Marsiya: Beyond the “literal lament"

Remembrance is inevitable. From Political to Social and from Economic to Historic, it’s the remembrance that keeps nations alive with lessons of galvanisation for survival, sustainability and of faith, practices and so on. Allah says in Quran “ And continue to remind, for surely the reminder profits the believers (Chapter 51 Verse 55).What” and “how” to remember is subject to permissibility, which furthermore is subject to various interpretations by different schools of thought in Islam.

Remembering Karbala and the sacrifice of Hussain Ibn Ali (a.s), as a glorious example of the triumph of righteousness,  inculcates within an individual a will for standing against oppression, rallying for Human Rights and dignity  and challenging the wrongs whatever maybe. An important aspect of this remembrance of Hussain (a.s) is the profound grief that is associated with the way Karbala happened. As human emotions would naturally ordain, many Muslims regard  Karbala as a watershed moment in the Muslim history.

The practice of writing and reciting laments on the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a.s) finds an important place in Shia school of thought,  although it is not fully restricted to it. Laments have their roots in evolutionary  instincts. As human beings, it is natural for us to grieve. In Abrahamic tradition poetics of grief has its set place. It can be traced to  Aadam’s laments upon his one son killing the other (Haabil and Kaabil), or to Yaqub’s laments for his son Yusuf (a.s). The Prophet (pbuh) also recited laments on multiple occasions, one of the most important being upon the martyrdom of Hamza(r.a) .The poetic touch strikes an emotion which is the basis of the “lament” itself.

There were  instances when poems of grief were recited by contemporaries of the Rashidun Caliphs and the period up to the event of Karbala. The word “Marsiya”, however, is specifically attributed to the revival of the memories of the difficulties, the pain and the sorrow that Imam Hussain (a.s) and his family experienced at Karbala, when he and many of his companions were martyred in a brutal way and his family including toddlers were taken as prisoners. The intent of Marsiya is to keep alive this sense of suffering.

Hussain in Karbala said “Anna Qateel ul Abrah” (I will be the Martyr upon whom tears will be shed).  Marsiya fills this purpose, although it also has various other aspects, be it the sense of the victory of Hussainiyat over Yazidiyat or lessons related to strengthening one’s faith,  and being close to the creator and so on and so forth. Instances of reciting Marsiya are also found in the post-Karbala journey of  Zainab (s.a), the sister of Hussain who accompanied Him to Karbala and from where she was taken as prisoner to Damascus and Kufa. Zain ul Abideen, the ailing son of Hussain in Karbala, is also believed to have recited Marsiya. But the formal and extensive focus on Marsiya reciting is associated with Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s), the sixth Imam as per Shia school, and the great grandson of Hussain (a.s).

Marsiya is actually derived from an Arabic word Marthiyya, meaning a great tragedy or lamentation for a departed soul. It is a poem written mainly for commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain (a.s) and Ahlul Bayt in Karbala. Its advent in Kashmir is traced to 14th century A.D,  which itself is the period of introduction of Islam in Kashmir. Arabic and Persian poetry was its form initially, which can be traced to the works of many, from Bulbul Shah to Mir Sayed Ali Hamadani. Certain efforts were made to adapt the art into the vernaculars. Origin of Kashmiri Marsiya has its root in congregations and recitals of Kashmiri elegy. This was locally known as “Waan”.

One of the striking names in the flourishing of Kashmiri elegy (Waan) was Hassi Bhat (1389 A.D). There were  nonetheless multiple instances of censure vis-à-vis practices of Marsiya writing and reciting, be it during Mughal Rule or even during the initial period of Afghan Rule. Among the dynasties, it was during the Chaks’ rule that Kashmiri Marsiya truly flourished. The Imambara of Zadibal was in fact constructed by the Chak ruler Kaji Chak in 1518 (A.D). A soft corner for Marsiya writing was also found during later phases of Afghan Rule mostly due to efforts of governors like Kifayat Khan and Amir Khan. Initially the practice of reciting Marsiya was hereditary and upon reciting a Majlis, tokens of appreciation were presented to the authors and reciters but later on the practice of reciting and writing Marsiya was not limited to hierarchy. Also during the Sikh rule, Marsiya made progress with elegant contribution of people (Zakirs) like Khwaja Hassan Mir, Hakim Azim, Mirza Abul Qasim and so on.

About its structure, a Kashmiri marsiya is called Mazmoon and is not restricted to just expression of grief but has many parts. A typical one starts with praise of Almighty called (Hamd) as

Ya Allah Tche Baayis Mann-Fil-Quboor, Tchey Rahim Tchey Rahman,

Paanay Yohyi wa Yumeet Doputh Ya haya.


As such Marsiya starts and is filled with concepts of Tawheed too. This parts is followed by praise for the Prophet (pbuh) (Naat),

Yeli Aaw Hazrat Tis Qudratas Sapin Roshniyaah,

Taaban temi saayi ki anhaare Lail o Naharay

(Mazmoon Subuh by Zakir Khawaya Naqi).

Naat is followed by praise for Imam Ali (a.s) and the poem traverses the domains of Mojizas (divine miracles). Finally it reaches the core purpose of laments for Hussain

Myani Kani Maalikas Daepzem Salaam Lagas Qurbaano,

Dapith Ismailas Zabeeh-ul-lah Su Khaleel-ul-lah sapun ne Qurbaano,

Badal Fidyi suuzthas temi ma toti Hadiya korun paano,

Myani Hussainan Wandnas Jaan hyeath Zuv-e-Daano,

Tas ne kahn Qatal Gaah taani aav yeki draav chani wati marne maidaano….

(Mazmoon Asul-e-Din)

What is rendered clear by the above description is that limiting Marsiya only to wails and grief will be an injustice to the field. “One of the purposes of reminding people of sacrifice of Hussain (in fact of all those who sacrificed themselves for the sake of Islam) and his sufferings along with his patience, resilience and firmness in his devotion to Allah and being thankful is to create a firmness in Faith (Imaan) of a Muslim”, writes Dr Tahir ul Qadri in his book Falsafa-e-Shahadat-e-Imam Hussain(a.s).

Marsiya in its progress in  contemporary times needs an infusion of ideas to build up character, a character which faces the oppressor, which has a power to speak against injustices whenever and wherever they happen within and beyond the sphere of Islam. Marsiya can also include the essence of standing up for Human Rights, just like Hussain did. Along with the beauty of literature and elegant ways of reciting, there is a need of “literal engulfing”, where the existing domains of literature, be it of different languages or faiths, find a place and can relate with the message of Hussain. It may then convey to the world the  essence of Josh Malihabadi’s lines

Insaan ko bedar to ho lene do

Har Qaum pukaregi hamaray hain Hussain……

(Mohammad Mutahhar Hussain is B-Tech, currently pursuing Masters in History and a freelance Artist)