An Ode Comparing the Shrines of Imam Ali and Muawiyah

It is said that one of the famous Sunni poets and literarians of Syria, Muhammad Majdhoob (d 1999 CE), visited al-Najaf al-Ashraf out of curiosity to pay respect to Imam ‘Ali (as) and see how the Shi’a pay their respects to him. When he returned to Syria, he asked those in Damascus to guide him to the grave of Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, and after encountering great difficulty navigating around the city, he finally found the site. He saw it abandoned and dilapidated among crumbling bricks and dirty alleyways. Majdhoob was so moved by this juxtaposition of the two shrines that he composed the following beautiful poetic lines, which we have rendered into rhyming English couplets with some brief Arabic literary remarks.[1]

أين القصور أبا يزيد ولهوهــــــــــا

Where are the castles, Abu Yazeed?

والصافنات وزهوها والســــــــؤددُ

And all the joys and swanky steeds?

اين الدهاء نحرت عزته علـــــــــى

And where’s the cunning that you had unleashed

أعتاب دنيا زهوهـــا لاينفـــــــــدُ

At the gates of a world for which lust doesn’t cease?[2]

هذا ضريحك لو بصرت ببؤســــه

Here is your shrine, if its squalor you’d spy,

لأسـال مدمعك المصيرالأســـــودُ

Its gloomy state would make you cry!

كتل من الترب المهين بخــــــــربةٍ

Of rotting clay amidst debris

سـكر الذباب بها فــــراح يعــــربدُ

Where flies imbibe until they spree[3]

أرأيت عـاقـبة الجموح ونــــــزوة

You see the result of your violent whim?

أودى بلــبك غــّيهــــــا المترصــــــدُ

How it led you to perdition’s brim?

تـــعدوا بهــا ظلما على من حـبـــه

In the wrong you charged on the one for whom

ديـن وبغضـته الشقاء الســــــرمـــدُ

This creed is his love, and his hate is doom[4]

قم وارمق النجف الشريف بنظرة

Pray pay the city of Najaf a glimpse

يــرتد طرفـك وهــو بـاك أرمــــــــدُ

And your eye will return in agony, jinxed!

تلك العـظـام أعز ربك قـدرهـــــا

Indeed, Your Lord those bones raised in stature,

فتكـــاد لـولا خــوف ربــــك تـعـبـــدُ

Till they’d nigh be worshipped, if not for His Grandeur![5]

ابدا تبــاركهـا الوفــود يحـثــهــــا

Forever prized by pilgrims in hordes,

من كـل حدب شوقــها الـمـتـوقـــــــدُ

Whose love from every peak just pours

نــازعتها الـدنيا ففزت بوردهــــا

You wrestled for dunya, and won its taste—

ثم انقضى كـالـحلم ذاك الــمـــــــوردُ

Then just like a dream, it ended in haste![6]


[1] For the full poem in Arabic, please see “Mashaahid wa Mazaaraat Ahl al-Bayt fi al-Shaam” by Hashim ‘Uthman pages 8-11 here:

[2] The poet poses these rhetorical questions to Mu’awiyah for the purposes of chiding him (al-istifham al-inkari). There is an elegant metaphor employed in the Arabic, whereby the poet likens slyness to a prized cow, sacrificed by Mu’awiyah for the sake of the idol of the dunya. Of course, Mu’awiyah was infamous for his slyness, as attested to in a statement attributed to Imam ‘Ali (as) from Nahj al-Balaghah:

 والله ما معاوية بأدهى مني ولكنه يغدر ويفجر ولولا كراهية الغدر كنت من أدهى الناس

“By God, Mu’awiyah is not more sly than me; it’s just that he is deceitful and wicked. If it were not for my hatred for deceit, I would be the most sly of all people.”

[3] The description meant to make the reader lurch here is somewhat subtle to convey in translation. The poet means that the flies visiting Mu’awiyah are rendered intoxicated by how fermented the garbage is surrounding his gravesite. This is meant to convey the pinnacle of abandonment and neglect.

[4] The imagery is powerful and difficult to convey in translation, but the poet likens Mu’awiyah’s caprice and ambition to a wild horse which wards its rider into a valley of doom. In the latter part, the poet is alluding to a hadith narrated in Musnad Ahmad which reads:

عن زر بن حبيش، قال: قال علي: والله إنه لمما عهد إلي رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: ” أنه لا يبغضني إلا منافق، ولا يحبني إلا مؤمن

“On the authority of Zir ibn Hubaysh who said: ‘Ali said: “Indeed among that which the Apostle of God (saw) promised me was that no one hates me except a hypocrite and no one loves me except a believer.””

[5] Of course, “bones” here substitutes for Imam ‘Ali; in Arabic, this use of a part of a person to substitute for its entirety is known as al-majaz al-mursal (synecdoche). It is meant to convey a sense of reverence for Imam ‘Ali while at the same time humiliating Mu’awiyah by comparing his whole gravesite to only the bones of the Imam. The use of “rabbuka” (your Lord) here adds further chagrin against Mu’awiyah. Although Sunni sources categorize the hadith in their sources as weak, perhaps the poet means to allude to the content of the following narration, which we have translated below as narrated in al-Kafi:

ععن أبي بصير قال: بينا رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وآله) ذات يوم جالسا إذ أقبل أمير المؤمنين (عليه السلام) فقال له رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وآله): إن فيك شبها من عيسى بن مريم  ولولا أن تقول فيك طوائف من أمتي ما قالت النصارى في عيسى بن مريم لقلت فيك قولا لا تمر بملا من الناس إلا أخذوا التراب من تحت قدميك يلتمسون بذلك البركة

“…on the authority of Abu Basir that he said: “The Apostle of God (saw) was sitting one day when Amir al-Mu’mineen came forward. The Apostle of God (saw) told him: “You have a resemblance to ‘Isa son of Maryam. Lest a group of people say about you what the Christians say about ‘Isa son of Maryam, I would say about you that whereby you would not pass any group of people except that he would take the clay from under your feet as a source of blessing.”

[6] The Arabic feminine pronoun in “naaza’tahaa” (lit. you [Mu’awiyah] wrestled with it [those bones] over the dunya) refers back to the bones (al-‘idhaam) of Imam ‘Ali (as) mentioned in the earlier stanzas. The last couplets imply an Arabic metaphor of a dehydrated individual approaching a watering ground (al-mawrid) to get a sip of relief, only to find it snatched away from him fortuitously.