30 Aug 2020


‘The Evening of Ashura’ by Iranian artist Mahmoud Farshchian (1976)
‘The Evening of Ashura’ by Iranian artist Mahmoud Farshchian (1976)

The tragedy of Karbala has brought into being a formidable and impressive body of work in Urdu literature. This is understandable: it’s a rare episode in the history of humankind, where the battle between the righteous and the usurper was unimaginably disproportionate. Imam Husain, grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), went into the battlefield with his 72 companions, including women and children of his family, against the Ummayad ruler Yazid’s much larger army. The bravery displayed by the Imam and those who accompanied him, ever since, has become a veritable symbol of sacrifice in pursuit of a just cause.    

Distinguished poets Mir Anees (d 1874) and Mirza Dabeer (d 1875) turned the genre of marsiya (elegy) writing into an art form second to none. The marsiya is a long poem penned to mourn the martyrs of Karbala. Anees and Dabeer, with their exceptional command over the Urdu language, had a matchless ability to create imageries that enable the readers to both read and see what transpired on the battleground, clear as day, filling their hearts with immeasurable sadness. Their narration is a continual revisiting of the incident[?]. 

In the latter half of the 20th century, with his unsullied diction and a contemporary sensibility, Iftikhar Arif took the metaphor of Karbala to a realm where its universality came to the fore with a tremendous creative force through his poems. The spiritual zeal and cerebral verve with which he has employed the tragedy in his poetry is beyond exemplary. And he is still at it.  

Kahan ki jang kahaan ja ke sir hui hai keh ab    
Tamaam aalam-i-khair-o-khabar Husain ka hai

[Look, where the battle began, where it ended The entire world of goodness and wisdom is now Husain’s]    

This is what Arif has achieved with the metaphor: he has expanded its scope so that the universality of the subject is emphasised without losing its historicity. History is the recording of events that unfolded in the days of yore, but quality poetry imparts a contemporariness to it.

Arif’s looking back at the tragedy is inalienably attached to the condition of man — be it contemporary man or one from the past or even the one who will come in the future. Therefore, the reaction to tyranny in his verses is not confined simply to the days gone by; it is an ongoing act that keeps in mind, and gains strength from, the sacrifice of the Imam.

Of all contemporary Urdu poets, Iftikhar Arif has transformed the historicity of Imam Husain’s sacrifice at the battleground of Karbala into a universal metaphor for all times

The poem Aik Rukh (A Facet) illustrates this point convincingly. Without explicitly underlining the historicity of it all, it expresses the timelessness of the issue with great poetic grace.    

Woh Furaat ke saahil par hon ya kisi aur kinaray par     Saaray lashkar aik tarha ke hotay hain     Saaray khanjar aik tarha ke hotay hain     Ghorron ki taapon mein rondi hui roshni    Darya se maqtal tak phaili hui roshni    Jalay huay khaimon mein sehmi hui roshni    Saaray manzar aik tarha ke hotay hain    Aisay har manzar ke baad ik sannaata chhaa jata hai    Yeh sannaata tabl-o-alam ki dehshat ko khaa jata hai    Sannata faryad ki lei hai ehtijaj ka lehja hai    Yeh koi aaj ki baat nahin hai bohat purana qissa hai    Har qissay mein sabr ke taivar aik tarha ke hotay hain    Woh Furaat ke saahil par hon ya kisi aur kinaray par    Saaray lashkar aik tarha ke hotay hain

[Be they on the banks of the Euphrates or somewhere else All armies are the same All daggers are the same     The light trampled by galloping horses    The light spreading from the river to the killing grounds    Or the trembling light in burnt out tents    All images are the same    After every such image silence falls upon everything    This silence devours the terror of the powers that be    This silence is the rhythm of prayers, the sound of protest    And it’s nothing new, it’s an age-old tale    The expression of resilience is the same in every tale    Be they on the banks of the Euphrates or somewhere else    All armies are the same]         This universalisation (aafaqiat) of the incident is significant to get to know Arif’s oeuvre as a poet. While he uses objects such as mashkeeza (waterskin), khanjar (dagger) and sina (spear) to highlight the period the tragedy of Karbala took place in, he doesn’t stay there; he sees it as a ceaseless struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between the pious and the unholy. The constancy is for all times.    

Az azal ta ba abad saaray Yazidon ka hisaab     Aik hi daftar-i-badnaam mein rakha gaya hai

[From the beginning till the end of time     All Yazids will be held accountable with similar disdain]    

Aligned with this thought, Arif doesn’t restrict the wisdom gleaned from Karbala as the domain of a particular group of men and women. This means, the poignancy of the experience is not to be felt by a certain sect of people alone or expressed only by a special bunch of creative souls — the experience can be written about, and will always be written, by anyone who understands what the stakes were that resulted in the tragedy at Karbala.            

Apnay apnay zaavyay se, apnay apnay dhang se      Aik aalam likh raha hai daastaan-i-Karbala

[With distinct perceptions, distinct styles     Everyone is summoning the story of Karbala]    

Since he is no ordinary versifier — in fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that, among all living Urdu poets, Iftikhar Arif is head and shoulders above the rest — he instinctively knows the importance, in the literary domain, of coming up with the right combination of content and form, of what to say and how to communicate it to the audience. In the following two awe-inspiring lines, he encapsulates the upheaval on the battleground with an allusion to a celebrated event from the war — that of Imam Husain giving his followers the option to save their lives by abandoning him on the eve of the battle, without any remonstration:

Subh savairay rann parrna hai aur ghamsaan ka rann     Raaton raat chala jaaey jis jis ko jaana hai

[There will be battle in the morning, and a fierce one at that     Whoever wishes to go away, may leave in the darkness of night]     

The late German scholar Annemarie Schimmel (d 2003) had much admiration for Arif’s devotional kalaam. Highlighting his recurrent theme of Karbala, she once wrote:   

“The theme of suffering — suffering for a noble cause, suffering in the hope that a positive meaning will emerge — has been repeated throughout Islamic poetry for centuries; just as Husain and his family suffered on the waterless battlefield. This theme runs through a large part of recent Urdu poetry, particularly that of Iftikhar Arif. He is modern in his use of language but classical in the way he hides his burning concerns in allusions, symbols and metaphors, an art perfected by classical Persian and Urdu poets. It allows the poet to voice his deepest concerns, hopes and fears in a form that is not time-bound but valid for every time and expresses, as Ghalib once said, what is in everyone’s soul.”      

The key phrase here is “everyone’s soul”, which is why many of Arif’s remarkable verses and couplets from his four published collections have now become part of our everyday use of language. One of them, concluding this piece, is:

Husain tum nahin rahay, tumhara ghar nahin raha     Magar tumharay baad zaalimon ka dar nahin raha

[Husain you were martyred, as were members of your family But because of your acts of valour, tyrants aren’t feared anymore].

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 30th, 2020