The Battle of Karbala: The Turning Tide of Sunni/Shi’a Relations

The Battle of Karbala: The Turning Tide of Sunni/Shi’a Relations

In the hot, summer heat of 632, the newly crowned conqueror of Mecca took ill and suddenly died. This was no ordinary conqueror however; this was Muhammad, leader of a fledgling religion called Islam. And yet at the height of Muhammad’s power and on the brink of death, he refused to name a successor; one who would carry on his legacy as spiritual and political leader: The Caliph. It is no wonder that when a power vacuum opened upon his death, many used their political influence to gain the recently vacated seat.

It is in these last days of Muhammad that many may point to the infamous Shi’a/Sunni split that occurred in Islam. According to the Shi’a interpretation, Muhammad cemented his successor in the person of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the first male convert to Islam and Muhammad’s cousin. According to the traditional sources, in the months leading up to his death, Ali is supposed to have recounted: “He laid his hand on the back of my neck and said, ‘This is my brother, my executor, and my successor among you. Hearken to him and obey him.’”[1] It would seem obvious who the successor would be. Nothing could be further from the truth. And instead of clarity, the seeds were planted during this moment that would rip the two sides apart for centuries.

The story comes to a head almost fifty years later, at an event known as the Battle of Karbala. It would be here that Husayn ibn Ali, the son of Ali, would fight Yazid I, the Umayyad Caliph. It would also be this exact spot that Husayn and his army would be cut down, and thus the split would become final. This will be the foundation on which this paper will build: The Battle of Karbala was the defining moment in the Shi’a/Sunni split. This will be demonstrated in several steps: first, a brief background to the context of Karbala will be discussed. Second, an analysis of the battle will be performed. Lastly, the battle’s legacy will then be evaluated. In the end, it will be clear that the battle was the exact moment when the Shi’a/Sunni split became cemented in the annals of history and in the religious sect of Islam.

Contextual History Surrounding the Battle of Karbala

The beginnings of foment to the split lay in an unlikely place: the loss of a necklace. A’isha bint Abu Bakr was one of the most influential wives of Muhammad after the loss of his beloved Khadija bint Khuwaylid, his first wife. In the year six, A’isha recounts that while she was out on an expedition with the prophet, the necklace “came undone from my neck without my noticing.”[2] Frantically, she looked for the necklace thinking that the caravan would wait. It did not. Several hours later, A’isha returned to Medina on the back of a camel of a Medinan warrior. The implications were vast: if she was guilty of adultery, she could be sentenced to death.

The Prophet asked for guidance from his most trusted advisor: Ali. Ali told Muhammad, quite bluntly, “Messenger of God, women are many, and you can get a replacement.”[3] If not for the vision that Muhammad received declaring her innocent (“Rejoice, A’isha! God has revealed your innocence”), he may have listened to Ali.[4] Nevertheless, the damage had been done: this event would irrevocable change relationships, pitting Ali between A’isha and her father: Abu Bakr Abdullah ibn Uthman.

It was unforeseen that Muhammad would get sick. It came quick and without warning. But there was still the problem of succession that was on every companion of Muhammad’s mind. Who would take his place as the spiritual and political leader of the community of believers? Muhammad would die and with no succession plan in place, the Ansar, or the Helpers, took little time in scheming to fill the void. When the news reached Abu Bakr and his closest friend, Umar ibn al-Khattab, they also reacted quickly to retain power. The early sources say, “The Ansar gathered in a roofed building… this news reached Abu Bakr, so he came to them with Umar…”[5] The point of this clandestine meeting, of course, was to wrestle power from Muhammad’s earliest believers. With Ali mourning the death of his uncle and his relationship with Abu Bakr strained, Abu Bakr, Umar, and the Ansar made the decision for Muhammad: Abu Bakr would become the next Caliph.

The injustice stung: Ali, barely fresh from burying his uncle and perhaps the closest partner to Muhammad, was passed over as spiritual head of Islam. Instead Abu Bakr took control. Two events continued to thrust Ali and Abu Bakr apart: Umar descended upon Ali’s house to force him to announce an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr. When Ali refused, Umar knocked the door down and, it is debated, that he inadvertently hit the pregnant Fatima bint Muhammad who later miscarried and died several months after. In addition, both Ali and Fatima appealed to Abu Bakr for land that rightfully belonged to them; he refused.

Abu Bakr ruled for less than three years and then died. Perhaps now was Ali’s time to become Caliph. However, it was not to be: al-Tabari says, “During the illness of which he died, Abu Bakr arranged for Umar b. al-Khattab to succeed him in the caliphate.”[6] Umar did much to consolidate power and expand the empire, but he too died, this time from assassination, soon into his caliphate. Again, Ali was passed over and Uthman ibn Affan became the third Caliph.

It was during the Caliphate of Uthman that sowed the rocky soil Ali would have to tread as Caliph in the years to come. Uthman ruled for nearly ten years and he padded his administration, those governors and leaders from at home in Arabia to the far-flung areas of empire, with members of his family: the Umayyads. During this time, there is almost universal agreement that he was corrupt. One of the most impactful decisions he made was to enlarge the governorship Syria to Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. But Uthman too passed in assassination. Ali’s time had finally come, 24 years after the death of Muhammad, to become Caliph.

However, A’isha still lingered in the background; after the death of the Prophet, she had received a large amount of land from her father Abu Bakr, and thus was part of the ruling elite in Mecca. Upon hearing of Uthman’s death, she and two companions raced to confront Ali and take vengeance on those who killed him. Meanwhile, Ali endured criticisms from Mu’awiyah, who also refused to recognize him as Caliph: al-Tabari says, “Mu’awiyah, whose criticisms of Ali also centered on the death of Uthman and included the demand that Ali hand over the killers for vengeance…”[7] A fight was brewing, placing Ali in a very awkward position.

It happened that the armies did meet, but it was not Mu’awiyah’s time yet. Instead, A’isha gathered an army and met Ali in what would become known as The Battle of the Camel. After facing defeat, A’isha pledged her allegiance to Ali, but not all was well; Mu’awyiah stepped up his vocal attacks on Ali. The drums of war sounded and Ali’s hand was forced.

At the Battle of Siffin, Ali and Mu’awiyah fought against each other. Just as Ali was on the cusp of victory, Mu’awiyah tricked the army of Ali by placing pages of the Qur’an on the end of their spears. Surely this was a sign to cease hostilities. Many in Ali’s army ceased to fight, and the battle progressed to a withdrawal on the heels of victory. In the aftermath, Ali had to capitulate to many of Mu’awiyah’s demands. His power was great in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt while popular opinion was pitted against Ali.

It was because of this that an assassin penetrated the inner defense of Ali’s entourage while he was praying and killed him with a poisonous blade. Ali would die, and would cede the Caliphate to his sons, Hasan and Husayn. Tabari says, “Then al-Hasan assumed authority for six months”[8] But this power was not to last: Mu’awiyah, cunning as he was, took up the mantle of leadership after forming a peace treaty with Hasan, with the promise that he would one day become Caliph. In a political move, Hasan’s wife poisoned him, ensuring this would never happen.

Peace came to the land, but only for a time; Mu’awiyah soon died, leaving another crisis for the Prophet’s followers. Of course, Mu’awiyah would want to keep political power within the family, appointing his son, Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah, the Caliph. However, Mu’awiyah had not been a gentle leader to his people and the Iraqis were tired of his reign. They petitioned Husayn to ride to Kufah and to strike against Yazid. Gathering with him an army, he set out from Mecca and on the way, encountered a Syrian camel train: one of Yazid’s. The army plundered the train and they set off for Kufah. But Yazid had heard of Husayn’s treachery, and before Husayn could reach Kufah, their armies met at a fateful destination in Southern Iraq: Karbala.

The Battle of Karbala

The companions of Husayn, when they heard of Yazid’s army, asked to turn back: “’By God! We will not return until we take our vengeance or are killed’”[9] Husan pitched tents for forty-five horsemen and one hundred foot soldiers, waiting for Yazid to make the first move.[10] Umar, one of Yazid’s governor’s, was given authority over the army. Umar arrived with over 4,000 soldiers, and he was “instructed to march against Husayn”[11]

At first, Umar attempted to reach peace with Husayn by sending a peaceful emissary. The first was rebuffed, but the second reached Husayn and he was asked why he had come so far: “The people of your town wrote to me invitations to come. If they are now averse to my presence, I’ll leave them and go away”[12] When the messenger returned to Umar, he conceded that Husayn’s army would be refused water; Husayn, the odds mounting against him, asked for a meeting with Umar. Tensions remained high until Umar made his decision: “O horsemen of God, climb onto your horses with anticipation of good news,” he replied.[13] He rode to Ali’s camp to ask for a meeting; he was refused.

Messages were sent back and forth without progress. The eve of Ashura had arrived and Husayn and his followers spent the evening going over the course of action for the next day’s inevitable battle. He said to them, “When they march against us and fight us, we will set the wood [in the ditches behind them] on fire, so we will not be open to attack from the rear. We can fight them from a single direction”[14] They then spent the rest of the evening asking for the forgiveness of sins, somehow knowing that they were about to die.

The next morning came. The horseman mounted and face Umar’s army. ‘Amr b. Hajjaj “launched the first attack against the right flank of Husayn’s followers,”[15] killing many. Later in the day, Husayn’s followers managed to repulse a section of Umar’s army; his response was to set the tents of Husayn’s followers on fire, so that they could “attack only from one direction”[16] The most tragic casualty of the battle was Husayn’s own son. According to the sources, “Husayn was seating when the suckling child ‘Abdallah b. Husayn was brought to him. One of the Banu Asad member fired an arrow that smashed into him.”[17] Yazid had not only taken the Caliphate, but Husayn’s own son.

The battled raged on until there were only a few of Husayn’s followers left. Becoming surrounded, an opponent gathered the courage to face Husayn alone. He “struck Husayn on his head with his sword such that it cut through the hooded cloak and reached his head”[18] Hurt but not destroyed, Husayn placed a turban around his head to prevent blood loss. Mikhnaf relates, “The foot soldiers fiercely attacked Husayn from the right and left. He responded to the ones on his right and force them to flee… By God, I have never seen such determination from a person who had lost his sons…”[19] A young boy was thought to have struck Husayn with his sword, incapacitating him. A wait ensued as no man was brave enough to approach the wounded warrior. Finally, a man “sat upon Husayn’s body and severed his head, which he handed over to Khawali b. Yazid”[20] The battle was lost; the war was over. And most importantly, the curtain was ripped in two, forever splitting Islam into two majority factions that would change the history of the world forever.

The Battle of Karbala: Analysis

When attempting to pinpoint the exact split of the Sunni and Shi’a, one may be tempted to point to the first succession crisis. The fact that Ali did not immediately become Caliph seems to be a focal point in which Shi’a Muslims could exercise as the core issue. However, it would be more appropriate to state that the succession crisis, while important in splintering Shi’a Muslims, is an overstated issue in relation to the whole story. Kamran Aghaie says, “While the disputes and schisms may have begun with the crisis of succession, they evolved in accordance with later political and theological trends.”[21] This evolution would reach its final form on that piece of desert known as Karbala.

But what about Karbala is so important according to Shi’a Muslims? Taking into account the assassination of Ali and Hasan as well as the exceedingly important overlook of Ali immediately after the death of Muhammad as Caliph, one could point to a number of equally egregious reasons for fractionalization. There seems to be two reasons why the event has etched itself into history books and the minds of Shi’a Muslims as the breaking point that led to the massive divide: first, Ali and his descendants have become mythical figures in Shi’a Islam. Ali is purported to be the “first Imam,” a title unique to Shi’ism. Second, there is a martyr complex within Shi’a Islam that has bound up within itself Shi’a Muslims who pit these mythical heroes of the faith against the followers of evil.

To explore the first, followers of Shi’a Islam have given extraordinary license for interpreting the source material to the persons of Ali, Hasan, and Husayn. Hamid Dabashi says: “Two interrelated concepts have arisen from the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the Battle of Karbala and as such are definitive and integral to what Shi’ism has meant and what it has been over its long and arduous history: one is mazlumiyyat (innocence) and the other, deeply rooted in it, is shahadat (martyrdom).”[22] This idea of mazlumiyyat, or innocence, is the alchemy which has worked its magic in thrusting the idea of a demigod upon Ali and his offspring. The picture of Ali in Shi’a depictions is of a peaceful man, without stain of sin, dressed in a green turban and riding a white horse. He has become known as “Imam Ali, the lion of Allah,” evoking an image of grandeur, dignity, and innocence. The depictions of Husayn are of a dying warrior, battling the forces of evil while also donning a green turban.

These pictures cloud the real individuals for a fictional and idealized version of history that play into this concept of innocence. To the Shi’a, this is no mere admiration for the leaders of their religion; rather the pedestal that these men stand on are idolatry in the form of worship (an irony for a religious belief that claims that there is no God but Allah).

This first premise informs the second: since these men are of unordinary character for human beings, the fact they died has constituted a martyr complex to rally around. This has manifested itself in two ways: first, Shi’a Muslims believe that they have been the subject of wide persecution, and this has been true for much of the history of Islam. One commentator said, “The battle of Karbala accentuated the split between the two major branches of Islam. The event forged in Shiʿite Muslims an identity as believers who are subjected to persecution for the sake of the true succession of Muhammad.”[23] This is not difficult to find in the history: Ali was persecuted in the decision to make Abu Bakr Caliph; Hasan was persecuted for standing up to Mu’wiyah; Husayn was persecuted when he attempted to help the Kufans. Just as their mythological leaders suffered, so too do Shi’a Muslims for standing up for what they believe.

But second, and perhaps more important, Shi’a Muslims believe that these individuals were standing up to evil itself. They were the true arbiters of what was good, and their death is seen as a rallying cry to not capitulate, no matter the circumstances. A. Yusef Ali says:

“The throne at Damascus had become a worldly throne based on the most selfish ideas of personal and family aggrandizement, instead of a spiritual office, with a sense of God-given responsibility. The decay of morals spread among the people. There was one man who could stem the tide. That was Imam Husain… But his blamless [sic] and irreproachable life was in in itself a reproach to those who had other standards. They sought to silence him, but he could not be silenced. They sought to bribe him, but he could not be bribed. They sought to waylay him and get him into their power. What is more, they wanted him to recognize the tyranny and expressly to support it… The holy man was prepared to die rather than to surrender the principles for which he stood.[24]

This illustrates the principle that Husayn was of the ultimate good; he was the force that was to work as Allah’s cleansing agent to purify the godlessness of Syria.

This took on a spiritual and religious dimension as well. Hamid Dabashi says:

“The Kufans looked to the family of Ali as did the Egyptians to the family of Abd al-Afz as representing their independence; but there early came up several factors to give this sentiment an emotional and moral, and therefore a religious turn… Husayn himself no doubt was aware of his dignity as grandson of the Prophet, as well as son of Ali; and the Tawawabun repentants [sic] of Kufa who went off to be martyred in trying to avenge his death certainly were combining loyalty to Ali with loyalty to Muhammad himself – an essential step in making the matter a strictly religious issue.[25]

Not only was Husayn working to fight for the political independence of those crushed by the weight of Mu’wiyah’s, and by extension Yazid’s, ruthlessness, he felt the obligation to represent Islam itself. His death represents allegiance of the highest order, akin to the mission of the Prophet himself.

It is no wonder that the Battle of Karbala has pulled the strings of so many Shi’a Muslims. Every year on the tenth day of Muharram, Shi’a Muslims celebrate what is known as Ashura. This event marks the day that Husayn was killed at the Battle of Karbala. Evangelicals understand that the celebration of death has many heads: the celebration of Easter, for example, is both a joyous occasion and a somber one. Just as Christians see the death of Christ on the cross as a path to salvation, so do Shi’a Muslims celebrate the death of Husayn as a path to salvation: “[Husayn’s] death may be said to have provided his followers with the historical foundation for a theology of salvation through suffering and martyrdom, a doctrine that has continued to influence the lives of many Muslims to the present day.”[26]


The Battle of Karbala has become an indelible symbol to Shi’a Muslims throughout the world. Far from the first succession crisis defining this religious sect, it has been proven that the Battle of Karbala was the nail in the coffin for the Sunni/Shi’a split. But how can Evangelicals benefit from this knowledge? Is there any application from the Battle of Karbala that can inform our thinking?

The answer is a definitive yes. First, one of the most critical lapses of evangelical (in the sense of proclaiming the Gospel) fervor is the misunderstanding of Islam. Education has, historically, paid little attention to the history of Islam, instead focusing on the rise of ideals such as democracy in ancient Greece, Christendom in Rome and Byzantium, the Renaissance in Italy, and the Enlightenment in France. Few in the West can articulate the theological or historical reasons behind the split. Thus, to be an effective witness, knowing the historical foundations of Islam, and thus the Shi’a/Sunni split, remains a stumbling block to evangelizing the lost. Christians will do well with being informed on the history and the theology of Islam in order to be an effective witness to Muslims around the world.

Second, knowing about the Battle of Karbala can also aid Christians in understanding the differences between Shi’ism and Sunnism. The former is particularly critical to grasp in light of recent international/political events that have occurred in the last few months, as well as informing the decade of the 2000’s. Iraq, the resting place of Husayn, constitutes one of the largest demographics of Shi’a Islam in the world. Iran is similar in this way. While in power, Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of Shi’a Muslims in 1982, which was the part of the context for both Gulf War conflicts by the United States. Iran has become a thorn in the flesh, so to speak, to the United States since the 1970s. Understanding Shi’a Islam and the Sunni/Shi’a split will go far in understanding these modern-day political conflicts.

While Ashura will continue to be celebrated year after year, Christians will need to continue to pray for Shi’a and Sunni Muslims around the world who need to hear the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When a Christian hears the story of the Battle of Karbala, it should convict the believer to pray for the millions of lost souls around the globe.








Abu Mikhnaf. Maqtal al-Husayn, translated from Arabic by Hamid Mavani, Middlesex, UK: Shia Ithnasheri Community of Middlesex, 2001.

Aghaie, Kamran Scot. The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran. 1st ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Allah, Ishaq S. R. The Life of Muhammad. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Al-Tabari. The Last Years of the Prophet: The Formation of the States. The History of Al-Tabari. Translated by Adrian Brockett. Vol. 9. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Al-Tabari. The Challenge to the Empires. The History of Al-Tabari. Translated by Adrian Brockett. Vol. 11. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Al-Tabari. The First Civil War: From the Battle of Siffin to the Death of Ali, The History of Al-Tabari. Translated by Adrian Brockett. Vol. 17. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Dabashi, Hamid. Shi’Ism a Religion of Protest. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Kohlberg, Etan. Shi’Ism. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 2016. doi:10.4324/9781315243184.

Martin, Richard C. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. 2nd ed. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Macmillan Reference USA, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2016.

Netton, Ian Richard. Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilization and Religion. London: Routledge, 2013. doi:10.4324/9780203862049.

Yusuf Ali, A. Imam Husain and His Martyrdom. Karachi: Al-Biruni, 1979.




[1] Ishaq Allah, The Life of Muhammad, (KarachiL Oxford University Press, 1988), 118.

[2] Al-Tabari, The Last Years of the Prophet: The Formation of the State, Vol 9 of The History of Al-Tabari (Albany: University of New York Press, 1997), 59.

[3] Ibid, 62.

[4] Ibid, 63.

[5] Ibid, 186.

[6] Al-Tabari, The Challenge to the Empires, Vol 11 of The History of Al-Tabari (Albany: University of New York Press, 1997), 145

[7] Al-Tabari, The First Civil War: From the Battle of Siffin to the Death of Ali,, Vol 17 of The History of Al-Tabari (Albany: University of New York Press, 1997), xii.

[8] Ibid, 222

[9] Ibid, 75.

[10] Ibid, 75.

[11] Mikhnaf Abu, Maqtal al-Husan, (Middlesex: Shia Ithnasheri Community of Middlesex, 2001), 106.

[12] Ibid, 108.

[13] Ibid, 116.

[14] Ibid, 125.

[15] Ibid, 142.

[16] Ibid, 149.

[17] Ibid, 164.

[18] Ibid, 167.

[19] Ibid, 168.

[20] Ibid, 170.

[21] Kamran Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 5.

[22] Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011), 80.

[23] Richard C. Martin. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (Farmington Hills: Cengage Learning, 2016), “Karbala.”

[24] A. Yusef Ali, Imam Hussain and his Martyrdom (Karachi: Al-Biruni, 1979), 23-24.

[25] Etan Kohlberg, Shi’ism (London: Routledge, 2016), 5.

[26] Ian Netton, Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilization and Religion (London: Routledge, 2013) 241-242.

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