Mourning on Muharram

in Overview
Published on: 19 September 2018

Syed Ejaz Hussain

Syed Ejaz Hussain is Professor, Department of History,
Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal, and Chair of Contemporary Indian Studies, University of West Indies.


Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, holds a significant place in Islam due to the legends and history associated with it. The 10th of Muharram, or Ashura, marks several prominent events in Islam. It is said that the first rain fell on the earth on the 10th of Muharram; Adam and Eve were pardoned and they appeared on the earth on this day; heaven (bihisht) and hell (duzakh) were created on this day; God’s throne (arsh) and the seat of judgment (kursi), guarded tablets (lauh-i mahfuz), the divine pen (qalam), fate or destiny (taqdeer), life (hayat) and death (maut) were also created by God on Ashura. Due to all these reasons Muharram was an exalted and revered month and was also known as Muharram-ul haram or the sacred month in which all kinds of war and quarrels are prohibited and forbidden. Observing a fast on the 10th of Muharram was a general practice before it was shifted to the month of Ramzan (Sharif 1972:151–52). However, Muharram received a completely new orientation and character after the martyrdom of Imam Husain, and the brutal killing of his thirsty and hungry family members including his six-month-old infant on the banks of the river Euphrates at Karbala by the army of Yazid I, the son of Ummayad I (602–80 CE) on Ashura or the 10th Muharram, AH 61 (October 10, 680 CE). Imam Husain, the grandson of the last Prophet and son of Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, is seen as an epitome of righteousness who lived by example and left behind, as a legacy, a lesson for humankind by sacrificing his life in his fight against evil forces to establish the truth. Muharram thence came to signify the victory of truth over untruth.


The Tragedy of Karbala


It is necessary to look closely at the Karbala massacre to better understand the significance of Muharram in the lives of Muslims across the world. The story goes thus. When Muawiya, the son of Abu Sufiyan and the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, died on 22nd Rajab, AH 60 (26 April, 680 CE), Yazid I (647–683), his son, was named his successor as a result of the machinations by Muawiya during his lifetime. Yazid was ‘both cruel and treacherous, his depraved nature knew no pity or justice. His pleasures were as degrading as his companions were low and vicious. He insulted the ulema and mujtahids by dressing up a monkey as a learned divine and carrying the animal mounted on a beautifully caparisoned Syrian donkey wherever he went. Drunken riotousness prevailed at court, and was naturally imitated in the streets of the capital’ (Ali 1979:83). He had also ridiculed the fundamental principles and teachings of Islam and mocked even the principle of wahi or revelations of the holy Quran. This was extremely painful and wholly unacceptable for Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammed, who was revered as the most pious spiritual head and rightful successor to the caliphate. Imam Husain was determined not to acknowledge the appointment of Yazid to the post of Khalifa. He deemed all the teachings and principles of Islam, such as piousness, tolerance, compassion, justice, humility, modesty, nobility of character, difference between haram (prohibited) and halal (permitted), completely altered and destroyed. On the other hand, Yazid took all possible steps to terrorise and force Imam Husain to obtain his bai’ah or pledge of allegiance without which his caliphate was supposed to be illegitimate and illegal.


Yazid’s succession and his political designs against Imam Husain compelled the Imam to take all possible measures to save the real Islam, its teachings and principles. Imam Husain left Medina, his ancestral home, on 28th Rajab, AH 60 (May 2, 680), took refuge in  Mecca. Meanwhile, Yazid began to adopt all kinds of pressure tactics, force and intrigues to seek the allegiance of Imam Husain. Those who supported Imam Husain were pressurised and threatened to break their allegiance to the Imam. One such instance took place when several people of Kufa, a city near Karbala in Iraq, sent letters to Imam Husain expressing their allegiance to the Imam and inviting him to guide and lead them. On receiving many letters, Imam Husain sent his cousin, Muslim ibn Aqeel, to Kufa. When Muslim reached Kufa, he was received well by the people of Kufa; huge numbers of people flocked to him and extended their support. But Yazid’s army stationed there threatened them with harsh punishments if they continued to extend their allegiance to the Imam’s representative. As a result, Muslim was deserted and finally arrested and brutally executed by the army of Kufa’s newly appointed governor Ubaidullah ibn Ziyad on 9th Zilhijja, AH 60 (September 10, 680). His severed head and body were thrown down from the roof of the palace. Soon Muslims’s two young sons, Muhammad and Ibrahim, were also ruthlessly martyred. When Imam Husain was leaving Mecca for Kufa, he came to know about the horrific murder of his cousin and his two young sons (Howard 1990:157–63; Sharif 1972:156). However, Imam Husain continued his march further. On the way, whoever asked him his objective he said that he desired to establish ‘amr bil maroof wa nahi ‘anil munkar’, i.e. to enjoin what is good and approved, and forbid what is evil and disapproved (Quran, Surah al-Imran, 3:110: ‘you are the best of peoples if you enjoin good and forbid evil’). On his way, Imam Husain was intercepted by Hurr, a commander of Yazid’s army. Hurr, who commanded a 1,000-strong cavalry, asked the Imam for water as his soldiers were terribly thirsty. In response, the Imam asked his men to supply water to the soldiers and animals of Hurr’s troop. But Hurr did not show any mercy and drove him to Karbala on the bank of the river Farat or Euphrates (Husain 1986:235).


Imam Husain arrived at the fateful plain of Karbala on 2nd Muharram, AH 61 (October 2, 680), with his very small number of followers and very close family members, where he installed his tents close to the bank of the river Euphrates. Soon a huge army of Yazid under the command of Umar ibn Sa’ad also arrived at Karbala, and forced the Imam to shift his camp away from the bank of the river for which Imam agreed despite the displeasure and unwillingness of his small group of supporters. Water supply to Imam Husain was cut off by Yazid’s army and a strong garrison was placed around the river so that none of the Imam’s supporters could fetch water. From the seventh day of Muharram there was not a single drop of water in the camps of Imam Husain. All attempts to fetch water failed. Young and old, small children and the pious ladies remained thirsty and hungry all along. The unimaginable scorching heat increased their difficulties enormously. On the 7th of Muharram, Ubaidullah ibn Ziyad, the Governor of Kufa, sent a letter to Umar ibn Sa’ad commanding him to take serious measures in order to prevent the Imam and his followers from getting water from the Euphrates. Five hundred extra Yazidi troops were specially dispatched to garrison the banks of the river. Shortly another letter was sent by Ziyad to Sa’ad asking him to take further action to force the Imam to surrender. Ibn Ziyad wrote:


… I did not send you to Husain to hold off from fighting him, to give him time, to promise him peace and preservation, to be an intercessor on his behalf with him. Therefore, see that, if Husain and his followers, submit to my authority and surrender, you can send them to me in peace. If they refuse then march against them to kill and disfigure them, for they deserve that. If Husain is killed, make the horses trample his chest and back, for he is a disobedient rebel, an evil man who splits the community. Not that I think he would feel any harm once he is dead, but I vowed to do this if I killed him. If you carry out our order concerning him, we will give you the reward due to he who heeds and obey. If you refuse, then withdraw from our command and our army. Leave the army to Shimr ibn Ziljaushan. We have given him our authority. Peace be with you. (Howard 1990:110)


Even in this extreme difficulty, grief and the hardship of thirst, hunger and burning heat, incredibly Imam Husain was more firm and resolute than a rock. His family members, ladies, children and followers showed unimaginable devotion and conviction. Finally, Ibn Sa’ad pressed upon the Imam to decide the matter in the battlefield. On Friday, the 10th of Muharram, AH 61 (October 10, 680), Imam Husain faced the 40,000-strong Yazidi army with his small band of supporters, a total of 71 in number, both old and young, which included Muslim ibn Ausajah (aged 80), Zohair ibn Qa’in, Habib ibn Mazahir, Saeed ibn Abdullah, Nafe ibn Helal, Burair Hamadani, Hazrat Abbas (his brother), Ali Akbar (his elder son aged 20), Hazrat Qasim (his nephew aged 12) and other family members and ashab or friends. Just before the battle began, Hurr defected the Yazidi camp and joined Imam Husain with his brother, two sons and a slave. Before the battle the Imam gave a last sermon to the army of the opposite camp and said:


O people! Do not be hasty, listen to my words. If you  accept my offerings of peace and be  just to me then you will be the most fortunate of people. Look who I am! Will torturing and killing me give you a pleasure? Am I not your beloved Prophet’s grandson? Am I not the son of Ali, one of the very first to accept Islam? Can you not remember the sayings of the Prophet regarding me and my brother that we will be the  chiefs of Paradise? Will you still go ahead and shed my blood? (Khatir 1999:179; Howard 1990:123-24)


But the enemies did not pay heed to what the Imam said. Umar Sa’ad then led the assault against the Imam. By mid-day, many of the Imam’s supporters, who fought the enemy so courageously, were ruthlessly slaughtered. And even in this situation, the Imam did not forget to offer the noon prayer. Soon Aun and Muhammd, the two young sons of his sister Zainab, Qasim and Abdullah, his young nephews, Abbas Alamdar, the standard bearer of the Imam, his three brothers and finally Ali Akbar, his young son aged 18, were martyred one after the other. Qasim’s body was badly mutilated by the hooves of horses. Abbas’ two shoulders were slashed and his head and body were terribly wounded; Akbar had many wounds on his body and a spear broke and remained embedded in his chest. Their deaths shattered the Imam. Ultimately the Imam took his infant child, Ali Asghar, aged only six months and came before the enemies to ask for some water for the child. But this humble request was responded with  arrows, which instantly killed the child in the Imam’s arms. With heavy heart, the Imam buried the child under the burning sand and came back to the camp of his ladies to offer his last salaam to them. He embraced his 23-year-old sick son, Zain-ul Abidin, and kissed his loving seven-year-old daughter, Sakina. The Imam then consoled everybody and bid farewell to all with grief and remorse. Suffering from distress and shock, weighed down by weakness and loneliness, the Imam came to the battlefield one last time and faced the enemies with ferocious bravery. No one had courage to come close to him. Ultimately he was surrounded by the blows of arrow-shots, swords and spears. Inflicted with many wounds, Imam Husain fell from the horse and ultimately his head was severed and raised on the point of a spear. His body was run over by horses and badly mutilated (Khatir 1999:188; Howard 1990:161; Husain 1986:252–91). After this the tents of his ladies were ransacked and burnt and all their belongings, even head-scarfs and chadar or veils, were snatched. Next day, on the 13th of Muharram the ladies and children along with the ailing son of Imam Husain were detained by the enemies and taken to Kufa and Damascus and paraded without any mercy and respect. The Imam’s daughter, Sakina, passed away in a prison in Damascus. Finally, the heartbroken ladies and other members of the Imam’s family reached Medina on 8th  in a very miserable condition after losing their near and dear ones in the tragedy of Karbala. The great Urdu poet Iqbal sums up the repercussions of this unfortunate incident in so many words:


Gharib o sadah o rangin hai dastān i haram

Nihayet uski Husain ibtada’ hai Ismai’l


(The story of Islam is simple but colourful;

it began with Ismail and ended with Husain)


Muharram and ‘Azadāri (Mourning) Rituals in India


The Battle of Karbala has left an indelible and unforgettable mark on the horizon of Islam and human civilisation. No such instance of selfless sacrifice to this scale and magnitude is found in human memory. Even after a long period of 1400 years, the tragedy of Sayyid ush shuhada or the Lord of martyrs—Imam Husain—continues to appeal to the people and nations irrespective of their differences of religion caste, creed, region and language. All the sects and sections of the Muslim society today believe that Yazid had strayed from the path of his (rightly-guided) predecessors and that Imam Husain offered great sacrifice to save Islam. In this connection, a popular rubai’ or quarantine of the great Chishti Sufi of Ajmer, Khwaj Muinuddin Chisthi (AD 1141–1236) is oft quoted:


Shah ast Husain, Badshāh ast Husain

Deen as Husain, deen panāh ast Husain

Sar dād na dād dast dar dast-e Yazid

Haqqa ke bina-i La Ilāh ast Husain


Spiritual leader is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain

Faith is Hussain, guardian of faith is Hussain

Offered his head and not the hand to Yazid

 Indeed, Hussain is the foundation of La-Ilāh

[i.e. the declaration that none but God is Absolute and Almighty]


Today, Muharram is observed all over the world, such as in parts of USA, Europe and Asia, in addition to the Middle East and South Asia. Muharram is specially observed by the Shia Muslims, though a large number of Sunni Muslims and Sufis also observe and participate in it. Muharram begins with the sighting of the moon of Muharram. The imambaras or centres of preaching Islam used by the Shias, also known as imambargah, ashurkhana or husainia, are made ready at the sight of the new moon. Tazia, zarih (replica of Imam Husain’s tomb), tabut (cenotaph of Imam Husain/Hazrat Ali Akbar), alam (standard of Hazrat ‘Abbas), jhula (cradle of Hazrat Ali Ashghar), menhdi, dola (relates to Hazrat Qasim), mashk (leather-bag for carrying water), tughra and several other tabarrukat or relics are arranged and placed in the imambaras. Some of the old and traditional imambaras used to have a separate high platforms called shahnashin (royal seat) where most of the relics are kept for ziyarat (pilgrimage) of the visitors. Women assemble at the imambara and break their glass bangles and don black garments as a sign of mourning in commemoration of the tragedy of Karbala. Laughter, cooking good food, buying new clothes or any other item, participating in marriage party or holding any such party at home are strictly avoided during this month (Hollister 1988:174).


Soz (Musical composition of dirges)


From 1st to 10th Muharram majlises or mourning assemblies are organised in all the imambaras and even in homes. A mourning assembly usually begins with soz or dirges. It is based on several musical notes like Raga Bhairavi, Raga Gandhari, Raga Bihag, Raga Deosakh, Raga Pilu, Raga Barwa, Raga Lalit, Raga Gaud Sarang, Raga Asavari, Raga Khamaj, Raga Dhanasree and others. Some tones became especially famous for soz and it was called Husaini Bhairavi or Husaini Raga. Soz was recited by a sozkhwan or soz-reciter without any musical instrument and the performance is known as sozkhwani. It is also in performed in the khayal style to evoke grief and pathos. Sometimes it is rendered in a high-pitched tone by five or three persons flanking both sides of a sozkhwan sitting on farsh-i aza (carpet spread on the floor of an imambara for mourning purpose). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, soz or sozkhwani was an important part of the majlises but its total presentation was short and it was treated as an introductory component of a majlis.   



Roza-khwani (Sermon Delivery)


Roza-khwani or sermons delivered by a designated orator called zakir or khatib happened to be the main part of the Muharram majlises. Zakri or khitabat is organised in all big imambaras. But zakri or the art of oratory does not mean simply recounting the tragedy of Karbala. An orator designed for the purpose was supposed to be a person conversant in Islamic studies and philosophy. He used to begin his speech with reciting verses from the Holy Quran. This recital is known as khutba or the introductory expression which included the praising words for the last prophet and his pious family or ahle bait. Zakri entails a long speech and the orators select a topic and unwrap the details gradually. They end the speech by narrating the tragedy of Karbala in such a way that people are moved to tears. On the other hand, hadīs-khwani involves reciting the written or printed word from a related book. Roza-khwani or hadis-khwani both are delivered sitting on a minbar or pulpit which had minimum three steps and maximum six, eight or twelve steps. Syed Najmul Hasan (1863–1938) of Amroha, founder of Jamia Nazmia (1890), a leading madrasa in Lucknow, and Syed Sibte Hasan (1912–1986), also known as Khatīib-i a’zam or ‘ the great orator’, was the leading zakir who perfected the art of zakri or khitabat in the early 20th century. Earlier Syed Dildar Ali Nasirabadi (1753–1820) also known as Ghufranm’āb (Heavenly abode) was considered to be a great Shi’i scholar and orator. Syed Ali Naqi Naqvi (1905–1988), popularly known as Naqqan Saheb, was also a leading scholar of this lineage. Apart from these Lucknow-based scholars, many other zakirs and khatibs with sound knowledge on Islam came up in many parts of undivided India and abroad and became famous especially for their oratorial skills (Jones 2015:82–85).


Marsia or Marthia (Long elegiac poem)


Marsia or marthia is a long elegiac poem generally recited sitting on a minbar or pulpit. Marsia is always presented in taht-ul lafz, i.e. the plain form of presentation with measured stress on key words. It was usually not recited in tarannum or chanting like a ghazal. The term ‘marsia’ was derived from the Arabic word risa that means a great tragedy or lamentation. In Arabic and Persian marsia was composed to lament the death of a person or hero and it was generally short. But in Urdu, marsia grew as a long elegiac poem which continued for an hour or two. Mir Babur Ali Anis (1803–1874) and Mirza Salamat Ali Dabir (1803–1875) were the two top poets who not only composed several marsias but used to recite it as well and were especially invited for the purpose to Hyderabad, Patna, Lahore and many other places, apart from Lucknow where they resided. Marsia became popular in the literati of North India, Deccan and Lahore. Sanskrit and Hindi terms and idioms were used along with Persian and Arabic in the Urdu marsias. It is also argued that the narrative style and rhythmic presentation of a marsia was based on the Ramcharitmanas composed by Tulsidas (Zaidi 1986:20). In one of his top marsias narrating the martyr of Hazrat Abbas, Mir Anis begins with the first band (six-line poem) in this way:


Āmad hai Karbala ke nayastan mein Shr ki

deorhi se chal chuki has sawāri dilr ki

jasūs keh rahe hain nahi rāh phr ki

ghash ā geya hai Shah ko ye hai wajha dr ki

Khusbu hai dasht, bād-i bahāri qarīb hai

hoshiyār ghafilo ke sawāri qarīb hai


Enters the Lion into the desert of Karbala

the brave mount has left his dwelling

spies say there’s no question of stay-back

Lord (Husain) has fainted, this may have caused delay

The desert is fragrant, breeze is near

Be aware o! Ignorants the mount is near


Nauha or Dirge Chanting with Chest-beating                             


Nauha or chanting of dirge with regular matam or chest-beating with hand or hath ka matam is the last rite of any majlis. It is a poem in Urdu and South Asian languages like Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Sindhi and other languages. Nauha is generally composed in such a way that words chosen and presentation as a whole could move listeners to deep sorrow and tears (Mills Claus and Diamond 2003:440). So nuanced are the images conjured up in a nauha recitation that they arouse in the listeners the same feelings of cruel agony, pain and torture a martyr of Karbala had to suffer at the hands of the Yazidi soldiers. The first band from the famous nauha composed by famous poet Najm Afandi (1893–1975) of Agra, is as follows:


Zulm jo musafir par ho geya na bhulenge

uski tashna-kami ka majra na bhulenge

ibtada na bhulenge inteha na bhulenge

Fatma ke peyare ka martaba na bhulenge

jo Husain par guzri who jafa na bhulenge

bhul jainge sab kuch Karbala na bhulenge


(We’ll not forget the brutality afflicted on the émigré [Husain]

We’ll not forget the tale of his thirstiness

We’ll forget neither the beginning nor the end

We’ll forget not the rank de’ honor of Fatma’s darling son

We’ll not forget the cruelty caused to Husain

We’ll forget everything but not [the tragedy of] Karbala)


Fire-walk Matam, Chained-knives Matam and Sword Matam     


Apart from the chest-beating while chanting nauhas other forms of matam like fire-walk matam, chained-knives matam and sword matam are also performed in some places. Fire-walk or aag ka matam or angara matam is generally held on the night of the 9th Muharram that is known as shab-i ashur. Flameless fire is made ready in an area of about 15 x 6 feet in open ground and the young people and old alike walk upon it chanting nauhas and beating their chests. Chained-knives or zanjeeri mātam is also popular in some places on the night of 8th or 9th or 10th of Muharram. Sword mātam or shamsheer zani or qama zani or qame ka matam is also held on the day of Ashura. However, given the dangers associated these types of matams, they are not very commonly held in most countries. Fire-walk matam, chained-knives matam and sword matam are also held on the day of arba’een or chehlum, i.e. the day marking the completion of the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Husain.


Majlis-i Sham-i Ghariban


Majlis-i sham-i ghariban is held on the night following the day of Ashura in memory of the homeless, tired, hungry and thirsty family members and children of Imam Husain. This majlis is very sorrowful and the grief, hardship and angst of Imam Husain is presented in such a way that all the participants are moved to tears. This majlis is held in one or two places in big cities and at one place in small towns. Allama Rasheed Turabi (1908–1973) of Hyderabad and Maulana Kalbe Sadiq (d. 1986) of Lucknow were famous as zakir-i sham-i ghariban. The majlis of sham-i ghariban generally ends with the popular salaam-i akhir. A last salutation to Imam Husain composed and recited by Sayed Nasir Jahan is as follows:


Bachey to agley baras hum hain aur yeh ghum hai

jo chal base to yeh apna salaam-i akhir hai


(If I remain alive this mourning will be observed next year

 if I am no more, this is my last salaam [to Imam Husain])


Muharram and Popular Culture


Sunnis Muslims and Hindus took active part in Muharram before the Partition of India in 1947. Not only did they offer niaz or special food offerings and sabeel or stands for offering sherbet or drinking water particularly in a julus or procession of Muharram, they also made mannat or honour-vows to ward off some difficulties in life like recovery from prolonged illness, marriage of their daughters, getting a job or passing in the examination, solving some long disputes or asking for any other favour. Sunni Muslims and Hindus built tazia which were once 20 or 30 feet in height. Hindus also organised majlises and contributed money for distributing tabarruk or food offerings. Hindus were generally hired to carry taziehs. Muharram was sometimes compared and seen as equivalent to Durga Puja. Muharram, like Durga Puja, lasts 10 days. On the 10th day of Durga Puja Hindus do the visarjan or submerging of the figures of goddess Durga into the river or seas, and the Muslims do the same by casting the tazia into waterbodies or by burying them. Both Muharram and Durga Puja signify the victory of truth over untruth. According to Mushirul Hasan, ‘in popular belief, [Husain] was Ram of Ayodhya…his brother Abbas personified Lakshman… sister Zainab and wife Umi-i Kulsoom were cast in the image of Sita…Yazid, the Umayyad ruler and Husain’s persecutor, was Ravan’ (Hasan 1997:119).  A popular Hindi nauha composed by Devi Rup Kumari goes:


Hai aj bhi zamane mein charcha Husain ka

chalta hai sari duniya mein sikka Husain ka

Ravan ki tarha mit geya duniya se tu Yazid

lekin dilon pe ab bhi hai qabza Husain ka


Even to this day, Husain’s name is well known

Husain’s name is common currency for all mankind

O! Yazid you’re erased from the world like Ravan

But Husain still rules the hearts


Muharram and Processions


The first procession of Menhdi, commemorating the marriage of Hazrat Qasim was organised on 7th Muharram in Jaunpur in 1899 (Jones 2015:98). ‘Alam-e shab-e a’shūr was one of the oldest processions of alam started in Lucknow by Qaisar Husain Rizvi in 1926. The julus used to be a significant part of the azadari of Muharram in other towns and cities in South Asia. Tazia, alam, tabut, menhdi along with na’al sahib, dhal sahib were popular processions. These processions are still widely organised on the occasion of Muharram and the Chehlum of Imam Husain in South Asia and other countries. Some very heavy alams built of pure gold are still preserved in imambaras of Hyderabad, Murshidabad, Lucknow, Rampur and many other places. They tell the tale of the time of nawabi rule in Awadh, Bengal, Hyderabad, Mysore and so on. Another very significant procession was the julus of zuljanah or the Imam Husain’s horse which showed its loyalty and faith in many ways on the day of the tragedy of Karbala. Both Hindus and Muslims revere this horse, a designated horse in the city which is not used for riding throughout the year, and offer it food and fruits as a gesture of thanks.


Famous Ashurkhanas


The oldest imambara or ashurkhana in India was built by a ruler of the Qutub Shahi dynasty, Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah, at the close of the 14th century. Bara Imambara, Chota Imambara, Imambara of Ghufranma’ab at Lucknow, Hazarduari Imambara of Murshidabad, Hughli Imambara, Imam Bandi Begum Imambara, Patna, Imambara of Nawab of Rampur and many other big imambaras located in Hyderabad, Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Dhaka and Lahore are witness to the devotion of the people and space given to annual azadari rituals during Muharram in India and abroad.




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