It is no exaggeration to say that the death of the Prophet brought turmoil to the followers of Islam. According to Shia traditions, the Prophet made it clear, during the final pilgrimage, that he wished his son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. Despite his request that all those who witnessed his declaration offer Ali their allegiance, the hours following his death brought fissures and divisions amongst the faithful into plain sight. Several groups from Mecca and Medina asserted their case for taking the role of caliph, with Abu Bakr eventually being selected as leader. When Ali refused to pledge allegiance to the newly elected caliph, his home and family were threatened. When his wife Fatima refused to leave their house, it was raided and set alight, leaving her with serious injuries, causing her to miscarry, and leading to her eventual death five weeks later.

After the death of Uthman, who was Abu Bakr’s and Umar’s successor, Ali was finally able to realise the wishes of the Prophet and governed for five years. Following his assassination in the mosque of Kufa, his son, Hassan, became caliph. Almost immediately, the Umayyads, led by Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan, mounted an army to march on Kufa. The besieged Hassan agreed to cede control on condition that, after Muawiya’s death, the leadership return to the household of the Prophet. Muawiya died in 60 Hijra, having declared his son, Yazid, his heir apparent. Yazid was well-known for being corrupt, for sowing discord, and for neglecting vulnerable members of society. Horrified at the character of the usurper, Hussain refused to offer his allegiance. Shortly after Yazid’s accession, Hussain and his family sought refuge in Mecca, assuming that Yazid would not attack them there. They were wrong, and shortly before the commencement of the Hajj, they were forced to flee, having discovered that Yazid’s followers had entered the city disguised as pilgrims, with the intention of killing him. Hussain had no desire to violate the sanctity of Mecca, but he also wished to expose Yazid, and remaining in Mecca would have allowed the culprits to remain undetected.

Hussain announced that he was embarking on a journey to Iraq, and that he would be martyred, while also calling for volunteers to join his army. He received letters of support from the citizens of Kufa and set off, but was intercepted by Yazid’s forces and forced to travel north to Kerbala. He arrived with his family on 2Muharram and ordered that their tents be set up on the banks of the Euphrates. His companions were prevented from doing so by the army of Yazid, and from 7Muharram, they were prohibited from obtaining any water. 

On the night of Ashura the Imam and his companions spent the night in prayer and contemplation of what lay ahead. Ha gave anyone who wished to return to their homes, permission to do so, saying: ‘The covenant I overlook. The oath of allegiance you have taken which bonds you to me is lifted. You are free, there is no obligation to bind you and I shall hold you no longer. You can go and leave me to myself. Leave this land under cover of night. These soldiers of Yazid’s army have business with me, not with you.’ There is no evidence that any member of his army left, but it is documented that soldiers in the opposing forces defected to Hussain’s army; most notably Hurr, who had been responsible for diverting the Imam on his journey to Kufa.

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