This painting commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam, or leader, of the Shiʿa Muslims. Husayn was killed by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I (r. 680–683) in the desert of Karbala in central Iraq in 680 C.E. This battle emphasizes the divide between the Sunni and Shiʿa branches of Islam; Husayn led a resistance against what the Shiʿa Muslims believed was the Umayyads’ illegitimate rule. The focus of this painting is Husayn’s half brother, ʿAbbas, mounted on a white horse as he stabs a member of Yazid’s army. Individual episodes related to the agonies suffered by Husayn and his companions leading up to and during the battle are illustrated in smaller-scale vignettes on the left. The hereafter is shown at the right, with Husayn and his companions in heaven above and their opponents in hell below.
Paintings such as Battle of Karbala show how the monumental genre, developed for the Zand and Qajar courts, was reinterpreted for popular audiences during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This account of Husyan’s martyrdom inspired annual reenactments through ceremonial processions and the taʿziya, the ritual theater of Iran. Narrative paintings served as portable backdrops, or pardas (curtains), that could be rolled up and transported from location to location, where a reciter (pardadār) would point to images as he recounted the story. As they were also presented in coffeehouses, such canvases are commonly referred to as qahvakhāna, or “coffeehouse,” paintings.