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Summary of question
Some of the incidents pertaining to the event of Karbala do not seem to be rational? How can they be justified?
I am from Tehran. Today, March 26 2010 I received an email which raises doubts concerning the event of Karbala, one of the deeply rooted Shiite beliefs. Given the fact that your institute has some of the best researchers and experts in Islamic sciences and that replying to such questions is a part of its mission, I appeal you to deal with the question after you have studied it thoroughly. I pray to God, the Exalted, to grant you success. Here is the text of the email sent to me:
Read this email unbiasedly so that you would be able criticize it. I would like to draw your attention to some of the famous but apparently questionable legends pertaining to the event of Ashura. The first question has to do with the unavailability or shortage of water, wilderness of the land of Karbala and the severe thirst from which Hussein and his comrades were suffering, as stated by some historiographers. As you know, the battle which took place in Karbala was close to the Euphrates River. You can find no land in the world to be close to a river and still be a wilderness except for when the river may be passing through mountains. All of us have read in our school books that grassy and fertile lands come into being alongside rivers. The reality is that, like all other rivers, there are grassy and fertile lands alongside the Euphrates banks. Karbala is a green land. Additionally, the land of Karbala is close to the river and there are layers of water beneath the surface of the earth. Therefore, getting access to water is easier than one can imagine. It would be sufficient to dig up the earth 4 to 5 meters and there is water to draw out. One of the problems in Ahvaz province of Iran facing construction work is the existing layers of water under the surface of the earth. Many people in the city do not know how to deal with this problem. The question is: How could the 72 people not dig up a 4 meter well? On the other hand, according to reports in Shiite sources, the event of Karbala took place on a summer day under scorching heat. However, if you convert the lunar date i.e. the tenth of Ashura 61 A.H, you will find out that Ashura occurred on Wednesday 21 of Mehr (13 October). Obviously, the weather on October 13 is not cold but it is not as hot as the scorching weather of the summer season as stated by Shiite preachers. Some say that the temperature that existed 1400 years ago is different from that of the present temperature. Firstly, the temperature does not change to a substantial degree within a time period of 1400 years. Secondly, if it has changed, certainly it has not become colder; in fact, the weather may have grown hotter since then. That is to say, the weather that existed 1400 years ago in Karbala has been colder than it is now.
Interestingly, in the narrated stories of Karbala, no mention has been made of hunger or food shortages. That is to say, Hussein's caravan was not faced with a shortage of food. This caravan like all other caravans had home-grown or domestic animals with it so as not to face shortage of food. For example, they had sheep or goats and they could of course use their milk to quench their thirst. Moreover, they had camels with them. The Arabs particularly love to drink camel milk. Imam Hussein and his companions could drink camel milk to quench their thirst.
There are three reports about Imam Hussein's grave: "I lived in the period of Haroon al-Rashid, he who destroyed Hussein's grave, peace be upon him, and ordered a cedar tree to be planted there as a sign of his grave for pilgrims. He also ordered that a shade be built for pilgrims to sit under it. (Tarikh al-Shia, Muhammad Hussein al-Muzaffari, pg. 8; Behar al-Anwar, vol.45, pg. 398) Imam Hussein's sacred grave was attacked by Mutawakkil, the Abbasid caliph. He and his army surrounded the grave so that pilgrims might not have access to it. He ordered that the grave be destroyed and the land be irrigated for cultivation. (A'ayan al-Shia, vol.1, pg. 628; Turath Karbala, pg. 34; Behar al-Anwar, vol.45, pg. 397) In the year 236 A.H. Mutawakkil ordered Imam Hussein's grave and the buildings surrounding the grave to be destroyed. He instructed his men to sow seeds and cultivate the land. They blocked the flow of water and prevented people from visiting the grave. These are examples I have mentioned. The question is: How could they irrigate and cultivate a terribly hot and waterless desert? Given the above examples, how did Imam Hussein and his caravan suffer thirst and scorching heat?
The second question to ask is about Harmala bin Kahil and Ali Asghar's neck: This story of Ali Asghar is also one of the interesting legends of Ashura. The story is as such: Due to great thirst, as I mentioned in the previous incident, Hussein picks up his suckling child and stands in front of the enemy army. He asks the enemy to give the child some water, if not him. In the meantime, Harmala who is said to have been a capable bowman shoots an arrow to the child's neck killing him in an instant. The incident seems to be very tragic but if you deliberate over the incident a little, you will come to know that it is but a fake and superstitious story.
Firstly, a suckling child of six months does not have a neck of that size that we imagine. If you just look at a suckling child, you will see that a child's neck is stuck to its body; it is invisible. The reason is that the bone and muscles of the child's neck have not grown strong enough to bear the weight of its head. A child's neck can be seen only when its head is tilted backward to the ground. Secondly, the distance between two armies had been normally 200 to 300 meters. Even if an Olympic champion with a modern bow is told to target a child's neck or that of his father from such a distance, he will not be able to. Perhaps, it is difficult to hit a child's neck from such a distance even if someone uses a dragunov what to speak of a bow. Thirdly, why did Harmala target the baby? It is the commander of an army who is the most important individual in a battle not a harmless child. Harmala should have targeted Hussein rather than the infant. Thus, no sound reason accepts such a story? Why should Harmala ignore the commander of the army and kill a baby? If the weather had been so unbearably hot, as stated by some Muslims, why should Harmala have drawn out the battle in such a situation? Was he a masochist willing to hurt himself? Some other Muslims have said that Hussein held up his child in his arm and approached the enemy army to let them hear the child voice? Why did he need to do so when he knew those savage people? The fourth point that is interesting to note is that a child of a few months does not drink water. A several months old child drinks milk not water and his mother could breastfeed him to let him quench his thirst. Nonetheless, as stated earlier, the milk of those domestic animals had also been available?
Third, Abulfazl al-Abbas has gone to fetch water: The story of Abulfaz al-Abbas in whose name Muslims insure their vehicles revolves around the severe thirst from which Hussein and his family members were suffering. Abbas fought through the enemy until he reached the Euphrates River. Upon reaching the river, he filled his leather bag with water and rushed back to the camp. On his way back he was ambushed. An unknown person from the enemy army cut Abbas' hand that held the leather bag. Abbas took the leather bag with the other hand and tried to make his way to his brother's camp. Then another person cut off the other hand also. Abbas then held the leather bag with his teeth until a few other people from the enemy army martyred him. Thus Abbas failed to take water to his brother's children. Someone should tell me how Abbas held the leather from the hand that was cut off. Did Abbas dismount his horse, picked up the fallen leather bag and then mounted the horse again? What did he do when the other hand was cutoff? Did he dismount the horse again and bend down to hold leather bag with his teeth? Wasn't there anyone to kill him when he dismounted his horse to pick up the leather bag? Or perhaps, none of these happened as he might have thrown up the leather bag and taken it with the other hand before it was cut off and then he might have thrown up the leather bag and held it with his teeth before the second hand was cut off. What is the real story about Abbas? How were his hands cut off? Were they cut off from the wrists or elbows or shoulders? What were they cut off with? Were they cut off with a sword? I remember that once I was in a religious ceremony in the month of Muharram and the speaker who was narrating the story of Abbas' martyrdom said that an accursed man cut Abbas' hand off with an arrow shot from his bow? The question is: Did he throw an axe instead of an arrow at Abbas? What did Abbas do with the bleeding arm? Was it so easy for Abbas to let the blood flow from a cut-off hand? These three examples are some of the legends of Ashura. I did not mention the story Qasim's ritual bath because some Muslims themselves do not believe in that story? There are many such stories and I hope we can learn to be rational and to consider our own sound reason as a judge.
Concise answer

The story of Karbala and martyrdom of Imam Hussein (a.s) and his companions is one of the very well-known and indisputable facts of a history that has been narrated and passed on to us chest by chest by many narrators. No one even from the enemies has so far denied the incident of Karbala. This great event in which Imam Sajjad (a.s) and Zainab (s.a.) also played a very crucial role had a great impact on revival, growth and expansion of Islam. That was why, the enemies started from the very outset to put an end to it or otherwise distort it and one of the actions taken by them was to introduce some false and untrue stories concerning this great epic.

Today also, proper understanding the history of the great epic of Ashura can cause freedom-seeking nations all over the world to symbolize it, learn a lesson from it and to get further acquainted with the existential aspects of this movement. Given the fact that all the beauties and prides of this movement belong to Islam especially Shia, the enemies of Islam and Shia leave no stone unturned to misrepresent, distort and alter this great event. The historical events especially those that are very important, do not normally remain protected and immune to distortion. The event of Ashura which is also one of those great events of human history is also not an exception. Perhaps, the stories concerning some of the incidents of this event have been tampered with by malicious enemies. That is why we see that Shia's great scholars and those who are truly devoted to this religion have long been trying to purge this event of distortions and alterations; they have written books and articles, given lectures and conducted interviews to enlighten people's mind in an effective manner.

Mirza Noori, one of those great Shia scholars, has written a book on the distortions of the event of Ashura. The book is titled "Pearl and Coral" (Lu'lu wa Marjan). Likewise, Martyr Murteza Mutahhari gave lectures in this regard which have been gathered in the first volume of Hamasa-e Husseini (The Husseini Epic).

Thus, there is no doubt that certain details concerning the event of Ashura have been misrepresented or distorted but it does not mean that whatever we detest or dislike is part of misrepresentations which we should discard. Can we deny an indisputable historic event simply because it is implausible and unlikely?  Can we reject a story simple because it does not look to be true?

By raising questions about distortions in the event of Ashura, do we take steps towards serving justice and truth and fighting tyranny, injustice and oppression in the same way as Mirza Noori and Martyr Mutahhari did? Or do we follow other aims by these spurious arguments?

Detailed Answer

Considering that all these questions have been sent to the User and he has forwarded them to us, therefore we thank the esteemed User for his religious concern, and from now on we will address the original questioner only.

Before dealing with the questions, it is necessary to make mention of the following point:

We as Muslims are proud that our Prophet (s) conforms to sublime morality and stands on an exalted standard of character.[1] On this basis, God also says that Islam owes its expansion and growth to the sublime morality of the Prophet (s).[2] In line with the sublime morality of the Prophet (s), we as Muslims have also been commanded not to insult the pagans' idols.[3]

The event of Karbala and the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (a.s) and his companions is one of the well-known and indisputable facts of the history that has been narrated repeatedly and passed on to us chest by chest and generation by generation. No one even from the enemies has so far denied the incident of Karbala. This incident has had a crucial impact on Islam causing to be revived and spread across the world; it has served as a glowing torch for the Islamic Ummah. Imam Sajjad (a.s) and Zainab daughter of Ali bin Abi Talib (a.s) were the messengers of Karbala who with their truthful narration of the event of Ashura decried the enemies' actions, defamed them and unveiled the wicked hands that aimed to destroy the tree of Islam to the extent that the Umayyad family felt that by killing Imam Hussein (a.s), it had gained nothing but defeat, misery and disgrace. That was why the Umayyad government and its mercenaries began, from the outset, to extinguish the light of Karbala by distorting the whole incident and given a narration of the event that was quite opposed to what it really was. Unfortunately, we must say that they succeeded in doing this to some extent.

Today, the history of Ashura and the memory of that great epic have in fact turned into a model for freedom-seeking nations all over the world. With each passing day, the world is getting further acquainted with the various aspects of this movement learning a lesson from it. Given the fact that all the beauties and prides of this movement belong to Islam especially Shia, the enemies of Islam and Shia will leave no stone unturned to misrepresent, distort and alter this great event.

Having said that, it is necessary to study, meticulously, the incidents of this great event so that we can foil the conspiracies hatched by the enemies of Islam and Shi'sim.

The historical events especially those that are very important do not normally remain protected and immune to distortion. The event of Ashura which is also one of those great events of human history is also not an exception. Perhaps, the stories concerning some of the incidents of this event have been tampered with by malicious enemies. That is why we see that Shia's great scholars and those who are truly devoted to this religion have long been trying to purge this event of distortions and alterations; they have written books and articles, given lectures and conducted interviews to enlighten people's mind in an effective manner.

Mirza Noori, one of those great Shia scholars, has written a book on distortions and misrepresentations of the event of Ashura. In his book titled "Pearl and Coral" (Lu'lu wa Marjan) he explicitly says: "Today, we must weep not for the martyrdom of Hussein but for all the lies and false stories related about the event of Karbala with no one giving a stop to them. We must weep for this new tragedy of Hussein bin Ali not for the swords and spears that landed upon his holy body.[4]

In this regard, late Murteza Mutahhari also delivered speeches which have been gathered in the first volume of Hamasa-e Husseini (The Husseini Epic).

Speaking about the misrepresentations of the event of Ashura, he says: "Most of the fabrications that have occurred have been for the purpose of drawing tears, nothing else."[5]

Therefore, there is no doubt that certain details concerning the event of Ashura have been misrepresented or distorted but it does not mean that whatever we detest or dislike is part of misrepresentations and we should discard it. Can we deny an indisputable historic event simply because it is implausible and unlikely? Can we, by creating doubt about some details of the event of Karbala, decrease anything of the nastiness of the crime committed by Yazid and his men?

 By raising questions about alteration of the event of Ashura, do we take steps to serve the cause of justice and truth and to fight tyranny, injustice and oppression in the same way as Mirza Noori and Martyr Mutahhari did? Or do we follow other aims by giving rise to spurious arguments?

On this basis, considering that preventing and fighting distortions are good and necessary, it is better that this task be carried out in a scientific manner without the laity indulging themselves in it.[6]

We must know that there is no absolutely no doubt that Imam Hussein (a.s), his companions and comrades were killed and beheaded and their heads were put up on spears with his family members taken as captives.[7]

One of the indisputable facts concerning the event of Ashura is the thirst factor. It is indubitable that Imam Hussein (a.s), his children and companions were thirsty on the day of Ashura. We shall now cite an example of the stern attitude exercised on the part of the enemy. The source of the example is Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk, a book authored by Tabari, one of the most famous Sunni historians:

"In a letter to Umar bin Sa'd, Ubaidullah bin Ziyad wrote: "O Umar bin Sa'd, put a barrier between Hussein, his companions and water, and make sure that water is not supplied to them. They should not have even a drop of water.

At the receipt of this letter Umar Ibne Sa'ad gave 500 soldiers under the command of Amr Bin Hajjaj and instructed him to put a stop on water to Imam Husain (a.s.)'s camp. These soldiers put a stay at the bank of Euphrates and became a barrier between the water and the camp of Imam Husain (a.s.). A man named Abdullah bin Ubai Hasin Al-Azdi says to Imam Hussein: "O Hussein, … by Allah, you will not drink of this water until you die of thirst, and Hussein cursed him."[8]

In view of the above explanation and the points which were mentioned, there is no need to enter into the details, yet we will try to give a brief answer to your question.

1. Karbala is not near the Euphrates River; rather it is 15 kilometers straight away from it. In fact, the Euphrates has a tributary which flows nearby Karbala. It is called 'Alqama. Since the river is a tributary of the Euphrates, it is sometimes figuratively called Euphrates. According to some reports, Imam Hussein's companions were taking water from the same river until the night preceding the day of Ashura. Even they performed ghusl (major ablution) using 'Alqama water. However, on the day of Ashura, the enemies started to behave more sternly tightening their siege and preventing access to water. Therefore, there was no water for Imam Hussein and his companions to drink.

As for whether or not they had food to eat or cook, even if we suppose that they had some food to eat, we should say that food is different from water. And (even if we suppose that one can eat food despite extreme thirst), eating food intensifies thirst. In addition, tolerating hunger is easier than tolerating thirst. Therefore, since Imam Hussein (a.s) and his children were insufferably thirsty, no mention has been made of hunger.

2. Even if we suppose that water did exist four to five meters close to the surface of the earth, you can imagine a situation in which a limited number of people are surrounded by their blood-thirsty enemies, those who had been commanded to prevent access to water. Naturally, they would also prevent Imam Hussein and his companions from digging up a well. Nevertheless and despite all the difficulties, they dug a well because in a letter to Umar Sa'd, Ibn Ziyad wrote as such: "I have learnt that Hussein and his children are drinking water and they have dug up a well. Now then! As soon as my letter and messenger reaches you, be severe towards Husain and his comrades and do not let them drink a drop of water from the Euphrates. [9]

3. You have also enquired about the solar year, season, month and temperature in which the event of Karbala occurred. We do not know what you wish to prove. Do you want to say that there was no shortage of water in Karbala and that no one was thirsty? What do you say about those of the Imam's enemies (e.g. Abdullah bin Ubai Hasin Al-Azdi who, as was stated above, said that he and his children were thirsty? You just suppose a battle taking place in a region like north Iran with moderate temperature. Imagine that the region is besieged by enemies with everyone being busy battling the enemy without water. Don't you think that they will eventually feel thirsty to a degree where they will not be able to fight? Add up children to them. What will happen, if they start crying for water? What would be the situation like in that case?

As for the three quotations which you cited about Imam Hussein's grave, they are not dichotomous nor are they contradictory with each other; in fact, they can be reconciled. In addition, no one has claimed that Karbala had been an infertile and barren land. You must have heard narrators say that some enemies were waiting in an ambush behind date-palm trees in order to murder Abbas.

Although Karbala was not very fertile due its being a bit far from the Euphrates River, there were trees in the surrounding and remote areas.

In his letter to Hurr, Ibn Ziad writes: "Now then! As soon as my letter and messenger reaches you, be severe towards Husain. And let him halt at a barren land, devoid of fortresses and water. I have instructed my messenger not to part with you until you have carried out my orders, Salutations.”[10]

Hurr thus forced Imam and his companions to halt at that place, devoid of habitation and water.  In addition, it is possible that a land may be barren for one or several years but it may change overtime by creating streams, subterranean and aqueducts or wells around it. Don’t you think that a land which is close to water flowing in creeks and streams be irrigated through investment and human resources?

When it comes to Ali Asghar, we need to mention two points about him:

A) The first point is about Ali Asghar’s getting killed at the hands of the enemy in Karbala.

B) The second point deals with the way in which he was martyred.

As for the first point, no one has entertained any doubt about the martyrdom of Ali Asghar, Imam Hussein’s suckling child, in Karbala. This is sufficient to prove the enemy's remorselessness, cruelty and viciousness. As for how he was martyred, there are different accounts about it. However, we suffice to giving one reference in this regard.

Imam Hussein companions and all his relatives had been martyred and there was none left except Ali Zainul Abedeen and his suckling child Abdullah. The voice of lamenting of the ladies arose and Imam came to the door of the tent and called for Zainab (a.s) saying, "Give me my infant child so that I may bid him farewell". Then he took him in his arms and bent to kiss his lips. "Woe be to the ignoble nation when Muhammad (s) will confront them."

It is said that all of a sudden an arrow came up and landed on the child's chest and killed him.[11] Then Imam Hussein (a.s) dismounted from his horse and dug a grave with the sheath of his sword; he buried the child under the sand drenched in his blood, he then leapt from his place, arose and recited elegies:

"The nation has disbelieved and have turned their face away from the reward of the Lord of the worlds; the nation killed Ali and his son Hasan, the excellent, the son of esteemed parents; they were filled with hatred and rancor and called upon people and gathered to fight Husain; Woe be to the ignoble nation that assembled groups to fight the people of the 'Two Sacred Sanctuaries; thus they left while inviting others towards obedience of the apostates; opposing Allah to shed my blood, for the sake of Ubaidullah from the progeny of the polytheists; and the son of Sa'ad has killed me aggressively with the help of an army similar to torrential rains; and all this was not in restitution of any crime committed before me, except that my pride are the two stars, Ali who was the best after the Prophet, and the Prophet who was the son of Quraishite parents; my father is the best among men and I am the son of the two best ones."[12]

It appears from your message that you do not deny or doubt the killing of Ali Asghar but you have entertained doubt about the circumstance in which he was killed. We would like to go into further details concerning this point.  

Here we wish to raise a few questions before we can embark on the main point. Obviously, we do not intend to prove that the enemy did not shoot an arrow at his chest but at his throat; rather we aim to explain that we cannot substantiate or negate a historical event through a simple rational argument.

Did Imam Hussein (a.s) and some of his companions not approach the enemy to exhort and admonish them? Were they not within the range of enemy archers? Did Imam not meet Umar Sa'd? He did. Is it unlikely of Imam Hussein (a.s) to get so close to the enemy for quenching Ali Asghar's thirst that the enemy could hear him? Indeed he did approach them time and again to warn them about the consequences of their actions?

Do you think it was unlikely of the blood-thirsty enemy to trample the bodies of Hussein (a.s) and his friends, loot the camps and burn them, to flog the women and children remorselessly after the battle so as to further show their spite and enmity? In line with the same objective and in order to further hurt Hussein, they first killed his suckling child. They thought that after the death of the child which in their view inflicted a heavy psychological blow on the Imam (a.s), they could land a more painful physical blow on him.

As for your question about the severance of Abbas' hand and his holding the leather bag with the other hand, you must know that in old times, the warriors used to wear armors to protect themselves against sword injuries. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that his hands were cut off completely in an instant. In addition, he was riding on a horse and he could have used the horse saddle or body to keep the leather hanging from it until he could use the other hand to take the leather. Therefore, if we look at the incident a bit carefully, the answers to many of the questions become very tangible.

For further information, see: A Mystical, Philosophical and Theological Attitude to the Personality and Revolution of Imam Hussein (a.s), by Qasim Turkhan

[1] - Qalam: 4 وَ إِنَّکَ لَعَلى‏ خُلُقٍ عَظیمٍ.

[2] - Aal-e Imran: 159 فَبِما رَحْمَةٍ مِنَ اللَّهِ لِنْتَ لَهُمْ وَ لَوْ کُنْتَ فَظًّا غَلیظَ الْقَلْبِ لاَنْفَضُّوا مِنْ حَوْلِک‏.

[3] - Al-An'am: 108, وَ لا تَسُبُّوا الَّذینَ یَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ فَیَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْواً بِغَیْرِ عِلْمٍ.

[6] - For further information, see the following indexes: "Rationality or Devotedness of Imam Hussein's Revolution on the Day of Ashura", No. 4456, "How to Illustrate the Oppression Committed against Imam Hussein (a.s)" No.4459" and "Imam Hasan's Decision of Holding True and Imam Hussein's Decision of Uprising" No, 629.

[7] - For further information, refer to books authored by Abu Hanifa bin Dawud Deynuri, Akhabar al-Tuwal, Mahdi Damghani, Mahmud, pg. 277, Tehran, Nay Publication, fourth edition, 1992; Ibn A'tham Kufi, Al-Fotuh, Muhammad binahmad Mustawfi Heravi, pg. 884, Chap. Hussein bin Ali (a.s), in Karbala, Tehran, Inqilan Islamic Publications, 1993; Izzuddin bin Athir, Al-Kamil, Halat, Abul Qasim and Khalili, Abbas, vol.11, pg. 148, Tehran, Scientific Publications Institute, 1992.

[8] - Tabari, Abu Ja'far Muhammad bin Jarir, Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk (Tarikh Tabari), Muhammad Abul Fazl Ibrahim, vol.5, pg. 412, Beiruit, Dar al-Turath, 2nd edition, 1387 A.H. 1967 A.D.

[9] - Abu Muhammad Ahmad bin A'tham al-Kufi, Al-Fotuh, Shiri, ali, vol.5, pg. 91, Beirut, Dar al-Adhwa, first edition, 1411, A.H. (1991).

[10] - Mufid, Irshad, Sa’edi Khurasani, Muhammad Baqir, pg. 432, Islamiyah, Tehran, first edition, 1380 A.H.

[11] - -  (حتى وقع فی لبة الصبی فقتله) Lubbat al-Sabi is where a garland touches when it is hanging from its neck. It is above the chest close to the neck.

[12] - Tabarsi, Ahmad bin Ali, Al-Ehtijaj, Ja'fari, vol.2, pg. 99, 168, Islamiyah Publications, Tehran edition, first edition, 2002.

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