مرثیہ فاؤنڈیشن کے قیام
اردو ادب کے
ممتاز ادیب،شاعر اور
نقاد سید عاشور کاظمی
برطانیہ میں ‘‘انٹر نیشنل
مرثیہ فاؤنڈیشن‘‘ کے
قیام کی تیاریوں کو آخری
شکل دے رہے ہیں۔
برصغیر سے باہر
اردو کی عالمی بستیوں
میں مرثیے کو اسکا کھویا
ہوا وقار واپس دلوانے
کی کوشش اور اردو ادب کے
ساتھ ساتھ اسے عالمی ادب
میں متعارف کروانے کے
بنیادی اغراض و مقاصد
کے ساتھ اگلے چند ہفتوں
میں‘‘انٹر نیشنل مرثیہ
فاؤنڈیشن‘‘ کے قیام کا
باقاعدہ اعلان کر دیا
جائے گا جس میں برطانیہ
کے علاوہ امریکہ،کینڈا،بھارت۔سکنڈے
اور دنیا بھر کے متعدد
دیگر ممالک کے مرثیہ نگار،مرثیہ
گو،مرثیہ خوان اور مرثیے
سے محبت کرنے والے افراد
کو شامل کیا جائے گا۔ سید
عاشور کاظمی کے مطابق
اس انٹر نیشنل مرثیہ فاؤنڈیشن
کے قیام کا باقاعدہ اعلان
تین شعبان اٹھارہ اگست
کو سکینہ ٹرسٹ لندن میں
ہونے والی‘‘محفل مقاصدہ‘‘
میں کیا جائے گا۔ سید عاشور
کاظمی کی ایک تازہ تصنیف
‘‘اردو مرثیے کا سفر‘‘ابھی
حال ہی میں شائع ہو کر مارکیٹ
میں آئی ہے جو عالمی مبصرین
اور ناقدین کے مطابق مرثیے
کی پہلی مکمل انسائیکلو
بھارت کے شہر
لکھنؤ میں مرثیے کے ایک
اور عاشق اور معروف صحافی
حیسن افسر بھی مرثیہ فاؤنڈیشن
کے ساتھ مل کر اردو مرثیے
کی پہلی بلیغ اور مفصل
ویب سائٹ تیار کر رہے ہیں
جو اپنی طرز کی منفرد ویب
سائٹ ہو گی۔
Recasting Karbala in the Genre of Urdu Marsiya
Syed Akbar Hyder
Urdu marasi, or elegies, have not only rendered to the Urdu language literary and poetic beauty, but also a
medium of religious, cultural, and intellectual expression. Although some Urdu marasi deal with topics other than
the seventh-century battle of Karbala, most of them have focused on the events that paved the path to this battle and the
agonizing aftermath of this event. In this paper, I will discuss the salient characteristics of the genre of marsiya
and the variations of the Karbala theme within this tradition according to changing social, cultural, and political contexts.
In order to comprehend Urdu marasi, it is essential to glance briefly at
the historical and social milieu that nourished this genre. The tradition of marsiya has its roots in the pre-Islamic
Arab and Persian worlds, where human sentiments and pathos were expressed in form of elegiac poetry. This tradition continued after the advent of Islam, with many companions of the Prophet Muhammad,
such as Umar, arranging for elegies to be written about their deceased family members. In 680 C.E., on the bank of the river Euphrates, Hussain, a grandson of Muhammad, along with his
seventy-one companions, was killed in a deserted place, Karbala, for refusing to pay allegiance to the Ummayad ruler, Yazid.
This event became a major theme for the marasi of the ensuing centuries. According to some traditional beliefs, the
first marasi were recited by Hussain's sister, Zainab, and son, Zain-al-Abedin, in the aftermath of Hussain's martyrdom.
There were, however, severe restrictions imposed on such mourning ceremonies since the Ummayad rulers could not afford to
foster empathy for the family of the Prophet.
When Shi'ism became the official religion of Iran in the fifteenth century, Safavid rulers such as Shah Tahmasp,
patronized poets who wrote about the tragedy of Karbala, and the genre of marsiya, according to Persian scholar Wheeler
Thackston, "was particularly cultivated by the Safavids." The most well-known fifteenth-century Persian marsiya writer was Muhtasham Kashani (d.
1587), whose works consequently became a source of elegy emulation for Iranians as well as Indian poets of ensuing generations.
Persian and Arabic languages and literatures had a momentous influence on Indo-Muslim
culture in general and on the evolution of Urdu language and literature in particular. The Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi dynasties
of South India (Deccan), predominantly Twelver Shi'is in religious persuasion, patronized Dakhni (an early South
Indian dialect of Urdu) marasi. Although Persian marasi of Muhtasham Kashani were still recited, the Adil
Shahi and Qutb Shahi rulers felt the need to render the Karbala tragedy in the language of common Muslims. In the Adil Shahi
and Qutb Shahi kingdom of Deccan, marasi flourished, especially under the patronage of Ali Adil Shah and Muhammad
Quli Qutb Shah, marsiya writers themselves, and poets such as Ashraf Biyabani. Urdu marasi written during this period are still popular in South Indian villages. One
such marsiya expresses the pathos of the moment when Imam Hussain's loved ones bid him farewell:
Farewell, O King of martyrs,
Farewell, O Ruler of both worlds,
[the Prophet] mourns for you in Paradise,
like Yaqub mourned in the aftermath of his separation with Yusuf.
The Yaqub-Yusuf motif, which by no means is restricted to marsiya, recurs over and over in this genre since
the son of Imam Hussain, Ali Akbar, was supposedly as handsome as the Qu'ranic Yusuf, and since the Imam's distress after
the martyrdom of his son was analogous to Yaqub's sorrow after his son parted from him. The North Indian marsiya
writers used similar motifs and metaphors when the centre of Urdu literature moved to the North after the kingdoms of the
Deccan were annexed by the Mughals.
As Mughal power began to wane in the aftermath of the rule of Aurangzeb (1706), other
autonomous Muslim powers sprung up in India. The Navabs of Avadh, Twelver Shi'is and patrons of Urdu literature and poetry,
provided auspices for the sublimation of the marsiya genre in North India.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Urdu marasi are not confined to the gatherings
of Muharram but are recited throughout the year in ceremonies preceding weddings and death anniversaries. However, in the kingdom of Avadh, during the months of Muharram and Safar,
marasi were recited on a daily basis in the majalis (gatherings to commemorate the tragedy of Karbala) held
twice a day in imambareh (places of gathering for the majalis). The adab (etiquette) of these majalis
was such that the audiences would sit facing the taziyah (models of the shrines of the martyrs of Karbala), and listen
to the narration of the popularly perceived events of Karbala in Persian; they would then hear the Urdu marsiya written
for that particular day. The recitation of marasi was also considered an art, and the writers were not always considered
the best orators to generate pathos among the audiences. The Navabs thus invited effective reciters (marsiya khwan) who
had a considerable following themselves. After the recitation of marasi, the family of the Prophet was praised and the enemies
of this family rebuked. The majlis would close with self-flagellation. Keeping this historical and cultural background of Urdu marsiya tradition in mind, it
is apposite to delve into the salient characteristics of this genre.
The main purpose of Urdu marasi is to praise the heroes of Islam, who fought
on the side of Imam Hussain in Karbala, and to induce empathy for the family of Ali and Fatima. The metaphors utilized in
Avadh, Delhi, and the surrounding vicinity to glorify the accomplishments of early Islamic heroes in Urdu marasi
were similar to the metaphors and similes used in qasaid, or odes, written in praise of Indian rulers. Mirza Ghalib
(1797-1869) described the "King of Martyrs," Imam Hussain, by using metaphors, similar to the ones he used in his odes:
The glory and jewel of faith, Hussain Ibn-e Ali,
who shall be called the candle
of the gathering of grandeur.
The fountain of paradise [Salsabil]
is in the path of those,
who call him the thirsty martyr of Karbala.
is a strange occurrence that an enemy of Islam,
battles with Ali and is considered only to be mistaken. After Ali there
is Hassan, and after Hassan there is Hussain,
How can I exonerate any person who has mistreated them.
Ghalib, in his marasi, not only praised the family of Ali, but expressed
loyalty to the family of Muhammad by rebuking their opponents. It is difficult for Ghalib to comprehend how the enemies of
the Prophet's family can be exonerated by Muslims. Ghalib's criticism could have been aimed at the belief of many Muslims
that the judgment of the companions of the Prophet should be left to Allah. Ghalib considered Imam Hussain to be the ideal
king; the precepts of loyalty demanded aversion toward any enemy of the king.
While Ghalib used regal imagery to underscore the virtues of Imam Hussain, Mirza
Dabir (1803-1875) described the Imam as also being the paragon of a true lover. Dabir used ascetic and mystical imagery, commonly
implemented in Urdu and Persian poetry, to describe Imam Hussain. Imam Hussain is depicted as the ideal lover due to his penchant
for suffering in order to attain Allah:
For the sake of thirst, he [Hussain] fasted in youth,
For the sake of thirst, he
turned away from Zehra's [Fatima's] milk,
For the sake of thirst, he never accepted the Euphrates' favor,
For the sake
of thirst, he abnegated water from the Seventh of Muharram. 
The world remembers the story of his slaying,
and his utterance of `thirst, thirst' while
biting the tongue.
Dabir interpreted the Imam's thirst as if it were a means to unite the Imam with
Allah. It was as though Allah tested his beloved by depriving him of water in the sweltering desert of Karbala. But Imam Hussain
was not the only one put to the test of Allah; each and every person on the side of the Imam --from the six month old child,
Ali Asghar, to the seventy-one-year-old companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Habib Ibn-e Mazahir-- was subjected to the agony
of thirst. The mystical imagery of forbearance was utilized by Dabir to make his view of the suffering side of the Imam more
fathomable to an audience attuned to mystical poetry.
The marasi of Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810) and Muhammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1780)
are similar to those of Ghalib and Dabir in that they perform their panegyrical function for the martyrs of Karbala; but these
poets also wrote marasi in which the narration of the Karbala tragedy was saturated with cultural and ceremonial
imagery of North India. The North Indian Muslim cultural terminology used by Mir and Sauda includes sehra--the veil
of flowers that the groom and the bride wear on their wedding day in India, arsi mushaf--the moment when the bride
and the groom cast first glances at each other through the mirror placed on the Quran between them, and naig--the
demand of the groom's sister for money before allowing her brother to approach his bride.
It was the wedding of Imam Hussain's daughter, Fatima Kubra, and Imam Hassan's son,
Qasim, moments before the battle of Karbala, that spawned the incorporation of this event into the narratives of Karbala,
giving the tragedy characteristics of an ill-fated romance. Sauda embellished his marasi by characterizing the wedding of Qasim in terms of the weddings
of Delhi and Avadh:
Friends, listen to the affliction wrought by the oppressive celestial sphere, 
it has planned a strange wedding for the son of Hassan.
In such a way has it joined
the bride and the groom,
that the [inauspicious] thread of the shrouds has been tied to the [auspicious] lagan.
How should I describe the naubat played at this
It was the perpetual self-flagellation, day and night,
of the men and women of this household.
of lighting, the house has been set on fire.
The strange color-play
of the wedding,
had left nothing but blotches of blood on the clothes.
The Bride's gift for sachaq was the
severed head of the groom,
Say, what country has the tradition
of such a sachaq?
Sauda's utilization of lagan (the brazen or copper pan used for cooking
sweet rice before weddings), naubat (the music played outside the house during cheerful ceremonies), lighting of
the houses, traditional color-play prior to the wedding, and the ceremony of sachaq (the ceremony a few days before
the wedding when the groom's family brings gifts, including the wedding garments, for the bride), give the seventh century wedding of Karbala a North Indian cultural touch.
Sauda also incorporated the beliefs and superstitions prevalent in his days:
The bride's mother would lament and say:
`a sorrow heavier than my daughter's widowhood,
the remarks of our acquaintances,
that the feet of the bride were inauspicious for the groom...
The view of the bride's
face set his [the groom's] destiny for heaven...
How can I look in the eyes of the groom's mother?
When this wedding
has taken the light of her eyes.'
Sauda discussed the mother of Qasim's bride as if she were an Indian woman, overpowered by the
pangs of remorse, and concerned with the reputation of her family due to the doomed wedding of her daughter and the embarrassment
of bearing the culpability of her son-in-law's death. This kind of imagery appealed to the thousands of marsiya listeners
and readers in India who understood the tragedy of Karbala by placing themselves in the context of this story. For many Indians,
the death of a groom just moments after his wedding conjured up images of the widespread stigma associated with an "inauspicious"
bride, as it was common in that context to cast the blame for a groom's misfortune on his bride.
In addition to the wedding of Karbala, other parts of the Karbala tragedy were painted
with Indian colors. Mir Anis' (1802-1874) description of the women of the Prophet's household embarking on the journey to
Karbala and the protocol that was followed was quite similar to the protocol followed by the begmat (ladies) of Lucknow:
Even if there is a young boy on the roof,
he must get down,
If he is coming this
way, he must stop.
No stranger should travel on this road,
For God has made her [Zainab, sister of Hussain]
Even the male angels have closed their eyes.
This part of Anis' marsiya echoes the rigidity with which purdah (veiling)
was observed in nineteenth-century Avadh.
The marasi of Anis were also heavily laced with durbar imagery,
which registered in the mind of the readers and listeners the manner in which Imam Hussain and his companions must have eagerly
awaited their martyrdom:
On the right side of the camp were the relatives of the Imam,
their glowing faces
brightened the dark desert of Karbala.
Like beads in a rosary,
they were all united.
They anxiously waited for their death.
would desire neither food nor water,
their aim was to offer their heads to Allah.
The young boys pleaded to be the
and the older ones left this decision up to the Imam.
In the middle of this assembly was the King of
like the sun amidst the stars.
The foregoing verses create images similar to those associated with the Mughal durbars,
or the Navabs of Avadh sitting in the Diwan-e-Khas (hall of the private audience) while being praised by their loyal
friends and advisers.
In the marasi of Mir Ishq (d. before 1890), the farewell of Imam Hussain
to his friends and family in Medina is also similar to that of a North Indian king before he commenced on a course of war:
crowds gathering to bid farewell, subjects praying for the master's health, and so on. The farewell of Imam Hussain's son Ali Akbar, who was eighteen years old during the battle of
Karbala and allegedly bore a striking resemblance to his great grandfather, the Prophet Muhammad, is similar to the farewell
any beloved son of Avadh would receive before he went to war: the family comes to bid him farewell and prays for his well-being;
sisters express their aspirations for his wedding; and mothers give sadqa (alms that are supposed to remove any curse
that might afflict a person) to the poor.
The marasi of Mir Anis reflect the popular prayers of women of Lucknow.
When an unmarried son departs for the battlefront, his mother expresses her desire to see his sehra; when a brother
leaves the house, his sister prays that the brother's wife always has sandal-wood powder in her hair and children in her lap;
and when a slave joins his master in the war, the slave's wife prays for her husband's death in exchange for his master's
life. The ideals of brother-sister and mother-son love, fertility of a woman, and loyalty to the king, were aspirations of
the Muslim culture of North India and were channeled through literary genres like the marsiya.
Images associated with the 1857 uprising against British rule were also incorporated
into marasi. As Intezar Hussain states in his study of Mir Anis' poetry, Urdu marasi were shaped by the
political situation of their day. The tumultuous events that afflicted Avadh in the mid-nineteenth century were juxtaposed
with the tragedy of Karbala, generating emotional catharsis as well as consoling North Indian Muslims by associating their
plight with the travails of Imam Hussain.
Marasi would also induce catharsis when families in Avadh lost their
beloved members. Marsiya writers would narrate the family's agony by comparing it to various events of Karbala. When
the Navab of Patna, Sayid Ahmad Hussain Khan, lost his sixteen-year old son to smallpox, Mir Anis was asked to write a marsiya
in honor of the youth. The marsiya written by Anis opened with a prayer in which the poet asked Allah to spare parents
the grief of their children:
Oh God, give no parent the sorrow of their child.
May no inauspicious being be the
victim of the scar of their son,
May this wealth, even of the enemy, be preserved,
and may any agony, but this, afflict
The poet moves on to discuss the virtues of Ahmad Navab, the son of the Navab of
Alas! Ahmad Navab was lively and young,
he did not get to enjoy the bliss of the
garden of youth.
Fate turned away from him in the spring of his life,
like a bubble, he vanished from this world.
This grief, however, is insignificant compared to that of Imam Hussain. Anis consoles
the mother of Ahmad Navab by reminding her that the women of Karbala had to endure similar grief:
You [mother of Ahmad Navab] are a devotee of the children of the Prophet,
year You listen to the narration of their martyrdom,
It is necessary for you to think about the agony of Shaher Bano,
had lost Akbar in his youth.
Think about the mother of Qasim,
no mother in this world see such a wedding,
it is a pity that he was a groom in the evening,
but when the morning came,
he was martyred.
The mother of Qasim saw her son's body wounded by swords,
and she saw his bride of one night lamenting
for her groom.
Widowhood is a calamity in this world,
but the wife of Qasim bore this grief with forbearance.
would mourn, yet thank God
for any fate that was bestowed upon her.
Anis is asking Ahmad Navab's mother to emulate the mothers of Ali Akbar and Qasim.
No grief, according to the poet, can equal the suffering of the family of Imam Hussain.
Marsiya writing was not confined to Muslims. Several Hindu marsiya
writers wished that Imam Hussain had come to India instead of going to Karbala. They used imagery of the Indian landscape,
such as the river Ganga, to provide evidence of Indian hospitality, as opposed to the "betrayal of the Euphrates." If Imam Hussain had come to India, these marsiya writers asserted, he would have been
welcomed by the Ganga and not subjected to the afflictions of the Euphrates. The river Ganga, in several Urdu marasi,
was given a benevolent mien of a noble host.
By recasting the events of Karbala in local imagery, marsiya writers were
also able to infuse their poetry with intellectual concerns, such as the ideal manner in which a king should rule. Mirza Dabir,
in his marsiya which was recited in the palace of Navab Ghazi Uddin Hyder, warned the ruler of Avadh to avoid the
snare of injustice:
When the day of judgment will arrive,
tyrant kings will be the first ones to be
called (by Allah),
they will be asked about fairness and justice.
Ghaziuddin Hyder, according to some accounts, was so moved by these didactic verses,
which have the resonance of the "Mirror for Princes" tradition, that he instructed his minister to heed Dabir's advice. The Indianized story of Karbala thus had
a moral for the Indian rulers: follow the virtuous, selfless path of Imam Hussain and avoid the quagmire into which the family
of Yazid sunk.
If the rulers and their subjects did not see their present lifestyles compatible
with the ideals of Islam, there was a message of hope articulated through Urdu marasi. The embodiment of hope was
Hur, a general in Yazid's army, who realized the iniquitous aspects of Yazid's rule and underwent a remarkable transformation
within one night. Hur joined Imam Hussain in his battle against the forces of Yazid, and the Imam bestowed upon him the status
of the "diamond in the crown of heaven."
In the twentieth century, the number of Muslim socio-religious reformers who capitalized
on the Indianized version of Karbala to channel their concerns for the society increased. Many twentieth century Urdu marasi
were given a solid intellectual dimension by the incorporation of issues--the Khilafat movement, India's independence, and
the plight of the Indian Muslims, and so on--into the frame story of Karbala. Among the modern marsiya writers who
have appropriated the events surrounding Karbala as the underpinnings of their socio-religious reform ideology are Josh Malihabadi
and Vahid Akhtar.
Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), renowned as "Shair-i inqilab," or the Poet
of revolution, used the medium of marsiya as a means to propagate the view that Karbala is not a pathos-laden event
of a bygone era, but a prototype for contemporary revolutionary struggles. Josh's writings during the late 1930's and the
early 1940's, when nationalist feelings were running high in South Asia, had a momentous impact upon his generation. Josh
attempted to galvanize the youth of his day by intertwining their contemporary struggle of liberation from colonization with
O Josh, call out to the Prince of Karbala [Hussain],
cast a glance at this twentieth
look at this tumult, chaos, and the earthquake.
At this moment there are numerous Yazids, and yesterday there
was only one.
From village to village might has assumed the role of truth,
Once again, Human feet are in chains.
By interlacing his marasi with metaphors that had nuances of a revolutionary
struggle and depicting the `anti-Muslim' forces as being on a par with the tyranny of Muawiya and Yazid, Josh gave the impression
that the state of the Muslim community was imminently threatened by a massive, ideologically-based assault upon everything
Islam valued. As far as most Muslims are concerned, Yazid's rule had been the `Other' of the true Islamic state for centuries.
To identify one's enemy in terms of Yazid was the ultimate demonization that conjured up the most horrific images of opponents,
whether the opponents were the British colonizers and their indigenous collaborators, or the corrupt, hypocritical politicians
who were about to replace the British colonizers.
Josh is a good example of the colonized intellectual who uses nostalgic paradigms
to enable his audience to conceptualize the potential for an ideal society. His marasi fit into the Fanonian category
of "literature of combat." As Frantz Fanon has pointed out, the strategies of resistance used by intellectuals like Josh were
common in several other colonized cultures:
There is a tendency to bring conflicts up to date and to modernize the kinds of struggle
which the stories evoke, together with the names of heroes and types of weapons. The method of allusion is more and more widely
used. The formula `This all happened long ago' is substituted with that of `What we are going to speak of happened somewhere
else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow.' 
Josh, through his marasi, reinterprets Karbala so that it corresponds to
his ideals of the future. By explaining contemporary issues through references to past Islamic heroes, Josh enabled his audience
to conceptualize the potential for a pure Islamic society. The extensive use of the images of the family of the Prophet was
destined to have a special resonance with readers who had been reared to regard this household as the apotheosis of virtue.
The nobility of thought and action of the heroes of Karbala is poetically pitched at a level which makes striving for the
characteristics of these early Islamic heroes a contemporary necessity.
Vahid Akhtar, Professor of Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University, has been crucial
in keeping the tradition of marsiya dynamic in present-day South Asia. His marasi rely on the images, metaphors,
and nuances inherited from nineteenth century masters like Anis and Dabir, and on the values invested in this genre by socio-religious
reformers like Josh. On the back cover of his recently-published marsiya anthology, for example, is the famous Arabic
saying: "Every place is Karbala; every day is Ashura." By positing a similarity between Hussain's historic battle
and the present day struggle of human kind against renewed forms of Yazidian oppression, Akhtar deflects the interpretation
of the martyrs of Karbala as mere insignia of Islamic history; they are instead posed as the sinews for the revival of an
ideal Islamic state of being.
The genre of Urdu marsiya is a fitting example of a spiritually-exalted
literary enterprise imported into the subcontinent from the Arab and Persian world which evolved in conjunction with `Indian
culture'. Marasi remain important socio-religious texts, permeated by emotional undercurrents, in the cultural repertoire
of South Asia. Through these texts, the events surrounding the battle of Karbala were emplotted in a myriad of ways congruent
with changing political and cultural milieus. Urdu marasi thus furnish a literary landscape which reflects the underlying
social, religious, and intellectual bonds of South Asian cultures.