The Ashura Massacre, they would call it—the first major sign of the civil war to come. And on everyone’s lips, the question, How had it come to this? The Sunni extremist group Al Qaida in Iraq had calculated the attack with particularly cruel precision. When and where it took place were as shocking as the many hundreds of dead and wounded. Ashura is the most solemn date in the Shia calendar—the equivalent of Yom Kippur or Easter Sunday—and the name of Karbala speaks of what happened on this day, in this place, in the year 680. It is a combination of two words in Arabic: karab, meaning destruction or devastation, and bala, meaning tribulation or distress. Muhammad had been dead not ɹfty years when his closest male descendants were massacred here and the women of his family taken captive and chained. As word of the massacre spread, the whole of the Muslim world at the time, from the borders of India in the east to Algeriain the west, was in shock, and the question they asked then was the same one that would be asked fourteen centuries later: How had it come to this? What happened at Karbala in the seventh century is the foundation story of the Sunni-Shia split. Told in vivid and intimate detail in the earliest Islamic histories, it is known to all Sunnis throughout the Middle East and all but engraved on the heart of every Shia. It has not just endured but gathered emotive force to become an ever-widening spiral in which past and present, faith and politics, personal identity and national redemption are inextricably intertwined.
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