Tragedy of Karbala: A Defining Moment in the Construction of a Shi’a Identity


The martyrdom of Imam Al-Hussein at Karbala in 680 A.D was a defining moment for the creation of a distinct Shi’a identity. This tragedy had a greater impact on Shi’ism than any other event in Islamic history and has been described as a ‘root metaphor’ around which Shi’a religious beliefs and practices are grounded.[1] Although the controversial issue of the succession of Imam Ali led to the initiation of Shi’a partisanship, it was the Karbala tragedy that gave impetus to create a distinct Shi’a identity that could be distinguished from other mainstream outlooks in Islam. The way in which this clear distinction manifested itself after the events of Karbala can be assessed from the way sectarian identities became firmly demarcated in the Muslim community of Kufa, for example, after this event. The centrality and importance of Karbala, in the ideological and geographical context, was also affirmed by the traditions of the later Imams and it’s significance can be further assessed by the evolution of distinctly Shi’a rituals informed by it. The rituals that came to be associated with the Karbala tragedy played a defining role in the creation of a distinct Shi’a identity and a political sensibility by becoming a central ‘vehicle of expression’ for this identity. [2]

Segregation of Sacred Space in the Aftermath of the Tragedy of Karbala:

An overview of the earlier diversity of sacred space and its later segregation provides an instructive insight into the way the tragedy of Karbala had played a crucial impact on what came to characterized as a distinct Shi’a identity. Before the events of Karbala, there seemed to be porous demarcations of sectarian boundaries and identities in Islam. Various tribes had loose sectarian inclinations but most Muslims followed their clan’s tribal affiliations. However, such sectarian tribal affiliations did not lead to the classification of religious spaces as being Shi’a or Sunni.[3] Although sectarian affiliations existed, people from a range of sectarian inclinations prayed at the same venue in their own distinct ways in the 7th century Kufa, for example.[4] Given that this situation changed by the 8th century within two decades of the battle of Karbala, it is clearly probable that the tragedy of Karbala created new ‘religious geographies’ in its aftermath which delineated a clear distinction between ‘friendly/sacred’ and ‘hostile/accursed’ spaces. Although a transformation towards the consolidation of sectarian identity had started taking place in the mid 7th century when ritual practices began to eclipse tribal affiliations [5] it was in the post-Karbala milieu when ‘some mosques were renovated to celebrate the death of al-Hussein’ that some religious spaces became safe havens for the Shi’a while other became openly hostile.[6] In this way it was in the aftermath of this tragedy that by segregation of spaces a Shi’a identity seems to have been consolidated. Continue reading