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Karbala and the cultural articulation



Sochta hun bana hi daloon mein

Ik firqa udas logon ka

How appropriate is this verse to Pakistan’s prevailing situation? When Prof Iqbal Shahid recited it in his usual style, I was forced to admire his extraordinary taste in poetry. The ability to recall and narrate Urdu and Persian verses appropriate to the occasion is endowed to gifted individual.

The month of Muharram and the usual pathos associated with this Islamic month and my own bereavement (loss of my much beloved father) made it easier for me to relate with the poet’s feelings. In an act of self-articulation I repeated the verse several times, quite engrossed in my thoughts until Babar Asi invited my attention to another topic; the Muslim history is replete with internecine battles, intrigues and tragedies, why then does Karbala stand out? The fall of Baghdad, tragic end of the Muslim rule in Spain, the ransacking of Delhi on numerous occasions and the 1857 catastrophe have not been solemnised in any way comparable to the Karbala tragedy.

Asi is a serious student of literature (he holds a PhD in Persian literature) and knowing the range of his erudition, I assumed he had already ruminated long enough on this question and now wanted my take on the tragic event with particular reference to the reasons for the far-reaching impact that it has engendered.

Historical characters live through stories. How well the stories are woven around them determines their longevity. Besides, I believe, the event of Karbala involved Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) as its principal protagonist, which makes the story sacrosanct for Muslims the world over. Among various sufi orders with tremendous following across several countries, Imam Hussain is high up the hierarchy of Islamic mysticism.

The Shiites call their leaders Imam, Ali being the first, Hussain the third. More importantly, most of the history is alleged to have been written by the victors. That perhaps is the reason that political history has been adorned by the articulation of masculine pomposity, pedantry and ostentation. These attributes make a story ephemeral, with little literary worth, primarily because a story with a conqueror as its main character is devoid of pathos.

Pathos emanates from a tale told by the vanquished (or those in solidarity). It elevates any historical event into an everlasting story, with which people can relate. The central protagonist of the story, Imam Hussain, emerges as the champion of the oppressed and the marginalised. The story of Imam Hussain’s struggle is widely known but in utmost brevity; it can be told again in the words of Vali Nasr.

Nasr, in his book, The Shia Revival, relates “Hussain rejected the rule of the caliph at the time. He stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred. Hussain was decapitated and his head carried in tribute to … Damascus.  His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there.”

It is only in recent years that stories of the downtrodden and the defeated are being woven, told and televised. Among a very few early exceptions, however, was the story of Karbala, which miraculously survived despite all odds that its narrators were put through. The story of Karbala remained in circulation in all circumstances but a close glance on the Muslim cultural history reveals that in times of Muslim political decline, Karbala had more amenability as a metaphor. Since the 18th century, the metaphor of Karbala has been in profuse use.

That rings true particularly in the Subcontinent where the genres like marsiya mostly composed in a form of musadas, noha and mankabat (praising Hazrat Ali and Imam Hussain) attained more popularity in northern India. Anees and Dabir were extremely influential in popularising these art forms in Urdu poetry.  One must not lose sight of the role of the Awadh state, which made all possible effort to spread Shia denomination with momentous success.

Most of the Nawabs of Awadh composed poetry on the theme of Karbala. Wajid Ali Akhter was the most prominent among them. Many poets and artists who made Karbala a theme of their artistic focus were beneficiaries of patronage extended by the Awadh state. It is also noteworthy that Imam-i-Hussain and his struggle against Yazid, the Umayyad ruler, had greater acceptability in non-Arab regions like Iran, Pakistan, India and some parts of Central Asia. It should be emphasised that the marsiya tradition is very robust in the Seraiki belt in the Punjab.

The tradition of holding majalis in which the story of Karabla is told, is very strong in Multan and its surrounding cities. Puritanical tendencies like Wahabism have stopped the Arab world from striking greater unanimity around the story of Karbala.

How effectively the story (of Karbala) was told over the centuries is equally significant. Various ways of telling the story and employing different genres of art have contributed to universalising its impact. That is the reason Karbala is the biggest cultural as well as literary metaphor.

Prof Razi Abedi once remarked that the event of singular importance on which the whole edifice of Urdu poetry is erected, is the event of Karbala. That is because the event of Karbala is the only one (instance) which has become an integral part of the Muslim collective consciousness. Just consider Urdu literature with the metaphor of Karbala and you will not find much substance in it. It sits very deep and in any cultural articulation, in one way or the other, and is mediated through a consciousness inflected by Karbala.

The universal appeal of such stories can work as an antidote against the widening sectarian fault lines. Sadly, it has been reduced to be the legacy of one sect. This is lamentable. I hope Dr Asi is satisfied with my take on the story of Karbala.