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 Hussein (PBUH), grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), went into the battlefield with his 72 companions, including women and children of his family, against the Umayyad 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 (died in 1874) and Mirza Dabeer (died in 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, Urdu poet 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.
[Look, where the battle began, where it ended, the entire world of goodness and wisdom is now Hussein’s]
This is what Arif has achieved with the metaphor: He has expanded its scope so that the universality of the subject is emphasized 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 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, Arif has transformed the historicity of Imam Hussein’s sacrifice at the battleground of Karbala into a universal metaphor for all time.
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.
[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 universalization (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 time.
[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 about, by anyone who understands what the stakes were that resulted in the tragedy at 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, 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 Hussein (PBUH) giving his followers the option to save their lives by abandoning him on the eve of the battle, without any remonstration:
[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 (died in 2003) had much admiration for Arif’s devotional kalaam (Islamic scholastic theology). 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 Imam Hussein (PBUH) and his family suffered on the waterless battlefield. This theme runs through a large part of recent Urdu poetry, particularly that of 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 poet Mirza Qalib 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:
[Hussein you were martyred, as were members of your family/But because of your acts of valor, tyrants aren’t feared anymore].
*Peerzada Salman is a feature writer with the English daily Dawn (in Pakistan) and a member of the staff. The article was published in dawn.com.