This Day in World History
October 10, 680 CE
Hussein ibn Ali killed at Karbala
October 10 marks a signal date in Islamic history. On that day, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was defeated and killed at Karbala, in modern Iraq. His death cemented deep and lasting division among Muslims that persist to this day.
Hussein was the son of Ali – Muhammad’s cousin, close friend, and trusted aide – and Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Before his death, Muhammad had made statements praising Ali that some members of the Muslim community interpreted as naming him as his successor. When Muhammad died in 632, however, three others were chosen in turn as caliph (literally, “successor”) before Ali’s turn came in 656. Ali’s rule was marked by rebellions, and just four years after taking office, he was assassinated. As a result of his death, Shiites (from Arabic for “the party of Ali”) split from the majority Muslim community, called Sunnis.
The Shiites were restive under the rule of Ali’s successor, Muawiya. Though Hussein accepted his authority, he balked when Muawiya’s son Yazid claimed office upon the his father’s death. The Shiites of Kufa (in Iraq) threatened revolt and asked Hussein to join them. He left for the city but arrived after Sunni forces had reached the area and—unknown to Hussein—enforced allegiance. Expecting reinforcements, Hussein led his force of fewer than a hundred against an army of a few thousand. No help arrived, and he and his men (and Hussein’s youngest child) were all killed. After the battle, their bodies were mutilated. The debacle at Karbala gave the Shiites a martyr to idolize—and solidified their anger at the Sunni majority.
Shiites around the world commemorate Hussein’s death in the religious festival of Ashura. Comparable in its solemnity to Yom Kippur or Good Friday in the Jewish and Christian calendars, Ashura traditionally was celebrated by processions of flagellants passing thought the streets, beating themselves to expiate for the sufferings of Imam Hussein and his tiny band of companions. In Iran, where the population is overwhelmingly Shia, the death of Hussein—“leader of the martyrs”—is regularly commemorated in passion plays not unlike Good Friday celebrations in many parts of the Christian world.