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Karbala has the unique feature of having its name engraved in the memory of generations and all along the history of the Muslim world. Believers recall this name with sorrow and distress, for they remember the grand sacrifice of Imam Hussain, peace be upon him (a.s.), and his family members and friends.

Upto this day, a huge number of devotees visit this holy place all year around to pay homage to the master of martyrs Imam Hussain(a.s.). Two main roads lead the visitor to Karbala. One is from the Iraqi capital Baghdad, through Al-Musails, and the other is from the holy city of Najaf. Upon reaching Karbala, the holy place would draw the visitor's attention to its glorious minarets and domes shining due to the light of its lord.

Two grand holy shrine in Karbala are those of Imam Hussain(a.s.) and his brother Abul-Fazl al-Abbas(a.s.). Also present inside the shrine of Imam Hussain(a.s.) are the holy tombs of his two sons Hazrat Ali Akbar(a.s.) and 6-month old Hazrat Ali Asghar(a.s.) and his trusted friend Hazrat Habib ibn-e-Mazahir(a.s.). In one of the corners of the haram (inside area of the shrine), is the Ganj-e-Shuhada where bodies of all the 72 martyrs of Karbala are buried. Next to one of the entrances "Bab-ul-Dhahab" , is the Qatl-gah, where the actual martyrdom of Imam Hussain(a.s.) took place. All the tombs and shrines are beautifully decorated with golden windows and beautiful illumination.

"Karbala" Origin & Meaning

There are many opinions among different investigators, as to the origin of the word "Karbala".

Some have pointed out that "Karbala" has a connection to the "Karbalato" language, while others attempt to derive the meaning of word "Karbala" by analyzing its spelling and language. They conclude that it originates from the Arabic word "Kar Babel" which was a group of ancient Babylonian villages that included Nainawa, Al-Ghadiriyya, Karbella, Al-Nawaweess, and Al-Heer. This last name is today known as Al-Hair and is where Imam Hussain's(a.s.) grave is located.

The investigator Yaqut al-Hamawy had pointed out that the meaning of "Karbala" could have several explanations, one of which is that the place where Imam Hussain(a.s.) was martyred is made of soft earth - "Al-Karbalat".

Other writers made the connection between the name and the disastrous event which painted the desert with blood, and so the word "Karbala" was said to compose of two Arabic words: "Karb" meaning grief and sorrow, and "Balaa" meaning affliction. Such a connection, in fact, has no scientific evidence, since Karbala was known as such even before the arrival of Imam Hussain(a.s.).

Martyrdom and popularity

Karbala was at first an uninhabited place and did not witness any construction activity, although it was rich in water and its soil fertile. Following the tenth of Muharram 61 AH (680 AD), after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain(a.s.), people from far as well as tribes living nearby started visiting the holy grave. A lot of those who came, stayed behind and/or asked their relatives to bury them there after their demise.

Despite many attempts by successive rulers, such as Al-Rashid and Al-Mutawakkil, to put a restriction on the development of this area, it has nonetheless spread with time to become a city.

Bounty of visiting Imam Hussain(a.s.) shrine

There is a lot of benefit and great spiritual reward in visiting the grave of Imam Hussain(a.s.). The Prophet Mohammad(saws) has said of his grandson Imam Hussain(a.s.): "Hussain is of me and I am of him". Several narrations mention that visiting the grave of Imam Hussain(a.s.) relieves one of worldly afflictions as well as those after death. Believers, therefore, come from all parts of the world all year round to receive the honor, particularly during the first ten days of Muharram (Ashura) and the twentieth of Safar (the fourtieth).

One common Iraqi custom during that season is to go walking from Najaf to Karbala, reflecting their strong adhesion to and adoption of the morals and principles for which Imam Hussain(a.s.) struggled and attained martyrdom.

Mausoleum of Imam Hussain(a.s.)

The historian Ibn Kuluwayh mentioned that those who buried Imam Hussain(a.s.) made a special and rigid construction with signs above the grave. Higher and bigger constructions above the grave started during the ruling of Al-Saffah, but Harun al-Rashid later on, put heavy restrictions to prevent people from visiting the grave.

At the time of Al-Mamun, construction around the grave resumed until the year 236 AH when Al-Mutawakkil ordered the destruction and digging of the grave, and then filling the pit with water. His son, who succeeded him, allowed people to visit the grave site, and since then building the precinct to the grave increased and developed step by step.

On the other hand, the historian Ibn Al-Athir, stated that in the year 371 AH, Aadod Al-Dawla Al-Boowayhi became the first to largely lay the foundations for large scale construction, and generously decorated the place. He also built houses and markets around the precinct, and surrounded Karbala with a high boundary wall turning it into a strong castle.

In the year 407 AH, the precinct caught fire due to the dropping of two large candles on the wooden decorations, but Hasan ibn Fadl (the state minister) rebuilt the damaged sections.

History has recorded the names of several rulers who shared the honour of widening, decorating or keeping the precinct in good condition. Amongst them is Fateh Ali al-Qajari, who in 1250 AH ordered the construction of two domes. One over Imam Hussain's(a.s.) grave and the other over his brother Abul-Fazl al-Abbas(a.s.).

The first dome is 27 meters high and completely covered with gold. At the bottom, it is surrounded with 12 windows, each of which is about 1.25 m away from the other, from the inside, and 1.30 m from the outside.

The mausoleum has an area of 59 m / 75 m with ten gates, and about 65 rooms (I wans), well decorated from the inside and outside, used as classrooms for studying.

As for the grave itself, in the middle of the precinct, it is called the "Rawda" or garden and it has several doors. The most famous one is called "Al-Qibla" or "Bab al-Dhahab". When it is entered, one can see the tomb of Habib ibn Madhahir al-Asadi(a.r.). Habib was a friend and companion of Imam Hussain(a.s.) since their childhood. He was one of those who was honoured with martrdom at the battle of Karbala.

The resting place of Abul-Fazl al-Abbas(a.s.)

Abul-Fazl al-Abbas(a.s.) was the brother of Imam Hassan(a.s.) and Imam Hussain(a.s.) and the standard-bearer of Imam Hussain(a.s.) in the battle of Karbala. He is well known in history for his valour, loyalty and similarity to his father, the Lion of God, Imam Ali(a.s.).

The grave of Hazrat Abbas(a.s.) received similar attention as that of Imam Hussain(a.s.). In the year 1032 AH, the King Tahmaseb ordered the decoration of the grave's dome. He built a window on the 'darih' around the grave and organized the precinct. Other similar activities were done by other rulers.

Chronology of Imam Husayn's Shrine at Karbala





lst October, 680

Imam Hussain(a.s.) was buried at this sacred spot.


18th August, 684

Mukhtar ibn Abu Obaidah Thaqafi built an enclosure around the grave, in the form of a mosque and erected a dome over the grave. There were two entrances to this building.


12th August, 749

A roof was built over a part of this mosque and two entrances were added during the reign of as-Saffah.


31st March, 763

The roof was demolished during the reign of al-Mansur.


11th November, 774

During the reign of Mahdi the roof was reconstructed.


22nd June, 787

During the reign of Al-Rashid the dome and the roof were demolished and the plum tree which stood near the grave was cut down.


25th October, 808

During the reign of Amin the building was reconstructed.


15th July, 850

Mutawakkil demolished the buildings and ordered that the land should be ploughed.


17th March, 861

Muntasir built a roof over the grave and set up an iron pillar near it, to serve as a landmark for the pilgrims.


8th June, 886

The roof was demolished again.


23rd March, 893

The Alid representative built a dome in the centre, with two roofs, on either side and an enclosure with two entrances.


19th August, 977

Adzd ibn Boweih rebuilt the dome, the surrounding galleries and constructed a screen of teak wood around the sepulchre. He also constructed houses all round the shrine and erected the boundary wall of the city. At the same time Imran ibn Shahin built a mosque adjacent to the tomb.


10th June, 1016

The buildings were damaged by fire and the Vizier, Al-Hasan ibn al Fadi rebuilt them.


4th February, 1223

Nasir le-din-Illah reconstructed the screens of the sepulchre.


18th Sept. 1365

Sultan Owais ibn Hasan Jalairi remodelled the dome and raised the walls of the enclosure.


24th Feb. 1384

Ahmad ibn Owais erected two minarets covered with gold and extended the courtyard.


26th Feb. 1514

When Shah Ismail Safawi visited the holy shrine he built a sacrophagus of the inlaid work over the grave.


5th Nov. 1622

Shah Abbas Safavi constructed the screens (darih) of brass and bronze and decorated the dome with Kashi tiles.


15th May 1638

Sultan Murad IV, when he visited the holy shrine, whitewashed the dome.


8th March 1742

Nadir Shah visited the holy shrine and decorated the building and offered valuable presents to the treasury of the shrine.


7th July 1796

Shah Muhammad Qachar covered the dome of the shrine with gold.


14th May, 1801

Wahhabis attacked Kerbala, spoiled the screens and portico and looted the shrine.


21st Nov., 1817

Fateh Ali Shah Qachar repaired the screens and plated them with silver. He also plated the centre of the main portico with gold and repaired the damage done by the Wahhabi robbers.


16th May, 1866

Nasiruddin Shah Qachar extended the courtyard of the shrine.


21st February, 1939

Dr. Taher Saifud-din, 51st Dai-el-Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra community offered a set of screens of solid silver which are fixed in the shrine.


29th January, 1941

Dr. Taher Saifud-din, 5lst Dai-el-Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra community rebuilt the western minaret.


20th Dec., 1948

Syed Abdul Rasul Khalsi, Administrator of Karbala acquired the houses in the neighbourhood of the courtyard according to the price fixed by the government, to build a road around the holy mausoleum and to extend the courtyard.