The massacre at Karbala is a central event in Islamic history. Its significance can be judged by the fact that the very mention of Karbala evokes strong emotions amongst Muslims, particularly the Shi’a. On 10 October 680, corresponding to the Islamic date 10 Muharram 61, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Husayn b. ‘Ali (referred to as ‘al-Husayn’) along with his family and companions, was brutally martyred. The army of Yazid b. Mu‘awiyah, the reigning Umayyad caliph at the time, hunted down al-Husayn and showed no remorse in killing children and abusing the women in his camp. The literature describing the martyrdom (both in Shi’i and Sunni sources), ranging from narrations to poetry, has propelled the event into a cathartic tragedy which is remembered and re-enacted every year by Shi’i Muslims worldwide on 10 Muharram, known as the Day of ‘Ashura. The event is normally described as a ‘battle’ or a ‘tragedy’, giving the misleading implication that the martyrdom of al-Husayn was some kind of evenly matched battle or that the event should only be remembered as a tragedy and nothing more. This has unfortunately played a paradoxical role in the minds of Shi’i Muslims because whilst it is important to remember Karbala and mourn its victims, it has by and large only remained as an emotional event. It would be more accurate to describe it as a massacre, which not only depicts the severity of the event but also focuses our attention on the human rights violations which took place.

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