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42 (2015)

Antoine Borrut

Remembering Karbal¯a : the construction of an early Islamic site of memory



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Antoine Borrut Remembering Karbal¯a : the con- struction of an early Islamic site of memory


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JSAI 42 (2015)





Antoine Borrut University of Maryland

The hearts of the people are with you [al-H . usayn], but their swords are with the Ban¯u Umayya 1

On the tenth of Muh arram, 61 AH (October 10, 680), a grandson of the

Prophet Muh ammad perished as a martyr on the banks of the Euphrates,



amidst the arid plain of Karbal¯a in southern Iraq. The death of al-

H . usayn b. Al¯ı at the hands of Umayyad forces is an upsetting memory,

chiefly for Sh¯ı ¯ıs, but more broadly for the Islamic community as a whole.

This battle, frequently regarded by modern specialists as a relatively “minor” episode — often reduced, in fact, to a police operation directed against a rebel refusing to acknowledge caliphal authority—involved the death of a few dozen people (the sources most commonly speak of 70 or 72 victims), who were massacred by a significantly larger caliphal army. It rapidly became, however, a central event of early Islam and a foundational stone in the effort at “articulating a narrative of the

The present article is part of a broader project on early Islamic sites of memory, entitled “Remaking heritage: memory and oblivion in early Islam” and supported by the University Research Council of the Aga Khan University (AKU). Most of the research and writing of this paper was done thanks to a fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (ISMC), AKU, London. I wish to express my gratitude to its director, Dr. Farouk Topan, and to colleagues from the ISMC who made every stay in London a pleasant one. I am especially grateful to Yohanan Friedmann, Najam Haider, Etan Kohlberg, Sabrina Mervin, Sarah Bowen Savant and to the participants in the twelfth international conference From J¯ahiliyya to Islam (Jerusalem, June 2012) and in the workshop Remembering the First Century of Islam (London, AKU-ISMC, July 2012) for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. 1 Qul¯ub al-n¯as ma ak, wa-suy¯ufuhum ma a ban¯ı Umayya. Al-Farazdaq (d. ca. 112/730), answering al-H usayn’s question about the feelings and intentions of the

people of K¯ufa (the famous Umayyad-era poet allegedly met al-H usayn in the out-

skirts of Mecca, as the grandson of the Prophet was setting out on his journey to

Iraq). These lines are notably quoted by al-T abar¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, series 2, p. 277 (tr. vol.

19, p. 71), and Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at . , Ta r¯ıkh, vol. 1, p. 281.






Antoine Borrut

primordial Islamic past.” 2 As such, it has generated highly ritualized annual commemorations until this day.


Indeed, the central place of Ash¯ur¯a offers an obvious reminder of

the importance and actuality of al-H usayn’s memory for Muslims, as


it includes most famously a reenactment of his martyrdom at Karbal¯a in the form of ta ziya plays, 3 as well as a variety of rituals, perhaps best exemplified by the (much-debated) practice of flagellation. 4 But if the episode was intensely remembered and commemorated by a large number of Muslims, Karbal¯a could also represent a challenge to other groups. Consider, for instance, the Wahh¯ab¯ı attack on the city in 1802,

as reported by the contemporary chronicler Ibn Bishr:

[The Wahh¯ab¯ıs] surrounded Karbal¯a and took it by storm. They killed most of the people in the markets and houses. They destroyed the dome above H usayn’s grave. They took


away everything they saw in the mausoleum and near it, in- cluding the coverlet decorated with emeralds, sapphires and pearls which covered the grave. They took away everything they found in the town — possessions, arms, clothes, fab- ric, gold, silver and precious books. One cannot count their spoils. They stayed there for just one morning and left after midday, taking away all the possessions. Nearly 2,000 people were killed in Karbal¯a . 5

Clearly, while the episode of Karbal¯a has long been and still is vividly remembered in the Islamic community, it can also represent a major bone


of contention. The Ash¯ur¯a celebrations and the 1802 episode illustrate

two radically opposed modern memories of a central event of Islamic

2 Sizgorich, Violence and belief , pp. 12–13. 3 For a fascinating example of ta ziya, see Sabrina Mervin’s documentary film, The procession of the captives (a Shiite tragedy) (Momento Production/CNRS Image,


4 There is an abundant bibliography on Ash¯ur¯a and its rituals. See especially the

classic study of Ayoub, Redemptive suffering , to be complemented by erudite articles such as Hawting, “The Taww¯ab¯un,” and Ende, “The flagellations.” Mervin has also



dedicated numerous studies to Ash¯ur¯a rituals, in particular: “Les larmes et le sang”;

“Shiite Theatre in South Lebanon”; “Ashura rituals.” For the commemoration of al-

The role

and function of Ash¯ur¯a in the early modern and modern periods has also received significant attention in recent scholarship, most notably with Rahimi, Theater state; Aghaie, The martyrs of Karbal¯a ; Aigle, “Le symbolisme religieux.”

5 Cited in Rogan, The Arabs, p. 57. The main justification for this Wahh¯ab¯ı attack on Karbal¯a was their strong condemnation of saint veneration, exemplified here by

al-H usayn’s tomb, although this episode should be understood in the broader context

H . usayn’s martyrdom prior to the Safavid period, see Calmard, Le culte .



of the competition between Wahh¯ab¯ıs and Ottomans at the end of the 18 th and the

beginning of the 19 th century. See Rogan’s discussion, pp. 54–59.

Remembering Karbal¯a


memory. From this perspective, Karbal¯a is clearly an Islamic lieu de m´emoire (site of memory), to borrow from Pierre Nora’s terminology, that is, a site of memory sometimes contested precisely because of its actuality and ever-changing present-day relevance. 6 It is therefore quite paradoxical that although this episode exempli- fies the drama par excellence of early Islam, it has been so little studied by modern scholars, 7 even if its modern developments have attracted more attention. This paper thus aims to investigate the conditions of the historical knowledge of the Karbal¯a episode and to trace its nar- rative crystallization. How was it remembered by some and forgotten by others? How was its memory constructed? In short, how was the historiographical vulgate of such a central event elaborated? My approach here is a history of memory one, which is to say that the episode in and of itself is less important to me than the way in which it was remembered (or forgotten). One could even concur with the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann, that before studying “the past as such” we must study the past “as it is remembered,” 8 and such an endeavor is thus a necessary preliminary step to any further studies. The great French medievalist Georges Duby, in his monumental study of The Legend of Bouvines, in fact, already suggested such a route when he wrote:

Events are like the foam of history, bubbles large or small that burst at the surface and whose rupture triggers waves that travel varying distances. This one has left very enduring traces that are not yet completely erased today. It is those traces that bestow existence upon it. Outside of them, the event is nothing, and it is thus with them that this book is essentially concerned. 9

6 Nora, Les lieux de m´emoire . The absence of a “Pierre Nora of the Near and Middle East” has been lamented by Hartmann, “Rethinking memory,” p. 53. This, of course, is not to say that Nora’s work did not generate some serious scholarly debate, see in particular Taithe, “Monuments aux morts?” and Tai, “Remembered realms.” For a discussion of Umayyad lieux de m´emoire and their reception in the early Abb¯as¯ı period, see Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 179–228.

7 The most detailed study to date of the earliest sources on Karbal¯a is by Howard,

See also the structuralist approach of Hyl´en, H usayn, the

mediator . 8 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 9. For a discussion of the history of memory in an early Islamic context and of the relevant literature, see Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 167–179. On cultural memory, see more broadly Assmann, Cultural memory. 9 Duby, The Legend of Bouvines, pp. 1–2 (my italics). (“Les ´ev´enements sont comme l’´ecume de l’histoire, des bulles, grosses ou menues, qui cr`event en surface, et dont l’´eclatement suscite des remous qui plus ou moins loin se propagent. Celui-ci a laiss´e des traces tr`es durables: elle ne se sont pas aujourd’hui tout `a fait effac´ees. Ces traces seules lui conf`erent existence. En dehors d’elles, l’´ev´enement n’est rien.

“H usayn the martyr.”




Antoine Borrut

In the same vein, it is the traces of Karbal¯a that need to be inves- tigated: the event of Karbal¯a is not a dramatic battle on the banks of the Euphrates, but rather its narrative crystallization. That is, the layers of writing and rewriting up to (and including) the imposition of historiographical filters and the making of an agreed upon version of the episode. 10 Given its centrality in Islamic consciousness, Karbal¯a could, in fact, be regarded as the event par excellence of early Islam. As the most traumatic episode of nascent Islam, it required the greatest histo- riographical effort and thus the details of the construction of its memory deserve scrutiny. The material on Karbal¯a is so extensive in medieval sources that it is impossible to offer a comprehensive discussion here. For the purpose of the present article, I am limiting myself to Islamic chronographies 11 and the relevant non-Muslim sources, 12 as I am mostly interested here in identifying the very first layers of historical writing on the subject, fol- lowing a methodology developed elsewhere and outlined below. 13 Before focusing on these texts, however, it must be emphasized that many more sources would be pertinent to such a study and would require further research. I can only briefly introduce them here. The maq¯atil literature, which culminated with Ab¯u al-Faraj al-Is fah¯a-


n¯ı’s (d. 356/967) Maq¯atil al-t ¯alibiyy¯ın, arguably constitutes the most ob-

vious venue for such a topic. In his meticulous study of the genre, S. G¨unther identified four main phases of the circulation of maq¯atil tradi- tions: 14 1) the pre-literary phase (1 st /7 th century until the first decades of the 2 nd /8 th century), during which oral reports of maqtal s mostly circulated among Sh¯ı ¯ıs; 2) a second stage (first half of the 2 nd /8 th cen- tury to beginning of 3 rd /9 th century) during which early Sh¯ı ¯ı historians started to compile collections of maqtal s, mostly in the form of notes (hypomnˆemata), even if some books already existed; 3) a third stage (mid-2 nd /8 th century until the first third of 4 th /10 th century) which represents the “golden age” of the genre, culminating with Ab¯u al-Faraj


Donc c’est d’elles, essentiellement, que ce livre entend parler.” Duby, Le dimanche de Bouvines, p. 14). 10 Other salient events of early Islam deserve the same kind of attention. See for example my discussion of the so-called Abb¯as¯ı Revolution in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 321–381. 11 I am using here the historiographical category as defined by Robinson, Islamic historiography, pp. 55–79. 12 On the importance of non-Muslim sources for early Islamic history, see especially Hoyland’s Seeing Islam , and my discussion in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp.


13 For a full discussion of the methodology, see the first four chapters of my Entre m´emoire et pouvoir . 14 G¨unther, “Maq¯atil literature,” pp. 209–210, and more broadly his Quellenunter- suchungen. See also Kanazi, “The massacre.”

Remembering Karbal¯a


al-Is fah¯an¯ı; 15 and 4) a fourth stage (starting around the mid- 4 th /10 th

century), which marks the end of the Maq¯atil literature as a discrete lit- erary genre (even if it resurfaced much later, in sixteenth century Safavid


Beyond the strict genre of the Maq¯atil, Sh¯ı ¯ı literature and Sh¯ı ¯ı po- etry are likely to have conveyed other memories or provided alternative routes for the preservation of the memories of Karbal¯a . 16 If it has, for instance, been suggested that al-Shaykh al-Muf¯ıd (d. 413/1022) mostly derived his material on the episode from al-T abar¯ı, 17 other examples

This is

reveal important efforts of literary and legendary elaboration.

perhaps above all the case with the figure of Shahrb¯an¯u, the Sasanian princess and daughter of the last emperor Yazdagird III, who was al-




legedly al-H usayn’s wife and Zayn al- Abid¯ın’s mother, although this


literary phenomenon is not restricted to Sh¯ı ¯ı sources, as shown by M.A.

Amir-Moezzi. 18 As for Sh¯ı ¯ı poetry, the useful compilation of T. El-

Acheche lists more than two dozen transmitters of verses about Karbal¯a , many of whom were directly involved in the episode. 19 El-Acheche has also noted several poems about the Taww¯ab¯un. 20 Muslim tradition even credits al-H usayn with a D¯ıw¯an , and makes much of his literary talent,


inherited from his father. 21

The qus . s ¯as also likely played a significant role, perhaps best exem-



As aptly noted by

Howard, he offers “the most embellished account of the martyrdom of

Interestingly enough, it is possible that the

original version of his Kit¯ab al-fut¯uh . ended with the dramatic episode of

the Imam al-H usayn.” 23

plified by Ibn A tham al-K¯uf¯ı (wr. ca. 204/819). 22


15 This makes it all the more puzzling to note that al-Is fah¯an¯ı has almost nothing


to offer on Karbal¯a in his Agh¯an¯ı , as pointed out by Kilpatrick, Making the great book of songs, esp. pp. 15 and 146–147. 16 For recent discussions of early Sh¯ı ¯ı literature, see most notably Modarressi, Tra- dition and survival and Amir-Moezzi, Le Coran silencieux .

17 As noted by Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” p. 142.



18 Amir-Moezzi, “Shahrb¯an¯u, Dame du pays d’Iran” and “ Sahrb¯an¯u.” For a some- what different chronological assessment of the elaboration of the legend, see Savant,

The new Muslims, pp. 102–108. 19 El-Acheche, La po´esie ˇsi ite, pp. 135–150. 20 Ibid., pp. 150–154.

21 See in particular the discussion of Kanazi, “Notes.” Al-H usayn is also depicted


as “an occasional poet” in the Kit¯ab al-agh¯an¯ı; see Kilpatrick, Making the great book

of songs, p. 147. 22 The date of Ibn A tham’s work has been much debated in modern scholarship.

See my discussion in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 91–93 and more recently Daniel, “Ket¯ab al-fotuh ,” to be complemented by the important, albeit unpublished,


article by L.I. Conrad, “Ibn A tham and his History” (see also his brief entry “Ibn

A tham al-K¯uf¯ı,” p. 314).

23 Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” p. 141.



Antoine Borrut

Karbal¯a , as suggested by the Persian translation of his work! 24 If so, Karbal¯a may not only be regarded as an origin — the origin of a Sh¯ı ¯ı memory — but also as an end — the end of a united community and in a sense the end of history. Lastly, the much-neglected genre of astrological histories also pre-

serves some relevant material, such as horoscopes of al-H usayn’s death. 25


The Karbal¯a narrative: a (brief) sketch and its problems

Before continuing our investigation, a brief sketch of the Karbal¯a epi- sode, as reported in mainstream Muslim chronographies, 26 would be helpful. I have divided it into four major phases:

1. The problematic succession: the succession of the first Umayyad caliph Mu ¯awiya by his son Yaz¯ıd in 60/680 proved to be quite problematic. Such a hereditary succession was rejected by several

leaders who refused to give the bay a to Yaz¯ıd, such as al-H usayn b.


Al¯ı who eventually left Medina for Mecca in search of a safe-haven.

2. The K¯ufan call : the inhabitants of K¯ufa sent numerous letters

to al-H usayn, inviting him to join them and become their leader;


they affirmed that they would fight on his side against Yaz¯ıd. After

having sent his cousin Muslim b. Aq¯ıl to evaluate the situation,

al-H usayn decided to depart for K¯ufa in 60/680.

However, the

equation dramatically changed during his journey, as the powerful

Umayyad governor of Khur¯as¯an, Bas ra, and K¯ufa, Ubayd All¯ah b.



Ziy¯ad (d. 67/686), managed to restore Umayyad authority over the

latter city, thus forcing the inhabitants to betray their promises to al-H usayn.


24 On this Persian translation, see Daniel, “Ket¯ab al-fotuh .”


25 See for instance the horoscope of Muh ammad b. M¯us¯a al-Khw¯arizm¯ı (d. after

232/847) preserved by al-Ya q¯ub¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, vol. 2, p. 291.

astrological histories in early Islamic historiography, see Borrut, “Court astrologers.” 26 The question of the sources is abundantly discussed below. Such a sketch is also widespread in modern scholarship, given that literally every work dealing with early Sh¯ı ism (and often later developments as well) has to offer at least a brief discussion of Karbal¯a . This has been true since the pioneering work of Wellhausen, Die religi¨os-politischen Oppositionsparteien , pp. 60ff. and Das arabische Reich, pp. 71ff., or Lammens, Le califat de Yazˆıd I er , pp. 131–161. See for instance the various works of Halm and especially Le Chiisme, pp. 19–21; Hodgson, “How did the early Shˆı a become sectarian?”; Watt, “Shi ism”; Jafri, Origins, pp. 174ff.; the classic study of the second fitna by Rotter, Die Umayyaden , esp. pp. 37–40; or more recently Dakake, The charismatic community , pp. 81–99. See also the thorough discussion of Veccia Vaglieri, “(al-)H . usayn b. Al¯ı.”

On the significance of


Remembering Karbal¯a


3. The battle: al-H usayn and his followers were intercepted by Umay-


yad forces before reaching K¯ufa and ended up in Karbal¯a where

they were massacred on the 10 th of Muh arram 61 (October 10,

680). Before the battle itself, al-H usayn’s partisans were deprived

of access to the waters of the Euphrates, thus suffering torture by

thirst. The depiction of the battle itself emphasizes the heroism and martyrdom 27 of al-H usayn and his companions. Al-H usayn’s





head is then cut off and sent first to Ubayd All¯ah b. Ziy¯ad in K¯ufa

and eventually to the caliph Yaz¯ıd (I) b. Mu ¯awiya in Damascus, along with the prisoners. The captives were exclusively women, including al-H usayn’s famous sister, Zaynab, with the notable ex-


713). 28

ception of Al¯ı b. al-H usayn Zayn al- Abid¯ın (d. ca.




4. Commemorations: only a few years later (64–65/684–685), feel-

ing guilty for having failed to protect their guide, the Taww¯ab¯un (Penitents) came out against the Umayyad forces and ended up being massacred at Ayn al-Warda (i.e., Ra s al- Ayn in North- ern Mesopotamia) in 65/685, after a pilgrimage to al-H usayn’s

tomb. Other early pilgrimages to Karbal¯a are also recorded in the

sources 29 and, moreover, several revolts erupted in the following years and decades claiming vengeance for al-H usayn’s blood, best



exemplified by al-Mukht¯ar b. Ab¯ı Ubayd al-Thaqaf¯ı’s (d. 67/687)

bid for power. 30

This vulgate of the episode is widely available in the so-called classical

sources of the 3 rd /9 th and 4 th /10 th centuries, usually in the form of a very dense text. The most comprehensive account is arguably preserved by al-T abar¯ı (d. 310/923), who composed it almost 250 years after the

event. 31 Such a situation raises important questions for us as historians:

what were the conditions of this narrative’s crystallization? What were its rhythms, actors, and places?


27 This topic is of course of paramount importance in the narratives and subsequent memories of the episode. See for instance Ayoub, Redemptive suffering; Crow, “The death of al-H usayn”; and more broadly, Cook, Martyrdom in Islam. For a wider Late


Antique perspective, see Sizgorich, Violence and belief .

28 Kohlberg, “Zayn al- Abid¯ın.” 29 N. Haider has recently insisted on the importance of such a ritual in the shaping of a discrete Im¯am¯ı identity. See his The origins, pp. 245–247. 30 On early Alid and proto-Sh¯ı ¯ı revolts, see W.F. Tucker, Mahdis and millenarians and Fishbein, The life of al-Mukht¯ar . See also the useful discussion of Crone, God’s rule, pp. 70–86.

31 Other scholars such as al-Bal¯adhur¯ı (d. 279/892) or al-D¯ınawar¯ı (d. between 281/894 and 290/903) also offer a fairly detailed account, but not as comprehen-

sive as al-T abar¯ı’s. See the remarks of Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” pp. 138–139.





Antoine Borrut

A paradox immediately emerges: we have ample attestation of the early commemoration of the episode, as noted above, but only the thinnest historical record of it in the earliest preserved narratives. Indeed, the

(d. ca. 240/854), often regarded as the

earliest fully preserved chronography, provides only very brief references to the episode, under the years 60 and 61 of the hijra: the precise date of the death of al-H usayn is duly recorded (and even repeated several

times), as well as a brief list of eleven family members killed along with

him. The mission of Muslim b. Aq¯ıl in K¯ufa is noted in a few lines,

and so is the encounter of al-H usayn on his way to Iraq with the poet

Ta r¯ıkh of Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at .



Farazdaq at Dh¯at Irq, in the vicinity of Mecca. 32 Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at .

also reports that al-H usayn had with him 60 or 70 men, that he was


killed by Shamir (or Shimr) b. Dh¯ı al-Jawshan (d. 66/686), and that Umar b. Sa d b. M¯alik (i.e., Umar b. Sa d b. Ab¯ı Waqq¯as . ) was leading the Umayyad army. 33 Even Sh¯ı ¯ı authors such as al-Ya q¯ub¯ı 34 (d. ca.

292/905) and al-Mas ud¯ ¯ı 35 (d. 345/956) have surprisingly little to offer on the topic. Furthermore, non-Muslim sources are almost completely silent about the event, 36 although they usually offer a narrative of early Islamic history that is fairly consistent with Muslim sources (the two notable exceptions, the anonymous Syriac Chronicle of 1234 and the chronography of Elias of Nisibis, are discussed below). Illuminating these contradictions requires some discussion of the me- anderings of early Islamic historiography. As is well known, scholars in general face a significant lack of Islamic narrative sources for the first centuries of Islam. The earliest extant Islamic chronographies are no older than the middle of the 3 rd /9 th century, which is almost two cen- turies after al-H usayn’s martyrdom. In other words, since our knowledge


of the period rests largely upon Islamic narrative sources produced much later in Abb¯as¯ı Iraq, writing the history of the first centuries of Islam poses especially thorny methodological problems and has thus generated

important scholarly debates in the field early on. 37 I have argued else-

32 Dh¯at Irq is a station on the road between Mecca and Iraq; see Y¯aq¯ut, Mu jam, vol. 3, p. 651.

33 Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at . , Ta r¯ıkh, vol. 1, pp. 278, 280–281, 284–286. The brevity of Khal¯ıfa’s account was already pointed out by Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” p. 135.


34 The question of his Sh¯ı ism has been debated by modern scholars: cf. Y. Marquet,

“Le ˇsi isme” and Daniel, “Al-Ya q¯ub¯ı and Shi ism reconsidered.” Again, al-Ya q¯ub¯ı’s limited discussion of the episode was noted by Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” pp.


35 Al-Mas ud¯ ¯ı’s Sh¯ı ism has often been noted by modern scholars. See recently M. Cooperson, “Mas ud¯ ¯ı.” 36 See table 1. This silence is obvious in Hoyland’s Seeing Islam, index, Karbal¯a [s.v.]. 37 See the convenient discussion of Donner, Narratives, pp. 1–31.


Remembering Karbal¯a


where that an agreed upon version of the early Islamic past, a vulgate, was crafted in the late 3 rd /9 th and early 4 th /10 th centuries, in the after- math of the abandonment of S¯amarr¯a in 279/892 and in the context of the return of the caliphate to Baghdad. 38 This endeavor, however, was not the first attempt by Muslims to write the story of their origins. But this Abb¯as¯ı-era version would prove successful and long lasting, when previous efforts vanished, or more aptly were reshaped and enshrined in subsequent layers of rewriting. Yet, for all the oblivion surrounding early Islamic historiography, these early layers of historical writing did impact this Abb¯as¯ı-era version. Indeed, history had to be rewritten with what- ever materials were available, even if such elements were the products of former competing historical orthodoxies or the fruits of earlier strategies of selection that “determined in a fundamental way the access that all future generations would have to alternative pasts.” 39 Such a dearth of contemporary narratives invites us to a history of memory approach, to shed new light on sources torn between remembrance and oblivion. Historical writing, after all, always conforms to present needs. Beyond the specific challenges offered by Islamic historiography, non- Muslim sources are also critical for our investigation as several of them present the advantage of contemporaneity with the first centuries of Is- lam. The usefulness of this corpus of texts (composed in a variety of lan- guages including in particular Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Ara- bic) has also been disputed in modern scholarship but their importance has now been clearly established. And yet, important misconceptions persist as non-Muslim sources are still largely regarded as “external” to the Islamic tradition, therefore to be opposed to allegedly “internal” (i.e., Muslim) sources. Such an approach is quite misleading and does not do justice to the rich historical material that was widely circulated among the various historiographies at work in the Middle East. I have advocated elsewhere for a different approach, arguing that we have, in fact, Near Eastern sources—that is, common narratives produced in the different languages of the Near East but based, at least for Islamic his- tory, on a shared core of data, circulated through what L.I. Conrad once termed “intercultural transmission.” 40 To put it differently, non-Muslim scholars were indebted to Muslim and/or Arab informants for their knowledge of the history of Islam and the caliphate. As a consequence, bits of a now lost early Islamic histo- riography may have survived in non-Muslim sources that can thus offer access to fragments of alternative pasts. As we can document early stages

38 Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 61–108. 39 Geary, Phantoms of remembrance, p. 177. 40 Conrad, “Theophanes.” See my discussion in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 137ff., and Borrut, “The future of the past.”


Antoine Borrut

of intercultural transmission, we can also unveil elements of lost histori- ographical layers transmitted at asynchronous times. And it is precisely because not all sources are necessarily saying the same thing at the same time that we can study these various layers of writing and rewriting in order to establish the sequence by which specific themes or clusters of information appeared, thus shedding a new light on these early attempts at Islamic history and the various political, ideological or historiograph- ical projects they reveal. In other words, the different rhythms of the various historiographies of the Near East (and the variable rhythms of the circulation of historical information between these numerous histori- ographies), are essential in trying to access bits of this “buried past that refused to stay buried,” 41 as non-Muslim sources provide access to dif- ferent moments of historiographical sedimentation. Concretely, we can actually trace some elements back to the Umayyad period itself, well before the Abb¯as¯ıs ever appeared on the scene. This is of course not to say that we can claim to have any access to the original (literary) form of this information, but we might have access to the content itself. We are thus facing a multi-layered historiography that sometimes allows us to detect in non-Muslim sources elements coming from a now- lost Islamic historiography. Such an approach has offered fruitful results on several other occasions, 42 but the episode of Karbal¯a poses especially thorny problems.

The transmission of silence: Karbal¯a in non-Muslim sources

Indeed, Karbal¯a constitutes a case in point and a truly notable excep-

tion, given that the episode is virtually absent from non-Muslim sources, as shown in table 1. This absence is even more puzzling if one considers that the salient events immediately preceding or following al-H usayn’s

martyrdom are duly recorded by Christian historians.

Thus, Yaz¯ıd’s

accession to the throne or al-Mukht¯ar’s revolt, started in the name of al-H usayn’s blood, are discussed in some detail. As noted by Hoyland,



the account of al-Mukht¯ar’s revolt “follows remarkably closely the tra- ditional Muslim account,” 43 which makes the silence on Karbal¯a all the more vexing. Such a silence—or oblivion—is more broadly paradoxical given the impact of the episode on classical Islamic historiography.

41 To borrow Geary’s expression, Phantoms of remembrance , p. 180. 42 See especially Borrut, “Entre tradition et histoire,” “La circulation de l’information historique,” and Entre m´emoire et pouvoir . 43 Hoyland, Seeing Islam, p. 197. Hoyland is specifically referring here to the ac- count of John Bar Penk¯ay¯e (wr. ca. 687), on whom see Brock, “North Mesopotamia.”

Remembering Karbal¯a


Specialists of history of memory traditionally provided two main ex- planations for such a scenario: 1) either the event was too insignificant to be immediately registered and elaborated upon, and the narrative crys- tallization occurred at a much later point for reasons to be elucidated (e.g., political, ideological, identity related, etc.); or 2) the trauma was so violent that its memory had to be repressed, and thus oblivion was the only possible route. In fact, both options are possible, as both factors may have played

a part for different actors of historical writing. In the caliphal en- tourage, for instance (and perhaps more broadly in Syria, the heartland of Umayyad power), historians had no interest in publicizing such an embarrassing event, and the Umayyads themselves certainly had an in- terest in minimizing the memory of the episode (option 1 above). 44 On the other hand, al-H usayn’s supporters, chiefly in K¯ufa and southern


Iraq, arguably had to repress this trauma, at least for a while, as they

had witnessed one of the most dramatic events of early Islam and as the community was deeply shocked by the martyrdom of its Prophet’s grandson (option 2 above). As already noted, non-Muslim sources can offer an access to a now- lost Islamic historiography. If, as other examples suggest, non-Muslims borrowed from texts produced in Umayyad Syria (or traditions circu-

lated there), it is quite unsurprising that they are so silent on a bloody episode that Umayyad-era historians were trying to bury, thus following

a strategy of “creative forgetting” best described by P.J. Geary for the

Medieval West. 45 (We have many other examples of such strategies, e.g.

al-T abar¯ı’s silence on the massacre of the Umayyads by the Abb¯as¯ıs


in 132/750 46 ). Two significant exceptions to the silence of non-Muslim sources deserve some attention: the chronicle of Elias of Nisibis (d. 1046) and the anonymous Syriac chronicle of 1234.

Elias of Nisibis is the author of a truly fascinating bilingual chron- icle composed in Syriac and Arabic. Elias also presents the huge ad- vantage of systematically quoting his sources, thus revealing that his

information on al-H usayn is derived from the now-lost Kit¯ab al-ta r¯ıkh ,


of Muh ammad b. M¯us¯a al-Khw¯arizm¯ı (d. after 232/847), the famous

court astronomer/astrologer and great mathematician of the age of al-


44 Evidence for the circulation of information about the Karbal¯a episode in Umayyad circles is discussed below. On Umayyad efforts to control the past and to obliterate Sh¯ı ¯ı claims (in particular with regard to the “falsification” [tah . r¯ıf ] of the Qur ¯an), see now Amir-Moezzi, Le Coran silencieux , esp. pp. 209ff. 45 Geary, “Oblivion between orality and textuality,” p. 111. See more broadly his Phantoms of remembrance. 46 As noted by Robinson, Islamic historiography , p. 41. See also my discussion in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 184–194.


Antoine Borrut

Ma m¯un. 47 His use of al-Khw¯arizm¯ı is critical here, as it allows us to date the circulation of historical information. The preserved material suggests that the elements relating to Karbal¯a were in the process of being in- tegrated into Abb¯as¯ı historiography in the first half of the third/ninth century, a fact corroborated by the limited material offered by Khal¯ıfa

b. Khayy¯at .

roughly at the same time. Apparently, not all of the de-

tails were yet available to al-Khw¯arizm¯ı as preserved by Elias of Nisibis; there is, for instance, no mention of the captives or of the various episodes that unfolded in the aftermath of the battle, such as those relating to the

Taww¯ab¯un or even to al-Mukht¯ar’s revolt. The precise date of the 10 th of Muh arram is given but the name of Karbal¯a itself is surprisingly absent,


as Elias merely reports that al-H usayn was killed on the road (Syriac:

urh¯ ¯o; Arabic: t ar¯ıq) to Mecca. 48 This is quite puzzling given that,

as noted above, al-Khw¯arizm¯ı also produced a horoscope of al-H usayn’s





martyrdom quoted by al-Ya q¯ub¯ı, which would have required the precise location of the killing for complete accuracy. 49 It is worth pointing out,

however, that the situation is similar in Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at . ’s Ta r¯ıkh :


the specific date is given and the “day of Ash¯ur¯a ” is even mentioned,

but the toponym of Karbal¯a is likewise absent. 50 The brief mention of Karbal¯a in the anonymous Syriac Chronicle of

1234 is perhaps even more enigmatic. 51 The martyrdom of al-H usayn is


dated there to the immediate aftermath of the battle of S iff¯ın (37/657),

more than two decades before the agreed upon date of the episode in

61/680. The text runs as follows:


[§109] On Al¯ı’s death he was succeeded by his son al-H asan,

who was poisoned shortly afterwards and was succeeded in

turn by al-H usayn.

These two sons of Al¯ı were born of

F¯at ima, the daughter of Muh ammad, the prophet of the





Arabs. [§110] Still the civil war was not over. Mu ¯awiya did

battle with al-H usayn in the east and al-H usayn’s side lost.



Most of the army and al-H usayn himself were killed at a place


called Karbal¯a . Al-H usayn was killed by Shamir, an Arab;


47 For a discussion of Elias of Nisibis and his use of his sources, more specifically al-Khw¯arizm¯ı, see Borrut, “La circulation de l’information historique” and “Court astrologers.” 48 Elias of Nisibis, vol. 1, p. 147 (Fr. tr. p. 91). 49 Al-Ya q¯ub¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, vol. 2, p. 291.

50 Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at . , Ta r¯ıkh, vol. 1, p. 284. The battle is also commonly referred to as Waq at al-T aff (or even Malh amat al-T aff ), in reference to the desert plateau

west of K¯ufa where Karbal¯a is located (see Y¯aq¯ut, Mu jam, vol. 3, pp. 539–541),

but the toponym al-T aff is likewise absent from the earliest source material.





51 On the anonymous Syriac Chronicle of 1234, see most recently Weltecke, “Les trois grandes chroniques.” On Syriac historiography, see also more broadly M. Debi´e,

L’´ecriture de l’histoire en syriaque.

Remembering Karbal¯a

but first he was tortured by thirst. The victors slaughtered most of the tribe and kin of Al¯ı. They took their wives and children and tormented them beyond the limit of endurance. After this the only survivor in power was Mu ¯awiya b. Ab¯ı Sufy¯an from the tribe of the Umayyads, who had a son Yaz¯ıd, called after his brother Yaz¯ıd who had died. He moved the capital and the royal granaries to Damascus. He had already led the Arabs as commander for twenty years. He was an honourable man whose tolerance and humanity seemed un- limited. Insults against his person were heard by him and ignored. This increased his popularity among the Arabs and so contributed to the division of the Arab armies, with those of Yathrib and Babylonia on the one side and those of Egypt and Damascus on the other, until the death of al-H usayn as


we have shown. And still today there is a heresy among the


war against Mu ¯awiya. 52

] [§121] Al¯ı’s son al-H usayn had perished in the



Modern scholars had long neglected this passage until J. Howard- Johnston’s recent discussion in his Witnesses to a world crisis. His conclusions, however, are not truly convincing as he suggests that the episode actually took place in the year of 40 or 41 (660–661) and was intentionally misplaced two decades later in Islamic historiography:

One error, though, may be more apparent than real—his de- tachment of the battle of Karbal¯a from second fitna [sic] and his dating of Husayn’s death soon after his father’s and brother’s in first fitna [sic]. If it is an error, it is quite extraor- dinary and virtually impossible to explain. Alternatively Theophilus may have preserved a vital piece of chronological information which was suppressed in later Islamic historical writing. 53

In other words, Howard-Johnston sees the Karbal¯a episode as oc- curring at the end of the first fitna, but as later on being moved by historians to the beginning of the second fitna. In his view, the episode more sensibly belongs to the aftermath of Al¯ı’s assassination than to the events around 61/680. He goes on to argue that this manipulation rep-

] in which religious truth has over-

resents one of the “four instances

come and completely ousted historical truth about crucial episodes in

52 1234 , vol. 1, p. 280. I am using here the translation of Palmer, The seventh century, pp. 185–186, 196. 53 Howard-Johnston, Witnesses, p. 232. See also his discussion on pp. 386–387.


Antoine Borrut

the formative phase of Islam.” 54 Such a radical conclusion is difficult to accept, even if the detailed chronology of the drama was arguably some-

what elaborated around the central date of the day of Ash¯ur¯a . 55 While

Howard-Johnston is right to point out that this passage is truly intrigu- ing, he has, however, completely neglected the question of Mu ¯awiya’s decision to name his son Yaz¯ıd as his successor, 56 usually regarded as

the main factor driving al-H usayn’s rebellion, as well as Abd All¯ah b.



al-Zubayr’s (d. 73/692) bid for power. Moreover, he is probably wrong to assume that these lines should be derived from Theophilus of Edessa’s (d. 169/785) lost chronicle since all of the other sources based on Theophilus are silent on the subject. 57 It is therefore more likely that this passage in the Chronicle of 1234, with its specific mention of Karbal¯a and even of Shamir, represents a later interpolation; the abundance of such details invites a late date anyway.

Hoyland once suggested that Theophanes also conflated S iff¯ın and


Karbal¯a 58 when he mentioned that “ Al¯ı’s men were reduced to thirst and were deserting.” 59 Although the motif of thirst is quite prominent in the standard Karbal¯a narratives, 60 this might not necessarily reveal a conflation of both episodes, since a similar motif is not uncommon in

the S iff¯ın narratives (although instead of torture by thirst it is mostly a

question of one army depriving the other of access to the Euphrates, with

similar results). Hoyland seems to have subsequently abandoned this idea, judging by his recent book attempting to reconstruct Theophilus of Edessa’s lost chronicle. 61


54 Howard-Johnston, Witnesses, p. 380. 55 See in particular the comments of Lammens, Le califat de Yazˆıd I er , p. 181 and of Hawting, “The Taww¯ab¯un.” Another piece of evidence adduced by Howard- Johnston is the De Administrando Imperio of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (d. 959). The text, however, is quite unspecific as it simply states that Mu ¯awiya killed the sons of Al¯ı who had rebelled against him after the death of their father. No sense of chronology is given and it is thus unclear, for instance, whether Constantine VII

actually conflated al-H asan and al-H usayn’s bids for power, or if the killing took place



in the immediate aftermath of the battle of S iff¯ın. See Constantine Porphyrogenitus,


De Administrando, chapter 21, ll. 106–110; Howard-Johnston, Witnesses, p. 386, n.


56 This idea has been recently challenged by K. Keshk, in an unpublished paper entitled “Did Mu ¯awiya appoint Yaz¯ıd?” (presented in 2009 at the Middle East Studies Association conference held in Boston). 57 Interestingly enough, Hoyland does not include this passage in his recent Theophilus of Edessa, p. 148, n. 370, thus clearly implying that Theophilus is not the author of this material. 58 In Palmer, The seventh century, p. 186, n. 459.

59 Theophanes, Chronographia, p. 347 (tr. p. 483).

60 See especially Hyl´en’s discussion on the subject, H usayn, the mediator , notably


pp. 176ff. It is worth noting, however, that this motif is absent from one of the earliest

preserved accounts, transmitted by Amm¯ar b. Mu ¯awiya al-Duhn¯ı (d. 133/750) and discussed below. 61 Hoyland, Theophilus of Edessa, p. 147.

Remembering Karbal¯a


Islamic versions

If we now turn to Muslim narratives, a careful study of the isn¯ad s reveals that the story of Karbal¯a was elaborated chiefly in K¯ufa and Medina before subsequent developments in Baghdad. 62 Two principal versions of the episode were composed: a long version in K¯ufa, and a short version in Medina.

The long version

While early traditions can certainly be assumed to have circulated in K¯ufa in the years and decades following the Karbal¯a drama 63 (especially if one keeps in mind the central role which the inhabitants of the city played in it), an important step in the narrative crystallization process took place with one of the most prolific historians and transmitters of early Islam, Ab¯u Mikhnaf (d. 157/773–774), 64 who composed what could be termed the long version of the episode. Indeed, the many books attributed to him notably include a Maqtal al-H usayn, which is a volume


dedicated to the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, although the book is unfortunately lost. 65 Its content, however, is supposed to have

been largely preserved by later sources, most notably Hish¯am al-Kalb¯ı

(d. 204/819), himself for the most part preserved by al-T abar¯ı. 66 This

version offers a detailed account of the Karbal¯a episode and already a lot

of elements belonging to some kind of epic cycle dedicated to al-H usayn.



It is worth noting here that Ab¯u Mikhnaf’s ancestors were active supporters of the Alid cause early on, and that his great-grandfather

62 A point already made clear, although not exploited, by the important contribu- tions of Howard, who studied the earliest accounts of the episode in Islamic sources in his “H usayn the martyr” and his “Translator’s foreword” to volume 19 of al-T abar¯ı’s



translation, The history of al-T abar¯ı, pp. ix–xvi.


63 See below the example of As bagh b. Nub¯ata (d. second half of the 1 st century



64 On him see especially Sezgin, Ab¯u Mih naf, and Athamina, “Ab¯u Mikhnaf.” Ac-


cording to the isn¯ad s preserved by al-T abar¯ı, a very large number of Ab¯u Mikhnaf’s

informants were K¯ufan traditionists. 65 See, however, the debates about the text reconstructed by W¨ustenfeld, “Der Tod

des H usein ben Al¯ı und die Rache,” and especially the discussion of Sezgin, Ab¯u



Mih naf , pp. 116–123.


66 Al-T abar¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, especially series 2, pp. 232–281, 288–390 (tr. vol. 19, pp.


22–74, 83–183).


Antoine Borrut

Mikhnaf b. Sulaym al-Azd¯ı fought alongside Al¯ı at S iff¯ın, before al-


legedly being killed among the Taww¯ab¯un in 65/685. 67 In other words, narrating these episodes was a way for Ab¯u Mikhnaf to write the history


his own family whose memory he was trying to preserve. Moreover, it


difficult to overestimate Ab¯u Mikhnaf’s role in shaping Sh¯ı ism’s early

image, to the point that he should be regarded as a major historiograph- ical filter. 68

The short version

Prior to (and likely also concomitant with) Ab¯u Mikhnaf’s efforts, an-

other much shorter version of the episode (short version) seems to have circulated, possibly at the initiative of the Imams themselves. This is

a true family memory, as two of al-H usayn’s own descendants (more

specifically his grandson and great-grandson, the fifth and sixth Imams)

play a key role: Muh ammad al-B¯aqir (d. 114/732) and Ja far al-S ¯adiq

(d. 148/765). Both lived in Medina, and this is therefore also yet another

local memory. This version was transmitted by Amm¯ar b. Mu ¯awiya al-Duhn¯ı (d. 133/750), who was “an adherent of the Imam al-B¯aqir,” 69 and is no-

tably preserved by al-T abar¯ı (next to the long version) and al-Mas ud¯ ¯ı

(who does not offer other versions). 70 For unconvincing reasons, the conditions of transmission of this short version have been regarded as





67 Ibn H ajar, Tahdh¯ıb, vol. 10, pp. 70–71. This is the narrative favored by Atham-


ina in his recent Encyclopaedia of Islam entry (“Ab¯u Mikhnaf,” where Mikhnaf b.

Sulaym is erroneously referred to as Ab¯u Mikhnaf’s grandfather rather than his great-

grandfather), although this is not the only version in the sources.

Muz¯ah im has him killed at S iff¯ın (Waq at S iff¯ın, p. 263). Al-T abar¯ı offers a simi-

lar passage (Ta r¯ıkh, series 1, p. 3304; tr. vol. 17, p. 51) before surprisingly stating

that Mikhnaf b. Sulaym was still alive in 39/659–660, when he sent his son Abd al- Rah m¯an (d. 75/695) “at the head of fifty men” as reinforcement against al-Nu m¯an

Thus, Nas r b.







b. Bash¯ır (d. 65/684) at the battle of Ayn al-Tamr (series 1, p. 3444; tr. vol. 17, p.

199). Al-T abar¯ı later quotes a poem by Sur¯aqa b. Mird¯as al-B¯ariq¯ı (d. ca. 80/699)

lamenting the death of Mikhnaf b. Sulaym and Abd al-Rah m¯an b. Mikhnaf (series

2, pp. 879–880; tr. vol. 22, pp. 29–30). See also Sezgin, Ab¯u Mih naf , p. 225, n. 128;

Lecker, “S iff¯ın.”





68 A point emphasized by Dakake, The charismatic community , p. 4. 69 Howard, “The martyrdom,” p. 127. Al-Duhn¯ı claims to be transmitting directly

from al-B¯aqir, see al-T abar¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, series 2, p. 227 (tr. vol. 19, p. 17).

70 Al-T abar¯ı, especially series 2, pp. 227–232, 281ff. (tr. vol. 19, pp. 16–22, 74ff.);

cf. al-Mas ud¯ ¯ı, Mur¯uj , vol. 5, pp. 127ff. (tr. Pellat, vol. 3, pp. 749ff.; references to the

Arabic text are given according to the page numbers of the C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille’s edition noted in both Pellat’s edition and translation of the Mur¯uj ).



Remembering Karbal¯a


dubious by I.K.A. Howard, who argued that this version is very “dry,” omitting many elements on al-H usayn’s martyrdom, elements that the


Imams would not have forgotten in his view. 71 In my opinion, however, this lack of adornment would rather suggest an early date. It is, in fact, quite likely that this was an original “official version” of the episode, a memory of the Imams not yet transformed into some kind of epic. The circulation of such material between Medina and K¯ufa is quite plausible:

although “the vast majority of early Im¯am¯ıs lived in K¯ufa” they could “communicate with their Medinan Imams through a correspondence me- diated by merchants, travelers, and pilgrims,” 72 not to mention students and scholars travelling to Medina to study under the supervision of the Imams. It is to be noted that in most modern scholarship, these two Imams are also specifically associated with an important step toward the defini- tion of an Im¯am¯ı Sh¯ı ¯ı identity 73 and the Karbal¯a episode may well have been a foundational myth from this perspective. To follow the terminol- ogy recently used by the late T. Sizgorich, Karbal¯a became a primordial past, thus shaping for the community a sense of identity as well as an understanding of contemporary events. 74

So we have on the one hand the silence (the oblivion) of non-Muslim sources and on the other family memories—and arguably also sectarian memories—in Medina and K¯ufa, and eventually a narrative explosion in the latter city and subsequently in Baghdad. We have, in other words, several competing memories (if one keeps in mind that remembrance and oblivion are two attributes of memory): a caliphal (or Syrian?) mem- ory trying its best to bury an embarrassing episode in an attempt at an impossible oblivion and two local and familial memories in Medina and K¯ufa, which endeavored to preserve a necessary, albeit painful, remem-

brance. Interestingly enough, this idea is corroborated by the fact that the first two recorded accounts of al-H usayn’s martyrdom, although no


71 Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” pp. 128–131.


72 Haider, The origins, p. 14. 73 See especially Hodgson, “How did the early Shˆı a become sectarian?”; Madelung, “Im¯ama”; Kohlberg, “Imam and community”; Lalani, Early Sh¯ı ¯ı thought; Dakake, The charismatic community; and most recently Haider, The origins. For different views, see most notably Amir-Moezzi, Le guide divin , and Modarressi, Crisis and consolidation. 74 Sizgorich, Violence and belief , pp. 8ff. Sizgorich’s main source of inspiration here

is Geertz (The interpretation of cultures, pp. 255–310), while Eliade (in particular his Myths, dreams and mysteries) is surprisingly absent from the discussion. Elaborating

] for groups who understand their

on the work of others, Sizgorich contends that:

identity in primordialist terms, recalled events embedded in the defining narratives

in accordance with which the group in question imagines its formative past often provide an interpretative grammar through which to make sense of contemporary events,” p. 9.


Antoine Borrut

longer extant in their original forms, are attributed to As bagh b. Nub¯ata


(d. second half of 1 st century AH), “a prominent member of the Sh¯ı ¯ı

community” from K¯ufa, and J¯abir b. Yaz¯ıd al-Ju f¯ı (d. 128/746), an-

other K¯ufan who was “a follower of the Imam al-B¯aqir” and studied extensively under his direction, up to eighteen years according to one source. 75

Moreover, it is quite unlikely that such narratives of al-H usayn’s mar-


tyrdom were unknown in Umayyad circles, therefore reinforcing the idea


of a very conscious effort at “creative forgetting.” The example of Amir

b. Shar¯ah ¯ıl al-Sha b¯ı (d. 103/721) is particularly telling from this per-

spective: he was a renowned K¯ufan scholar and poet who worked for Abd al-Malik and tutored his sons, before serving as q¯ad . ¯ı in Iraq under Umar II despite his alleged “flirtation with Sh¯ı ¯ı ideology” that even-

tually “came to an end because of the Sh¯ı ¯ıs’ ifr¯at . or exaggeration in religion, which he abhorred.” 76 Yet al-Sha b¯ı actively participated in al-Mukht¯ar’s rebellion seeking revenge for al-H usayn’s blood, 77 and he



is also credited with a Kit¯ab al-sh¯ur¯a wa-maqtal al-H usayn (fragments


al-bal¯agha 78 ), which suggests a detailed knowledge in Umayyad circles

of the Prophet’s grandson’s martyrdom. 79 Other clues attest that the episode was well-known and even dis-

cussed at the Umayyad court. Thus, the Christian court poet al-Akht al

of which survive in Ibn Ab¯ı al-H ad¯ıd’s (d. 655–6/1257–8) Sharh





(d. ca. 92/710) celebrated in verse the Umayyad victory, emphasizing

the decisive role of Ubayd All¯ah b. Ziy¯ad in eliminating Muslim b. Aq¯ıl

and H¯ani b. Urwa before clearly alluding to the battle of Karbal¯a itself. Indeed, al-Akht al praises Ibn Ziy¯ad for having managed to deprive al-


H . usayn of access to the waters of the Euphrates, and ends his poem by

See also Sezgin, GAS , vol. 1, p.

307, and recently Modarressi, Tradition and survival , vol. 1, pp. 59–73 (As . bagh b.

75 Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” pp. 124–126.



Nub¯ata), especially p. 61, and pp. 86–103 (J¯abir al-Ju f i), particularly pp. 87, 102.

Modarressi suggests that the text of the Kit¯ab maqtal al-H usayn of J¯abir al-Ju f¯ı may


Limited fragments from both As bagh

(Tehran, 1376 AH), vol. 30, pp. 287–300.

b. Nub¯ata and J¯abir al-Ju f¯ı are quoted in Ab¯u al-Faraj al-Is fah¯an¯ı’s Maq¯atil , see

Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” p. 126.

well have been “quoted in full” by al-Majlis¯ı (d. 1110/1698) in his Bih ar¯






76 Juynboll, “al-Sha b¯ı.”

77 Al-T abar¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, series 2, pp. 609–613 (tr. vol. 20, pp. 193–197).

78 Ibn Ab¯ı al-H ad¯ıd, Sharh , vol. 9, pp. 49–58, cited in Sezgin, GAS , vol. 1, p. 277.






79 See Sezgin, GAS , vol. 1, p. 277, and Juynboll, “al-Sha b¯ı.”

Amir al-Sha b¯ı is

surprisingly absent from Howard’s list of authors of early maqtal s (Howard, “H usayn

the martyr,” pp. 124–125). In fact, Howard may have confused the author and his

transmitter, as he lists Aw¯ana b. al-H akam (d. 147/764), who does not seem to be

otherwise known for having written a maqtal but rather for having transmitted from Amir ¯ al-Sha b¯ı (see Sezgin, GAS , vol. 1, p. 277). See also Lammens, “Le chantre,”

pp. 398–405.



Remembering Karbal¯a


claiming that the governor of Iraq had thus crushed a “snake” (h . ayya). 80 Elsewhere, we are told that the caliph Abd al-Malik once questioned al- Zuhr¯ı (d. 124/742) about a miracle (a bleeding stone) that occurred in Jerusalem on the very night al-H usayn was killed. 81


Finally, the fact that several sources are clearly trying to rehabilitate the image of Yaz¯ıd I 82 (r. 60–64/680–683), blaming instead his governor of K¯ufa ( Ubayd All¯ah b. Ziy¯ad) 83 or on some other military leaders (most notably the infamous Shamir [or Shimr] b. Dh¯ı al-Jawshan, who

allegedly killed al-H usayn) for the massacre, suggests strategies to shift

blame from the caliph to some of his subordinates, or even from the

Syrians to the Iraqis. 84 Thus, al-Mas ud¯ ¯ı insists for instance on the fact that all the troops engaged against al-H usayn were from K¯ufa and



that not a single Syrian was involved in the battle. 85 Such elements may well be an echo of an otherwise largely lost pro-Umayyad version of the episode, 86 and whispers of “alternative pasts” 87 largely silenced in mainstream Abb¯as¯ı-era chronicles, 88 although internal Sh¯ı ¯ı polemics should also be taken into account and certainly deserve further study.

It is also worth noting that the chronology of the development of the two main Islamic versions just discussed is consistent with the chrono- logical framework established by S. G¨unther for the maq¯atil literature,

80 Al-Akht al, Shi r al-Akht al , vol. 2, pp. 539–540; Lammens, Le califat de Yazˆıd



I er , p. 178 and “Le Chantre,” p. 236. On al-Akht al, see Lammens, “Le chantre” and


Stetkevych, “Al-Akht al.” I am indebted to Suzanne Stetkevych for helping me locate


this poem in Qab¯awa’s edition, as the copy of S ¯alih ¯an¯ı’s edition (cited by Lammens)

I consulted was faulty. 81 This miraculous anecdote is widely found in the sources. To my knowledge, the earliest occurrence is preserved by Ibn Abd Rabbih (d. 328/940), who claims that this tradition goes back to al-Zuhr¯ı himself, al- Iqd , vol. 4, p. 365. 82 See for instance the Byzantine-Arab chronicle of 741 or the Chronicle of 754 and cf. in contrast John Bar Penk¯ay¯e for an early negative image. Regarding al-

T . abar¯ı’s strategies on the topic, see the discussion of Shoshan, Poetics of Islamic

historiography, pp. 100–102.

83 See, however, al-Akht al’s praise of Ibn Ziy¯ad’s actions (Shi r al-Akht al, vol. 2,

pp. 539–540) discussed below. 84 However, a counter-example is offered by al-Ya q¯ub¯ı, who specifically insists on

Yaz¯ıd’s orders to his governors of Medina (al-Wal¯ıd b. Utba) and K¯ufa ( Ubayd All¯ah b. Ziy¯ad) to send him al-H usayn’s head, Ta r¯ıkh, vol. 2, pp. 287–288. This point was

noted long ago by Lammens, Le califat de Yazˆıd I er , p. 148, who rejected al-Ya q¯ub¯ı’s

allegations. 85 Al-Mas ud¯ ¯ı, Mur¯uj , vol. 5, pp. 144–145 (tr. vol. 3, p. 756, §1902). 86 A point already lamented by Lammens, Le califat de Yazˆıd I er , p. 169. 87 Geary, Phantoms of remembrance, p. 177. 88 This is not an isolated example. Cf. Dakake’s conclusions on the circulation of the Ghad¯ır Khumm narratives, p. 34: “In fact, our analysis suggests that the Ghad¯ır Khumm tradition circulated widely in Umayyad times, but was partially eclipsed or even suppressed by other sectarian and religio-political developments in the Abb¯asid era.”







Antoine Borrut

outlined above. G¨unther’s idea that oral traditions originally only cir- culated among proto-Sh¯ı ¯ıs could also explain the silence of non-Muslim sources, indicating closed networks through which they passed, although we have to avoid a too simplistic opposition of oral and written modes of transmission. 89

The redemption of Sh¯ı ¯ı memory in Abb¯as¯ı historiography

We still have to understand why and how this Alid memory was so thor- oughly revived by Abb¯as¯ı-era chroniclers in the classical period. Why indeed was there such a choice for remembrance rather than oblivion? Such a decision was not obvious, since the early Abb¯as¯ıs turned out to be extremely hostile to the Alids whom they had deprived of the fruits of the so-called Abb¯as¯ı Revolution (in reality a Hashemite one) that toppled the Umayyads. 90 For decades the Alids were widely persecuted and many rebelled against Abb¯as¯ı power. 91 But in the course of the 3 rd /9 th century, especially in the aftermath of the fourth fitna, and in the context of the rise of the Turks, the disintegration of the Empire and the weakening of caliphal authority, the Abb¯as¯ıs began a massive effort to redeem Sh¯ı ¯ı memory. 92 The lesser and greater occultations (ghayba) probably played a significant role in this perspective, as the vanishing of an obvious political contender made this redemption much easier. 93 In fact, as already noted, the late 3 rd /9 th century marked a period of profound historical rewriting and attempts to develop a new relation- ship to the early Islamic past. 94 The past was notably rewritten in order

89 As most notably shown by the seminal works of G. Schoeler, most recently The oral and the written and The genesis of literature in Islam. 90 On this much debated topic in modern scholarship, see recently Agha, The revo- lution ; Cobb, “The empire in Syria,” pp. 261–268; Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 321–381; and Crone, The nativist prophets, pp. 11–27. 91 See the useful discussion of Crone, God’s rule, pp. 87ff. 92 This is consistent with the chronology suggested above, based on what both

Khal¯ıfa b. Khayy¯at . and al-Khw¯arizm¯ı (as preserved by Elias of Nisibis) have to offer on Karbal¯a . One of the earliest allusions in Abb¯as¯ı-era sources is to be found in the S¯ıra itself, where verses in a poem attributed to Umayya b. Ab¯ı al-S alt (d. ca.

9/631) and lamenting the martyrs of Badr include a clear allusion to Karbal¯a (Ibn

Ish ¯aq/Ibn Hish¯am, S¯ıra, p. 532, tr. 354). This is of course a later interpolation, not to

mention that the authenticity of many poems attributed to Umayya b. Ab¯ı al-S alt is




more broadly questionable. See Seidensticker, “The authenticity” and Montgomery,

“Umayya b. Ab¯ı ’l-S alt.”


93 On this period of critical importance for the development of Im¯am¯ı Sh¯ı ism, see

especially Newman, The formative period . 94 Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 97–108.

Remembering Karbal¯a


to make room for all the descendants of the Prophet and not just the Abb¯as¯ıs (thus doing the exact opposite of what al-Mahd¯ı had once sug- gested, according the Anonymous history of the Abb¯as¯ıs 95 ). The Alids thus emerge in the so-called classical sources as victims and martyrs in whose name the Abb¯as¯ıs are seeking vengeance and legitimacy. This was not a straightforward process though, and if al-Ma m¯un’s reign cer- tainly played a significant role in this direction, with the designation of

Al¯ı al-Rid ¯a as heir apparent as an obvious climax, 96 other rulers fol-


lowed much more hostile agendas. Thus, the caliph al-Mutawakkil had

al-H usayn’s tomb leveled to the ground in 236/850–51 and prohibited

visiting this place of holy memory. 97 Paradoxical as it seems, the main challenge for the Abb¯as¯ıs was to present the conditions for their own rise to power, during the Abb¯as¯ı Revolution in 132/ 750 and its immediate aftermath. The various epi- sodes of the massacre of the ousted dynasts, the Umayyads, would prove particularly problematic as the degree of violence exercised by the new power brokers was soon condemned by Muslim scholars. However, the early diffusion of these massacre narratives, clearly attested, in particu- lar, in non-Muslim sources, precluded any attempt at complete oblivion. Rather, Abb¯as¯ı-era scholars carefully reshaped these accounts so the bloodbath would appear justified and, in fact, necessary. And this is pre- cisely where Alid/Sh¯ı ¯ı memory proved invaluable, as it is in the name of remembrance of Sh¯ı ¯ı martyrs that the slaughter of the Umayyads by the new holders of Weber’s monopoly of legitimate violence was to be seen as tolerable. The massacre of the kinsmen of the former masters of Damascus was reinterpreted in an attempt to fulfill a duty toward Islamic memory. 98


95 Akhb¯ar al-dawla al- Abb¯asiyya , p. 165. See my discussion in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 80ff. 96 The importance of this period has notably been highlighted by Amir-Moezzi

regarding the construction of the legend of Shahrb¯an¯u, al-H usayn’s alleged Sasanian



wife. See Amir-Moezzi, “Shahrb¯an¯u, Dame du pays d’Iran,” and idem, “ Sahrb¯an¯u.” See, however, Savant’s arguments in favor of a later crystallization of the legend, The

new Muslims, pp. 102–108. On the designation of Al¯ı al-Rid ¯a see most recently Tor,


“An historiographical re-examination.”

97 See al-T abar¯ı, Ta r¯ıkh, series 3, p. 1407 (tr. vol. 34, pp. 110–111): “In this year,

al-Mutawakkil ordered that the grave of al-H usayn b. Al¯ı and the residences and



palaces surrounding it be destroyed. The site of his grave was to be ploughed, sown, and irrigated, and people were to be prevented from visiting it. It is reported that

an agent of the chief of security police announced in the area: ‘Whomever we find

near al-H usayn’s grave after three days we shall send to the Mat baq [Prison].’ People

fled and refrained from going to the grave. This place was ploughed, and the area

around it was sown.” The incident is noted by Honigmann, “Karbal¯a ,” who adds

that “Ibn H awk al (ed. de Goeje, p. 166), however, mentions about 366/977 a large

mashhad with a domed chamber, entered by a door on each side, over the tomb of

H . usayn, which in his time was already much visited by pilgrims.”





98 For a full discussion of the episode, see Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp.


Antoine Borrut

Most of the narratives run as follows: about 70 members (commonly 72, sometimes more 99 ) of the Umayyad family are invited under false pretexts for a dinner by Abd All¯ah b. Al¯ı (d. 147/764), the uncle of the first Abb¯as¯ı caliph and one of the leading military figures of the fight against the Umayyads. During this encounter, a poet starts reciting verses against the Umayyads. Thereafter, Abd All¯ah b. Al¯ı speaks and recalls the martyrdom of al-H usayn at the hand of Umayyad forces.


Then, with this memory still in the air, he makes a sign and orders his soldiers to massacre the Umayyad guests. He then throws carpets above the still moving bodies, we are told, and settles down to enjoy his dinner amidst the sounds of the dying Umayyads. It is in the name of remembrance, of duty to Islamic historical mem- ory, that the Umayyads are massacred, in an exact mirror of Karbal¯a . Even the number of victims is precisely identical to perfect the parallel. This presentation of the events is very easy to understand: in so doing, this episode is not to be associated with a simple vendetta, but rather to be included in the active process of legitimation of the new Abb¯as¯ı regime. The narration of these massacres is generally followed in the sources by accounts about the violation of the graves of the Umayyad caliphs, whose remains are flogged and burnt, their ashes scattered in the wind, often again in the name of Sh¯ı ¯ı martyrs. 100 The veracity or the legendary character of this event is not so important, in the framework of a history of memory. The destruction of the graves, places of com- memoration par excellence, shows clearly that, beyond the Umayyads themselves, it is their memory that is to be fought, in the name of Alid martyrs.

184–194 and “The future of the past.” See also the classic study of Moscati, “Le massacre”; Elad, “Aspects of the transition”; and Robinson, “The violence.” 99 Such a figure is of course highly symbolic. See the thorough discussion in Elad, “Aspects of the transition.” On the significance of numerical symbolism in Islamic historiography, see more broadly Conrad, “Seven and the tasb¯ı .” 100 See for example the fate of Hish¯am b. Abd al-Malik’s corpse, guilty of having martyred Zayd b. Al¯ı (d. 122/740). Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 187–193 and Madelung, “Zayd b. Al¯ı.”

Remembering Karbal¯a



The Karbal¯a episode is thus originally torn between impossible oblivion and necessary remembrance. The historical information does not, from

a geographical perspective, seem to have circulated widely but was pre-

served locally in Medina and K¯ufa, where local and familial memories were conserved. These memories ended up irrigating mainstream clas- sical sources composed primarily in Abb¯as¯ı Baghdad, and largely using material from Medina and K¯ufa. This is not to say that we have to go back to Wellhausen’s old theory of “schools of history,” but rather to ac-

knowledge, with Fred Donner, that “the critiques of Wellhausen’s ‘school’


first two Muslim centuries was, in fact, the product of a very limited number of major cities,” 101 and that historical information circulated between those cities more than is often assumed. 102 This redemption of Alid memory was also critical for Abb¯as¯ı political and ideological

projects. From this perspective, it was indispensable and this choice would not be challenged, as this version of the episode would become the definitive vulgate. In its narrative dimension at least, the Karbal¯a episode seems to follow the paradigm once suggested by R.S. Humphreys: covenant, be-

trayal, and redemption. 103 The covenant with the family of the Prophet

is broken by the betrayal of the K¯ufans and the subsequent brutal mas-

sacre of al-H usayn and most of his male relatives and followers, orches-

] tend to obscure the fact that historical writing during the


trated by the Umayyad forces. The redemption process starts early,

chiefly with the Taww¯ab¯un, but is not complete until H usaynid memory

has been redeemed in Abb¯as¯ı sources.

As aptly noted by I.K.A. Howard, al-H usayn’s martyrdom “became



an important subject for historians from an early time.” 104 But Karbal¯a was to be more than just a topic covered by historians: it became a very central lieu de m´emoire not only for Sh¯ı ¯ıs but also for the entire Islamic

community. Nora stated that “les lieux de m´emoire ne sont pas ce dont on se souvient, mais l`a o`u la m´emoire travaille; non la tradition elle- mˆeme, mais son laboratoire.” 105 As such, the Karbal¯a drama was to be

101 Donner, Narratives, p. 216. J. Wellhausen’s theory was originally presented in his Das arabische Reich. 102 A point noted by Conrad, “Heraclius in early Islamic Kerygma,” pp. 152–153. See my discussion in Borrut, Entre m´emoire et pouvoir , pp. 33–37. 103 Humpreys, “Qur ¯anic myth.” 104 Howard, “H usayn the martyr,” p. 142.


105 Nora, Les lieux de m´emoire , vol. 1, pp. 17–18.


Antoine Borrut

contested and disputed. This is of course especially true in the context of “cyclical reenactments of primordial beginnings” 106 best exemplified by


the Ash¯ur¯a rituals, but certainly not limited to such commemorations.

What such an investigation reveals is both the role of memory and oblivion in medieval sources themselves, and the impact of historical writing and the construction of Islamic sites of memory not only on medieval rituals and identities but on modern ones as well. And with this conclusion comes an interesting paradox: modern “orthodox” inter- pretations of Karbal¯a could well be based upon Abb¯as¯ı-era sectarian visions.

106 Sizgorich, Violence and belief , p. 74.


i Al-Khwārizmī

iii derive

The episode is,


The killing


from simply


of al-usayn

(d. however,

says that

after 232/847)

of is Edessa the




is the

but on of is ʿAlī the

in source

the immediate




a later

used by Elias


of Mekka,


by Muʿāwiya,


Table 1: Karbalāʾ in non-Muslim sources

no mention

of Nisibis

of the


(d. 1046)

of Karbalāʾ.

battle for

mentioning their names.

of all





instead of in 61/680 as expected. This material does not

Remembering Karbal¯a











X ii
















Ibn al-Zubayr’s

rule or caliphate

al-Zubayrs revolt


revolt to be a prophet

Al-Mukhtārs claims


Muʿāwiya (I) (II)


Caliphate of

of Marwān

b. b.



the captives

kins or of the Tawwābūn

Killing of of al-usayns




Al-usayn killed

killed on

by Shamir



leaves by

b. Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ

Al-usayn killed

for ʿAmr


Mention of Karbalāʾ


Caliphate of of al-Ḥusayn’s

Yazīd (I) b. killing


Historical information Death of al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī


b. Dhī al-Jawshan




Michael the


Sources b . D h ī a l - J a w s h a n

Circuit of Edessa

Theophilus of

Michael the Great Circuit of Edessa Theophilus of X X v X X X X X


X v






John Bar




of Edessa Theophilus of X X v X X X X X John Bar Penkāyē Zuqnīn
X X 819 846 X X


Circuit of




X iii



VII Porphyro.


X X X X i v X Elias of Nisibis i


X X iv


Elias of




Antoine Borrut


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