ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 9 IN THE YEAR 680, A SMALL caravan set out from Mecca, heading for Iraq, and at its head Hussein, Ali’s younger son. Nineteen years had passed since he and his brother had buried their father on that sandy rise outside Kufa, then made the long, dispiriting trek back across northern Arabia to the shelter of the Hijaz mountains. Hussein had waited with almost impossible patience as Muawiya consolidated his rule over the empire, but now the waiting was over. Muawiya was dead, and Hussein was intent on bringing the caliphate back where it belonged, to the Ahl al-Bayt, the House of Muhammad.
The divisiveness that had begun with Muhammad’s death and then taken shape around the figure of Ali had now reached into the third generation. And here it was to harden into a sense of the most terrible wrong—a wrong so deeply felt that it would cut through the body of Islam for centuries to come, with still no end in sight.
Hussein was by now in his mid-fifties, and it surely showed. His beard must have been at least flecked with white, his eyes and mouth etched around with deep lines. Yet the posters that today flood Iraqi and Iranian markets show an extraordinarily handsome man in his twenties. Long black hair cascades down to his shoulders. His beard is full and soft, not a gray hair to be seen. His face is unlined, glowing with youth, and his dark eyes are soft but determined, sad and yet confident, as though they were seeing all the joy and all the misery in the world, and embracing joy and misery alike.
In the West, the posters are often mistaken for somewhat more muscular images of Jesus, and indeed the resemblance is striking. If Ali was the foundation figure of Shia Islam, Hussein was to become its sacrificial icon. The story of what happened to him once he reached Iraq would become the Passion story of Shiism—its emotional and spiritual core.
Yet as Hussein’s caravan threaded its way out of the mountains and onto the high desert, a dispassionate observer might have taken one look and thought that he was almost destined to fail. If his aim was to reclaim the caliphate, this small group seemed pitifully inadequate to the task. The line of camels traveled slowly, for they carried the women and children of his family, with only seventy-two armed warriors for protection and just a few horses tied to the camels by their reins. Nevertheless, the group rode with assurance, confident that once they arrived, the whole of Iraq would rise up under their banner.
At first, that confidence had seemed justified. Letter after letter had been carried across the eight hundred miles between Kufa and Mecca in the weeks since Muawiya had died and his son Yazid had succeeded to the throne in Damascus—so many letters that they filled two large saddlebags, and all of them from the Shiat Ali, the followers of Ali.
“Speed to us, Hussein,” they urged. “The people are waiting for you, and think of none but you. Claim your rightful place as the true heir of the Prophet, his grandson, his flesh and blood through Fatima, your mother. Bring power back where it belongs, to Iraq. We will drive out the Syrians under your banner. We will reclaim the soul of Islam.”
The pivotal message was the one that came from Hussein’s cousin Muslim, whom he had sent to Kufa to confirm that the Iraqis were indeed committed to his leadership. “I have twelve thousand men ready to rise up under you,” Muslim wrote. “Come now. Come to an army that has gathered for you!”
It was the call Hussein had waited nineteen years to hear, ever since his father’s death.
Ali had not been the only target the morning he was attacked, or so it was said. Word was that the khariji Rejectionists had also planned to kill Amr in Egypt and Muawiya in Syria. But Amr had been sick that day—a stomach ailment, they said—and the cloaked figure struck from behind was only a subordinate. And though the would-be Syrian assassin found the right man, he merely slashed Muawiya in the buttocks, and the newly uncontested ruler of the empire suffered only temporary discomfort.
Few were so rash as to point out how convenient it was that only Ali had been killed, and by Muawiya’s favorite weapon, poison. Those few were quickly and irrevocably silenced.
There was even a story that Ali’s assassin had carried out the deed for love: to win the hand of a woman whose father and brothers had been among the Rejectionist martyrs killed at Nahrawan. “I will not marry you until you give me what I want,” the story has her saying. “Three thousand dirhams, a slave, a singing girl, and the death of Ali the son of Abu Talib.” The presence of that singing girl on her list of conditions spoke clearly of a romantic fiction, and no such romance was ever concocted about the men who purportedly attacked Muawiya and Amr. But that was no matter; it was far safer for most Muslims to blame the fanatic Rejectionists, and them alone.
Assassination creates an instant hero of its target. Any past sins are not just forgiven but utterly forgotten. Every word is reinterpreted in the light of sudden loss, and every policy once thought mistaken now seems the only right course of action. Political life is haunted by the sense of what might have been, of an ideal world that might have existed if only the assassination had never taken place. So it is today, and so it was in seventh-century Kufa. The same sword stroke that erased Ali’s life also erased all doubts about him. If they had diminished him in life, in death the Iraqis would raise him up as the ultimate authority, almost on a par with Muhammad himself.
The poisoned sword had been wielded by a Rejectionist, but as the Kufans reeled in shock, their sense of outrage was fueled by the conviction that Muawiya had somehow been behind it. Ali had been right all along, they said, and called for nothing less than what they had so stolidly refused before: all-out war on Muawiya.
They surged to the mosque to declare allegiance to Ali’s scholarly elder son, Hasan, and demanded that he lead them against Syria. But even as passions ran high all around him, Hasan remained a realist. He accepted the Kufans’ allegiance out of a sense of duty but clearly considered it more a burden than an honor. War was pointless, he knew, for the Syrian army was far better trained and equipped than the fractious Iraqi one. And besides, just the thought of a continuing civil war filled him with loathing.
He was haunted by Ali’s final bequest, spoken as the poison rapidly spread through his veins. “Do not seek this world even as it seeks you,” he had told his sons. “Do not weep for anything that is taken from you. Pursue harmony and goodness. Avoid fitna and discord.” And finally, quoting the Quran: “Do not fear the blame of any man more than you fear God.”
As sons will do, Hasan held his father to account for betraying the principles he had preached. Ali had allowed himself to be dragged into civil war, and Hasan could not forgive him for that. He had admired Othman for his abiding faith in Islam. Had been deeply shocked at the way the aging third Caliph had been so ruthlessly cut down. Had criticized his father’s declaration of amnesty for Othman’s assassins, and looked on with horror at the escalating bloodshed ever since. More war was the last thing Hasan wanted, and Muawiya, thanks to his vast network of informers, knew it.
Cannily aware that the pen can indeed be as mighty as the sword, Muawiya now sent Hasan a series of carefully reasoned letters. In them, he recognized Hasan’s spiritual right to the caliphate but argued that he, Muawiya, was better suited to the task. He was the older man, he said, the more seasoned and the more worldly-wise in an uncertain world. He was the one capable of ensuring secure borders, of repressing Rejectionist terrorism and assuring the safety and integrity of the empire. Much as he admired Hasan’s scholarship and piety, much as he honored him as the grandson of the Prophet, the times called for a strong leader—a man of experience and action, not a man of intellect.
And as was his way, he sweetened the pot. If Hasan abdicated his claim to the caliphate, Muawiya would ensure that he was amply compensated, in both the short term and the long. A large payment would be made to him from the Iraqi treasury, along with Muawiya’s oath that on his own death, he would name Hasan as the next Caliph.
Hasan was tempted. He knew he was no warrior, and longed for the peace and quiet of days spent studying in the mosque. He could also see how fickle those who supported him could be. He had watched as his father had been diminished in stature by the Iraqis, stymied at every turn. If they now held Ali up as the highest ideal, they could change their minds again just as quickly. Indeed, as he mulled Muawiya’s offer, it was the Iraqis who would decide him.
They had gathered for what they thought would be a fiery sermon calling them to war. But Hasan was not the inspirational speaker his father had been. A mild speech defect forced him to speak in a slow monotone, with each word given equal weight. He had gravitas but lacked fire, and this was clear as he took the pulpit to preach not what the people wanted but what he believed: the supremacy of the greater jihad—the lifelong struggle within oneself to become the ideal Muslim—over the lesser jihad, or armed struggle. If the Kufans counted it shameful to turn away from war, he said, then “shame is better than hellfire.” He would seek not war with Muawiya but an honorable peace, and a general amnesty for all past bloodshed.
They were brave words, instantly taken for cowardice. “He is weak and confused,” the Kufan warriors shouted to one another. “He intends to surrender. We have to stop him.” And the man who wanted nothing more than to prevent further violence suddenly became the object of it. His own men turned on him in a mutinous free-for-all, manhandling him and pulling the robe off his back. A knife appeared—nobody was ever sure whose knife it was—and cut into his thigh. It was not a deep wound, but enough to draw a flow of blood, and that fact probably saved Hasan’s life. As he fell to the ground, the sight of the blood sobered the mutineers, and they realized how dangerously close they had come to yet another assassination.
If there had been any doubt in Hasan’s mind as to what he should do, it was now resolved. Even if he wanted, he could not lead an army capable of turning on him in this way. Abdication was the only option, and Muawiya’s terms seemed reasonable enough. He had sworn that Hasan would succeed him as Caliph. Hasan must have reasoned that if his father, Ali, had waited through the reigns of three Caliphs before taking his rightful place, citing the need for unity, then he himself could surely wait through just this one.
Hussein pleaded with him to reconsider. “I beg you, heed the words of Ali,” he said, “not the words of Muawiya.” Deception was Muawiya’s modus operandi, he argued. Nothing good could come of negotiating with such a man, no matter what he had promised. But a younger brother rarely holds much sway over an older one, and besides, the wound in his leg had already persuaded Hasan.
He was still limping as he mounted the pulpit to address the Kufans for the last time. “People of Iraq, you have pledged allegiance to me, swearing that any friend of mine is a friend of yours,” he said. Now he called on them to follow through on that pledge. “I have deemed it right to make peace with Muawiya and to pledge allegiance to him, since whatever spares blood is better than whatever causes it to be shed.”
There was utter silence by the time he finished speaking, a silence that held as he descended from the pulpit and left the mosque. He told his brother to prepare for the long ride back to Medina and to do so as quickly as possible. He would be thankful, he said, to see the last of Kufa.
Who could blame him? The Shia certainly do not. In Shia Islam, Hasan is revered as the second Imam, the rightful heir to Ali and so to Muhammad. He had given up the leadership of the empire, but the far more important authority of spiritual power was indisputably his. Hasan, they would say, had placed his faith not in worldly power but in faith itself. Though there were also those who would say that the money certainly helped.
There is no firm record of how much he was given from the Iraqi treasury. There never is in such situations. Some say it was five million silver dirhams, enough for him to return to Medina a wealthy man. But Hussein was to be proved right in warning his brother against Muawiya. Hasan would not have long to enjoy his newfound wealth.
Muawiya, now the undisputed fifth Caliph, entered Kufa with all due pomp and circumstance. He gave the Kufans three days to swear allegiance to him, and did not need to spell out what would happen if they refused. Swear they did on the first day, and with loud enthusiasm.
If their hearts were not his, their self-interest definitely was. And if some would accuse them of being fickle, others would say they were pragmatic. Here at last was the “strongman” they had been yearning for. For all Ali’s talk of unity, Muawiya was the one who could actually achieve it—not by the power of faith and principle, as Ali had hoped, but by far more down-to-earth methods.
After five years of civil war, law and order would prevail. The empire that had teetered on the brink of disintegration would be rescued. Muawiya was to rule for nineteen years, and on his death—of natural causes, itself a sign of political stability—his eulogist would call him “the rod and the blade of the Arabs, by means of whom God cut off strife.” Whatever part he had taken in creating that strife was not the stuff of eulogies.
With Kufa newly submissive, the man who had mused that “I like nothing better than a bubbling spring in an easy land” now went about assuring himself of just that. He took great delight in the rewards of power, tempered only by a certain ironic sensibility—in many ways a very modern one. It’s said that one time, as he watched the arrival in Damascus of a caravan full of Arabian horses and Caucasian slave girls, he sighed with satisfaction at how good the caliphate had been to him. “May God have pity on Abu Bakr, for he did not want this world, nor the world him,” he said. “Then the world wanted Omar, but he did not want the world. And then Othman used up this world, and it used up him. But me—I revel in it!”
He did not even mention Ali, editing him out of thought as if he could edit him out of history. But at that point in time, history surely seemed his to write. His was the subtle political mind that had gone up against Ali’s elevated spiritual one, and it had been clear to Muawiya from the beginning which of them would prevail, at least in terms of worldly success. One was destined to eat dust and thorns; the other to contemplate his slave girls and thoroughbred horses.
The Iraqis might still have posed a problem. They had sworn allegiance, but Muawiya had no intention of relying on their oaths. These were the people who had pledged themselves to Ali yet disobeyed him, then pledged again to Hasan and turned on him. Muawiya was determined to ensure not their loyalty—he was hardly so foolish as to expect that—but their continued submission. All that was needed was the right man for the job. If the Kufans had been as glad to see Hasan go as he had been to leave them, they would soon change their minds.
Ziyad, the veteran general appointed by Muawiya as the new governor of Iraq, was also one of the toughest. He had once been known as Ibn Abihi—the “Son of His Father”—and the identity of that father had been a matter of both dispute and entertainment. The most consistent rumors had it that Ziyad was a bastard son of Muawiya’s father, Abu Sufyan. Some said that his mother had been a concubine of Abu Sufyan’s; others swore that she had been a prostitute; yet others that worse still, she had been a Christian, and Ziyad was “the son of a blue-eyed mother.” But nobody called him Ibn Abihi any longer, not unless they wanted to be burned alive or crucified or slowly hacked to pieces, limb by limb. Ziyad had a way of making himself understood, even with the most unruly populace.
“Spare me your hands and your tongues,” he told the Kufans on taking office, “and I shall spare you my hand and my arm. I swear by God I have many potential victims among you, so let every man of you beware lest he be among them.”
The Kufans responded at first with a certain cowed respect. After the civil unrest of Ali’s rule, Ziyad at least provided security. In fact he enforced it. “He compelled the people to obey,” one Kufan remembered. “If a man or a woman dropped something, none would touch it until its owner came back and picked it up. Women spent the night without locking their doors. And if so much as a rope should be stolen in his realm, he would know who had taken it.” Just as Italians reconciled themselves to Mussolini’s dictatorship in the 1930s by saying that he “made the trains run on time,” so the seventh-century Iraqis accommodated themselves to Ziyad’s regime. Even the Rejectionists hunkered down, wary of retaliation.
The price of such security was dread. Ziyad established a secret police network to keep track not only of stolen ropes but also of any emergent opposition. He was as uncompromising as he had promised in response. Collective punishment—uprooting orchards, confiscating land, demolishing houses of relatives of those he suspected—was as effective as it was ruthless. So too was his demand that people spy on one another and name names.
“Let each man save himself,” he ordered. “Inform me of troublemakers sought by the Caliph Muawiya. Make lists of them, and you will be free from harm. Anyone who refuses will be denied protection, and his blood and property will be halal”—Ziyad’s to take at will.
With his secret police, his network of informants, his brutal reprisals, Ziyad ran Iraq much as another dictator was to run it fourteen hundred years later. Like Saddam Hussein, he was a Sunni ruling a majority Shia population. If they pined for Ali, that was their problem. He could not control their hearts, but he could, and did, control their every action. He was every bit as ruthless as Saddam would be, and seemingly as immovable.
Given his purpose, Muawiya had chosen his man in Iraq well, all the more since he had no fear of Ziyad’s turning against him. He ensured his new governor’s absolute loyalty with the least expensive yet most generous of gestures: the public recognition of Ziyad as a legal son of Abu Sufyan and thus as Muawiya’s own half brother. Family ties replaced the stigma of bastardy; nobility dispelled dishonor. So when Ziyad died, victim to one of the seventh century’s many localized outbreaks of the plague, it was perfectly natural that his son Ubaydallah, now Muawiya’s legal nephew, take his place as governor of Iraq. And just as natural that Ubaydallah prove himself very much his father’s son.
With Iraq thoroughly subdued and all overt signs of Shia sympathy quashed, with the trade routes safe and secure, and taxes coming in from as far away as Algeria to the west and Pakistan to the east, life was good for Muawiya. Only one cloud threatened his horizon: his commitment to appoint Hasan his successor as Caliph. It had been necessary at the time, one of those concessions a wise politician makes, but always in the awareness that things change with time. A great leader’s worth, after all, was measured by his legacy, and history made it clear that such a legacy was best ensured by founding a dynasty. An Umayyad dynasty, that is, with Muawiya’s son Yazid to become Caliph after him.
Muawiya’s dynastic ambition was to utterly change the caliphate. On this, both Sunnis and Shia are in agreement. The protodemocratic impulse that had driven the earliest years of Islam—the messy business of the shura, with the principle, if not quite the practice, of consensus—would become a thing of the past. As Byzantine despotism had appropriated Christianity, so now Umayyad despotism would appropriate Islam.
Muawiya had already had himself crowned Caliph in a coup de théâtre staged in Jerusalem, where he assumed the former role of the Byzantine emperor as guardian of the Christian holy places. Many of his most senior officials were Christians, including Ibn Uthal, his physician, and Al-Mansur ibn Sarjun, the grandfather of Saint John of Damascus. The Byzantine influence was all too clear. The caliphate was to become a hereditary monarchy in what would be seen as the degenerate Persian and Byzantine mold, and Yazid seemed to fit that mold perfectly.
He was the image of a spoiled scion given to drink and dissipation, the antithesis of the Islamic ideal. “A silk-wearing drunkard,” Hasan once called him. Even Ziyad, angling perhaps for his own selection as Muawiya’s successor, warned that Yazid was “easy-going and neglectful, devoted only to hunting.” Muawiya’s son seemed to be a kind of seventh-century version of a good old boy from Texas, succeeding his father to the highest office in the land.
But that was to underestimate him, let alone his father. Muawiya would never have appointed a dissipated roué to carry on his legacy. Yazid may have liked his drink, but he had also proved himself an effective administrator and a capable commander in the field. If he was not the Islamic ideal, that was no matter. Muawiya had no intention of making his son heir to the pulpit; he wanted him heir to the throne.
And, Muawiya might have argued, why not? What was so different about the claim of the Ahl al-Bayt to the caliphate? Wasn’t its claim based on the same principle of blood inheritance, as though matters of the spirit could be passed on by birth along with facial features and the family name? Wasn’t the son of the fifth Caliph as entitled to the throne as the son of the fourth? More so, in fact, if the stability Muawiya had achieved was to be maintained?
Besides, it was not as though he would be taking the caliphate away from the family of Muhammad. From the Ahl al-Bayt, yes, but wasn’t family a larger thing than that? Wasn’t he himself the Prophet’s brother-in-law? And weren’t the Umayyads also the family of the Prophet? Muawiya’s grandfather Umayya had been a first cousin of Muhammad’s grandfather, making both Muawiya and Yazid distant cousins of the Prophet. They were in a different line of the family, true, but family all the same.
As it happened, Muawiya had no need to make his case. It could simply be considered a matter of perfect timing for him when Hasan died at the age of forty-six, just nine years after returning to Medina. He died of natural causes, Sunnis would say, but the Shia would tell a different story. Muawiya, they charged, had ensured Hasan’s early demise by means of his favorite weapon—a honeyed drink laced with poison.
Muawiya had found the vulnerable link, they said. The hand that slipped the fatal powder into the cup was the least expected—one of Hasan’s wives, Jaada. She had married the man she thought would inherit the caliphate after his father, Ali, and hoped to be the mother of his sons, the heirs to power. But though Hasan had many sons by other wives, the sons Jaada hoped for never materialized. Neither did the status of marriage to the leader of an empire. After Hasan’s abdication, Jaada had found herself part of the household of a revered but powerless scholar in what had become the backwater of Medina. So perhaps she thought that if this husband would not be Caliph, another one could be. Perhaps that was why she had been open to Muawiya’s offer.
He had promised lavish payment for her trouble—not only cash but marriage to Yazid, the man he would declare the heir to the caliphate once Hasan was out of the way. And since Muawiya always paid his debts, she did indeed receive the money. But not the son. When the newly self-made widow tried to claim the second part of her reward, Muawiya rebuffed her. “How,” he said, “can I marry my son to a woman who poisons her husband?”
Hasan, the second Imam of Shia Islam, was buried in the main cemetery of Medina, though that was not where he had wished his grave to be. He had asked that he lie alongside his grandfather under the floor of Aisha’s former chamber in the courtyard of the mosque, but as the funeral procession approached the compound, Muawiya’s governor barred the way with troops and diverted the mourners to the cemetery. The last thing Muawiya wanted was to have Hasan enshrined alongside the Prophet. He was all too aware of the potential power of shrines
A different account of Hasan’s forced resting place lays the blame squarely at the door of another controversial figure. In the years since the Battle of the Camel, Aisha had become the doyenne of Medinan society, the aging dowager who settled disputes, arranged marriages, and, whenever she needed to, which was often, invoked her memories of life with Muhammad as a means of enforcing her wishes. She seemed to have made her peace with the past, but when she heard that Hasan’s funeral procession was heading for the mosque, all the old resentment came surging up again.
The son of her nemesis Ali to lie alongside the Prophet? Under the floor of the chamber that had once been hers and that still legally belonged to her? She could not allow such a thing. She gave orders for a gray mule to be saddled and rode out to intercept the procession as it wound through the narrow alleys near the mosque, stopping it in its tracks. “That chamber is still my property,” she announced. “I do not grant permission for anyone else to be buried there.”
The crowd of mourners came to a halt, and their numbers soon swelled with others, attracted by the confrontation. Some spoke out in favor of Hussein, who stood by his brother’s bier at the head of the procession; others were in favor of Aisha, who sat firm on her mule, unbudging. One of her nephews tried to defuse the situation with humor. “Oh aunt,” he said, “we are still washing our beards from the Battle of the Red Camel, and you would now have people speak of the Battle of the Gray Mule?” But as the dispute grew more heated and threatened to get physical, it was Hussein who found a way to save face for all concerned.
It was true that his brother had asked to be buried alongside his grandfather the Prophet, he said, but the request had come with a proviso: “unless you fear evil.” Since evil was now to be feared in the form of a fight at a funeral, Hussein gave the order to divert the procession to the cemetery. Instead of being buried alongside Muhammad, Hasan would lie next to his mother, Fatima.
And so it was done. Nobody would ever know for sure whether it was at Muawiya’s command or Aisha’s insistence, but to place the blame on Aisha was certainly an excellent way to divert it from Muawiya. The bold and irrepressible leader of the Mothers of the Faithful was no longer beyond reproach.
The fire was still there, but only in sparks. “Are you not afraid I will poison you in revenge for the death of my brother Muhammad Abu Bakr?” she once asked Muawiya when he visited Medina and paid her a courtesy call. It was he who told the story, laconically adding the famed comment that “there was never any subject I wished closed that she would not open, or that I wished opened that she would not close.” Even in forced retirement, Aisha still commanded respect, however grudging.
These were the years in which she did what retired public figures still do: in effect, she wrote her memoirs, or at least dictated them. She told the stories of her life with Muhammad, many of which are still enshrined as hadith—the reports of Muhammad’s sayings and practice that would form the sunna, taking second place in Islam only to the Quran itself. Aisha told the stories again and again, refining them each time, and if anyone pointed out that her recollections sometimes contradicted one another, she would take a tack familiar to modern politicians. She had misspoken then, she would say, but was speaking correctly now. Or in a still more familiar tactic, she would simply deny ever having said whatever it was she had said before.
Still, retirement did mellow even her. In the years after Hasan’s death, with Muawiya clearly bent on turning the caliphate into a monarchy, she seemed to regret her role in taking arms against Ali. “I caused wrongdoing after the Prophet,” she acknowledged, and steered clear of politics, contenting herself with the constant flow of visitors, the diplomatic courtesy visits, the gifts and adulation. Yet she must have realized how meaningless all this was. She had been at the center of the story of Islam, and now she was on the sidelines. Times had changed, the empire had changed, and Aisha had little option but to accept being made into a kind of living monument.
Worse still, there were those who would have preferred that she be a dead one. Among the politicians making the obligatory courtesy call on her in Medina was Amr, Muawiya’s governor of Egypt and his former chief of staff, who made no bones about the matter. Aisha knew that Amr spoke for Muawiya as well as for himself when he told her to her face that it would have been better for all concerned if she had been killed at the Battle of the Camel. When she asked how so—and only Aisha would even have asked—the answer came with horribly unexpected frankness. “Because then you would have died at the height of your glory and entered heaven,” Amr said, “while we would have proclaimed your death as the most infamous act of Ali.”
And so saying, he left Aisha with the question that would surely unsettle her for the rest of her life. Where she had always thought of herself as the virtual queen of Islam, had she been all along merely a pawn in someone else’s game?
Muawiya made the formal announcement of his son, Yazid, as his successor. He included no mention of Hussein, doubtless certain that he could persuade Ali’s younger son into passivity just as he had done the elder. Since the father had accepted arbitration, and the older brother abdication, why should the younger brother behave any differently? Indeed, for another ten years, so long as Muawiya ruled, he would not. Hussein also knew how to be patient. Age, after all, was the one thing Muawiya could not control.
The gout and obesity caused by a lifetime of indulgence finally caught up with the fifth Caliph, though even in his last days, he made sure to present the image of someone in firm control. Propped up on pillows, he had kohl applied around his eyes to make them livelier and his face oiled to make it shine as though with vigor. But if vanity ruled the end of his life, so too did a sudden burst of piety. He instructed that he be buried in a shirt he said had been given him by Muhammad himself, a shirt he had kept along with some of the Prophet’s nail clippings. “Cut up and grind these nail parings,” he said, “then sprinkle them in my eyes and in my mouth. Thus God might have mercy on me by their blessing.”
He died with Yazid by his side and Hussein on his mind. His last words to his son included a caution: “Hussein is a weak and insignificant man, but the people of Iraq will not leave him alone until they make him rebel. If that happens and you defeat him, pardon him, for he has close kinship to the Prophet and a great claim.”
If Yazid had only heeded him, centuries of strife and division could perhaps have been avoided. But one way or another, history is often made by the heedless.
On April 22 in the year 680, Yazid was acclaimed Caliph. He moved swiftly to consolidate his position, reconfirming Ziyad’s son Ubaydallah as governor of Iraq in the hope of squelching any incipient uprising there. At the same time, he ordered his governor in Medina to arrest Hussein. “Act so fiercely that he has no chance to do anything before giving public allegiance to me,” he wrote. “If he refuses, execute him.”
But the same governor who had done Muawiya’s bidding was not so quick to obey Yazid’s orders. To prevent Hasan from being buried alongside Muhammad was one thing, but to kill Hussein, Muhammad’s one remaining grandson? That was beyond the pale. “I could not do this, not for all the wealth and power in the world,” he said.
Perhaps it was the governor himself who warned Hussein of what was afoot, or perhaps someone in his employ. All we know is that later that night, under cover of darkness, Hussein gathered together all his blood kin and fled the two hundred and fifty miles from Medina to Mecca.
That was when they began to arrive, messenger after messenger, exhausted from the long, urgent ride from Kufa. All of them bore letters begging Hussein to come to Iraq. Pleading with him to save them from the brutality and injustice of Yazid and his governor Ubaydallah. Calling on him to reclaim the caliphate and restore the soul of Islam. And then came the most persuasive letter of all, the one from Muslim, Hussein’s cousin, assuring him that he had twelve thousand men ready to rise up under his leadership.
Hussein’s response was to engrave the tragic rift between Shia and Sunni deep into the Muslim psyche. The third Imam, son of the first and brother of the second, set out from Mecca for Iraq in September of 680, with his family and just seventy-two armed men, not knowing that he was journeying toward his death—that within the month, he was destined to become forever the Prince of Martyrs.