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Gender, Sainthood, & Everyday Practice in South Asian Shiʿism$

Karen G. Ruffle

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780807834756

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807877975_ruffle

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The Saddest Story Ever Told

The Saddest Story Ever Told

Translating Karbala Through Feminine Voices & Emotions into a Deccani ShiʿI Idiom

(p.85) Chapter Three The Saddest Story Ever Told
Gender, Sainthood, & Everyday Practice in South Asian Shiʿism

Karen G. Ruffle

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Sayyid 'Abbas Sahib's move from Madras to the princely state of Hyderabad, the capital of the Sunni Asaf Jahi dynasty. 'Abbas Sahib was a renowned writer of marsiya poems commemorating the Battle of Karbala. He came to Hyderabad seeking the patronage of the fifth Asaf Jahi Nizam, Afzal al-Dawlah Bahadur. The observance of Muharram has flourished in Hyderabad since the establishment of the Shi'i Qutb Shahi dynasty in 1512 ce. The mehndi mourning assembly has been celebrated with much enthusiasm in Hyderabad since the reign of 'Abdullah Qutb Shah, who commissioned the construction of the Alava-ye Qasem shrine in Yaqutpura, a neighborhood in the Shi'i section of the Old City. As he did in his former home city of Madras, 'Abbas Sahib discovered a reverence for Qasem and the mehndi ritual among the Shi'a of Hyderabad.

Keywords:   Sayyid 'Abbas Sahib, Madras, Hyderabad, Sunni Asaf Jahi, marsiya poems, Battle of Karbala

Learn from the Hindu how to die of love—It is not easy to enter the fire while alive.

Amir Khusrau

Beginning in the 1860s, Sayyid ʿAbbas Sahib moved from Madras (Chennai) to the princely state of Hyderabad, the capital of the Sunni Asaf Jahi dynasty. He was a renowned writer of marṡiya poems commemorating the Battle of Karbala. ʿAbbas Sahib came to Hyderabad seeking the patronage of the fifth Asaf Jahi Nizam, Afzal al-Dawlah Bahadur (r. 1857–69 C.E.). The observance of Muharram has flourished in Hyderabad since the establishment of the Shiʿi Qutb Shahi dynasty in 1512 C.E. The mehndī mourning assembly has been celebrated with much enthusiasm in Hyderabad since the reign of ʿAbdullah Qutb Shah (r. 1626–72 C.E.), who commissioned the construction of the Alava-ye Qasem shrine in Yaqutpura, a neighborhood in the Shiʿi section of the Old City. As he did in his former home city of Madras, ʿAbbas Sahib discovered a reverence for Qasem and the mehndī ritual among the Shiʿa of Hyderabad.

ʿAbbas Sahib's house, ʿAbbas Manzil, was initially located at the present site of the ʿAzakhane-ye Zahra ʿāshūrkhāna in the Old City neighborhood of Darulshifa. The ʿAzakhane-ye Zahra was commissioned in 1941 by the seventh Nizam, Osman ʿAli Khan (r. 1911–48), in memory of his mother, Amtul Zahra Begum.1 In this large house sitting on the banks of the Musi River, ʿAbbas Sahib hosted an annual majlis mourning assembly on 7 Muharram in which trays of henna and an ʿalam dedicated to Qasem were brought out in procession (julūs).2 The “ʿAbbas Sahib mehndī kī majlis” quickly became Hyderabad's most popular 7 Muharram mourning assembly.

(p.86) Following ʿAbbas Sahib's death, the tradition of hosting the mehndī mourning assembly was continued, even when the family home shifted to a large plot of land in Yaqutpura, just a few hundred meters from the Alava-ye Qasem shrine. ʿAbbas Sahib's great-grandson, M. M. Taqui Khan, and his family continue to host one of Hyderabad's largest and most important mehndī mourning assemblies.3 Each year, several thousand men gather on the busy road outside the house, and more crowd into the spacious court-yard that connects Khan's house with the family ʿāshūrkhāna.

Leading up to the beginning of the men's majlis, devotees crowd before the Qāsem kā ʿalam (the metal standard bearing Qasem's name) and wait for one of Khan's daughters or sons-in-law to tie a red string around the devo-tee's right wrist. This mourning assembly is truly a family affair. Khan's wife oversees the preparation of the consecrated food (tabarruk) that will later be served to the mourning assembly participants; his daughter, Kulsum, assembles the tray of mehndī; and another daughter visiting from the United States ensures the comfort of the female majlis participants. Because of the practice of purdah, the women and girls remain in the house and watch the men's majlis through the living room windows. Hearing the majlis is never a problem, as it is broadcast over loudspeakers at deafening levels. As the men and boys arrive and take their places in the courtyard, the anticipation of an encounter with the ḥusaini ethic of these imitable saints creates a palpable energy.

For the first six days of Muharram in Hyderabad, the ritual activity builds. On the seventh day, the remembrance of Karbala becomes energized. As Maulana Reza Agha, a high-ranking Shiʿi religious scholar (ʿālim) and popular ẕākir, declared at the beginning of his discourse (khuṭbah), “There are many, many martyrs in this world, but there are two figures whose martyrdom is observed in the majlis more than any others … Sakinah Bibi and the orphan [yatīm] of Hasan.”4 Sakinah was the three-or four-year-old daughter of Imam Husain who, the Shiʿa assert, died from her grief in Damascus following the Battle of Karbala. Qasem is the orphan whose father, the second Imam, Hasan, was allegedly poisoned by one of his wives in 669 C.E. On 7 Muharram, the members of Imam Husain's party found their access to the waters of the Euphrates River cut off, yet the wedding “procession of the thirsty groom and thirsty bride [went] out.” According to Agha, however, this was not a joyful event in accordance with the usual Indic wedding procession (barāt), in which the bridegroom goes from his home to that of his bride on horseback, wearing a turban (ʿimāmah), fine clothing, and a floral (p.87) veil (sehrā). In these wedding processions, the bridegroom is accompanied by a brass band (bājā), fireworks, and frolicking boys; there is noise, merriment, and ribald joking, all in celebration of the newlyweds' joyful union.5

Agha's discourse conjures dissonant memories in the minds of the majlis participants. This dissonance results from the actual auspiciousness and happiness (shādī) that a wedding is supposed to inculcate. Every man, woman, boy, or girl who sits in the mourning assembly and weeps for Qasem and his bride, Fatimah Kubra, not only weeps for the tragedies that befell these two but also shares in the anxiety that such a tragedy engenders. A bride should never become a widow so soon after her wedding: these two gendered states ideally should exist along a broad continuum, with motherhood and menopause filling the intervening years.

Fatimah Kubra's status as a fortune-bearing bride and her rapid transformation into an inauspicious widow is an important theme in Agha's discourse. At the midpoint of his recollection of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra's troubles, a part of the discourse known as the maṣāʾib, a narratological ellipsis occurs. Agha suddenly makes a narrative leap in his account of the events, so that the wedding—an event that does not require any sort of description or didactic reflection—has already taken place. This is a performative strategy in that such an ellipsis dramatically reinforces for the majlis participants the extraordinary and tragic circumstances of this wedding. Qasem approaches his new bride and gives her a piece of his sleeve, reassuring her that it will enable them to recognize each other on the Last Day (yawm-e qiyāmat). Drawing the moment of Karbala into the general present, Agha declares,

Whenever a wedding takes place, people say, “Pray to God that the bride remains a wife. Oh God! Let not separation come between groom and bride!” What kind of a wedding was this? The bride does not even have a living husband [suhāgan]! She has become a widow…. Alas, what has befallen this Karbala wedding? The bride was imprisoned and the bride-groom, too, was made a prisoner…. At weddings, sweet, refreshing drinks [sharbat] are usually served, but here, the groom and the bride have gone out in a thirsty procession. Now, the bridegroom has fallen! The bride has fallen captive, and the bridegroom's head rests upon the tip of a spear. Thus was the Karbala procession taken out.6

In the memories and imaginations of the mourning assembly participants, the joy of marriage and the deep despair of widowhood are simultaneously (p.88) conjured by Agha's discourse. Agha's use of the term suhāgan further roots his description of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra's wedding in a vernacular, Indic context. Suhāgan is an Urdu word that is laden with deep cultural meaning, indicating a woman's status as both auspicious and having a living husband; she is not a widow. In Deccani-Urdu Karbala poetry and discourse, the wifely status of being a suhāgan is often set up against its binary opposite, the widow, who is dramatically invoked with the term ranḋ, meaning both “widow” and “prostitute.”

Referring to a widowed woman as ranḋ reflects deep vernacular cultural anxieties about the perceived rampant sexuality of a widowed woman, particularly one who is young. In her study of nineteenth-century Hindu anxieties about the wretched and inauspicious existence of widows as well as their perceived sexual dangerousness, Charu Gupta notes that many Hindus considered young widows particularly susceptible to converting to Islam to circumvent the Indic taboo on widow remarriage.7 Popular pseudoscientific literature of nineteenth-century North India postulated that women are naturally eight times more sexual than men; therefore, widows pose a danger to society because they have no socially acceptable outlet, such as remarriage, for their rampant sexual urges. Conversion to a “foreign” religion thus becomes appealing. Agha's discourse indicates that the opposite is customary for Indian Muslim widows, especially those of high status (ashrāf or say-yid) who have adopted and integrated the Indic taboo on widow remarriage into their everyday Islamic practice.

While Qasem is an integral character in this narrative, the dramatic impulse and the feelings of grief that Agha's discourse provoke in the majlis participants are based on the remembrance of his wife and widow, Fatimah Kubra. According to the hagiographical narrative, Qasem must die. Fatimah Kubra will be a widow for the remainder of her life and will bear responsibility for keeping alive the memory of her husband and the other heroes of Karbala among the Shiʿa. Fatimah Kubra's hagiographical persona is that of a bride of one night and a widow forever. In his discourse, Agha acknowledges that the signing of the marriage contract (ʿaqd-e nikāḥ) took place, but this is not the point: he wants these men to remember Fatimah Kubra's embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic of sacrifice and suffering. Implicit in this narrative is the fact that Fatimah Kubra is consigned to a dual captivity. Not only is she a prisoner of war and taken in the “Karbala procession” to Damascus, where the female survivors were brought as war booty to the court of the (p.89) ʿUmayyad khalīfah, Yazid, but Fatimah Kubra is also held captive by her widowed status.

Sitting with the women of the Khan family in the zanāna (women's quarters), I am enveloped in their keening, which mingles with the male majlis participants' shouting and frenzied displays of physical grief outside in the courtyard. Narrating Fatimah Kubra's dyadic embodiment of the bride/widow binary pairing, Agha works the crowd into an emotional frenzy. Time and place become blurred, and Fatimah Kubra's story reminds the men and women in the majlis of their relatives and friends who, like the bride/widow of Karbala, have suffered and lost spouses and become the inauspicious ranḋ or bevāh (be- [without], vivāh [marriage]).

At about three-thirty in the afternoon, directly following the men's majlis, the Khan women sponsor the women's mehndī mourning assembly. The women's mourning assembly hosted by the Khan family is much less popular than the men's majlis because at four o'clock, a popular annual mehndī kī majlis takes place at Bait al-Qaʾem, the major Khoja Isna ʿAshari ʿāshūrkhāna in Purani Haveli. The Bait al-Qaʾem mehndī mourning assembly attracts several thousand women each year. During the majlis, many women seem to pay scant attention to the ritual events, demonstrating more interest in chatting with friends and relatives. Although many women appear not to be paying attention, the structure of the mourning assembly is ingrained in the women's minds: the recitation of Karbala hagiographical poetry (marṡiya and salām) that comprises a major portion of the majlis, the ẕākirah's didactic discourse and hagiographical narration of the troubles of the hero(in)es of Karbala, and the chanting of nauḥa poems accompanied by women's rhythmic chest beating (mātam). Women attend these mourning assemblies in large groups, accompanied by older children, energetic toddlers, and fussing babies. The highlight of the Bait al-Qaʾem mourning assembly is the mehndī procession. A group of women moves from the partially finished upper floors of the ʿāshūrkhāna down an open staircase, carrying trays of henna and bearing a number of ʿalams. The procession slowly makes its way through the crowds of women. The female majlis participants clamor to view the ʿalams and trays of henna, from which they believe emanates Qasem's potent spiritual power (baraka).

In 2006, I observed the Khan family women's mehndī mourning assembly.

Unlike the men's majlis and the large women's mehndī mourning assembly at Bait al-Qaʾem, the event was intimate, attended by fewer than one hundred (p.90) women. The men of the family retreated into the house—an instance of reverse purdah—and had lunch, while several women recited selected stanzas from marṡiyas and invocatory salāms.

The ẕākirah, Sayyidah Maryam Naqvi, sat on a chair in the center of the small group of women and launched into her account of Qasem's martyrdom. As I sat in the crowd of women, I was astonished to discover the differences between Naqvi's remembrance of Qasem and that of Reza Agha. Aside from the modulation of Naqvi's voice—she spoke softly at one moment, then raised her voice into a keening wail to emphasize some particularly tragic or dramatic event—the representation of Qasem's martyrdom in her discourse seemed far less emotionally engaging than Agha's. In fact, as her oration continued, it became clear that she was simply telling a historical narrative of Qasem's martyrdom that would meet the approval of many of Iran's clerical elite. Her narrative was remarkably similar to that advocated by Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Kho-meini's closest allies and an architect of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In reference to the marriage of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra, Naqvi declared, “Have you ever seen such a wedding, where there wasn't even mehndī? Indeed …

these days we use mehndī as a means of remembering, but at Karbala there wasn't mehndī. According to the traditions, it is said that Imam Husain by his very own hands prepared Qasem [for his wedding], and it was he who tied the turban to Qasem's head.”8 Naqvi's discourse pedantically informed the female majlis participants that the mehndī ritual never happened at Karbala and acknowledged that the wedding happened; in her view, however, those aspects are not what people should remember. Naqvi clearly strove to reform and purify the vernacular Shiʿi hagiographical imagination of Qasem's battlefield wedding, describing the event without imaginative or overly dramatic emotional embellishment. Although she wept for Qasem's martyrdom, she wanted her listeners to remember the “correct” aspects of this event.

In these two mehndī mourning assemblies sponsored by Khan and his family, Qasem's martyrdom and Fatimah Kubra's sacrifice are remembered and represented in differently gendered and ideological ways. Upon initial consideration, it may seem counterintuitive that Agha's discourse would be so emotional and even sentimental in portraying Fatimah Kubra's wedding and widowhood. In patriarchal societies, particularly those that place a premium on the institution of marriage and systems of exchange such as dowry, weddings and their preparations are typically gendered as women's work. (p.91) Men relegate themselves to the background, participating only when necessary. In this instance, Agha is much more concerned with Fatimah Kubra's wedding than is Naqvi. Agha's hagiographical discourse portrays Fatimah Kubra as a religious and social exemplar whose suffering and sacrifice are exceptional. Naqvi gives a far less compelling account that minimizes the wedding event and its rituals to the extent that it merely serves as a didactic, reformist gloss to her discourse. Why does Agha remember and mourn Qasem and Fatimah Kubra's marriage with such fervor? Why does Naqvi deemphasize this wedding and Fatimah Kubra's widowhood? These questions about the nature and meaning of hagiography in the formation of vernacular, Hyderabadi Shiʿi identity are addressed in more detail in chapter 5. Agha and Naqvi's hagiographical discourses demonstrate that memory is Agha and Naqvi's hagiographical discourses demonstrate that memory is gendered, although not always according to our expectations. In the hagiographical Deccani-Urdu literature and ritual performance of the Hyderabadi mourning assembly, a gendered, vernacular form of religious memory was repeatedly manifested. In many instances, such as the men's and women's mourning assemblies sponsored by the Khan family, hagiographical narratives appear to subvert received understandings about how social memory is gendered for men and women.

I was puzzled by the narrative strategies employed by Agha and Naqvi in their mourning assembly discourses. Like the other majlis participants, I felt the anxiety and fear that Agha conjured when he cried out, “Oh God! Do not let this bride become a widow!” Watching the men's mourning assembly, albeit from the concealed space of the women's quarters (zanāna), the sorrow and emotional pain that the men expressed as they wept loudly and beat their hands on their heads and thighs was palpable. I had assumed that marriage is more important and anxiety-inducing for Hyderabadi Shiʿi women because of such practices as arranged weddings, dowry, and the taboo against widow remarriage; I had expected Naqvi to emphasize Fatimah Kubra's sacrifice and suffering much more than Agha did. My ethnographic assumptions about women being more concerned or even interested in retelling Fatimah Kubra's sacrifice and subsequent widowhood were incorrect. Why was Naqvi's discourse about Qasem and Fatimah Kubra less vividly emotional?

The maṣāʾib is the section of the majlis orator's discourse that marks the dramatic peak of the hagiographical narrative in which the Karbala hero-(in)es' feats and ultimate sacrifice are told in detail. The mourning assembly enables the Shiʿa to remember the Battle of Karbala, weep for the suffering (p.92) of the ahl-e bait, and integrate the ḥusaini ethic of faith and sacrifice into the practice of everyday life. As participants are drawn into the hagiographical realm of Karbala, such remembrance is achieved through the majlis orator's improvisational skill and choice of narratives, which are based on strategies of narrative engagement.

In her study of gender and sexuality in the construction of Iranian modernity, Afsaneh Najmabadi interprets a nineteenth-century casket lid painting attributed to Muhammad ʿAli ibn Zaman that shows a small group of women lounging in a garden.9 Najmabadi observes that all of the women in the painting with the exception of an old woman are gazing directly at the viewer. One woman also has her image refracted through a mirror, effectively doubling her gaze on the viewer. Najmabadi posits that the practice of having this woman both gazing into the mirror and looking directly outward at her viewer is an “engaging strategy” that invites the viewer to participate in the scene and (voyeuristically) to take part in the action.10 The strategy to which Najmabadi refers is Robyn Warhol's literary critical theory of narrative engagement, in which the narrator seeks “to evoke sympathy and identification from an actual reader.”11 Agha's hagiographical discourse and particularly his maṣāʾib employ a strategy of narrative engagement. The narrative structure and the commentarial asides that pepper Agha's discourse compel the mourners (ʿazādārs) to step into and voyeuristically participate in the drama of Karbala. At a minimum, the mourning assembly participants feel sympathy if not grief for the young bride/widow.

Female voice and emotion are foundational elements of the Indic epic tradition. Exemplifying the feminine role in the Indic epic tradition is Sita, the wife of King Rama in the Rāmāyaṇa, who is much beloved by Indians of all castes and religions. Sita is everywoman in the Rāmāyaṇa: the idealized, faithful wife (pativratā), potent goddess (śakti), powerful ascetic (yoginī), devoted mother, and accused adulteress. Unlike the epic hero, the Indic epic heroine is capable of expressing a range of emotions that is distinctively human, and she has the most potential for personal development both within and beyond the text. The author employs the experience and emotion of that epic heroine to draw the audience into the epic arena through a strategy of narrative engagement.

The centrality of feminine voices and emotions in Indic epic traditions generates and maintains audience interest and instills feelings of concern about the protagonist's fate, which finds a close analog in the Karbala hagiographical tradition. The Karbala hagiographical tradition depends on the (p.93) survival of the women of Imam Husain's family. All of the men, with the exception of Imam Husain's eldest son, ʿAli Zain al-ʿAbidin, died in the battle, leaving the women to bear witness about what happened at Karbala. All subsequent Shiʿi devotional literature about Karbala represents a female perspective, although the typically male hagiographer may not be conscious of this. Most of the historical record of the events of the battle and its aftermath are based on the testimony of Imam Husain's sister, Zainab. All Shiʿi hagiographical writing is therefore a double remembrance: the hagiographers' words are refracted through the feminine voices and emotions of the women of the ahl-e bait. As Agha's hagiographical discourse reveals, the feminine emotions and the voices of the Karbala heroines draw the mourning assembly participants into the scene of battle; however, most of the drama takes place in the women's encampment. In the hagiographers' imaginations, the women of the ahl-e bait are the embodiment of imitable sainthood (wilāyah) and the ḥusaini ethic, which is dramatically amplified through their interactions with Imam Husain, the other men of the family, each other, andGod.

The heroines of the Indic epic traditions—both Hindu and Shiʿi—occupy what can be classified as ranges of characterization. At the most general level, epics tell grand stories about exceptional figures who are venerated for their high status, piety, good manners, and breeding. The second range of characterization is subtler, because some epic characters are dually portrayed as being extraordinary yet also profoundly human individuals with whom one can identify. Writers of epic and hagiography use both ranges of characterization in the creation of the heroine, whereas the hero tends to occupy a larger-than-life, distanced, static role.

With the advent of Shiʿism in the Deccan, the Karbala epic tradition, with its many heroines, readily adapted in form, idiom, and performance style to the already vital vernacular Indian epic traditions. Examining the portrayal of Zainab in Mohtasham Kashani's mid-sixteenth-century Persian-language narrative poem (marṡiya), the Karbalā-nāmeh (Karbala Chronicle), we can trace the way in which the female voice became typologized in Karbala hagiographical literature. Mohtasham's use of Zainab's voice and emotions in the dramatic climax of the Karbalā-nāmeh intensifies the majlis participants' feelings of grief and provokes the perpetual memory of the ḥusaini ethic of the ahl-e bait. From a literary critical perspective, the popularity of the Karbalā-nāmeh can be attributed to Mohtasham's strategy of narrative engagement enacted through Zainab's embodiment of the dual range of (p.94) characterization: her bravery and the charismatic blood running through her veins make her larger-than-life, yet her suffering is profoundly real and understandable. Mohtasham's feminine imaginaire has deeply influenced succeeding generations of writers of Karbala hagiographical poetry in Iran and the Indian Deccan.

Indian Epic Women: Sita and Fatimah Kubra in the Masculine Imaginaire

Sita, the ideal wife of King Rama, is one of the most beloved heroines of the two great Indic epic traditions, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. Sita figures prominently in the Indic epic imagination, particularly for her embodiment of faithful wifely duty (pativratā), suffering, and occasional subversion of patriarchal ideals. Indians who grow up hearing and seeing performances of these two epic traditions develop a sympathy for and identification with the heroines as dynamic and real characters, marking the gendered dimension of this literary-performance genre.

Although much of the theoretical scholarship on epic literary and performance traditions, particularly with regard to voice and emotion, has tended to focus on classical Greek and European texts, some of the observations made by scholars such as George Lukács, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Northrop Frye have a degree of applicability in the context of Indic-Karbala hagiographical traditions. Lukács posits that “the epic hero is, strictly speaking, never an individual” because the hero lacks the capacity for personal growth and individuation.12 In the Indic Karbala tradition and in the Rāmāyaṇa, however, not all epic characters lack true individuality. Evidence from the Deccani-Urdu Karbala tradition requires that an expansion of theses regarding the lack of the epic hero's individuality be limited only to the masculine hero. Interpreters of epic literary forms in diverse literary traditions thus confront a particular challenge.

In contrast, the Deccani-Urdu Shiʿi documentary evidence demonstrates genre contiguity with the Indic epic tradition, particularly with regard to the way in which the heroine is individualized, allowing the author narratively to engage with the audience. Lukács, Frye, and others do not seriously consider the role of the female character in European epic traditions. Although Frye assesses the role of the epic heroine in The Secular Scripture, he reduces these women to stock types: sacrificial virgin, scheming trickster seductress, and good wife. These women hardly have any of what Lukács might consider true individuality.13 In the Indic epic tradition, the female character possesses (p.95) greater individuality because she occupies a dual range of character that is generally not possible for the epic hero.

In the Indic-Karbala tradition, Imam Husain's martyred male family members are revered as heroes, but they are of the static type that Lukács theorizes. Indo-Islamic epic literature shows the personal growth and individuation of the epic protagonist, whereas epic heroes such as King Rama and Imam Husain are portrayed through strategies of narrative distancing. Imam Husain and the other male heroes of Karbala do not experience any sort of personal growth because they cannot narratologically do so. Their individuality and character cannot develop because as male warriors, they are confined to a specific, unitary plot outcome: martyrdom. The male heroes are not supposed to exhibit a novelistic expression of emotion. Instead, the men of Imam Husain's family fulfill an ideal. There is no narrative ambiguity because the reader-listener knows the conclusion of the story before it even begins.

Naqvi's discourse at the ladies' mehndī mourning assembly effectively engages in a strategy of narrative distancing to emphasize Qasem's battlefield exploits and his martyrdom. If a strategy of narrative engagement invites devotees to participate in Karbala's unfolding drama, provoking feelings of empathy and grief for these palpably “real” hero(in)es, then a distancing technique elevates the epic hero to the primary range of characterization as a figure who is larger-than-life. Although Naqvi dramatically modulates her voice and weeps, her discourse constructs Qasem as an idealized young warrior dedicated to his family and the ideals of Islam. Naqvi avoids discussing Qasem's marriage to Fatimah Kubra; in fact, Naqvi dismisses the event. Naqvi's grief for Qasem's martyrdom is certainly evident, but she is much more concerned with portraying Qasem as a larger-than-life hero whose sacrifice is to be admired and respected and whose domestic life is not worthy of emphasis in the sacred context of the mourning assembly. Naqvi's strategy of narrative distancing emphasizes Qasem's epic masculine qualities of emotional distance, bravery, and loyalty.

Lukács's assessment of the character stasis of the hero in the Greek epic tradition applies to the heroes of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, which in turn provide an analog for understanding the gendered strategies of narrative distancing and engagement employed in Karbala epic hagiography. Rama's character in most vernacular Rāmāyaṇa traditions presents him as a king responsible for ruling over his kingdom in a properly dharmic manner, although he inflicts considerable suffering on others, especially his wife, (p.96) Sita. Rama is a static figure in virtually all vernacular recensions of the Rāmā-yaṇa, whereas Sita is a dynamic character diversely portrayed as a powerful ascetic, a benign goddess, a goddess in her “terrible” form, and the embodiment of dharma (doing one's duty according to caste and life-cycle stage).

In the Rāmāyaṇa, the young prince, Rama, son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhya, has lost his claim to the throne through a series of palace intrigues. Exiled by his stepmother for fourteen years, Rama heads to the forest, accompanied by his wife, Sita, and loyal brother, Laksmana. The ten-headed demon, Ravana, learns of Sita's incomparable beauty and falls in love with her. Ravana creates a ruse to lure Rama and Laksmana away from Sita, allowing the demon to kidnap her to his kingdom of Lanka. Rather than going to Lanka, Rama sends the monkey-god, Hanuman, to rescue Sita, much to her chagrin. In the Sundarakāṇḍa (Beautiful Chapter) of Valmiki's Sanskrit Rāmā-yaṇa, Sita rejects Hanuman's rescue effort and implores him to send her husband:

  • If Rama kills Ravana, his family and his relatives,
  • Takes me in pride and returns home, that's an action that befits him.
  • So bring him here and make me happy
  • With his army, his commanders and his powerful brother.
  • I grieve without him, alone in this island.
  • Great monkey, do this for me.14

Insulted, Sita goads Rama into rescuing her through a speech of eloquent reproach:

  • You know your weapons; they are the best.
  • You are strong and truthful, for certain, but
  • Why not use these weapons on this demon,
  • If you really care for me?15

Chastened by Sita's words, Rama comes to Lanka to rescue his wife, who has repulsed her amorous kidnapper with ascetic practices that generate dangerous amounts of yogic heat (tapasyā). Rama lays waste to Lanka, kills Ravana, and takes Sita back to India. A happy ending to a dramatic story, or so Valmiki leads us to believe. But Rama doubts Sita's chastity and asks her to undergo the agniparīkṣā (trial by fire), which will either prove her guilt (infidelity) or innocence (chastity). In the performance context of the Rāmā-yaṇa, Sita's compulsion to prove her innocence to her distrusting husband (p.97) provokes men and women to feel sorry for her, since they know she has resolutely resisted Ravana's advances. Valmiki's gendered strategy of narrative engagement causes the audience to feel discomfort when Sita is humiliated by Rama's initial unwillingness to rescue his wife, further compromising her honor, and to experience shock and disbelief when he demands that his wife prove her fidelity. Sita enters the fire and emerges unscathed, yet her trial is not yet over.

After Sita and Rama return to Ayodhya and Rama is restored to the throne, a period of rāmrājya is established, and all appears well and dharmically balanced in the kingdom. To maintain perfectly dharmic order during this period of rāmrājya, Rama dispatches spies throughout the kingdom, and one day he learns of a washerman (dhobī) who has questioned Sita's chastity. At this point, the narrator reminds the audience that Sita has already submitted to and passed one trial by fire. Rama is horrified to discover that Sita's chastity and honor remain in doubt, thereby potentially lessening his power.

To reaffirm his authority, Rama asks Sita to undergo a second trial by fire, which he promises will decisively prove her chastity. This event is narrated in the Uttarakāṇḍa (Concluding Chapter),16 where Sita acquiesces to her husband's request: “I have never set my mind on any man other than Rama, so may the goddess of the earth open up for me. I have served only Rama in thought, word and deed, so may the goddess of the earth open up for me. If all that I have spoken is true, and if I do not know any man other than Rama, may the goddess of the earth open up for me.”17 Rather than submit yet again to the indignity of the trial by fire, Sita creates her own test, asking Mother Earth to swallow her up if she has remained loyal to Rama. A strategy of narrative engagement is employed in which the audience shares Sita's suffering. As the epic hero, Rama is so monodimensional, limited to only doing what is “correct,” that he is compelled to make Sita prove her honor. Sita, however, exhibits the qualities of the narratively engaging epic heroine, experiencing personal growth, emotion, and individuation, which she demonstrates by returning to Mother Earth rather than be humiliated one more time.

This outline of the significant events of the Rāmāyaṇa illustrates certain narratological elements and strategies that reflect a gendering process in Indic epic traditions. Lukács observed that the epic hero is never an indi-vidual—he cannot step outside the character that has been constructed for him. This narratological rigidity of characterization is limited to the male hero of the epic. Rama's kingly persona and voice are never used to draw the (p.98) audience into the drama through shared emotions, so it is incumbent on male narrators and writers to assume a “transvestic” role by imagining and becoming the active female agent of the epic.18 In a study of rekhtī, a genre of Urdu poetry in which men imagine themselves and speak as women, C. M. Naim asserts that this is a specifically Indic genre.19 Rekhtī's transvestic quality allows a male writer to free himself from patriarchal controls that inscribe the expression of emotion as a feminine trait. At first glance, this observation seems to reinforce a gendered inscription of rationality and emotional control on the masculine body, further strengthening patriarchal claims to authority; however, it is perhaps more useful to understand this transvestic strategy as further evidence of the unnaturalness of masculine and feminine in the binary system of gender. Vulnerability, a trait that is coded feminine, is expressed through Sita and her various trials and in the case of Karbala through the female members of Imam Husain's family, who are taken as prisoners to Damascus after the battle.

It is neither accurate nor fair to state that men lack emotion, because just as women are socialized to perform certain types of socially sanctioned feminine emotion (tears), men are conditioned to be reasonably passionate. Naqvi appeals to the socially acceptable expression of masculine emotion. Naqvi's discourse is transvestic; she weeps, yet her narrative of Qasem's martyrdom emphasizes Qasem's heroism, distancing the female majlis participants through the strategy of passion in the service of reason.20 Likewise, Agha cries and assumes a feminine voice and emotions in his mehndī mourning assembly discourse. His plaintive cry, “Oh God! Don't let this bride become a widow,” is intended to cast the male majlis participants into the throes of intense crying. Naqvi's narrative distancing and emphasis on factuality limits the extent to which one can enter into the hagiographical realm of Karbala, pointing to her tendency to use the mourning assembly for “correcting young people on matters of the commands of Islamic law [sharīʿah] and Shiʿi doctrine.”21

Two possible explanations for why these two discourses exhibit the transvestic performance of voice and emotion can be found in the strategies of narrative engagement and distancing employed by the majlis orators. Hagiography constitutes a form of epic literature that is predicated on simultaneous strategies of narrative engagement and distancing, compelling the Shiʿa to enter the drama of Karbala and cultivate an idealized selfhood that is informed by the religious and vernacular social values and gender roles that are refracted through the embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic (p.99) of Imam Husain's family. The Indic imaginal inhabitation of the contours of female emotion is based on a narratological strategy of engagement, drawing listeners into the story so that they identify with and feel sympathy for the protagonist(s). As Najmabadi notes, the direct gaze compels interaction between the viewer and the subject/object being viewed, effecting a relationship in which neither party is passive and distant.22

In the Rāmāyaṇa and Karbala narratives, the audience connects with the female characters, who speak directly to the other actors in the story and emotionally engage the listeners/readers through a range of narratological devices that accomplish a variety of goals. In the case of Karbala hagiographies, both in text and performance, devotees are drawn into the action of several settings, most notably the cosmopolitan23 sites of Karbala and Damascus that are transformed into “real” vernacular sites to which devotees can relate. Zainab, Fatimah Kubra, and the other heroines of Karbala draw majlis participants into the action and elicit appropriate expressions of emotion from them by compelling them to enter the tableau. As a distant epic hero, Qasem's role is to die and become a martyr, whereas Fatimah Kubra survives the battle of Karbala; her fate as a “widow forever” leaves her in a state of narratological suspension into which the Shiʿa may insert themselves.

Reflecting the vernacular context of the Deccan, the events of Karbala are expressed in a feminine idiom, and the emotional contours of the event are truly female-centered. The image memory of Karbala is refracted through a women's universe because the women survived the battle. In particular, Zainab was the messenger of martyrdom and provides a powerful role model for both men and women. Sixteenth-century Persian marṡiya writer Mohtasham Kashani employs a narrative strategy that engages hagiographical transvestism. At the climax of the Karbalā-nāmeh, Mohtasham transvestically assumes Zainab's voice when she speaks in apostrophic form, first to her grandfather, the Prophet Muhammad, and then to her mother, Fatimah al-Zahra. Testifying to the deceased members of Husain's family, Mohtasham uses Zainab's voice to foster emotions of intense grief in the Shiʿa that are amplified by the exceptional qualities of the members of this family and their love for one another and faith in Islam. Engaging Zainab's voice, Mohtasham powerfully and effectively draws the listener into the moment. Everyone, male and female alike, can share in Zainab's anxiety in this terrible situation and weeps for her vulnerability, yet Mohtasham's strategy of hagiographical narrative engagement also compels his audience to follow her example (p.100) and remain steadfast in faith and persevere in even the most trying circum-stances. In the Karbalā-nāmeh, Zainab simultaneously occupies a dual range of characterization in which she is larger-than-life yet a real and imitable model of the ḥusaini ethic of faith and sacrifice. In Mohtasham's poem, Zainab is both a social and religious role model for Shiʿi Muslims; more important, her voice and emotion effectively instructed sixteenth-century Iranians in how to be properly Shiʿa. Zainab is a dynamic heroine: her emotion and modes of speech teach the Shiʿa how properly to remember and mournImam Husain.

Setting the World Aflame: Mohtasham's Zainab and the Message of Karbala

In chapter 10 of Rowẓat al-shohadā (The Garden of the Martyrs), a sixteenth-century Persian-language Karbala hagiography, Mullah Husain Vaʿez Kashefirepeatedly exhorts the Shiʿa to remember the faith and sacrifice of Karbala's hero(in)es. At this moment in Kashefi's hagiography, the penultimate battle has taken place, Imam Husain has been martyred, and the women and children have been taken as prisoners to Damascus, Syria, where they are paraded before the ʿUmayyad khalīfah, Yazid. The surviving women captives go neither meekly nor silently. At Yazid's court, Zainab bears witness to what happened to her brother, family, and supporters at Karbala. Brought before the Kufan governor, Ibn Ziyad, Zainab strides past him and takes her seat, giving neither an oath of allegiance (bayʿah) nor a greeting. When Ibn Ziyad chastises her insolence, in a tone redolent with sarcasm, Zainab warns,

You have done a good deed. You have done something important, on account of which you are hoping for freshness, enjoyment, and peace of mind. From this baseless wisdom, and from the spine of deception, you have become drunk. Through pride and vainglory, the transient has escaped your hand. “Prepare for the hangover tomorrow; you are drunk today.” Do you not know that you have killed the best of the Family of Prophecy? You have cut off the root and the branch of the tree in the orchard of prophecy. If this message is the remedy of your heart, then it will soon become your daily repentance. Its imprint will remain on the page of time. You shall receive a compensation for your own unacceptable behavior:

The tyrant thought that he had oppressed us,

    It remained on his neck and passed us by.24

(p.101) Zainab's public and incessantly repeated account of what happened at Karbala makes it impossible for any person to forget about her family's sacrifice and embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic.

Because of this experiential dimension to Shiʿi devotional mourning literature, such poetic forms as the marṡiya, nauḥa, and salām as well as the more expansive prose narratives serve a dual function: First, this literature compels the audience to remember the Battle of Karbala. Second, and more important, the majlis participants remember the events of Karbala through the perspective of Imam Husain's sister. Zainab's statement that Karbala's “imprint will remain on the page of time” dramatically amplifies the meaning of social memory for the Shiʿi community. Zainab's speech is a powerful form of moral communication that produces a social sensibility and moral community through the devotional literature and ritual performance of the majlis.

In Yazid's court (darbar), as well as every other place that she visits, Zainab instantiates the Shiʿi tradition of remembrance and mourning that keeps alive this calamitous moment through a mode of ritualized recollection of her family's suffering at Karbala (maṣāʾib). The Shiʿa have attributed to Zainab the composition of the first marṡiya, a narrative poem eulogizing the Battle of Karbala and an emotionally engaging form of maṣāʾib that draws devotees into a Shiʿi moral universe. Marṡiya is a shorthand term used by the Shiʿa of South Asia to refer to a broad range of hagiographical literary styles, both prose and verse, that narrate the events of Karbala. Whether marṡiya, prose narrative, or the chanted nauḥa, this devotional literature seeks to draw the Shiʿa into the spirit of the ḥusaini ethic of faith and sacrifice and to cultivate an idealized self based on the imitable socioreligious model of Imam Husain and his family.

The marṡiya originated in an oral tradition in which rhymed and rhythmic laments celebrate the merits (rithā) of the deceased. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the female relatives traditionally commemorated the activities and heroic qualities of deceased male family members. The Arabic marṡiya tradition has tended to be cultivated and transmitted within a woman's world. Women composers and performers of the marṡiya have found an abiding place in this deeply religious history, and this place became further solidified after the martyrdom of Imam Husain, particularly because of the large number of marṡiyas about the tribulations of the ahl-e bait that are openly acknowledged to have been composed by women, especially Zainab.

The use of the feminine voice and emotions in the Shiʿi hagiographical (p.102) literary tradition provides an important ritual context in which the female relatives of Imam Husain adequately and appropriately mourn the loss of their beloved spiritual leader, father, husband, and brother. Lynda Clarke argues that what is most significant about the various forms of hagiographical literature commemorating the Battle of Karbala is its “beauty and deep feeling,” which “has something of the force of memory” for the intended audience.25

The highly conventionalized style that emerged from the marṡiya compositions of these pre-Islamic professional female mourners has become an important element of the Shiʿi hagiographical tradition, especially as it developed in Persian and other Islamicate languages such as Urdu. The marṡiya provided women with not only a socially acceptable means for mourning deceased family and tribe members but also a conventionalized and highly stylized genre of religious literature.

Mohtasham Kashani's twelve-stanza marṡiya, the Karbalā-nāmeh, offers one of the best examples of how the Battle of Karbala is remembered from a feminine perspective in both voice and emotion.26 Mohtasham cleverly translated the genre of the Arabic marṡiya into a vernacular Persian language and idiom. Mohtasham's marṡiya served as a model for Iranian Shiʿa, narrating the historical events of Karbala through vivid words and imagery, guiding the Shiʿa to experience the emotions of gham (grief), mātam (lamentation),27 and giryān (weeping). Following the established conventions in Arabic literature and ritual practice of women remembering the dead and through the narrative strategy of literary transvestism, Mohtasham utilizes Zainab's voice to great emotional effect as she speaks to the Prophet Muhammad and Fatimah al-Zahra in their graves. Zainab's voice is important not only because she was endowed with the responsibility of spreading the message of Husain's martyrdom but also because as a woman, she is an important embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic.

Because Zainab's suffering and testimony are the centerpiece of Mohtasham's poem, we can identify the marṡiya and all other types of Karbala literature as a form of hagiography. As such, the Karbalā-nāmeh serves several didactic functions. In particular, this marṡiya compels active remembrance of the Battle of Karbala and instructs devotees in proper emotional behavior, such as self-flagellation (mātam) and grief (soz). In its performance context, the marṡiya eliminates both time and place: every place and every moment is Karbala. In this sense, the marṡiya is experiential because it is predicated on Zainab's act of remembrance.28 As hagiography, the marṡiya constructs the (p.103) women of the ahl-e bait, particularly Zainab, as imitable saints (embodiments of wilāyah) and paragons of the ḥusaini ethic. The women of Karbala exemplify ideals to which all may aspire.

Since hagiography chronicles the lives and experiences of saints, who exemplify particular religious ideals, the genre must be both didactic and experiential. Although the many forms of Karbala literature function as hagiography, the vocabulary, themes, and highlighted characters must constantly change to “chronicle the ways in which followers experienced the saint as a saint.”29 Hagiographies are sacred biographies that tell saints' life stories. In this regard, Karbala devotional literature corresponds in part to Hippolyte Delehaye's classic definition of hagiography as “writings inspired by religious devotion to the saints and intended to increase that devotion.”30 We must, however, take care not to strive too much to determine the actual or true historical life of the saint. Hagiographies should not necessarily be read as works of history; rather, they are literary works that emplot the saints' lifetimes in specific social and historical contexts. Thus, at its most basic level, hagiography is “the history of how the saint's followers have chosen to remember him or her,” and hagiographers “serve as mediators, creating a bridge between the saint and his followers through their texts.”31 Hagiography, like epic, is experiential because it is an interactive genre that is based on strategies of narrative engagement and distancing. As a form of Shiʿi moral communication, the Karbalā-nāmeh served an important didactic function in teaching Iranians about the Battle of Karbala by employing a strategy of narrative engagement reinforced by Mohtasham's use of vivid vocabulary and imagery. In the Karbalā-nāmeh, Zainab's memorializing function calls both women and men to remember Karbala according to how their individual gendered selves construct the salient features of this remembrance. In particular, men might emulate Zainab's willingness to die to protect Islam from injustice, and women might emulate Zainab's fierce

dedication to family and faith.

Zainab's apostrophic speech to Muhammad and Fatimah in their graves illustrates Mohtasham's two characterizations of Imam Husain's sister. Zainab is the larger-than-life heroine who survived the battle, and she understands that she and her brother share a divinely bestowed responsibility to spread the message of Karbala. Husain's role was to die for the dual causes of familial justice and religion, and Zainab's responsibility was to spread the message of his martyrdom and to preserve the Imamate. This aspect of Zainab's characterization reflects her role as an epic heroine, yet the grief and (p.104) anger she expresses over the carnage and death that she has witnessed make everyday Shiʿa identify with her and understand her feelings of anguish:

Suddenly, among the dead the eyes of the daughter of the Radiant [zahrā]

Fell upon the noble body of the Imam of the Age.

Impulsively, she cried, “This is Husain [Haẕā Husain]!”32 So hot, that this cry set the world aflame.

Then with tongue of reproach, that part of Fatimah [baẓʿat al-batūl]

Turned her face to Medina, saying, “O Messenger!”

“This man slain and fallen upon the plain—this is Husain!

This prey that is covered from head to foot in blood—this is Husain!

“This verdant palm, from which the smoke of the life-burning fire of thirst

Was borne up from the earth to the heavens—this is Husain!

“This fish, fallen in a sea of blood,

Upon whose body are wounds more numerous than the stars33—this is Husain!

“This one drowned in the ocean of martyrdom, the waves of whose blood

Have stained the face of the desert red—this is Husain!

“These parched lips, prohibited from the banks of the Euphrates,

From whose blood the earth has become like a mighty river—this is


“This king of a small army, whose troops of tears and sighs

Decamped from this world—this is Husain!

“This quivering body that was left like this on the ground,

The unburied King of the Martyrs—this is Husain!

When she turned to address Zahra in the Everlasting Cemetery

She roasted the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air:

“O! Intimate friend of the brokenhearted, behold our state,

Behold us, exiled, forlorn, and without companion.

(p.105) “Your children, who will be the intercessors at the Resurrection,

Behold them in the abyss of the torment of the People of Oppression.

“In eternity, beyond the veil of both worlds, open your arms wide!

And in the world, behold our misfortune out in the open.

“No, no! Come to Karbala like a weeping rain cloud.

Behold the seditious flood of rebellion and the wave of affliction.

“Behold all of the slain bodies in the dust and blood.

Behold, the heads of commanders all set upon spears!

“The head that always rested on the Prophet's shoulder,

Behold it separated from its shoulders by an enemy's spear.

“That body which was nurtured in your embrace,

Behold it wallowing in the dust of the battlefield of Karbala

“O! Part of Fatimah, give us justice from Ibn-e Ziyad,

For he destroyed the People of the House of Prophecy and cast them in the dust.”34

Mohtasham deliberately employs Zainab as the familiar female voice of the marṡiya tradition and does so in a way that is multivalent. First, Mohtasham establishes a literary connection with the Arabic marṡiya tradition by using Zainab's feminine voice and Arabic phraseology to mark the emotional climax of the poem. Second, and more important, by adopting Zainab's voice, Mohtasham's poem fulfills two functions of hagiography. First, the Karbala narrative conveys the political-historical dimension of Shiʿism, particularly the idea that Zainab was endowed with her brother's political legacy. Moreover, through her embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic and imitable sainthood (ḥusainiyyat-wilāyah), she safeguards the survival of the ahl-e bait and Islam. This is her role as the epic heroine who is a religious exemplar. Second, by using Zainab's voice and emotions, Mohtasham makes his mar-ṡiya a powerful form of moral communication, instructing people how to remember Karbala and reminding them to emulate the social and religious model of Imam Husain and his family.

By tapping into the tradition in Islamic culture of women as the primary eulogizers and memorializers of deceased male relatives and by utilizing Zainab's voice in the Karbalā-nāmeh, Mohtasham not only created a dramatic (p.106) climax in his Karbala narrative but also transformed the genre into a distinct form of epic hagiography.

Karbala's Deccani Idiom: The Ahl-e bait Becomes Indian

Just as texts and performances commemorating the Battle of Karbala were translated into an Iranian idiom by sixteenth-century Persian writers, most notably Kashefiand Mohtasham, these texts were brought to the Deccan, where they acquired distinctive South Indian cultural, ecological, and linguistic forms. As early as the fourteenth century, Iranians began to immigrate to the Deccan in large numbers to serve in the court (darbar) of the Bahmani king, Muhammad II (r. 1378–97). S. A. A. Rizvi notes that the Iranians “practiced taqiyya [dissimulation] although they did not miss any opportunity to prepare the ground for the growth of Shiʿism in the Deccan.”35 The ʿAdil Shahis of Bijapur were enthusiastic patrons of the foreign (āfāqī) scholars and writers who filled their courts.36 In 1585 C.E., an Iranian āfāqī, Mir Muhammad Muʾmin Astarabadi, was appointed to the court of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in Golconda (on the outskirts of the modern city of Hyderabad). This appointment proved significant for the development of Shiʿi devotionalism in the Deccan. According to Rizvi, Mir Muʾmin was astonishingly successful in introducing and propagating Shiʿism in the non-Muslim communities of the Deccan: “As if the construction of Hyderabad itself was not enough, Mir Muhammad Muʾmin founded many villages as centers of Shiʿi and Islamic life. In them he constructed reservoirs, mosques, caravanserais, ʿAshurkhanas and planted gardens. The mosques and ʿAshurkhanas brought the Hindu villagers into contact with the Islamic and Shiʿi way of life. The ʿalams and other symbols of the tragedy of Karbala were introduced by Mir Muʾmin into these villages where they aroused Hindu curiosity and helped to convert them to Shiʿism.”37 Although he was an Iranian and an outsider to the diverse religious traditions practiced by the people of the region, Mir Muʾmin thus contributed to the creation of a complex multicultural environment in which Hindu, Shiʿa, Persian, Telugu, and Deccani came into dynamic contact.

With the movement of scholars, poets, and merchants between Iran and India, both Mohtasham's Karbalā-nāmeh and Mullah Husain Vaʿez Kashefi's Rowẓat al-shohadā were being read in the mourning assemblies at Golconda and Bijapur by the end of the sixteenth century.38 The Karbalā-nāmeh was recited in the majlis mourning assemblies, particularly under the patronage (p.107) of ʿAli ʿAdil Shah I of Bijapur (r. 1558–80) and Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah of Golconda (r. 1580–1611). To make the recitation of the Karbala narrative understandable to those who knew only the local languages of Deccani and Telugu, Mohtasham's and Kashefi's writings were translated and vernacularized to reflect the tragedy of Karbala through a distinctively Indic idiom and worldview. This does not mean that these writings experienced a brief moment of popularity and then faded into obscurity. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. Just as in Iran, the Karbalā-nāmeh “became a source of elegy emulation for … Indian poets of ensuing generations.”39 The repeated imitation and translation of the Karbalā-nāmeh and Rowẓat al-shohadā attest to the fact that these two styles of Shiʿi hagiographical literature created a literary and imaginary link that enabled the Shiʿa to remember the events of Karbala through vernacular idioms and as a sacralized modality through which the hero(in)es of Imam Husain's family teach religious and social values.

Rowẓat al-shohadā appeared in the Deccan sometime in the mid–seventeenth century, and within a couple of decades, countless writers were translating the Karbala narrative into Deccani-Urdu. One of the Deccan's earliest composers of Shiʿi hagiographical literature was a Hindu, Rama Rao, who wrote under the pen name (takhalluṣ) Śaiva. As the first Hindu writer of mar-ṡiya in the Deccan, Rama Rao received the patronage of ʿAli ʿAdil Shah of Bijapur. In 1681, Rama Rao also completed one of the first Deccani-Urdu translations of Rowẓat al-shohadā. With non-Muslim practitioners of Hindu traditions participating in the composition of Shiʿi devotional literature, the remembrance of Karbala in the Deccan was bound to reflect an Indic vernacular worldview and its attendant social, aesthetic, and gender values.

Shiʿi devotional literature continued to flourish in all parts of the Dec-can. With the collapse of the Qutb Shahi dynasty following Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's lengthy siege of Golconda Fort in 1687, the succeeding Asaf Jahi dynasty (1724–1948 C.E.) was Sunni, although the Nizams exhibited a predilection for Shiʿism in both governance and aesthetics. Under the reign of Asaf Jah II Nizam ʿAli Khan (r. 1762–1803) and Asaf Jah III Sikandar Jah (r. 1803–29), Shiʿi institutions, religious practice, and literature experienced a period of revival. The Nizams and other senior members of the government supported renovation projects and the construction of new ʿāshūrkhānas, which many observers considered official acknowledgment of Shiʿism's indelible religiocultural imprint on the Deccan.

If Hyderabad's archives may serve as an indicator of the sorts of Shiʿi hagiographical literature commissioned and composed in the eighteenth (p.108) and nineteenth centuries in the Deccan, Kashefi's Rowẓat al-shohadā was one of the most popular Shiʿi devotional texts of the period. Writers in the Deccani-Urdu dialect found the work a malleable text in which the entire world of Karbala was transformed from seventh-century Arab Iraq to early modern Hyderabad and its surrounding countryside. Some authors chose to retain the Persianate title of Kashefi's work, while many others assigned new titles to their translations as part of the process of vernacularizing the hagiographic text (and related performance traditions).

Most vernacular recensions of Rowẓat al-shohadā were composed in verse form. Around 1717, Vali Vellori composed one of the most famous South Indian versions of Kashefi's Karbala hagiography, ascribing to it the title Dah majlis (The Ten Assemblies). Vali Vellori retained the contents of Kashefi's Karbala hagiography but appealed to local aesthetics by composing the text in rhythmic metrical form that facilitated its dramatic recitation in the mourning assemblies. Composition of Shiʿi devotional literature remained a popular pastime for the governing elite during the Asaf Jahi dynasty, with two significant manuscripts produced during this period. The first, a different manuscript also titled Dah majlis, was written by Mir ʿAlam, the prime minister (dīwān) to Asaf Jah III Sikandar Jah in Muharram 1196 A.H./1781 C.E. The same year, Mir Vali Khan Munis composed Riyaẓ al-ṭāhirīn40 (The Gardens of the Chaste), a Karbala hagiography written in prose form. In both of these hagiographies, Karbala and its hero(in)es were thoroughly vernacularized through the integration of Indic practices, clothing, and forms of speech as well as descriptions of the area's physical land-scape.

As a genre of Shiʿi literature, Deccani-Urdu Karbala hagiographies maintained their distinctively Islamic tone despite their otherwise thorough vernacularization and absorption of Indic epic forms and gendered conventions of characterization. By the end of the nineteenth century, Karbala hagiographies had clearly become another type of Indic epic literature in which male heroes conform to rigid roles that preclude them from emotional development and engagement with the audience. The female characters figure prominently in Karbala hagiographers' imaginaire—in fact, the female characters become the emotional focus of the drama, and through strategies of narrative engagement, the women of the ahl-e bait come to embody the ḥusaini ethic of moral communication that instructs men and women how to cultivate idealized selves.

(p.109) Men Mourning Widows: Fatimah Kubra in Mir ʿAlam's Masculine Imaginaire

In his mehndī mourning assembly discourse, Agha expressed true grief for Fatimah Kubra's widowhood and suffering so soon after her battlefield marriage. Weeping and raising his voice to a crescendo, Agha cried out, “Oh God! Do not let this bride become a widow!” In the discourses that I heard Agha deliver at the Khan family's men's mehndī mourning assemblies in 2005 and 2006, the memory of Fatimah Kubra that he invoked is of a bride whose wedding is anything but shādī. The conventional Urdu word for “wedding” is shādī, but its more literal meaning is “joyfulness,” the emotional state that a wedding is supposed to produce. Of course, there is nothing joyful about Fatimah Kubra's wedding, over which death and destruction loom darkly. Listening to Agha's discourse, I wondered whether his extremely passionate narrative of Fatimah Kubra's suffering is typical of male majlis orators in Hyderabad.

In his role of majlis orator, Agha, too, is a hagiographer, drawing on the complex, vernacular devotional Karbala traditions of the Deccan. Engaging a transvestic voice, Agha speaks as a woman, cries, and beats his breast to convey his identification with and embodiment of Fatimah Kubra's ḥusaini ethic. In his discourses, we can see that Agha employs a sophisticated strategy of gendered narrative engagement, drawing the majlis participants into the feminine world and emotions of the wedding chamber. In the Indian epic traditions of Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata (as well as many other vernacular narrative performance contexts), the audience identifies the heroine as both extraordinary and imitable. Sita is a good wife yet also is a subversive example of how women can resist systems of patriarchal oppression and violence. Imam Husain's sister, Zainab, is a similarly dynamic epic heroine and imitable saint: a dedicated mother/wife/sister, she also fulfills God's will to uphold the Imamate and spread the message of Karbala in the aftermath of the battle. For many hagiographers who depict the hero(in)es of Karbala in text and performance, the female survivors are easier to transform into saints with distinctly mimetic qualities. For Agha, Fatimah Kubra is special and real because despite being just a young girl, she willingly sacrifices her husband for the political and spiritual cause of Islam.

Agha's dramatic portrayal of Fatimah Kubra as both a strong and pathetic bride/widow draws on an established Deccani tradition. The widowing of Fatimah Kubra is a popular theme for writers of Karbala literature in the (p.110) Deccan. Usually, however, Fatimah Kubra's experience is a subplot in texts such as Rowẓat al-shohadā and the various recensions of the Dah majlis. One text I encountered during my archival research differed from the twenty other Deccan-Urdu manuscript sections I examined. This manuscript offered a unique hagiographical depiction of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra; moreover, only one Hyderabad archive possessed a copy of this document.41 This particular manuscript attracted my attention for two reasons: first, this manuscript was composed by Mir ʿAlam, prime minister (dīwān) from 1804 to 1808, during the reign of Nizam Sikandar Jah; and second, this chapter on Qasem's martyrdom actually says very little about the bridegroom/warrior.

Sayyid Abu al-Qasem Mir ʿAlam Bahadur (b. 1752) was the son of Say-yid Reza, who immigrated to the Deccan from Iran. In his youth, Mir ʿAlam studied Persian literature and the fundamentals of Shiʿi thought and belief.42 This early education instilled in Mir ʿAlam a deep knowledge of Shiʿism and love for the ahl-e bait. In addition to patronizing Muharram mourning assemblies and poets, Mir ʿAlam also composed Dah majlis in the poetic form of a qaṣīdah (narrative encomium). Mir ʿAlam was a prominent supporter of Hyderabad's Shiʿi community, and he wrote one of the most significantly vernacularized and Indianized of the Deccani-Urdu Karbala hagiographies composed since the seventeenth century. Mir ʿAlam's account of Qasem's martyrdom has little to do with the hero of the chapter's title; rather, in a striking act of literary transvestism, the author narrates this event through Fatimah Kubra's voice and perspective. Mir ʿAlam focuses almost exclusively on the vernacular rituals of an Indian wedding, Indic anxieties about widow-hood, and the articulation of the gender roles to be cultivated and embodied by Hyderabadi men and women. Qasem is peripheral to the narrative; his only real role is to be martyred. Mir ʿAlam transvestically inhabits Fatimah Kubra's emotional world and status as a bride/widow. Mir ʿAlam engages his audience by channeling Fatimah Kubra's speech, emotions, and actions, thereby compelling majlis participants to share in her experience, to weep for her sacrifice of her husband, to be inspired by her faith in Islam, and to connect with her as both a religious and vernacular social role model. Both Mir ʿAlam and Agha use engaging narrative strategies that transform Fatimah Kubra into a woman who is as real and intimate as audience members' sisters, mothers, or aunts.

Mir ʿAlam introduces the chapter on Qasem's martyrdom with a dramatic statement that he is about to tell the story of a wedding unlike any other:

(p.111) In this manner, the majlis of the seventh day has been written, in which,

    By this grievous event, the customary rituals of the wedding were


In the place of gaiety, there is bloodshed.

The first fifteen lines of the chapter, composed in verse form, continue to set the scene. The members of the ahl-e bait are invoked, and their suffering is brought into focus when Mir ʿAlam asks his audience,

  • How can I describe the effulgence of the Holy Five,
  •     Whose wedding garments are like a shroud?
  • O! Lovers [of the ahl-e bait], here is an account of their death;
  •     Now, Listen! This is the moment of the bridegroom Qasem's shahādat!
  • This lament is for the martyrdom of this newly fledged bridegroom,
  •     Just as it is for the new bride Fatimah Kubra.

The narrator calls on the Shiʿa, the loyal devotees of the ahl-e bait, to participate in and celebrate Qasem and Fatimah Kubra's wedding. The narrator sets up a metalepsis that draws the majlis participants into the drama of the battlefield wedding. In the ritual context of the majlis, the use of narrative metalepsis enacts a vernacular transformation of Karbala in which each man and woman imagines his or her participation in the battlefield wedding, where Fatimah Kubra's crimson bridal sāṛī is transformed into a widow's shroud.

The narrator next extols the extraordinary qualities of Qasem (“the best of humanity”) and Fatimah Kubra (Husain's beloved daughter). These two youth are superlative embodiments of faith and honor. Their wedding attains a supernatural and transcendent quality that is foreshadowed by Qasem's father, Imam Hasan, and the joining together of these two exceptional people is necessary to fulfill his will and testament (waṣīyat). Qasem and Fatimah Kubra are described as maʿṣūm (innocent children) who have been forced into a situation that requires maturity far beyond their years. The narrator creates a dramatic tension that juxtaposes Qasem and Fatimah Kubra's youth with their embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic:

At that moment, the son of Shabbar43 dismounted from the horse,

    and fell at the feet of that lord [sarvar] Husain.

He said, “Oh King, will everyone achieve martyrdom?

    I am an orphan [yatīm], so please grant me permission to go to


(p.112) Qasem's statement that he is an orphan marks a transition in the narrative by which he simultaneously emphasizes his parentless state and his recognition of the fatherlike role that Imam Husain has assumed. Imam

Husain's deference to the wishes of his elder brother and his desire to protect his favorite nephew elevate the pathos of this moment:

  • “How can I give my approval, alas!
  •     By God when I remember my brother.
  • If you populate the battlefield with your corpse,
  •     How will I hold myself accountable to Hasan?”
  • Hearing the king's words, Qasem was disheartened,
  •     He said, “Uncle, this is my lament,
  • How will it be possible for me, your majesty,
  •     That I might see your martyrdom with my own eyes?
  • How can I not lose my neck in this fashion?
  •     Oh King, my fate has been written on my forehead!
  • This affliction has become such a sign
  •     That my head does not appear to bear any burden at all.”
  • “If you go before me into battle,
  •     How can I show this face of mine to Hasan?”

Imam Husain is rendered powerless in this impossible situation. How can he allow his nephew to go into battle, where he will most certainly be martyred? How will Imam Husain face his brother on the Day of Judgment? These questions torment Husain, yet he feels worse seeing his beloved nephew yearning to go into battle and fight for the dual cause of religion and family. At this juncture in the drama, the epic hero exhibits the maximum amount of emotion possible, and the narrator releases him from the responsibility of solving this dilemma.

Incapacitated by his grief, Imam Husain summons his sister, Zainab, to take control of this situation with Qasem. The narrator effects another transition in the action by introducing Zainab, whom hagiographical strategies of gendered narrative engagement portray as a far more practical and action-oriented character than her brother. Zainab heaves a sigh, speaks, and moves Qasem along his fated path toward matrimony and martyrdom:

  • When Imam Husain summoned his sister, Zainab,
  •     In such a manner she was consumed with sighs and began to say,
  • “Now, Hasan's house is destroyed,
  •     Qasem has gone to battle so that he may lose his head.
  • (p.113) I had but one wish for this marriage,
  •     That I could see the garlanding [sehrā bandhānā] of the bride and
  •         groom.
  • Now, go and take him to the encampment
  •     Make my Qasem into a bridegroom.
  • Quickly, make the wedding preparations for the bride,
  •     She will burn terribly from that bloody shroud.44
  • This bridegroom is a guest for but a moment;
  •     I shall see him again when he is in the grave.”

Imam Husain is effectively removed from the action, but Zainab's voice is increasingly poignant as she speaks of her futile wishes and aspirations for the wedding of her niece and nephew. Zainab's wish to see the bride and groom garlanded with flowers (sehrā bandhānā) reflects an Indic vernacular practice that marks the completion of a Muslim wedding after the couple signs the marriage contract (ʿaqd-e nikāḥ). The bride and groom then perform the postwedding ritual of ʿarsī muṣḥāf, sitting side by side as the groom sees his bride's face for the first time in a mirror. Women from both families approach the couple and place heavy, fragrant garlands of flowers around their necks (fig. 3).

During the garlanding ceremony (sehrā bandhānā), the bride and groom are seated together and adorned with roses, jasmine, and marigolds. They are fed sweets, and family and friends wish the newlyweds a happy and fruitful marriage. While a joyous, laughter-filled event for onlookers, it is a somber occasion for the new couple, marking the final event in the lengthy wedding ceremony. Zainab laments not witnessing this event, thereby provoking the grief of Hyderabadi majlis participants, who understand the value and meaning of such vernacular wedding rituals.

Zainab's words establish another inversion in which this wedding is not the joining together of a man and woman in a permanent relationship but rather a fleeting and tragic union, and the audience can find consolation only from the extraordinariness of the situation. Zainab's speech exaggerates the transience of this marriage, in which the “bridegroom is a guest for but a moment / I shall see him again when he is in the grave.” Despite the fact that this most unusual marriage takes place in extraordinary circumstances, lacking any of the vernacular ceremonies and rituals that are customary in respectable South Asian Muslim weddings, Fatimah Kubra and Qasem must get married.

  • The Saddest Story Ever ToldTranslating Karbala Through Feminine Voices & Emotions into a Deccani ShiʿI Idiom

    Figure 3. The garlanding ceremony (sehrā bandhānā) that marks the end of a Hyderabadi Shiʿi wedding, Bait al-Qaʾem ʿāshūrkhāna, Purani Haveli, Hyderabad, 15 December 2005.

    (p.114) Now the mother's offspring was snatched away,
  •     To whom she came in order to make into a groom.
  • “Now, make the daughter, too, a bride
  •     Bring her quickly to the place of the bridegroom Qasem!”
  • Bano45 said, “How can I bring Kubra?
  • Woe! How can I make her a bride?”
  • She groaned, “What kind of a marriage is this to be?
  •     He has gone and is about to lose his head!”
  • Saying this, she went to Kubra.
  •     She said, “All of my hopes for my daughter are dashed.
  • I have come in order to tie the bracelet [kaṅgnā] to your wrist,
  •     I have come to make you a bride, my dear.”
  • Kubra said, “Now, I desire nothing else.
  •     The marriage contract ceremony is enough for me.”

This vignette reflects the tension caused by Qasem's and Fatimah Kubra's mothers' desire to provide their children with all of the customary rituals necessary for a respectable vernacular South Asian Muslim marriage. Fatimah Kubra understands the direness of the situation and implores the women to perform the minimum requirements for the marriage—that is, signing the (p.115) ʿaqd-e nikāḥ. The narrator speaks almost exclusively through the voices of the women of the ahl-e bait, expressing emotions that are distinctly feminine, almost to the exclusion of all men except Qasem. In India, women usually arrange marriages and organize and plan the variety of customary events. As in North America, men are often peripheral to the planning and organizing of a wedding. The narrator removes Imam Husain from this vignette so that he will conform to his gendered role as epic hero of the ahl-e bait. One might assume that he is tending to more pressing matters of strategy and battle rather than to the “women's work” of arranging a wedding.

The women busy themselves with wedding preparations. Although many of the rituals and customs of marriage cannot be performed in this battle-field wedding, the women of the ahl-e bait do their best to make the ceremony conform to the requirements of an idealized South Asian Muslim wedding. The clothing of the bride and groom and the wedding rituals performed are completely vernacularized, thereby making this upside-down wedding much more poignant and meaningful for Deccani majlis participants. One can vividly imagine such a tragic wedding in culturally relevant terms. Considering Qasem's imminent martyrdom, wedding participants' greatest wish cannot be fulfilled:

  • The moment at which the bride approached her groom,
  •     Their love was sacrificed.
  • Everyone began to pray, “Oh God!
  •     Do not bring widowhood upon the bride!
  • May not the home of the bride become ruined!
  •     Nor should the groom sleep in the place of death!”

At the moment of marriage, Imam Husain returns to the scene to perform the ceremony (nikāḥ). He remains just long enough to officiate; to maintain his role as an epic hero whose emotions are contained, he then flees to the battlefield. His daughter is about to become a widow, and his nephew, whom Imam Husain loves as a son, is about to die. To conform to the strategy of narrative distancing in this Indic epic hagiography, Imam Husain cannot fully express his grief or stress. When he feels overcome with grief, he cries out to God, an act of narrative distancing that reinforces the Imam's role as an epic hagiographical hero whose deepest connection is with God:

  • Going to the bridegroom [naushāh], Shahrbano cried out,
  •     “The bride Kubra has come; look at your bride!
  • (p.116) Come into the tent, Lord, and listen,
  •     Please consent to this.”
  • Hearing these words, Husain then came to the tent.
  •     He looked at the bride and groom,
  • Consider, at that very moment Shah Husain was overcome,
  •     And he cried out an appeal to the Prophet of God [yā nabī Allah].
  • Having given her away to Qasem, Imam Husain said,
  •     “Now, bridegroom, this bride is yours, take her. Either leave her here or take her and go, beloved.
  •     This is your trust, for which you are responsible.”
  • Saying this, he left Qasem in the women's quarters.
  •     He stood his ground, thirsty-lipped among the people of oppression.

Qasem then asks for leave from his wife to go into battle. Fatimah Kubra is saddened, asking how he can abandon her so soon after their marriage. She tells him that she knows that he will be martyred and proclaims her willingness to sacrifice herself for him. Qasem lies to Fatimah Kubra, telling her that he is not going to die and that he will soon return. Fatimah Kubra's frustration and fear are palpable in her response to her bridegroom:

“Today you are going to battle and claim that you will not be killed, so

    Why are you giving me such a bridewealth?”

This discussion about Fatimah Kubra's bridewealth (mahr) refers to a common explanation given by Hyderabadi Shiʿa for the necessity of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra's battlefield wedding. According to many of my informants, Fatimah Kubra married Qasem because she had reached the age of maturity and could be forced into marriage by Yazid or any other person in his court unless she was widowed. As a widow, Fatimah Kubra was legally free to refuse any marriage alliance that was not agreeable to her. This discussion refers to the fact that her widowed status would save her from the even greater suffering that she would experience if she were forced to marry Yazid.

“If there is no matter of separation in the heart,

    then why has my mother given my hand [to you in marriage]?”

Despite the logic of Fatimah Kubra's marriage strategy, this is a grievous moment, and she feels frustration that her bridegroom is so eager to martyr himself. In good epic heroic fashion, Qasem is unable to handle his wife's (p.117) feelings, summoning his mother to reason with Fatimah Kubra. Just as Mir ʿAlam removes Imam Husain from the narrative at emotional moments, the author likewise distances Qasem's participation by introducing his mother, Umm Farwa. But Qasem's mother reacts in much the same way as Fatimah Kubra. Umm Farwa promises to sacrifice her life for her son: “Any blow that will befall you / I will first take it upon myself.”

Qasem tries to reason that martyrdom is his fate, seeming at least to reconcile his mother to this inevitability. As Umm Farwa and Fatimah Kubra lament the loss of their son/husband, another female character is introduced into the scene. Four-year-old Sakinah, the youngest daughter of Imam Husain, enters in a state of grief. She is upset that she cannot fulfill her ritual responsibilities in her role as Qasem's sister-in-law and receive the privileges to which she is entitled. Again, the narrator further vernacularizes Karbala when he introduces Sakinah:

  •     Then, in a state of grief, the sister-in-law [sālī], Sakinah, approached.
  • She grabbed his sleeve; she cried, weeping and wailing,
  •     “Ay brother, give me my neg!
  • O! Brother, what kind of a wedding is this today?
  •     That your sister-in-law is standing around bereft of her neg.”

This same sense of grief at being denied the opportunity to demand a ransom from a future brother-in-law is found in a popular salām, “Come home, brother.” Sakinah is particularly upset that she will not participate in the fun of jūtā chhupāʾī, a prewedding ritual in which the sisters-in-law steal the bridegroom's slippers, refusing to return them until he provides a ransom of sweets and money (neg). Sakinah's sadness is another way in which feminine emotions are a strategy of narrative engagement that draws majlis participants into the drama of Karbala, emphasizing the strength, resilience, and faith of the women of the ahl-e bait. No woman is unscathed by this event, but the women's embodiment of the ḥusaini ethic compels both men and women to imitate such actions and cultivate their exemplary selves.

As the domestic drama builds, the audience knows that Qasem's martyrdom is imminent. The narrator devotes minimal attention to this event because it is inevitable and because this is really a hagiographical account of the women of the ahl-e bait. Mir ʿAlam devotes approximately ten couplets to Qasem's participation in the battle and his death before shifting the narrative focus of the chapter and engaging the heroic warriors, who are simultaneously (p.118) brave and emotionally vulnerable. Imam Husain rushes onto the battlefield to gather up his nephew's body, crying out,

  • How can I bring you back to the encampment?
  •     How can I show your corpse to your bride?
  • How can I go crying in the tent?
  •     When your mother will ask me the question as soon as I arrive?

Imam Husain's exclamations indicate his deep anxiety about delivering the news of Qasem's martyrdom to the women's encampment. When Imam Husain returns, the women will know that the bridegroom of Karbala is dead. Imam Husain grieves for his nephew, although his sorrow is controlled.

When Qasem's mother sees her son's corpse approaching on horseback, she cries out in anguish. She curses fate and wonders what she could have done wrong as a mother and a human being to deserve such pain and suffering. Although the women of Imam Husain's family know that their male relatives must die to save the lineage and religion of the Prophet Muhammad, the narrative strategy of engagement draws this heroic sacrifice into the present, compelling majlis participants to keep the memory of this event alive and to cultivate the ḥusaini ethic of these saints. The women know that the battle must happen so that Islam can be preserved, yet they cannot accept the slaughter taking place before them. Umm Farwa bewails her fate and her son's corporeal silence:

  • Lamenting over her son's corpse,
  •     Wringing the hands, she lamented “Alas, Fate!
  • What is my crime? Oh Darling! Alas!
  •     Woe to me that you are not able to speak!
  • Why are you angry with your mother?
  •     This night in which you are sleeping has now passed.”
  • She cried out, “Grant justice to the oppressed!
  •     My grown son has been ruined, what can I do?
  • Alas, how this hour of my son's death afflicts me!”

Fatimah Kubra has now become a widow, and the women of Imam Husain's family must address this inauspicious woman. Just as Agha cried out in his discourse that God should forbid a woman from becoming widowed, the worst thing that can happen in Indic society is for a woman to become bevāh, especially so soon after being married. As Khan explained to me, (p.119) this was Fatimah Kubra's sacrifice. Fatimah's marriage to Qasem accorded her widow's status, protecting her from the predations of men. According to Khan, the marriage did not need to be consummated: the act of signing the marriage contract brought her into the presence of her husband and, in the Indic vernacular context, provided sufficient qualification for her to be considered a widow.46

Fatimah Kubra is not easily consoled by her widowed status and the protections it is intended to give her. Indic vernacular culture treats the widow as a socially dead individual. Fatimah Kubra's mother realizes that her daughter has died, too.47 Fatimah Kubra affirms her social death when she says to her mother, “I am joining now with his corpse.”

This chapter has focused on the bride/widow's sufferings and the lamentations of the women of Imam Husain's family over this joyless and tragic wedding. The male epic hero, Imam Husain, is all but absent. Qasem is present only in martyrdom; he has fulfilled his role as epic hero idealized as a bridegroom, sacrificing himself for the preservation of his wife's honor. He is also an idealized male warrior of the ahl-e bait, unhesitatingly sacrificing himself for the cause of Islam. Through strategies of narrative engagement and distancing, Mir ʿAlam's use of the female epic heroine as a dynamic character who is exceptional yet real transforms hagiography into a powerful form of moral communication that effectively engages majlis participants in the world of Karbala as it is reflected through a Hyderabadi socioreligious vernacular.

Epic Hagiography and Its Feminine Voices and Emotions

Feminine voices and emotions construct the religious heroine—exemplified by the bride/widow Fatimah Kubra—in the Karbala epic hagiographical tradition as it has developed in Hyderabad. By virtue of surviving the battle and living to tell the story, the dynamic epic heroine of Karbala articulates the values of Indian culture and society and the ideals of Islam through the filter of sainthood that is embodied in the ḥusaini ethic.

Mir ʿAlam's account of Qasem's martyrdom reflects the centrality of feminine voices and emotions in the construction of the genre of Karbala epic hagiography. This account is supposed to be about Qasem, but the author instead focuses with terrific emotional intensity and sympathy on Fatimah Kubra's extraordinary battlefield wedding and nearly simultaneous widowing. Each time a moment in the narrative involves the expression of emotion (p.120) and the imparting of vernacular values, the male protagonists exit the scene, leaving the women to speak and to act—to engage the majlis participants. Just like Sita, Fatima Kubra teaches Indian women how to be ideal wives (pativratās). At its most basic level, Indic epic hagiography has an ethical function. Listeners/readers learn their duty (dharma) through the exploits of the hero(in)es of Indic epic hagiographies. The women of Karbala provide such compelling ethical and religious role-models for Hyderabadis because the story is never finished: as long as the voices of the ahl-e bait continue to be spoken in the devotional literature and ritual performance of the majlis, they are powerful, living models for how to properly be in the world.


(1) Mohammed Mazher ʿAli Khan, “New ʿAshur Khanas,” 64–66.

(2) Moosvi and Fatima, Ḥaidarābād kī ʿazādārī meiṅ khavātīn kā ḥiṣṣah, 127.

(3) Ibid., 128.

(4) Agha, majlis.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Gupta, Sexuality, 302–3.

(8) Sayyidah Maryam Naqvi, majlis.

(9) Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches, 31.

(10) Ibid., 30–31.

(11) Warhol, Gendered Interventions, 32.

(12) Lukács, Theory, 66.

(13) Frye, Secular Scripture, 65–93.

(14) Rao, “When Does Sita Cease to Be Sita?,” 222.

(16) In the sixteenth-century North Indian Rāmāyaṇa of Tulsidas, a variation on Sita's second trial by fire occurs in the Lavakuśakāṇḍa (The Chapter of Lava and (p.182) Kuśa). In Tulsidas's narrative, Sita, pregnant with her twin sons, Lava and Kusa, is banished to the forest. Rama commands his ever-loyal brother, Laksmana, to abandon the pregnant queen in the forest in the care of Valmiki, a hermit and the narrator of the epic.

(17) Rao, “When Does Sita Cease to Be Sita?,” 226.

(18) For a description of the use of the word “transvestic” in Urdu rekhtī poetry, see Naim, “Transvestic Words?,” 42–66.

(19) Ibid., 45.

(20) Shields, Speaking, 118.

(21) Moosvi and Fatima, Ḥaidarābād kī ʿazādārī meiṅ khavātīn kā ḥiṣṣah, 49.

(22) Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches, 30.

(23) For a detailed analysis of the relationship of cosmopolitan and vernacular in the composition of Shiʿi religious life, see chapter 5.

(24) Kashefi, Rowẓat al-shohadā, 366.

(25) Clarke, “Some Examples,” 16.

(26) Mohtasham's marṡiya is most popularly known as the Dawāzdah-band (Twelve Stanzas), although in my master's thesis, “‘Verses Dripping Blood’: A Study of the Religious Elements of Muhtasham Kashani's Karbala-nāmeh,” I ascribe to the poem a title that is indicative of its function rather than its form. In Persian, the word nāmeh refers to a written chronicle or account of something. The name Dawāzdah-band refers to the poem's stanzaic structure and is a title bestowed by literary historians, whereas the alternate title, Karbala-nāmeh, indicates the poem's subject.

(27) In the Persian language, the word mātam means lamentation and mourning. With the advent of Shiʿism in South Asia, the meaning of the word mātam became intensified to refer to the ritual practice of self-flagellation with one's hands, knives, or flails.

(28) Schechner, Performance Theory, 170.

(29) Rinehart, One Lifetime, 12.

(30) Delehaye, Legends, 3.

(31) Rinehart, One Lifetime, 8, 11–12.

(32) The Arabic-language exclamation Haẕā Husain punctuates Zainab's speech to her grandfather, which reminds majlis participants of her blood relationship to the Prophet Muhammad and her origins in Mecca and Medina, the Arab cities in which Islam was born.

(33) This couplet begins with the phrase īn māhīye fatādeh, a play on the word māhī, which means both “fish” and “moon.” The first line plays on the image of a fish that has fallen into the murky waters of a sea of blood, where it flops about with wounds more numerous than the stars in the heavens, a direct comparison to the countless wounds on the Imam's body.

(34) Kashani, Dīwāne maulānā moḥtasham kāshānī, 283–84.

(35) Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Socio-Intellectual History, 1:248.

(36) In the medieval Deccan, āfāqī referred to the foreigners who flocked to the courts of the ʿAdil Shahi, Bahmani, and later Qutb Shahi dynasties. The word most generally refers to the Iranians who assumed many positions of power and influence in the Deccani kingdoms.

(37) Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Socio-Intellectual History, 1:311–12.

(38) Naqvi, Qutb Shahi Ashur Khanas, 62.

(40) Munis, “Riyaẕ al-ṭāhirīn.”

(41) Mir ʿAlam, “Dah majlis.”

(42) Moosvi, Dakhan meiṅ marṡiya aur ʿazādāri, 87.

(43) Ibn-e Shabbar refers to Qasem, the son of Imam Hasan, whose epithet (laqab) was Shabbar.

(44) “This bloody shroud” refers to the red color of a traditional wedding sāṛī. In this case, the wedding is again being attached to its binary opposite, a funeral and death. We have already seen the wedding procession (barāt) transformed into its binary opposite of funeral procession (julūs) in Agha's khuṭbah.

(45) Bano is the diminutive of Shahrbano, who was Imam Husain's first wife and the daughter of the last Sasanian shah, Yazdigird III (r. 632–51). Shahrbano was the mother of the fourth Imam, Zain al-ʿAbidin.

(46) Khan, interview.

(47) For a detailed discussion of Fatimah Kubra's gendering as a widow, see chapter 4.