Saeed Naqvi


Millions of Muslims will, in the next few days, observe the birth and death anniversaries of Fatima Zehra, Prophet Mohammad’s daughter. But during this period, the world famous shrine of her daughter, Saiyada Zainab, outside Damascus, holy to millions around the world, will be in grave danger. That remarkable chronicler of London’s “Independent”, Robert Fisk, ascribes the danger to “Salafist mortar fire”.


The news some days ago was alarming but the shrine had not been “destroyed”, as extremist propaganda claimed. Let Fisk speak: “Mortars crack and rumble around us but save for a few marble squares, the place (shrine) stands untouched. There’s a T-72 tank down the road and a clutch of government soldiers outside”. But that is the picture today. What’s to come is still unsure.


The mischief that is afoot in Damascus is part of the sequence which caused the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas and the shrines of Timbuktu. But there is a major difference: Bamyan and Timbuktu were swift acts of vandalism. Damascus, the world’s oldest continuous urban habitation, has been in the eye of the storm for quite some time.


And all of this, even as the Security Council peers over the rampage for nearly two years? Would the world’s leaders have been as insensitive if, say, Santiago de Compostela in Spain were under siege?

Indeed, when an Australian fanatic set fire to the Al Aqsa mosque in the 60s, the Jerusalem municipality organized visits by foreign journalists to demonstrate how Israel had protected the mosque. And they had.


When Michaelangelo’s masterpiece at St. Peter’s, the Pieta, was desecrated, the outrage was global, cutting across religions.


How deafening by comparison this silence on the desecration of Prophet Mohammad’s granddaughter! Should the silence in a large section of the Muslim world surprise us? A frightful reality should not be allowed to be obscured: the perpetrators of the desecration in Damascus claim to be Muslims manufactured specially for the “houris” of paradise.


Remember the folk who threatened Lahore with thunder and brimstone just in case the city celebrated Basant with colour and kite flying? The tradition was declared as un-Islamic by exactly the variety active in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Mali.


A poet friend of mine derives comfort from the fact that this lot will never inspire literature, only ghastly terror films. While Zainab’s defining role, along with her elder brother Imam Hussain, in the battle of Karbala, in 680 AD, on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq, has inspired some of the greatest poetry in Urdu literature.  Since Karbala happened barely 48 years after the Prophet’s death, it lent itself not as a mythical, but a live, historic battle between good and evil. It opened up for scrutiny the inherent conflict between ideals and Empire.


Josh Malihabadi, an iconoclast and agnostic, succinctly summed up the meaning of Karbala:

“Koi keh de ye hukumat ke nigehbanon se

Karbala ek abadi jung hai sultanon se.”

(Warn the self appointed keepers of People’s interests

Karbala symbolizes an eternal war against feudalism and injustice)


Much the finest poetry on Karbala is in the form of epics called Marsias which dwell on Hussain, Zainab and their entourage. Men were martyred but the women, like Zainab were, shackled and paraded through the long journey to the Omayyad court in Damascus.


The journey provided Zainab with an opportunity to bring into play her charisma and eloquence. Karbala, which might have remained a story buried on an obscure Iraqi river bank, became a turning point in Islamic history because of Zainab’s exceptional oratory. This gave her the additional title of being the world’s first woman war chronicler.


The manner, in which the battle of Karbala is observed as Moharram every year, bears some resemblance to the way in which Serbs preserve the memory of the battle of Kosovo, 1389. In both instances, “apparent” defeat is celebrated as transcendental or a higher victory. Hussain’s martyrdom at the hands of the Omayyad armies, “cleansed” the faith of the deviations which had crept in within four decades of the “message”. Serbs celebrate the battle of Kosovo because, even though they “apparently” lost, they nevertheless waged such fierce battle that they blocked Turkish armies from advancing into Europe. This was their victory.


Today, even though Kosovo is an independent Muslim country, the Serbian monument of Kosovo and some of the most exquisite monasteries like Decan, are totally secure, protected by the Kosovars along with European military help. Should Decan even be scratched, the reverberations, not only in Serbia but the entire Eastern Orthodox Church will be techtonic.


Why then this helplessness in the ranks of those whose adoration for the valiant Saiyada Zainab is so real? Another point: she brought her brother’s martyrdom to light. But the attack on her shrine is blocked even on websites in most Arab countries. Such tragic irony.

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