Today in Middle Eastern history: the Wahhabi sack of Karbala (probably 1802)

The Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala today (Wikimedia)

Wahhabism has always taken a dim view of Shiʿism–really, denigrating the Shiʿa is at the core of the movement’s origins. Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) based his teachings in large part on those of the very influential 13th-14th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, and apart maybe from philosophers Shiʿa were pretty much Ibn Taymiyah’s least favorite people in the world. One of the things Ibn Taymiyah condemned was the practice, common among but certainly not limited to Shiʿa, of visiting the shrine of a respected religious figure (a “saint,” for lack of a better term) to venerate that figure and ask the him or her to intercede on one’s behalf with God. Ibn Taymiyah saw such practices as unequivocally shirk (placing someone or something on the same level with God, i.e. polytheism), and his condemnations are the intellectual justification for Salafis in modern times who, for example, destroy shrines of prominent Sufi figures (though, I should note, Ibn Taymiyah was himself a Sufi).

Ibn Taymiyah also really hated the Shiʿa pilgrimage to Karbala to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn b. Ali, who was killed there in the Battle of Karbala in 680. He didn’t disagree that Husayn was a martyr, but he argued that martyrdom was a blessing, not something to be mourned. And anyway, as I say, he rejected the act of making pilgrimage to someone’s tomb and paying homage there as shirk, which is really the most heinous crime one can commit under Islamic religious law.

Ideologically, Wahhabism takes the embrace of God’s oneness and avoidance of shirk as its main point of emphasis, so it’s no wonder that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab embraced what Ibn Taymiyah had to say about the treatment of saints and their shrines. He went further though, arguing that Shiʿa were guilty of elevating their imams over Muhammad and even of placing them on the same level with God. And under the so-called “First Saudi State,” which lasted from 1744 to 1818 and grew to control most of the Arabian peninsula during its brief lifespan, these tenets of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching were made state policy.

All of this is to explain why, on April 21 in either 1801 or 1802, but more likely 1802, a Saudi army of about 12,000 men marched north to Karbala, destroyed the Imam Husayn Shrine (seen above in its modern form), and massacred between two and five thousand people in the process. Or, well, it explains their theoretical justification for carrying out that act. If you ask me, the reason for the raid on Karbala was much less about the One True Islam than it was about all the sweet treasure they were able to plunder. The timing for an operation like this was just about perfect–with Napoleon and Britain mucking around in Egypt, the Ottomans had bigger problems to worry about than whatever the Saudis were up to, and so they diverted attention and resources away from Iraq, from where they’d been staging anti-Saudi military operations for much of the 18th century. And the target, Karbala, was not only ideologically justifiable, but it was full of the accumulated wealth of centuries of pilgrimages and donatives from various Islamic monarchs.

I know orientalists are rightly shunned in polite society these days, but the fact is that we know a fair amount about the sack of Karbala because there were contemporary French orientalists who wrote about it. In particular, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau was actually in Iraq at this time. He reported that the Saudi army (mob, if you prefer)–led by the then-Saudi crown prince, Saud b. Abdul-Aziz b. Muhammad b. Saud (d. 1814)–advanced on the town, chased off the Ottoman garrison (it may be that Sunni soldiers and officials saw no reason to risk getting themselves killed defending a Shiʿa holy site), and slaughtered anyone it could find–women, children, it made no difference, between four and five thousand people were killed. He further said that they carried off thousands (4000 to be specific) of camel-load’s worth of treasure. Other sources put the death toll closer to 2000 but don’t dispute the main details.

The sack of Karbala actually worked to the Ottomans’ benefit in a couple of ways. First, it gave them an excuse to get rid of their autonomous Mamluk governor of Iraq, Sulayman Pasha, something they’d been looking to do for a little while. Second, it led to the Saudis overreaching. The successful raid got Saud b. Abdul-Aziz feeling pretty good about himself, you see, and when he succeeded his father in 1803 he got the big idea to conquer Mecca and Medina. That proved to be a bridge too far, though, because the Saudi conquest of the holy cities forced the Ottomans to take action–or, rather, to ask their new Egyptian viceroy, Muhammad Ali Pasha, to take action on their behalf. What followed was the 1811-1818 Ottoman-Wahhabi War, and the reason why we refer to a “First Saudi State” and not simply “The Saudi State” is because at the end of that war there wasn’t a Saudi state anymore. The Saudi state we all know and love today wouldn’t come into being until after World War I.

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