Retelling the tragedy of Karbalâ has traditionally been an important feature of Shî‘î spirituality. The passion plays of Iran and the Indian subcontinent, the literature, both prose and poetry, composed upon the subject of the martyrdom of Sayyidunâ Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) and the general atmosphere of mourning that reigns amongst the Shî‘ah during the month of Muharram, all bear eloquent testimony to importance of that event in the Shî‘î calendar. To the Shî‘ah, ‘Âshurâ is probably the most important day of the year.
However, it is regrettable that despite the huge amount of attention the subject of Karbalâ enjoys, the event is persistently portrayed as two-sided. It is always depicted as Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) against Yazîd, Right rising up against Wrong, the Quest for Justice against the Forces of Oppression. Many an opportunist has even gone to the extent of superimposing upon the event the theme of Shî‘ah against Ahl as-Sunnah.
In this partial retelling that concentrates upon what actually happened at Karbalâ, and conveniently draws attention away from the other guilty party in the ‘Âshûrâ tragedy, lies another tragedy in itself. For while Hussain's (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) martyrdom has been oft commemorated, and his physical opponents and killers identified, cursed and eliminated, no one has spared a moment's anger for those who deserted him at the crucial hour.
It is these men in the shadows, who squarely deserve to be called the real villains of Karbalâ, upon whom this article seeks to cast light.
The People of Kufaa invite al-Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu)
It was in Ramadân 60AH that the letters from Kûfah started to arrive at the house of ‘Abbâs (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib in Makkah where Hussain ibn ‘Alî (radiyAllâhu ‘anhum) was staying after his flight from Madînah, letters urging him to lead the Kûfans into revolt against Yazîd ibn Mu‘âwiyah (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu), and assuring him of their loyalty and allegiance. Mu‘âwiyah (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) died two months earlier, and there was much resentment for his son Yazîd for whom the bay‘ah was taken as his successor. The people of Kûfah especially were looking at Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) for leadership, and soon there was stream of letters coming in from Kûfah. On certain days there would be as many as 600 letters, with messengers who enthusiastically described the support he would receive from the Kûfans.
Kûfah was a unique place, and the Kûfans a peculiar people. In 37AH Sayyidunâ ‘Alî (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) shifted his capital from Madînah to Kûfah, and ever since that city became the home of those who claimed partisanship of the Ahl al-Bayt. After the reconciliation between Hasan and Mu‘âwiyah (radiyAllâhu ‘anhum) in 41AH, many of those who had been in Sayyidunâ Hasan's (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) army, settled in Kûfah. At the time of Mu‘âwiyah's (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) death in 60AH pro-‘Ali (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) sentiments were still to be found in abundance in Kûfah. At the time of Mu‘âwiyah’s (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) death in 60 AH Kûfah was still very strongly pro-‘Ali (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu). Thus when the opportunity arose the Kûfans, who still regarded themselves as the Shî‘ah (supporters) of the Ahl al-Bayt, turned to Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) to lead them against Yazîd.
Sayyidunâ Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) decided to send his cousin Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) to investigate the situation in Kûfah. If he found it feasible he would write to inform Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu), who would depart with his family from Makkah to join him in Kûfah. Muslim arrived in Dhul Qa‘dah. The Kûfans, when they learnt of his arrival presented themselves at the residence of Muslim ibn ‘Awsajah al-Asadî where he was staying. Soon there were 12 000 Kûfans who had given their solemn pledge to support and protect Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) with their lives and all they possessed. When this number rose to 18 000, Muslim felt confident enough to dispatch a messenger to Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) informing him of the bay‘ah of the Kûfans, and urging him to proceed from Makkah.
Yazîd replaces the Governor of Kufah with Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd
Rumours of what was happening in Kûfah soon reached Yazîd in Damascus. He immediately replaced Nu‘mân ibn Bashîr, the governor of Kûfah, with the ruthless ‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd with orders to find Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl and kill him. Ibn Ziyâd entered Kûfah early in Dhul Hijjah, accompanied by seventeen men on horseback. With the end of his turban drawn over his face he was unrecognizable, and the people of Kûfah, who were expecting Sayyidunâ Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu), mistook him for Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu). “Peace upon you, o son of Rasûlullâh (grace, glory, blessings and peace be upon Him)," they hailed him. Thus it was that Ibn Ziyâd learnt the truth of the rumors. It was only when one of his mounted men shouted at them, “Stand back! This is the governor ‘Ubaydullâh ibn Ziyâd!" that the Kûfans realized the seriousness of their blunder.
Soon after reaching the governor's residence ‘ Ubaydullâh sent a servant of his own with a bag containing 3000 dirhams to pose as a newcomer from the Syrian town of Hims eager to join the imminent revolution, and thereby discover the whereabouts of Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl. He located Muslim in the house of Hânî ibn ‘Urwah, and took the pledge of allegiance at his hands. The money he handed over to Abû Thumâmah al-‘Âmirî who was acting as Muslim’s treasurer. After staying with them for a few days, during which he learnt most of what there was to know about their intrigue, he returned to Ibn Ziyâd and informed him. Hânî ibn ‘Urwah was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of Muslim’s whereabouts, but when the “newcomer from Hims" was brought before him he confessed. But he still refused to reveal where Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl was.
In the meantime Muslim came to hear about the arrest of Hânî ibn ‘Urwah. Realizing that the hour for a decisive encounter had arrived, he raised his battle cry “Yâ Mansûr”, at which 4000 of the men who had given him their oath of allegiance and loyalty to Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) gathered around him and proceeded towards the governor’s fort. When he saw Muslim ibn ‘Aqîl with the Kûfans at his gate, ‘Ubaydullâh sent some of the tribal leaders of Kûfah to speak with their people and draw them away from Muslim and warn them of the wrath that would descend upon them when the armies from Damascus arrived.
Soon Muslim's army was called upon by mothers telling their sons, "Come home, there are enough other people here," and fathers ominously warning their sons, "What will happen tomorrow when the Syrian armies start arriving from Damascus? What will you do?"
The resolve of the men who had taken a sacred oath to support and defend the cause of Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) and the Ahl al-Bayt against Yazîd and his Syrian armies could not hold in the face of such threats and discouragement, even though Hussain (radiyAllâhu ‘anhu) was on that very moment making his way to Kûfah with his nearest and dearest relying upon the promises of the Kufans.