Urdu marsiay and nohay, 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 marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay, 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 marsia’s and noha’s of the ensuing centuries. As history indicates the first noha was recited by Imam Hussain’s sister, Janab-e-Zainab, and son, Imam Zain-al-Abedin, in the aftermath of Imam 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) marsiay and nohay. Although Persian marsiay and nohay 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, marsiay and nohay flourished, especially under the patronage of Ali Adil Shah and Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, marsiya writers themselves, and poets such as Ashraf Biyabani. Urdu marsiay and nohay 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,
Mustafa [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 marsiay and nohay 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, marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay 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 and noha khwan) who had a considerable following themselves. After the recitation of marsiay and nohay, 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 marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay 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.
It 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 marsiay and nohay, 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 marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay 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 and naig–the demand of the groom’s sister for money before allowing her brother to approach 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]nobler than Mary,
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 marsiay and nohay 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.
They would desire neither food nor water,
their aim was to offer their heads to Allah.
The young boys pleaded to be the first martyrs,
and the older ones left this decision up to the Imam.
In the middle of this assembly was the King of the world,
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 marsiay and nohay 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 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 marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay. As Intezar Hussain states in his study of Mir Anis’ poetry, Urdu marsiay and nohay 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.
Marsiay and nohay 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 your people.
By recasting the events of Karbala in local imagery, marsiya writers were also able to infuse their poetry with intellectual concerns.
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 marsiay and nohay 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 Hussain’s battle:
O Josh, call out to the Prince of Karbala [Hussain],
cast a glance at this twentieth century,
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 marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay, 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 marsiay and nohay 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’. marsiay and nohay 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 marsiay and nohay thus furnish a literary landscape which reflects the underlying social, religious, and intellectual bonds of South Asian cultures.