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Debating The Mehndi Ki Majlis in Hyderabad

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According to hagiographic traditions current throughout the Shia world, and particularly in the South Asia, eleven-year-old Fatimah Kubra, the daughter of the third Shia Imam Husayn, was married to her thirteen-year-old cousin Qasem at the battle of Karbala, Iraq, in AH 61/680. This battlefield wedding is traditionally observed by South Asian Shias on the seventh (sixth in some areas) day of the Muslim month of Muharram.

On this day, the battlefield heroics of Qasem and the tragic fate of his young bride-widow, Fatimah Kubra, are recounted in marsiyas (laments) and in the speeches of the orators. The ritualized remembrance of this event in the mourning assembly depicts a scene of joy, followed almost immediately by the tragedy of Qasem’s martyrdom and Fatimah Kubra’s subsequent widowhood. In South Asia, the mehndi of Qasem is steadfastly observed by the majority of Shia in places such as Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Bihar, and the Punjab, particularly Lahore, Multan, Jhang and Chiniot. This event resonates profoundly for the Shia of South Asia, who intensely mourn Fatimah Kubra’s transformation from fortune-bearing wife to a traumatized widow. What is most striking about the descriptions of the Karbala wedding and its aftermath is that a distinctively South Asian worldview is expressed. Despite the distinctly local flavor of this event, Shia communities in South Asia (and beyond) have been debating its authenticity and permissibility since at least the mid-nineteenth century. In 2005, Tahera Jaffer, a Kenyan zakirah was expelled from Mumbai after declaring in a 7 Muharram majlis that the mehndi of Qasem should not be observed because it is not a historically authentic event.

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Why has an event that is so powerfully meaningful for so many Shia become a subject of intense debate? What is at stake for the Shia community as a global network of devotees of Imam Husayn and as localized communities in geographically and culturally distinct places such as India, Lebanon, and Iran? As members of a sacred cosmopolitan, the global Shia community shares a kinship predicated on loyalty to the Ahl-e Bait. How this loyalty is expressed reflects the human diversity of living in different places where Shia values coalesce with those of the local environment. What is of particular interest is how local Shia communities emplot the frame narrative and make it meaningful through a process of vernacularization. This is achieved through a dual process of equivalence, which ultimately links together the values of the global Shia community (the cosmopolitan) with the worldview and ethos of the Shia in myriad cultural contexts (the vernacular). In the context of the ritual commemoration of the mehndi of Qasem in South Asia, the practice of making equivalence is enacted in two different, yet intimately related, ways: one linguistic and the other locative. In the case of the observance of the mehndi of Qasem in South Asia, the universal message of Karbala shared by the Shia cosmopolitan is translated in the encounter of the Shia with practitioners of Hindu traditions. Although the Indic anxiety of widowhood and taboo against widow remarriage may be foreign to a Lebanese Shia, whose portrayal of Qasem’s bride-widow may be entirely different, her presence in the universal narrative of Karbala roots her in the Shia cosmopolitan.

In South Asia, the heroes and heroines of Karbala are portrayed as idealized local Shias, and through the dual praxis of linguistic and locative equivalence, the cosmopolitan is rooted in disparate local contexts and vernacularized, transforming these sacred figures into saints whose behavior is culturally, morally, and religiously meaningful. As early as the eighth to the fourteenth centuries, Iranians began to immigrate to the Deccan in large numbers to serve in the court (darbar) of the king of the Bahmani dynasty, Muhammad II. The Shia ‘Adil Shahis of Bijapur were enthusiastic patrons of the afaqi, or “foreign,” scholars and writers who filled their courts. Hyderabad has been a center of Shia culture in India since the founding of the Qutb Shahi dynasty in 1512 CE. Mir Muhammad Mu’min Astarabadi, afaqi courtier to Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, endeavored to introduce and propagate Iranian Shia devotional elements into Deccani religious life, thus contributing to the creation of a complex multicultural environment in which Hindu and Shia religious traditions and Persian, Telugu, and Deccani-Urdu literary forms were brought into contact.

In the Shia kingdoms of the Deccan, the literature, both prose and poetry, and rituals of the majlis mourning assembly gradually transformed their Persian language and idiom to express the vernacular world of the Deccan in the local languages of Urdu and Telugu. This process of translation was neither difficult nor unnatural. These epic stories of Karbala resonated with the Hindus of the Deccan, who themselves participated in the great oral epic traditions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, in which kings are larger than life but the heroes and heroines are identified as being truly real and human. With the movement of scholars, poets, and merchants between Iran and India, by the end of the sixteenth century, Persian martyrdom narratives about the battle of Karbala, such as the Iranian Mullah Kashefi’s early-sixteenth century Rowzat al-Shohada (Garden of the Martyrs) were translated into meaningful local forms. To make the recitation of the Karbala narrative understandable to those who knew only the local languages of Deccani and Telugu, the Persian writings of Kashefi were simultaneously translated and rendered to reflect the tragedy of Karbala through a distinctively Indic idiom and worldview. The description of the Deccani-Indian-style wedding of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra at the battle of Karbala reflects the practices that the Shias of the Deccan had adopted from the local Hindu culture. Wedding rituals such as sachaq, mehndi, manjha (turmeric grinding ceremony), and barat do not exist in Arab Muslim culture—these are distinctively Indic practices that Indian Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, have integrated into their cultural and religious identities. In Urdu devotional poetry commemorating the battle of Karbala, these rituals are invoked to great emotional effect, making men and women weep for this young couple’s sufferings. Karbala is brought to memory through a Deccani worldview influenced by Indic cultural practices and values yet made into something distinctively Muslim.

Interestingly, Kashefi’s treatment of Fatimah Kubra’s transformation from bride to widow is negligible in Rowzat al-Shohada. Fatimah Kubra laments her husband’s untimely death, but her transformation from bride to widow is not Kashefi’s focus, because in the context of sixteenth-century Iran, the taboo of widow remarriage was not socially and locative meaningful. In the practice of making linguistic equivalence, however, Fatimah Kubra’s role in the Deccani-Urdu Karbala cycle assumes much more significance. The translation situates the mehndi in a distinctively South Asian or Indic context, which is based on the universality of marriage for men and women, the arrangement of marriages, and the cultural taboo against widow remarriage. Mehndi mourning assemblies attract droves of young men and women with the hope of being able to grab a small daub of the henna that is passed around at the height of the ritual performance, so that they can smear it on the palm of the right hand and ask for the intervention (shafa’a) of the Ahl-e Bait in securing a good marriage alliance. The Indic articulation of elaborately constructed and defined rules of marriage and strict rules on the taboo of widow remarriage make marriage in any circumstance a partnership that is fraught with uncertainty and risk; the battlefield wedding of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra resonates. Like myriad sufferings of King Rama’s wife Sita, Indians can relate to the tribulations Fatimah Kubra experiences as she permits her groom to rush from their wedding into battle. Fatimah Kubra’s suffering, particularly her immediate widowhood, establishes a culturally relevant emotional bond that both men and women can forge with her. The historical veracity of whether the wedding of Qasem and Fatimah Kubra actually happened is irrelevant.

The Shia of South Asia believe in the wedding, Fatimah Kubra’s sacrifice, and Qasem’s martyrdom for the cause of religion. For them, it is a matter of the heart, not of the mind. The Shia of South Asia feel deeply connected to the imams, and, through devotional texts and practices, Karbala is always present and local. For the majority of Shia living in the India and Pakistan, whose mother tongue is either Urdu or Punjabi or Telugu, the Arabic language and the worldview espoused by the ulema of Iran and Iraq render a devotional spirituality that is vibrant with the culture of South Asia into something foreign and as arid as the desert of Karbala. This story vernacularized to make Qasem and Fatimah Kubra idealized South Asian Shias orients one’s faith and allegiance to the holiness of the Ahl-e Bait, because one can imagine and feel Karbala in a truly real and immediate fashion: through the idiom and worldview of South Asia, not the Arabistan of an Iraqi Karbala. For the Shia of South Asia, the mehndi mourning assembly is both a method for remembering Karbala, for demonstrating one’s love for Imam Husayn and his family, and a means of articulating what it means to be Muslim, and what it means to be Shia and South Asian, too.


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