Recasting Karbala in the Genre of Urdu Marsiya – Syed Akbar Hayder

Urdu marasi,[2] 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 marasi 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 marasi, 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 marasi of the ensuing centuries. According to some traditional beliefs, the first marasi were recited by Hussain’s sister, Zainab, and son, Zain-al-Abedin, in the aftermath of 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.[5]

When Shi’ism[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8]

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) marasi. Although Persian marasi 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, marasi flourished, especially under the patronage of Ali Adil Shah and Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah,[9] marsiya writers themselves, and poets such as Ashraf Biyabani.[10] Urdu marasi 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.[11]

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