Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505) on the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680)

Jalāl al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. Abī Bakr al-Suyūṭī lived in Mamluk Egypt and was one of the most prolific scholars in Islamic history. He was an expert in hadith, language, theology, mysticism, jurisprudence, exegesis and history in addition to an array of other topics. Due to his mastery of a vast number of sciences and his authorship of hundreds of books (he apparently wrote over 550!), he was known as Ibn al-Kutub (“son of books”). He is considered a major authority in the Shafi’i school and is even widely considered by many to be the mujaddid (the Renewer of the Faith) of his time. He held various important offices and appointments throughout his life, including that of mufti. His works remain widely cited today and his authority is especially recognized in the fields of Qur’anic sciences and history. His historical chronicle of the lives of the caliphs, Tārikh al-Khulafā’, provides a continuous narrative of the political history of the institution of the caliphate from the death of the Prophet to the late fifteenth century. The following translation is taken from this work, particularly the section of his description of Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya’s period of governance, and reflects a developed Sunni narrative of his caliphate. In contrast to many other Sunni historians, al-Suyūṭī emphasizes supernatural occurrences, especially in the context of the aftermath of Karbala, and reads the events in question through a lens that is informed by Sunni theology and hadith narrations. Among the later-day Sunni narratives of Karbala, al-Suyūṭī’s is by far the most comprehensive and detailed. Considering the degree of his authority in the Sunni tradition and as a historian of the medieval Islamic world, this is most certainly a narrative of Karbala that should strongly inform the modern reader’s understanding of the medieval Sunni perspective of both Yazīd and al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī.


When Mu‘āwiya died, the people of Syria pledged allegiance to his son Yazīd. However, when the latter sent individuals to Medina to secure their allegiance to him, both al-Ḥusayn and Ibn al-Zubayr refused to do so and they both departed by night from the city. With regard to Ibn al-Zubayr, he neither took the oath of allegiance nor made any explicit pretentions [to the caliphate]. Al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, on the other hand, was implored by the people of Kufa to come to their city following the accession of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiyah. [Abd Allāh] ibn al-Zubayr encouraged him to set out for Kufa, whereas Ibn ‘Abbās strongly advised him against it. Ibn ‘Umar also warned him against going to Kufa, for, as Ibn ‘Umar said: “God had placed two options before the Prophet, the benefits of this world or the reward of the afterlife, [and he chose the afterlife]. Since you, O Ḥusayn, are a part of him, I implore you not to pursue the temptations of this world.” He then embraced him, cried, and bid him farewell. Ibn ‘Umar would later say: “al-Ḥusayn insisted on going to Kufa, even though he had an important example in the lives of his father and his brother [who were betrayed by the Kufans].” Other companions attempted to dissuade al-Ḥusayn from going to Kufa, including Jābir ibn ‘Abd Allāh, Abū Wāqib al-Laythī, Abū Sa‘īd al-Khudrī, and others; however, he insisted on setting out for Iraq. Ibn ‘Abbās told him: “By God, I think that you will be killed in the presence of your wives, sisters, and daughters just as ‘Uthmān [ibn ‘Affān] had been.” These words did not dissuade al-Ḥusayn so Ibn ‘Abbās cried and said: “Woe to Ibn al-Zubayr [for encouraging al-Ḥusayn to go to Kufa]!” When Ibn ‘Abbās saw Ibn al-Zubayr, he rebuked him: “That which you sought has come to pass! Al-Ḥusayn has departed for Iraq and left the Ḥijāz for you!”

The people of Iraq had sent numerous letters to al-Ḥusayn begging him to come to them. As a result, he left Mecca on the 10th of Dhul Ḥijjah. He had with him a large group of his family, including women and children. Yazīd wrote to ‘Ubaydallāh ibn Ziyād, his governor in Iraq, ordering him to intercept and militarily engage al-Ḥusayn. Yazīd sent 40,000 soldiers to Ibn Ziyād for this purpose; this army was commanded by ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d ibn Abī Waqqāṣ. Just as they did to his father before him, the people of Kufa betrayed al-Ḥusayn. When he realized that he was militarily outnumbered, al-Ḥusayn offered to return to Mecca or to go to Yazīd in Damascus. However, they refused his offers and insisted on killing him. He was then killed, beheaded, and his head placed in a basket which was brought to Ibn Ziyād. May God curse his killers, Ibn Ziyād, and Yazīd as well! He was killed at Karbala; the story of his death is a long one which the heart cannot bear to relate without immense sadness. Verily, we are from God and unto him we return! Sixteen of his family members were killed alongside him.

When al-Ḥusayn was murdered, the world stood still for seven days and the stars collided with one another. He was killed on the Day of ‘Ashūra’ [10th of Muharram] and there was a lunar eclipse on that day and the horizon was a blood-red color for six months after that. The redness of the sky continued after that, even though such a thing had never been seen before. It was also said that not a single stone was overturned in Jerusalem on that day except that fresh blood was found beneath it. And the saffron that was in the army [of Ibn Ziyād] became ashes…and a man who had spoken an ill word against al-Ḥusayn was blinded when the Almighty cast two stars into his eyes to take away his sight.

Al-Tha‘labī has related that many historians have conveyed from several chains of narration on the authority of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn ‘Umayr al-Laythī who said: ‘I have seen in this very palace’—and he pointed to the governor’s residence of Kufa—‘the head of ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyād in the hands of al-Mukhtār ibn Abī ‘Ubayd; then I saw the head of al-Mukhtār before the hands of Muṣ‘ab ibn al-Zubayr; then I saw the head of Muṣ‘ab before the hands of ‘Abd al-Malik [ibn Marwān]. I related this to ‘Abd al-Malik who was startled at this and departed from the palace.’

Al-Tirmidhī narrated on the authority of Salma, who said: ‘I entered into the presence of Umm Salama, who was crying and I said to her: ‘Why do you cry?’ She said: ‘I saw the Prophet of God in my dream with dust upon his head and beard and asked him about why he was in this condition. He replied that he had just witnessed the murder of al-Ḥusayn.’

Al-Bayhaqī related in his Dalā’il on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās: ‘I saw the Prophet at midday with disheveled hair, soiled with dust and in his hand a vial of blood, so I said to him: ‘May you be ransomed by my mother and father O Prophet of God, what is this [in your hand]?’ He replied and said: ‘This is the blood of al-Ḥusayn and his companions; I have not ceased to gather it up since this day.’ They calculated that day and found that it was the very day upon which al-Ḥusayn was killed.

Abū Nu‘aym related in his Dalā’il on the authority of Umm Salama who said: ‘I heard the jinn crying for al-Ḥusayn and lamenting for him.’

And when al-Ḥusayn and his brothers were killed, Ibn Ziyād had their heads sent to Yazīd, who at first rejoiced at the fact they had been killed, but came to regret that fact when the Muslims hated him for doing so and bore him enmity for his act, and justly so.

Abū Ya‘la narrated in his Musnad with a weak chain of transmission on the authority of Abū ‘Ubayda who said: ‘The Prophet of God said that the affairs of my nation shall remain firmly rooted in the principles of justice until the first that shall subvert it is a man of the Banū Umayya called Yazīd.’

On the authority of Nawfal ibn Abī al-Furāt: ‘I was with ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz when someone mentioned Yazīd with the title ‘the Commander of the Faithful Yazīd ibn Mu ‘āwiya.’ ‘Umar replied: ‘You dare call him the Commander of the Faithful?!’ and ordered that he be whipped with twenty lashes.’

In 63 A.H. [683 A.D.], Yazīd learned that the people of Medina had rebelled against him and overthrew his authority, so he had an army sent against them with orders to fight them before proceeding onto Mecca to fight Ibn al-Zubayr. When this army arrived in Medina, the Battle of al-Ḥarra took place near the Gate of Ṭayba, and if only you knew what the Battle of al-Ḥarra was like! Al-Hasan [al-Baṣrī] mentioned it once and said: ‘By God, barely any of them escaped alive!’ A large number of Companions and others were killed during this battle and Medina itself was plundered and a thousand young women violated. For verily we belong to God and unto Him we return! The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had said: ‘The one who harms the people of Medina is one whom God will harm and upon him be the curse of God, the angels and all mankind’ (narrated by Muslim). The reason for the rebellion of the people of Medina against Yazīd was that his iniquity knew no limit. According to al-Waqidī, relating from various chains of narration, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Handhala ibn al-Ghasīl said: ‘By God, we did not rebel against Yazīd until we had come to a point where we feared that we would be stoned by rocks from the heavens! Verily, he was an individual who would marry slave mothers who had borne children to their masters, and daughters and sisters [forbidden degrees of marriage in Islam], drink wine and abandon public prayers.’

Al-Dhahabī said: Due to Yazīd’s actions against the people of Medina, along with his wine-drinking and other forbidden things, the people began to violently oppose him, with many openly rebelling against him and God did not bless his life. And the army he had sent to al-Ḥarra advanced to Mecca to fight against Ibn al-Zubayr, with the army commander dying en route but a replacement was appointed and they reached Mecca, besieged Ibn al-Zubayr, waged war against him and assaulted him with catapults; this was in Ṣafar 64 A.H. [September 683 A.D.]. And from the sparks of the fire [of the catapults], the coverings of the Ka‘ba, as well as its roof—in which were the two horns of the ram with which God had substituted for [the Prophet] Ismā‘īl—caught fire.

God annihilated Yazīd on 15th Rabī‘ al-Awwal 64 A.H. [November 11th 683 A.D.], and the news of his death arrived while fighting was still ongoing [in Mecca], and Ibn al-Zubayr called out: ‘O people of Syria, verily your tyrant is dead’ and they were routed, broken and taken captive by the people. Following this, Ibn al-Zubayr called the people to pledge allegiance to him and he assumed the title of caliph; as for the people of Syria, they gave their allegiance to Mu‘āwiya ibn Yazīd, who did not rule for very long.”

[Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī, Tārīkh al-Khulafā’ (Beirut: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 2010), pp. 184–188]


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