WOLVES AND HYENAS DID NOT DEVOUR THE CORPSES AS SHIMR had planned. Once he had led away his captives, farmers ventured out from a nearby village, buried the seventy-two headless bodies, and marked the graves. Just four years later, pilgrims—the precursors of the millions who now arrive each year—began to arrive on the anniversary of the massacre, and it was they who named the gravesite Karbala, “the place of trial and tribulation.”
Hussein’s head would have many resting places, its presence spreading along with the story of what had happened. Most say it is buried by the east wall of the Grand Mosque in Damascus, but some have it in a shrine near the main entry to the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, while yet others maintain that it was spirited away to Azerbaijan for safekeeping. Some even say it was returned to Karbala. But far more important than the physical remains, what survived was the story, and it was the survivors who told it—the women and the girls, and one boy.
Ali Zayn al-Abidin, Hussein’s adolescent son, never took part in the fighting. He could not rise from his bedding in the women’s tent. Struck by severe fever, he had tossed and turned helplessly as his friends, his kin, and finally his father went out to meet their deaths. So when Shimr and his men came bursting into the women’s tent and caught sight of him, the sick boy was an easy and obvious target, and he too would certainly have been killed were it not for his aunt, Hussein’s sister Zaynab.
“Do not let Satan take away your courage,” Hussein had told her on that final night, and now she displayed that courage. She hurled herself over her nephew and defied Shimr to run her through with his sword. “If you kill him, then you kill me with him,” she declared.
Not even Shimr, it seemed, could kill the granddaughter of the Prophet in cold blood. Instead, he gave the order to take the boy captive along with the women. But Zaynab would do more than keep alive Hussein’s one remaining son; she would keep alive the memory of Karbala itself. Her words of grief as she was being led away in chains, her clothing torn and head bare, would haunt Islam through the centuries.
“Oh Muhammad, Muhammad, may the angels of heaven bless you!” she wailed. “Here is Hussein in the open, stained with blood and his limbs torn off. Oh Muhammad! Your daughters are prisoners, your progeny are killed, and the east wind blows dust over them.”
Nobody in Iraq needed to be told what that east wind brought with it. That was the wind of blinding dust storms, the very breath of trial and tribulation.
Even Shimr’s men repented when they heard her, or so at least some of them would claim. “By God, she made every friend and every foe weep,” one said later. But if the soldiers did indeed weep, they still obeyed orders. Ubaydallah had the captives publicly humiliated by parading them through Kufa and, only once that was done, sent them on to the Caliph Yazid in Damascus, along with the severed heads.
Some say it was not Ubaydallah but Yazid himself who then poked at Hussein’s head with a cane and laughed gleefully as it rolled on the floor at his feet. But most say he angrily cursed Shimr and Ubaydallah for their “excess of zeal,” his conscience roused by the fact that Zaynab was there to call him to account.
No matter the chains, the torn clothing, the dust and blisters of the long desert march from Kufa, she stood proudly in front of the Umayyad Caliph and publicly shamed him. “You, your father, and your grandfather submitted to the faith of my father, Ali, the faith of my brother Hussein, the faith of my grandfather Muhammad,” she told him. “Yet you have vilified them unjustly and oppressed the very faith you profess.”
At this, Yazid himself broke down in tears. “If I had been there, Hussein, you would not have been killed,” he swore, and gave orders for the captives to be treated as honored guests in his own household. On the fortieth day after Karbala—the day the Shia commemorate as Arbain, or “forty”—he gave the women and girls and the one surviving son his assurance of protection and had them escorted back to Medina.
Perhaps he had remembered what some say was Muawiya’s dying caution to him: “If you defeat Hussein, pardon him, for he has a great claim.” If so, it was too late. Reviled by the Shia, Yazid would hardly be better treated in memory by the Sunnis. Few would grieve when he died only three years after Karbala, just as his forces were poised to take the city of Mecca, which had risen up in rebellion under the son of Aisha’s ill-fated brother-in-law Zubayr. Fewer still would grieve when his sickly thirteen-year-old son died just six months after that. And it is probably safe to say that none grieved for his second cousin Marwan, who then proclaimed himself Caliph. The man who had played such a devious role behind the scenes throughout Othman’s and Ali’s caliphates finally achieved the power he had coveted for so long, but only briefly; within the year he would be smothered to death by his own wife.
All the while, “the Karbala factor,” as it would come to be called, was rapidly gaining strength. The story told by the seventh-century survivors would not only endure but would grow in power to find renewed life in the twentieth century.
“Religion is an amazing phenomenon that plays contradictory roles in people’s lives,” said Ali Shariati, the charismatic lecturer who helped lay the intellectual foundation of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. “It can destroy or revitalize, put to sleep or awaken, enslave or emancipate, teach docility or teach revolt.”
Khomeini understood him perfectly. Like Shariati, the Ayatollah grasped that Karbala was an enormously loaded symbol, a deep well of emotional, social, and political significance, seemingly infinitely adaptable to time and circumstance. Under the regime of the Shah, with political dissent banned under pain of imprisonment, torture, and execution, religion could become the umbrella language of protest and resistance. The Karbala story was the perfect vehicle for this. Its themes broke through the usual social and economic dividing lines to resonate with clerics and secular intellectuals, liberals and conservatives, urban Marxists and tradition-bound villagers alike.
“Let the blood-stained banners of Ashura be raised wherever possible as a sign of the coming day when the oppressed shall avenge themselves on the oppressors,” Khomeini wrote from exile in France in November 1978, and on Ashura itself, which fell on December 11 that year, the traditional processions were transformed into a powerful political weapon. Under intense pressure, the Shah lifted martial law for just two days, and millions of Iranians responded to Khomeini’s call and marched in the streets, alternating the ritual cry of “Death to Yazid!” with a new one: “Death to the Shah!”
Forty days later, on Arbain, Khomeini again called on the Karbala factor, comparing those killed in the streets by the Shah’s troops with those killed by Yazid’s troops fourteen hundred years earlier. “It is as if the blood of our martyrs were the continuation of the blood of the martyrs of Karbala,” he wrote. “It is our religious and national duty to organize great marches on this day.” Despite the reimposition of martial law, the Karbala story again became the means of mass mobilization, and again the Shah’s troops opened fire, creating yet more martyrs. By the end of the month the Shah had fled into exile.
The revolution had succeeded, but with what many would see as a vengeance. Within two months the Islamic Republic was declared, and Khomeini announced himself the Supreme Leader. Liberal Muslims and secular intellectuals now discovered the other side of the religious fervor they had helped foment. Revolution gave way to theocracy; freedom and justice, to Islamic dictatorship. Thousands of secular and liberal activists who had helped bring about the revolution were imprisoned and executed. Women disappeared behind head-to-toe veils, and even the young chador-clad women who had toted submachine guns in the streets of Teheran, calling themselves “the commandos of Zaynab,” were quickly assigned to more traditional duties. Many of Shariati’s teachings were soon declared un-Islamic, and his image, once featured alongside Khomeini on everything from posters to postage stamps, disappeared from view.
The Karbala story was still used, though in a far more deliberately manipulative way. In the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, thousands of Iranian boys were given headbands inscribed with the word “Karbala,” then sent off to become human minesweepers. Wave after wave of them ran headlong into Iraqi minefields to be blown up to clear the way for Iranian troops, each of them in the desperate faith that he was heading for a martyr’s paradise. Frontline troops were inspired to sacrifice by visits from singers and chanters of Karbala lamentations, the most famed of whom was known as “Khomeini’s Nightingale.” Khomeini had swept into power with the help of the Karbala factor, then taken control of it, taming it into the docility and obedience Shariati had warned of.
But the newly proven power of Karbala was not to be so easily controlled in the country of its birth, Iraq, where it was soon to bind together not only the past and the present, but also the future.
Just one of Hussein’s five sons had survived, but for the Shia, that one was enough. He would be the fourth of twelve Imams, the twelve seen on posters all over the Shia world, seated in a V formation behind Ali at their head. The imamate passed from father to son, each of them endowed with divine knowledge and grace. And after Karbala, each of them, the Shia believe, was poisoned, first by order of the Umayyad Caliphs, then by order of their successors, the Abbasids. Each, that is, except the last, the twelfth Imam, the one whose face is hidden in the posters. Where his face should be, there is just a patch of white, as though the radiance of sanctity would be too much for human eyes.
In fact the fourth, fifth, and sixth Imams—Hussein’s one surviving son, his grandson, and his great-grandson Jaafar al-Sadiq, who laid the foundation of Shia theology—seem to have lived long lives in Medina. Whether poison did indeed account for their deaths is more a matter of faith than of record. But it is clear that once the Abbasids came to power, the life expectancy of the Shia Imams drastically decreased.
The Abbasids ousted the Umayyads just seventy years after Karbala and brought the caliphate back from Syria to Iraq. In 762 they built a magnificent new capital city on the banks of the Tigris. Laid out in a perfect circle, it was originally called Medinat as-Salaam—“City of Peace”—though it quickly became better known as Baghdad, from the Persian for “gift of paradise.”
By the end of the eighth century, under the fabled Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the Muslim empire stretched all the way from Spain to India, and Baghdad had become the center of an extraordinary flowering in the arts and sciences. Mathematics reached a new level of sophistication; indeed, the word “algebra” comes from Arabic. Literary output soared, most notably with the famed Thousand and One Nights, which originated, as its stories put it, “in the time of Harun al-Rashid.” Exhaustive histories, the ones on which this book is based, were compiled. But for the Shia, it all came at a high price.
The Abbasids had seized power with strong Shia support, since they claimed to be descendants of Muhammad’s uncle Abbas. If not exactly Ahl al-Bayt, they presented themselves as at least very close. But once in power, they dropped the Shia banner, and the Shia reacted with a deep sense of betrayal—and with division on how to counter such betrayal. Those taking a more activist anti-Abbasid stand included the Zaydis, a Yemeni denomination, some of whom maintained that the imamate had ended with only seven Imams, and the Ismailis, who at first believed it had ended with five, and struck out for power in their own right. One Ismaili branch went on to found the Fatimid dynasty, build the city of Cairo, and rule Egypt from the tenth to the twelfth century, while another is still headed by the Aga Khan. But the vast majority of Shia would eventually hew to belief in twelve Imams and, following their example, focus more on religious devotion than on opposition to the Sunni Caliphs.
After Hussein, all the Imams steered clear of political involvement in favor of pure theology. But where it seemed that the Umayyads could afford to ignore them so long as they were safely distant in Medina, their existence posed more of a threat to the Abbasids. Their line of direct descent from Muhammad represented a clear contradiction of the Abbasid claim to leadership. The Imams, that is, were potential rallying points for resistance and rebellion. So whereas the Umayyads had apparently let them be in Medina, the Abbasids brought them close. In fact, from the seventh Imam on, each one was brought to Iraq and either imprisoned or kept under house arrest. And it seems quite likely that each one was indeed poisoned.
The gold-domed shrines so easily confused by Westerners are built over the tombs of the Imams. The shrines of Ali in Najaf and the twin shrines of Hussein and his half brother Abbas in Karbala draw the largest numbers of pilgrims, but the sanctity of the other shrines is almost as great. The Khadhimiya shrine in Baghdad contains the tombs of the seventh and ninth Imams; the Imam Reza shrine in the Iranian city of Mashhad is built over the tomb of the eighth Imam; and the tenth and eleventh Imams are entombed in the Askariya shrine in Samarra, on the Tigris River sixty miles north of Baghdad.
The name of the Askariya shrine encodes the fate of the two Imams buried there. It comes from the word for a military garrison or camp, and this is what Samarra was—the Pentagon, as it were, of the Abbasid dynasty. The tenth and eleventh Imams were kept under house arrest there, making them literally askariya, “the ones kept in camp.”
But the Askariya shrine has even greater significance in Shiism, for the Samarra garrison is where the Shia say the twelfth Imam was born—the last and ultimate inheritor of the pure bloodline of Muhammad through Fatima and Ali, and the central messianic figure of mainstream Shiism.
His birthday is celebrated each year in what might be seen as the Shia equivalent of Christmas Eve, a joyful counterpoint to Ashura. “The Night of Wishes and Prayers,” it is called, a night when homes are hung with balloons and strings of colored lights, when people drum and sing and dance, when confetti and candies are strewn in the streets and fireworks light up the sky. A night, it seems, when wishes and prayers really could come true, which is why on this night the Shia faithful make their way not to Samarra, where the twelfth Imam was born, but to Karbala, where it is believed he will return, followed by Hussein on one side and Jesus on the other.
The twelfth Imam’s name is Muhammad al-Mahdi: “the one who guides divinely.” He is often referred to by a host of other names, including Al-Qaim, “He Who Rises Up”; Sahib as-Zaman, “Lord of the Ages”; and Al-Muntazar, the “Awaited One.” Mostly, though, he is known simply as the Mahdi.
It is said that he was the sole child of a clandestine marriage between the eleventh Imam and a captive granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor, and that his birth was kept secret lest Abbasid poisons find him too. But on the death of his father in the year 872, when he was only five years old, a far more radical means of protection was needed, so it is the core tenet of mainstream Shia belief that in that year the Mahdi evaded the fate of his predecessors by descending into a cave beneath Samarra.
He did not die in that cave, but entered a state of ghrayba, “occultation,” a strictly correct translation that is also perfect in the spiritual sense, since it comes from astronomy, where it refers to one planetary body’s passing in front of another, hiding it from view. An eclipse of the sun or the moon is a matter of occultation, the source of light hidden and yet the light itself radiating out around the edges. But more plainly speaking, ghrayba means simply “concealment,” which is why the Mahdi is often called the Hidden Imam.
This concealment is not permanent. It is a temporary state, a suspension of presence in the world rather than an absence, and it has lasted more than a thousand years so far. The Mahdi will reveal himself again only on the Day of Judgment, when he will return to herald a new era of peace, justice, and victory over evil.
The day and month of his return are known: the tenth of Muharram, the very day on which Hussein was killed at Karbala. But the year remains unknown. And precisely because it is unknown, it is always imminent, and never more so than in times of turmoil.
One much-quoted eleventh-century treatise lists the signs and portents leading up to the Mahdi’s return, many of them familiar from Christian apocalyptic visions. Nature behaves in strange and ominous ways: lunar and solar eclipses within the same month, the sun rising in the west and then standing still, a star in the east as bright as the full moon, a black wind, earthquakes, locusts. But the chaos and disorder of nature are merely mirrors of chaos and disorder in human affairs.
The power of the nonbelievers will spread. Fire will drop from the sky and consume Kufa and Baghdad. False mahdis will rise up and wage bloody battles against one another. Muslims will take arms to throw off the reins of foreign occupation and regain control of their land. There will be a great conflict in which the whole of Syria will be destroyed.
All this and more can sound extraordinarily specific in the modern Middle East. Iranians threw off the reins of foreign control in the revolution of 1979–80, first taking hostage and then expelling the Americans who had shored up the Shah’s regime. Fire dropped from the sky in the form of American bombardment of Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and false mahdis waged bloody sectarian battles against one another in the vacuum of power created by the invasion. The great conflict in Syria is easily seen as that against Israel, whose territory was once part of the Muslim province of Syria.
So when Khomeini took such a strong anti-American stance and framed his stranglehold on power by announcing that he was the representative of the Mahdi and thus carrying out the Mahdi’s will, it was only a matter of time until rumors spread that he was in fact the Mahdi himself, returned to the world. There is no knowing how the rumors began—such is the nature of rumor—but it seems reasonable to suppose that they had some guidance from interested parties. Since Kho meini had already been hailed as “the heir of Hussein” and “the Hussein of our time,” it was not such a great leap from the third to the twelfth Imam. Indeed, Khomeini would take the title Imam, as though he were the natural successor to the twelve, and though he never confirmed the rumors, he never quite denied them either. They subsided only with his death in 1989, when he was entombed in a gold-domed shrine clearly modeled on those of Ali and Hussein.
Messianic fervor also helped fuel the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when Iranian troops at the front woke many nights to see a shrouded figure on a white horse blessing them. Who else could it be, it was said, but the Mahdi himself? In the event, the mysterious figures turned out to be professional actors sent to create exactly that impression, but nobody could ever be sure if they appeared as a sincere homage or in cynical manipulation of popular faith.
Certainly there was nothing cynical about the way Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad invoked the Mahdi when he took office in 2005. He was utterly sincere, and this made what he said all the more disturbing. Government policy would be guided by the principle of hastening the Mahdi’s return, he said—an idea quite familiar to fundamentalist Christians trying to hasten the second coming of the Messiah, and to fundamentalist Jews trying to hasten the first. Ahmadinejad appeared to be tapping into a deep well of sincerely felt faith, both his own and that of others. But as he repeatedly used the symbolism of “hastening the return” over the years, linking it to anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric, many in the West worried about the apocalyptic implications, especially given Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In Iraq, the sense of apocalypse was closer to home as chaos followed the American invasion of 2003. The radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could not have chosen a more powerfully emotive name for his Mahdi Army. The name itself is a call to action that goes far beyond Muqtada’s declared aims of freeing Iraq from American occupation and battling Sunni extremism, and he made this crystal clear when he announced the formation of the social and political wing of his movement in 2008. It was to be called Mumahdiun, “those who prepare the way for the Mahdi.”
But if faith can be used as a way to channel hope for the future, it can also be used against that hope. That was what happened in February 2006, when somebody—most likely the extremist Sunni group Al Qaida in Iraq—placed explosives throughout the Askariya Mosque in Samarra. The magnificent golden dome collapsed, setting off a vicious cycle of Shia reprisals and Sunni counterreprisals just when it seemed that the civil war was finally calming down—a cycle made yet worse when the two gold minarets that had survived the first bombing were blown up and destroyed the following year.
Al Qaida in Iraq could not have made a stronger statement. No Shia missed the significance of this wholesale destruction, for the Askariya Mosque contained not only the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Imams but also the shrine built over Bir al-Ghayba—the “Well of Disappearance”—the cave where the twelfth Imam had descended and disappeared from the world, to remain hidden until his return.
That cave was the real target of the attack. Attack the shrine of Hussein at Karbala, as has been done many times over the centuries, most notably in living memory by Saddam Hussein’s troops, and you attack the heart of Shia Islam. Attack Ali’s shrine in Najaf, as was done when American troops tried to oust the Mahdi Army from it in 2004, and you attack its soul. But attack the Askariya shrine in Samarra, and you commit something even worse: you attack the Mahdi and thus the core of Shia hope and identity. The destruction of the Askariya shrine was an attack not just on the past, or even the present, but on the future.