Thanks to a friend on Twitter I rediscovered this essay by the great Annemarie Schimmel which I had read in the pre-internet times. The essay entitled Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature is a remarkably panoramic review of how the themes of martyrdom and sacrifice are central to Islamic faith and Sufi principles. Schimmel looks at the older Persian poets, traces the evolution of Karbala motif in Sindhi Sufi poets such as Bhitai and later Urdu poetry of Ghalib. The essay moves to Iqbal and the commentary by Schimmel is most insightful as it puts his poetry and vision in the spiritual perspective. I hope this is widely read and popularised for this view is essential to countering the popular, ideological narratives on appropriating his poetry for Islamist ascendancy and hypernationalism in Pakistan.
I still remember the deep impression which the first Persian poem I ever read in connection with the tragic events of Karbala’ left on me. It was Qaani’s elegy which begins with the words:
What is raining? Blood.
Who? The eyes.
How? Day and night.
Why? From grief.
Grief for whom?
Grief for the king of Karbala’
This poem, in its marvellous style of question and answer, conveys much of the dramatic events and of the feelings a pious Muslim experiences when thinking of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s beloved grandson at the hands of the Umayyad troops.
The theme of suffering and martyrdom occupies a central role in the history of religion from the earliest time. Already, in the myths of the ancient Near East, we hear of the hero who is slain but whose death, then, guarantees the revival of life: the names of Attis and Osiris from the Babylonian and Egyptian traditions respectively are the best examples for the insight of ancient people that without death there can be no continuation of life, and that the blood shed for a sacred cause is more precious than anything else. Sacrifices are a means for reaching higher and loftier stages of life; to give away parts of one’s fortune, or to sacrifice members of one’s family enhances one’s religious standing; the Biblical and Qur’anic story of Abraham who so deeply trusted in God that he, without questioning, was willing to sacrifice his only son, points to the importance of such sacrifice. Iqbal was certainly right when he combined, in a well known poem in Bal-i Jibril (1936), the sacrifice of Ismail and the martyrdom of Husayn, both of which make up the beginning and the end of the story of the Ka’ba. […]