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The eternal metaphor

The significance of tragedy of Karbala

The eternal metaphor

Tragedy of Karbala stands un-paralleled for its significance as a historical event for Muslims belonging to any denomination. Abolition of Khilafat got the stamp of confirmation with Imam Hussain’s martyrdom, on Oct 10, 680, A.D. (10th Muharram, 61 Hijra) by Yazid’s forces and dynastic rule became the established political norm that lasted in the Muslim world until 1924, when the institution of Khilafat was done away with in Turkey.

Centre of Muslim political power had already been shifted from Arabian Peninsula to Damascus (in Syria) with the commencement of Amir Muawiya’s reign. Ever since that transformation, Arabia remained on the margins of mainstream Muslim politics and mostly the process of evolution of the Muslim civilization and its advancement took place in other regions.

After the tragedy of Karbala, Muslims experienced a new cultural synthesis, with various strands converging in Syria and Iraq. In these strands, the dominant ones had their respective origins in regions other than Arabia. Social norms intrinsic to Arabia were a subdued component of that cultural synthesis. All such ramifications of what transpired in the wake of the Karbala tragedy have been the subject of debate by historians and scholars of Islam for the last 15 centuries. Thousands of pages have so far been inked to narrate and re-narrate that event. The whole year round, Imam Hussain’s sacrifice is recounted by zakireen, casting tremendous impact on listeners. Still the tragedy that took place at Karbala so many centuries ago is commemorated with such zeal and devotion that suggests beyond any doubt about its abiding impact which hasn’t worn off despite the lapse of 14 centuries. The outpouring of emotions during the first ten days of Muharram provides ample testimony of people’s sensitivity towards that event.

The unique metaphorical significance that it holds sets it apart from other events in the entire Muslim history for the sufferings that the grandson of the Holy Prophet with a handful of his companions were subjected to, and the sacrifice the martyrs of Karbala made and upheld the cause of truth and righteousness. Here the quote of renowned 19th century British scholar, Thomas Carlyle seems very pertinent, “The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Husain and his companions were rigid believers in God. They illustrated that the numerical superiority does not count when it comes to the truth and the falsehood. The victory of Husain, despite his minority marvels me.”

The ‘victory of Husain’ that Carlyle mentions refers to the judgement that history pronounced as to who was the victor in Karbala, Imam Hussain surely was the victor. History’s yardstick to judge people is starkly different, its verdict is usually revealed after many years and in certain cases after several centuries. Troika currently at the helm of Pakistan (Army Chief, Chief Justice and the Prime Minister) should be adequately sensitive about that fact. History has adjudged Malik Ghulam Muhammad, Sikander Mirza, Yahyah Khan and Zia ul Haq negatively for the roles they had played in their respective capacities. Reading history and learning from it is absolutely vital for our leadership.

Reverting to the tragedy of Karbala, it is indisputable that there is no dearth of tragedies in Muslim history. The detailed description of tragedies befalling Muslims in every epoch may require many volumes. Three of the four rightly guided Caliphs were assassinated. Reading the graphic detail of the way Abdullah bin Zubyr was hounded and subsequently killed is bound to give the reader goosebumps. Then fall of Baghdad in 1258, fall of Andalusia in 1492 and Indian war of independence in 1857 are all tragedies of astronomical proportions but none of them could etch itself out on the Muslim collective psyche at such a scale as the tragedy of Karbala.

It has been internalised and has also been made an integral part of the collective pathos, which is vital for cultural articulation. The pathos that the Karbala tragedy engendered was fostered with time, and subsequently it permeated to the very core of the cultural consciousness of the Muslims living in South Asia and the regions adjacent to it.

Prof. Razi Abedi while discussing Muslim literary tradition(s) in South Asia described the centrality of Karbala as a fount of pathos that underpins the whole corpus of Urdu poetry. He emphasised that every art form and more so the poetry attains unusual level of excellence only after ‘embracing’ tragedy and enduring its aftereffects. Any nation or community if manages to make such a tragedy part of it collective consciousness, it, as a result, attains a good measure of cultural maturity and social responsibility.

In literature, the concept of tragedy refers to a series of unfortunate events by which one or more of the literary characters in the story undergo several misfortunes, which finally culminate into a disaster of ‘epic proportions’. Mir Anis and Dabir through the genre of Marsiyya in Urdu literature made Hussain into an eternal literary metaphor. Later on, Ghazal too imbibed that influence and we can see the influence of Marsiyya on its content and characterisation.

Another impact such tragedies foment is to forge unity among people. In the subcontinent, Karbala and the memory of that event had been a common legacy of not only the whole Muslim populace, but several Hindu sections commemorated that event by participating in the Muharram processions. The Hussaini Brahmins can be mentioned as a case in point. Commemorating Muharram was the part of faith, which they performed wholeheartedly. In Mahmudabad, U.P., in India, a sizable number of Hindus solemnise Muharram in the days when Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah are enforcing Hindutva in all their earnestness.

All that is coming to a pass at the expense of Muslims and their traditions. In Pakistan, Muharram has been reduced to a mere spectacle. Its essence has frittered away. The irony is that the Tragedy of Karbala for the last several decades has been reduced as the legacy of one denomination. Who can we blame for all this but ourselves?

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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