Karbala (also spelled Kerbala or Kerbela) is a city in south-central Iraq, about 100km southwest of Baghdad. It is one of the holiest cities in Shi'a Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Najaf.
Karbala is important because it is the site of the Shrine of Imam Husayn (also spelled Imam Hussayn or Imam Hussain), the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a much-revered Shi'a martyr. It is also home to the Shrine of Abbas, Husayn's loyal half-brother.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, a conflict broke out over who should succeed him as leader of Islam. Some (later called the Shi'ites) said it should be the Prophet's descendents, while others (later called the Sunnis) argued that the community should choose a leader. As in all conflicts the matter was complex, but this was the basic difference that led to the separation between Shi'a and Sunni Islam that has endured to this day.
During this conflict, Imam Husayn was martyred at Karbala along with many followers in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Husayn's tomb became a place of pilgrimage immediately after his murder. Extreme devotees even argued that a pilgrimage to Karbala was equal to the Hajj. Then as now, the death of Husayn was regarded as a powerful symbol for religious suffering and liberation from oppression.
A mosque was built over Husayn's tomb in 684 AD, and a successon of mosques have been built and destroyed on the site to this day. The original mosque was enlarged with another dome in 749 but was destroyed in 787. In 977, a sepulchre for Husayn's tomb was constructed of teak wood. The present mosque was built in the 11th century, with extensive reconstruction of the walls and dome in the 14th century.
Sunni rulers, among them Saddam Hussein, have regarded the themes of Karbala and Ashura as a potential threat and banned pilgrimages several times and even destroyed the shrines (which have always been rebuilt). In 1991, the richly endowed shrines of Karbala were plundered and damaged by the Iraqi army. After the city rebelled against Saddam Hussein, 32 mosques, 10 religious schools, and 66 prayer halls were brutally destroyed.
Even with Saddam removed from power, Karbala has continued to be a focus of sectarian conflict. The 2004 Shi'a pilgrimage to Karbala, the second since Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, was marred by bomb attacks that killed and wounded hundreds.
Devotion to Imam Husayn focuses almost exclusively on his death as the symbol of redemptive suffering and liberation. Laments, dirges, public expressions of grief and reenactments of his murder are major parts of the pilgrimage to Karbala. Once arrived at the shrine, pilgrims kissed the silver cover (since stolen) of Husayn's tomb.
Pilgrims to Karbala also visit the parallel Shrine of Hadrat Abbas, Husayn's loyal half-brother who died with him in the Battle of Karbala. (Hadrat or Hazrat is a term of respect.) Also visited is al-Makhayam, the traditional location of Hussayn's camp. Here the martyrdom of Hussayn and his followers is publicly commemorated.
The most important date for a pilgrimage to Karbala is on Ashura, a Muslim holiday on 10 Muharram (currently in January on the western calendar). Originally a minor fasting holiday, Shi'ites have adopted Ashura as the day for commemorating the death of Husayn. Public mourning and bloody reenactments of the battle are carried out by Shi'ites across the Muslim world, but the most important of these is at Karbala.
Many elderly Shi'a Muslims come to Karbala to die because of the belief that Karbala is one of the gates to the Heavenly Paradise promised the faithful in the Qur'an. (Najaf is even more popular as a place to pass on, in order to join Imam Ali at Judgement Day.)
What to See
Shi'a mosques and shrines tend to be very opulently decorated with precious metals and shiny surfaces, and the highly sacred Shrine of Imam Husayn is no exception. The minarets and dome are covered in pure gold. Inside, Husyan's tomb is covered in gold and silver and sheltered by a vast dome covered in mirrored tiles. The screens are made of solid silver.
A wide, tree-lined avenue leads from the Shrine of Imam Husayn to the Shrine of Abbas, Husayn's half-brother and the army commander who died with Husayn in the Battle of Karbala. Hadrat Abbas is revered by Shi'as for his loyalty to Husayn and bravery in the battle. The tomb of Abbas is also highly decorated with precious metals and materials.
Names: Mashhad al-Husayn; Masjidu l-Hussayn; Shrine of Imam Husayn; Shrine of Imam Hussain
Type of site: Mosque and shrine
Faith: Shia Muslim
Dates: Founded 684 AD; current building 11th and 14th century, with later decorations