A Brief History
On April 21, 1802, a band of Wahhabis from Najd in central Saudi Arabia attacked the central Iraqi city of Karbala, with the purpose of punishing those Iraqi Muslims for failing to follow the ultra-conservative religious teachings of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), a Sunni Muslim scholar who had taught a “renewal” of the Islamic faith apparently at odds with the brand of Islam practiced in Karbala, which was of the Shia variety. Karbala at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire.
The Wahhabi army numbered around 12,000 soldiers, and easily overwhelmed whatever defense Karbala put up. A massacre of somewhere between 2000 and 5000 Shia Muslims ensued, and the city was sacked, the enormous amount of loot taken requiring 4000 camels to carry it back to Najd. The city was stripped of money, pearls, jewels and jewelry, gold, silver, Persian rugs, and any guns that could be found. The tombs of prominent Iraqis were plundered of their considerable riches during the sacking of the city. (One of the points of contention the Wahhabis had with the Shia was the Shia practice of veneration of the graves of Shia notables and holy men.)
The Wahhabi sack of Karbala serves as something of an indication of the deep rifts in the main branches of Islam, notably the Sunni and the Shia branches. Even today, this religious difference is resulting in conflict and killing between the 2 factions of Muslims. Saudi Arabia is a center of the Sunni variety of Islam, while Iran is the largest repository of Shiite Muslims. Iraq and Syria also have considerable Shia populations, and the current conflict in Yemen is between Sunni and Shia. The civil war in Syria is also largely based on the Sunni vs. Shia divide, not unlike the wars in Europe that raged between Catholics and Protestants. It is notable that the Wahhabis called themselves “Muslims,” as they did not consider any other branch of Islam to be true Muslims.
Imam Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad (r. 1765-1803) was the leader of the First Saudi State, more or less the second king of the land. The attack matched the anniversary date of the sermon by the prophet Mohammad known as “Ghadir Khum” in 632. Iraq was then part of the Mamluk Dynasty and was led by Sulayman Pasha the Great (1780–1802). The Mamluks were freed slaves that had converted to Islam and were allowed by the Ottomans to live as free men.
A French “orientalist” (anthropologist that studies the Eastern World) Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, also known as Joseph Rousseau, reported on the atrocities, including the killing of pregnant women in a horrific manner, “… when ever they saw a pregnant woman, they disembowelled her and left the foetus on the mother’s bleeding corpse.” (sic)
While the attack and massacre with the subsequent sacking of the city did generate some horror on both sides of the Islamic divide, the event did not elicit any particular strong military or political reaction.
We have previously wondered at the propensity of “religious” people to kill in the name of their religion that usually does not even sanction killing others. Not only have we experienced all sorts of Islamic based (so they say) terror against non-Muslims, we have also had numerous instances of non-Muslims attacking or oppressing Muslims, and Muslim vs. Muslim violence. Is religion really a force for good or a force for evil? What do you think?
Question for students (and subscribers): Are religious people ever justified in using violence to spread or enforce their religion? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ibrihimi, Muhammad. Wahabi Tawhid vs. Shia Tawhid. Saracen Publications, 2013.
Warraq, Ibn. Which Koran?: Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics. Prometheus, 2009.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by SFC Larry E. Johns, USA of the shrine of Husayn ibn Ali, as seen from the shrine of Abbas in Karbala, Karbala Governorate, Iraq, is a work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.