This year, 31 July marks the first day of the New Year according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Yet, it is not a day of unadulterated rejoicing and festivities, unlike the start of the Gregorian Calendar on 1 January.
Second only to the month of Ramazan in holiness, the entire month of Muharram is observed by extra prayers, reflection and piety. Its tenth day is marked by Ashura (literally meaning ‘tenth’ in Arabic), the day when Shia Muslims mourn the loss of Husain, grandson of the Prophet, in the Battle of Karbala. Sunni Muslims, too, share the tragedy and refrain from festivities, at least in the first 10 days of the month.
This explains the absence of greetings and felicitations at the start of the New Year making it a solemn rather than joyous occasion, a time of remembrance and catharsis.
Recounting the Relevance of Muharram
It was the month of Muharram in the year 679 AD when 70 men led by Husain held out against 4000-strong forces of Yazid, the second Caliph of the Umayyad caliphate, in a desert named Karbala, approximately 70 kilometres from Kufa in present-day Iraq. 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, water supply was cut off. The river Euphrates glimmered in the distance but the way to the water was barred. Ill, hungry, dying of thirst, the bedraggled but valiant group faced battle on the fateful tenth day, the day called Ashura, when all perished save three male members and some women and children who were paraded till Damascus to be presented before Yazid.
The decapitated bodies of those who were slain, including Husain, were trampled beneath the hooves of the victors’ horses, and their camps 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.
Husain's Fight Against Yazid Represents Everyone's Resistance to Tyranny
Over 1300 years later, Muharram brings with it not festivity and rejoicing but the memory of the martyrdom of Husain after the terrible events at Karbala. It speaks of not just how dearly Muslims hold Husain and how deeply they still feel the anguish of his suffering but also how highly Islam, like many other religions, venerates martyrdom for it is the martyr who bears witness, and it is the witness who redeems what would otherwise be called failure.
Upon reflection, it also highlights the universality of Husain’s fight against unfairness and persecution. Husain’s resistance to the tyranny of Yazid is emblematic of the suffering of all those who live under tyrannical regimes that seek to suppress the human spirit and snuff out every trace of resistance.
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.
That might also explain the reams upon reams of superlative poetry written specifically on the events of Karbala—by Shia and Sunni, Muslim and non-Muslim poets—some in the stylised manner of the soz, marsiya, noha but a great deal in modern, ‘secular’ poetry.
How Urdu Poets Revere Husain as a Symbol of Bravery
Here is Shahryar, a pre-eminent modern poet, telling us why and how Husain is 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:
Husain ibn-e-Ali Karbala ko jaate hain
Magar yeh log abhi tak gharon ke andar hain
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
Munawwar Rana recalls the hungry, thirsty bedraggled men, women and children and reminds us why their hunger and thirst is enduring:
Phir Karbala ke baad dikhaii nahiin diyaa
Aisaa koi bhi shahks ki pyaasaa kahein jise
After Karbala, we never ever saw again
Another person we could deem thirsty
Hindu Poets Show Husain's
Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi ‘Sahar’ tells us why admiration for Husain is above religion:
Lub pe jab Shah-e-Shaheedaan tera naam aata hai
Saamnay saqi-e-Kausar liye jaam aata hai
Mujh ko bhi apni ghulami ka sharaf day dijio
Khota sikka bhi to aaqa kabhi kaam ata hai
When your name comes to my lips, O King of Martyrs
I see the saqi of the river of paradise offering me a goblet
Give me, too, the benefit of serving you as a slave
Let this counterfeit coin be of some service too
The qasbahs of Awadh have traditionally 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 a great deal of very poetic and hauntingly evocative elegies, all of which are recited in homes and majlis khanas during Muharram even today. Here is Meer Anees recalling the misty-eyed dawn of the New Year:
Bast-o-yakum-e-maah-e-Muharram hai aaj
Jis aankh ko dekhiye woh pur-nam hai aaj
It is the first day of the month of Muharram
Where ever you see the eye is damp with tears
Using Karbala As a Symbol
Husain’s friends and family are remembered by name in vast amounts of poetry commemorating the events leading up to Ashura, the most poignant being the one that refers to Husain (also referred to as Shabbir) in his hour of solitary grief: Aaj Shabbir pe kya aalam-e tanhai hai. Brimful with pathos, recited with the right quiver in the voice, it is known to make grown men cry like babies and women wail with pent-up grief merging their own sorrows with sorrow for Husain.
Just as Husain becomes the icon of resistance against tyranny, Karbala, too, becomes an emblem of a space at once poignant and powerful as in this sher by Ameer Qazalbash:
Abhi tak surkh hai mitti yahaan ki
Jahaan main huun woh shaayad Karbalaa hai
The soil here is still red
Perhaps where I am is Karbala
And, finally, Mohamed Ali Jauhar tells us why the Battle of Karbala has a lesson for tyrants and despots centuries down the ages:
Waqaar-e-khuun-e-shahiidaan-e Karbalaa ki qasam
Yazid morcha jiitaa hai jang haaraa hai
I swear by the blood of the martyrs of Karbala
Yazid won the skirmish but lost the battle
(Dr 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.)