When Pathos Turns to Performance

The writer, Hasnain Walji (Texas, USA) is an entrepreneur, investor, technologist, and community volunteer. Born in Moshi, Tanzania, he is a researcher, speaker, and writer involved in developing professional training and e-learning applications in nutrition and integrative healthcare. He is President of Integrative Quest, Inc which specializes in formulating and marketing probiotics. He has authored 26 books, all written from a naturopathic perspective, endorsed by the Natural Medicine Society of England, and translated into several languages including Spanish, French, German, Turkish, Hungarian, Portuguese, and Chinese. A contributor to several journals on environmental and Third World consumer issues, he was the founder and editor of The Vitamin Connection – an International Journal of Nutrition, Health and Fitness, and Healthy Eating. He has written a script for a six-part television series, The World of Vitamins.

His institutional work for the Muslim community spans over 30 years, Since 1976 he has served the World Federation of KSI Muslim Communities, as Secretary-General, Vice-President, and then as President of this august body. He is also a founding director and the Current President of the Mulla Asgher Memorial Library and Resource Center (MARC) in Toronto. He has served as editor of Shia International and Living Islam Magazines and is a regular contributor to a number of Islamic Journals. He has traveled worldwide, lecturing and reciting Majlises in English, Urdu, and Gujarati.

He has a special interest in the History of the Khojas and currently working on a Documentary called The Khojas – A journey of faith. He is also a founding director of a Social Justice Institute called Penmanship For Peace focusing on the plight of persecuted minorities including the Shia in Pakistan and part of a team compiling a volume on Shia Genocide in Pakistan. His passion is in increasing interfaith understanding to make this world a better place for his five grandchildren. Dr Walji established MARC. He served as the Secretary-General of WF. Dr Hasnian Walji served as the vice president of WF during Mullah’s leadership in the capacity of the president of the World Federation.


Karbala has many lessons in the strength of human spirit as well as the failing of the nafs. The contrast between those who want this world and those who sought the pleasure of God couldn’t be starker. Imam Hussein’s words amplify that contrast of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. 

O’ Allah! What has gained the one who has not found You,

and what has lost the one who has found You?

(Bihar al-Anwar, vol.95, p.226)

Karbala and the mourning rituals also have some contrast seem in that context. Since the word ‘celebrity’ has been included in the title of this series it is with utmost humility that venture to reflect on current sate of affairs with regards to the art of the marsiya, nawha and other  genres of poetry inspired by Karbala. 

The supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussein along with close members of his family and his devoted followers in Karbala is recalled every Muharram with utmost veneration. According to traditions, Imam Ali Reza (A.S.) said to De’bil, (a poet sincerely devoted to the Ahlul bayt): 

“I desire that you recite for me poetry (Elegies), for surely, these days (of the month of Muharram)

 are the days of grief and sorrow, which have passed over us, Ahlul Bayt”

In keeping with the above saying of the Imam Reza (AS), elegy recital is part and parcel of the commemorations during the month of Muharram.  History indicates the very first elegy was recited by Janab-e-Zainab (SA), in the aftermath of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom,  became a powerful medium of tabligh, originating right in the house of Yazid. 

Among the bereaved women of the Banu Hashim, it was Lady Umm al-Banin, the mother of Hazrat Abu’l-Fadhl al-Abbas who used to recite elegies for her sons at the Baqi‘ Cemetery, while the ladies  of Medina gathered around her and wept. Due to the Umayyad policy of repression, the elegists of the martyrs of Karbala’ were fewer during the Umayyads compared to that of the ‘Abbasids. It gained more prominence during the time of Imam as-Sadiq (AS ) conditions were  conducive for the Imam to revive Elegies for Imam al-Hussain (AS).

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 consequently became a source emulation for some poets in the Indian subcontinent. Needless to state, Persian and Arabic languages have always had a considerable influence on the evolution of Urdu language and literature. 

In addition to rendering poetic beauty to the language, Urdu marsiya have become a medium of religious, cultural, political and intellectual expression.  In the subcontinent the Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi  (1489 CE – 1686 CE) dynasties of South India (Deccan), patronized marsiya writers and encouraged poets of the time to have  the Karbala tragedy in the  Daccani language.  After the kingdoms of the Deccan were annexed by the Mughals, (1526 CE – 1857 CE) the center of Urdu literature moved to the North when the Nawabs of Awadh, (1722 CE – 1856 CE) provided the patronage for the marsiya genre in North India. Amongst the most notable of the marsia reciters of the era were Mir Anis and Mirza Dabeer.

Anis and Dabir

Hailing from  a very distinguished family of poets,  Mir Babar Ali Anis (1802-74 C.E.) became known for the simplicity, originality, eloquence, and fluency of his marsiyas,  not to mention his personal probity.  His grandfather was Mir Hasan, well-known for his masnavi, Sihr ul- Bayan and his father was Mir Khaliq, a renowned composer of marsiyas.  

Coming form a less distinguished family,  Mirza Salamat ‘Ali Dabir (1803-75 C.E.) also lived in Lucknow.  In contrast to the simplicity of Anis, Dabir’s ethical rendering is portrayed as deep and elaborate.  Although Anis and Dabir  were often portrayed as great poetic rivals,  Dabir’s tribute  on Anise’s death, demonstrates  the respect they had for each other.  In this tribute Dabir said that just as  “Mt. Sinai was bereft of Moses  so was the pulpit without Anis.” 

Dabir’s words were fearless and had a major impact on the rulers of the time. In a marsiya which he recited in the presence of Navab Ghazi Uddin Hyder, he warned the ruler of Avadh to be careful of being unjust 

When the day of judgment will arrive,

tyrant kings will be the first ones to be called (by Allah),

they will be asked about fairness and justice

It is said that the Nawab was so moved by these moralistic verses, that he did not sleep the whole night and in the morning, he instructed his minister to heed Dabir’s advice. 

More recently, Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), amongst others used the events surrounding Karbala as the base for their socio-religious reform message. Renowned as “Shair-i inqilab,” he effectively used the medium of marsiya to publicize that Karbala is a model for revolutionary struggle for liberation:  

O Josh, call out to the Prince of Karbala (Hussein),

cast a glance at this twentieth century,

look at this tumult, chaos, and the earthquake.

At this moment there are numerous Yazids, and yesterday there was only one.

From village to village might has assumed the role of truth,

Once again, Human feet are in chains

By portraying the `anti-Muslim’ forces as being on a par with the tyranny of Muawiya and Yazid, Josh used the medium of the marsiya to demonize the British and the hypocritical politicians who were about to replace the British.   

This evolution of the genre of elegiac poems continues to reverberate the walls of Huseiniyas from New Zeeland to Vancouver, when not an hour in the 24 house cycle does not have these elegies recited somewhere on this planet. This is the power and the enormity of this genre, unequalled by any other form of poetry just as is the Arbaeen walk, unequalled by any other large gathering of humanity in the world. 

Sadly, in the past few decades, a new class of these elegies reciters has emerged. Far from  the profundity of Dabeer and the etiquette of Dabeer, where the center of focus  was on heroes of Karbala, drawing us closer to Allah, today the focus is on the style and the flamboyance of the Elegies reciter. These are today’s Hussein’s (AS) celebrities, with posters and pictures akin to movie stars, performing with celebrity style pomp and circumstance,  with the best of sound and light effects,  vying with each other to  bring out the best of their own personas. The makeup, the costumes, the hairdos, the background graphics makes good television,  but can hardly  reflect  the essence  of mourning for Imam Hussein (AS). The productions we see today resemble popular media where pathos turns to celebrity admiration, and some cases with our young waiting at the doors of the Huseiniyas for autographs! 

This truly begs the question, how can the sanctity and the somberness of a mourning elegy be maintained when the attention seems to on the artist rather than the content?

The patrons and organizers who enable these ‘performances; devoir of solemnity of the mourning assemblies would do well to read the poetry of Josh, called Zakiron se Khitab – a memorable poem he wrote pointing those who commercialized the sacred rituals of azadari. He wrote: 

… Khune ahle Bait me – lukme ko jo tar karta hai tuN

… that every morsel you eat is dipped in the blood of the Ahlul Bait.

Today, this powerful genre of elegiac poetry (Elegies) can offer us a potent  medium for expressing social, religious, and intellectual issues of our time.  It is important to ensure that the upcoming generations are familiar with this art form. Not only continue will they connect them to their faith and but also to the culture of their lineages. It may even inspire them to replicate the process of developing Marsiya in the English, just as the early Urdu marsiya writers were inspired by the Persian elegies poetry. After all, the message Karbala is universal, not bound by any language nor a specific era. Anything to Detract form this noble endeavors would be a grave loss. 

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