On Ashura, Two Impassioned Poetic Tributes to Hazrat Zainab, the Heroine of Karbala

Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed retell the stirring sermon made by the daughter of Hazrat Ali in the court of Yazid.

Translator’s note: The Battle of Karbala occupies a hallowed place not only in the annals of Islam, but in the long struggle of the values of truth and justice against the tyranny of lies and injustice since time immemorial.

In this respect, it is illuminating to consider what the subcontinent’s Urdu poets have written over time, not about the tragedy of Karbala – for that is a time-tested topic in Urdu literature – but the aftermath of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and most of his family on the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram today – commemorated as Ashura – by the army of the reigning Umayyad monarch, Yazid ibn Muawiya.

One of the legendary moments passed down from oral folklore is the rousing sermon which the heroine of Karbala, Hazrat Zainab, the daughter of the slain fourth Caliph Hazrat Ali and grand-daughter of Prophet Muhammad, gave in the court of Yazid after the martyrdom of her brother Imam Hussein. This historical moment has not been captured as frequently in Urdu poetry. Therefore, it was an interesting experience to come across two recent poetic tributes to Hazrat Zainab’s sermon in the works of two of Pakistan’s greatest feminist poets.

The late Fahmida Riaz did so in her last collection of poems before she passed away, Tum Kabeer (You Kabeer, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2017). Her poem was titled ‘Hazrat Zainab ka Khutba Shaam ke Darbaar Mein’ (‘The Address of Hazrat Zainab in the Court of Syria’). Kishwar Naheed has a poem titled ‘Yazid ke Darbaar Men Hazrat Zainab ka Khitaab’ (‘Hazrat Zainab’s Address in the Court of Yazid’) from her latest collection of poetry published last year, Shireen Sukhni se Paray (Away from Sweet Talk, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2018).

Also read | Review: The Book of Memories

It is also interesting how different the approaches of the two poets are to the same historical event. Naheed’s is a short and pithy poem, which concerns itself only with Hazrat Zainab’s address itself; while Riaz’s poem is very long and descriptive on detail of the events leading up to the sermon itself, and only arrives at its proper subject in the penultimate stanza of the poem.

Since the latter poem is very long, I have only translated the particular stanza relating to Hazrat Zainab’s address itself. Also interesting is the fact that while Naheed’s shorter poem ends in a declaration of defiance from Hazrat Zainab, in Riaz’s version the defiance is immediately followed in the final couplet by a call to feminism, thus making Hazrat Zainab a feminist icon of our times, true to Riaz’s own calling.

What is also surprising is the intensity with which both Riaz and Naheed have versified the tragedy of Karbala and Hazrat’s sermon, despite not being born within the Shia faith itself, thus proving that events like these defy the limitations of time, place and religion.

My translation of Naheed’s full poem is given below, followed by the extract from Riaz.


Hazrat Zainab’s Address in the Court of Yazid (Kishwar Naheed)

Though the story of the Lord’s face has six facets
I who am the inheritor of the Lord
Arrive to stand with naked head among the riot of enemies

Now you are facing
The progeny of Haidar-e-Karrar

I will narrate the facts about the thirsty ones
How darkness became a permanent abode

I also clarify and examine the army of tyranny
I take the oath upon death not to take mercy on me

These daughters of the Prophet have come with heads uncovered
In your court today
After the journey to Kufa and Syria
I know you are not destined for victory

I ask based on what arrogance after all did you
The blessed neck of the sovereign king

For the offering of the seventy-two martyrs of Nineveh
You are not about to be elevated

The Judge on Doomsday recognizes your register of deeds
The collar of humiliation indeed knows your cruelty

We are Syedanis
Do not consider us helpless

We possess the desire for the power of endurance
By the grace of Asadullah this pride we possess

We cannot be the ones slain on the path of the hunted
We are oppressed, but cannot be afflicted

You dare not remember the Prophet’s family’s sincerity
Sellers of truth! Neither did you remember shame and modesty

You indeed let the children die of thirst
You made the sovereign king restless, by isolating him

Life will not let you rest Yazid
I am indeed the sister of the oppressed, look at me

You Yazids will never rest in peace
The faith of the Muslims will never taste defeat

Also read | Romila Thapar on Whether There is a Pattern in History


The Address of Hazrat Zainab in the Court of Syria (Fahmida Riaz)

You perpetrated a horrible crime O murderer Yazid
Do not think it is glad tidings of victory decreed
But the very end of the low which you think to be a high

The men and women you over-ran with your army were a handful
The Gracious Lord from the sky watched the unjust slaughter
You have caused yourself a huge loss

The wrath you visited, your oppression upon our brood
You cut your own jugular, drank your own blood

The Prophet’s family have embraced martyrdom
Their heads held high, departing successfully from this kingdom
They shine on the firmament, will be remembered by this earth
The darkness of your face is now indelible, you accursed
There is great noise in every quarter over your tyranny
You deserve curses, and are worthy of penalty …

Humanity presents her a golden tribute
She elevated the world of femininity with a crowning attribute.

Raza Naeem, the translator, is a social scientist and an award-winning translator currently based in Lahore. He has been trained in political economy from the University of Leeds in the UK and in Middle Eastern history and anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. He may be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com.