Misrepresenting Karbala: A Response to Dr. Yasir Qadhi


On November 10th 2013 (6th of Muharram 1435), Dr. Yasir Qadhi—a prominent Muslim cleric and public intellectual—gave a speech in which he sought to explore the historical dimensions of the massacre at Karbala in 680 A.D., in which Imām al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī—the beloved grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad—was brutally and ruthlessly murdered, along with 80 of his family members and companions, by the Umayyads (listen to the speech here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm7mKOTZ0qQ). I have a great deal of respect for Yasir Qadhi for his role as a community leader and an important force for good within the US Muslim community, but I must fundamentally disagree with several aspects of his framing of the events at Karbala. In this relatively short review, I want to shed some light on some of the assertions and omissions in his talk which were problematic.

Before moving on to my critique, I think it is important to point out that the fact that Dr. Qadhi is even talking about the events at Karbala is progress in itself. For too long, the Sunni Muslim community has been suffering from collective amnesia with regard to the martyrdom of Imām al-Ḥusayn. For too long, many in the Muslim community have not only failed to engage with, but have even failed to acknowledge, the historical reality of the massacre of an entire branch of the Prophet’s family by those who claimed to be leaders of the Muslim community. ‘Ashūrā’ is often a time marked by fasting and prayers, but rarely do we find a reflection upon the tragic events of the 10th of Muḥarram of the year 61 A.H, the day when one of the lights of the Ahl al-Bayt was permanently extinguished. Another major benefit of Dr. Qadhi’s speech was that he placed a great deal of emphasis upon the centrality of the Ahl al-Bayt in the estimation of Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jamā‘ah and the love of the major Companions for the Ahl al-Bayt. He presented important Qur’ānic and textual proofs for the superiority of the family of the Prophet over the other Companions of the Prophet. As he mentions, it is from among the fundamentals of Sunni Islam to love the Ahl al-Bayt. Moreover, he explained the tragedy of the fact that one of the most beloved of the Ahl al-Bayt was brutally and treacherously massacred at Karbala. He makes it absolutely clear that the Ahl al-Bayt were on the side of righteousness and were martyred in the cause of God. This certainly deserves to be commended and I hope other scholars and public figures in the Muslim community renew the emphasis on Ahl al-Bayt which was such a defining feature of Muslim identity in the classical period.

That being said, there were several key problems with Dr. Qadhi’s talk:

1)    His treatment of the sources is inconsistent and unscholarly.From the outset, Dr. Qadhi declares that he purposely ignores the accounts of Abū Mikhnaf (d. 774)* and al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) and chooses to focus instead on the narrative provided by Ibn Kathīr (d. 1375), al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) and Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalānī (d. 1448). I understand the need to make critical decisions about which sources to rely upon due to constraints of time. However, I think that it was a mistake to rely heavily on sources such as Ibn Kathīr for the events of Karbala. Putting aside the fact that the later narratives were written more than 700 years (!!) after the events they describe, they are also imbued with a strong sense of doctrinal commitment and polemical bias of a Sunnism which was hardly existent centuries earlier. In other words, the narrative provided by both Ibn Kathīr and Ibn Ḥajar cannot be considered as reliable sources for the actual history of Karbala, since they are later Sunni reflections on the event. Abū Mikhnaf and al-Ṭabarī, on the other hand, were writing much closer in time to the event itself and long before there were any substantial doctrinal (Sunnī vs. Shī‘i) formulations; the usefulness of these early chronicles is also reinforced by the fact that they both list chains of transmission and the sources being relied on. Moreover, many historians have recognized that the value of these sources far exceeds that of Ibn Kathīr’s chronicle (which itself makes heavy use of Abū Mikhnaf!), Ibn Ḥajar’s writings, and—most certainly—Ibn Taymīyya’s perspective, which Dr. Qadhi relies upon a little too heavily throughout his lecture. There is much more that can be said about his problematic use of sources, a problem which may stem from the fact that Dr. Qadhi is not a historian, but a theologian, but it should be sufficient to conclude by saying that the primary problem of the lecture was its failure to base itself upon reliable historical sources on one hand and its overreliance upon later medieval Sunni doctrinal texts on the other. He also massively misrepresents the nuanced and complex perspectives of Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jamā’ah by claiming that the positions he puts forth in his talk are representative of Sunni Islam as a whole.

*An English translation of Abū Mikhnaf’s account can be found here: http://www.sicm.org.uk/knowledge/Kitab%20Maqtal%20al-Husayn.pdf

2)     Dominance of Ibn Taymīyya’s views. The second problem relates to an overemphasis of the opinions of one particular figure: Ibn Taymīyya (d. 1328). This would have been fine if the premise of the lecture had been “Ibn Taymīyya’s Views on Karbala,” but as even Dr. Qadhi himself asserted his lecture was intended to be an actual historical exploration of the events of Karbala, not his summary of one medieval Muslim theologian’s views of them. The problem is compounded by the fact that the work by Ibn Taymīyya on which Dr. Qadhi relies upon the most during the analytical portions of the talk was Minhāj al-Sunnah al-Nabawīyya*, a virulently anti-Shī‘ī polemic which is hardly representative of the Sunni perspective on the events that transpired at Karbala; in fact, Ibn Taymīyya himself—in his later works—would nuance or reverse several of the views presented in this work. The audience would have been surprised to learn that Ibn Taymīyya was also NOT a historian, but a theologian so it was a very strange decision by Dr. Qadhi to privilege the views of this one thinker over the perspective provided by the classical Muslim historians (Tabarī, Abū Mikhnaf, al-Ya‘qūbī, al-Mas‘ūdī, Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn al-Jawzi etc.). This decision, I think, was one rooted more in theological concerns than a genuine desire to understand the historical reality of Karbala.

*[Minhāj al-Sunnah was a comprehensive refutation of Shī‘ism written in response to a major, anti-Sunnī polemical work entitled Minhāj al-Karāmah by a prominent Twelver Shī‘ī scholar named Ibn Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī (d. 1325). The arguments and statements put forth about Karbala by Ibn Taymīyya are therefore framed in a deliberately polemical and heavily ideological context in which the objective is to utilize history in order to prove the theological supremacy of one school of thought over another. On the other hand, if one looks to Ibn Taymīyya’s writings about Karbala found within the Majmū‘ al-Fatāwa, a collection of his writings and epistles, one can attain a far more nuanced perspective. Curiously, in one of his statements about Karbala found within the Fatāwa Ibn Taymīyya says: “The murder of al-Ḥusayn was one of the greatest catastrophes in history. His murder—like the assassination of ‘Uthmān —was one of the central causes for the strife and bloodshed in the Muslim community. Verily, his killers are the worst of creation in the eyes of God” (Majmū‘ al-Fatāwa 3: 411). Elsewhere in the same collection, Ibn Taymīyya exclaims: “As to those who killed al-Ḥusayn or assisted in that act or was pleased with it, may the curse (la’n) of God, the angels, and all the people be upon them. No deed will be accepted from these people from God as compensation for their heinous crime” (Majmū‘ al-Fatāwa4: 487). It was quite unfortunate that Dr. Qadhi did not include these two quotations within the body of his lecture, since I think it would have shown the audience the degree of significance which Ibn Taymīyya attached to the murder of al-Ḥusayn. The cursing of the murderers of al-Ḥusayn would have been particularly illustrative in demonstrating that this was not merely a later Shi’ite practice.https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/ibn-taymiyya-d-1328-on-the-martyrdom-of-imam-husayn-d-680/]

3)     Glorification of Mu‘āwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān. There is a very problematic discussion of the reign of Mu‘āwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān (r. 661–680). Dr. Qadhi completely passes over the fact that it was none other than Mu‘āwiyah who was one of the central antagonists during the First Civil War (656–661) and played a very negative role in the fragmentation of the Muslim community in his bid for power during his rebellious actions against Imām ‘Alī. Rather, Dr. Qadhi seeks to provide us with a flowery—and inaccurate—picture of Mu‘āwiyah as a just, peaceful ruler whose only intention was the preservation of the Muslim community. Such an assessment does not stand up to actual historical inquiry and is more a reflection of Dr. Qadhi’s doctrinal commitments. Quite conveniently, Dr. Qadhi fails to mention that Mu‘āwiyah secured the oath of allegiance to his son Yazīd by the sword, through compulsion and the use of violence. It was not a simple case, as Dr. Qadhi says, of most people accepting the appointment of Yazīd. He even uses the term “Imāmat al-Mafḍūl” (a largely Zaydi Shi’ite concept which affirms the permissibility for an individual of lesser stature to become caliph even though more qualified candidates exist) for Yazīd in order to provide a legitimizing framework for his reign (I hope he elaborates on what he meant by this concept, because I didn’t understand its use in this context). The attempt to misrepresent and justify these actions of Mu‘āwiyah which caused so much suffering to the Muslim community are among the most problematic aspects of the entire lecture.

4)    Ambiguous position on Yazīd. At various points throughout the talk there are attempts where Dr. Qadhi seems to not only defend, but even praise, Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiyah (esp. in the reference to Yazīd’ participation in a raid against Constantinople) . Despite all the historical evidence to the contrary, Dr. Qadhi insists that Yazīd was largely innocent from the murder of al-Ḥusayn; we are informed that the bulk of the blame rests with the Kufans, Ibn Ziyad, Shimr, and ‘Umar ibn Sa’d. He even suggests that Yazīd  was upset by the fact that al-Ḥusayn was murdered, yet admits that absolutely no action was taken to punish those responsible. Strangely, Dr. Qadhi does not even mention how the women and children of the Ahl al-Bayt were massively mistreated and paraded like slaves in the streets of Damascus and in the court of Yazīd…even though this is a major part of the tragedy of Karbala and is recorded by a vast majority of the chronicles. To those well-versed in history, it is quite clear that Yazīd did in fact play a central role in the murder of al-Ḥusayn, whose refusal to pledge allegiance to him as caliph threatened his very legitimacy. Any denial of Yazīd’s major responsibility is a massive distortion of history and anyone who wishes to learn the truth of these matters can easily learn the truth through a very cursory glance at the historical texts, which are quite unambiguous about Yazīd’s culpability; medieval Sunni, Shi’i, and even Christian sources written in Arabic all make this fact very clear. Although, to be fair, Dr. Qadhi does not claim that Yazīd is a positive role model—which is clear from his showing how no less a figure than Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal exclaimed “How can anyone with true belief claim to love Yazīd?!”—he fails to show the full extent of his tyranny and depravity (again, these are facts of history). Nowhere does he discuss how Yazīd was a sadist and debauched individual (even though these points are underscored by Ibn Taymīyya and Ibn Kathīr, Qadhi’s main sources) nor does he even mention how Yazīd was responsible for the sack of Medina (in which thousands of the Companions of the Prophet were killed) and the bombardment of Mecca, a siege which led to the destruction of the Ka‘ba. Yet, throughout the lecture we are led to believe that such an individual was unwilling to kill one political opponent…

5)     Theme of “Treacherous Shi’ites”. The overemphasis on the betrayal by the Kufans–identified as the primary culprits–also requires some commentary. It is undoubtedly true that the Kufan supporters of al-Ḥusayn massively betrayed him and refused to come to his assistance, despite being the ones who initially urged him to come to their city. As Dr. Qadhi pointed out, there are numerous indications which show how contemporary Muslims (Umm Salama, Ibn ‘Umar, even the Ahl al-Bayt themselves) blamed and cursed the Iraqis for their actions which played a huge role in the chain of events culminating in the massacre at Karbala. However, this betrayal was only one element of the broader story. The blame for the actual massacre rests squarely on the shoulders of the Umayyads. Time and again, Dr. Qadhi seeks to draw a connection between the treacherous Kufans and modern-day Shī‘ī Muslims who, he tells us, “beat themselves up every year for their betrayal of al-Ḥusayn.” It becomes clear that the overemphasis on the Kufans is intended to conform to a long-standing Sunni polemic in which the Shī‘is (past and present) are transformed from the supporters of the Ahl al-Bayt into their murderers; by contrast, he asserts that Sunni Muslims “are the true Shi’ites (supporters) of Ahl al-Bayt”. He reinforces this connection between modern Shi’ites and the Kufans further by tracing the theological origins of Shī‘ism to the Tawwabūn movement in the 680s. Rather than explaining that the development of theological Shi’ism was a long and complicated process which would require a much more detailed exposition, Dr. Qadhi chose to put forth these misleading statements to an audience which is already suffering from massive misconceptions of Shī‘ī Islam. Aside from being inaccurate in their own right, these claims are very unhelpful in the current climate of sectarianism, of which the demonization of Shī‘ī Muslims by the overwhelming majority of Muslims is one of the root causes.

6)     Factual errors. Throughout the lecture, there were several historical errors which demonstrate that Dr. Qadhi’s strengths lie in his being a theologian, not a historian. These errors could easily have been avoided by carefully reading through the texts and consulting secondary sources. The most significant of these errors was his statement that Zayd ibn ‘Alī (d. 740)—who was actually Imām Ḥusayn’s grandson—was killed not by the Umayyads, but by the Abbasids! Given that Zayd was killed ten years before the Abbasids became a dominant political force, this is a particularly grievous error. Every single narration about the revolt of Zayd mentions quite explicitly that he was rebelling against the Umayyads. Errors like this are unacceptable given the subject matter being covered here. Also, with regard to Zayd, Dr. Qadhi again places all the blame on the shoulders of the Kufans (“the Shi’ites”) and does not emphasize that it was in fact the Umayyads which murdered him, before having him decapitated…just as they did with al-Ḥusayn.

7)     Unflattering and unacceptable representation of Imām Ḥusayn. Despite claiming over and over that “we love and adore al-Ḥusayn,” Dr. Qadhi paints a very unflattering picture of him throughout his talk. Al-Ḥusayn is represented as an impulsive, naïve, and emotionally-driven individual whose only guiding force is his illogical drive for power and an attempt to reclaim his rights. Rather than commending his attempt to restore his rights (which Dr. Qadhi does acknowledge), he is critiqued for not having the wisdom of his brother al-Ḥasan ibn ‘Alī and conceding these rights to the Umayyad family. Nowhere is it mentioned that al-Ḥusayn was driven by a desire for justice and a strong awareness of the oppression wrought by the Umayyads against the Muslim community. Yazīd’s oppressive rule is barely mentioned. Nowhere do we have a sense of the Ḥusayn who is the son of Gate of Knowledge (‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib) whose wisdom was sought out by others and who was among the most knowledgeable men of the age. Rather, he is depicted as rejecting the wise advice of “more knowledgeable and wiser men” such as Ibn ‘Abbās and Ibn ‘Umar (regarding the point that Ibn ‘Umar was superior to al-Ḥusayn, see:https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/the-love-and-respect-of-umar-ibn-al-khattab-d-644-for-ahl-al-bayt/) .  Al-Ḥusayn’s decision to set out for Kufa is represented as flawed in every way and Dr. Qadhi seems to imply that his death was one that could have been easily avoided if only he had heeded the advice of his peers. This depiction is very unflattering and completely ignores that al-Ḥusayn knew perfectly well what he was doing. Indeed, he stated his objective in unambiguous terms in one of his final sermons in Mecca:

O People! The Prophet of Islam has said that if a believer sees a tyrannical ruler transgressing against God and his Messenger and oppressing people, but does nothing by word or action to change the situation, then it will be just for God to place him (the witness to tyranny) where he deservingly belongs. Do you not see to what low level the affairs [of this nation] have come to.., do you not observe that truth has been deviated from and falsehood has no limits. And as for me, I look upon death but a means of attaining martyrdom. I consider life among the transgressors an agony and an affliction!

(Abū Nu‘aym al-Iṣfahānī, Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’ ).

Since the Umayyads eventually did attack Mecca, it seems that in the long-run al-Ḥusayn’s sense of urgency in setting out to rectify the injustice which had occurred with the accession of Yazīd was justified after all, despite the “wise advice” of Ibn ‘Umar and Ibn ‘Abbas. Unfortunately, however, this is not acknowledged by Dr. Qadhi anywhere in the lecture.


This speech, despite the apparent good intentions of Dr. Qadhi, cannot be considered to be an accurate or even-handed representation of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Rather, it is a sobering reminder of the problems which ensue when history is exploited in order to conform to the narrow objectives of theological polemic.

(For an excellent and straightforward exposition of the events surrounding Karbala and the civil wars in early Islam, please see the link below. Dr. Khalid Yahya Blankinship is not only a prominent Muslim academic, but is also an expert on the history of the Umayyads [see his book here:http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Jihad-State-Al-Malik/dp/0791418286/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384633713&sr=8-1&keywords=khalid+yahya+blankinship]. Well worth a listen.)

Sources consulted

Abu Mikhnaf, Maqtal al-Ḥusayn (preserved in al-Ṭabarī)

Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Tabari, Tārīkh al-Rusul wal Mulūk

Aḥmad ibn Yaḥya al-Balādhurī, Ansāb al-Ashrāf

Aḥmad Ya‘qūbī, Tārikh al-Ya‘qūbī

Abū al-Ḥasan Alī ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Mas‘ūdī, Murūj al-Dhahab

Abū al-Faraj ibn al-Jawzī, al-Muntaẓam fi Tārīkh al-Mulūk wal Umam

Abū Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, Maqātil al-Ṭālibiyyīn

Abū Nu’aym al-Iṣfahānī, Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’

Shaykh al-Mufīd, Kitāb al-Irshād

Bar Hebraeus, Tārīkh Mukhtasar al-Duwwal

Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khatīb al-Salmānī, A’māl al-A’lām

Ismā‘īl ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāyah wal Nihāyah

Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā’

Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyuti, Tārīkh al-Khulafā’

source: ballandalus


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