Marsiya as a Medium of Reform – Part 1

The writer, Hasnain Walji (Dallas, Texas, USA) is an entrepreneur, investor, technologist, and a community volunteer

This article forms part of the series ‘ A Call to Return’ – an initiative to inform and define the message behind the events of Kerbala, its relevance, and connection to life today, for both Shi’a Muslims and the rest of the global population. It is an effort by the writers to cast an apt perspective to a very commonly misunderstood message

The supreme sacrifice of Imam Husain (AS) along with close members of his family and devoted followers in Karbala is recalled every Muharram with utmost veneration. The encouragement by Aimma (AS) for this tradition is well documented. Upon the advent of the month of Muharram Imam Ali Reza (A.S.) said to De’bil, – a poet sincerely devoted to the Ahlul Bayt (AS): 

I desire that you recite for me poetry, for surely, these days (of the month of Muharram) are the days of grief and sorrow, which have passed over us, Ahlul Bayt”

Poetry in the form of elegies (marasi) has traditionally been a potent medium to convey the teachings of the Ahlul Bayt (AS). The genre has produced some of the best works of literature in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. Both the poets and reciters somberly and sincerely conveyed heart-rendering deliveries, befitting the tragedy of Karbala, piecing the hearts of listeners to imbibe the pathos of the event. 

The psychological impact of poetry is well documented in scientific literature. Often moving us to contemplate the world from a different perspective, hearing a great poem stimulates our imaginations.  There is some scientific reasoning where researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the human brain reacts to poetry. They’ve discovered that the human brain seems to be wired to identify the rhymes and rhythms of poetry and distinguish them from ordinary prose.  They’ve also found that poetic imagery actually activates specific areas of the brain and has the power of teleporting us to a different era. Therein lies the power of marsiya writers for us to experience the pathos of Karbala.   

While many other traditional storytelling arts have declined, this oral tradition commemorating Karbala has survived over the centuries.  Sadly, in the last decade, in some quarters, the original ethos seems to have been lost to ‘performances’, oftentimes mimicking the present-day entertainment industry, blunting us to the real essence of such elegiac poetry. Our somber and melancholy recitals have morphed into ostentatious video productions with flashy promotions, each reciter trying to outdo the other, encouraged by fan-like following of reciters and organizers eager to draw bigger crowds.  Before it gets out of hand, reciters, organizers and most importantly we as the community need to reflect on the very essence and purpose of marsiya and nauha, by revisiting the origin, evolution, and how this genre has been an instrument for social justice and reform.  

History indicates the very first elegy, relating to the tragedy of Karbala, was recited by Sayyida Zainab (SA) in the aftermath of Imam Husein’s (AS) martyrdom.  Indeed, this practice became a powerful medium of tabligh, originating right in the house of Yazid. However, the essence and spirit of the elegiac poetry go back to the historical and social setting in the pre-Islamic Arab and Persian eras, where human sentiments and pathos were expressed in the form of marsiya.  

Needless to state, Persian and Arabic languages have had a considerable influence on the evolution of the Urdu language and literature. In addition to rendering poetic beauty to the language, Urdu marsiya has become a powerful medium of religious, cultural, political, and intellectual expression for Shia Muslims with roots in the Sub-continent and has transcended to North America and the rest of the Western world. 

In the fifteenth century, the Safavid rulers of Iran patronized poets who wrote about the tragedy of Karbala.  The most well-known 15th century Persian marsiya writer was Muhtasham Kashani whose works were emulated by poets in the Indian subcontinent. The Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi (1489 CE – 1686 CE) dynasties of South India (Deccan), patronized marsiya writers composing the Dakani language.  Upon their annexation by the Mughals, (1526 CE – 1857 CE) the Nawabs of Awadh, (1722 CE – 1856 CE) encouraged the development marsiya genre in North India.

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