Chapter 3 : Lamentation Poetry

The effects of the revolution of al-Husayn began to appear through the poetry of lamentation for the martyrs of the revolution and in the poetry of regret and repentance by those who had stayed away from giving support to the revolution or had actually participated in fighting against it.

The relative paucity of such poetic references in the first period after the revolution is due to the fear of persecution by the Umayyads who launched a wide-scale campaign to keep the effects of the revolution within narrow confines. This was after they discovered the danger from the reactions which the revolution had unleashed.

The outbreak of the rebellion in the Hijaz against the Umayyad regime, its extension to Iraq and elsewhere, and the outburst of acts of vengeance against the Umayyads and their supporters, at the end of the Umayyad era and the beginning of the 'Abbasid state, released a flood of poetry of lamentation for the revolutionaries of Karbala', which has continued to pour out right up to the present time.

One of the richest fields of Arabic poetry is the poetry of lamentation when we observe the vast amount of poetry composed in lament for al-Husayn, in particular and for the revolution of al-Husayn at Karbala', in general. It is clear that the poetry composed in lament for al-Husayn and his followers and the event of Karbala ', generally, is much greater and more natural than that on any other single subject. This is not confined to classical Arabic, for the colloquials of Iraq and the Gulf possess a vast inheritance of this lamentation poetry about al-Husayn and his revolution.

Persian poetry about this event is like Arabic literature but, perhaps, there is even more of it, for it contains very many works of lamentation and praise for al-Husayn and his revolution in a variety of styles.

Indeed Shi'ite Muslims have composed poetic works on this subject in any language they speak-Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and others. These works are vaster than their compositions in other fields. [1] The phenomenon of poetry of lament for al-Husayn in Shi'ite literature did not only arise as a result of the tragedy of al-Husayn having an emotional appeal. In addition to that it also had a religious aim which was to preserve for ever in poetry an act of piety.

In what follows, we will study this phenomenon from several aspects.


It is reported that Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq said: 'No poet recites a line of poetry about us without the support of the Holy Spirit.' [2]

He also said:

'God has built a house (bayt) in Heaven for whoever recites a line (bayt) of poetry about us.'

Abu Harun al-Makfuf reported: Abu 'Abd Allah (i.e. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq) said to me,'Abu Harun recite to me about al-Husayn.' [3]I recited and he wept. Then he said,Recite as you were reciting.'He meant with emotion. [4]

So I recited:

Pass the grave of al-Husayn and speak of his great purity.

'He wept and then asked me to give him more. I recited another ode. He wept and I heard weeping behind the curtain. When I had finished, he said to me: 'Abu Harun, whoever recites poetry about al-Husayn and weeps making ten others weep, Heaven is decreed for him. Whoever recites poetry about al-Husayn and he weeps and he makes one other weep, Heaven is decreed for them both....' [5]

Abu 'Umara al-Munshid reported that Imam Jafar al-Sadiq asked him,'Recite to me the verses of al-'Abdi about al-Husayn.'

He recited to him and he wept. Then he recited to him and he wept. Then he recited to him and he wept. By god, he continued to recite to him with weeping until he heard weeping from the house. He said:

'Abu 'Umara, whoever recites poetry about al-Husayn and makes fifty others weep, will have Heaven as a reward. Whoever recites poetry about al-Husayn and makes forty others weep will have Heaven as a reward. Whoever recites poetry about al-Husayn and makes thirty others weep will have Heaven as a reward [6]

Al-Harith al-A'war reported that 'Ali said:

'By my father and my mother, al-Husayn will be killed on the outskirts of Kufa. By God, it is as if I am looking at wild animals of all kinds stretching their necks towards his grave weeping and lamenting for him throughout the night until morning. If that is the case, beware of being estranged from him.' [7]

Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq told Sufyan ibn Mus'ab to recite to him about al-Husayn. He told Umm Farwa and his family to come near. When they were present Sufyan recited.

Umm Farwa, weep much with flowing tears . . .

Umm Farwa shrieked with grief and the women shrieked. Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq called for the door to be shut while people of Medina were gathering outside. He sent a message out to explain to them that a boy had fainted and that was the reason for the women screaming. [8]

The Imams of the Holy Family honoured the poets who composed this kind of poetry in lamentation and praise of the Holy Family and of al-Husayn, in particular.

An example of that is the words of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir to al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi when the latter had recited an ode to him about his love for the Hashimites as the noblest of men. Imam al-Baqir said, 'You will continue to be supported by the Holy Spirit as long as you defend us, the members of the Holy Family.' [9]

During the days of tashriq immediately after the great pilgrimage (hajj), al-Kumayt asked for permission to visit Imam al-Sadiq and wanted to recite an ode to him. It troubled the Imam that they should be reminding themselves of poetry during the great days of the pilgrimage. However, when al-Kumayt said that it was about the Holy Family, the Imam was satisfied. He called some of his family and brought them near. Then al-Kumayt began to recite and the tears flowed. When he reached the words about the archers firing on al-Husayn, Imam al-Sadiq raised his hands and said, 'O God, forgive al-Kumayt for his past and future offenses, whether secret or public, and give him what will please him.'

The poetry which the Sh'ia recite in lamentation for al-Husayn and the Holy Family is not, in the majority of cases, poetry for special occasions. Rather it is an activity which emotion and religion brings forth.

Emotion brings it forth through the close relationship between the Shi'ite individual and his Imam who led a revolution and was wickedly oppressed.

Religion brings it forth as represented in some of the texts which we mentioned which urge the recitation of poetry about the Holy Family and which awaken a desire for it. It is also represented in the personal attitudes which the Imams of the Holy Family adopted towards the poets who wrote about al-Husayn. We have already dealt with some of this earlier.

For this reason and that, the composing and recitation of poetry became a religious act which entered into the glorification of the rites of God. Al-Husayn had not striven for personal glory through his revolution. He had undertaken it to serve the people on the basis of the guidance of Islam. Therefore, to make the revolution live on in his person and to spread its slogans and influence in society through poetry and other things is an act of piety. Whoever exalts the rites of God that will come from the piety of the heart. [10]

The poets themselves have expressed this religious vision of their poetic works in lamentation of al-Husayn as a result of the direction of the Imams of the Holy Family. Among the earliest poetic texts which reflect the religious vision of the poetry of lament for al-Husayn are the words of Abu al-Aswad al-Du 'ah Zalim ibn 'Amr (d. 69 at the age of 85) in his ode in which he laments al-Husayn and those of the Hashimites who were killed with him. There he wishes that he could have been a shield to protect them and thereby he would have gained eternal reward from God. [11]

Another example is the words of Abu Muhammad Sufyan ibn Mus' ab al-'Abdl al-Kufi (d.c. 120 in Kufa) from his ode about the Holy Family. He addresses 'Ali as a leader who drove armies away from the rich soil. The poet, himself, tells how he has fought for 'Ali with ideas and words, using poetry and orations as weapons. If 'Ali is pleased with him, he does not care about any who are displeased with him. All he wants is to be accepted as his companion through love of him and piety. With such friends his soul will find comfort from fatigue. [12]

Al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi (d. 126) spoke to Imam al-Baqir after reciting one of his odes to him and the Imam offered him money which he would not accept, 'By God, I have not said anything about you for which I want to be given a worldly reward. I will not accept anything as compensation for it because it belongs to God and His Apostle.'

Then the Imam replied:

'You will have what the Apostle of God mentioned: You will continue to be supported by the Holy Spirit as long as you defend us, the members of the Holy Family.'

Al-Kumayt said in his Hashimiyyat that it was through the love of the Holy Family that he approached God when he was in distress.

Another example of that kind is the verses of al-Sayyidal-Himyan, Isma'il ibn Muhammad (d. 183 or 187 in Baghdad). He declares that he has made the family of the Apostle a means by which he hoped to attain salvation from destruction. How could he be blamed for loving those whom he had made the method for him to attain Heaven?

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i, the founder of the school of law, (d. 204 in Egypt) composed an ode in lament for al-Husayn. In it, he said that, if he had committed a fault in loving the family of Muhammad, it was a fault from which he would not repent, for they would be his intercessors on the Day of Resurrection when important decisions were made plain to the onlookers.

Di'bil al-Khuza'i (d. 246) asked in one of his famous poem show a man could blame the family of the Prophet, for they were always his beloved friends and the family of his trust. He had chosen them to be good to himself because they were the best of the best men. He called on God to increase his love for them and to increase their love for his good deeds. He sought Paradise from God through love of them.

With these examples, we have given sufficient evidence of the religious background of the poetry of lamentation for al-Husayn. A researcher would find manifestations of this religious background in the poets of lamentation for al-Husayn in all periods from the first century of the hijra until today. We will observe that the religious background of the poetry of lamentation for al-Husayn is at its strongest in the late periods.