Earlier this year hundreds of thousands of Shiites gathered in Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Baghdad, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Grandson of the prophet Muhammad, Husayn was killed in a struggle for power against his enemy, Yazid, who had been nominated to succeed his father as caliph, ruler of the Muslim community. Many believed that Husayn was the rightful caliph and he was en route to Kufa to lead an insurrection in A.D. 680 when he was intercepted by Yazid's forces in Karbala and killed along with his family and a small group of followers. Husayn's death marks the symbolic split in Islam between Shiites and Sunnis.
"The main doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shiites involve how they define the ultimate nature of authority within the Muslim community. The Shiites give greater emphasis to divine guidance coming from a divinely designated leader, the imam, who is a descendant of the Prophet, while Sunnis give greater emphasis to community consensus," says John Voll, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding.
Shiites view Imam Husayn's death as a noble sacrifice. His martyrdom is typically commemorated on the holy day of Ashura, which occurs on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar year. Since Saddam Hussein was still in power at that point this year, the celebration was pushed back to the end of April.
During the celebration people flagellated themselves, beating their backs and chests with chains. As the crowds moved through the streets of Karbala, their emotions spanned from grief to joy. Some zealous believers even cut their heads with the flat edge of swords to show their extreme sorrow over Imam Husayn's death.—Christy Ullrich