What rains down? Blood!
Who? The Eye!
How? Day and Night.
Why? From grief.
The grief of the Monarch of Karbala.
What was his name? Hussein!
Of whose race? Ali’s.
Who was his mother? Fatima.
Who was his grandfather? Mustafa (PBUH).
How was it with him? He fell a martyr!
Where? In the Plain of Mariya/Karbala.
When? On the tenth of Muharram.
Secretly? No, in public!
Was he slain by night? No, by day!
At what time? At noontide!
Was his head severed from the throat? No, from the nape of the neck.
Was he slain unthirsting? No.
Did none give him to drink? They did.
From what source? From the source of Death.
Was he an innocent martyr? Yes!
Had he committed any fault? Not.
What was his work? Guidance!
Who was his friend? God!
Who wrought this wrong? Yazid.
Who is this Yazid? One of the children of Hind.
Did he himself do this deed? No, he sent a letter.
To whom? To the false son of Marjana.
Was Ibn-e-Ziyad the son of Marjana? Yes!
Did he not withstand the words of Yazid? No!
Did this wretch slay Hussein with his own hand?
No, he despatched an army to Karbala.
Who was the chief of the army? ‘Umar ibn Saad.
Did he cut down Fatima’s dear folk? No, shameless Shimr.
Was not the dagger ashamed to cut his throat? It was.
Why then did it do so? Destiny would not excuse it.
Wherefore? In order that he might become an intercessor for mankind!
What is the condition of his intercession? Lamentation and weeping.
Were any of his sons also slain? Yes, two.
Who else? Nine brothers.
Who else? Kinsmen.
Had he no other son? Yes, he had.
Who was that? ‘The Worshipper’ (Sajjad).
How fared he? Overwhelmed with grief and sorrow.
Did he remain at his father’s Karbala? No, he went to Syria.
In glory and honour? No, in abasement and distress.
Alone? No, with the women of the household.
What were their names?
Zainab, Sakina, Fatima, and poor portionless Kulthum.
Had he garments on his body? Yes, the dust of the road.
Had he a turban on his head? Yes, the staves of the wicked ones!
Was he sick? Yes!
What medicine had he? The tears of his eyes.
What was his food after medicine? His food was heart’s blood.
Did any bear him company? Yes, the fatherless children.
Who else was there? The fever which never left him.
What was left of the women’s ornaments? Two things.
The collar of tyranny on their necks, and the anklet of grief on their feet!
Would a pagan practise such cruelty? No.
A Magian or a Jew? Not.
A Hindu? No.
An idolater? No.
Alas for this harshness.
Is Qa’ani capable of such verses? Yes!
What seeks he? Mercy!
From whom? From God.
When? In the ranks of recompense.
(Translated from Persian by Edward G Browne in his book A Literary History of Persia)
Mirza Habib Ullah Qa’ani Shirazi (1808-1854) was the most brilliant and celebrated Iranian poet of the 19th century, known for his melodious verses. His famous elegy (above) is the most popular tribute to Imam Hussein (AS) written by an Iranian poet. This famous elegy is inscribed on the walls of the holy shrine of Imam Ali Reza (AS) in Mashhad in Iran. Although considered to be the last of the classical poets, Qa’ani, in this tribute, breaks with the tradition of explanatory poetry and pays his tribute to the beloved Imam in the form of question and answer or a dialogue.
The above translation is by the distinguished Persian scholar Edward G Browne, whose monumental and magisterial survey titled A Literary History of Persia (in four volumes) contains this translation. These heartrending verses remind one of Edward Gibbon’s poignant remark on the tragedy of Karbala in his book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He wrote, “In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hussein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest readers.”
Recalling her impressions about these moving verses, Dr Annemarie Schimmel, noted Orientalist and Professor of Islam and Mysticism at Harvard University, wrote:
“I still remember the deep impression which the first Persian poem I ever read in connection with the tragic events of Karbala left on me. It was Qa’ani’s elegy, which begins with the words:
‘What is raining? Blood.
Who? The eyes.
How? Day and night.
Why? From grief.
Grief for whom?
Grief for the king of Karbala’.”
This poem, in its marvellous style of question and answer, conveys much of the dramatic events and of the feelings a pious Muslim experiences when thinking of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s (PBUH) beloved grandson at the hands of the Umayyad troops.
It is from Hussein, says Iqbal, that we have learned the mysteries of the Quran, and when the glory of Syria and Baghdad and the marvels of Granada may be forgotten, yet, the strings of the instrument of the Muslims still resound with Hussein’s melody, and faith remains fresh thanks to his call to prayer.
Ammar Ali Qureshi is a London-based finance professional. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org