Contrary to the popular belief by some who assert that holding Majlis is a rather contemporary tradition, the first Majlis-e-Hussain (AS) was organized by his sister Syeda Zainab (AS) whose veil was torn off by the assassins Prophet’s (PBUH) grandson.
Who is not aware of the history of Karbala? – of the tragic incident that took place after 60 years of the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Dialectics behind Karbala need no glossing over, but what does need to be highlighted is its influence on people over centuries’ span. From languages to countries, from styles to rituals, the Azadari transformed a lot and now while living in Virginia I’m conveniently listening the lectures and “Marsiyas” in English., at my own place.
Currently, people in all parts of the world are seen mourning for Imam Hussain’s death in destitution. The journey of Azadari traveled with his sister from Damascus to Karbala and to Medina. She returned with some family members which includes son and grandson of Imam HussainAS. His son and grandsons always encouraged the performance of Azadari but in their time it was performed in utmost secrecy as the regime was opposed to any remembrance of Karbala.
In 350s AH an Islamic scholar Sheikh As-Suduq became the first person after family of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who started reciting extempore on Karbala’s history to his students. His students used to write his lectures to share it further in the community. The first ever procession took place in 351 AH in Baghdad and Egypt, when hundreds of men, women and children gathered on the roads beating their chests and weeping for Imam HussainAS. The recitation of elegies started from there and became the part of Azadari, and then Azadari started with an entirely different style. Tamerlane, the founder of Timurid dynasty, introduced the institution of (Taboot and Alam) the icons of flags and coffins of Imam HussainAS.
Under the rule of Tamerlane’s grandson in central Asia, the Azadari went to sub-continent and deep rooted in the hearts of Muslims. Lucknow, one of the most developed, cultural cities of India, became the center of Azadari where many Indian poets started writing Marsiyas or eulogies in the remembrance of Karbala. These eulogies touched the peak by the hands of a famous poet Mir Baber Ali Anees. With Mir Baber many poets like Mir Moonis, Salamat Ali Dabeer, Mir Zameer, Ali Haider Tabatabai and Dr. Syed Ali Imam Zaidi wrote eulogies. In the earlier days, speakers and reciters used to read the eulogies and this is how Azadari started in Hindi or Urdu.
According to Muntazir Mehdi, the History Professor, in the era of 1930s, Maulana Sibte Hassan was the first to introduce Azadari in the form of lectures in Urdu and the mourners included eulogies, lectures, Nauhas (eulogies while beating chests) in one Majlis.
The people, who migrated from Arab and sub-continent to the Western world, started Azadari-HussainAS with the same style as they adopted in back homes. For many years, immigrants relied on the original eulogies (Marsiyas, nauhas) of their languages. But the second generations of immigrants who were born in West and whose original language was English were facing issues grasping the complexity of allegories, idioms and metaphors of other languages.
Therefore, parents of that generation started transferring the Azadari’s material in English. They started translating the Marsiyas of Mir Anees and many Persian elegies. Ali Abbas, an English Nauha writer and reciter from Maryland told me, “9 years ago, a scholar from London said to me that English has global reach, and has potential of influencing people of all communities; therefore, poetry in English will convey the pathos of the tragedy of Karbala more effectively.” He said, “Since then I am writing one Nauha every year”.
Ammar Nakshwani, a renowned scholar from London, said that Azadari in English brings Shiite community of different countries under one roof; English Azadari unites people of all countries and spread the message more effectively to other communities.
Ali Abbas believed that imam Hussain’s message is universal and his influence has truly been global as well. While quoting the example of Gandhi; when Gandhi took 72 people in his nonviolent protest against British Raj to mimic Imam Hussain’s 72 companions in Karbala; said that even those who don’t understand the religious significance of it relate it with personal courage, integrity, patience and sacrifice.
Now the youth who is born and raised in West is writing Nauhas on western rhythm which is a way of understanding the responsibilities of learning and teaching Azadari. The trend of writing elegies in English is growing but it will take time, but this transformation has proven one thing that Azadari will grow in different languages and countries. The way it has spread, many say that this is the miracle of Imam HussainAS that how everyone recalls his sacrifices every year in Muharram in different languages.