Black was the colour of pathos, and I was submerged in it. Women dressed in black sarees and salwar kameez were beating their chests to the chant of ‘Ya Hussain’. The chorus rose to a fevered pitch followed by a sudden silence. In that momentary silence was crystallized generations of mourning. The place – a Shia Muslim neighbourhood in Lucknow; the time – the tenth of Mohorrum. If grief has different shades, one can see it during Mohorrum. While the rest of the world greets its ‘New Year’ with celebrations, the Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, begin Mohorrum, the first month of the Islamic calendar of Hijri, with mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain – son of Hazrat Ali and grandson of Prophet Mohammad. Over 1200 years ago, in the desert of Karbala, in present day Iraq, Imam Hussain and his small band of relatives and supporters sacrificed their lives for Islam.
From the first to tenth of Mohorrum, and sometimes for a longer periods, majlises (the Mulsim counterpart of Satsang) are held day and night in Muslim neighborhoods and Imambadaas where zakirs and zakiras (male and female religious orators) give sermons which climax with the heart wrenching tale of Karbala.
History has seen numerous massacres of innocent people, but the tragedy of Karbala is one of the few where men, women and children voluntarily allowed themselves to be subjected to hunger, thirst, humiliation and death on the burning sands of Karbala because they believed that Imam Hussain stood for righteousness. Little wonder that for over 1200 years Muslims, have been nurturing the tale of Karbala in their hearts like an open wound, lest they should forget the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his followers.
Great spiritual leaders are known to make great sacrifices, but at Karbala, common men and women with infants at their bosom, their hearts and souls aflame with righteousness, chose death rather than evil and weakness. Such was the greatness of Imam Hussain, such was his spiritual power, which could uplift common mortals to heights of supreme courage and sacrifice.
The writings etched on the durgah of sufi saint, Khwaja Garib Nawaz, proclaims in Persian:
Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, deen panaah ast Hussain
Sar daad, na daad dast dar dast-e-yazeed
Haqu-e-binney la ilaahaa ast Hussain
Which loosely transliterates as :
Hussain is the king, the king of kings,
He is righteousness; the guardian of righteousness is he.
Gave his head to Yazid, but his support gave he not,
For Hussain is the witness to the truth of God.
The tragedy of Karbala took place in 680 AD on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq but Karbala has a universal appeal and in today’s climate of violence, it is more relevant than ever. The tragedy of Karbala and its spirit of non-violent resistance and supreme sacrifice has been a source of inspiration to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. The former’s first Salt Satyagrah was inspired by Imam Hussain’s non violent resistance to the tyranny of Yazid. Gandhi is said to have studied the history of Islam and Imam Hussain, and was of the opinion that Islam represented not the legacy of a sword but of sacrifices of saints like Imam Hussain. Nehru considered Karbala to represent humanities strength and determination. According to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, Hussain’s sacrifice indicates spiritual liberation. Munshi Premchand, one of India’s greatest Hindi/Urdu writers, a visionary and reformer, eulogised the tragedy of Karbala in his famous play ‘Karbala’. Premchand’s Karbala was published both in Hindi and Urdu in the 1920s. This was the time when Hindu-Muslim relations were strained and the battle between Hindi and Urdu was raging. Premchand’s Karbala was aimed at both the Hindu and Muslim audience. This play was not just Premchand’s tribute to the martyrs of Karbala but also an attempt at reconciliation of declining Hindu-Muslim relations. In his introduction, Premchand drew parallels between Karbala, Mahabharat and Ramayan.
In the words of a famous Urdu poet Josh Mahlihabaadi:
“Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do,
har qaum pukaraygi hamare hain Hussain”
(Let humanity awake and every tribe will claim Hussain as their own. )
Islam zindaa hota hai har Karbala ke baad”
Which loosely transliterates as:
For Islam resurrects after every Karbala