Karbala, Iraq (680 AD)
The Battle of Karbala was one one of the pivotal engagements between the descendents of Ali ibn Abu Talib and the Umayyads, as well as one of the crucial events that ultimately led to the split between the Sunnis and Shiites. Fought just a few decades after the death of Ali, many of the last surviving followers of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as most of his descendents, were present at the battle. Many of these, facing overwhelming odds, fell during the fighting. Because of this the battle is commemorated by many Muslims, and the site of Karbala has become an important place of pilgrimage for Shi’ites, especially during the popular but controversial celebration of Ashurah.
In the early days of the Islamic empire, following the reign of the Four Righteous Caliphs, the Umayyad clan rose to prominence and seized the caliphate for themselves. Once bitterly opposed to the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayyads were seen as opportunists by many Muslims, not to mention highly corrupt. The piety of the house was also considered to be highly questionable. Not surprisingly the Umayyads were not particularly popular.
Nevertheless, by the late 7th century they had expanded the caliphate to its greatest extent, reaching from what is now Pakistan in the east to Spain and Morocco in the west. At the same time they stamped out virtually all opposition to their power in the heartland areas. By 680 AD the only real remaining threat to Umayyad authority came from the Ahl al-Bayt, or family members of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 680, Hussein ibn Ali, the son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad, made a speech in Mecca inveighing against Umayyad violations against the Kaaba. This stirred up the wrath of the caliphs, and Hussein and his followers fled towards the city of Kufa in Iraq. Unfortunately, they were pursued by the Umayyads and were unable to reach the safety of Kufa.
Caught by the Umayyad vanguard in the town of Karbala, Hussein and is followers were cut off and surrounded by a force at least forty times larger (some estimates indicate the imbalance was even greater). Despite a valiant defense, Hussein’s small army was slaughtered, although legend has it that they killed more men than they lost. Most of those killed were subsequently beheaded, including Hussein himself. However, the battle becaming a rallying cry for those opposed to Umayyad tyranny.
Although the battlefield has long since been absorbed into the growing metropolis of Karbala, a large part of it is now marked by the massive Imam Hussein Shrine. This mosque, one of the holiest Shi’ite pilgrimage sites, commemorates both Hussein as well as the battle and his followers who fell their. His burial site is the centerpiece of the mosque.
The Imam Hussein Shrine is located in the city center of Karbala, approximately 50 miles south of Baghdad. Due the ongoing conflict in the region no further visitor information was available as of this writing. Presumably the mosque is open (at least in part) for visiting pilgrims, though it is likely heavily restricted to non-Shi’ites and completely off limits to non-Muslims. Web: www.al-islam.org/shrines (unofficial website guide to Muslim shrines).