Today is the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram, a day of remembrance, mourning, of catharsis. For regardless of our faith or the lack of it, we have all known a Husain in our lives or witnessed a Karbala in the making, one that resembles the real-life incidents of over 1,300 years ago.
Husain, the son of Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was a handsome, charismatic, fearless warrior, and a loving family man. Over the years, he has become an enduring emblem of a brave man wronged, tragically felled by forces beyond his control yet choosing to fight till the bitter end despite a foreknowledge of the odds stacked against him.
It is precisely this element of choice that makes Husain such a powerful symbol of martyrdom, one that transcends his time and circumstance. It is also the quality of unflinching, unyielding uprightness which could neither be silenced nor bought over, that makes Husain the ultimate ‘alienated’ hero.
What adds to the poignancy of his situation is his aloneness at the hour of reckoning. Save for a handful of family members, no one came to his aid. The majority watched and listened but did nothing.
'Surrender or Die!'
Within 50 years of the Prophet’s death, the small community of believers was torn asunder by conflicting claims to leadership. The governor of Syria, Mu’aviya, opposed Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, and wrested the Caliphate from him. Mu’aviya’s son, Yezid, carried the enmity forward by demanding allegiance (bay’ah) from Ali’s son and successor Husain.
When Husain declined, Yezid issued an unequivocal call: Surrender or Die! Surrender meant recognition of Yezid and the power he had wrongfully wrested.
For Husain, both were unacceptable; instead, he chose willing sacrifice of himself, his family, and supporters.
It was the month of Muharram, the year 679 AD – seventy men held out against 4,000 in a desert named Karbala, approximately 70 kilometres from Kufa.
Rations dwindled, men died in battle, children were slaughtered, and the enemy closed in on the small, besieged group.
On the eighth day of battle, the water supply was cut off. The river Euphrates glimmered in the distance but the way to the water was barred. Hungry, dying of thirst, and ill, the bedraggled but valiant group faced battle on the fateful tenth day, the day called Ashura, when all perished, save for three male members and some women and children who were paraded till Damascus to be presented before Yezid.
The decapitated bodies of those who were slain, including Husain, were trampled beneath the hooves of the victors’ horses, and their camps were set on fire.
Humiliated and defiled in death before the people he loved, and who loved him unequivocally, his head carried on a spear, the women and children of his clan mocked, Husain moved from history into legend becoming, in the process, a larger-than-life icon of confrontation and resistance.
How Urdu Literature Represents Figures of Karbala
A great deal of Urdu literature picks on motifs and dramatis personae from the Battle of Karbala. There is, for instance, the recurring motif of thirst, of injustice, of besiegement.
Then are the figures of Husain for valour, Yezid for cruelty, Zainab for fortitude, and so on.
Novelists such as Intizar Husain have woven the events of Karbala into their chronicles of life in the sub-continent but it is the poets who have time and again invoked Karbala as a metaphor such as these two sher by Shahhyar:
Husain ibn-e-Ali Karbala ko jaate hai’n
Magar yeh log abhi tak gharo’n ke andar hai’n
(Husain, the son of Ali, walks towards Karbala
But these people still hide in their homes.)
Guzre thhe Husain ibn-e-Ali raat idhar se
Hum mein se magar koi bhi nikla nahi ghar se.
(Husain, the son of Ali, passed by this road last night
But not one among us stepped out of our homes.)
The universality of Husain’s fight against unfairness and persecution is verbalised in this sher by Afzal Jinjhaani where 'thirst' becomes a metaphor:
Husain ibn-e-Ali mujh ko yaad aate hain
Main jab bhi dekhtaa huun tishnagi kaa darvaza
(I am reminded of Husain, son of Ali
Whenever I see the doorway of thirst.)
Husain’s resistance to the tyranny of Yezid is emblematic of the suffering of all those who live under tyrannical regimes that seek to suppress the human spirit and snuff out resistance, as verbalised in this sher by Mohamed Ali Jauhar:
Waqaar-e-ḳhoon-e-shahidaan-e-Karbala ki qasam
Yazid morcha jiita hai jang haara hai
(By the honour of the blood of the martyrs of Karba, I swear
Yazid has merely won the skirmish but lost the battle.)
How Husain’s Story Resonates Globally
In the lamentation and mourning over the King of Karbala, the Martyr of Martyrs, the Son of Ali, small, personal, localised griefs are subsumed in the grief for Husain and his clansmen and women.
North India, especially the qasbahs of Awadh, has produced vast amounts of poetic literature commemorating the events surrounding the martyrdom of Husain.
Urdu poets such as Mir Anees, Dabir, Gauhar Lukhnavi have written vast amounts of very poetic and hauntingly evocative elegies, all of which are recited in homes and majlis khanas during Muharram even today and recall the slaughter of innocents and infants:
Dhal gaya suraj shamma jali, nanha mera Asghar kaha’n gaya re
Bano pukarey kokh jali, nanha mera Asghar kaha’n gaya re
(The sun has set, the lamp is lit, where is my little Asghar
Poor Bano calls out for her son, where is my little Asghar.)
While the Islamic world, and the Shia community in particular, have appropriated the legacy of Husain, the story of his martyrdom is not without global resonance.
Husain’s story is the story of all those who have chosen to stand up to their beliefs when others around them have caved in.
While Muslims grieve for his death because he was the beloved grandson of the Prophet, his blood that was spilt on the banks of the Euphrates is precious to all mankind because blood shed for a sacred cause is more precious than anything else.
Husain’s story finds echoes in the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1070 or that of Mansoor al-Hallaj, the founder of Sufism and the arch-martyr of mystical Islam, who was cruelly executed in Baghdad in 922 or, for that matter, Dr Martin Luther King who fell to an assassin’s bullet in the American Civil Rights Movement in 1968.
It is disconcerting, therefore, that powerful symbols of resistance, such as Husain, should be commemorated only by a particular group of people.
For as long as there is tension between positive and negative, good and evil, oppressor and oppressed, believer and non-believer, Husain’s life and martyrdom will continue to be brimful with associations.
According to a popular saying in Arabic,
“Every place is Karbala; every day is Ashura.”
In India, I have heard elders bless their children thus: ‘Maula koi gham ne de siwae gham-e Husain’ (‘May you know no grief save the grief for Husain’).
One can only hope that some day, when the world is bright with consciousness (bedaari), everyman will wish to claim Husain:
Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do
Har qaum pukaregi hamare hain Husain.
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator, and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)