Research Project: The Karbala Story: From Skrimish to Cosmic Battle

Project leader
Torsten Hylén
Project Members
Project Period
Project Status
In the Shiite form of Islam, the story about how Husayn b. Ali was killed in a battle at Karbala in 680 CE is very important. Husayn was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and has ever since his death been regarded as a martyr. The story functions as a source for contemporary Shiite martyrdom ideology and often inspires to political action. The event is commemorated in various contexts, in particular in the annual Ashura festival, where it is often dramatized. Modern historians have described the battle at Karbala as a minor skirmish. Among Shiites, however, the account of the event soon developed into a narrative about a cosmic battle between the good and the evil powers of universe, a story that is foundational for their identity and worldview. This development process has never previously been studied. The emerging myth about Karbala and the parallel process of the development of the image of Husayn, from an ordinary person to a semi-divine figure, were important factors in the shaping of the early Shiite community in the 7th and 8th centuries CE. The purpose of this project is to attempt to answer the following questions: 1) How and why did the story of Husayn’s death in a skirmish at Karbala develop into a myth about a battle of cosmic significance with its concomitant rituals? 2) How and why was he, an ordinary person in early Islam, elevated into someone ascribed supernatural traits? 3) What was the significance of this development for the formation of the early Shiite community? Although other aspects of early Shiism have been studied, such a diachronic study has not been made before. Comparisons will be made with the similar development of the image of Christ in early Christianity. The study will be conducted through a historical-critical investigation of classical Arabic historiographical, and theological texts. Theories of myth and ritual will be used to analyse the content of the texts, and its significance for the emergence of a Shiite community.
Shia, Husayn, Karbala, myt, rit, Shia, Husayn, Karbala, myth, ritual
Research Profile
Intercultural Studies
Religious Studies
Riksbankens Jubileumsfond