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Reflections on Husayni, Karbala, Ashura, and Ashura-oriented LiteratureRevolution

Within the Shia literary history and traditions, there have been several epoch-making events of which the Ashura Battle of Karbala(61AH/ 680) has been one of the most prominent ones. The significanceof the Ashura Battle of Karbala lies in the fact that it showed, interalia, the real, hypocritical face of the Umayyad caliph Yazid b.Mu`awiyah and the righteousness of the Prince of Martyrs, the 3rd Infallible Imam al-Husayn, who was martyred triumphantly along withover 100 of his thirsty companions in a battle imposed on him near the river Euphrates on the plain of Karbala, Iraq.
Ever since this tragic event in early Islamic history an innumerable number of poets composed many, many poems in commemoration of both Imam al-Husayn and the Karbala-cum-Ashura martyrs. More importantly, the devotees of Imam al-Husayn who have expressed their sincere feelings and reflections in this regard are by no means limited only to Shia Muslims. Several Sunni Muslims and even Christian and Hindu poets expressed their reflections on the event of Ashura. Nor can Ashura poetry be limited to Arabic: [1] there is a countless number of poems on Imam al-Husayn and his martyred companions in not only such major Islamic languagesas Persian, Urdu, and Turkish, but also in such an originally European language as English. [2]

The present paper seeks to delineate some basic types of Shia poetry pertaining to the tragic event of Ashura. It is meant to fill a serious research lacuna in Shia religio-historical literature. [3] To begin with, Shia literature cannot be restricted to any language. It is, in a sense, free from linguistic boundaries. In other words, itcan be produced in virtually any language on the express condition that it is conceptually in harmony with Shia Islamic articles of faith and doctrines. [4]

Viewed from this perspective, the scope of Shia literature covers a wide array of subject matters and themes that reflect its history, doctrines, and challenges for survival through history. Husayni literature, as its designation suggests, deals with whatever pertains to the life and times of the 3rd Infallible Imam al-Husayn. As such, it covers both happy and tragic events. An example of a happy event is Imam al-Husayn’s graceful and promising birth and its anniversary commemorated by his devotees and followers. As for the tragic events in the life and times of Imam al-Husayn, one may focus mainly on the horrible and heart-rending scenes of Ashura. Although the Ashura Battle of Karbala lasted less than a day, its tremendous effects have eternalized it in the Shia historical memory. [5]

It is in the latter category that a greater portion of Husayni literature finds its place. Karbala literature pertains to whatever may be relevant to the sanctity of Karbala, its main glories, and the scenes it witnessed. As such Karbala literature is expected to deal with the sanctity of the city of Karbala due mainly to two sacred sanctuaries of the 3rd Infallible Imam al-Husayn and his step-brother al-`Abbas b. `Ali. [6]In the same vein, it may have something to do with the sacred soil of Karbala (again due mainly to the sacred shrines) of which it is highly recommended in Shia Islam to make special clay tablets for prostration while performing salat. [7] Yet, personified in literary texts, it may recount a report of the horrible events that occurred on Ashuraat Karbala. [8]

Ashura literature, as its title suggests, can be applied to whatever focuses on the events of the eve and day of Ashura. However,by extension, the term may be applied to whatever material that has something to do with the events the preceded that imposed Ashura Battle of Karbala and its tragic consequences, e.g., the Umayyad forces’ dragging the survivors of the Ashura Battle of Karbala from Karbala to Kufa, then to Damascus, and finally returning them back to Medina. Ashura literature, in this sense, must be kept separate from Arba`in literature, for Arba`in, as the fortieth day after Imam al-Husayn’s martyrdom, receives commemoration on a par with that of Ashura. [9]

Ashura-oriented literature may broadly deal with whatever has something to do with the sorrowful episodes in the life and times ofthe Infallible Imam al-Husayn, Karbala, and the tragic events of Ashura. It reflects a sequence of the events as they took place,portraying all the major events in a long poem, starting from the graceful birth of Imam al-Husayn through his tragic but triumphant martyrdom. [10] Moreover, any poem whose focus may have something to do with the whole movement of Imam al-Husayn can be regarded as a piece of Ashura-oriented poetry. [11]


1. Granted that the earliest pieces of Ashura poetry were composed on Ashura by the survivors of the Ashura Battle of Karbala in Arabic, the 6th Infallible Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq played a decisive role in encouraging Arab poets to compose poems, especially elegies, to mourn Imam al-Husayn’s tragic martyrdom. Therefore, he must be regarded as a pioneer of Husayni and/or Ashura literature in Arabic.

2. For a collection of Ashura poems in English, see Fakhr-Rohani, ed.,Ashura Poems in English, Explained and Annotated (2 vols.,Karbala:Imam al-Husayn’s Sacred Sanctuary; and Qom: Al-Mustafa InternationalUniversity, 2011).

3. In the same vein, the Iranian scholar Mr. Muhammad-Reza Hakimi echoed this shortcoming in that nobody had ever embarked on developing a literary history of the Shia. See his seminal article in Persian in Kheymeh, No. 62 (Esfand 1388 Sh[/March 2010]), p. 32.

4. In this paper, the focus is on Twelver Shia; however, other sub-denominations of Shia Islam, although not dealt with in this paper, may have their own literatures that generally pertain to Ashura and Imam al-Husayn.

5. It is timely to point to the efforts of the Infallible Imam Ja`faral-Sadiq to eternalize the memory of the Ashura tragedy in the historical memory of the Shia by recommending one of his followers by the name of Dawud b. Kathir al-Riqqi who paid a salaam unto Imam al-Husayn after each instance of drinking water. Hence, so long as the mankind needs water for survival, the memory of Imam al-Husayn will be reinforced in the collective and historical memory of the Shias.

6. The sacred sanctuary of al-`Abbas b. `Ali lies around 350 meters away from that of Imam al-Husayn to the east. Facing the direction of Qiblah, that is, toward Makkah, the sanctuary of al-`Abbas b. `Ali islocated a bit behind that of Imam al-Husayn on the latter’s left hand.Metaphorically, this implies that even after martyrdom al-`Abbas b.`Ali’s body has proven to observe religious politeness toward Imam al-Husayn as the Infallible Imam of the time.

7. There are several good books that deal with prostration upon thesoil of Karbala, e.g., Sayyid Muhammad-Mahdi al-Musawi al-Khirsan,al-Sujud `ala al-Turbah al-Husayniyyah (Karbala: Imam al-Husayn’s Sacred Sanctuary’s Library, 1426 AH/2005); Sayyid `Abd al-Rida al-Shahrestani, al-Sujud `ala al-Turbah al-Husayniyyah, ed. Haydar al-Jid (Karbala: Imam al-Husayn’s Sacred Sanctuary, 1431 AH/ 2010);and Amin Habib Aal Darwish, Turbah al-Husayn (Beirut: Dar al-Mahajjahal-Bayda’,1430 AH/ 2009). That prostration on the soil of Karbala is highly recommended is another effort to eternalize the memory of the oppression Imam al-Husayn endured for safeguarding Islam.

8. The contemporary Iraqi scholar, Sayyid Salman Aal Tu`mah, uses the term "Karbalayi poetry" for the poems composed by those Iraqi-cum-Arabic-speaking poets who are regarded as citizens of Karbala; see his book al-Husayn fi al-Shi`ral-Karbalayi ([Beirut: Mu’assisah al-Fikr al-Islami, 1422 AH/2001], p.6). This usage stands in opposition to what is termed here as “Karbala poetry”, for the latter concerns the poems that have something to dowith Karbala, its events, and/or its glories whether or not they are composed by citizens of Karbala, irrespective of the language used.

9. The number 40 is regarded as a sacred number in Islam. The Arabic word Arba`in means 40, hence it signifies this association.Furthermore, there is a special ziarat-text to be read out on such a day to express one’s veneration toward Imam al-Husayn.

10. One such poet who succeeded to render a full portrait of Imam al-Husayn's life and times was the renowned Urdu-speaking poet Mir Babr Ali, better known as "Mir Anis". Although a prolific poet inUrdu, some of his elegies in favor of Imam al-Husayn are available in English translation.

11. This is an electronic version of the same paper published in Message of Thaqalayn 12.3 (Autumn 2011): 95-101. Bibliography Aal Darwish, Amin Habib, Turbah al-Husayn, Beirut: Dar al-Mahajjahal-Bayda’,1430 AH/ 2009. Aal Tu`mah, Sayyid Salman, al-Husayn fi al-Shi`r al-Karbalayi,

Beirut:Mu’assisah al-Fikr al-Islami, 1422 AH/ 2001. Al-Musawi al-Khirsan, Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi, al-Sujud `ala al-Turbahal-Husayniyyah, Karbala: Imam al-Husayn’s Sacred Sanctuary’s Library,1426 AH/2005. Al-Shahrestani, Sayyid `Abd al-Rida,, al-Sujud `ala al-Turbah al-Husayniyyah, ed. Haydar al-Jid, Karbala: Imam al-Husayn’s Sacred Sanctuary, 1431 AH/ 2010. Fakhr-Rohani, M.-R., ed., Ashura Poems in English, Explained and Annotated, 2 vols., Karbala: Imam al-Husayn’s Sacred Sanctuary; and Qom: Al-Mustafa International University, 2011. Hakimi, M.R., “Hemasehha-ye Maktabi”, Kheymeh, No. 62 (Esfand 1388Sh[/ March 2010]): 32-33

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