Yazid’s Accession to the Throne of Damascus – a Pretext to the Event of Karabala
On Mu'awiya death, his son Yazid assumed the caliphate in accordance with the former's unprecedented testament in Rajab 60/March 680. A true representative of the way of life common among the pre-Islamic youth of the Umayyad aristocracy, Yazid commanded no respect in the community ; His anti-Islamic behaviour and openly irreligious practices were well known throughout the Muslim world and earned for him contempt and disfavour, especially among those who cared for religion. Even those few writers who attempt to hush up some of the information unfavourable to the Umayyad house could not refrain from reporting that Yazid was the first among the caliphs to drink wine in public and that he sought out the Worst company, spending much of his time in the pleasures of music and singing and amusing himself with apes and hunting-hounds. He himself had no use for religion, nor had he any regard for the religious sentiments of others. Addicted to wine-bibbing, attracted to singing-girls, and exposed to all sorts of vices, Yazid has never been presented in good terms by any Muslim writer of any period or by any school of thought.1
His open and persistent violations of Islamic norms we! re still more shocking to the community because of his close proximity to the Prophet and the Rashidun caliphs, of whom he claimed to be the successor and from whose authority he derived his title. Nevertheless, Mu'awiya's meticulous arrangements, coupled with his formidable military grip on the Muslim world, ensured the smooth succession of his son. Yazid was thus hailed as the "Commander of the Faithful" by all the tribes and the provinces; yet his title was not secure until he could receive homage from the four most notable personalities of Islam, whom Mu'awiya, in spite of his utmost efforts, could neither buy nor coerce as he had done with all other men of prominence and the chiefs of the tribes.
With the death of Mu'awiya the last of the first generation who could claim for himself at least some political importance, the caliphat! e had to pass on to the second generation (tabi'un) after the Prophet. The grandees of this generation, as has been described in the preceding chapter, were Husayn b. 'Ali, 'Abd Allah b. az-Zubayr, `Abd Allah b. 'Umar, and 'Abd ar-Rahman b. Abi Bakr, the sons of the most prominent Companions of the Prophet who were held in great respect by the community; Husayn, also being the only surviving grandson of the Prophet, enjoyed greater regard than the other three. It was therefore obvious that without their recognition Yazid's authority could not be firmly consolidated.
Mu'awiya was fully aware of the importance of these four, and having failed to secure their agreement to Yazid's succession, he warned his son of the danger before he breathed his last. On his deathbed Mu'awiya advised Yazid:
"O my son, I have arranged everything for you! , and I have made all the Arabs agree to obey you. No one will now oppose you in your title to the caliphate, but I am very much afraid of Husayn b. 'Ali, 'Abd Allah b. 'Umar, 'Abd ar-Rahman b. Abi Bakr, and 'Abd Allah b. az-Zubayr. Among them Husayn b. 'Ali commands great love and respect because of his superior rights and close relationship to the Prophet. I do not think that the people of Iraq will abandon him until they have risen in rebellion for him against you. As far as is possible, try to deal with him gently. But the man who will attack you with full force, like a lion attacks his prey, and who will pounce upon you, like a fox when it finds an opportunity to pounce, is 'Abd Allah b. az-Zubayr. Whenever you get a chance, cut him into pieces." 2
Mu'awiya's advice, commonly reported by many sources, confirms the reports that Mu'awiya's efforts to secure the approval of these grandees of Islam for Yazid's succession had not been successful. In order to secure undisputed possession of the caliphate, the first task Yazid undertook was to order the governor of Medina, Al-Walid b. 'Utba, to exact homage from the refractory, especially from Husayn and Ibn az-Zubayr. In his letter to the governor, he gave strict orders that they should not be allowed to delay, and if they refused, that Walid should behead them at once. Some sources include the name of Ibn 'Umar as also having been specifically mentioned in this letter. 3 Walid b. `Utba accordingly sent for Husayn and Ibn az-Zubayr at an unusual hour of the night to oblige them to pay homage to the new caliph. Both of them realized that
Mu`awiya was dead, and both had decided to stand by their refusal to pay homage to Yazid. Ibn az-Zubayr did not go to the palace and fled to Mecca the following night. Husayn went to see the governor, but was accompanied by a strong band of his supporters in case of a serious confrontation.
Leaving his supporters at the gate, Husayn went into the palace alone. Walid read to him Yazid's letter and asked for immediate recognition of the new caliph. Husayn replied uncommittedly that the bay`a, in order to be valid, must be made in public and that the governor should arrange a public gathering in the mosque where he would also be present. With this reply, when Husayn rose to leave the palace, Marwan b. al-Hakam, who was present there as well, rebuked the governor, saying: "By God, if you allow Husayn to leave without paying the homage now, you will never be able to get it from him; so arrest him and do not free him until he pays the homage, or behead him." In fact, Marwan had already advised Walid to call these two for the bay`a, and if they refused, Mu'awiya kill them at once before the news of Mu`awiya's death became known to the people. Walid, however, did not accept this advice: as Husayn left the palace, the former retorted to Marwan's harsh attitude, saying:
"Do not reproach me for this, O Marwan. You have advised me to do ! something in which there lies complete destruction and the ruin of my religion. By God, if the entire wealth and treasures of the whole world were given to me I would not kill Husayn. Should I kill him only because he refuses to pay homage, I would suffer total destruction on the Day of Judgement, for in the sight of God there cannot be anything more accountable than the blood of Husayn." 4
The reply of Walid to Marwan, so commonly recorded by the sources, reflects that particular regard and respect with which the grandson of the Prophet was held not only by his followers, but by a great number of Muslims in general.
Husayn, however, succeeded in avoiding the demand for the Bay`a for two days and finally escaped at night with! his family and most of the Hashimites to Mecca. Walid b. 'Utba paid for his lenient attitude towards the grandson of the Prophet: he was shortly thereafter dismissed from his post as governor of Medina.
Ibn az-Zubayr, who reached Mecca before Husayn, had gathered people around him against Yazid, and he is reported to have been harbouring secret ambitions for the caliphate himself. But as soon as Husayn arrived in the city, the people abandoned Ibn az-Zubayr and gathered around Husayn. This was only natural, for our sources clearly state that "Husayn was much dearer and far more respected by the people of the Hijaz than Ibn az-Zubayr, who knew that the people there would never follow him as long as Husayn was in Mecca." 5 So great were the inclinations of the people to Husayn that after his arrival there people prayed with him, performed the tawaf of the Ka'ba with him, and preferred to stay around him most of the time.
Husayn, like his brother Hasan, combined in his person the right of descent both from the Prophet and from `Ali; and now after the death of Hasan he was the only candidate from the Prophet's family. But in the preceding years h! e had done very little to support his rights, restricting himself to a negative attitude towards Yazid's nomination. Nor, due to Hasan's treaty with Mu`awiya, was it possible for him to act as long as Mu`awiya was alive. This he explained to the Shi`is of Kufa whenever they approached him concerning an uprising. The death of Mu'awiya changed the situation. On the one hand, Husayn was now free from the treaty obligations of his brother and, on the other, the demand for active guidance and leadership from the Shi`is of Kufa became increasingly pressing. As soon as this group received word of Mu`awiya death, they held a series of meetings expressing their renewed and enthusiastic support for Husayn. They sent out numerous letters and a succession of messengers urging Husayn to come to Kufa to take their leadership, as they had no Imam other than him. The first letter Husayn received on 10 Ramadan 60/15 June 680; it was signed by Sulayman b. Surad al-Khuza`i, Al-Musayyab b. Najaba, R! ifa`a b. Shaddad, Habib b. al-Muzahir, and Muslim b. Awsaja in the name of the Shi'is and Muslims of Kufa, and read:
"We thank God for casting down the tyrannical rule of your enemy, who had usurped the power to rule this community with out any right, allowed the possession of God to pass into the hands of the powerful and the rich, and killed the best men [an allusion to Hujr b. 'Adi and his supporters] while allowing the worst of the people to remain alive. We invite you to come to Kufa, as we have no Imam to guide us; and we hope that through you God will unite us on the path truth. We do not go to Friday congregational prayers to pray with Nu'man b. Bashir, the governor of Kufa, nor do we assemble with him at the occasion of the 'Id. If we hear that you are coming to us, we will oust the governor from our city. Peace and mercy of God be upon you." 6
This letter, signed by the men named above, must have served as a major incentive to Husayn, for the signatories had been trusted followers of his house from the very beginning and had proven their loyalty at the battles of Al-Jamal and Siffin with 'Ali. Though they had been extremely perturbed and disappointed by Hasan's abdication in favour of Mu'awiya, they nevertheless remained loyal to the former and hostile to the latter. Apart from these early Shi`is, a great number of other Kufans also wrote letters to Husayn, each signed by numerous individuals for the same purpose. 7
Similar letters urging Husayn to assume active leadership were also sent by the Shi`is of Basra. Not all of them, however, had the same degree of religious motivation: some had political aspirations, hoping to throw off the yoke of Syrian domination.
The actions of Husayn, however, show that from beginning to end his strategy was aimed at a much higher goal than simply accession to the caliphate. There is no evidence that he tried, while at Mecca, to enlist active supporters from among the people who gathered around him or to propagate his cause among the great numbers of people who were coming to Mecca for the Hajj; there is also no evidence that he attempted to send his emissaries to stir up any rebellion in provinces such as Yemen and Persia, which were sympathetic to his house, even though advised by some of his family members to do so. And above all, had he acted promptly on the invitation of the Kufans, while the governorship of the city was in the hands of the weak Nu'man b. Bashir, he might have had a fair chance of success. His speedy arrival would not only have forestalled any effective action on the part of the Umayyad government, but would also have stirred real enthusiasm among the Ku fans. This was emphasized by the leaders of the movement when they wrote:
"In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate; to al-Husayn b. 'Ali, from his Shi`a, the faithful Muslims: Further make haste, for the people are awaiting you, as they have no Imam other than you! So haste,! and again haste! Peace." 8
This last letter was signed by a number of people and was
sent with a delegation consisting of Hani b. Hani as-Sabi'I and Sa'id b. 'Abd Allah al-Hanafi, the two most trusted Shi`is of Kufa. In response to all these approaches, however, Husayn sent only one letter in reply through this last delegation. The content of this letter is worthy of note; it reads:
"From Husayn b. 'Ali to the believers and the Muslims [note that the word Shi`a is not used]. Hani and Sa'id came to me with your letters, they being the last among your messengers and delegations to come to me. I have understood what you said and that you have invited me to come to you because you have no Imam to guide you, and that you hope my arrival there will unite you in the right path and in the truth. I am sending my cousin and the trusted one from my family [Muslim b. 'Aqil] to report to me about your affairs. If his report conforms with what you have written, I will soon come. But you must be clear about the fact that the Imam is only one who follows the Book of God, makes justice and honesty his conduct and behaviour, judges with truth, and devotes himself to the service of God. Peace." 9
The last sentence of the letter, explaining the duties of an Imam and the nature of the Imamate, helps us to understand Husayn's approach and attitude towards the whole problem.
Abu Mikhnaf has also preserved for us Husayn's letter to the Shi'is of Basra, which is equally worthy of quotation here.
"God has chosen Muhammad from among his people, graced him with His Prophethood and selected him for His message. After he admonished the people and conveyed His message to them God took him back unto Himself. We, being his family (ahl), his close associates endowed with the quality of guardianship (awliya'), his trustees and vice regent (awliya'), and his heir and legatee (warith), are the most deserving among all the people to take his place. But the people preferred themselves over us for this [privilege]. We became contented, disliking dissension and anxious to preserve the peace and well-being [of the community],
though we were fully aware that we were more entitled to this [leadership] than those who had taken it for themselves... I have sent my messenger to you and I call you to the Book of God, and the Sunna of his Prophet, the Sunna which has become obliterated and innovations have become active and energetic. If you listen to me and obey my orders I will guide you to the right path. May the Peace and the Mercy of God be upon you." 10
The content of this letter is a complete statement of the Shi`i doctrine of the Imamate even at this early stage. That the historical sources have recorded little of what we may call Shii religio-political theory is due to the fact that their main interest has been in events, not in the underlying principles behind those events. Yet in narrating the events the sources have preserved certain documents such as letters or speeches which give us a glimpse of those ideals which underly the events. We have quoted one of Hasan's letters in the previous chapter and pointed out the thinking of the Ahl al-Bayt. Now in the time of Husayn, twenty years after, Husayn's letters give exactly the same vein of thinking. In these letters Husayn adequately explains the concept of walaya, which means that God has bestowed upon the family of the Prophet special honour and qualities, thereby making them the ideal rulers, and that through their presence on earth His grace is disseminated. The other two terms of doctrinal importance are walaya, trusteeship or custodianship, an! d warith, heir and legatee, which are used by Husayn. We have seen in Chapter 4 that at the time of `Ali election for the caliphate, he was hailed in these terms by his closest associates. Now after thirty-five years the same terms are being used by Husayn.
Both these terms carry the idea of God's recommendation of
the family of the Prophet to the people, that Muhammad recommended 'Ali, and that at his death 'Ali recommended Hasan, who left the legacy of the House for Husayn. It may, however, be too early for these concepts to have assumed the full flowering of their doctrinal content, yet one can see their presence in their embryonic form.
The other important part of Husayn's letter is his declaration that the right of ruling the community is the exclusive right of the family of the Prophet and they alone can guide the people in the right path; or in other words, they alone, by virtue of their special qualities, can combine temporal power and religious guidance together. Moreover, by this statement Husayn made a judgement on the caliphates of Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthman. Then, in the last part of his letter, by calling people to the Sunna of the Prophet Husayn implicitly rejected the interpretations of the first three caliphs who were not among the Ahl al-Bayt. The followers of the House of the Prophet would, therefore, go back directly to the Sunna of the Prophet and their Imams, who are divinely inspired (walaya).
However, Husayn decided to respond to the call. Two obvious factors inspired him to act. Firstly, being the grandson of the founder of Islam, he must have felt it his duty to respond to the repeated appeals of these Muslims; and secondly, Yazid! 's pressing demand for homage was such that Husayn's filial piety and pride could not allow him to accept.
It was a difficult situation. Acceptance of the authority of Mu`awiya as the head of the Muslim state was an entirely different matter from the acceptance of Yazid. Mu'awiya, in spite of his worldliness and indifferent attitude towards religion, did not totally violate the norms of Islam, at least not outwardly. Yazid not only violated Qur'anic norms and Prophetic Sunna, but also openly subjected them to contempt and ridicule, as has been the consensus of Muslim writers of all times. Even Mu'awiya's own agents, in implementing the plan for Yazid's nomination, were concerned about the latter's character. Thus when Mu'awiya asked Ziyad to prepare the people of Basra and Kufa to accept Yazid's nomination, the governor advised Mu'awiya to try to mend the ways of his son before asking people to swear allegiance to him. 11
Notes to Chapter 7
1 For the character and conduct of Yazid, see Jahiz, Rasa'il,
"Risala fi Bani Umayya", pp.294 ff.; Baladhuri, IVB, pp. 1-11;
Aghani; XV, p.232; Mas'udi, Muruj, III, p.67; Damiri, Hayat al-
Hayawan, pp. 261 ff.; Ya'qubi, II, p.228. It is indeed surprising to
note that Henri Lammens! , in his Le califat de Yazid, contrary to the
unanimous reports of Muslim writers of all times, has taken great
pains to depict Yazid as an ideal character. Lammens' unusual
regard for the Umayyad house often led him to read the Arabic text
to suit his own purposes.
2 Baladhuri, IVB, pp.122 f.; 'Iqd, IV, p.226; Tabari, II, pp.196
f.; Dinawari, p.226
3 Baladhuri, IVB, p.12; Ya'qubi, II, p.241; Tabari, II, p. 216;
'Iqd IV, p.227; Bidaya, VIII, pp.146 f.
4 Tabari, II, p.219; Baladhuri, IVB, p. 15; Dinawari, p.228;
Bidaya, VIII, p.147
5 See Tabari, II, pp.233, 276; Baladhuri, IVB, p.13; Dinawari,
p.229; Mas'udi, Muruj, III, p. 55 Bidaya, VIII, p. 151
6 Tabari, II, pp.233 f.; Maqatil, p.96
7 Tabari, II p.234; Dinawari, p.229; Bidaya, VIII, pp. 151 f.
8 Tabari, II, pp.234 f.; Ya'qubi, II, p.242
9 Tabari, II, p.235; Mufid, Irshad, II, pp.35 f.
10 Tabari, II, p.240
11 See details in Tabari, II, pp.174 f.