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