Karbala is the second largest town in Iraq, with over 350,000 inhabitants in the early twenty-first century. It is situated about sixty miles southwest of Baghdad, where the mausoleum of Muhammad’s grandson Husayn (Mashhad Husayn) was erected and frequently destroyed and restored during the early centuries of Islam.
When the first Umayyad Sunni caliph, Mu_awiya, died in 680 C.E., his son Yazid came to power. The majority of Muslims saw the nomination of Yazid to the caliphate as an usurpation of the notion of consensus (ijma_), the legitimate means of choosing a caliph. When Husayn received confirmation of the loyalty of the Kufis from his cousin Muslim Ibn _Aqil, he headed toward Kufa. On his way, Husayn learned that his cousin had died at the hands of Yazid’s men and that the Kufis had shifted their allegiance to Yazid.
Husayn nevertheless continued in the direction of Kufa. Ibn Ziyad, the governor of Kufa, with one thousand soldiers at his command, told Husayn that he could neither go to Kufa nor return to Mecca, and was permitted only to go to Damascus, the capital. Instead, Husayn led his heavily outnumbered and underequipped followers to battle in Karbala,
where they were slain mercilessly on the battlefield. This event played an important role in the development of Shi_ite theology and has been the source of dissension among Muslims. The battle of Karbala accentuated the split between the two major branches of Islam. The event forged in Shi_ite Muslims an identity as believers who are subjected to persecution for the sake of the true succession of Muhammad. A cult of martyrdom is linked to the death and downfall of Husayn at Karbala. The _Ashura (date of Husayn’s death) was elaborated upon and systematized in the articulation of Shi_ite theology. Every year during the first ten days of the month of hijra, the battle of Karbala is commemorated by Shi_ite Muslims during Muharram, and many go on pilgrimage to Karbala. Husayn’s martyrdom has become a source of strength and endurance for Shi_ite Muslims in times of suffering, persecution, and oppression. During its long history the tomb of Husayn was desecrated several times and had to be restored. In 850 and 851, the Sunni Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil destroyed the tomb of Husayn and prohibited pilgrimages to the sanctuary.
Sulayman the Magnificent visited the tomb in 1534 and 1535 and participated in its restoration. At the end of the eighteenth century Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, covered the dome in gold and the manara of the sanctuary. In April 1802, twelve thousand Wahhabis under Shaykh Sa_ud invaded Karbala, killed over three thousand inhabitants, and sacked the city.