Unit 3: Memory and Community

Overview of the unit

Living memories

In the early history of Islam, new forms of literature appeared in Muslim communities. One such type of literature was based on the life story of Prophet Muhammad. The reading in this section focuses on one of the earliest biographies of the Prophet that was compiled by Ibn Ishaq in the eighth century.

Remembering through the mists of time

The life story of the Prophet became popular throughout Muslim lands. It was narrated by local poets and storytellers in towns and villages, and passed on from one generation to the next. In this section, we study an episode from a popular ballad about the Prophet’s life that originates from Egypt.

A scar on the face of time

Another form of literature that arose in this period was historical accounts of events that shaped early Muslim history. One of these events was the battle of Karbala in which the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Husayn, was killed. We examine in this section selected passages from al-Tabari’s History that inform us of what happened at Karbala,

The darkness of sorrow

The tragedy of Karbala also gave rise to elegies that mourned the death of Imam Husayn. These poems recalled the courage of Imam Husayn, his family and his companions, and the deep injustice they suffered at the hands of Yazid’s men. We explore two elegies from South Asia as examples of this type of literature.

Inner conversations

Remembrance in Muslim societies also takes the form of prayer. The religious literature of Muslims contains many examples of prayers. We conclude this unit with an example of a dawn prayer from the Shia tradition that is said to have composed by lmam Ali.

The new generations of Muslims who had never known Prophet Muhammad wanted to find out more about his life, as well as the lives of his family and companions. They had heard about the events in the Prophet’s life, and were interested in discovering as much as they could about these events. Here is an account from the Prophet’s life that was written by a Muslim biographer in this early period. It is based on the challenges that the Prophet faced when he began teaching Allah’s Message to the Meccans.

The life of Muhammad

When the apostle openly taught Islam as God ordered him, his people did not withdraw or turn against him, so far as I have heard, until he spoke against their gods. When he did that, they took great offence and resolved all together to treat him as an enemy. Abu Talib, his uncle, treated the apostle kindly and protected him, the latter continuing to obey God’s commands, nothing turning him back.
When Quraysh saw that he would not yield to them, some of their leading men went to Abu Talib. They said, ‘O Abu Talib, your nephew has cursed our gods, insulted our religion, mocked our way of life and accused our forefathers of error; either you must stop him or you must let us get at him.’
He gave them a soft answer and they went away. The apostle continued on his way, teaching God’s religion and calling people to it. As a result, his relations with the Quraysh became worse. They went to Abu Talib a second time and said, ‘You have a high position among us, and we have asked you to put a stop to your nephew’s activities, but you have not done so. Until you rid us of him, we will fight the pair of you until one side perishes.’
After hearing these words from the Quraysh, Abu Talib sent for his nephew and told him what his people had said. ‘Spare me and yourself,’ he said ‘Do not put on a burden greater than I can bear.’
The apostle answered, ‘O my uncle, by God, if they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left on condition that I abandoned this course, I would not abandon it.’ Then the apostle broke into tears and got up. As he turned away, his uncle called him and said, ‘Come back, my nephew,’ and when he came back, he said, ‘Go and say what you please, for by God I will never give you up on any account.’
So the situation worsened, the quarrel became heated and people were sharply divided, and openly showed their hostility to their opponents.
Utba bin Rabia, who was a chief, was sitting one day in the Quraysh assembly and the apostle was sitting by himself. He said, ‘Why should I not go to Muhammed and make some proposals to him. If he accepts, we will give him whatever he wants, and he will leave us in peace.’
They thought it was a good idea, and Utba went and sat by the prophet and said, ‘O my nephew, you are one of us as you know, of the noblest of the tribe and hold a worthy position in ancestry. You have come to your people with an important matter, dividing their community thereby and ridiculing their customs, and you have insulted their gods and their religion, and declared that their forefathers were unbelievers, so listen to me and I will make some suggestions, and perhaps you will be able to accept one of them.’

The apostle agreed, and he went on, ‘If what you want is money, we will gather for you our property so that you may he the richest of us; if you want honour, we will make you our chief so that no one can decide anything apart from you; if you want power, we will make you king, and if this ghost which comes to you, which you see, is such that you cannot get rid of him, we will exhaust our means in getting you cured.’ The apostle replied that he …. sought not money, nor honour, nor power. But God had sent him as an apostle, and revealed a book to him, and commanded him to become an announcer and a warner. He had brought them the messages of his Lord, and given them good advice, If they took it, then they would have a portion in this world and the next; if they rejected it, he could only patiently await the issue until God had decided between them ….


  • ancestry- to do with ancestors. family history
  • apostle –prophet
  • customs – accepted ways of behaving or acting
  • exhaust our means- do everything we can
  • honour. high respect
  • perishes – gets destroyed
  • portion – reward
  • resolved – decided
  • soft answer – an answer which does rot displease
  • took great offence – felt insulted

‘Well, Muhammad,’ the Quraysh said, ‘if you won’t accept any of our propositions; you know that no people are more short of land and water. and live a harder life than we, so ask your lord, who has sent you, to remove for us these mountains which shut us in, and to straighten out our country for us, and to open up in it rivers like those of Syria and Iraq, and to resurrect for us our fathers ….
‘If they say you are speaking the truth, and you do what we have asked you, we will believe in you, and we shall know what your position with God is, and that He has actually sent you as an apostle as you say.’

He replied that he had not been sent to them with such an object. He had conveyed to them God’s message, and they could either accept it with advantage, or reject it and await God’s puzzlement.

They said that if he would not do that for them, let him do something for himself. Ask God to send an angel with him to confirm what he said and to contradict them; to make him gardens and castles, and treasures of gold and silver to satisfy his obvious wants. He stood in the streets as they did, and he sought a livelihood as they did. If he could do this, they would recognise his merit and position with God, if he were an apostle as he claimed to be.

He replied that he would not do it, and would not ask for such things, for he was not sent to do so, and he repeated what he had said before. They said, ‘Then let the heavens be dropped on us in pieces, as you assert that your Lord could do if He wished, for we will not believe you unless you do so,’The apostle replied that this was a matter for God; if He wanted to do it with them, He would do it.

They said, ‘Did not your Lord know that we would sit with you, and ask you these questions, so that he might come to you and instruct you how to answer us, and tell you what he was going to do with us, if we did not receive your message?’

‘… Our conscience is clear. By God, we will not leave you and our treatment of you, until either we destroy you or you destroy us … We will not believe in you until you come to us with God and the angels as a surety.’  When they said this the apostle got up and left them …Umar ibn Makhzum got up with him and said to him, ‘O Muhammed, your people have nude you certain propositions, which you have rejected; first they asked you things for themselves that they might know that your position with God is what you say it is so that they might believe in you and follow you, and you did nothing.
‘Then they asked you to take something for yourself, by which they might know your superiority over them and your standing with God, and you would not do it.

Then they asked you to hasten some of the punishment with which you were frightening them, and you did not do it.’ …

  By God, I will never believe in you until you get a ladder to the sky, amid mount up it until you come to it, while I am looking on, and until four angels shall come with you, testifying that you are speaking the truth, and by God, even if you did that I do not think I should believe you.’

  Then he went away, and the apostle went to his family, sad and grieving, because his hope that they had called him to accept his preaching was vain …. Abdul Dar ibn Qusay got up and said ‘O Quraysh, a situation has arisen which you can not deal with. Muhammed was a young man most liked among you, most truthful in speech, and most trustworthy. until, when you saw grey hairs on his temple, and he brought you his message, you said he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we have seen such people and their spitting and their knots; you said, a diviner, but we have seen such people and their behaviour, and we have heard their rhymes; and you said a poet, but he is not a poet, for we have heard all kinds of poetry; you said he was possessed. and he shows no sinus of their gasping and whispering and their delirium. You men of Quraysh, look to your affairs, for by God, a serious thing has befallen you.’


  • assert – claim
  • conscience – inner sense or feeling of right and wrong
  • delirium – a disordered state of mind, wild excitement
  • diviner – a person who claims to see into the future
  • possessed – controlled by an evil spirit or the demon
  • propositions- offers
  • resurrect – bring the dead back to life
  • sorcerer – magician
  • surety – person who gives guarantee for another’s words or actions
  • temple – flat part of the head between forehead and the ear
  • testifying – declaring, giving evidence
  • vain – useless, without result
  • wants – needs

 About the author

The passages on the life of Prophet Muhammad in this section are from the earliest biography or life story of the Prophet. This biography was produced by a scholar named Ibn Ishaq in the eighth century, over a hundred years after the death of the Prophet.

A knowledgeable man

Muhammad Ibn Ishaq was born in Medina at the beginning of the eighth century, and died in Baghdad when he was about sixty- three years old. We do not know too much about lbn Ishaq’s early life. Like his father and uncles, he became interested in studying the Prophet’s sayings and history. He became known as one of ‘the most knowledgeable of men in Medina. In 737, he went to Alexandria to study there, then returned to Medina, before finally settling in Baghdad.

The early life of the Prophet

Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Prophet Muhammad is an interesting account that covers the whole life of the Prophet. In this section, the text selected from Ibn Ishaq’s work deals with the early part of the Prophet’s life. It is about a time when the Prophet had just started to teach Allah’s message in Mecca and when the Quraysh began to oppose him. Let’s examine how Ibn Ishaq has presented this part of the Prophet’s life to his readers.

Studying the text

When Prophet Muhammad first started teaching Allah’s message openly to the Meccans, they did not know how to understand him. Many Meccans thought that he was either a magician, a fortune-teller or a poet, or else he was someone who was not sane. Some, however, accepted him as the Messenger of God.

The Quraysh and the Prophet

The leaders of the Meccans, who belonged to the tribe of Quraysh, were worried about the Prophet’s teachings. He was questioning their way of life, threatening their power and dividing their people. They tried several schemes to stop him from teaching to the Meccans. The Quraysh approached the Prophet’s uncle, Hazrat Ahu Talib, to persuade him to control his nephew. When that failed, they tried to offer the Prophet attractive things. When he refused their offers, they challenged him to prove that he was Allah’s messenger.

Three types of dialogues

Ibn Ishaq presents to us each of these. three episodes through the exchanges that take place between different groups of people. In the first episode, the main interaction between the Quraysh and the Prophet’s uncle. In the next two episodes, the leaders of the Quraysh talk directly to the prophet. We can name the three episodes m follows, based on what the Quraysh are trying to achieve: the dialogue of threat, the dialogue of temptation, and the dialogue of challenge. Let’s examine the dialogue of challenge in greater detail to see how Ibn Ishaq presents this episode.

The dialogue of challenge

The third dialogue begins with the Quraysh challenging the prophet. They ask him to perform a miracle that will make their lives easier. Then they tell him to do a miracle that will benefit him self and prove he is an apostle. Finally they dare him to bring down punishment on them. Each time the prophet refuses and answers them that God has not sent him to perform these miracles.

Challenge and response

When we read this episode, we notice a rhythm of challenge and response in Ibn Ishaq’s account. In each passage, there is challenge put forward by the Quraysh, followed by an answer from the Prophet. Ibn Ishaq uses the dialogue method with skill to bring out the drama in the encounter of the Quraysh with the Prophet.

Contrasting words

Ibn Ishaq presents the leaders of Quraysh as clever speakers who use words to taunt, ridicule and humiliate the Prophet. In contrast, the replies of the Prophet come to us as words spoken by a patient but determined man. We also note a sense of sadness in the Prophet’s words. They have confused the language he speaks with that of poets, sorceress and possessed people.

Memory and the language

Ihn Ishaq’s biography on the Prophet is based on reports he had collected about the Prophet’s life from many sources, He includes in the biography verses from the Quran, savings of the Prophet, anecdotes about the Prophet’s companions, ‘the names of various tribes and their ancestors, war accounts, odes or poems, and other interesting detail.

Precious memories

lbn lshaq lived at a time when the Muslims felt an urgent need to preserve the memory of Prophet’s life. Those who had lived during the time of Prophet had already died, and those who knew these people were now passing away. The memories of this important period were in danger of being lost forever.

The literature of remembrance

Much of the literature that was produced in this age is therefore one of remembrance. The writers attempt to remember the lives of the Prophets, the Imams, and the great figures who lived in this historic period. Muslim writers started collecting the sayings of the Prophet, they wrote down accounts of the battles that had taken place, and they compiled histories of the early period.

Recalling the past

Ibn Ishaq’s biography is one of these great feats in remembrance. It tries to preserve the memories of those who had witnessed a truly historic change in their lives, brought about by a man called Muhammad. This act of remembering the past was to be repeated many times through the centuries and in different cultures, as we shall learn in the next section.


How was the life history of Prophet Muhammad narrated by writers in the early period of Islam?


  • Anecdote              
  • Biography

  • 6th – 7th century: Prophet Muhammad
  • 8th century: Muhammad Ibn Ishaq

Choose an episode from the life of Prophet Muhammad. Find out as much information as you can about it. Then try to present it in the form of a dialogue.


  • How does the Prophet respond to the Quraysh when he is threatened, when is offered wealth and honour, and when he is challenged to perform miracles? Are his answers similar or different in each case?
  • What tone of voice do the Quraysh use in each of these three situations? Is it the same tone or does it change?
  • What sources of information would lbn Ishaq have needed to write the different dialogues? How could he have made sure that his information was reliable?
Widen your knowledge by reading the biographies of other religious leaders such as Jesus Christ, Guatama Buddah and Guru Nanak.
What kinds of challenges might an historian encounter in writing the biography of a person who is no longer alive?
What importance should be given to people’s memories in helping us understand what happened in the past? To what extent can we rely on people’s memories for knowing about past events?
In the early period of Islam, a new form of literature appeared. It was based on accounts of events in the Prophets life; it tried to preserve people’s memories of the Prophets life.
Remembering through the mist of time
As time passed, stories about the Prophet spread through many lands and cultures. They were handed down from one generation to another. Muslim children were familiarized with these stories as part of their upbringing. As the stories travelled through different cultures, they were adapted in different ways. Sometimes, writers transformed these stories by adding their own creative accounts to them, as in this poem which was composed in Egypt. In the poem, the Prophet encounters a snake while he is travelling along a caravan rout.
The Prophet and the snake
The guiding chosen one came up and saw the snakeHis she-camel was about to be frightened when the snake appeared to itThe chosen one, the lord of the people of Adnan, said to the she camel:‘Why do you fret when the Lord of the Nation is on top of you?He is the mediator for creation on the day when the scales are installed[for the final judgment].’
When the snake saw Taha, the guiding chosen Prophet,
It kissed his hands and quietly asked the Prophet for a favour.
It talked to the beautiful Prophet with the grace of God, the Guiding One
And it said: ‘I bear witness that God is the True One
And that you, Prophet are the Messenger, The guide for the perplexed.’
Greetings to you who are the medicine for wounds if it festers on
You, for whom I have been looking for so long,
By the One who made you perfect, a paragon of beauty’
O Master, do not be afraid or terrified of me.
I am one of the kings of the jinn in a human form.
You who are chosen by the Sole Creator,
The One who always bestows His beneficence on you,
I have fulfilled my time-old vow. Be my intercessor, O son of Rama, on the Day of Terror!
The day people will be seen weeping and their sweat streaming forth.
By God, O beautiful Prophet, forgive me, and smile,
I had seen God’s friend (Abraham) whose words are truthful and explicit.
I asked him for intercession for me and he said; Go to the Prophet
He relieves (people’s) distress on the day when souls are resurrected.’
Since then I have, O Prophet of God, been writing.
And hoping for this day, O one with Kohl – colored eyes!
O how tormented was I and driven to madness by your love!
And I say, O beloved of mine, ‘Who can secure us paradise?
The Tihami Muhammad told him. The Merciful One will admit you to paradise
Because with His bounty He is generously merciful.
When the day of judgment comes, and its arrival is verified beyond doubt!
Come (to me), O snake, and be punctual;
But (for now) go and leave the route of the caravans.’
The snake heard these words and it left people alone.
The Prophet’s heart is never oblivious to the mention of God’s name.
The snake said: ‘My beloved interceded for me; I am none the worse for anything.’
Before the snake left, it knelt down and kissed the Prophet’s feet.
The staggering Abu Jahl were bumping against the bodies of men (who were supporting him).
In his heart he had one of many grudges.
He exclaimed: ‘I thought Muhammad would be beaten by the snake
It turned out that he, at once, enchanted the snake too.’
Humiliated in front of his men, Abu Jahl retreated.


  • Beneficence – goodness and kindness
  • Bestows– grants, gives
  • Distress – great pain, sorrow
  • Explicit – clear
  • Festers – gets worse, become infected
  • Fret – be greatly worried
  • Grudges – ill feeling, dislikes
  • Humiliated – put to shame
  • Installed – set up
  • Intercessor – the Prophet was seeking forgiveness on behalf of sinners
  • Kohl – a black powder used as eye make up
  • Lord of the people of Adnan – the Prophet as descended from a pure tribe, having notable ancestors
  • Mediator– the Prophet as acting on behalf of believers before God
  • Paragon– a model of excellence
  • Perplexed – puzzled, confused
  • Relieves– takes away
  • Scales – a weighing instrument
  • Secure– succeed in obtaining
  • Son of Rama – Prophet
  • Taha – one of the names of Prophet
  • Tihami – one of the names of the Prophet
  • Tormented – suffering greatly from worry
  • Verified – found out to be true

The story about the snake is part of this longer narrative about the Prophet. Let’s examine it to gain a greater understanding of the folk ballad as a form of literature.

About the text
So far most of the works we have examined were written by authors whom we can identify in history. We have information about these authors so that we know a little about their lives. There are many works whose authors are unknown to us. Also, not all stories and poems are written or recorded. Often stories and poems are related orally, by word of mouth.
A folk ballad by unknown authors
The short story on the Prophet and the snake in this section has been composed by unknown authors, and it has been transmitted orally for many generations. The story is part of a folk ballad that is recited in the rural areas of Egypt. A ballad is a kind of a song with a narrative in it. It uses a series of dialogues and incidents to narrate a story.
The journey of the Prophet
The story in the Egyptian ballad is based on the journey of Prophet Muhammad to Syria and his marriage to Khadija. During the journey, the Prophet meets many people to whom he teaches the message of Allah. He also comes across jinns and animals who recognise him as the messenger of God.
The serpent in the story
In Ibn Ishaq’s account of the Prophet, all the characters are human. In the story from the folk ballad, the main character is an animal. We have met this character before – in Adam’s story It is the snake who takes Iblis through the gates of paradise.
The serpent expelled from paradise
In the tales of the prophets by al-Kisai, God expels the serpent from paradise. Before, it was a beautiful creature, but now it becomes elongated and ugly. Its power of speech is taken away so that it becomes mute, It also becomes forked-tongued and poisonous. As the angels drag away the serpent, they say to it, ‘May God have mercy neither on you nor on any one who has mercy on you!’
A hated creature
Prophet Adam asks God about the serpent: ‘Lord, this serpent, who aided my enemy Iblis against me, how then shall I have strength against it?’ God replies, ‘O Adam, I will cause it to dwell in dark places and its food to be dirt. Whenever you see one, crush its head!’ From that day, the serpent becomes a hated creature to humans, as well a one to be feared.
The image of the Prophet
In the story about the prophet and the snake, we would expect to find the serpent
being given the part of the villain. And this is the impression we get when we read two lines of the story. The Prophet’s horse is startled by the snake appearing before it. We expect something terrible to follow. After all, the serpent is the archenemy of human beings.
Seeing through the serpent’s eyes
The stoty, however, turns out to be different from what we thought. The snake, instead of striking the Prophet, begins to converse and plead with him. Very soon, the story reverses the evil image of the serpent. It is made into a character for which we feel pity and sympathy, rather than hatred. It is through the serpent’s eyes that we are made to see the beauty and nobility of the Prophet.
The beautiful Prophet
The snake talks to the ‘beautiful prophet’, the one who is ‘perfect’ and a praragon of beauty’. He is the one with ‘kohl-coloured eyes’, whose love has driven the snake to madness. The snake calls the Prophet by fond names. He is called ‘Taha’ and ‘Tihami’, the popular names by which the Prophet is known in village folklore.
Medicine for the wound
The snake also sees the Prophet as the medicine for the ‘wound’. Naturally it is the snake that inflicts a wound, but here it is shown suffering from the ‘wound’ of being expelled from paradise. Only the prophet can cure him.
Seeking for forgiveness
The serpent pleads to the Prophet to ask God to forgive its sins on the Day of Judgment. The Prophet agrees to intercede for the serpent on that day. He promises the serpent that God will admit it to paradise because He is most generous and merciful.
In praise of the prophet
The story abouy the snake is a form of eulogy or praise about the Prophet. Throughout the Muslim world, we can find stories and poems that are in praise of the Prophet. Many of them are related orally, especially on occasions such as the birthday of the Prophet.
Different ways of remembering
The biographical account of Ibn Ishaq and the popular ballad from Egypt provide us with two examples that are based on the life of Prophet Muhammad. They are two contrasting ways in which the memory of the Prophet is kept alive in Muslim communities.
We also find in Muslim literature poems, stories, ballads and life accounts about members of the Prophet’s family. In the next section, we examine how Imam Husayn is portrayed in historical and popular accounts of the tragedy of Karbala.

How Is the Prophet’s life related by village storytellers and poets in different cultures?
    Ballad     Eulogy     

Write a ballad based on an event in Prophet Muhammad’s life Use the Egyptian folk
ballad as an example to guide you.


  • Would you have understood the story of the snake better if you knew more about the person who had written it?
  • How did you think of snakes before you read the story? Did the story help you to view snakes differently? If so, why?
  • What role is the Prophet given in the story? Is this role different from that in Ibn lshaq’s account?
Historians such as ibn lshaq give us a truer picture of the Prophet’s life than village poets who compose folk ballads. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Compare historical writing with poetry. What are some of the main strengths and weaknesses of each form of literature?
Compose two ballads about the Prophet from different cultures. What are some of the similarities and differences you find in them?
Throughout the Muslim world, we can find stories and poems that are in praise of the Prophet. Some of them are in a written form, while others are recited orally.
A scar on the face of time
A tragic event took place in the early history of Islam when Imam Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson, was killed at Karbala by Umayyad troops. This event deeply saddened and shocked the Muslims. They could not understand how something like this could happen in the Muslim community; and especially to the Prophet’s own family.
The following passages are from an historical account of Karbala. They were written by a famous historian named al-Tabari between the ninth and tenth centuries as part of his wider history of Muslims.
The events of the Year 61
According to … Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali: I was sitting on that evening before the morning in which my father was killed; with me was my aunt, Zaynab, who was nursing me, when my father retired with his followers into his tent .. My father recited:
Time shame on you as a friend!
At the day’s dawning and the sun’s setting,
How many a companion or seeker will be a corpse!
Time will not be satisfied with my substitute.
The matter will rest with the
Mighty One,
and every living creature will have to journey along the path
He repeated it twice or three times so that I understood it and realised what it meant. Tears choked me, and I pushed them back. I kept silent and knew that tribulation had come upon us.
As for nay aunt, she heard what I heard … she could not control herself … She said to him, ‘I will lose a brother. Would that death had deprived me of life today! My mother Fatima is dead, and my father Ali, and my brother al-Hasan. O! You are the successor of those who have passed away and the guardian of those who remain!’… Then she fell down in a faint.
Al-Husayn got up and bathed her face with water. Then he said to her, ‘Sister, fear God and take comfort in the consolation of God. Know that the people of the earth will die and the inhabitants of heaven will not continue to exist forever. ‘… for everything will be destroyed except the face of God,’ who created earth by His power, who sends forth creatures and causes them to return, who is unique and alone … By this and the like he tried to console her ….
He went out to his followers and ordered them to bring their tents closer together so that the tent pegs came within the area of each other’s tents, and so that if they remained among their tents, the enemy could only approach them from one side…..
Al Husayn mobilised his followers after he had prayed the Morning Prayer with them. He had with him thirty – two horsemen forty foot soldiers…. they positioned themselves with their tents at their rare.
Al Husayn had bought cane and firewood to the lower ground behind them, which was like a bed of streams. For some time in the night, they had dug it and made it like a ditch.
Then they threw into the ditch, the firewood and cane. They had said, ‘when they come against us to fight us, we will set fire to it, so that they would not attacked from far behind; we can fight the people from one side. They did that and it was of some advantage to them.
….when the cavalry began to approach Al Husayn , he raised his hands and said, ‘ O God! It is you in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all distress. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, no matter how much my heart may seem to weaken, ingenuity to fall, the friend to desert and the enemy to rejoice….’
When the people began to come nearer to (al Husayn), he called for his mount and mounted. Then he called out at the top of his voice’ … Trace back my lineage and consider who I am …. Am I not the son of the daughter of your Prophet, the son of the executer of his will and his cousin, the first of the believers in God and the man who {first} believed in what His apostle brought from his Lord? …. Have you not heard the words that circulate among you that the Prophet of God said: concerning myself and my brother : “These are the two lords of the youths of heaven”? …Is this not sufficient to prevent your shedding my blood? . . .
Then al-Hurr said, ‘… People of al – Kufah, You summoned him. Then when he had come to you, you handed him over. You claimed that you would fight with your own lives for him, and then you have begun to attack him in order to kill him. You have laid hold of his life; you have seized his throat; you have encircled him on every side in order to prevent his returning to God’s broad land, where he may be secure and where his family (ahl al-bayt) may be secure.’
‘He has come into your hands like a prisoner who no longer can attract benefit to himself and cannot secure himself against harm. You have prevented him, his womenfolk, his children, and his followers from the water of the flowing Euphrates … Now they are likely to die of thirst. How wickedly you have treated the offspring of Muhammad! …’ Some of the foot soldiers attacked him by shooting arrows at him. He went and stood in front of al-Husayn.
The followers of al-Husayn fought fiercely. Then their cavalry began to attack, and even though they were only thirty-two horsemen, they did not attack any side of the Kufan cavalry without putting it to flight.
They fought against them in the fiercest battle God created, until midday. They could only come against them from one direction because of the way they had gathered their tents close to each other . . .
Then they set the tents on fire. Husayn said, ‘Leave them. Let them burn them. If they set them on fire, they will not be able to come through them against you.’ That was how it was. They could still only attack them from one direction.
When the followers of al-Husayn realised that the enemy had become numerous and that they would no longer be able to defend Husayn, or themselves, they vied with each other to be killed in front of him.
There was a long delay through the day. If the people had wanted to kill [al-Husayn], they could have done so but each of them was averting the action; each hoped the other would kill al-Husayn. Each of them preferred that the others should do the deed … So an attack was launched against him on every side … Sinan ibn Anas attacked him and stabbed him with his spear. He fell.

averting – avoiding, turning away from
cavalry – soldiers on horse back
consolation, – comfort and support in time of sorrow
corpse – a dead body
– taken away from
executora person appointed to carry out a particular duty
ingenuity – cleverness
lineage – line of ancestors
mobilised – organised troops for battle
mount – horse
substitute – a person acting in place of another
tribulation – great suffering, difficulty
vied – competed
About the author and the text

The episode on Karbala forms a part of a lengthy work called the history of Prophets and King by an historian called Abu Jaffar Muhammad Al Tabari. He was born in 839 in a town near the Caspian Sea in the region known as Tabaristan.

A gifted scholar

Al-Tabari claimed that when he was young he knew the Quran by heart at the age of seven, led prayers when he eight and studied the sayings of the prophet at the age of nine. Al tabari was gifted with powerful memory and is said to have remember every saying of the prophet his teachers taught him.

Al-Tabari studied in many centers as he grew up, including Baghdad, Basra and Kufa. He travelled widely and met scholars in Egypt, Syria and before returning to Baghdad.

Forty pages a day for forty years

Al Tabari spent the rest of his life writing a wide range of works including The History This work begins with an account of creation of the word, including the story of Adam. It then covers the history of ancient nations and prophets, the birth of Islam., the life of Prophet Muhammad, the events in the Muslim world up to the year 915. Tabari must have written Forty folios (pages) each day for forty years to have completed this lengthy work!

A great chronicle of history

Al-Tabari’s History is recognized as one of the greatest chronicles of history. It covers in minute detail many historical events. Al-Tabari uses numerous sources in his accounts and presents events from different angles. In this section, we examine how he describes what took place in the final hours of the battle of Karbala.

The historical background

To understand what happened at Karbala, we need to know about the wider history of this period. When Prophet Muhammad died, the Muslim community was divided on who should succeed the Prophet. This dispute continued after rule of first four caliphs. A governor in Syria by the name of Muawiya took power from Imam Ali, and selected his son Yazid to be the next ruler. When this came to be known, Imam Husayn refused to recognise Yazid as the next caliph.

Imam Husayn at Karbala

Invited by the people of Kufa to lead them, Imam Husayn set out with his family from Mecca. At a place called Karbala in Iraq, Imam Husayn was surrounded by troops sent by the governor of Kufa who was appointed by Yazid. For ten days Imam Husayn and his family were trapped in Karbala with little water or food. The Imam refused to accept Yazid as the new caliph. A battle followed and Imam Husayn was killed, as were most of the male side of his family and companions.

A shocking event
The battle of Karbala shocked the Muslim community when they heard about it. They could not understand how the Prophet’s grandson and his family could be treated in such an horrific manner. The incidents described by Al Tabari give us an indication of what happened on that fateful day.
Studying the account
    Two passages selected from Al-Tabari begin with a report from Zayn al-Abidin (Ali ibn Al-Husayn). Imam Zayn al-Abidin was the only son of Imam Husayn to survive the battle of Karbala. At that time he was a young boy who was ill and being looked after by his aunt Zaynab. He describes the mood on the eve of the battle.

From the poem recited by Imam Husayn, we realise that something is about to occur. We sense deep grief, despair and loss in the words of the aunt, while Imam Husayn speaks to her words of comfort.

The preparations for battle
In the following passages, al-Tabari informs us of the preparation that Husayn made before the battle. As we read these passages, we realise how vulnerable and defenseless Imam Husayn’s family and companions are against the Kufan forces.
Words of the Prophet’s grandson
In the next part of the account, we hear the words of Imam Husayn again as he prays to God for strength. Then he reminds his enemies that he is none other than the grandson of the Prophet, Muhammad and urges them to think of their actions. We also come across the words of al-Hurr, a commander from the opposing side who has joined Imam Husayn’s group.
In the final part of the description, Al Tabari gives us details about the actual battle itself, ending with the death of Imam Husayn.
History and tragedy
When we read al-Tabari’s History, we are struck by the amount of detail with \which he describes the past. We catch glimpses of this detail in the passages on Karbala, such as the poetic verse Imam Husayn recites; the words shared between Imam Husayn and Hazrat Zaynab, and the preparations carried out before the battle. Al-Tabari tries his best to bring every event to life as he narrates the past.
When writing about Karbala, al-Tabari was describing a very important turning point in early Muslim history. He tried to include in his account the voices of people who had been present at the battle and had witnessed the tragedy.

Tragedy as literature

Tragedy is a very powerful form of literature which is found in many cultures. A story or drama about a tragedy awakens us to the evil and suffering in the world that we cannot explain. It helps us to face the trials of life and to accept that death is certain for all human beings.

Standing up against the unjust

Tragedy can also lead us to think more deeply about justice, about the need to defend that which is right. Tragedy reveals to us the great heroic courage of individuals who stand up against what is wicked and evil. Their actions inspire us to think more deeply about situations in our own lives.
Tragedy is a very powerful form of literature that shows us both what is most noble as well as hideous in human nature.

How was the tragedy of Karbala presented in early accounts of Muslim history?

  • 7th century, The battle of Karbala in the year 680
  • 9th– 10th century: Abu Jaffar Muhammad Al Tabari

Write a short chronicle of events that have happened in world history over the last ten years. What sources of information will you use to compile your chronicle? How reliable are these chronicles?

• What do the poetic verses recited by Imam Husayn mean? Why do you think al-Tabari included these verses in his account?
• How would you describe the mood inside Imam al-Husayn’s tent on the evening before the battle?
• What image of lmam Husayn does al-Tabari portray in his account? When al-Tabari wrote his account of Karbala, more than one hundred years had passed since the battle took place. Where do you think he got his information on the battle from?


Find out about other tragic events that have taken place in history. How have historians portrayed these events?


Writing a historical account is not the best way to present tragedy because it cannot capture the feelings and suffering of people. How far do you agree with this view?

The ancient Greek thinker Aristotle thought that drama based on tragedy purified the hearts of the spectators It removed the feelings of fear and pity from them What do you think he meant by these words?

Tragedy is powerful form of literature which is found in many cultures A story or drama about a tragedy awakens us to the evil and suffering in the world that we cannot explain.

The darkness of sorrow
What happened at Karbala became forever a part of the memory of the Muslim community. Karbala is remembered today in many ways, through special festivals, plays, stories and poems. Poetry is an important means by which Muslims try to express their deepest feelings about Karbala. Here are two poems which give us a glimpse of the literature on the tragedy of Karbala that has been produced in Muslim cultures
Fire and water
The days of summer heat defy description.
My tongue bums like a candle if I try.
God save us from the blast of its inception!
The field was red, and yellow burnt the sky.
Cold water was the wish of this poor band
As flaming winds poured upon the sand.
The vehemence of the sun, its cruel glare!
The face of day was burned and black as night.
The Alqama dried up; its banks were bare;
Its bubbles burst and from the heat took flight.
The spring of life was dry; its work was done.
The Euphrates steamed and boiled beneath the sun.
Four-footed creatures sheltered in the lake;
With fish the salamander made its home;
The deer were languid, cheetahs would not wake;
The molten rocks became a waxen foam.
The red flew from the rose, green from the glade;
In wells the water dropped in search of shade.
There was no tree that still bore flowers or fruits;
The date-palms were on fire like the chenar.
No smiling rose drew moisture from its roots;
Thorns grew on branches burned as black as tar.
No limb could stir, no beating heart would race;
All nature bore a pale. consumptive face.
The beasts cowered in the places that were wet;
Birds hid themselves within the forest trails.
The pupils of the eye were bathed in sweat,
And would not peep outside their eyelash-veils.
If one glance came to stand upon the street,
A thousand blisters formed upon its feet.
The lions would not emerge from their wild dens
Dust hung around the hazy sun’s wide girth
Gazelles all sought the refuge of the fens
The firmament caught fever from the earth
From pain of heat it uttered mournful sound
Seeds roasted if they fell upon the ground
The whirlpool on the water spun with flame
From burning bubbles sparks of fire would leap
The tongues of waves were dry; no solace came
To crocodiles which languished in the deep
The rivers blazed as if on Judgement’s Day
And roasted fish upon their billows lay
The mirror of the sky was scorched with heat
And lightning dashed for shelter in the cloud.
Hot-tempered men could scarce stand on their feet
For morning’s camphor cried the sun aloud.
The dome of elemental fire burned red.
And clouds to even colder regions sped.
The enemy riders let their horses drink;
They led their camels to the watering-places;
The birds refreshed themselves upon the brink,
And water-boys brushed moisture on their faces
A pious act to care for bird and beast!
Husayn, so thirsty, looked upon their feast
A golden parasol for Ibn Sad!
His servants fanned him as he sat; and now
The ground was splashed with water by his guard.
But for Husayn no shade to cool his brow.
The blazing sun beat down upon his back
His blessed countenance was burned and black

The son of Sad called: ‘Lord of Heaven think!
Give me allegiance, for I mean no harm.
A cooling draught shall I give thee to drink.’
Husayn replied: ‘Ah wretch respect Islam!
The son of Ali takes no gift from thee

From thy hand water is but dust to me.’
Horse of Karbala
When afternoon arrived,
The celestial sun of the faith became lost.
After Zuljenah became separated from its master,
it came to the tent’s entrance.
With a heart full of sorrow,
Zainab came out of the tent.
She cried out, putting her face
to the stirrup.
She began to speak to Zuljenah
with this complaint:
Alas, that you have abandoned
my brother!
O horse, so spattered with blood,
has martyrdom befallen my brother,
king of Kauthar,
who was thirsty and exhausted?
My brother, with a body
like that of the heavens,
has fallen asleep with wounds
more numerous than the stars.
Has the lamp of the faith been extinguished
on the field of Karbala?
and what kind of tyrant has won victory
and made the world blind?
Alas I, along with the orphans,
have fallen into the enemy’s captivity.
And it has become my lot to remain weeping
in the darkness of sorrow.


  • allegianceloyalty
  • billows – eaves, swelling, soft mass
  • brink – edge
  • camphor – a white, crystal like substance ,with a strong smell used in medicine
  • celestial – of the sky ,
  • Consumptive – weak, ill
  • countenance – face
  • cowered – crouched with fear
  • draught – potion of liquid for drinking
  • Euphrates – a river flowing through Iraq
  • Fens – marshy or flooded areas of land
  • Firmament –sky
  • girth – circumference, rim, outer edge
  • glade – an open space in a wood
  • Inception – birth, beginning
  • languid – lacking energy, sluggish
  • languished – grew weak or feeble
  • martyrdom – suffering and death of a martyr, a person who sacrifices his or her life for an important cause
  • parasol – large umbrella that provides shade from the sun
  • salamander – a lizard-like creature
  • solace – comfort
  • spattered – splashed
  • stirrup – supports for a riders feet on the sides of a horse
  • tar – dark, thick substance obtained from coal or wood
  • vehemence – strength, force


Fire and water
Fire and water’ is part of a longer poem on Karbala called a ‘marthiya’. A marthiya is an elegery based on the tragic happenings at Karbala. The selected verses of the marthiya we have read were composed by a poet named Mir Anis. He was born in 1801 or 1802, and lived in Luckhnow in India. He died there in 1874.
Writing as a religious act
Mir Anis was educated at home where he learned Arabic and Persian. He was introduced to poetry by his family from an early age. He started by composing ghazals, hut soon turned to writing marthiyas when encouraged by his father, He saw writing as a religious act. When asked by a ruler of Oudh to write a history of the royal family, Anis refused. He felt that the pen that had written about the Prophet’s family could not be used for writing about worldly rulers.
Indian imagery
Mir Anis wrote his poems in Urdu. He is known for the beautiful marthiyas he composed. In these elegies, he uses imagery from the natural environment he found around him in India. He also refers to figures from Hindu myths to enrich his poems.
The background to the poem
While at Karbala, Imam Husayn, his family and his companions had been suffering from severe thirst, and were badly in need of water. The River Euphrates was not far from Karbala, but the supporters of Imam Husayn were not allowed to draw water from the river. When offered some water by Ibn Sad, the commander of the enemy soldiers, the Imam refused since it would have required him to give his loyalty to Yazid.
Mir Anis introduces us to this episode through his imaginative description of the landscape of Karbala. Let us examine how he uses images from nature to heighten our inner feelings about Karbala.

Images of Karbala
Mir Anis uses two important symbols to describe the Landscape of Karbala – fire and water. All the other images in his description revolve around these two symbols.
Mir Anis uses many images to convey to us the fiery nature o Karbala. The burning sky the flaming winds, and the molten rocks all give us a sense of the intense heat of the desert.
The heat of Karbala has a devastating effect on nature. Seeds roast on the ground, roses loose their redness, deers become languid, and human feet suffered from a thousand blisters.


Mir Anis also uses in his poem images related to water. We read about the cold water that 1mm Husayn’s family wish for, the camels and horses refreshing themselves at water-places, the water-boys and moisture on their faces, and the ground before Ibn Sad that is splashed with water.
At some points in his poetry, Anis brings together the two symbols of fire and water. The Euphrates steams and boils, the whirlpool on the water spins flame, and sparks of fire leap burning bubbles.

The fire of Karbala

The fire of Karbala is the intense heat that Imam Husayn has to suffer. It is also the fire of trial he experiences. He is given a choice between loyalty to Yazid or death. it is a choice that burns the mind. Yazid means water and therefore life. But Imam Husayn sees this water as boiling with death. He prefers to die of thirst than drink this water.
The fire of Karbala is also the fire of sorrow within the poet’s heart. Mir Anis feels that his tongue will burn like a candle if he tries to describe the heat of Karbala. He has no words that can explain the injustice that Imam Husayn and his family suffered at Karbala.
Horse of Karbala
Every year communities of Shia Muslims commemorate the events of Karbala during the month of Muharram. The festival of Ashura takes place on the tenth day of Muharraam when Imam Husayn was killed in the battle of Karbala. In some countries there are processions and plays depicting events that took place at Karbala.
Zuljenah, the horse
One of the important symbols of Karbala is Zuljenah, the horse that Imam Husayn was riding when he was killed. When the horse returned to camp without Imam Husayn, his family knew that the worst has happened.
In some Shia communities, a white horse representing Zuljenah is paraded on the day of Ashura. Many poems and elegies have also been composed which refer to Zuljenah. The horse in these poems becomes a witness to what was happened to Imam Husayn.
A poem in Balti
The poem entitled ‘Horse of Karbala’ was composed by a poet in Balti, A language spoken in western Tibet. It describes the moment when Hazrat Zaynab sees Zuljenah returns without its master.
Examining the poem
When the horse returns to camp, Hazrat Zaynab sees the blood on the horse and realizes what had happened. She speaks to Zuljenah and complains to him why he has returned without Imam Husayn. Her words are full of lament and sorrow at this moment.
A horse without its master
When the horse returns to the camp, Hazrat Zaynab sees the blood on the horse and realises what has happened. She speaks to Zuljenah and complains to him why he returned without Imam Husayn. Her words are full of lament and sorrow at this moment.

A world made blind
Then Hazrat Zaynab’s words take on a different tone. She realises that the battle of Karbala is over. She asks ‘what kind of tyrant has won victory and made the world blind?’ A new period has begun for the Muslims – nothing will ever be the same.
The ‘darkness of sorrow’ that Zaynab feels in her heart is also the darkness that the Muslim community now faces, for ‘the lamp of the faith [has] been extinguished on the field of Karbala.

Poetry and tragedy

The poetry we have read heightens the tragic moments and events of Karbala. We become intensely aware of the difficult struggle faced by Imam Husayn and his family. Poetry is an important form of literature through which the memory of Karbala is kept alive in Muslim communities.


How is tragedy of Karbala presented in the popular culture of Muslim communities?

TIMELINE:     9th century: Mir Anis   


  • Select an episode or an event from the tragedy of Karbala. Then compose a poem on it Think of the images, mood and message that you want to reflect.


  • What are some of the meanings that fire and water have in Mir Anis poem?
  • If the last two passages of Fire and water were removed, would the rest of the poem be affected in any way?
  • In Horse of Karbala’, what does Hazrat Zaynab mean when she says that the tyrant has made the world blind?
  • Why do you think she describes sorrow as darkness?
Widen your reading of tragedy as form of literature by reading poems, stories or plays that reflect this theme. Study closely the different styles of writing used by writers and poets of tragedy.
Poets tell us more about our inner feelings rather than the real world. To what extent do you agree with this
What place does poetry have in our modem life? Is it becoming more or less important than in the past? Why?
Poetry is an important form of literature through which the memory of Karbala is kept alive in Muslim communities.
Inner conversations
As we have seen, the Prophet and his family are remembered in many ways in Muslim communities. There is another form of remembrance that is practised daily by Muslims all over the world. It is the remembrance of Allah, and consists of prayers, both formal and individual. Here is an example of a prayer that is said to have been taught by Imam All to the believers.
The dawn prayer

In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate
I call upon you, O Allah
You have produced the tongue of dawn.
imbuing it with glorious eloquence;
and scattered the fragments of dismal nights,
consigning them to the darkness of anxiety – – –

Open to me, O Allah,
the gates of dawn with the keys of mercy and salvation
And let the tears, O Allah,
flow from mine eyes for fear of you;
And teach me, O Allah. to overcome ignorance and weakness through patience and tolerance.
If you, O my God,
will not show mercy to begin with,
by creating in me the aptitude to do good,
who will make me walk in the most obvious
And if your clemency leave me to pursue worldly hopes and aspirations,
Who will sympathies’ with me
My God, did you not see me
how ardently I approached you –
how I did cling to the sides of your cord –
when my sins had separated me from my meeting place with you?
My God,
I knocked at the door of your mercy with my beseeching hand
and fled towards you in distress,
to escape from the intensity of my vain desires and held the strands of your cord
with the fingers of my love for you!
I call upon you O Allah,
to purge me of the sins and mistakes I have committed:
And forgive me for having cast away my original raiment of purity:
for you are my lord and master;
In you I trust and you arc my hope,
and the goal of my desires,
while I go about and while I rest at all times.

My God,
how can you reject a poor man who supplicates to you fleeing from his sins?
And how can you refuse a thirsty man
who has come to the pools asking for a drink?
Never! For your pools are full even in times of scarcity and famine;
And your doors are opened to all that knock even though they be misguided;
O Allah,
Let there be sent down upon me, this dawn,
the light of your guidance
And peace in matters of faith and in this world;….
whatever your hands do is good.
Truly you are able to do all things
You join night with day
And day with night;
You produce the living from the dead
And dead from the living;
And you give imeasurable sustanance to whom you will,
There is no God but you
Glory be to your name, O Allah and praise be to you!
Who is it that knowing your power, fears you not,
And who is it that, knowing what you are, is not awe struck?
……In your mercy you have caused the day break to appear;
And by your bounty you have lit up the darkness of night;
You have produced streams of water brine out of hard rocks;
And you have showered down rain water from the clouds;
You have made the sun and the moon two shining lamp
For your creation;
And in doing all this, you have neither exerted yourself
Nor require any help…..
O, you who are unique….
Glorify Muhammad and his pious decedents.
And accept my prayer;
Hear my cry…
Fulfill, by your grace, my desire
And grant my request……
My God!
My heart is remorseful
And my soul is tarnished with iniquity,
And my reason is overcome,
And my vanity is overwhelming,
Little is my obedience to you,
And numerous are my transgressions
With my own tongue do I witness my faults.
What then is my excuse?
O you that hides iniquities
O you that knows the unseen
O you that relieves pain
Forgive my sins
for the virtuousness of Muhammad and his descendents,
O most forgiving, O most forgiving, O most forgiving,
With your mercy, O most merciful of all

Word check

  • aptitude – ability
  • ardently – eagerly, passionately
  • aspirators strong desires, ambitions
  • beseeching – pleading
  • brine – salty water
  • clemency – mercy
  • compassionate – kind, merciful
  • cosigning- handing over
  • immeasurable- that which cannot be measured
  • iniquity – wickedness
  • overwhelming – overpowering
  • purge – remove by cleaning
  • raiment – clothing
  • remorseful – filled with regret
  • salvation – to do with being saved
  • scarcity – lack of food
  • supplicates – prays humbly to be granted something
  • sustenance – nourishment, suppor
  • sympathise – share feelings of another
  • exerted- used effort
  • imbuing – inspiring
  • cord- rope
  • dismal – gloomy, sad
  • eloquence- persuading speech
  • tarnished – stained
  • tolerance – without complaining
  • transgressions- sins
  • vanity – pride
  • virtuousness – goodness

 About the prayer

The dawn prayer in this section has been chosen from a set of special prayers called ‘dua’. These prayers are recited by all Muslim communities. The dawn prayer is from a collection that belongs to the Shia tradition. Its author is thought to be Hazrat Ali, the first Imam of the Shia Muslims.
Imam Ali
Imam All was the cousin and son-in- law of Prophet Muhammad, and the first Imam of the Shia Muslims. He is remembered in Muslim history for his support and help to the Prophet in establishing the message of Islam. Imam Ali is also known for his deep wisdom and piety. There are many letters, prayers and sayings that are said to be by Imam Ali and which form an important part of the religious literature of Muslims. There are also a large number of stories and poems that have been written about him. Like Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali holds a special place in the memory of Muslim communities.

Prayer as literature
Prayers form an important part of Muslim literature, along with stories, poems and other types of work we have examined. The ‘Dawn prayer’ is an interesting-example that helps us to appreciate more deeply the religious literature of – Muslim societies.
Prayer as conversation
When we read the dawn prayer, we notice that there are two main characters in it. There is the person who is praying, and there is God to whom the prayer is directed.
‘I’ and ‘You’
The prayer appears to us as a conversation between the believer and God, The believer takes the form of ‘I’ in the conversation and God is referred to as ‘You’. Prayer becomes a personal dialogue between the believer as ‘I’ and God as ‘You’.
No ordinary conversation
However, this conversation is no ordinary one. It is an inner language between the believer and God. In this conversation, we can only hear one voice- that of a believer. The voice of God is silent, but we can sense His presence throughout the conversation. The believer constantly turns to God.
Discovering ourselves
This inner speech is also very personal and intimate- It is not the kind of dialogue that would normally take place between two human beings. When praying, we feel ourselves to be nothing, whereas God is all-powerful. We praise God and glorify His name. We confess our wrong doings before our Creator, and seek for forgiveness and mercy. We also seek for help and guidance.
Through this form of conversation we discover our limits and weaknesses as ‘I’ We also find inner strength and hope in God as ‘You ‘.
The language of prayer
The language of prayer reminds us of song and poetry. There is beauty and rhythm in it, and is filled with images and metaphors. It evokes deep emotions in us.
Taking the place of ‘I’
When we read or recite a prayer, we immediately enter into the prayer, we become the ‘I’, and the prayer the prayer becomes a conversation between us and God. Since we read the prayer as ‘I’, we feel close to God and intimate with Him.
A rich language
The language of prayer is very rich. We find eulogy or praise in it: the believer glorifies God and marvels at his creation. We also find elegy in it: the believer grieves over the sorrows that have come upon him. Prayer has supplication in it: the believer pleads to God to forgive his sins. In prayer, we may also find a intercession and mediation; the believer asks prophets, imams, saints or other religious figures to seek God’s help and forgiveness on his behalf.
‘The tongue of dawn’
The prayer of dawn has a wonderful metaphor of light within it. Dawn is a very special time when it is neither fully night nor fully day. It is the time when night is just ending and day is just beginning. The sun has not as yet risen, but is just about to rise above the horizon.
The light that brings life
Dawn dispels darkness and brings with it light. With light comes life. Nature awakens from a deep slumber, and we hear the chirping of the birds and the scurrying of animals. Humans too get ready to set off on their day’s activities.
Awakening to a higher life
the prayer of dawn is a conversation between the believer and God that takes place at this very special time. As the physical light of the sun begins to bathe the earth, so too does the prayer bathe the soul of the believer. Just as the physical light awakens life on earth, the dawn prayer awakens the believer’s mind to a higher life.
Living in the light of God’s guidance
The prayer of dawn ends the night and ushers in the day. It ends the ‘night’ of anxiety, distress, sorrow and wrongdoing. And it brings in the ‘day’ of forgiveness, clearsightedness and hope. As dawn comes the believer begins to live in the light of God’s guidance.
What can we learn about the use of language in prayers from the religious litreture of Muslims?


  • Supplication
TIMELINE:  •7th century: Hazrat Ali ibn Abu Talib, the first Imam of Shia Muslims

Write a prayer that reflects a theme of your own choice. Then study the prayer you have composed to find out more about the various features.

  • Find examples in the dawn prayer where the believer is doing the following:
    * glorifying God
    * pleading for forgiveness asking for guidance
    * seeking mediation through the Prophet and his family
  • Examine how the words ‘I’ and ‘You’ are used in the prayer. How would the prayer be affected if these words were not used?
Examine prayers from different Muslim traditions and other religions. What are some of the similarities you notice about the language used in these prayers?

The language of prayer can only be understood by people who pray. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
What does the act of praying teach us about ourselves as human beings?
Prayer is a rich and creative form of language. It is an inner conversation between the believer as ‘I’ and God as ‘You’.

  • Living memories

  • What did the Quraysh say to Hazrat Abu Talib, and how did he respond to them?
  • What kinds of offer did the Quraysh make to the Prophet? How did he answer them?
  • What kind of challenges did they put before him? How did the Prophet reply?

  • Remembering through the mist of time

  • What is the main story line in the anecdote?
  • What are some of similarities and differences between how the prophet is portrayed in Ibn Ishaq’s biography and in the popular ballad?
  • How is the snake presented in the story?
  • How the ballad did changed our view of the traditional image of the snake as the evil creature?

  • A scar on the face of time
    • What do we learn from Imam Zayn al-Abidin’s account of what happened in the evening before the battle of Karbala?
    • How did Imam Husayn and his men prepare for battle? To what extent were their preparations helpful?
    • What reasons did Imam Husayn and his supporters present to the opponents for not engaging in a battle?
    • What was the final outcome of the battle?

  • The darkness of sorrow
    • What is the main subject of ‘Fire and water’?
    • What images does the poet use to describe Karbala?
    • How is the focus of ‘Horse of Karbala’ different from ‘Fire and water’?
    • What is Zaynab’s response on seeing lmam Husayn’s horse return from the battle without its master?
    • What does she feel are the outcomes of the battle?
    • What are some possible meanings and messages we can extract from the two poems?
  • Inner conversations
  • • What is the main subject of the dawn prayer?
    • What are some examples in the prayer where the believer is praising God or seeking His mercy?
    • How are the images of light and darkness used in the prayer?
    • How does the prayer lead us to participate in the conversation between the believer and God?

To continue reading the book please click on: UNIT – 4


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