Ashura, Karbala and the Crisis of Islam-State Relationships

11th September 2019

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful


On Ashura day, 10th Muharram of the 61st Islamic year corresponding to 10th October 680 CE, Husain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was killed at Karbala in Iraq by forces loyal to Yazid bin Muawiya, who had been appointed Caliph or political leader of the Muslims by his father. The ramifications of the martyrdom of Imam Husain have reverberated around the Muslim world ever since, and continue to do so today.

There has always been a tension within Islam between monarchy and republicanism, and between political liberty and authoritarianism. These battles have their roots in the early days of Islam, especially during the civil wars that followed the death of the Prophet.  The conflicts have also been reflected within the Hadith literature, parts of which were clearly fabricated to support various theological and political positions by invoking Prophetic authority for them. These conflicting hadiths gave rise to a subsequent struggle over their validity, authenticity and interpretation.

The story of Karbala is as central to that dynamic as the corresponding battles between republicanism and autocracy in Rome have been in European civilisation, as they were understood by those with a classical education. To appreciate the force of this mythology is to comprehend contemporary politics within Muslim majority countries.


I write this on Tuesday 10th September 2019, coinciding (according to my reading of the astronomical situation) with Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, 1441.  Today is also almost exactly 18 years since the fateful events of 9/11 (Tuesday 11th September 2001). In this essay, I trace the importance of the events and ideas behind Islamic Ashura celebrations and commemorations, and their relevance to the “Islamic world” today, especially in the post-9/11 context.

Background: early Islamic history – Sunni and Shia

Some context for those unfamiliar with Islamic history is necessary.  The Prophet Muhammad (571-622 CE), peace be upon him, fleeing persecution by his own people after preaching Abrahamic monotheism as opposed to the polytheism dominating Mecca, established a city-state in Medina at the invitation of its two major tribes who had adopted the faith of Islam. This Islamic city-state included a treaty of mutual defence with nine Jewish tribes of Medina, known as the Medina Charter, that I discuss in another essay, and which has inspired the contemporary Marrakesh Declaration on the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries.  Before the Prophet’s death, he had finally wrestled control of his birthplace, Mecca, from his city-state base of Medina, and had triumphantly exported Abrahamic monotheism around Arabia: most of the Arabian peninsula’s people had adopted Islam. 

After the Prophet’s death, the Muslims eventually became divided into two major camps regarding the rightful successor to The Prophet: Sunni and Shia.  These represent the world’s Muslims in a ratio that is roughly 85:15.

Shia Islam believed that the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, followed by Ali’s sons Hasan and Husain and their descendants, had a divine right to rule the Muslims as their Imams or spiritual-political leaders, in an Imamate. With such a divinely-appointed dynasty, there was always the danger of the succession being disputed. The majority of Shia today follow the Twelver (Imami) school that outwardly ended in 874 CE with the death of the Eleventh Imam, Hasan Askari.  However, the Twelver school held that Askari had had a son, Muhammad, who had passed into “Occultation” and was to return towards the end of time as the Twelfth Imam and messianic figure known as the Mahdi or Guided One. The messianic impulse is also common to Judaism, Christianity and Sunni Islam, of course, and the various prophecies and eschatologies have clearly influenced one another. And just as contemporary Jewish messianic schools include pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist views, contemporary Twelver Shi’ism retains Mahdism as a major principle, whether with the Khomeinist Islamist forces of Iran and Hizbullah or the more politically-quietist positions of non-Islamist Ayatollahs. 

Other Shia schools endorsed a different lineage of Imams, most notably Ismaili Islam, whose global head, His Highness the Aga Khan carries a conferment of royalty from the British throne, and is revered as the latest in an unbroken chain of Imams since Ali.  The Zaydi sect of Shia Islam has classically been the closest to Sunni Islam by believing in Shia imamate in principle but pragmatically accepting the Sunni caliphate in practice. The most prominent Zaydi group today are the Houthis of Yemen, whose leader studied in Iran and has fallen into the orbit of Khomeinist, Islamist Shi’ism.  Not surprisingly, this has led to conflict with Saudi Arabia, home of Wahhabi-Salafism, one of the most conservative interpretations of Sunni Islam that unsurprisingly tends to be very anti-Shia.

Sunni Islam, by contrast, believed that the leader of the Muslims should be a caliph or successor, also sometimes called Imam, who was not divinely-appointed via the Prophet’s descendants, but elected or legitimised by the community through the traditional practice of bay’ah or oath of allegiance. The Prophet’s direct descendants, revered by the Shia, represented one wing of his tribe, Quraysh, but in practice the first three political rulers of the Muslims were the Sunni caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, all of whom were also from Quraysh and were effectively cousins and in-laws of the Prophet’s household. Shia Islam later charged that these caliphs conspiratorially deprived Ali of his rightful inheritance as first leader of the Muslims. Even Sunni texts contain indications that Ali believed that he was the rightful first leader. After these three caliphs, the caliphate passed to Ali who was therefore the Fourth Caliph of Sunni Islam and the First Imam of Shia Islam. 

Although Sunni Islam has always revered the Prophet’s household, its tendencies were republican, as opposed to the spiritual-royalism of the Shia.  According to the Sunnis, the first four caliphs gained that position in different ways: Abu Bakr by Prophetic indication, Umar as Abu Bakr’s appointee, Uthman chosen from a shortlist of six candidates left by the dying Umar, with the casting vote delivered by Ibn Awf who knocked on every door in Medina to ascertain the people’s wishes – a simple precursor to the modern ballot-box.  Note also that after Abu Bakr, the next three caliphs all met violent deaths: Umar, assassinated by a Persian slave, possibly furious at the defeat and humiliation of the Persian Sassanids at the hands of Umar’s brilliant military mind and commanders; Uthman assassinated by other Muslims, including a son of Abu Bakr, after discontent with his rule and accusations of nepotism that were a marked contrast from Umar’s rule.  

During Ali’s reign, his leadership was challenged by Muawiya, who later became the first caliph of the Umayyads, another branch of the Quraysh. After Ali agreed to mediation, the ultra-egalitarian, fanatical Khawarij rebels assassinated him, arguing that he had blasphemed by accepting human arbitration over divine providence: they believed that Ali should not have compromised, and should have held fast to his divinely-appointed mission. After Ali, his eldest son Hasan ruled briefly for six months but then abdicated in favour of Muawiya, whom many Shia accuse of having Hasan poisoned to death.


Muawiya appointed his son Yazid as caliph, an unprecedented step thus far. It was a step too far for Husain, the Third Imam of Shia Islam after his brother and father. Husain began a campaign of revolt in order to nip despotic rule in the bud, as he saw it.  However, his campaign was not well-organised. Senior Companions (Muslim contemporaries of the Prophet) were divided between Yazid, Husain and a neutral stance. Husain and his small band of family and supporters were mercilessly slaughtered at Karbala.

The Muslim reaction to Karbala has understandably been divided: Shia and much of Sufi Islam regarded Imam Husain as a great martyr, his cause as totally just.  The Sunni response was complex, whilst revering Husain as a martyr, because Husain was more senior as a grandson and Companion of the Prophet, but technically Yazid was a legitimate caliph, if one accepted his argument of being validly appointed by his father and confirmed as caliph by the public.  Other senior Companions had warned Husain against taking on the military might of the Umayyads, and thus took a neutral stance.

The powerful story of Karbala, the heroic grandson of the Prophet butchered for his adherence to principle on behalf of the entire community against a tyrannical ruler, was re-enacted several times, inspired by the principle, “Every day is Ashura, everywhere is Karbala.”  The people of Medina, the Prophet’s City, launched their own uprising in solidarity with the events of Karbala: the Umayyad army also crushed their revolt. Another Companion, Abdullah bin Zubair, then rebelled against Umayyad rule in Mecca, declaring himself caliph there. He too was crushed by the Umayyads: the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had now joined Karbala as being scenes of slaughter of the righteous.

After the Abbasids, another branch of the Quraysh, replaced the Umayyads as caliphs, the revolutionary fervour continued, often inspired by claims to being the messianic Mahdi. The Abbasids were equally as ruthless as the Umayyads in stamping out rebellion.  One of the Abbasid caliphs even took the clever step of giving his son and future caliph the title of ‘Mahdi’ in order to pre-empt further claimants to rebellious messianism.

Quietist Islam in response to the early civil wars

The great jurists of Sunni Islam during this period, Imams Abu Hanifa and Malik, whose complementary approaches to Islamic jurisprudence have defined it ever since, developed evolving responses to these political events: both are said to have sympathised or even supported pious rebels against power. Abu Hanifa is said to have distrusted “political hadiths,” many of which teach unconditional loyalty to the ruler, no matter how tyrannical.  Malik, as the Imam of Medinan scholarship, is said to have supported some of the pious rebels but learnt from their devastating defeats, eventually concluding that rebellion was even worse than the status quo because it resulted in civil war and the killing of so many believers. Indeed, at least two of the Abbasid caliphs of his time studied hadiths directly with Imam Malik in Medina.

The Maliki, and later Hanbali, jurists were especially opposed to Shiism, having developed under Sunni caliphates, and feared the revolutionary fervour inspired by Husain would lead to regular massacres of people led by pious but politically-naïve leaders.  Thus, the Sunni jurists in general adopted the principle that the experience of the uprisings at Karbala, Medina and Mecca meant that there was now a binding consensus (ijma’) to obey the de facto ruler, and limit opposition to private counsel rather than public defiance.

“Political hadiths”

Given the extraordinary political events during the lives of the early Hadith scholars, it is no surprise that many “political hadiths” made their way into Sunni and Shia canonic literature.

One of the “political hadiths,” probably disputed at the time but that later found their way into canonical Sunni texts, preached that a rebel against an established leader must be put to death, “no matter who he may be.”  This is a variant of the hadith that says, “If the oath of allegiance has been taken for two caliphs, kill the later of the two.” (Sahih Muslim, hadith no. 4568)  

The wording of these hadiths is very different to Qur’anic language and furthermore, there would appear to be no sensible reason why the Prophet would give detailed instructions on dealing with disputed caliphates, given that it was not clear if he had ever even favoured caliphate, imamate or neither.  Thus, it could be argued that these hadiths were fabricated at the behest of rulers anxious to preserve their power or religious leaders anxious to achieve the same result in order to spare Muslim bloodshed.

Jurisprudential tension over the death of Husain

Whatever the case, the existence of these hadiths led to much jurisprudential tension. The great Andalusian Maliki jurist and Qur’an-commentator, Abu Bakr bin al-Arabi, made the shocking statement in his Awasim min al-Qawasim or Defences against Attacking Blows, that “Husain had been killed according to the law of his grandfather,” so opposed were the Malikis now to Shi’ism and also to political rebellion.  After all, no Sunni authority had appeared to apply this principle to Muawiya’s challenge to Ali over the caliphate, but only to Imam Husain against the Umayyads.

Ibn Khaldun, the later North African polymath, challenged Ibn al-Arabi in his Muqaddimah (Introduction to History).  He argued that the principle of “killing the later caliph” only applied if the first caliph was of good integrity.  Given that Yazid was accused of indulging in drinking wine and other misdemeanours, Ibn Khaldun argued that he lacked integrity and that Imam Husain had a case in challenging Yazid’s authority. Later Sunni theologians, such Ibn Taymiyyah, a leader of Salafism from the Hanbali school, made Yazid out to be a pious and humble ruler who did not drink wine, had regretted the killing of Husain and whose caliphate was valid. Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Taymiyyah’s foremost student, exhibited typically-radical salafi thinking by disagreeing with most Sunni and Shia scholars and stating that the messianic Mahdi, who was to appear at the end of time, would be a descendant of Hasan, not Husain.  Although of course he had to critically discuss the hadiths on both sides, Ibn al-Qayyim’s logic was persuasive from a Sunni-Salafi perspective that had been indifferent to Husain’s cause: Husain had achieved martyrdom amidst bloodshed whilst seeking power, whereas Hasan had earlier abdicated from his position of power in order to spare bloodshed. The Mahdi, Ibn al-Qayyim reasoned, would fittingly appear amongst Hasan’s descendants, not Husain’s. The rest of Shia and Sunni Islam, who believed in Husain’s cause, expect the Mahdi to be descended from Husain.

Today, polemical literature abounds in Muslim circles, most of it cursing Yazid, especially during the month of Muharram, with an extreme reaction being the Sunni-Salafi insistence that Yazid was an honoured caliph.

The Maliki quietist position of respecting authority and not rebelling, later largely supported by the other Sunni schools, was best expressed by Imam Malik’s aphorism, “A thousand years of tyranny is better than a day of anarchy.”

Political Quietism vs. Revolution in recent times

During the crackdown by the Algerian military on the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the early 1990s, and the cancellation of the latter’s victory in a democratic election, one of the two imprisoned FIS scholars, Ali bin Haj, wrote a book arguing that the correct Sunni position was that rebelling against rulers is disputed, and not prohibited by consensus.

Over the past few years, the leading Mauritanian jurist Ibn Bayyah and his foremost Western student, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, have been promoting the quietist, conservative Sunni position against rebelling against rulers, based upon classical Maliki thought.  For example, at an event of the fully UK-government-funded outfit Imams Online in May 2015 in London, Yusuf declared that “Islam has a tradition of honouring government,” and this message has been reinforced annually at Ibn Bayyah’s UAE-sponsored Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, as well as at the Saudi-sponsored international conferences of the Muslim World League.  There is no doubt that the great Muslim dynasties, from the Umayyads to the Ottomans, were indeed great state-builders and inherited this mantle from Romans and others. However, following Ibn Khaldun on Ibn al-Arabi, I would caveat Yusuf’s statement by saying that “Islam has a tradition of honouring good government,” and not bad government: bad government must always be held to account, and many of the great Imams of Islam are rightly honoured for their conscientious opposition to caliphs when necessary, despite imprisonment, floggings and even execution. The list of such heroes includes Sufyan Thawri, Saeed bin Jubair, Abu Hanifa, Malik, Ahmad bin Hanbal and via Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim to the present day.

All of this discussion, of course, strikes at the heart of issues around stability vs. revolution.  Around the Muslim-majority world, there are scores of religious scholars co-opted by governments and denied their intellectual and spiritual independence and freedom to say what they really believe.  And in every country, there are often religious scholars who are dissidents, and for that they are imprisoned and even killed, which only increases their popularity. Western governments deal with Muslim-world governments in an official capactity of course, and this includes the latter’s official clergy, but it must be remembered that this clergy is often discredited precisely because of their co-option by the state and that Muslim youth are often more inspired by dissident scholars, for obvious reasons.

And the disputed “political hadiths” are still doing the rounds.  For example, after the Syrian war began, Saeed Ramadan al-Buti, a senior Syrian scholar allied to the Assad regimes for decades, gave a Friday sermon in which he quoted an alleged hadith saying, “You must hear and obey the ruler, even if he commits major sins [e.g. drinks alcohol and commits adultery].” The Friday prayers were followed by a loud and noisy rally outside the mosque in which thousands participated, protesting against Buti’s sermon.  (Buti is said to have decided to finally leave the government and become a dissident in Syria, but he was assassinated whilst teaching in a mosque in his official capacity. It is shrouded in doubt as to whether it was the Syrian government or rebels who assassinated him, but the shocking moment of his assassination was captured on video in footage that is widely available online.)

On the eve of Ashura, a video was released of further comment from Sheikh Hamza Yusuf around these issues, leading to a massive backlash. The online video shows that Yusuf quotes another ‘political hadith’: “Whoever humiliates the ruler [Sultan], God humiliates him.”  Again, this hadith would appear to be a fabrication: why would the Prophet be talking about the “Sultan” when that vocabulary was absent from his time and from the revelation of the Qur’an?


Do Muslims have to be forever caught between the ultra-Sunni quietism of a caliphate-for-life and ultra-Shia revolutionary fervour, between never-ending cycles of rulers-for-life followed by violent revolutions?

Much better is a transition to democracy, supported by civil society, with dictators in Muslim countries being encouraged to give up power and share it with their citizens, a situation that is surely a win-win situation for all.

As millions of Muslims worldwide commemorate Imam Husain’s powerful martyrdom at Karbala, it is a good time to reflect that with good leadership or at least a system of government in which every citizen or subject has a stake, no-one needs to rebel, and no-one needs to die for political purposes if mechanisms for the peaceful and democratic transfer of power can be made to succeed.

Boris Johnson’s book, The Dream of Rome, connects the ideals and conflicts of ancient Rome with the realities of Europe and the West today.  Analogously, events in the early history of Islam resonate with the Muslim world today. Islamic ideals might be termed “The Dream of Mecca, Medina and Karbala.”  We would do well to continue to pay attention to the lessons of Ashura.

Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies, Quilliam International

Photo: Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Karbala in Ashura celebrations, Monday 9th September 2019, Sehwan Sharif shrine, Pakistan. Photo credit: (c) Caroline Bates