The Commemoration of the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680) in al-Andalus

Despite over three centuries of Umayyad political rule in al-Andalus, during which pro-Alid sentiments were discouraged and (at times) outlawed, with ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib and his descendants sometimes being ritually cursed from the pulpits of the mosques, the Family of the Prophet (the Ahl al-Bayt)—which includes ‘Alī and his sons al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn—remained an important focal point for popular religious devotion among Andalusi Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. Putting aside the various pro-Alid and even Shī‘ī-inspired political movements in early medieval al-Andalus (about which I will write at a later date), much of the scholarly culture in al-Andalus within the fields of history, hadith, theology, mysticism and Qur’anic interpretation shared much in common with the broader Sunni world in considering ‘Alī (and his sons) one of the preeminent personalities of Islam whose proximity to the Prophet Muhammad and whose service to the faith deemed him worthy of major respect. Although Umayyad attempts to fabricate traditions and hadith favoring their family while condemning (or, at least, marginalizing) the Alids met with some success, it seems clear that the vast majority of Sunni scholars in al-Andalus maintained a considerable degree of respect for the Ahl al-Bayt. There were, of course, exceptions to this, such as the famous tenth-century, pro-Umayyad litterateur Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi (d. 940) excluding the names of ‘Alī and al-Ḥasan from the name of legitimate caliphs, listing Mu‘āwiyah b. Abī Sufyān as the fourth caliph instead; interestingly, he was strongly condemned for his doing so by several contemporaries, including none other than Mundhir b. Sa’īd al-Ballūṭī (d. 966), the chief judge of Córdoba under ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 912–961).

It has often been mistakenly assumed that, due to the longevity of Umayyad political rule in al-Andalus, or the staunch anti-Shī‘ism of many of the Andalusi Maliki scholars, devotion to the Family of the Prophet was unimportant in Andalusi religious culture. I will be devoting a future post to this question, highlighting how this is not only a problematic assumption but one that is contradicted by the surviving sources. In this particular piece, however, I have simply sought to provide a translation of an important piece of evidence from the fourteenth century—during the political and cultural apex of Nasrid rule in Granada—that demonstrates that devotion to the Family of the Prophet manifested itself in important ways during the late Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula. The text provides insight into the commemoration of ‘Ashūrā’—the 10th of Muharram and the date on which al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī was killed at Karbala by an Umayyad army—and shows that some Andalusi Muslims took the day as one of mourning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet rather than as a day of joy and happiness, as had been the case during the period of Umayyad rule. For the rather complex history of ‘Ashūrā’ being celebrated as a “day of joy and celebration” in Sunni Islam, see the following discussion by Maribel Fierro:

It should also be pointed out that fasting on the day of ‘Ashūrā’ was a firmly-established religious tradition in al-Andalus (as it was in most Sunni communities), but it remains unclear whether those communities who mourned on ‘Ashūrā’ continued to fast on that day or abandoned this practice. There is strong evidence that the tradition encouraging fasting on this day was widely transmitted among Andalusi Muslims in Sharq al-Andalus, and can be traced from the 9th and 10th centuries as late as the Morisco period in the 16th and 17th centuries. Based on this fact, it seems plausible, at least to me, that these communities found a way to harmonize their commemoration of the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī while also maintaining the fast of ‘Ashūrā’.

The text in question was authored by Lisān al-Dīn Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Khaṭīb al-Salmānī (d. 1374) who was perhaps the greatest Muslim writer of Nasrid Granada and an almost unparalleled source for knowledge of the history and culture of the late 7th/13th century and of the greater part of the 8th/14th century. He distinguished himself in almost all branches of learning and wrote works on history, poetry, medicine, ethics, literature, politics, and mystico-philosophical subjects. He served as the head of chancery of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada and was also the chief minister (dhūl-wizāratayn) of the dynasty. He traveled widely throughout North Africa and al-Andalus in the fourteenth century and was part of a vast intellectual and scholarly network which included, among other individuals, the prominent historian ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) and the jurist Ibn Marzūq al-Tilmisānī (d. 1379). The following text is a translated excerpt from his historical chronicle, entitled A‘māl al-A‘lām which was composed between 1371 and 1374. In many ways it reflects a later Andalusi perspective of the events that culminated in the martyrdom of al-Husayn b. ‘Ali at Karbala. As can be seen from the latter part of the text, Ibn al-Khatib is specifically responding to the notorious claims of the Almoravid-era Andalusi jurist Qādī Abū Bakr ibn al-‘Arabī (d. 1148), writing more than two centuries earlier, that al-Husayn was legitimately killed by the Umayyads.

The text is notable not only for providing an important Andalusi perspective on the reign of Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiyah (r. 680–683) and the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, but also for the details it gives about the commemoration of ‘Ashūrā’ in al-Andalus, especially in Sharq al-Andalus (corresponding to the modern-day regions of Murcia and Valencia in Spain) during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ibn al-Khaṭīb claims that among Andalusi Muslims in the Valencia and Murcia regions of eastern Spain, there existed a well-established custom of mourning the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn on the tenth of Muḥarram (‘Ashūrā’) with specific rituals such as lighting candles, distributing food, and by reciting  marāthī husaynīyya (lament poems commemorating the martyrdom of al-Husayn). He even preserves two such poems in their entirety to give the reader an idea about the themes involved in these ‘Ashūrā’ commemorations.

The poems he preserves date from the late 12th century and were composed by Abū Baḥr Ṣafwān ibn Idrīs (ca. 1185), an eminent scholar from Murcia. They lament the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn, praise the Family of the Prophet as “the house of true religious guidance,” and condemn in the strongest terms Yazīd, the Umayyad ruler responsible for ordering the massacre at Karbala. The poems also critique the Muslim community at large for failing to sufficiently commemorate and mourn the tragedy. Ibn al-Khaṭīb ends his chapter by endorsing the commemoration of the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn (upon whom he bestows abundant blessings) and rejecting the perspectives which seek to limit the importance of Karbala to a minor, albeit tragic, historical incident or which attempt to downplay the gravity of the oppression wrought by Yazīd, who—according to Ibn al-Khaṭīb—could not reasonably be considered a true believer (let alone a legitimate caliph) due to his role in the murder of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The passages in question thus shed important light on the religious culture of Andalusi (Sunni) Muslims in late medieval Iberia, especially as represented and understood by a prominent figure in Nasrid Granada. Furthermore, the text is important in undercutting many of the assumptions which remain dominant, such as the notion that mourning on the day of ‘Ashūrā’ in the Middle Ages was an exclusively Shī‘ī religious observance or the idea that devotion to the family of the Prophet was not as central in al-Andalus as it was in other parts of the Islamic world. Nor is Ibn al-Khaṭīb the only major Andalusi scholar who embraced either this perspective of Yazīd or the notion that al-Ḥusayn’s martyrdom had major historical significance. Even the ostensibly pro-Umayyad polymath Abū Muḥammad ibn Hazm (d. 1064), in his historical account of the caliphate, strongly condemns Yazīd as a tyrannical ruler while affirming that the killing of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī was “among the worst tragedies [in Islamic history]” (

Another prominent Andalusi scholar, historian and man of letters—Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn al-Abbār al-Balansī (d. 1260)—originally from Valencia but who eventually settled in Hafsid Tunis authored a significant work, the Durrar al-Simṭ fī Khabar al-Sibṭ*, in which he strongly condemned the Umayyads (referred to as “the Pharaohs of the Levant”), enumerated the virtues of the Family of the Prophet and commemorated the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn.

*The complete (Arabic) text of Ibn al-Abbār’s Durrar al-Simṭ fī Khabar al-Sibṭ can be accessed here:


Al-Ḥasan b. ‘Alī, the heir to the caliphate, had died during the lifetime [of Mu‘āwiya] and, as a result, Mu‘āwiya secured the succession of his own son, Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya, by coercion and forcing the people to pledge allegiance to him. And God knows best what his underlying reasoning was for doing so…When Mu‘āwiya had gathered people together in his court, he sensed that there was opposition to his decision to nominate Yazíd, when one of his supporters stood up in front of him, unsheathed his sword and said: “The Commander of the Faithful is indeed this (pointing to Mu‘āwiya) and when he shall die it will be this (pointing to Yazīd), and if anyone denies this then they shall face this (pointing to his sharp sword).” Mu‘āwiya said to him: “Be seated, for you are indeed the most eloquent of speakers.”

The oath of allegiance was thus secured by force for Yazīd at a time when the land was still full of candidates [for the caliphate], including the remnants of the Companions of the Prophet, the son of the daughter of the Prophet [i.e. al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī], the children of the first caliph and the sons of the honorable members of the Council of Consultation [of ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb], all of whom cared for the well-being of the Muslim community. Mu‘āwiya fell ill in his palace in Damascus in Rajab 61 A.H. He was around 80 years old at this time. According to some narrations his son Yazīd was absent (from Damascus) at this time so [Mu‘āwiya] sent al-Ḍaḥḥāk b. Qays and Muslim b. ‘Uqba to convey his last will and testament to him: “Treat the people of the Hijaz well and with generosity, for verily they are your family. As for the people of Iraq, treat them well also and if they ask you to install a different governor each day, then do so. Removing a governor is far easier for you than having to deal with 100,000 unsheathed swords against your rule. As for the people of Syria, make them your pillar of support and closest allies.” He then died in Damascus and was buried at one of its gates, his tomb today being well-known.

The Rule of Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya

His honorific was Abū Khālid and he was an oppressive tyrant. The people of Medina had risen up against him and overthrown his authority, and placed themselves under the leadership of ‘Abd Allāh b. Hanḍala. As a result, [Yazīd] sent an army led by Muslim b. ‘Uqba al-Murrī against the people of Medina. [Muslim b. Uqba] descended upon al-Ḥarra and surrounded the city of Medina before conquering it after a fierce battle. Over 1700 people from among the Quraysh, the Emigrants (Muhājirūn), and the Helpers (Anṣār) were killed during this battle and, putting aside the women and children slaughtered, 10,000 were killed from amongst the city folk. The city was subjected to pillaging for three days and daily prayers in the Mosque of the Prophet ceased, nor was the one who sought refuge in its vicinity safe. ‘Abd Allāh b. Ḥanḍala was also killed. Al-‘Utbī mentioned that over 80 Companions of the Prophet were killed in the city. This all occurred in 63 A.H. [683 A.D.]. And when the news of all this reached Yazīd, he was elated and recited the poetic verses from the time of jahilīyya: “If only my ancestors at Badr were here to witness the fear of Khazraj [one of the preeminent tribes of Medina] from the striking of the swords.” This shows the degree of his hypocrisy and the hatred that he harbored for the Companions of the Prophet of God as a result of their killing his ancestors [during the various battles between the Muslims and the Quraysh in the 620s].

Yazīd’s reign was one of the keys of evil and opening of the gates of corruption into the institution of the leadership of the Muslims, perverting that noble office [the caliphate] and debasing it. He was the first ruler to openly drink wine, to occupy himself with leisurely endeavors, and abandon major affairs of state, even abandoning his leadership of prayer and giving the Friday sermon. He appointed unqualified people to high positions, even when there were many from among the honorable Arab notables and blessed Companions at the time [who were more qualified for such positions].

Furthermore, he ordered the massacre of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī, along with 80 members of his family, which took place on the 10th of Muharram at Karbala by the hand of ‘Ubayd Allāh b. Ziyād. The women of al-Ḥusayn’s household, including the granddaughter of the Prophet, were taken captive and were carried with their faces uncovered on the backs of camels [to Damascus]. Yazīd placed al-Ḥusayn’s head between his hands and ordered that it be carried triumphantly throughout the realm, until it finally reached Egypt, where his blessed shrine still exists.

The mourning and sadness for al-Ḥusayn continues until our own time and the practice of communal, ritual mourning (al-mātam), in which people gather together, setting aside a night and a day, to commemorate the day of his martyrdom, is a well-established custom in many countries. This is especially the case in Sharq al-Andalus [the eastern parts of Spain, primarily the modern-day provinces of Valencia and Murcia]. Our eminent teachers (shuyūkhuna) have related to us the particular manner in which [the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn] is commemorated in Sharq al-Andalus: among other things, by lighting candles, distributing food, burning incense, and reciting poetic lamentations for al-Ḥusayn (al-marāthī al-ḥusaynīyya). An example of one such poem is the one recited by the Imām Abū Baḥr Ṣafwān ibn Idrīs [d. 598/1202], who in addition to being a descendant [of al-Ḥusayn] and the son of the preacher of the great mosque in the city [of Murcia] (may God return it!), was an expert in the lament poems for al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī (may God be pleased with him):

سلام كأزهار الربى يتنسّم ** على منزل منه الهدى يُتعلّم
على مصرع للفاطميين غُيّبت ** لأوجههم فيه بدور و أنجم
على…فاطهر اهلهه **لعاينت أعضاء النبي تُقسّم
على كربلاء ألا خلف الغيث بكربلا ** و إلا فإن الدمع اندر و اكرم
مصارع…………. ** و ناح عليهن الحطيم و زمزم
عطّروا الأحجار و الركن و الصفا ** و موقف جمع و المقام المعظم
و بالحجر الملثوم عنوان حسرة ** ألست تراه و هو أسود أسحم
و روضة مولانا النبي محمد ** تبدى عليها الثكل يوم تُحرّم
و منبره…و الجذع أعولا ** عليهم عويلاً بالضمائر يفهم
و لو قدرت تلك جمادات قدرهم ** لدك حراء و استطير يلملمُ
و ما قدر مالكي البلاد و أهلها ** لآل رسول الله و الردّة أعظم
لو أن رسول الله يحيى بُعيدهم ** رأى ابن زياد أمّه كيف تعقم
و أقبلت الزهراء قدس تربها ** تنادي اباها و المدامع تسجُم
تقول: ابي هم غادروا نهبة ** لما صاغه فين و ما مج أرقم
سقوا حسناً بالسمّ كأساً رويداً ** و لم يقرعوا سنا و لم ينتدم
هم قطعوا رأس الحسين بكربلا ** كأنهم قد أحسوا حين أجرم
فخذ منهم ثاري و سكن جوانحاً ** و أجفان عين تستطير و تسجُمُ
أبي و انتصر للسبط و اذكر مصابه ** و عليه و النهر ريان مفعمُ
و أسر بنيه بعده و احتمالهم ** كأنهم من نسل كسرى تُغُنُّمٌ
و نقر يزيد في الثنايا التي اغتدت ** ثنايا بك فيها ايها النور تلتُمُ
و لكنها أقدار ربّي بها قضى ** فلا يتخطى النقض ما هو مُبرمُ
قضى الله ان يقضي عليهم عبيدهم ** لتشقى بهم تلك العبيد و تَنقمُ
هُم القوم أما سعيهم متخيب ** مضاع و أما دارهم فجهنم
فيا ايها المغرور والله غاضبٌ ** لبنت رسول الله…
قفوا ما عدونا بالدموع فإنها ** لتصغر في حق الحسين و فاطم
و مهما سمعتم في الحسين مراثيا ** تُعبر عن محض الأسى و تترحّمُ
فمدوا أكُفّاً مستعدين بدعوةٍ ** و صلوا على جد الحسين و سلِّمُ

May peace of the likeness of a breeze of roses be upon the noble house [of the Prophet]

A house from which true guidance is learned

May peace be upon the Fatimids, those who were massacred.

Their faces became the likeness of faded moons and stars.

That the best of his Family is [being killed] it is as if the Prophet himself was being cut to pieces

In the land of Karbala, where there was no assistance but only precious tears

Even the wells of Zamzam and Ḥatīm wept over them

Their tears perfumed the rocks, Ṣafa, the corners of the Ka’ba and the Station of Abraham

And the broken Black Stone represents the anguish over the tragedy; can’t you see how it mourns with the intensity of its blackness?!

The garden surrounding the [tomb of the] Prophet grieves on the [tenth] day of Muḥarram

And even the pulpit [of the Prophet] and the tree weeps for them, grief which only those with conscience can understand

Even these inanimate objects were able to recognize the lofty position [of the Ahl al-Bayt], such that even the Cave of Ḥīra’ would come crashing down and ground into small pieces in humility

Yet, the kings of the nations and their people did not recognize the rank of the Family of the Prophet of God, and their failing to do so is a great crime.

If the Prophet of God was brought to life, Ibn Ziyād would see how his mother would be devastated

And [Fāṭīma] al-Zahrā’ (may God sanctify her tomb) would have come forth calling to her father with eyes flowing with tears saying: ‘O Father, they have unjustly betrayed my son [al-Ḥusayn]!

They served al-Ḥasan a cup of poison, little by little, and they did not feel regret or remorse

They cut off the head of al-Ḥusayn at Karbalā’ as if he was a criminal

Avenge me and lessen my pain and stop the flowing tears from my eyes

O Father, be victorious for thy grandson [al-Ḥusayn] and remember his tragedy

And remember the imprisonment of his children after him, and how they were carried off as if they were the offspring of Khusrau which had been captured in war

And remember the torture which Yazid had imposed upon my soul, which only you—O Light—can heal…

Such things were ordained by God to take place, despite our hopes and wishes

God ordained that they would be killed by their own slaves [the Banū Umayya], who acted mischievously towards them

These are a people whose deeds are worthless, they are destined for Hell

O arrogant one [Yazid], God is angry at you for the sake of the daughter of the Prophet

Our tears cannot do justice to the struggles of al-Ḥusayn and Fāṭīma

And whatever you hear from laments about al-Ḥusayn

Which express immense sorrow and pain

Then extend your prayers and blessings upon the grandfather of al-Ḥusayn

There are also rituals associated with listening to these poetic lamentations for al-Ḥusayn, which continue to our own day, even though they are not as widely observed as before. These lamentations are referred to as “al-Husayniyya” or “al-Ṣafa,” the origins of which are unclear. Another of Abū Baḥr’s famous lamentations for al-Ḥusayn and one of the earliest that he composed is: [Second poem currently being translated]

Having committed such transgressions and massive crimes [against the Family of the Prophet], one cannot help but wonder: in what manner will Yazīd meet the Prophet of God [on the Day of Judgment], when even his claims of being a believer will be of no assistance?! Indeed, there is no way of concealing the ignorance of the individual who considers Yazīd to be from among God’s caliphs, the inheritor of His Prophet, whether through lineage, deed, or any other manner. For verily, one cannot claim to be a true believer unless they love the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him), his Family, his righteous followers, and respects those whom the Prophet was pleased with and affiliated himself with. As for the ones who murdered [the Prophet’s] grandson and family, drove his progeny as captives through the streets, and enslaved the blessed women of the family, they cannot even remotely be considered to be believers. And woe to the one [a reference to Abū Bakr ibn al-‘Arabī] who claims that Yazīd was (legitimately) girded with the sword of the grandfather of al-Ḥusayn [the “sword of the Prophet” was a metaphor for political authority] or that he was more entitled to this sword than al-Ḥusayn himself.

Some of our companions said: If the legal ruling for the one who purposely desecrates a mosque or even a pulpit is severe under the rules of the sacred law, then what punishment should the murderer of the Prophet’s grandson deserve, especially when he disrespected his decapitated head, poked his teeth with his staff, mistreated his children and openly celebrated their misfortune?! Praise be to God that our own era is free from such disgrace and we ask God, in his mercy, for protection in both life and death. God Almighty did not grant fortune to Yazīd, who died in the middle of Ṣafar 64 A.H. [October 683 A.D.]. He was succeeded by his son Mu‘āwiyah.

[Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khaṭīb, A‘māl al-A‘lām (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 2003), 1: 70–77]

2 thoughts on “The Commemoration of the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680) in al-Andalus

  1. I was looking for poems of al Farazdaq and the first page to come up was this. Thank you for sharing your knowledge in such a way that complicated history becomes easy to follow. I really appreciate your blog and always leave it enriched.

  2. Pingback: Imam al Hussein och spanska al Andalus | Bahlool

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