Rafed English

Karbala': The Bank of the Euphrates and the Graves

Adapted from: "The Revolution of Imam al-Husayn (a.s.)" by: "Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad-Din Al-Amili"

Every ode of lamentation mentions Karbala ' or the Bank of the Euphrates. The name Karbala ' is associated in lamentation poetry with grief (karb) and misfortune (bala'). The poets frequently repeat this idea.

It appears that in the early poetry Karbala' was treated as an object to be blamed and cursed because it had witnessed the deaths of the Holy Family. We know of one example including such as a curse which is attributed to al-Rabab, the wife of the Imam.

She calls to al-Husayn and declares that she had not forgotten when the swords of the enemies were directed against him and how they left him dead at Karbala'. Then she calls upon God not to water the banks of the river at Karbala'.

However, it appears that this attitude did not continue for long. The idea which becomes most repeated with regard to Karbala ' -perhaps because of the reports which the Holy Family circulated among their followers- is that Karbala ' is blessed and sacred ground. In lamentation poetry, Karbala' became a beloved land because it contained the bodies of the holy loved ones. It became the practice of the poets of lamentation to speak of it with grief and love.

In poetry it then came to receive prayers for divine blessings and for God to water it. It is still, in some of the poetry, a place of grief (karb) and misfortune (bala'). Yet it is a grief which happened and its role has finished and a misfortune which took place and the people involved endured it. Now it has become a place of loved ones, an area of sad memories, a scene of legendary heroism, a place where the angels of God come down, and a site of divine blessings for those who are honoured by making pilgrimages to it.

Mansur al-Numayri (d. 190 or 193) wrote a poem in which he reported that time was attacking the son of Fatima in the soil of Karbala' while the traces of the abodes of the people sleeping in their graves were being destroyed. The poet calls for greetings and blessings to be upon that place and for God to send unceasing and hoped for rain upon it.

In another poem al-Sanawburi calls on the pilgrim to greet Karbala ' and not to be disgusted at such greeting but to speak as lovingly as he can. He calls upon him to greet the abodes whose outlines on the banks of the Euphrates have become well-known signs. They should be called the abodes of the Apostle of God and the fountain of messages.

There should be the prayer for peace to be upon them for as long as the sun and moon rise over creation. The poet goes on to say that he stopped at the graves and spoke to them. Then he stopped at the best of them; pure grave which contained the purest of bones. The most fragrant breeze is for those whom it blows upon from the pure flowers on the hillside. Let rain fall upon the ground in the mornings and let rain not part from it in the evenings.

In another poem al-Sanawburi calls on the man urging his camel along to stop and not to move on from the bank of the Euphrates at Karbala'. It is the place where his desire has led him and he asks the camel-driver to share in his desire. The land on the bank of the Euphrates at Karbala' is the land which belongs to God and a land of guidance. He calls on everybody whether coming at night or in the morning to greet the bank of the Euphrates and its inhabitants in their graves.

The poet Muhammad ibn al-Husayn, known as Kashajim, (d.350 or 360) mentioned in one of his poems that the day was dark at Karbala'. Then it cleared of clouds while they lay slaughtered. The rain does not cease falling on that land and every sunrise reckons up its coming in the morning and in the night.
The Humiliation of Quraysh and the Humiliation of Islam and the Muslims

From the first century of the hijra, the poet of lamentation poetry for al-Husayn regarded the killing of al-Husayn and his family and followers as a humiliation of Islam and Muslims. On rare occasions the poet considers that the killing of al-Husayn has brought humiliation to Quraysh or to the Hashimites.

Abu Rumayh, Umayr ibn Malik al-Khuza'i (d.c. 100) wrote a poem in which he declared that clouds of tears were racing across his eyes. They would not dry up after the tears were shed until they flowed with tears again. They were weeping for the family of the Prophet Muhammad.

How many were these tears, yet how few in view of what happened! Those people had not drawn their swords while their enemies killed them when they were drawn. The man from the Hashimites killed on the bank of the Euphrates was the most humiliated man of Quraysh and Quraysh were humiliated as well.

Perhaps this poet and other like him were giving expression to a tribal view of the subject and regarding what happened as a personal struggle. Soon, however, this misleading view gave way to the correct view of the subject.

Throughout the Islamic era the poet of lamentation poetry has considered what happened as an Islamic concern, meaning Islam as a religion and the Muslims as an umma. What happened at Karbala ' was sacrilege against Islam and an act of aggression against Muslims.

When Abu al-Rumayh recited these verses, previously mentioned, to Fatima, daughter of al-Husayn and she heard the words,'. . . the most humiliated man of Quraysh and Quraysh were humiliated as well,' she said to him, 'Abu Rumayh, do you speak of it like that?' 'How should I speak of it, may God make me a ransom for you?' he asked. She replied, 'Say: . . . the most humiliated man of the Muslims and the Muslims were humiliated as well.' He is reported to have said that after that day he only recited verses in the way she told him.

The poet of lamentation considered that al-Husayn was a hope for Islam which had been extinguished when the Umayyads killed him. Therefore Muslims were humiliated by his death.

Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali (d. 69) had said: 'O conveyor of the news of the death of religion, who announces the death of piety, arise and announce his death and the death of his family ....'

Ja'far ibn'Affan (d. 150) had said: 'Let whoever can weep, weep for Islam. Its laws have been lost and misappropriated. In the morning al-Husayn was defiled by spears. Swords drunk from his blood and took a second draught.'

Mansur al-Numayri (d. 190 or 193) had said: 'I would have sacrificed my life for al-Husayn when he went out towards death never to return. That was a day which advanced with the sword against the summit of Islam ....'
The Meeting with the Apostle of God and the Holy Family

The poet of lamentation frequently asks the Umayyads directly, or he asks the killers (the Umayyad army), or he asks the umma (the helpers of the Umayyads): How will you meet the Apostle of God, 'Ali and Fatima on the Day of Resurrection? What will you answer when they ask you about your attitude towards their sons? How will you ask them to intercede for you with God when will you have done what you have done to their sons?

An example of that is the verses of Umm Luqman bint 'Aqil ibn Abi, Talib. She said: 'What will you say if the Prophet asks you: What have you, the last umma, done with my offspring and my family after my death? Some of them are prisoners and some of them are stained with blood.'

Similarly Mansur al-Numayri has said in his verses: 'Woe upon the killer of al-Husayn, you have gained a burden which will make the one who carries it fall down. With what face will you meet the Prophet when you have become involved in killing al-Husayn? Will you ask for his intercession tomorrow or not? ....'

Another example of that is from the verses of al-Jurjani al-Jawhari. He said: 'They were abashed before their father on a day that he saw them dripping dizzily with red blood. He will say: O umma what error surrounds? You have exchanged faith for the unbelief of the blind. What crime did I commit against you when I brought the good of the Qur'an?'
The Martyrs.

The martyrs who were killed at Karbala' with Imam al-Husayn are given special honour in lamentation poetry. Hardly any poem is without some mention and praise of them, sometimes for their religious conscience and at other times for their loyalty to the Prophet. In every case, the poet lays emphasis on their courage and their self-sacrifice by dying with the Imam.

Among the poets who mention them is 'Ubayd Allah ibn al-Hurr al-Ju'fi (d. 68). He calls upon God to let the rain fall constantly on the souls of those who set out to help al-Husayn. He describes himself standing at their graves while his stomach churns with grief and his eyes fill with tears.

He swears by his life that they were heroes in the battle which they hurried to. Then he imagines how they consoled one another by helping the son of the daughter of the Prophet with their swords like fierce lions. If they were killed, every pious soul should have become shocked at that. No one has seen more excellent men than them; they were leaders and the flower of men in the face of death.

Talha ibn 'Ubayd Allah al-'Awni al-Misri (d. 350) also composed verses about them. He said: 'His close associates defended him and embraced the swords and spears. They were seventy against thousands and they were covered in wounds. Then they all were struck dead and met their fate.'

The emir Muhammad al-Susi (d. 370) described their heroism in some of his verses. He told of the man who brought the news of the death of a great man on the banks of the Euphrates. It was the news of the death of al-Husayn. The poet says that he wishes he could sacrifice his soul to alleviate how al-Husayn was surrounded by enemies. Yet he was with men who helped each other, comforted each other and fought the fiercest battle until they died.
The Hardship the Poets Faced because of their Allegiance

We find this phenomenon in the poetry in praise and in lamentation for the Holy Family from the first century of the hijra and it has continued to appear on the tongues of the poets until the beginnings of the modern period. It reflects the atmosphere of the terrorization which the Shi'a used to face from the authorities and groups of people who were fanatically opposed to them when the Shi'a tried to express their own doctrinal views.

We have given many examples of this kind of phenomenon in the poetry of praise and lamentation during the course of this discussion. Another example can be cited from the verses of al-Sharif al-Murtada. In these, the poet declares his love for the family of the Prophet and asserts that he will never turn aside from it even though men may blame him for it.

He tells those who blame him for his love of the Holy Family that to be insincere is blameworthy. He tells them not to revile him with their errors, for he will never submit.
Support with the Tongue

Another of the themes of this poetry is the poet's view of his poetry of praise or lament as a support for the Holy Family with his tongue after he had not been able to help them with his hand because he had forsaken them and then regretted his action, or because his circumstances did not help him, or because he came at a later time than them.

An example of regret for forsaking al-Husayn in lamentation poetry is contained in the poem of Ubayd Allah ibn al-Hurr al-Ju'fi. He said: 'A treacherous commander and a treacherous son ask: 'Haven't you killed al-Husayn ibn Fatima?' My soul is full of blame because I deserted him and gave my pledge of allegiance to this man who breaks his covenant.

O how I regret that I did not help him. No soul can make up that regret. I am full of grief because I was not one of his defenders. That will stay with me even if I leave.'

Verses, which illustrate sorrow at not being with al-Husayn because circumstance did not help the situation, are those of al-'Awf al-Azdi, one of the repentant (tawwabun) who took part in the revolt to gain vengeance for the blood of al-Husayn: 'Would that I had been present with him at that time.

I would have defended him by striking against his hateful enemies. I would have defended him for as long as I was able to fight. I would have used my sword against them.'

Mansur al-Numayri provides an example of a poet expressing regret that he lived too late to be of assistance. He wishes that he had been here with his hand on his sword. He would have offered himself to death against the swords and never forsaken al-Husayn and his family.

Al-Sharif al-Radi declares: 'Even though I was absent in time from supporting you with the sword, I have not been absent with my mouth.'

Al-Sharif al-Radi has another idea with regard to this theme in some of his poetry. He considers that the opportunity of supporting al-Husayn with the sword did not escape him because he lived too late to be at the Battle of Karbala '. He can help al-Husayn with the sword by taking vengeance for him and realizing the aims of his revolution.

This is a matter which was still possible during his own time but obstacles and impediments prevented it from being attained. He hoped that these obstacles would be removed so that he could achieve his ambition. There is no doubt that al-Sharif al-Radi is there alluding to his ambition to take control of the caliphate and make it an 'Alid caliphate instead of it continuing as an 'Abbasid one. He repeats this idea in a number of poems.

Most poets, throughout the ages, conclude their poems of lament by declaring that they are sorry that they missed the opportunity of giving support with their hand and are limited to giving support with their tongue.
* * *

This is an outline of the themes of the poetry of lament for al-Husayn. We have presented it in order to make both the scholar and the reader aware of the basic ideas in this vast poetic inheritance prior to the modern period.
V. The Value Of The Poetry About Al-Husayn

If we considered the poetry of lament for al-Husayn as an artistic work, we would come to a judgment about it which would differ from our judgment of it if we were considering it for its educational value.

The artistic value of the lamentation poetry for al-Husayn does not correspond in any absolute way with its vast size. While the poetry of the first three centuries includes many outstanding pieces, the situation is different from this from the third century onwards insofar as artificiality and weakness of expression began to prevail in this kind of poetry.

Most of it lacks imagination and artistic expression. Much of it might be considered rhymed prose, as if the poet has put one of the books about the death of al-Husayn into rhyme with the addition of some books about the virtues of al-Husayn. Similarly much of it is identical in expressions and images.

This does not mean that during this long period there were not some excellent and outstanding works in the poetry of lament for al-Husayn. There is no doubt that the scholar will find many like the poems of lament by al-Sharif al-Radi and Mihyar al-Daylami.

However, we are discussing the general impression of this poetry after the third century of the hijra until the beginnings of the modern period. There can be no doubt that its vast quantity in no way corresponds with its qualitative value as a work of art.

We consider that the responsibility for this weakness of quality in the artistic aspect of this poetry of lament for al-Husayn is due to a number of reasons
The first reason

During this period, this poetry came under the influence of the general cultural situation. The Arabic language had become weak; literature and the sciences had fallen into decay. The idea prevailed over men of culture that they should preserve the models of the ancients without them having the linguistic and artistic resources to enable them even to copy them.

The language of poetry declined until the colloquial almost prevailed over it. During this period the poetry of lamentation was affected by the same tendencies which affected the rest of the poetry.
The second reason

Most of the poets of lamentation poetry for al-Husayn in this period, or at least many of them, were not poets at all; they were religious scholars or men trained in religious scholarship. Their poetic and artistic culture did not go beyond a knowledge of the poetic metres. Thus they were dealing with a subject which needed an artistic spirit which most of them lacked, and which needed an artistic culture which most of them lacked.

They used to compose poetry about al-Husayn with the motive of it being a work of piety. In this way you will not find any poem by them about any subject other than al-Husayn and the virtues of the Holy Family, seemingly written in response to the directives from the Imams of the Holy Family about writing poetry, which we discussed at the beginning of this chapter.

Many of these poets, then, did not have the artistic competence to compose a poetic work of art, even by the standards of the poets of their own age whose own poetry did not enjoy any real artistic value. We can, thus, assume that many of them were writing poetry in lamentation and praise of al-Husayn and the Holy Family with a mentality better attuned to writing about syntax, or grammar, or jurisprudence, or the other subjects which were put into rajaz verse so widely during that period.
The third reason: The profusion of verses in lament for al-Husayn

In this long period which we are discussing in terms of the value of its lamentation poetry, there were many poets who had restricted their poetic composition to the subject of lament for al-Husayn and praise for the Holy Family and they did not go beyond that to anything else.

There were poets who had written dozens of poems in lament for al-Husayn and dozens of poems in praise of the Commander of the faithful and the other Imams. There is no doubt that this profusion, when added to the weakness of poetic culture and the decline of the literary language at that period, was responsible for the artistic weakness of the poetry, both in form and content.

These, then, are the causes which we consider to have been responsible for the poor artistic value of the poetry of lamentation for al-Husayn during this long period.

We say this in the knowledge that we have only studied examples of each of the poets of this period, which we consider to be sufficient to make a judgment about the poetry of the poets which we have not been able to study. This has brought us to the view that a comprehensive study of all the lamentation poetry would lead a scholar to a similar judgment about the artistic benefit of lamentation poetry in this period.

However, the poetry of lament for al-Husayn throughout the ages is a subject rich in possibilities, which is suitable for a variety of types of research which could deal with it from the artistic aspect, for its historical evidence, and from the viewpoint of doctrine, psychology and sociology.

We have already given our estimation of the artistic aspect of lamentation poetry for al-Husayn. However, its educational value differs greatly from its artistic value. The educational value of the lamentation poetry for al-Husayn is real, important and of decisive influence.

This poetry continued its educational task of guidance which had been intended for it when the Imams of the Holy Family directed their Shi'a to compose and recite it.

Throughout the different Islamic epochs, it has shared with the other cultural currents, the pilgrimage (ziyara) and the rites of remembrance, in nourishing the Shi'ite individual with the basic concepts of the attitudes and great ideas of Shi'ism and in strengthening the relationship of the Shi'ite individual with the revolution of al-Husayn.

The weak artistic value of much of this poetry in the periods of Islamic decline did not affect its educational role. Perhaps, it even helped it to carry out its role with greater success. Most of this poetry was composed to be recited at the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn, which were attended by the ordinary people.

These were, in most cases, illiterate and incapable, by virtue of their linguistic paucity and their own colloquial language, of understanding complicated artistic expressions and rhetorical images which needed an artistic culture which was not available to the vast majority of them. For this reason, simple speech close to their own colloquial language and with a musical beat was more in tune with their understanding and more influential on them.

Thus, this poetry-with its concepts, ideals and morals- became part of the culture of the ordinary Shi'ite individual and then part of his intellectual fabric. The rituals of 'Ashura' every year in the month Muharram and the gatherings for the rites of remembrance in other days during the year provided an opportunity for thousands of men and women to attend meetings in honour of al-Husayn and to hear the story of the battle and the history of Islam.

Much of this poetry recited by the mourners was intermingled with all this. Then at a later period, the preachers from the pulpit for al-Husayn became involved with it as well.

The educational value of the lamentation poetry for al-Husayn was important in the past and it will continue to be so in the future for as long as there is the pulpit for al-Husayn. The techniques of modern equipment are the channels which take this poetry to the people and renew for them their relationship with the revolution of al- Husayn and its ideal. They fix it in their hearts and minds as a living symbol of the struggle to attain truth and justice and of martyrdom for the common good.


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