By Syed Zafar Mehdi

‘Islamic revolution in Iran paved new course for Muharram commemorations in Kashmir’

September 16, 2018

We are again in the month of Muharram, the month in which blood triumphed over sword and truth prevailed over falsehood. In this month, the campaigners of truth and justice across the world reaffirm their pledge to the principles exemplified by Imam Hussain (as) and his companions in the desert plains of Karbala 1400 years ago.

Syed Mohammad Anis Kazmi is a Kashmir-based Islamic scholar, historian and author of many books. In this interview, he talks about the history and philosophy of annual Muharram commemorations, unique tradition of mourning in Kashmir, and impact of the Iranian revolution on the tradition of mourning in Kashmir.

The genesis of Muharram commemorations

Muharram commemorations began soon after the tragedy of Karbala in 61 AH. The members of the holy household (Ahlulbayt), including Sayyeda Zainab (sa), Sayyeda Umme Kulsoom (sa) and Imam Zainul Abideen (as), were taken as prisoners to Damascus. After their release from the dark dungeon of Yazid, they returned to Medina where proper commemorations were held for the martyrs of Karbala in which Zainab (sa) and Umme Kulsoom (sa) played a key role.

Bashir bin Jazlam (ra), a lover of Ahlulbayt, first addressed people and narrated the chain of events that culminated in the greatest tragedy recorded in human history. Then Umme Kulsoom (sa), who had a poetic aptitude, recited a marsiya (elegy), the first marsiya written on Karbala, which virtually shook people out of their slumber. That was the beginning.

Then there was Fatima alias Ummul Baneen (sa), the mother of Abbas ibn Ali (as), who composed and recited soul-stirring marsiyas on the tragedy of Karbala. When Yazid was informed by Marwan about these mourning gatherings in Madina, he feared public backlash and ordered the re-arrest of Imam Zainul Abideen (as). He was taken in chains back to Syria. That’s how the tradition of azadari originated, first in Madina, followed by other places.

Muharram commemorations over the centuries

The tradition of azadari (mourning for the martyrs of Karbala) was kept alive by Imam Zainul Abideen (as) and after him by other Imams during their time. They used to invite prominent poets to write and recite elegiac poetry in the memory of the martyrs of Karbala.

Once Imam Zainul Abideen (as) went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Hasham bin Abdulmalik bin Marwan, the Khalifa of that time, was also present there. Khalifa tried hard to touch Hajrul Aswad but was unable to do so. In the meantime, a young man, shining like a full moon, walked in. When he approached Hajrul Aswad, the crowd immediately dispersed. The Khalifa, who was watching the spectacle, was astonished.

He knew Imam Zainul Abideen (as) well but when someone asked him about the young man, he feigned ignorance. A poet named Furuzduq, who was hearing the conversation, said he knew the man. He stood up and recited a beautiful poem, eulogizing the Imam and his holy household. The poet was soon arrested.

After Imam Zainul Abideen (as), Imam Mohammad Baqir (as) during his time kept alive the tradition of azadari. After him came Imam Jafar Sadiq, who invited the famous poet and the lover of Ahlulbayt, Jafar Affan (ra) to recite marsiyas. During this time, Umayyads and Abbasis were fighting for power, so Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) had ample opportunites to propagate the message of Islam and popularize the Karbala movement started by his great grandfather in the desert plains of Karbala.

During the time of Imam Musa Kazim (as), some changes were introduced in the practice of marsiya nigaari (writing of Muharram elegies). He asked the poets of that time to write in their respective languages as per their own linguistic and cultural traditions. The practice continued till the last Imam’s (as) occultation and continues till date, although some innovations have been introduced over the centuries.

History of Muharram commemorations in Kashmir

In Kashmir, the tradition of azadari was popularized by three Sufi saints who came to Kashmir from Iran in the 14th century. First of them was Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), who was a staunch lover of Ahlulbayt. He brought many taburrukaat from Karbala, which have become quite popular in Kashmir over the years. Then came Syed Sharafuddin Mosvi aka Bulbul Shah (ra), who also professed Shia faith according to historical accounts, although Shias and Sunnis were not segregated so much that time so his identity remained largely concealed.

The third and most important missionary who played an instrumental role in the dissemination of the message of Ahlulbayt and Karbala was Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra). During his time, the practice of azadari became widespread. He took the message of Imam Hussain (as) to every Shia household in Kashmir.

The first marsiya, recorded in the history of Kashmir, was recited in 822. During that time, Muharram commemorations were not held publicly. There were no azadari processions that time. Mourning ceremonies were organized inside packed halls, mainly at night time. It used to be a quiet affair and it continued that way until the time of former Chief Minister of Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.

He said all religious communities have the right to practice and preach their religious rituals, including azadari. During his time, a Muharram procession used to be taken in Srinagar city at night, led by Mirza Mohammad Ali. Later, during the time of Chief Minister Gul Shah, these processions were banned and the ban remains in place till date.   

The tradition of Kashmiri marsiya nigaari

From the historical point of view, the first marsiya nigaar (elegy writer) in Kashmir was Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule. His marsiyas were a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, which was the language of Kashmir’s erstwhile chief priest Nooruddin Noorani. He passed away in 822 hijri. After the Shahmiri dynasty came Chaks. During the Chak rule, Kashmiri marsiyas gained unprecedented prominence, since Chaks were Shias. After Chaks came Mughals, who imposed imperial diktats against marsiya nigaars, forcing them to write and recite marsiyas clandestinely.

Then in 1180 hijri, Khwaja Hussain Mir of a village called Gund broke a new ground in marsiya nigaari. He divided a Kashmiri marsiya into five parts: hamud, dumbaal, gath, kreakh, nishast. Before he emerged on the scene, Shias were persecuted and used to observe taqiyya (seclusion). He gave a fresh impetus to the tradition of marisya nigaari and azadari in Kashmir.

Persecution of Kashmiri Shias for observing Muharram

The role of clergy, right since the time of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra), has been greatly significant in promoting the message of Karbala through marsiyas, sermons and various other means. They had to face myriad hardships though. For example, Kashmiri marsiyas were construed by some people in Ahle Sunnat community in a wrong way. They alleged that these marsiya nigaars showed ‘sahaba e kiraam’ (companions of Holy Prophet) in a poor light. They apparently considered Yazid ibn Abu Sufyan a ‘subaha’ too.
That was primarily why Shias were attacked and looted almost 21 times and the shrine of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra) was set ablaze at least nine times. At one time, streets in Srinagar city were flooded with the blood of Shias.

Impact of Iranian revolution on azadari in Kashmir

Until the Islamic revolution in Iran, Kashmiri Shias had a different perception of Iran. Imam Khomeini’s (ra) Islamic revolution had a deep impact on Shia youth in Kashmir. It gave a whole new direction to the practice of azadari in Kashmir. And it brought some fundamental changes in the way we studied the history of Karbala, as the culture of research became common.  

Why Muslims do azadari to commemorate Karbala

The tyrant always seeks to hide his tyranny. It has happened throughout the history. We commemorate Karbala through azadari to keep the memory of martyrs alive, so that people know who was killed, who killed him and why.

Hussain, the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) and Fatima bint Mohammad (sa), was killed by Yazid, the son of Muawiya. Who was Muawiya? The son of Abu Sufyan and Hinda. Who was Hinda? The woman who chomped the liver of Hazrat Hamza (as) in the Battle of Ohad.

When people know these facts, they will obviously hate the tyrant and his tyranny. That’s precisely why the sympathizers of these tyrants oppose the practice of azadari, to hide the oppression unleashed on the oppressed.

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