Syed Israr Ahmed, my brother-in-law, records one Urdu nauha (laments recited to a tune, but without musical instruments) a day, weeping copiously as he does so. He then sends it to his family’s WhatsApp group.

For the first time in his 75-year existence, Ahmed cannot go home to his ancestral village, Pali, where his entire family gathers from all over the world, to mourn Hussain. For the past 60 years, he has been involved in carrying and preparing the 120-year-old alam (standard) associated with Hazrat Abbas, Hussain’s brother and his army’s standard bearer, which is taken out in procession through the village on the 8th day of Muharram. He knows it is god’s will this year, so he is in Bangalore, and the act of reciting the nauhas comforts him. He is glad that he has the book of nauhas with him.

Syed isn’t the only one who has found solace in books of marsiya and nauhas. Maqatil literature, born from the tragedy of Karbala, has given courage and comfort to millions of Shia Muslims to bear their afflictions over the years, though they pale in comparison to the tragedies borne by the family of Imam Hussain. This year, it is giving us the strength to cope with the deprivations imposed on us by the pandemic.

As actor, poet, and dastango Danish Husain says, “Muharram is an anchor for the Shias. Irrespective of one’s personal loss and tragedy, there was always a refuge to be found in Imam Hussain’s tragedy, a recourse for collective catharsis, as if the tragedy provided a pill to us all to cope with bereavement.”

Comfort from nauhas

As I sit at home and log in to one Zoom session after another, I miss the bonding that happens during Muharram, when our extended families get together annually. It is a time of mourning, but also a time of learning about our traditions from our elders, imparting them to youngsters in the family, and reinforcing our value systems and family ties, through stories related to the battle of Karbala.

Rana Safvi's ancestral imambara at Jalali

This year, the bonding is happening virtually. We are meeting relatives we haven’t seen in years, who migrated and have not returned to India for decades. Here again, maqtil literature, with its tales of loss and longing, connects us on many personal levels. Almost fifty years after he left for Canada, my uncle dug out his old Urdu biyaz (book) in which he had written nauhas as a young boy in Moradabad. The occasion was a Zoom majlis for my eldest aunt’s funeral. She had died during lockdown, so we couldn’t be there in person for the last rites.

The biyaz was fragile, so my uncle’s wife photocopied it, and then, he sat and copied it. Despite not being used for the last five decades, his Urdu skills stood him in good stead. Youngsters could now hear his soulful voice on Zoom. As we listened to him, we realised that on his journey to Canada, my uncle had taken his book of nauhas with him. For him, perhaps, they were a source of comfort in an unknown country.

The tragedy of Karbala is well-known and I don’t need to repeat it, but the fact that it is still fresh in our minds after fourteen centuries is nothing short of miraculous. It is kept alive by maqatil literature and marsiya (elegiac) poetry, both of which teach patience, forbearance and fortitude to those who mourn Hussain. The word “maqtal” and its plural “maqatil” mean “place of slaughter or execution”, and although a form of medieval Arabic literature, it has come to be associated with the Battle of Karbala.

The first Maqtal al Hussain (describing the battle of Karbala and the events following it) was written in Arabic in the 8th century. While retaining the tragedy in the public consciousness, these texts also served as a historiography, albeit with varying degrees of authenticity. Initially written in Arabic, the tradition continued in Persian, and then in Indian languages, starting in the Deccan in Dakhani, and in the north in Hindavi and various local dialects.

As Professor Sajjad Rizvi of Exeter University put it:

“The commemoration of Imam Hussain’s sacrifice at Karbala was performed in literature and art from the earliest times, not least in prose and poetic narratives. There are two main reasons for this: first, the role that literary expression has in conveying moral and spiritual values – story-telling for the pursuit of ethics and moral being; and second, because the aesthetic dimension of the works heightened its affective impact and drew people to those stories. It is through those stories that we make our world, and how we wish to see it and how we would like to live. As the commemorations spread, they took on cultural and literary forms in different spheres and…demonstrated the universality of the message and appeal of one man and his small band of followers and family in the plains of southern Iraq all those centuries ago...Urdu literature is practically unthinkable without the memorialisation of Hussain in Karbala.”

Mourning with the marsiya

Urdu literature has indeed commemorated the tragedy since its beginnings. Ashurnama, written by Raushan Ali in 1680 CE, is one of the earliest compositions in Hindavi related to Muharram. Karbal Katha, written by Fazl Ali Fazli in 1732 CE, is a Dakhani Hindavi translation of Waiz Kashifi’s Persian Rauzatush Shuhada from Safavid Iran. The lyrical prose contains ten accounts to be read out in the mourning assemblies. Professor Ali Nadeem Rezavi of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) told me that portions from the Katha are still read in his hometown of Haswa, Fatehpur (UP), during Muharram.

The most popular among the literature written for the majlis is the marsiya. The word is derived from the Arabic “risa”, and means a great tragedy or lamentation for the departed. It is an elegy, a poem of mourning that has now come to be specifically associated with the tragedy of Karbala.

A marsiya generally consists of six-line units, with a rhyming quatrain and a couplet on a different rhyme. It is characterised by six-line verses in an AA, AA, and BB rhyme scheme. Books of marsiyas are in great demand during Muharram, and in major cities and towns, speciality bookshops selling marsiyas and nauhas do brisk business during this period. My favourite shops are in the Chowk area of Lucknow and Dongiri in Mumbai.

Arguably the most famous marsiyanigar (writer of marsiya) was Mir Babar Ali Anees (1803-1874) of Awadh. Noted Urdu critic and scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi writes, “Mir Anees’ marsiyas are the best pre-modern model in Urdu of narrative-historical, narrative-lyrical and oral-dramatic poetry.” Anees wrote over 213 marsiyas and other verses commemorating the martyrdom. He was also a master in the art of rubayi or quatrain. He could have been as famous as Ghalib had he written ghazals instead of confining himself to marsiyas.

As Dastango Danish Hussain, who, like me, wants to become a marsiyakhwan (“reciter of marsiya”) one day, put it:

“One of the greatest contributions of Mir Anees, Mirza Dabeer, and scores of marsiyanigars of the 18th and 19th century is that they humanised the story of Iman Hussain’s battle for justice. They chose a marsiya, a long epic poem, to depict this monumental battle in the history of Islam. But more than marrying high literature and poetry with storytelling par excellence, they made these historical characters believable, turned them into people like us, and made their pain and suffering universal. Though the historical event occurred in 680 CE in Iraq, the ethos was very Awadhi. The stories became relatable to their milieu and their audiences. In the process, the message of Imam Hussain to be uncompromising in face of injustice percolated not just to the Shias of Awadh and wherever Marsiyagoi was part of Muharram traditions, but to audiences at large.”

A typical majlis will start with the asoz (lamentation), a salaam (“salutation”), and a marsiya ending with a nauha (lament).The soz, salam and even the marsiya are often set to the music of classical ragas that reflect the particular mood the poet is trying to convey. Performing artist and entrepreneur Askari Naqvi, who recites the soz in local bhakha (dialects), quoted Urdu poet Yagana Chengezi (1884-1956): “Krishna ka hoon pujari Ali ka bandahoon (I am a devotee of Krishna and slave of Ali)” and says, “Coming from the same tradition of Hindustaniat, I choose the story I am familiar with and associate with, which is a composition of soz with a mix of avadhi and braj.”

Askari Naqvi

Naqvi recited a soz, a favourite of both mine and his, by Azurda Lakhnavi:

Kahin Bano main sees navaon kahan, mora saiyan to maika bisaargayo
Mori nav bhanvar beech daar gayo aap dubat dubat paar gayo 

Laments Bano, where should I bow my head, my beloved has left me alone
He has left my boat midway in the whirlpool, and crossed over to the other side

This is not just a widow’s despair. It also has Sufi allegories of a devotee crossing over and achieving a union with god. Naqvi has similarly taken the soz and marsiya out of a strictly Muharram setting into a secular environment, connecting it to the pain and suffering of all, particularly the Partition.

Karbala has often been used a metaphor of loss, pain and fight against injustice by many poets in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali associated his mother’s death with the loss and exile borne by Hussain’s sister Zainab. In Karbala: A History of the House of Sorrow, he writes:

“At my mother‘s funeral, a mourner sang one of her favorite Kashmiri elegies given to Zainab, in which her exile is nearly unbearable. Those words now are my mother‘s, for she too was tired, fighting death, from hospital to hospital, from city to city.”

Similarly, Syed Akbar Hyder’s Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory explores how Karbala has provided inspiration in South Asia, where it has become a symbol of both personal identity and non-violent protest. The celebrated author Ismat Chughtai’s last book was on Karbala and has been translated by Tahira Naqvi into English as One Drop of Blood – The Story of Karbala.

Many medieval Arabic maqtals have also been translated into English for the modern reader. These form the base for the prose recitation that often replaces marsiyas in majlises. The prose recitation in a majlis often includes a short sermon on the ethics and moral behaviour set by the Imam. It acts as a moral science lesson, and a source of enlightenment and comfort, especially for children. Thanks to the pandemic, these, too, have moved online.

Learning to wait

This year, I am attending the majlis over Zoom and Instagram, along with millions around the world. It goes a long way in teaching us sabr, one of the lessons of Karbala. The pandemic has brought extreme deprivation and terrible plight to migrant workers. At a time like this, sabr becomes more essential than ever.

Writer, academic and scholar Ali Khan Mahmudabad is one of the fortunate few who have been able to return to his ancestral home. From here, the ancient fort of Qila Mahmudabad, he continues the 200-year old tradition of the Qila’s Muharram assemblies, by broadcasting via Facebook and Instagram. He explained, “Sabr (patience and fortitude) is taught not only by Karbala, by enduring affliction without compromising one’s principles, but also in the aftermath of Karbala, by the manner in which the family of Imam Hussain did not seek revenge, but indeed, continued to preach the path of righteousness.”

I can’t imagine what life would be for the mourners of Hussain if we had not been able to hear the majlis online. As Professor Rezavi said, “Commemorating the tragedy of Karbala is engrained in our psyche. Since I opened my eyes, I have been introduced to Karbala as a ‘festival of truth and righteousness’.”

Sabr is not the only lesson. Rezavi continued, “To me, following the rituals of Muharram is not a religious activity but an activity that demonstrates your will to follow humanity, and shun coercion and dictatorship. Hussain is the symbol of freedom (“hurriyat”), justice (“adl”) and sacrifice (“qurbani”). To me, it is a celebration of life, not death.” He is sad that he cannot go home to his village this year. Accepting it as god’s will, he has been spreading the message of Karbala online.

In my childhood, we would sleep on the floor during the month and lead a simple life, trying to empathise with the hardships endured by Hussain’s family. This year, we witnessed the plight of lakhs of migrant workers as they walked home, from extreme economic distress to deaths due to starvation. Anyone with empathy would find it hard to forget such images.

Though I no longer sleep on the floor during Muharram or otherwise, the life we generally lead during the month is how we have been living during lockdown and other restrictions imposed on us by Covid-19. The pandemic has taught me that there is more to life than material comforts. I don’t think anything will be the same for any of us. Today, the poetry of loss and longing that emerged from the tragedy of Imam Hussain seems more real than ever.

These past few months, I have attended Zoom majlises, not only for Muharram, but for funerals, of which one was due to Covid-19, since a majlis is very much a part of Shia Muslim funeral ceremonies. With the fear of Covid-19 hanging over our heads all the time, this blessing seems more urgent than ever before:

Gham e Hussain ke ilawa koi gham na ho

May you never have any sorrow apart from that of Imam Hussain

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.