Elegy (Marthiya) on Husayn: Arabic and Persian
Lynda Clarke, University of Toronto. From Al-Serat, Vol XII (1986).
I propose to give here an account neither of the development, nor of the themes, of the elegy on Husayn, in Arabic or Persian, nor of the outstanding poets of elegy, the literature in both these languages is too vast for that, and spread out over too great a period. Rather, I would like to give some idea of the place of these marathi in literary and religious tradition, while giving in translation some examples of elegy on Husayn which should serve for those unfamiliar with these languages to form an idea of the beauty and effectiveness of this type of poetry.
I should warn English-speakers that my translations, in one essential respect, do not bear much resemblance to the originals. The Arabic and Persian poetical traditions, at least until very recently (only a few decades ago), required adherence to strict rhyme patterns, often monorhyme, and strict quantitative metre. These things are not only nearly impossible to reproduce in our English language, but also undesirable. It is necessary to imagine that the examples I give had in their original a very regular rhythm, a rhythm which could also be important for ritual purposes, for instance, in religious processions. If the conceits used are sometimes also a little difficult for us to understand immediately, the ideas expressed, and the effect, are, I think, universal.
The tradition of elegiac poetry known in Arabic as marthiya had its roots, as regards themes as well as form, in pre-Islamic times.
The Arabic elegy, in the sometimes lengthy monorhyme qasida form, was like all pre-Islamic poetry highly conventionalized. The virtues of the deceased and the loss of the mourner are described, which then provides an opportunity to dwell on the pathos of this transitory life in the face of fate, always unalterable. Often the mourner curses the enemy and calls for vengeance. While the pre-lslamic elegy was conventionalized, it was also highly specific, or occasional: reflections on mortality only serve to frame a threnodic tribute to a specified personality.
If we express 'marthiya' as 'elegy', then it should be kept in mind that what we mean is not the elegy of Western tradition, which may designate any poem of a subjective kind, and one quite generally connected with the question of mortality. Most of even the earliest forms of the Greek elegiac couplet (from which the Latin and then Western languages take the genre and the name) do not display exclusively themes of death or loss.
If I bring up this point - which may seem somewhat distant from the question of elegy on Husayn in Arabic and Persian - it is to emphasize that the literature of marathi has but weak parallels in Western tradition. More particularly, it is not paralleled in Western Christian tradition, despite an extensive martyrology. Some of the social and attendant historical factors in this contrasting development may be surmised: for one thing, the influence of poetic tradition has been comparatively much stronger among the Arab-speaking peoples and among the once much wider circle of Persian speakers than in the West. What is of relevance here is that it has clearly been the event of Karbala' which allowed this pre-Islamic Arabic tradition to continue into Islamic times and take its central place in the languages of the Islamic tradition. Any elegy (in the restricted sense in which we are speaking here) may strike a universal note; in fact that is one of the requirements of an elegy, but very few examples tend to survive as poetry or as something which would continue to evoke deep emotion. Practically our whole tradition of funeral elegy in English, for example, seems to be quite dead, in the poetical sense. In contrast to this, we have the tradition of Husayn and those martyred with him: the sacrifice of Husayn has provided a vital and meaningful subject for authors (both Shia and Sunni) for all of fourteen centuries (and into the future, God willing). Thus we see that even in Arabic, although the strong tradition of secular elegy continued into this century, that too has declined with other forms and themes considered 'artificial' by modern movements, while marthiya on Husayn and the other martyrs of Karbala' continues in both formal and popular language.
Alongside this, the event of Karbala' has provided a continuing ritual context for elegiac poetry. The marthiya in pre-Islamic times has a ritual function as a lamentation (nawh), often recited by women (and the best of its earliest practitioners known to us were women). Not only would the listener be invited to dwell in the virtues of the deceased, but the pathos of the situation was also revealed, and it may be assumed that those present were then moved to weep. Some of the earliest examples we have of marthiya on Husayn are in fact simple poems of this type: lamentations by his wives and daughters. This piece attributed to Rabab, beloved wife of Husayn, is particularly moving. Rabab said:
He who was a light, shining, is murdered;
And on another occasion Rabab said:
O Husayn! Never shall I forget Husayn!
And regardless of how well attested these pieces of elegy are as literary remains, I think we would have to say that the beauty and deep feeling here has something of the force of memory to testify to their authenticity. In many later elegies on Husayn, the lament is put into the mouths of females of his family, Fatima, for instance, or Zaynab, and this recalls the pre-Islamic elegy.
In the Umayyad period poets were invited to compose laudations (madh) and marathi for the rituals of the gatherings (majalis) of the noble members of the family of the Prophet. This narration concerning the sixth Imam shows the place of marathi in these gatherings:
Jafar b. 'Affan came to al-Sadiq's residence and seated himself next to him, upon which the Imam said, Ja'far, I have been told that you recite poetry for Husayn, peace be upon him, and that you do it well.' 'Yes, and may God make me a sacrifice for you!' replied the poet. 'Recite, then', said al-Sadiq, and Jafar recited these verses:
And the Imam Sadiq wept and those around him with him, until his face and beard were covered with tears. Then he said, 'By God, Jafar, the angels closest to God are witness here and they hear your words; they have wept as we have, and more ... '
At the end of the 'Abbasid period, the reciter in these commemorative sessions was still known as a na'ih, a lamenter, or mourner. 
These marathi, then, provided the germ for early gatherings of partisans of the House of the Prophet; they may also then be seen as the origin or earliest form of the ta'ziya as it is known today among Shi'i peoples. The literary forms known as ta'ziya and marthiya in Arabic are related, the ta'ziya being a kind of extended lamentation which is also intended to comfort the hearer in the face calamity, as the root meaning of the Arabic - 'comforting' - suggests. The 'ritual context' for elegy on Husayn continues to be provided today not only by the developed ta'ziya, but also by various other gatherings within the ten days of Muharram in which marathi are recited. In the Shi'i area of Lebanon, for instance, there are many such gatherings held, and in both the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world gatherings are held exclusively for women.
It was inevitable that once the force of memory receded, themes had to be introduced into elegy on Husayn which would have the desired effect on the hearer by bringing forward the significance of his martyrdom; thus the elegy is linked with the issues surrounding his martyrdom. In the example we have already given by the poet Ja'far ibn 'Affan al-Ta'i (d. 150), Islam itself is put in the position of a martyr. This marthiya of the imam al-Shafi'i introduces, after protestations of personal sorrow, and the image of the martyr, his declaration of love for the House of the Prophet overall. The imam Shafi'i said:
My heart sighed, for my innermost being was in dejection;
This qasida of the imam Shafi'i is also notable in that it is, of course, a Sunn'i production; the fact that he composed other such elegies is well attested, and apparently many other Shafi'ites (and Hanafites) in this early period did the same. However, even the attestation by such a person as the imam Shafi'i of his love for the Family of the Prophet left him open in those dangerous times to accusations of 'unorthodoxy', as the following lines attributed to him suggest. The imam Shafi'i said:
They said, 'You are a Rafidi!', and I said, 'But no,
Continuing on the subject of 'Sunni' or perhaps we should say 'non-Shi'i, elegy about Husayn, here is a strong piece from the Hadiqat al-Haqiqa or 'Garden of Truth' of Sana'i, as a Persian example from the early twelfth century. I have abridged it in translation by about half; it is given the title 'Concerning Karbala', and the fragrant air of that most glorious place of martyrdom'. Sana'i says:
How excellent Karbala' ! and that honour it received,
In Arabic poems on Husayn, the elegy, the marthiya proper, becomes very soon only part of a larger developed narrative in which the deeds and nobility of the martyrs of Karbala' are described. This development of narrative can be seen already in the poetry of Di'bil b. 'Ali al-Khuza'i (d. 246) and in the large body of poetry composed by Ibn Hammad al-'Abdi (end of the 4th cent.). However, the marthiya form can still be seen intact within these longer qasidas, and the lament for Husayn still provides the emotional high point; it is often placed at the beginning of the composition. As another example from this early period we give a part of this well known elegy by al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 406), which he is said to have extemporized on the spot at Karbala'. In this qasida al-Sharif al-Murtada pictures Husayn calling out to his ancestors for aid, but they do not respond; the poet even seems to reproach God for the deaths of the martyrs. In fact, the 'reproach' is a common theme in elegy on Husayn, of the hearer, of the dead relatives of the martyr, or even of God. The elegy for Husayn then turns into a lament for all the Imams supposed to have been martyred, and ends with a call for revenge from the Prophet himself.
O Karbala'! Ever is your name sorrow (karb) and tragedy (bala)!
The great impetus for the vast literature of elegy and dirge for Husayn in the Persian language, a literature which is now much larger than the Arabic, which includes a much greater element of elegy on the other martyrs of Karbala', and which has many more forms and recognized ritual uses than in the Arabic tradition, came with the establishment of the Safavid dynasty and the consequent consolidation for Shi'ism of the larger part of the Persian-speaking world. Here as an example from the beginning of the Safavid period, is an elegiac qasida (abridged in translation) by Muhtasham-i Kashani, a favourite court poet. It shows some of the typical themes and imagery of the Persian genre, as well as imaginative expressions of the favourite elegiac theme of what later came to be known in Europe as 'pathetic fallacy'. Kasham says:
The name of this land full of tragedy (bala') is Karbala'.
Muhtasham's tarkib-band, a long strophic poem of twelve parts, is much more well known than any other of his numerous elegies on Husayn, and was imitated for centuries after him. Each strophe ends with a refrain, which is particularly effective in elegy. As an example of a modern tarkib-band, here is one strophe taken from a piece by a very popular contemporary poet, Ansari, 'Poet of the House of the Prophet'. It seems that the poet may have been inspired not only by the differing circumstances surrounding the martyrdoms of 'Ali and Husayn, but by the contrast between Najaf and Karbala' as well (Najaf is fairly well watered, but Karbala' is like a desert).
O breeze of morning, take to 'Ali these words of the poet Ansari;
As an example of modern Arabic elegy in the traditional style, here is a piece from the great Lebanese Shi'i scholar Muhsin al-Amin al-'Amili, taken from a collection of elegies he has made of his own and others' poems. Al-Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin died only recently; it should be mentioned that he was active not only in Shi'i scholarship and especially biography, but also in Sunn'i - Shi'i taqrib or rapprochement. This qasida, in a lightweight metre and a simple style, was composed in 1353/1934-5 while the author was travelling in Iraq and Iran, and it might not be too much to see some allusions to the political situation of those areas in certain lines. Al-Sayyid al-Amin says:
O Karbala', you have brought upon us great sorrow;
Elegy for Husayn continues in Arabic in popular or dialect form as well, proof of the power of the martry to enter into and affect the life of the common people. The popular strophic form in Lebanese dialect known as zajal is used for many subjects, including political and nationalistic themes. Most villages (Muslim and non-Muslim) have their own zajal poet. A collection of some zajal compositions on the subject of the martyrdom of Husayn has been made by the Shi'i publishing house 'Irfan', but unfortunately I was unable to get the use of the book for this essay. Instead I offer this freely translated part of a piece by the Iraqi folk poet 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Umawi, entitled 'The Revolution of Husayn'. This modern folk poetry is particularly moving in its simplicity (sometimes naivety), and its closeness to the concerns of everyday and political life. As folk poetry often does, it has a great topicality. The poet says:
The revolution you made is holy, O Husayn,
 bi-'l-rahm: also, 'as one related to you'.
 Muhammad Jawad Maghniya, Adab al-Taff aw Shu'ara' al-Husayn (Beirut, 1388/1969), I, 61.
 Hibat al-Din al-Husayni al-Shahristani, Nahdat al-Husayn (Karbala, 1388/1969), p. 154.
 The K. al-Ta'azi wa al-Marathi of Muhammad h. Yazid al-Mubarrad (d. 282) explains the meaning of ta'ziya and gives examples (ed. Muhammad al-Dibaji [Damascus, 1396/1976], pp. 4ff).
 Waddah Sharara, Transformations d'une manifestation religieuse dans un village du Liban-Sud (Beirut, 1968), pp. 43ff, As to the Arab Ashura representation or ta'ziya, it seems that it has until now received too little attention. It may be that the actual dramatic form owes much to Iranian, and largely Safavid, origins, for instance, it is received knowledge among the inhabitants of the chiefly Shi'i town of Nabatiya in South Lebanon that it was Iranian immigrants at the beginning of the century who gave the ta'ziya there (the mere playing of which recently caused the occupying forces to fire on the participants) its present form. However, since the commemorative session itself began, of course, as an Arabic tradition, it would seem worthwhile to examine Arabic language ta'ziya separately for Arabic antecedents to the Persian.
 Dhabih Allah Safa, Tarikh-i Adabiyat dar Iran (Tehran, 2536), II, 195.
 Adab al-Taff, I, 217.
 Hadiqat al-Haqiqa ed. Mudarrisi Razavi (Tehran, 1950), pp. 270 271.
 Adab al-Taff, II, 206-208.
 The cypress in Persian poetry is thought of metaphorically as a possessor of fair stature. Here the tall-standing and erect cypress is brought down below the ground, and is also in contrast to the sky, bent over in sorrow (the sky is thought of as an arc or dome).
 Divan-i Muhtasham, ed. M. Gurgani (Tehran, 1344/ 1965), pp. 299-300.
 Divan-i Ansari, ed. A. Usuli (Qum, 1342/1963), pp. 343-344.
 Al-Durr al-Nadid fi Marathi al-Sibt al-Shahid (Karbala', n.d.), pp. 339-340.
 Anataly Kova;enko, Le Martyre de Husayn dans la poesie populaire d'Iraq (Geneve, 1979), pp. 220-222