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(kär`bələ), city (1987 pop. 296,705), central Iraq, at the edge of the Syrian Desert. The city's trade is in religious objects, hides, wool, and dates. Karbala is the site of the tomb of the Shiite leader HuseinHusein
or Husayn
, c.626–680, Muslim leader, second son of Ali and Fatima (daughter of Muhammad). With the assassination of his father in 661 and the acquiescence of his brother Hasan, the caliphate passed out of the Alid family, although many continued to
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, who was killed in the city in 680. It is second only to Mecca in being a holy place visited by Shiite pilgrims. The tomb, with a gilded dome and three minarets, is the most notable building; it was destroyed by the Wahhabis in 1801 but was quickly restored by contributions from Persians and other Shiite Muslims. Iranian pilgrims to Mecca traditionally begin their journey at Karbala, and many pious Muslims bring the bones of their dead for burial there. It is sometimes transliterated Kerbela.

Karbala (Iraq)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The town of Karbala in present-day Iraq is one of the most holy sites of Shi’a Muslims. Shi’a is one of the two larger divisions of Islam, although the main Sunni community is almost ten times larger in size. The Shi’a minority traces its origin to the squabbles over control of the emergent Islamic Empire in the decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Muhammad’s death in 632 CE was followed by the reign of the four caliphs. Following the assassination of the caliph Uthman in 656, Ali ibn-Abi-Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law, the husband of Fatima, was chosen to succeed him by the powers that existed in Medina, Arabia. Ali was challenged by Mu’awiya, and when Ali was assassinated in 1661, Mu’awiya was acknowledged as the new caliph by most of Ali’s supporters. Thus began the Umayyad dynasty that would rule Islam for the next century.

Ali’s two sons, Hasan (d. 669) and Husayn, accepted Mu’awiya, but in 680, Husayn refused to accept Mu’awiya’s son Yazid as the new caliph. He eventually decided to moved to Mesopotamia (Iraq), where he believed he had strong support. However, as he journeyed to his goal, he encountered the caliph’s supporters at Karbala. When he refused to surrender, he and all his 86 companions were killed. He was seen as a martyr by many, and the site of the deaths and the burial site of Husayn quickly became a pilgrimage destination. As the Shi’a Muslims emerged as a distinctive group, disagreeing with the Sunni on a variety of lesser points of belief and practice, Karbala emerged as one of their most holy sites. A key of divergence between the two groups is the acknowledgment that Islamic leadership properly passed to Ali and Husayn rather than the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty.

The martyrdom of Husayn was memorialized in a shrine that was built at his burial site and commemorated in an annual pageant that reenacted his death. The mosque shrine, Masjid al-Husayn, has had a checkered existence. It has been destroyed and rebuilt on a number of occasions, most recently in 1801. At that time it was targeted by the ultraconservative Arabian Sunni group, the Wahhabis, who would eventually come to dominate neighboring Saudi Arabia. When rebuilt, the walls of the new courtyard were decorated with the entire text of the Qur’an. It was again damaged in the 1991 Gulf War, was restored, and became an object of considerable attention in the Second Gulf War, with American troops making a self-conscious effort to spare it further damage.

Over the years, Shi’a Muslims have made numerous pilgrimages annually, but two dates drew the greatest number. Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram on the Muslim calendar, marks the day of Husayn’s death. A pilgrimage also occurs forty day later, the twelfth day of the month of Safar. At these times, pilgrims participate in various activities reenacting the battle and deaths. Men march through the street flagellating themselves and allow cuts to be made on their head. They are often pictured with blood freely flowing from their various wounds. Others, less interactive in their commemoration of the battle and deaths, may purchase tablets made from the clay of the battlefield.

Among the martyrs of 680 was Abbas, Husayn’s half-brother. His tomb, some 1,500 feet from that of Masjid al-Husayn, is also visited by pilgrims, and Abbas is seen as a source of miracle healings. Healing powers have also been ascribed to the clay tablets, which may be consumed by those seeking a restoration of health.

Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein had his power base in the Sunni areas of Iraq and for manyyears forbade public Shi’a celebrations at Karbala. They were held for the first time in more than a quarter century in 2003 following his deposition from power.


Aghaie, Kamran Scot. The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’a Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.
Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shi’is of Iraq. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.



a city in Iraq, in the Euphrates valley. Administrative center of Karbala muhafazah (province).

Population, 83,300 (1965). It is a major commercial and transportation center. Karbala’s cannery, which processes vegetables, fruits, and meat, was built with the help of the USSR. There is also textile industry and handicrafts industry.

Karbala arose in the seventh century on the site of a battle in 680 between the troops of Husein, son of Caliph Ali and grandson of Muhammad, and the troops of Caliph Yazid. According to legend, Karbala is the site of the tomb of Husein, who was killed in the battle. It is one of the cities considered holy by Shiite Muslims and is a pilgrimage center.


, Kerbela
a town in central Iraq: the chief holy city of Iraq and centre of Shiah Muslim pilgrimage; burial place of Mohammed's grandson Husain. Pop.: 460 000 (2005 est.)