Islamic perspective

Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature


I still remember the deep impression which the first Persian poem I ever read in connection with the tragic events of Karbala left on me. It was Qaani’s elegy which begins with the words:

‘What is raining? Blood.
Who? The eyes.
How? Day and night.
Why? From grief.
Grief for whom?
Grief for the king of Karbala’

This poem, in its marvellous style of question and answer, conveys much of the dramatic events and of the feelings a pious Muslim experiences when thinking of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s beloved grandson at the hands of the Umayyad troops.

The theme of suffering and martyrdom occupies a central role in the history of religion from the earliest time. Already, in the myths of the ancient Near East, we hear of the hero who is slain but whose death, then, guarantees the revival of life: the names of Attis and Osiris from the Babylonian and Egyptian traditions respectively are the best examples for the insight of ancient people that without death there can be no continuation of life, and that the bloodshed for a sacred cause is more precious than anything else. Sacrifices are a means for reaching higher and loftier stages of life; to give away parts of one’s fortune, or to sacrifice members of one’s family enhances one’s religious standing; the Biblical and Qur’anic story of Abraham who so deeply trusted in God that he, without questioning, was willing to sacrifice his only son, points to the importance of such sacrifice. Iqbal was certainly right when he combined, in a well known poem in Bal-i Jibril (1936), the sacrifice of Ismail and the martyrdom of Husayn, both of which make up the beginning and the end of the story of the Ka’ba.

Taking into account the importance of sacrifice and suffering for the development of man, it is not surprising that Islamic history has given a central place to the death on the battlefield of the Prophet’s beloved grandson Husayn, and has often combined with that event the death by poison of his elder brother Hasan. In popular literature we frequently find both Hasan and Husayn represented as participating in the battle of Karbala’, which is historically wrong, but psychologically correct.

It is not the place here to discuss the development of the whole genre of marthiya and taziya poetry in the Persian and Indo-Persian world, or in the popular Turkish tradition. But it is interesting to cast a glance at some verses in the Eastern Islamic tradition which express predominantly the Sunni poets’ concern with the fate of Husayn, and echo, at the same time, the tendency of the Sufis to see in him a model of the suffering which is so central for the growth of the soul.

The name of Husayn appears several times in the work of the first great Sufi poet of Iran, Sana’i (d. 1131). Here, the name of the martyred hero can be found now and then in connection with bravery and selflessness, and Sana’i sees him as the prototype of the shahid, higher and more important than all the other shahids who are and have been in the world:

Your religion is your Husayn, greed and wish are your pigs and dogs
You kill the one, thirsty, and nourish the other two. [Divan, p. 655]

This means that man has sunk to such a lowly state that he thinks only of his selfish purposes and wishes and does everything to fondle the material aspects of his life, while his religion, the spiritual side of his life, is left without nourishment, withering away, just like Husayn and the martyrs of Karbala’ were killed after nobody had cared to give them water in the desert. This powerful idea is echoed in other verses, both in the Divan and in the Hadiqat al-Haqiqa; but one has to be careful in one’s assessment of the long praise of Husayn and the description of Karbala’ as found in the Hadiqa, as they are apparently absent from the oldest manuscripts of the work, and may have been inserted at some later point. This, however, does not concern us here. For the name of the hero, Husayn, is found in one of the central poems of Sana’i’s Divan, in which the poet describes in grand images the development of man and the long periods of suffering which are required for the growth of everything that aspires to perfection. It is here that he sees in the ‘street of religion’ those martyrs who were dead and are alive, those killed by the sword like Husayn, those murdered by poison like Hasan (Divan 485).

The tendency to see Husayn as the model of martyrdom and bravery continues, of course, in the poetry written after Sana’i by Persian and Turkish mystics, and of special interest is one line in the Divan of ‘Attar (nr. 376) in which he calls the novice on the path to proceed and go towards the goal, addressing him:

Be either a Husayn or a Mansur.

That is, Husayn b. Mansur al-Hallaj, the arch-martyr of mystical Islam, who was cruelly executed in Baghdad in 922. He, like his namesake Husayn b. ‘Ali, becomes a model for the Sufi; he is the suffering lover, and in quite a number of Sufi poems his name appears alongside that of Husayn: both were enamoured by God, both sacrificed themselves on the Path of divine love, both are therefore the ideal lovers of God whom the pious should strive to emulate. Ghalib skillfully alludes to this combination in his tawhid qasida:

God has kept the ecstatic lovers like Husayn and Mansur in the place of gallows and rope, and cast the fighters for the faith, like Husayn and ‘Ali, in the place of swords and spears: in being martyrs they find eternal life and happiness and become witnesses to God’s mysterious power.

This tradition is particularly strong in the Turkish world, where the names of both Husayns occur often in Sufi songs.

Turkish tradition, especially in the later Bektashi order, is deeply indebted to Shi’i Islam; but it seems that already in some of the earliest popular Sufi songs in Turkey, those composed by Yunus Emre in the late 13th or early 14th century, the Prophet’s grandsons played a special role. They are described, in a lovely song by Yunus, as the ‘fountain head of the martyrs’, the ‘tears of the saints’, and the ‘lambs of mother Fatima’. Both of them, as the ‘kings of the eight paradises’, are seen as the helpers who stand at Kawthar and distribute water to the thirsting people, a beautiful inversion of Husayn suffering in the waterless desert of Karbala’. (Yunus Emre Divani, p. 569.)

The well known legend according to which the Prophet saw Gabriel bring a red and a green garment for his two grandsons, and was informed that these garments pointed to their future deaths through the sword and poison respectively, is mentioned in early Turkish songs, as it also forms a central piece of the popular Sindhi manaqiba which are still sung in the Indus Valley. And similar in both traditions are the stories of how the boys climbed on their grandfather Prophet’s back, and how he fondled them. Thus, Hasan and Husayn appear, in early Turkish songs, in various, and generally well known images, but to emphasize their very special role, Yunus Emre calls them ‘the two earrings of the divine Throne’. (Divan, p. 569)

The imagery becomes even more colourful in the following centuries when the Shi’i character of the Bektashi order increased and made itself felt in ritual and poetical expression. Husayn b. ‘Ali is ‘the secret of God’, the ‘light of the eyes of Mustafa’ (thus Seher Abdal, 16th cent.), and his contemporary, Hayreti, calls him, in a beautiful marthiya, ‘the sacrifice of the festival of the greater jihad’. Has not his neck, which the Prophet used to kiss, become the place where the dagger fell?

The inhabitants of heaven and earth shed black tears today.
And have become confused like your hair, O Husayn.

Dawn sheds its blood out of sadness for Husayn, and the red tulips wallow in blood and carry the brandmarks of his grief on their hearts … (Ergun, Bektasi sairleri, p. 95).

The Turkish tradition and that in the regional languages of the Indian subcontinent are very similar. Let us have a look at the development of the marthiya, not in the major literary languages, but rather in the more remote parts of the subcontinent, for the development of the Urdu marthiya from its beginnings in the late 16th century to its culmination in the works of Sauda and particularly Anis and Dabir is well known. In the province of Sind, which had a considerable percentage of Shi’i inhabitants, Persian marthiyas were composed, as far as we can see, from around 1700 onwards. A certain ’Allama (1682-1782), and Muhammad Mu’in T’haro are among the first marthiya-gus mentioned by the historians, but it is particularly Muhammad Muhsin, who lived in the old, glorious capital of lower Sind, Thatta, with whose name the Persian marthiya in Sind is connected. During his short life (1709-1750), he composed a great number of tarji’band and particularly salam, in which beautiful, strong imagery can be perceived:

The boat of Mustafa’s family has been drowned in blood;
The black cloud of infidelity has waylaid the sun;
The candle of the Prophet was extinguished by the breeze of the Kufans.

But much more interesting than the Persian tradition is the development of the marthiya in Sindhi and Siraiki proper. As Christopher Shackle has devoted a long and very informative article on the Multani marthiya, I will speak here only on some aspects of the marthiya in Sindhi. As in many other fields of Sindhi poetry, Shah ‘Abdu’l-Latif of Bhit (1689-1752) is the first to express ideas which were later taken up by other poets. He devoted Sur Kedaro in his Hindi Risalo to the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet, and saw the event of Karbala’ as embedded in the whole mystical tradition of Islam. As is his custom, he begins in media res, bringing his listeners to the moment when no news was heard from the heroes:

The moon of Muharram was seen, anxiety about the princes occurred.

What has happened?

Muharram has come back, but the Imams have not come.
O princes of Medina, may the Lord bring us together

He meditates about the reason for their silence and senses the tragedy:

The Mirs have gone out from Medina, they have not come back.

But then he realizes that there is basically no reason for sadness or mourning, for:

The hardship of martyrdom, listen, is the day of joy.
Yazid has not got an atom of this love.
Death is rain for the children of ‘Ali.

For rain is seen by the Oriental poets in general, and by Shah ‘Abdul Latif in particular, as the sign of divine mercy, of rahmat, and in a country that is so much dependant on rain, this imagery acquires its full meaning.

The hardship of martyrdom is all joyful rainy season.
Yazid has not got the traces of this love.
The decision to be killed was with the Imams from the very beginning.

This means that, already in pre-eternity, Hasan and Husayn had decided to sacrifice their lives for their ideals: when answering the divine address Am I not you Lord? (7:171), they answered ‘Bala‘ (=Yes)’, and took upon themselves all the affliction (bala) which was to come upon them. Their intention to become a model for those who gain eternal life by suffering and sacrifice was made, as Shah’Abdu’I-Latif reminds his listeners, at the very day of the primordial covenant. Then, in the following chapter, our Sindhi poet goes into more concrete details.

The perfect ones, the lion-like sayyids, have come to Karbala’;
Having cut with Egyptian swords, they made heaps of carcasses;
Heroes became confused, seeing Mir Husayn’s attack.

But he soon turns to the eternal meaning of this battle and continues in good Sufi spirit:

The hardship of martyrdom is all coquetry (naz).
The intoxicated understand the secret of the case of Karbala’.

In having his beloved suffer, the divine Beloved seems to show his coquetry, trying and examining their faith and love, and thus even the most cruel manifestations of the battle in which the ‘youthful heroes’, as Shah Latif calls them, are enmeshed, are signs of divine love.

The earth trembles, shakes; the skies are in uproar;
This is not a war, this is the manifestation of Love.

The poet knows that affliction is a special gift for the friends of God, Those who are afflicted most are the prophets, then the saints, then the others in degrees’, and so he continues:

The Friend kills the darlings, the lovers are slain,
For the elect friends He prepares difficulties.
God, the Eternal, without need what He wants, He does.

Shah ‘Abdu’l-Latif devotes two chapters to the actual battle, and to Hurr’s joining the fighters ‘like a moth joins the candle’, e.g., ready to immolate himself in the battle. But towards the end of the poem the mystical aspect becomes once more prominent; those who ‘fight in the way of God’ reach Paradise, and the houris bind rose chains for them, as befits true bridegrooms. But even more:

Paradise is their place, overpowering they have gone to Paradise,
They have become annihilated in God, with Him they have become He …

The heroes, who have never thought of themselves, but only of love of God which makes them face all difficulties, have finally reached the goal: the fana fi Allah, annihilation in God and remaining in Him. Shah ‘Abdu’l-Latif has transformed the life of the Imams, and of the Imam Husayn in particular, into a model for all those Sufis who strive, either in the jihad-i asghar or in the jihad-i akbar, to reach the final annihilation in God, the union which the Sufis so often express in the imagery of love and loving union. And it is certainly no accident that our Sindhi poet has applied the tune Husayni, which was originally meant for the dirges for Husayn, to the story of his favourite heroine, Sassui, who annihilated herself in her constant, brave search for her beloved, and is finally transformed into him.

Shah’Abdu’l-Latif’s interpretation of the fate of the Imam Husayn as a model of suffering love, and thus as a model of the mystical path, is a deeply impressive piece of literature. It was never surpassed, although in his succession a number of poets among the Shi’i of Sindh composed elegies on Karbala’ . The most famous of them is Thabit ‘Ali Shah (1740-1810), whose speciality was the genre of suwari, the poem addressed to the rider Husayn, who once had ridden on the Prophet’s back, and then was riding bravely into the battlefield. This genre, as well as the more common forms, persists in Sindhi through