By Agha Shahid Ali
W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright © 2002 Agha Shahid Ali. All rights reserved.
From Amherst to Kashmir
1. Karbala: A History of the “House of Sorrow”
In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.
Jesus and his disciples, passing through the plain of Karbala, saw “a herd of gazelles, crowding together and weeping.” Astonished, the disciples looked at their Lord. He spoke: “At this site the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) will one day be killed.” And Jesus wept. Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain … And Jesus wept. And as if the news has just reached them—fourteen hundred years after the Battle of Karbala (near ancient Babylon, not far from the Euphrates) in the year A.H. 61/A.D. 680—mourners weep for “the prince among martyrs,” Hussain, grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali (“Father of Clay”) and Fatima (the Prophet’s only surviving child). Memorializing Hussain on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) is the rite of Shi’a Islam—so central that at funerals those events are woven into elegies, every death framed by that “Calvary.” For just “as Jesus went to Jerusalem to die on the cross,” Hussain “went to Karbala to accept the passion that had been meant for him from the beginning of time.”
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From the beginning of time? When Ishmael was saved, did the ram suffice, even though Gabriel had brought it from Paradise, from the very presence of God? Because both father as the slayer and son as the victim had submitted to His will, God called out, “Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision.” And He ransomed Ishmael with a “great redeeming sacrifice”—completed only centuries later on the battlefield that became the altar. Abraham foreknew all and wept bitterly. God spoke: “Abraham, through your grief for Hussain, I have ransomed your grief for your son as though you had slain him with your own hand.”
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At the call of the people of Kufa (their hearts were with him, their swords with his enemies), Hussain, with his family and supporters, set out from Mecca, “along the pilgrim route across the desert of central Arabia,” to challenge the tyranny of the Caliph Yazid. In Karbala their caravan (2 Muharram 61/2 October 680) was intercepted by Yazid’s troops under Obeidullah. Till the tenth of Muharram, they withstood the siege, choosing death, not surrender. Prevented from reaching the Euphrates, for three days before the massacre they were without water. Anguished by the children’s cries, Abbas, Hussain’s half brother, led a daring sortie to fill a few waterskins but he perished.
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On 9 Muharram, as if putting on his own shroud, Hussain spoke: “Tomorrow our end will come. I ask you to go away to safety. I free you, I do not hold you back. Night will give you a cover; use it as a steed.” He had the lights turned out. Fewer than one hundred remained—among them the women, the children, the old. And the borrowed night ends. They line up before the army. The rear of the tents is protected by wood and reeds set on fire. The first arrows come, in a shower. Hussain’s nephew Qasim is struck and dies in his uncle’s arms. Every man is killed. The women look on in terror. Alone, Hussain returns to the tents to console the children and women, among them his sister Zainab, and bids them farewell. At sunset, the soldiers turn to pillage. The bodies are decapitated, stripped of all covering. Hussain’s severed head is brought to Obeidullah. He carelessly turns it over with his staff. “Gently,” one officer protests. “By Allah! I have seen those lips kissed by the blessed mouth of Muhammad.”
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The morning of 12 Muharram saw seventy-two heads raised on lances, each held by a soldier, followed by the women on camels. One of Hussain’s sons, the only male survivor, had lain sick during battle. The “adornment of God’s servants,” he was saved when Zainab threw herself over him. At the sight of the decapitated bodies, the women’s lamentations rose: “O Muhammad! The angels of Heaven send blessings upon you, but this is your Hussain, so humiliated and disgraced, covered with blood and cut into pieces, and your daughters are made captives, your butchered family is left for the East Wind to cover with dust!” The head of Hussain was put on display in Kufa before it was sent to Yazid. Held in a dungeon, the captives before long were taken to Damascus.
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