Who was the Hossein ibn Ali

Husayn ibn Ali


Imam al-Husayn is the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (d. 632). He is the youngest son of his daughter Fatima (d. 632) and Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), the fourth rightly guided caliph (according to Sunni tradition). Husayn is considered the third imam in the Shiite tradition after his father Ali, the first imam, and his older brother Hasan ibn Ali (d. 670 or 678). Imam al-Husayn lived from 625 until his martyrdom at Kerbala in 680.


Imam al-Husayn and his martyrdom at Karbala

Imam al-Husayn refused the oath of allegiance to the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I (d. 683) after he took office in 680. As his place of residence in Medina was no longer safe and he had to fear for his life, he moved to Mecca.


Mecca was already a sacred place in pre-Islamic times, where people received refuge and asylum. Imam al-Husayn was then invited by Yazid’s opponents to Kufa and accepted this invitation. On the way there, however, his caravan was intercepted by an Umayyad army at Karbala. Imam al-Husayn fell in the skirmish and was beheaded. The Kufa uprising against the Umayyads then collapsed.


The importance of Imam al-Husayn for Shiites

Shiites venerate Imam al-Husayn to this day and commemorate his martyrdom (Shahada), as well as his steadfastness against what they regard as the illegitimate claim of the Umayyads to rule the caliphate and the leadership of the Muslims. Shiites remember his murder at Karbala on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, which is why it is also called Ashura. His death became the symbol of numerous other uprisings against the rule of the Umayyad dynasty and ultimately led to the Abbasid Revolution that ended the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus in 750.


For Shiites, Imam al-Husayn is still the prince of martyrs (Arabic sayyid asch-shuhada). The grave of Imam al-Husayn near Karbala therefore became the most visited pilgrimage site of the Shiites. In the centuries that followed, the grave was repeatedly used as the starting point for Shiite opposition movements against the incumbent Muslim rulers. The caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861) destroyed the shrine of Karbala in 850 in order to end Shiite pilgrimages to this shrine and the associated risk of revolts.


There are different traditions about the whereabouts of the head of Imam al-Husayn. According to a widespread version, his head was first taken to the Umayyad governor of Kufa and then to the caliph Yazid I in Damascus, where it ultimately stayed. According to another tradition, he was given back to his relatives in Kufa. However, today you can also find a martyr's shrine in Cairo near al-Azhar University, where the head of Imam al-Husayn is kept and venerated. Other traditional places where Imam al-Husayn's head remained are: Medina, Najaf, Kerbela, Raqqa and Marw.