil. This was the final opportunity to rush to the side of the grandson of Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wa-alihi wasallam. 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, less than ten, emerged to join Husayn at Karbala.

And when the sun set the 10th of Muharram it was too late for the faithless Shi`ah of Kufah to make amends, for the sands of Karbala was stained red with the blood of Sayyiduna Husayn and his seventy-one followers.

Four years later the Shi`ah of Kufah attempted to make amends for their desertion of the family of Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wa-alihi wasallam. There emerged a group of Kufans calling themselves the Tawwabun (Penitents), who made it their duty to wreak vengeance upon the killers of Husayn. On their way to Syria in pursuit of Ibn Ziyad they passed by Karbala,the site of Sayyiduna Husayn's grave, where they raised a great hue and cry, and spent the night lamenting over the tragedy of Ashura four years earlier. If only they had displayed that same spirit at the time when Husayn was so much in need of it, the history of Islam might have taken a different course.

Deserting Sayyiduna Husayn, however, was not destined to be the last treacherous deed of the Shi`ah against the Ahl al-Bayt. Sixty years after the tragedy at Karbala, the grandson of Sayyiduna Husayn, Zayd ibn Ali ibn Husayn, led a revolt 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 they decided upon a whim to find out his opinion about Abu Bakr and Umar. He answered: "They were the ministers of my grandfather (Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam). 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, deciding that the true Imam had to be his nephew, Ja`far ibn Muhammad as-Sadiq. The vast majority of the 40 000 men who had given him the oath of allegiance deserted him, and he was left with only 300 men against the Umayyad armies. On their departure he remarked: "I see that they have done to me what they did to Husayn. On Wednesday the 1st of Safar 122AH another member of the Ahl al-Bayt fell victim to the treachery of the Shi`ah of Kufah."


If today Ashura will be upheld as a day of lamentation, or as a day of reliving the misery that befell the Family of Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wa-alihi wasallam, it must be remembered that the tragedy of Karbala would never have occurred had not the Kufans deserted Sayyiduna Husayn at the critical moment. For their crimes against the Ahl al-Bayt people like Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, Umar ibn Sa`d and Shimr ibn Dhil Jawshan must never be forgotten. But so too must the desertion of the Shi`ah of Kufah be remembered, not only of Husayn, but also of his grandson Zayd ibn Ali, whose only crime in their eyes was his love and respect for Abu Bakr and Umar. In the light of the bitter experiences of the 10th of Muharram 61AH and the 1st of Safar 122AH it is understandable why not one of those whom the Shi`ah claim to be their Imams ever again attempted to rise in revolt against either the Umayyads or the Abbasids. In the misfortunes of the Ahl al-Bayt no one played a greater role than the Shi`ah themselves. It was about them that Imam Ja`far as-Sadiq said: "No one bears us more enmity than those who claim to love us." (Rijal al-Kashshi p. 307 no. 555) About them it was that Sayyiduna Ali used to say that he would gladly exchange ten of them for one of Mu`awiyah's men. It was about them that Sayyiduna Hasan used to say: "By Allah, I think Mu`awiyah would be better for me than these people who claim they are my Shi`ah." (al-Ihtijaj p. 148) The last word we leave to Imam Musa al-Kazim: "If I had to truly distinguish my Shi`ah I would find them nothing other than pretenders. If I had to test them I would only find them to be apostates. If I had to examine them I would be left with only one in a thousand. If I had to sift them thoroughly I would be left with only the few that are mine. They have been reclining on cushions all along, saying: We are the Shi`ah of Ali." (Rawdat al-Kafi vol.8 p.228)