Wahhabi sack of Karbala

The Wahhabi sack of Karbala occurred on 21 April 1802 (1216 Hijri) (1801[1]), under the rule of Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad the second ruler of the First Saudi State. Approximately 12,000 Wahhabis from Najd attacked the city of Karbala.[5]:387 The attack coincided with the anniversary of Ghadir Khum event,[3] or 10th Muharram.[2]:74

Wahhabi sack of Karbala
LocationKarbala, Ottoman Iraq
Coordinates32.616365°N 44.032313°E / 32.616365; 44.032313
DateApril 21, 1802 (1802-04-21) or 1801[1]
TargetThe shrine of Husayn ibn Ali
Attack type
Land Army attack
VictimsInhabitants of Karbala
PerpetratorFirst Saudi State
AssailantsWahhabis of Najd led by Saud, son of Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad
No. of participants
12,000 soldiers[4]

Wahhabis killed 2,000[2]:745,000[3] of the inhabitants and plundered the tomb of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali ibn Abi Talib,[2]:74 and destroyed its dome, seizing a large quantity of spoils, including gold, Persian carpets, money, pearls, and guns that had accumulated in the tomb, most of them donations. The attack lasted for eight hours, after which the Wahhabis left the city with more than 4,000 camels carrying their plunder.[4]


Following the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, the Wahhabis "sought to return to the fundamentals of the tradition – the Quran, the Sunna, and the Hanbali school's legal positions."[6] They condemned some of the Shia practices such as veneration of the graves of their holy figures and Imams, which they called Bid‘ah, and did not limit themselves to academic confrontation.[7]:85 According to the French orientalist Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, it was also very well known that some of the Shia tombs of Karbala were repositories of "incredible wealth", accumulated over centuries.[4]


Date of attack

Most European and Russian orientalists date the attack to March 1801, based on works by Rousseau, Corancez, Burckhardt, and Mengin. Arab historians and St John Philby date the fall of Karbala to March – April 1802, based on Ibn Bishr's report of the event. The reports dating the attack to 1802, written soon after the attack, are accepted by Ibn Sanad and Raymond. Alexei Vassiliev argues that 1802 is correct, pointing out that the "dispatch" sent from Karbala reached the Russian embassy in Istanbul no later than 1803, and as Rousseau's book describing the attack is almost identical in wording with the text of the dispatch with the exception of accounted dates, the error could be due simply to "negligence" by the author, Rousseau, or the compositor.[4]


On 18 Dhu al-Hijjah, coincident with the anniversary of Ghadir Khum, (or on 10 Muharram coincident with the anniversary of Husayn ibn Ali's death[2]:74) Wahhabis of the Najd led by Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad's son, Saud, attacked Karbala. The Ottoman garrison escaped, and the Wahhabis were left free to loot the city and the shrine and kill 2,000[2]:745,000 people.[3]

Describing the event as "a horrible example of Wahhabis' cruel fanaticism in the terrible fate of [mosque of] Imam husain," Rousseau, who was residing in Iraq at the time, wrote that an incredible amount of wealth, including donations of silver, gold, and jewels to Hussayn ibn Ali's shrine and those brought by Nadir Shah from his India campaign, was known to have been gathered in the city of Karbala. According to Rousseau, 12,000 Wahhabis attacked the city, set fire to everything, and killed old people, women, and children. "... when ever they saw a pregnant woman, they disembowelled her and left the foetus on the mother's bleeding corpse," said Rousseau.[4]

According to a Wahhabi chronicler, Uthman ibn Abdullah ibn Bishr:

The Muslims scaled the walls, entered the city ... and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes. [They] destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn [and took] whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings ... the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels ... different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qur'an."[2]:74

Wahhabis such as Ibn Bishr referred to themselves simply as 'Muslims', since they believed that they were the only true Muslims.[2]:74

The leader of the attack, Saud bin Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad bin Saud, has been known as the 'butcher of Karbala' since then.[2]:75 The plunder of Karbala took the Wahhabis almost eight hours, according to Mengin.[4] Fath-Ali Shah of Iran offered military help, which was rejected by the Ottomans, and instead he sent "500 Baluchi families to settle in Karbala and defend it".[3]


The fall of Karbala was counted a defeat for Buyuk Sulayman Pasha, creating an opportunity for the Ottoman sultan to "dismiss him", especially because his situation was further weakened after he was criticized by the Shah of Persia, Fath Ali Shah, for his inability to confront the Wahhabis.[4]

The attack exposed the lack of a Shia "army" to mobilize against such attacks. It also led to a strengthening of the "sectarian identity" of Shia ulama.[8]:28 The sack horrified the "Sunni scholarly establishment", but its aftermath also gave fundamentalism a degree of intellectual credibility in the Sunni literary salons of Baghdad, further heightening sectarian tensions.[9]:200

See also


  1. Staff writers. "The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500–1818". au.af.mil. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  2. Khatab, Sayed. Understanding Islamic Fundamentalism: The Theological and Ideological Basis of Al-Qa'ida's Political Tactics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9789774164996. Retrieved 11 August 2016.
  3. Litvak, Meir (2010). "KARBALA". Iranica Online.
  4. Vassiliev, Alexei. The History of Saudi Arabia. Saqi. ISBN 9780863567797. Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  5. Martin, Richard C. (2003). Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 0-02-865603-2. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  6. Aaron. Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231531924. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  7. Brünner, Rainer. Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th Century: The Azhar And Shiism Between Rapprochement And Restraint. BRILL. ISBN 9004125485. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  8. Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shi'is of Iraq. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691115753. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  9. Prakash, Gyan. The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life. Princeton University Press. p. 200. ISBN 0691133433. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
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