THE EARLIEST HISTORICAL SOURCES OF THE INCIDENT OF KARBALA
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The Battle of Karbala (680 CE) has a central position in Shia history and the event is annually commemorated every year in the Islamic month of 'Muharram' (the first Islamic calendar month) by centrally the Shia and also by many Sunni Muslims.
However, as with many Islamic sources, the nature of this narrative as found in the historical record is not as well known by many Muslims who simply rely on the traditions as inherited and taught by their forefathers.
Despite being over approximately 130 years removed from the death of the Prophet at the time of his work, Ibn Ishaq (d.767 CE) remains the earliest source of the Prophet's biography that is transmitted today. However, much of the events that occur after the Prophet's demise such as the Battle of Karbala are learnt through the sources of later historians such as Al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) and not Ibn Ishaq.
Al-Tabari however, who at the time of his death was nearly 300 years removed from the Prophet's death and nearly 250 years removed from the event of Karbala makes use of traditions that have reached him from other sources.
Al-Tabari's collossal work entitled 'Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk' (History of the Prophets and Kings) remains a source of history covering the period up till the early 10th century. The English translation of this work spans 40 volumes including the index and is a major source of study for historians and academics.
However Al-Tabari's excerpt from the introduction of his work is worthy of note (bold emphasis mine):
"Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader of listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us"
However Al-Tabari is not the source of the incident of Karbala. The earliest source is an Arab traditionalist by the name of Abu Mikhnaf who died in 774 CE who was writing at approximately the same time as Ibn Ishaq. Al-Tabari however is indeed the earliest source which makes use of Abu Mikhnaf's source comprehensively.
Though Abu Mikhnaf allegedly wrote many works (as noted by Shia historian Ibn al-Nadim d.995CE in his Al-Fihrist), Abu Mikhnaf's 'Kitab Maqtal Al-Husayn' remains the work through which we learn much details of the event in question. Abu Mikhnaf clearly had Shia interests and his grandfather was believed to have given his life at the Battle of Siffin which was allegedly fought between Ali ibn Abi Talib and Muawiyah in the year 657 CE.
No original work of Abu Mikhnaf survives and his work is only transmitted through his students and later historiographers such as Al-Tabari (d.923 CE) who have mainly derived their source of the information of the event from his work. Al-Tabari often quotes directly from Abu Mikhnaf but also quotes traditions through Hisham b. Muhammad al-Kalbi which source back to Abu Mikhnaf. It is quite possible that Al-Tabari also made use of a rescension of Muhammad al-Kalbi to source Abu Mikhnaf's work.
Some critical points about Abu Mikhnaf's work are keen to note:
"Abu Mikhnaf is not very particular about and scrupulous in authority chains. He has abundantly incorporated in his narratives, especially in the narration of Siffin episode, the tribal stories and the local gossips. For these reasons the muhaddith scholars regard his as a weak source. He has heavily relied on the tales of his own tribe. Some other Kufi traditions have also served as the source of his information"
Abu Mikhnaf (d.774 CE) remains the earliest source of the Karbala incident captured primarily through the works of much later historians often centuries removed from the event. No original work of Abu Mikhnaf survives. Regardless of whether the source is authentic or contains stories that have been embellished over time to serve a particular sectarian bias arising from a powerful political milieu in the 1st century AH is a judgment for the individual to make.
What remains indisputable is the central position the narrative of Karbala occupies particularly in Shia thought and belief. Shia mourners in many places around the world express their grief to the tragedy of the event by weeping or tapping and in some cases beating their chests in an action that is known as 'Ma'attam'. In some cases, mourners even flog themselves with chains and whips often causing injury and bleeding to themselves.
 SINGH. N.K, Encyclopaedia Historiography of the Muslim World, Global Vision Publishing House, First Edition 2003, Page 130
 Ibid., Page 134
 JAFRI. S.H.M, The Origins and Early Development of Shi'a Islam, American University of Beirut 1976, Chapter 7, The Martyrdom of Husayn, Notes cited: Note (91) EI2 article "Abu Mikhnaf" and Note (92) Wellhausen, loc. cit.
 Ibid., Note cited: Note (96) See Tabari, index
 Ibid., Notes cited: Note (100) See Der Tod des Husein , Wüstenfeld's preface and Note (101) Sezgin, Abu Mikhnaf , pp. 190 ff
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