Home » History » Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286) on the Martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (d. 680)

Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286) on the Martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (d. 680)

Gregory Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286) was a catholicos (bishop) of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the late thirteenth century. He wrote numerous theological, philosophical and historical works. The following section is taken from his Tārīkh Mukhtaṣar al-Duwal, a universal history written in Arabic in which he devotes a large amount of space to the Muslim dynasties which ruled the Middle East. The section in question is notable because of the detail which he provides about the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī (d. 680). Even more interesting is the fact that the entirety of the section about Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya is devoted to narrating the events of this martyrdom. In many ways, this reflects the consciousness about the massacre at Karbala even in Syriac Christian circles centuries later. It also shows how the legacy of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya had developed; he was remembered primarily as the individual responsible for the murder of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. 


“[Before he died] Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān secured the oath of allegiance to his son Yazīd from the people of Mecca and Medina by the sword. The people of Syria also gave their oath of allegiance. When Mu‘āwiya was dead, the governor of Medina—al-Walīd ibn ‘Utba—summoned al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī and ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr into his presence during the middle of the night and ordered them to offer the oath of allegiance to Yazīd. In response, they said: “People of our status do not give the oath of allegiance in secret, summon us again in the morning.” They then departed from the governor’s presence and secretly escaped from Medina to Mecca that night, determined never to offer the oath of allegiance. Upon learning that these two men had refused to give the oath of allegiance, the people of Kūfa wrote to al-Ḥusayn, urging him to come to their city. In response, al-Ḥusayn sent Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl ibn Abī Ṭālib as an envoy to Kūfa to receive the oath of allegiance on his behalf. When Muslim arrived in the city, a large number of the Shi’ites gathered around him and gave allegiance to al-Ḥusayn. Word of this reached ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyād, who was at Baṣra, which caused him to set out for Kūfa.  When he arrived in the city, he was confronted by a large number of Shi’ites who attacked him, forcing him to fortify himself in his palace. That night, after people had left the presence of Muslim, Ibn Ziyād had Muslim secretly arrested, brought back to the palace, and beheaded.

When al-Ḥusayn heard about what had happened, he considered returning to Medina. However, Ibn Ziyād had sent an army of 1000 heavy cavalry led by al-Ḥurr ibn Yazīd. He encountered al-Ḥusayn and informed him: “I have not been ordered to fight thee, but only to bring you to Kūfa. If you refuse, then take a road that takes you neither to Kūfa nor back to Medina, until I write to Ibn Ziyād [informing him of your refusal].” Al-Ḥusayn took the road to al-Qadisīyya and was closely pursued by Ḥurr until they both encamped at al-Ghaḍirīyya. At the place, ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d ibn Abī Waqqās approached him with 4000 soldiers. He had with him the general Shimr [ibn Dhil Jawshan] and a large army. They encamped at a place called Karbalā’. Messengers were sent between them and al-Ḥusayn’s encampment. They prevented al-Ḥusayn and his companions from having access to the water of the river; as a result, the battle erupted on the Day of ‘Ashurā’ [tenth of Muḥarram], which was a Friday. Al-Ḥusayn had with him nineteen members of his family. Al-Ḥusayn was killed along with three of his own children, in addition to seven other children of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. ‘Alī ibn al-Ḥusayn [Zayn al-‘Abidīn] was not killed or harmed because he was ill on that day. All the descendants of al-Ḥusayn trace their lineage back to him until our own day. Overall, 87 companions of al-Ḥusayn were killed on that day. After the battle, ‘Alī ibn al-Ḥusayn and the women of the family were driven like slaves to Ibn Ziyād in Kūfa. It is said that Ibn Ziyād placed the head of al-Ḥusayn in a basket and poked it with his staff while saying (mockingly): “I have never seen a face this beautiful in my life.” Then he sent the prisoners along with the head to Yazīd ibn Mu’āwiya in Syria. Shortly thereafter, the family of al-Ḥusayn was sent by Yazīd to Medina.

Al-Ḥusayn was killed in the year 61 A.H. (680 A.D.) on the day of ‘Ashūrā’, which was a Friday. On that day, he was 58 years old. Over the centuries, the Shi’ites have added many embellishments and false details to the story which have no basis in fact.”

(Bar Hebraeus, Tarīkh Mukhtaṣar al-Duwal [Beirut: Dar al-Ra’id al-Lubnani, 1983], pp. 188–190)



  1. Imraan says:

    Thank you for this. I haven’t read any Bar Hebraeus for a couple of years; do you know if there’s a decent translation in English at all, please?

    In sha Allah this finds you well 🙂

    • ballandalus says:

      As far as I know, there has been no English translation of this text.

      • Imraan says:

        The last time I read some of his stuff my professor had translated it for us; I guess I need to get cracking on my Arabic then.

        Thank you for your reply. If I may ask one further question please, the end of the passage which asserts Shi’i embellishments to the tragedy – does he go on to explain what he thinks may have happened or where these lie?

        As an aside, as I recall, but my memory may have failed me, when I read al-Tabari’s account of part of the tragedy it was largely similar and not particularly polemical – certainly a polemicisation, if that is indeed a word, seems to have brought about with it perhaps an unnecessary or false emphasis on certain aspects of the tragedy (and every year in Muharram I hear theologians and speakers offer differing accounts from a pulpit on the tragedy – and they don’t often, until recently, reveal their sources, so I’m never sure of what kind of material they cite).

  2. ballandalus says:

    He actually does not explain further about what he calls “Shi’i embellishments.” I also wish he provided some explanation.

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