[Reader-list] III The Everydays of Eternity:A Study of Muhurrum Processions

shireen mirza shireen_sona at hotmail.com
Sun Jun 6 13:35:51 IST 2004

III The Everydays of Eternity

Any study on Muhurrum cannot be complete without analysing the proliferation 
of literatures on Muhurrum. I've made a feeble attempt. I need to get deeper 
into the resources, only it seems like looking for a drop in the ocean. Alot 
has been written on Marsiyas, but I've tried to understand how gender 
relations are implicated throught this tradition and its written form. This 
is also a paper written for a course on Feminism at CSCS and should become a 
part of a larger study. Any suggestion or comments will be very 
helpful...this project seems to be taking its own course, as and when I meet 
people who show such enthusiam and some who've responded to my postings on 
the reader's list. Thanks alot.


The Eye that Cries: Concepts of Love and Suffering in Marsiyas, and their 
Appeal to Shia Women

Even if streaks of blood now flow from our breasts
May our hands never cease
Let this matam continue on behalf of the one who was wronged
For as long as Fatima's cry comes forth
(Ali Javed Maqsud, Zehra Ke Dua cited Pinault, 2001, pg. 80.)

Stories must be told because they are crying out to be told. They have an 
existence of their own. They bring vision when they are told. For the eye 
needs a vision as it cries.

The story of rebellion and suffering of the Prophet's family and their 72 
companions against the established regime of the Umayyad dynasty and its 
tyrannical ruler Yazid, is a story narrated, written about, sung, performed 
and enacted since 680 A.D. The gathering of the devout where the story of 
Imam Hussain is told by shedding tears is called a majlis.

Generally a majlis begins with soz, literally meaning burning, in which 
poetry about the events of Karbala is chanted sometimes to an Indian raag or 
raagini. Even though musical instruments are not allowed in mainstream 
Islam, in some cultural contexts drums give the beat for the songs.

After the soz comes the Salaam, a eulogy of Hussain and his family or a 
darud, a eulogy of the prophet. This is followed by a marsiya: "a poem 
describing some event related to the martyrdom of the prophet's grandson 
Imam Hussain, at Karbala in 680 composed, more often than not, in the 
six-line stanza form, musaddas." (CM Naim 2004, pg. 1)

Marsiyas in Urdu were first written in the 16th century in South India, in 
the kingdom of Golconda and Bijapur, which were Shiite in orientation and 
closer to the Iranian religious tradition than the Turks and Pathan kingdoms 
of North India.

In the beginning, marsiyas were written either in the two-line unit form, 
qasida, or in the four-line unit form, murabba. No particular meter was 
preferred, both long and short meters equally common. These marsiyas, not 
overly long, were usually sung, often set to some suitably mournful raga. In 
the murabba form the fourth line was often a refrain, repeated by the 
accompanists of the marsiya reciter and perhaps also by the audience. The 
recitation took place both outdoors in a procession and indoors. (Ibid, pg. 

Slowly over a century or so the early marsiya, which was shorter in length 
as well as simpler in structure and emphasized more the grief and lament, 
became more performative and structured. Perhaps this might have something 
to do with urban centric developments that took place over the years. 
Firstly, the marsiya moved indoors and secondly they were performed more 
than sung. This performative style was given a new name soz-khani. As Abdul 
Halim Sharar writes in his Guzasta Lucknow, "The art of making desirable 
changes in the sound of words, of adjusting ones facial expression to the 
subject, of moving one's limbs in a away befitting the discourse and of 
making it forceful through minute gestures…" (Cited in translators 
introduction of Adha Gaun, Gillian Wright 2003)

The new marsiya, however, developed and was brought to great heights by the 
poets of Lucknow, Mir Anis (1802-1874) and Mirza Dabir (1803-1875) in 
particular, who wrote them in the form of six-line stanzas, each stanza 
reaching a climax in the last couplet. Anis's poems are particularly popular 
perhaps because his eloquence enables him to use a great range of vocabulary 
and verbal conceits, while retaining idiomatic simplicity and pathos. In the 
words of Dr. Mujeeb Rizvi, "every character is shown as a perfect Indian. 
The bride-to-be, for example, is described as an Indian-Muslim bride; she 
breaks her bangles when her husband's corpse is brought." (Ibid)

After the marsiya and the hadith (the sermon) the congregation stands as a 
mark of respect; Nauhas are sung, a lament sometimes sung to the melodies of 
Hindi film songs, and to the rhythm of beating chests, calling out "Hussain 
Hussain! Hussain Hussain!"

Nauhas, are composed in couplets rhyming aa ba ca, the same form as the 
ghazal, the popular genre of poetry dealing traditionally with human and 
divine love. They are especially popular among young boys and girls.

After the majlis, a tabarruk is distributed ranging from snacks, sharbath to 
an entire meal of biryani, khitchdi, and haleem- depending on the gathering. 
Manaths are asked at a taziya or in the name of Imam Hussain-for a child, 
for a wedding to take place, for illnesses to be cured, for passing exams.

A majlis can either be an exclusive/private gathering or a general/aam 
gathering. It could either be a domestic space invariably associated with 
personal family histories or a public space like an imam badha/shrine or a 
mosque. The formal segregation of unrelated men and women during majlis' is 
systematically planned, especially in the way imam badhas are built.

However Muhurrum, its traditions, its informal economy might be the only 
site of performance and active participation for Shia women. Despite the 
fact that almost all the literature in all its forms has been neither 
created nor developed by the women of the Shia community, there are many 
ways in which it has been appropriated into their lives and their being. The 
lexical forms embodied in the written literature are accessible in ways that 
no other aspect of a cultural tradition is. While narrativizing the 
political-historical-theological battle, enumerating the heroic qualities of 
the martyrs, this literature also deeply implicates gender relations as it 
prescribes a moral self, invested with virtues derived from the heroes of 

What is this moral self that is being propagated? What is this self that 
this literature embodies? How does it intellectualize the world and the 
relationship of the self with it? What virtues do the women of the prophet's 
family within the narrative of Karbala uphold? What does revering women as 
exemplars within a theological narrative mean to women as followers? What 
kind of role does it play in forming a condition of subjecthood which women 
as followers enact? Why does the eye cry listening to their story? My paper 
will attempt to ask these questions.


I am lost to myself and unconscious
And my attributes are annihilated
Today I am lost to all things:
Naught remains but a forced expression (al-Kujwiri, cited Pinault 2001 pg. 
61 )

A person 'enraptured', struck by the power and majesty of God, "is bereft of 
his senses and walks around in a fashion prohibited by the religious law"; 
such a person has transgressed a sense of ego-based identity and reached a 
state of fana. (Schimmel, 1975)
The Sufi experiences the martyrs' death in the moment of fana: his 
individual selfhood has been annihilated as a result of his consuming love 
for God.

Sacrifices are a means for attaining that higher selfhood; to give away 
parts of one's fortune, or to sacrifice members of one's family enhancing 
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 in a well 
known poem in Bal-i Jibril (1936), likens the sacrifice of Ismail and the 
martyrdom of Hussain, according to him both make up the beginning and the 
end of the story of the Ka'ba.

He discusses the constant tension between positive and negative forces, 
between the prophet and saint on the one hand, and the oppressor and 
unbeliever on the other. Hussain and Yazid stand in the same line as Moses 
and Pharaoh. Iqbal then goes on to show how the khilafat was separated from 
the Qur'anic injunctions and became a worldly kingdom with the appearance of 
the Umayyads, and it was here that Hussain appeared like a rain cloud, the 
image of the blessing rain contrasting with the thirst and dryness of the 
scene of Karbala. It was Hussain's blood that rained upon the desert of 
Karbala and left the red tulips there.

The connection between the tulips in their red garments and the bloodstained 
garments of the martyrs has been a favourite image of Persian poetry since 
at least the 15th century, and when one thinks of the central place which 
the tulip occupies in Iqbal's thought and poetry as the flower of the 
manifestation of the divine fire, as the symbol of the Burning Bush on Mount 
Sinai, and as the flower that symbolizes the independent growth of man's 
khudi (=self) under the most difficult circumstances, when one takes all 
these aspects of the tulip together, one understands why the poet has the 
Imam Hussain 'plant tulips in the desert of Karbala. (Schimmel Al-Serat, Vol 
XII 1986)

The martyrdom of Hussain and his family acts as a rejuvenating force for the 
Shias separated in time and space from the prophet and his family. Ibn 
Sana'i (d. 1131) the first great Sufi poet of Iran, sees him as the 
prototype of the shahid.
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 cited Schimmel 1986)

Man can think only of his selfish purposes and wishes and does everything to 
gain the material aspects of his life; while his religion, his spiritual 
side is left without nourishment, withering away, just like Hussain and the 
martyrs of Karbala who were killed after nobody had cared to give them water 
in the desert.

The manner in which the martyrdom of Karbala is recalled casts a worldview 
that is idealistic and tragic: because it postulates an unrealized world and 
the base self that requires a martyr to dedicate his/her life. But humans 
are given to flaws that will never attain or maintain this order. Karbala is 
the expression of this fault line, which means Islam will be attacked and 
Shias will be persecuted and the tragedy of Karbala will repeat itself. The 
Shias need to protect themselves by strengthening their moral values. The 
source of the moral values is derived from the martyrs of Karbala, they act 
as exemplars, they get transformed into characters in a mythic story on whom 
the Shiites model their lives.

Women from the prophet's family play an active role in the battle of 
Karbala, they embody various forms of familial love: as a wife, a sister, a 
mother, a daughter, a bride. They take on the role of lamenters, sufferers 
as they send their husbands and sons to be sacrificed. They act as exemplary 
moral guides on whom other women are suppose to model themselves.

I will discuss four prominent women who embody a certain kind of love by 
weeping for a particular martyr in the battle of Karbala:

i.	The daughter/wife/mother- Bibi Fatima
ii.	The sister- Bibi Zainab
iii.	The orphaned daughter- Bibi Sakina
iv.	The bride- Bibi Kulsum

Abu Abd Allah (i.e. Imam Hussain), peace be upon him, said the following, 
"Fatima, peace be upon her: within her is a lamp. Hassan is the lamp within 
a glass. Hussain is the glass like unto a glittering star. Fatima is a 
'glittering star' among the women of the people of the lower world, a star 
that is enkindled from a blessed tree. (Kulyani, cited Pinault 2001, pg. 65)

Kulayni uses the "light verse" from the Quran 24:35 to comment on the role 
of Fatima in Shia historical-philosophical thought. She is the source from 
which the Imams (leaders) are born. She is the womb that breeds martyrs like 
Hassan and Hussain, each collapsing into the other. She is the wife of the 
Shia leader Imam Ali, daughter of the prophet Muhummed.

Although dead for almost fifty years before the battle of Karbala and the 
martyrdom of her second son Hussain, Fatima is remembered while recalling 
the incidents of Karbala. She is believed to descend to earth to grieve for 
her son Hussain and is present at every majlis. She is believed to provide 
Shafa'ah (healing) to anyone who cries at the injustice done to her son. 
There are shrines built and taziyas taken out in her name. Endless 
literature has been written on her, from Iqbal's homage to her in his 
Persian epic in 1917, Rumuz-I-be-Khudi (Mysteries of Selflessness) to Ali 
Schariatis Fatima is Fatima, which appeared during the Islamic revolution in 
Iran in 1979. An entire genre known as Fatima's dowry (Jihaznama-I-Fatima), 
enumerating her humble dowry, her ability to suffer and continue giving to 
the poor. (Schimmel, 2003)

She is the only woman who has and ever will attain the stature of becoming a 
prophet. She is counted among the five people who form the nucleus of 
Imamat/leadership, the Panjetan.  She embodies everything virtuous, of 
piety, of a suffering mother, a devoted daughter to the prophet. One who 
endured poverty and hardship.

"Would that you could bury me too beside my brother!"

Zainab symbolizes defiant in defeat. She and Umme Kulthum were both sisters 
of Imam Hussain- present at Karbala and survived the battle, they were later 
lead as captives to Yazids court in Damascus. While still a prisoner in 
Damascus, she was the first to hold a majlis to mourn Hussain and the first 
to begin the tradition of majlis and matham.

"…she who endured every injury and outrage after the martyrdom.
Zaynab safeguarded the goal and aspirations of Hussain,
Zainab made Islam safe from the flames." (Cited Pinault 2001, pg. 82)

With all her male kinfolk dead or too incapacitated to fight, Zainab as the 
literature on the incident reveals becomes the spokesperson and the defender 
of the prophet's household. After the prophet, Ali his cousin succeeded him 
as the religious leader. On Hussain's death his sister Zainab succeeds him, 
maybe not as an Islamic leader but as someone who taken on the role of a 
protector, safeguarding Islam till the next Imam takes over. Zainul Abedin, 
the only son of Hussain to survive the battle of Karbala. Too ill to take 
part in the war, Imam Zainul Abedin helplessly couldn't be a part of the 72 
martyred. He was brought along with the other prisoners to Kufa, where the 
governor Ibn Ziyad ordered to kill him. According to Majlisis' account 
Zainab rushes and clasps him in a protective embrace, "By God, I won't let 
go of him, she exclaims. "If you're going to kill him, you'll have to kill 
me along with him." (Cited Pinault 2001, pg. 73)

How will I lift up your corpse?
My head lacks any veil which I might spread out for you.
Dust of the wasteland covers your body.
Alas! Beloved son of Fatima, O Hussain! (ibid. pg. 77)

De-veiling of the women in captivity is a fact much mourned and regretted, 
emphasizing shame as a virtue and hijab as a significant creed in Shia 
theological philosophy.

She was only fours years of age, alas!
She was imprisoned, and she departed this life;
Weep, yes weep in grief

For how long could this child's spirit, at such a young age,
Endure affliction and tragedy?
Weep, yes weep in grief

Just as Zainab symbolizes defiance in defeat, and Fatima Zehra passive 
endurance through eternity, Sakina becomes emblematic of innocence and 
suffering against which the tyranny of Yazid is described. Merely four years 
old at the time of the battle, she is starved of food and water like the 
rest and eventually dies in captivity in Damascus.

David Pinault quotes one of Majlisi's sermons on Sakina's dream in the 
prison that maps the Shia historical trajectory mapping certain women as 
signifiers of a larger historical process, also bringing out the 
timelessness of Karbala.

The servant then took me by the hand (Majlisis has Sakina report) and led me 
into the palace. Within were five women whose appearance had been glorified 
by God and whose forms were radiant with divine light. In their midst was 
one woman in particular of wondrous appearance: her hair was disheveled; she 
was dressed in black garments; in her hand was a tunic stained with blood. 
Whenever she stood up, the other women stood with her; when she sat, so did 

I said to the servant, "who are these women whose appearance God has 
glorified? He replied, "Sakina, this person here is Eve, mother of 
humankind; and this is Mary bint 'Imaran [the mother of Jesus Christ]; and 
this is Khadija bint Khuwaylid (the Prophet Muhammad's first wife]; and this 
is Hagar; and this is Sarah. And this woman here, in whose hands is the 
bloodstained shirt, who whenever she stands, the others stand with her, and 
whenever she sits, so do the others: why, this is your grandmother, Fatima 
the Radiant."

So I drew near and said to her, "Grandmother! By God, my father has been 
killed; and even though I'm so young, I've been left an orphan." Then she 
hugged me to her breast and she wept bitterly. All the women wept with her 
and said to her, "Fatima, may God judge between you and Yazid on Judgement 
Day!" (cited Pinault, 2001 pg. 69 )

Majlisi presents Sakina's dream in a manner so as to develop both doctrinal 
and liturgical themes. From the beginning of time, starting from Eve, 
tracing the prophetic lineage to Mary, mother of Jesus Christ to Khatija, 
the wife of the Prophet to Fatima. History is signified through women, who 
support the prophetic framework through their familial ties and their 
capacity for virtuous love.
"Our wedding feast will take place at the Resurrection"
							-Fatima Kubra

Fatima Kubra, the bride of Karbala, is one of the disputed figures, for 
there is no historical validity of a wedding that took place during the 
battle. She is described as an Indian bride, who bids her bridegroom (Imam 
Qasim) farewell at their wedding night.
The seventh day of Muhurrum is reserved for Qasim, the nausha-e-Karbala. He 
is also one of the most popular figures of Karbala. Qasim is not given 
permission for martyrdom by his uncle Hussain. Shortly before the defeat 
during the battle, Qasim begs his uncle to allow him to fight, but Hussain 
and his mother refuse to let him go.

He remembers an amulet given by his father, who asked him to open it only at 
a time of great sorrow and distress. He opens the amulet to find a message 
in his father's handwriting asking him to fight with his uncle Hussain in 
the desert of Karbala and to become a martyr. Qasim takes the note to his 
uncle, and asks his permission once more. Hussain cannot refuse his elder 
brothers request. Qasim bids his wife farewell who bravely lets her 
bridegroom get martyred.


"For reasons of faith, the poet must depict the martyrs of Karbala and their 
women as ideal beings, and nothing less. Not even a suggestion of fault , 
for example, can be allowed with reference to Hussain and his companions; 
his opponents, on the other hand, have to be evil incarnate, with no 
exception. Thus, the protagonist in the marsiya are all anonymously ideal." 
(CM Naim, 2004, pg. 16)

But the genre of marsiya emerges from a particular 
historical/political/theological trajectory. Its motive is propagational as 
much as aesthetic. It gives its believers (as opposed to its readers) 
defining markers to build a concept of community, of a common historical 
past, of ways of coping with the present.

While signifying historical/political processes that bind individuals within 
a community, it also propagates an ideal self for the individuals. This is 
not an individuated self, a normativized self entitled to rights, but a 
relational, communitarian self.

The martyrs of Karbala from the literature, do not emerge as individuated 
persons but by the role they play within their familial space and within the 
larger communitarian space. Imam Hussain dies for the ideals and the values 
his grandfather, the Prophet stood for as much he dies in order to protect 
Islam and its 'truth'.

Similarly the women of the prophet's family stand for the same ideals. In 
fact they become the site for propagating virtues and the moral self. They 
act as exemplars for the rest of the community to follow their examples.

The eye weeps as it identifies with the forms of love they embody and the 
loss they suffer. And in the act of weeping the relational self gets 
appropriated, as it re-affirms its place within the familial space and 
within the larger community. As long as such a vision endures, this story 
needs to be told.

Get ready to dream with Citibank Ready Cash.  
http://go.msnserver.com/IN/49355.asp The Next Generation Personal Loan!

More information about the reader-list mailing list