Husayn ibn Ali

Husayn ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib (Arabic: ٱلْحُسَيْن ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱبْن أَبِي طَالِب, romanized: Al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlīy ibn ʾAbī Ṭālib; 10 January AD 626 – 10 October 680) was a grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a son of Ali ibn Abi Talib (the fourth caliph of Sunni Muslims and the first imam of Shia Muslims) and Muhammad's daughter Fatimah.[9] He is an important figure in Islam as he was a member of the Household of Muhammad (Ahl al-Bayt) and the People of the Cloak (Ahl al-Kisā'), as well as the third Shia Imam.

Husayn ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib

Third Imam of Shia Islam
Abu Abd Allah
ٱلْحُسَيْن ٱبْن عَلِيّ
Calligraphic representation of Husayn's name in Rashidun form
Born10 January 626
(3 Sha'aban AH 4)[1]
Died10 October 680(680-10-10) (aged 55)
(10 Muharram AH 61)
Cause of deathBeheaded at the Battle of Karbala
Resting placeImam Husayn Shrine, Karbala Governorate, Iraq
32°36′59″N 44°01′56″E
MonumentsIraq, Syria, Egypt
Known forBeing a grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad
The Battle of Karbala
TermAD 670–680
PredecessorHasan ibn Ali
SuccessorAli Zayn al-Abidin
Opponent(s)Yazid ibn Muawiyah
Umm Rubāb
Umm Laylā
Umme Ishaq[7]
ChildrenAli Zayn al Abidin
Ali al-Akbar
Ali al-Asghar[8]
Fatimah as-Sughra
RelativesFamily tree of Husayn ibn Ali

Prior to his death, the Umayyad ruler Mu'awiya appointed his son Yazid as his successor, contrary to the Hasan-Muawiya treaty.[10] When Muawiya died in 680, Yazid demanded that Husayn pledge allegiance to him. Husayn refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, even though it meant sacrificing his life. As a consequence, he left Medina, his hometown, to take refuge in Mecca in AH 60.[10][11] There, the people of Kufa sent letters to him, asking his help and pledging their allegiance to him. So he traveled towards Kufa,[10] after getting some favorable indications along with a small caravan of his relatives and followers[12] but near Karbala his caravan was intercepted by Yazid's army. He was killed and beheaded in the Battle of Karbala on 10 October 680 (10 Muharram 61 AH) by Yazid, along with most of his family and companions, including Husayn's six-month old son, Ali al-Asghar, with the women and children taken as prisoners.[10][13] Anger at Husayn's death was turned into a rallying cry that helped undermine the Umayyad caliphate's legitimacy, and ultimately its overthrow by the Abbasid Revolution.[14][15]

The annual commemoration of Husayn and his children, family and companions occurs during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, and the day he was martyred is known as Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram, a day of mourning for Shi'i Muslims). Husayn's actions at Karbala fueled later Shi'a movements,[15] and his death was decisive in shaping Islamic and Shi'a history. The timing of Husayn's life and death were crucial as they were in one of the most challenging periods of the seventh century. During this time, Umayyad oppression was rampant, and the stand that Husayn and his followers took became a symbol of resistance inspiring future uprisings against oppressors and injustice. Throughout history, many notable personalities, such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, have cited Husayn's stand against oppression as an example for their own fights against injustice.[16]


Ḥusayn ibn 'Alī

Shiism: Imam; Proof of God, The Martyr of Martyrs, Master of the Martyrs
All Islam: Ahl al-Bayt, Ṣaḥābī, Martyr; Master of the Youths of Paradise[17]
Venerated inAll Islam (Salafis honour rather than venerate him).
Major shrineImam Husayn Shrine, Karbala, Iraq

Husayn's maternal grandmother was Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, and his paternal grandparents were Abu Talib and Fatimah bint Asad. Hasan and Husayn were regarded by Muhammad as his own sons due to his love for them and as they were the sons of his daughter Fatima. He said "Every mother's children are associated with their father except for the children of Fatimah for I am their father and lineage." Thus, the descendants of Fatimah are the descendants of Muhammad, and are part of his family.[18][19]

Husayn had several children:

Birth and early life

Husayn was born on 10 January AD 626 (3 Sha'ban AH 4, or AH 3 according to Shi'i tradition[20]).[1] Husayn and his brother Hasan were reportedly the last male descendants of Muhammad living during his lifetime and remaining after his death. There are many accounts of his love for them which refer to them together.[10][note 1] Muhammad is reported to have said that "He who loves me and loves these two, their father and their mother, will be with me at my place on the Day of Resurrection."[21] and that "Husayn is of me and I am of him. Allah loves those who love Husayn. Husayn is a grandson among grandsons."[21] A narration declares Hasan and Husayn as the "Masters of the Youth of Paradise"; this has been particularly important for the Shi'a who have used it in support of the right of Muhammad's descendants to succeed him. The Shi'a maintain that the infallibility of the Imam is a basic rule in the Imamate. "The theologians have defined the Imamate, saying: "Surely the Imamate is a grace from Allah, Who grants it to the most perfect and best of His servants to Him"[22] Other traditions record Muhammad with his grandsons on his knees, on his shoulders, and even on his back when they were young during his prayer at the moment of prostrating himself.[23]

According to Wilferd Madelung, Muhammad loved them and declared them as people of his Bayt very frequently.[24] He has also said: "Every mother's children are associated with their father except for the children of Fatima for I am their father and lineage." Thus, the descendants of Fatimah were descendants of Muhammad, and part of his Bayt.[18] According to popular Sunni belief, it refers to the household of Muhammad. Shia popular view is the members of Muhammad's family that were present at the incident of Mubahalah. According to Muhammad Baqir Majlisi who compiled Bihar al-Anwar, a collection of ahadith ('accounts', 'narrations' or 'reports'), Chapter 46 Verse 15 (Al-Ahqaf) and Chapter 89 Verses 27–30 (Al-Fajr) of the Qur'an are regarding Husayn.

Incident of the Mubahalah

In the Hijri year 10 (AD 631/32) a Christian envoy from Najran (now in southern Saudi Arabia) came to Muhammad to argue which of the two parties erred in its doctrine concerning Jesus (ʿĪsā). After likening Jesus' miraculous birth to Adam's (ʾĀdam) creation,[note 2]—who was born to neither a mother nor a father — and when the Christians did not accept the Islamic doctrine about Jesus, Muhammad was instructed to call them to Mubahalah where each party should ask God to destroy the false party and their families.[25][26] "If anyone dispute with you in this matter [concerning Jesus] after the knowledge which has come to you, say: Come let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then let us swear an oath and place the curse of God on those who lie."[note 3][25][27] Sunni historians, except Tabari who do not name the participants, mention Muhammad, Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn as the participants, and some agree with the Shi'i tradition that Ali was among them. Accordingly, in the verse of Mubahalah, in the Shi'i perspective, the phrase "our sons" refers to Hasan and Husayn, "our women" refers to Fatimah, and "ourselves" refers to Ali.[25][27]

Life under the Umayyads

Mu'awiyah, who was the governor of the Syrian region under Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, had refused Ali's demands for allegiance, and had long been in conflict with him.[28] After Ali was assassinated and people gave allegiance to Hasan, Mu'awiyah prepared to fight with him. The battle led to inconclusive skirmishes between the armies of Hassan and Mu'awiyah. To avoid the agonies of the civil war, Hasan signed a treaty with Mu'awiyah, according to which Mu'awiyah would not name a successor during his reign, and let the Islamic community (ummah) choose his successor.[29]

Reign of Muawiyah

According to the Shi'ah, Husayn was the third Imam for a period of ten years after the death of his brother Hasan in AD 669. All of this time except the last six months coincided with the caliphate of Mu'awiyah.[30] After the peace treaty with Hasan, Mu'awiyah set out with his troops to Kufa, where at a public surrender ceremony Hasan rose and reminded the people that he and Husayn were the only grandsons of Muhammad, and that he had surrendered the reign to Mu'awiyah in the best interest of the community: "O people, surely it was God who led you by the first of us and Who has spared you bloodshed by the last of us. I have made peace with Mu'awiyah, and I know not whether haply this be not for your trial, and that ye may enjoy yourselves for a time."[note 4][31] declared Hassan.[29]

In the nine-year period between Hasan's abdication in 41/660 and his death in 49/669, Hasan and Husayn retreated to Medina, trying to keep aloof from political involvement for or against Muawiyah.[29][32]

Sentiments in favor of the rule of Ahl al-Bayt occasionally emerged in the form of small groups, mostly from Kufa, visiting Hasan and Husayn asking them to be their leaders - a request to which they declined to respond.[25] Even ten years later, after the death of Hasan, when Iraqis turned to his younger brother, Husayn, concerning an uprising, Husayn instructed them to wait as long as Muawiyah was alive due to Hasan's peace treaty with him.[29] Later on, however, and before his death, Muawiyah named his son Yazid as his successor.[10]

Reign of Yazid

One of the important points of the treaty made between Hasan and Mu'awiyah was that the latter should not designate anyone as his successor after his death. But after the death of Hasan, Mu'awiyah, thinking that no one would be courageous enough to object to his decision as the caliph, designated his son Yazid as his successor in 680, breaking the treaty.[33] Robert Payne quotes Mu'awiyah in History of Islam as telling his son Yazid to defeat Husayn—because Mu'awiyah thought he was surely preparing an army against him—but to deal with him gently thereafter as Husayn was a descendant of Muhammad, but to deal with 'Abd Allah ibn al-Zubair swiftly, as Mu'awiyah feared him the most.[34]

In April 680, Yazid succeeded his father as caliph. He immediately instructed the governor of Medina to compel Husayn and few other prominent figures to pledge their allegiance (bay'ah).[10] Husayn, however, refrained from it, believing that Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam in public, and changing the sunnah (deeds, sayings, etc.) of Muhammad.[35][36] In his view the integrity and survival of the Islamic community depended on the re-establishment of the correct guidance.[37] He and his household left Medina to seek asylum in Mecca.[10] While in Mecca, ibn al-Zubayr, Abdullah ibn Umar and Abdullah ibn Abbas advised Husayn to make Mecca his base, and fight against Yazid from there.[38] There, the people of Kufa sent letters to him, asking his help and pledging their allegiance to him. So he traveled towards Kufa,[10] but near Karbala his caravan was intercepted by Yazid's army. He was killed and beheaded in the Battle of Karbala on 10 October 680 (10 Muharram 61 AH), along with most of his family and companions, including Husayn's six-month old son, Ali al-Asghar, with the women and children taken as prisoners.[10][13] Stories recounting the Battle of Karbala are referred to as Maqtal al-Husayn.


Imam Husayn Shrine, where Husayn is buried, in the 21st century

Once the Umayyad troops had killed Husayn, his family members, and his male soldiers, they looted and burned the tents, plundered the body of Husayn, stripped the women of their jewellery, trampled over the body of Husayn with horses, and took the skin upon which Ali Zayn al-Abidin was prostrate. Ali had been unable to fight in the battle, due to an illness. It is said that Shimr was about to kill him, but Husayn's sister Zaynab was able to convince his commander, Umar ibn Sa'ad, to let him live. In addition, Zayn al-Abidin and other relatives of Husayn were taken hostage. They were taken to meet Yazid in Damascus, and eventually, they were allowed to return to Medina.[39][40]

After learning of the death of Husayn, Ibn al-Zubayr collected the people of Mecca and made the following speech:

O people! No other people are worse than Iraqis and among the Iraqis, the people of Kufa are the worst. They repeatedly wrote letters and called Imam Husayn to them and took bay'at (allegiance) for his caliphate. But when ibn Ziyad arrived in Kufa, they rallied around him and killed Imam Husayn who was pious, observed the fast, read the Quran and deserved the caliphate in all respects[41]

After his speech, the people of Mecca joined him to take on Yazid. When he heard about this, Yazid sent a force to arrest him, but the force was defeated.[41] People of Medina renounced their allegiance to Yazid and expelled his governor. Yazid tried to end his rebellion by sending his army the Hijaz, and took Medina after the bloody Battle of al-Harrah followed by the siege of Mecca but his sudden death ended the campaign and threw the Umayyads into disarray with civil war eventually breaking out. Eventually ibn al-Zubayr consolidated his power by sending a governor to Kufah. Soon, he established his power in Iraq, southern Arabia, the greater part of Al-Sham, and parts of Egypt. This essentially split the Islamic empire into two spheres with two different caliphs. Soon afterwards he lost Egypt and whatever he had of Al-Sham to Marwan I. This coupled with the Kharijite rebellions in Iraq reduced his domain to only the Hejaz. Ibn al-Zubayr was finally defeated and killed by Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, who was sent by Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, on the battlefield in 692. He beheaded him and crucified his body, reestablishing Umayyad control over the Empire.

Yazid died in Rabi'al-Awwal, 64 AH (November, AD 683), less than 4 years after coming to power.[10][42] As for other opponents of Husayn, such as ibn Ziyad and Shimr, they were killed in a rebellion led by Mukhtar al-Thaqafi.[43][44][45][46]


Zarih of Husayn's head at Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

Husayn's body is buried in Karbala, the site of his death. His head is said to have been returned from Damascus and interred with his body,[47] although various sites have also been claimed to house, or have sheltered, Husayn's head, among others: Aleppo, Ashkelon, Baalbek, Cairo, Damascus, Homs, Merv, and Medina.[48]

Return of his head to the body

Husayn's son Ali returned his head from Ash-Sham to Karbala,[49][50][51][52] forty days after Ashura, reuniting it with Husayn's body.[53][54] Shi'i Muslims commemorate this fortieth day as Arba‘īn.[55][56][57][58] According to the Shi'i belief that the body of an Imam is only buried by an Imam,[59][60][61] Husayn ibn Ali's body was buried by his son, Ali Zayn al-Abidin.[62]

Husayn's head in Isma'ilism

Niche for Husayn's head at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus

After the battle of Karbala, the forces of Yazid I raised the head of Husayn on a lance. They took it to Kufa, then to Damascus to be presented to Yazid. The head was then buried in a niche of one of the internal walls of the Umayyad Mosque for about two hundred twenty years.

When the Abbasids took over from the Umayyads, they also confiscated the head of Husayn. The Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (d. 295/908) attempted many times to stop the pilgrimage to the head but in vain. Ultimately, he secretly transferred the head to Ashkelon. The Fatimid caliph al-Aziz Billah traced the site through his contemporary in Baghdad, in 985.[63]

Inscription on the minbar of Abraham's Mosque in Hebron
Monument marking the former resting place of Husayn's head in Ashkelon

According to an Arabic inscription on the Fatimid minbar of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron,[63] the Fatimid vizier Badr al-Jamali conquered Palestine under Caliph al-Mustansir Billah and discovered the head of Husayn in AH 448. He constructed the minbar, a mosque and the mashhad at the place of burial.[48][64] The shrine was described as the most magnificent building in Ashkelon.[65] During the British Mandate it was a "large maqam on top of a hill" with no tomb but a fragment of a pillar showing the place where the head had been buried.[66] Israeli Defense Forces under Moshe Dayan blew up Mashhad Nabi Husayn in July 1950 as part of a broader operation.[67] Around the year 2000, Isma'ilis from India built a marble platform there, on the grounds of the Barzilai Medical Center.[68][69][67] The head remained buried in Ashkelon until 1153 (for about 250 years) only. Fearing the crusaders, Ahkelon's ruler Sayf al-Mamlaka Tamim brought the head to Cairo on 31 August 1153 (8 Jumada al-Thani, AH 548).[63][69]


Mourning of Muharram in cities and villages of Iran

Shi'as mourn during Muharram to pay respect to Husayn whose sacrifices kept true Islam alive and to show their allegiance and love for Imamate. Many Christians and Sunnis also join them.[70]

Ashura is commemorated by the Shi'i community as a day of mourning Husayn's death. The commemoration of Husayn has become a national holiday and different ethnic and religious communities participate in it. Husayn's grave became the most visited place of ziyarat for Shi'as. A pilgrimage to Husayn's shrine in Karbala is said to have the merit of a thousand pilgrimages to Mecca, of a thousand martyrdoms, and of a thousand days fasting.[71] Shi'a have an important book about Husayn which is called Ziyarat Ashura. Most of them believe that it is a hadith qudsi (the word of God).[72][73] The Imam Husayn Shrine was later built over his grave in Karbala. In 850, the Abassid Caliph al-Mutawakkil destroyed his shrine in order to stop Shi'i pilgrimages. However, pilgrimages continued.[74]

In culture

Historian Edward Gibbon described the events at Karbala as a tragedy.[75][76] According to historian Syed Akbar Hyder, Mahatma Gandhi attributed the historical progress of Islam, to the "sacrifices of Muslim saints like Husayn" rather than military force.[77]

The traditional narration "Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala!" is used by the Shi'a as a mantra to live their lives as Husayn did on Ashura, i.e. with complete sacrifice for God and for others. The saying is also intended to signify that what happened on Ashura in Karbala must always be remembered as part of suffering everywhere.

Inspiring modern movements

The story of Husayn has been a strong source of inspiration for Shi'i revolutionary movements, justifying their own resistance against unjust authority. In the course of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran against the Pahlavi dynasty, Shi'i beliefs and symbols were instrumental in orchestrating and sustaining widespread popular resistance with Husayn's story providing a framework for labeling as evil and reacting against the Pahlavi Shah.[78]


See also


  1. In the Shi'ite view, Muhammad had only one biological daughter, Fatimah.
  2. Quran, 3: 59
  3. Quran, 3: 61
  4. Quran, 21:111



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  • Encyclopædia Iranica. Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University. ISBN 1-56859-050-4. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an. Brill Publishers, Leiden. ISBN 90-04-14743-8. Missing or empty |title= (help)
Husayn ibn Ali
of the Ahl al-Bayt
Clan of the Quraish
Born: 3 Sha'bān AH 4 in the ancient (intercalated) Arabic calendar 10 October AD 625 Died: 10 Muharram AH 61 10 October AD 680
Shia Islam titles
Preceded by
Hasan ibn Ali
Disputed by Nizari
2nd Imam of Ismaili Shia
3rd Imam of Sevener, Twelver, and Zaydi Shia
Succeeded by
'Alī ibn Ḥusayn
Succeeded by
Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah
Kaysanites successor
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