The Qur’anic Poem of Shaykh Salih al-Kawwaz for Imam Husayn (as)

The below poem is composed by the illustrious Iraqi poet al-Marḥūm al-Shaykh Ṣāliḥ ibn Mahdī al-Kawwāz al-Ḥillī (d. 1290 AH). Although al-Kawwāz only sold clay pottery by trade, his poetic talent was so profound and powerful that he rose to fame through it. Nonetheless, he was extremely sincere in his work: he refused to derive profit from this talent and only composed for the sake of the Ahlulbayt (as). His poetry was extremely unique in that he heavily employed the linguistic device of al-iqtibās (intertextuality), whereby he weaved Qur’anic stories into his eulogies in such a manner that his listeners were left spellbound by his analogies.

Perhaps his purpose in doing so was to show that Imām Ḥusayn (as) was truly the inheritor of all the Prophets and that his epic combined all the struggles of these Qur’ānic personalities. In the below poem, one can see how this skillful poet mourns the tragedy of Karbalā while seizing upon the personalities of Jacob, Joseph, Job, Moses, Ṭālūt, David, Hagar, Yukabid, Abu Lahab’s wife, and Iblīs/Adam. Al-Kawwāz also makes use of the names of several Sūrah names to describe the tragedy of the women of Karbalā, which we have marked by < >. Of course, understanding of the analogies in the poem is aided by a deep familiarity of the Qur’ānic narrative, and therefore we have amply footnoted it in order to ease this recognition. As is usual, we have endeavored to translate the poem into rhyming English couplets while translating the meanings as closely as possible.


لِـي حزن يعقوبَ لا ينفك ذا لهبٍ


Forever in me burns the sorrow of Jacob

لـصرع نصب عيني لا الدم الكذبِ

For corpses before me, not for feigned blood[1]

وَغِـلـمَـةً  من بني عَدنان أرسَلَها

For youths from the tribe of ‘Adnān, consigned

لـلجَدِّ  والدُها في الحرب لا اللعبِ

By their father for war, not for playful design[2]

وَمَـعـشَـرٌ  راوَدَتهُم عن نفوسِهُمُ

For a folk ensnared by white steel’s torment

بـيضُ الضبا غير بيض الخرد العربِ

Not by lustrous maidens’ allurement[3]

فـانظر لأجسادهم  قَد قُدَّ من قُبُلٍ

Behold their bodies: from the front, torn

أعـضاؤُها لا إلى القِمصَانِ والأهبِ

Ripped of limbs, not of garments worn[4]

كـلٌ  رَأى  ضُرَّ أيُّوبٍ فما ركضت

Each of them faced the like of Job’s sting

رِجـلٌ لَهُ غير حوضِ الكوثرِ العذبِ

And struck not their feet but for Kawthar’s spring[5]

قـامـت  لهم رحمةُ الباري تُمَرِّضُهُم

God’s grace passed them through tribulations

صَرعى فَلَم تَدعهُمُ لِلحِلفِ والغضبِ

But they did not yield, not to oath nor vexation[6]

وآنسين من الهيجاء نار وغى

They spied in that war on Karbala’s lands

في جانب الطف ترمي الشهب بالشهب

A flame from which to seek firebrands[7]

فيمموها وفي الأيمان بيض ضباً

Their right hands brandished the staff of their weapons

وما لهم غير نصر اللَه من أرب

With the pleasure of God being their only intentions

تهش فيها على آساد معركةٍ

Indeed, blades struck for those lions of battle

هش الكليم على الأغنام للعشب

Moses’ striking the leaves for his cattle[8]

ومبتلين بنهر ما لوارده

They were tried by a river indeed, whose drinker

من الشهادة غير البعد والحجب

Could never taste of martyrdom’s tincture

فلن تبل ولا في غرفةٍ أبداً

Yes their thirsty souls from it never sipped

منه غليل فؤادٍ بالظما عطب

Not a handful of water, not even a drip![9]

حتى قضوا فغدا كل بمصرعه

Until they expired, while each of their tombs

سكينةٌ وسط تابوتٍ من الكثب

Is an Ark of Tranquility midst the dunes!

فليبك طالوت حزناً للبقية مَن

So pray let Ṭālūt for that remnant lament

قد نال داود فيه أعظم الغلب

He through whom David saw his ascent:

أضحى وكانت له الأملاك حاملةً

Carried by angels but yet on a camel

مقيداً فوق مهزول بلا قتب

Tied in chains, bereft of a saddle[10]

يرنوا إلى الناشرات الدمع طاويةً

He glances upon <The Strewers> of cries

أضلاعهن على جمر من النوب

Women whose hearts are so agonized;[11]

والعاديات من الفسطاط ضابحةً

<The Runners>, gasping, away from those tents;

والموريات زناد الحزن في لهب

<The Casters of Sparks> with their blazing laments;[12]

والذاريات تراباً فوق أرؤسها

<The Spreaders> of dust upon their own heads

حزناً لكل صريعٍ بالعرى ترب

To mourn those forlorn on the desert’s treads[13]

ورب مرضعةٍ منهن قد نظرت

How many a wet nurse in that dry land

رضيعها فاحص الرجلين في الترب

Saw her babe thirsty, striking the sand?!

تشوط عنه وتأتيه مكابدةٌ

Pacing around him, seeking him water

من حاله وظماها أعظم الكرب

Despite her own thirst, yet ever stronger!

فقل بهاجر إسماعيل أحزنها

Like Hagar: how Ishmael grieves her so

متى تشط عنها من حر الظما تؤب

When out of thirst, she runs to-and-fro

وما حكتها ولا أم الكليم أسى

Nay Moses’ mother her sorrow can’t mirror

غداة في اليم القته من الطلب

When she threw her infant into that river

هذي إليها ابنها قد عاد مرتضعاً

No way! She got back her child to nourish

وهذه قد سقي بالبارد العذب

While Hagar was granted of water a flourish

فأين هاتان ممن قد قضى عطشاً

Those kids don’t equal a thirst that was fatal:

رضيعها ونأى عنها ولم يؤب

A babe who never returned to his cradle

بل آب مذ آب مقتولاً ومنتهلاً

Who came back slaughtered, by villains slain,

من نحره بدم كالغيث منسكب

Quenched by his blood that poured like the rain![14]

وصبيةٌ من بني الزهراء مربقة

Fāṭimite children preyed on like fawn

بالحبل بين بني حمالة الحطب

Trapped by that firewood carrier’s spawn[15]

ليت الألى أطعموا المسكين قوتهم

If only those who fed beggar and orphan

وتاليَيه وهم في غاية السغب

And captive, such they slept with no portion

حتى أتى هل أتى في مدح فضلهم

–For whom <Hal Atā> was sent in laudation

من الإله لهم في أشرف الكتب

By God in His Book of revelation–

يرون بالطف أيتاماً لهم أسرت

If only their children at Ṭaff, they perceived:

يستصرخون من الآباء كل أبي

Their orphans made captive, of fathers bereaved![16]

بعداً لقومٍ أبادوا خصب ربعهم

Fie on that folk who erased their fertility

فأصبحوا بعدهم في مربع جدب

And left them bare in the throes of aridity[17]

والقاتلين لسادات لهم حسداً

Who killed their lords by hatred and jealousy,

على علا الشرف الوضاح والحسب

For what they possessed of noblest pedigree;

والفضل آفة أهليه ويوسف في

Behold how virtue its owners oft burned

غيابة الجب لولا الفضل لم يغب

Yes Joseph was only because of this spurned![18]

وصفوة اللَه لم يسجد له حسداً

And Satan to Adam that sajdah rejected

إبليس لما رأى من أشرف الرتب

Only of spite for his status, perfected![19]

يا سادتي يا بني الهادي ومن لهم

My masters! Oh al-Hādī’s pure children:

بثي وحزني إذا ما ضاق دهريَ بي

For you is my grief in times of affliction![20]

ندبتكم فأجيبوني فلست أرى

I call out to you, so please do reply

سواكم مستجيباً صوت منتدب

For none do I see to answer my cry

ألستم جعل الباري بيمنكم

Oh are you not those by whose pre-eminence

رزق الخلائق من عجمٍ ومن عرب

God grants every creation its sustenance?[21]

بل أنتم سبب بالعرش متصلٌ

Nay you are the rope, direct to God’s throne

لكل ذي سببٍ أو غير ذي سبب

For both those assisted and those yet alone![22]


[1] This is an allusion to two verses of the Qur’ān, one which describes the grief of Jacob (ḥuzn Ya’qūb): “…and his eyes became white out of grief while he suppressed (his sadness).” (12:84) and the second which describes the actions of Joseph’s brothers in staining his shirt red to convince Jacob that he had been eaten by the wolves, “And they brought his shirt with feigned blood…” (12:18). The speaker invokes a powerful analogy in expressing that he mourns like Jacob, but for something more significant: the tragedy of Karbalā.

[2] ‘Adnān is the great ancestor of the Arabs. The extended metaphor continues here with the speaker now comparing the sons of Imām Ḥusayn being sent to the battlefield with the sons of Jacob being sent to enjoy in the pastures; here the speaker alludes to the verse, “Send him (Joseph) with us tomorrow to enjoy and play…” (12:12).

[3] There is a beautiful personification in these lines: rather than relenting to the seduction of maidens, the speaker indicates that the companions of Imām Ḥusayn (as) have transcended this station and are tempted instead by the blazing heats of battle. There is an allusion here of course to the manner wherein Zulaykha attempted to tempt Joseph: “and she sought to seduce him from his self (restraint)…” (12:23)

[4] The extended metaphor with the story of Joseph ends on a dramatic flourish here; the speaker draws an analogy with Joseph’s shirt being torn by Zulaykha in an allusion to the Qur’ānic verse, “…and she tore his shirt from the back…” (12:25). He implies that these martyrs transcend Joseph in that it is their limbs that are ripped rather than their shirts. The line is rendered even more beautiful by the statement that the limbs are torn from the front, implying the martyrs’ bravery in that they chased after death rather than fleeing from it.

[5] Now the poet segues to a different Prophet of God: Job. He alludes to the story wherein Job is afflicted with such terrible calamities that he supplicates to God, who responds in the Qur’ān: “Strike your foot: here is a spring for washing and drinking.” (38:42) The poet compares this situation with the martyrs of Karbalā, who do not yield by complaining about God’s trials. Rather they bear them patiently, striking their feet only for the fountain of Heaven.

[6] Continuing the contrast with Job, the martyrs never lost their temper nor did they swear in the midst of their calamities. This is contrasted to Job, regarding whom the Qur’ān commands: “Take in your hand a bundle of grass and strike with it; don’t violate your oath…” (38:44) Per the Qur’ānic commentaries, this is in reference to Job taking an oath that he would strike his wife 100 times if he was healed by God. More literally, the speaker says that God’s mercy afflicted/nursed (a beautiful double meaning inherent in the Arabic word tumarriḍuhum) them to the point of fatality but yet still they showed forbearance.

[7] Now there is a transition to the story of Moses; rather than seeking out physical fire on Mountain Sinai for their families (28:29), these martyrs are seeking out the metaphorical fire of battle in the plains of Karbalā in spite of their families.

[8] Here we find a complicated metaphor drawing from the Qur’ānic verses 20:17-18: “(God said): what is in your right hand oh Moses? He answered: It is my staff! I lean on it and beat down (foliage) for my cattle; and I have other intentions for it (too).” The antithesis (al-ṭibāq) between lions of battle and the sheep of Moses is poignant.

[9] Now the speaker transitions yet again to the story of Ṭālūt and his companions in the Qur’ān: “When Ṭālūt marched with his army he said, “God will test you with a river; whoever drinks from it is not with me, but he who does not—except for a handful—is indeed with me…”(2:249) The speaker draws on this powerful metaphor to point out the absolute thirst of the martyrs of Karbalā, deprived of even a mere sip from the Euphrates!

[10] This is just an absolutely brilliant extended metaphor by the speaker drawn from the verses of the Qur’ān: “Their Prophet told them (the children of Israel): the sign of Ṭālūt’s kingdom is that he will come to you with the Ark (of the Covenant), wherein there is tranquility from your Lord and a remnant left by the family of Moses and Aaron, carried by the angels…” (2:248) In other words, the speaker notes that each of the martyrs of Karbalā is an Ark of Covenant in himself, and that their remnant is Imām ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Sajjād (as). This is the remnant by which David achieved his victory over Goliath. Although the 4th Imām is carried by God’s angels, he is himself strapped to a camel without any saddle!

[11] Now the poet employs a new method of intertextuality. Namely, utilizing the keywords from different sūrahs to re-enact the mourning of the women. This couplet is derived from Sūrah al-Mursalāt, where God swears by the angels: “By the strewers that strew.” (77:3). We have bracketed the name of the word derived from the Arabic keyword. By employing this device, perhaps the poet aims to emphasize that just as God’s justice is promised in the sūrah, His retribution against those who wronged the Prophet’s household is guaranteed.

[12] These keywords are derived from Sūrah al-‘Ādiyāt verses 1 and 2, describing the galloping of horses. The powerful imagery constructed through seizing upon these Qur’ānic borrowings is palpable. Again, the implication of this imagery is latent in the apodosis of the oath (jawāb al-qasm) that “humankind is indeed ungrateful to their Lord” (100:6) in murdering the Prophet’s family.

[13] A keyword derived from Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt verse 1 is employed here; there is also alliteration (al-jinās) between the words al-turāb (the dust) and al-turab (pl. of al-tarīb, the dusty). The reader familiar with the Qur’ān automatically infers the implication in the apodosis: “what you have been promised is true and retribution will be actualized.” (51:6).

[14] Now the poet segues into discussing the tragedy of ‘Abdullāh al-Raḍī’ (‘Alī Aṣghar), the 6-month-old suckling infant son of Imām Ḥusayn (as). He draws an analogy between ‘Alī Aṣghar’s breastfeeding mother Rubāb and Yukabid/Hagar. Although Hagar is not specifically mentioned in the Qur’ān (although perhaps there is a brief allusion in 14:37), Yukabid’s story is mentioned in 28:7-13 and 20:38-40. He emphasizes that while the Qur’ānic women received relief for their children, Rubāb made the ultimate sacrifice in losing her thirsty infant.

[15] This is of course an allusion to 111:4, referring to the wife of Abū Lahab (the firewood carrier). In other words, the speaker implies that the perpetrators of Karbalā were of the same ilk as the obstinate polytheists of Makkah. The antithesis between “Banū Zahrā’” and “Banū Ḥammālah al-Ḥaṭab” in this couplet is powerful in recalling how the children of Imām al-Ḥusayn were imprisoned by the ropes of the children of Abū Lahab.

[16] The speaker brilliantly calls to recollection the circumstance of revelation for Surah 76 al-Insān (also known as Sūrah Hal Atā), whereby Imām ‘Alī’s household fed a beggar, orphan, and captive for three days successively while going hungry themselves. He remarks that if only Lady Fāṭimah and Imām ‘Alī (as) could see that in the plains of Karbalā their own grandchildren had become destitute and imprisoned orphans! There is a complete alliteration (al-jinās al-tāmm) in these lines between atā and “hal atā” which will be clear to those knowledgeable in Arabic eloquence.

[17] The Arabic lines here resemble the Qur’ānic style of reproach against communities who did not heed the message of the Prophets: “…so fie on a people (bu’dan li qawmin) who do not believe!” (23:44). There is a case of incomplete alliteration (al-jinās al-nāqiṣ) here between the words rab’ and marba’.

[18] The poet ties back the reason for the murder of the martyrs at Karbalā to the jealousy they harbored against the Holy Prophet’s family. In continuing the trend of Qur’ānic intertextuality, he mentions the similar way Joseph was treated by his brothers in an allusion to 12:9-10.

[19] Another motive for the massacre of Karbalā of course was Yazīd’s pride and desire to assert tribal dominance over Banū Hāshim. Here, the poet recounts the similar manner in which the Devil refused to submit to Adam based on his perceived superiority. This is an oft-repeated story in the Holy Qur’ān, but see 38:71-85 for a mention of the account.

[20] In concluding his poem, the poet ties back to an allusion to Jacob yet again in the verse, “…I only complain of my suffering and grief (baththī wa ḥuznī) to Allāh…” (12:86). Al-Hādī of course is one of the many titles of the Holy Prophet (saw). It appears the poet intentionally rendered this line upon the style of Du’ā Tawassul, in which one states, “Oh my masters and guardians, I have turned to you as my leaders and provision for the day of my destitution…”

[21] It appears that the poet endorses the doctrine of al-wilāyah al-takwīniyyah per these lines, as he calls out the Ahl al-Bayt as his intercessors to God. This line is derived from Du’ā’ al-‘Adīlah regarding Imām al-Mahdī (as): “…by his persistence the world persists, by his grace creation is sustained, and Earth and Heaven are both maintained.” The poet extends this praise to include all the Imāms.

[22] This line is derived from Du’ā’ al-Nudbah, in address to Imām al-Mahdī (as): “Where is the rope that connects between Heaven and Earth?” There is a case of complete alliteration (al-jinās al-tāmm) in these lines, as the word “sabab” is used to mean both “rope” and “assistance.”