The Other Villains of Karbala

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Retelling the tragedy of Karbalâ has traditionally been an important feature of Shî‘î spirituality. The passion plays of Iran and the Indian subcontinent, the literature, both prose and poetry, composed upon the subject of the martyrdom of Sayyidunâ Husayn radiyallâhu ‘anhu and the general atmosphere of mourning that reigns amongst the Shî‘ah during the month of Muharram, all bear eloquent testimony to importance of that event in the Shî‘î calendar. To the Shî‘ah, ‘Âshurâ is probably the most important day of the year.

However, it is regrettable that despite the huge amount of attention the subject of Karbalâ enjoys, the event is persistently portrayed as two-sided. It is always depicted as Husayn against Yazîd, Right rising up against Wrong, the Quest for Justice against the Forces of Oppression. Many an opportunist has even gone to the extent of superimposing upon the event the theme of Shî‘ah against Ahl as-Sunnah.

In this partial retelling that concentrates upon what actually happened at Karbalâ, and conveniently draws attention away from the other guilty party in the ‘Âshûrâ tragedy, lies another tragedy in itself. For while Husayn’s martyrdom has been oft commemorated, and his physical opponents and killers identified, cursed and eliminated, no one has spared a moment’s anger for those who deserted him at the crucial hour. It is these men in the shadows, who squarely deserve to be called the real villains of Karbalâ, upon whom this article seeks to cast light.