Majlis-i Husayn, an Institution: An Exposé into the Practice of Emotive Choreography

Written by: Agha Shabbir Abbas


If one were to type into a search engine the words ‘Shia Muslim India’ or ‘Shia Muslim Pakistan’ the very first images to be displayed would be that of muharram mourning processions, typically consisting of violent forms of self-flagellation. While the scenes may depict chaos and anarchy, the truth however is far from it. For one with inside knowledge of these mourning activities would attest that they truly are precise performances, practices of emotive choreography. The Majlis-i Husayn as an institution in Shi’ism broadly, can in South Asia be credited with introducing new forms and parameters of art, be it architecturally, iconographically, literarily, and even oratorily; that it has developed a culture onto itself. Therefore, this article will serve as a brief exposé into the Majlis-i Husayn as practiced in South Asia and the different choreographed particles of the ‘Azadari (mourning) therein.


Not much is known about Twelverism in South Asia, let alone emotive practices, until around the 17th and 18th centuries. While there are historical records that show a presence of Shi’ism in the region as early as the first few centuries of Islam, the lack of political backing can be associated with this dearth of information. Likewise, the historical Shi’i practice of taqiyyah cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, the very first cultural practices of ‘azadari that can be linked with that of today took place in Deccan, in South-Central India; where two rival Shi’i dynasties ruled, the Adil Shahis (1489 – 1686) and the Qutb Shahis (1512 – 1686), that branched out from the earlier Shi’i Bahmani Sultanate (1347 – 1527).[1] Both dynasties openly professed their religious persuasion, and the latter dynasty was the first to construct a purpose-built building for the ‘azadari of Imam Husayn. The fifth Qutb Shahi Sultan, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (d. 1612), employed a Persian polymath by the name of Mir Muhammad Mu’min-i Astarabadi as his Peshwa (prime minister), who was tasked to build a great capital city that would reflect the ethos of the Qutb Shahi rulers.[2] Thus was the grand city of Hyderabad constructed, named after Imam ‘Ali, ‘Haydar’ (lion) being an honorific for ‘Ali’s bravery, and ‘abad’ meaning an inhabited place, or city. In this designed city, Mu’min-i Astarabadi built the Masjid-i Makkah (or Makkah Masjid) with bricks from Makkah itself, as well as the massive Chahar Minar (or Charminar) monument, but most importantly for this endeavor of Shi’i thematization, he built the Badishahi (or Padishahi) Ashurkhanah.[3]


This Badshahi Ashurkhanah, literally meaning the royal ‘Ashura building, became the archetypal mourning gathering place for the Twelvers of India. While Husayniyahs and Takiyahs/Tekkehs were already commonplace in Iran and Iraq, the Badshahi Ashurkhanah differed in that alongside Islamicate and Persianate elements, it also incorporated indigenous elements.[5] Chief among these elements is that of an altar, which in common lexicon came to be called the dargah (threshold). The word dargah, as mutually used by Sufis for the shrines of their saints, is thus an apparatus that works to psychologically transport the devotee to the grave of Husayn in Karbala, and thus upon this altar relics and icons are placed; typically these are: Qur’ans, ta’ziyah (model shrine), tabut (coffin), alam (standards), panjah (hand-insignia), gahwarah (cradle), candles and incense, amongst other symbolic items.[6] The Badshahi Ashurkhanah is thus regarded by Indian Twelvers as the first of many purpose-built buildings for ‘azadari; the first Imambargah of India.

The word Imambargah, meaning the royal court (bargah) of the Imam, came to symbolize the Twelver community of India. Wherever Twelver communities were to be found so too were Imambargahs, such that they rivalled and even possibly surpassed the number of Twelver mosques. The reason for this is expediency, the Imambargah could functionally surpass the mosque. At the Imambargah all functions of the mosque could be undertaken, from congregational prayers, to Islamic education and dissemination; the Imambargah could do it all and more for it does not possess the shari’i (legal) restrictions of that of a mosque. While the mosque has prohibitions, in that none other than Muslims and the Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book, Jews, and Christians) can enter, likewise ritually impure persons and menstruating women are denied entry, whereas an Imambargah has no true shari’i basis, and thus is just a glorified hall that all [if respectful] can enter.[7] [8] Hence, in the spread of Twelver Shi’ism, the Imambargah maintained a missionary role through its open-door policy [and tempt of food (nazr/niyaz)], which enticed locals to attend the function and possibly join the Shi’i cause.

Moving away from Hyderabad, the pinnacle of Imambargah architecture was reached in the North Indian Princely State of Awadh (1732 – 1858). Replacing the diminished Mughals as the greatest force in North India, there was ample reason for them to construct monuments to at the very least rival, if not surpass, the grandeur of their predecessors. Ascending to dominance did not however present itself as just a physical dilemma, but also socio-religious. A Shi’i dynasty replacing no ordinary Sunni dynasty, but a great one, thus required the new polity to aggressively flaunt their religious positions.[9] Hence, the sprawling Imambara complex was conceived, whose blueprint is found below:


Asaf al-Dawla (d. 1797), the fourth Nawab of Awadh, commissioned the complex such that it not only possessed a mosque rivalling that of the neighboring Sunni dominions, but that it possessed an Imambargah that trumped the mosque in size.[11] Furthermore, in outdoing their competitors, they sought to employ challenging architectural techniques in order to display their finesse.


A marvel of craftsmanship, till date it is considered the largest unsupported arched brick building, containing a vaulted chamber specially designed for acoustic amplification of the speaker’s voice.[13] Therefore, the central aspect of the Imambargah is the minbar (pulpit) on which the Majlis khatib (lecturer) sits. Thus, these two aspects, the projection of speech, and the Dargah altar represent the architectural peculiarities of an Imambargah as a physical building. Hence, Imambargahs in general, be it in the form of massive structures in Karachi funded by wealth, or small storefronts in Brooklyn, they all aspire to possess these two aspects; aspects derived directly from royal endeavors.

The Majlis-i Husayn Choreographed Process

As the architecture of the venue of the Majlis-i Husayn requires specifications, so does the format of the gathering. No matter where the Majlis is taking place, if it is in the Urdu language it will stick to a precisely choreographed structure.[14] This structure is as follows:

  1. Recitation of the Qur’an
  2. Recitation of Hadith al-Kisa – a narrative of the Almighty’s declaration of the five Divinely purified members of the Prophetic family, consisting of: Muhammad, ‘Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, and Husayn.
  3. Recitation of Poetry – typically in group fashion with a lead reciter (soz khwan/marsiya khwan) and companions to echo their voice. This recitation is divided into three elements consisting of specialized poetry[15]:
    1. The first element is Soz Khwani – soz is a ruba’i (quatrain), recited alone by the soz khwan, while the companions are only to make a soft droning sound. As it is the shortest form of poetry recited, it is expected to possess the highest level of literary skill. A good soz is expected to require deep concentration and reflection for one to understand its meaning.
    2. The second element is the Salam – consists of a ghazal in the form of refrained couplets, intended to serve as a salutation for the chosen martyr of the Majlis. Thematically it should cover the virtues and heroics of that martyr.
    3. The third element is Marsiya Khwani – marsiya is a musaddas (sets of six lines/sestains) form of poetry that is elegiac and extremely passionate, its purpose is to theatrically describe the martyrdom scene and cause the audience to weep.
  4. The Majlis lecture – divided into three parts
    1. Part One, Tamhid/Sar namah-i kalam (preface) – the beginning of the lecture begins with an Arabic khutbah to serve as a preface, typically it consists of the Islamic incipits of ‘A’udhu Billah and the Basmala, then a panegyric of God, leading into a salutation upon the Prophet, his family, and sometimes his companions. Depending on the level of training of the lecturer, the preface should be in pristine Arabic in the form of rhyming prose. The preface is to end with a verse of the Qur’an, or saying of the Prophet and/or his family that should serve as the basis of the lecture.
    2. Part Two, Hadith – this is the sermon of the lecturer, and in South Asia it is expected to be in highfalutin Urdu. While the purpose is to elaborate on the verse or saying in the preface, it routinely devolves into a display of passionate oratory, consisting of both a dramatic retelling of history as well as polemical jabs at the [Sunni] adversary.
    3. Part Three, Masa’ib (tragedy) – typically begins with the lecturer either removing his head-covering (turban or cap) or uttering a catchphrase that automatically causes the atmosphere to become somber. In this grand finale of the lecture, the maqtal (battle/killing scene) is to be narrated causing the audience to cry into a frenzy.
  5. Matamdari (flagellation) – mostly sinah zani (chest beating), rarely zanjir zani/khooni matam (bloodletting).
    1. Nawha Khwani – unlike the earlier pre-lecture recitation of poetry, the nawha (lamentation) does not have any specific format other than maintaining refrains for the audience to chant, and that it can be recited singular or in a group. This nawha khwani is accompanied by chest beating that follows musical timing.
    2. Alwida’i Matam – after the nawhas are recited, an ecstatic form of matam is done in which the chest beating begins at a steady pace and quickly escalates to a rapid form, all whilst chanting the name of Husayn (or another martyr). At the most rapid point of the matamdari, abruptly the salawat (salutations upon the Prophet and his family) is recited immediately ending the matam and quieting the chanting.[16]
  6. Ziyarat (visitation)
    1. Reciting the Ziyarat Supplication – Facing the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf, the Arabic supplications recited upon visiting the burial sites of the martyred Imams are recited with the intention of making an absentia pilgrimage.[17]
    2. Performing Ziyarat of the Dargah – after reciting the ziyarat supplication in lieu of not being able to visit the real mausoleums, the Majlis participants visit the Dargah altar and express their devotion therein.
  7. Nazr/Niyaz – in ultimate conclusion food is either distributed in rations, or is eaten on the spot. The credit for the meal is given to the Imam himself, as the word Imambargah for the venue elucidates that the Imam himself is the host of the ceremony.


While the Majlis-i Husayn looks highly charged and anarchic, it is as discussed above precisely planned; from the frenzy of tears to the ecstatic flagellation all is choreographed, to the insider nothing is unpredictable. The format of the Majlis-i Husayn was carefully drawn in the royal courts of the Deccan and North India, who employed the greatest of architects, and the best of poets and orators, all setting precedent for future organizers of the mourning sessions.[18] [19] The stringency of the format has led to it becoming semi-ritualized, ignoring the fact that the practice is only Islamicate (cultural) and not at all religiously enforceable, yet heeded to as if it were mandatory. It has attained such ritualistic status that if even one aspect was skipped or not undertaken in the inherited method the Majlis would seem incomplete. Nevertheless, it is left to be seen how these centuries old antique forms of emotive choreography react to this rapidly evolving age of technology.


ALI, SYED AYUB. “MIR MOMIN, PRIME MINISTER OF GOLCONDA KINGDOM: His Contributions To Cultural Development Of The Deccan (SUMMARY).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 55 (1994): 438-39.

Keshani, Hussein. “Architecture and the Twelver Shiʿi Tradition: The Great Imambara Complex of Lucknow.” Muqarnas 23 (2006): 219-50.

Khalidi, Umar. “THE SHIʿITES OF THE DECCAN: AN INTRODUCTION.” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 64, no. 1/2 (1990): 5-16.

Mazumdar, Shampa, and Sanjoy Mazumdar. “IN MOSQUES AND SHRINES: WOMEN’S AGENCY IN PUBLIC SACRED SPACE.” Journal of Ritual Studies 16, no. 2 (2002): 165-79.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. “Islamic Music in an Indian Environment: The Shi’a Majlis.” Ethnomusicology 25, no. 1 (1981): 41-71. doi:10.2307/850974.

Rajput, Abdul Aziz, Mir Muhammad Momin-i-Astarabadi: A ” Peshwa ” of Qutub Shahis, (Bijapur)

Pinault, David. “Shia Lamentation Rituals and Reinterpretations of the Doctrine of Intercession: Two Cases from Modern India.” History of Religions 38, no. 3 (1999): 285-305.

Ruffle, Karen G. “Wounds of Devotion: Reconceiving Mātam in Shiʿi Islam.” History of Religions 55, no. 2 (2015): 172-95. doi:10.1086/683065


  1. Cole, Juan, Roots of North Indian Shi’ism in Iran and Iraq, (Los Angeles, University of California Press., 1984) 22 – 23.
  2. Rajput, Abdul Aziz, Mir Muhammad Momin-i-Astarabadi: A “Peshwa” of Qutub Shahis, (Bijapur)
  3. Ali, Syed Ayub. “Mir Momin, Prime Minister of Golconda Kingdom: His Contributions To Cultural Development Of The Deccan (SUMMARY).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 55 (1994): 439.
  4. Picture of the Ashurkhanah in Hyderabad, central is the Dargah
  5. Keshani, Hussein. “Architecture and the Twelver Shiʿi Tradition: The Great Imambara Complex of Lucknow.” Muqarnas 23 (2006): 221.
  6. Khalidi, Umar. “THE SHIʿITES OF THE DECCAN: AN INTRODUCTION.” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 64, no. 1/2 (1990): 10.
  7. Mazumdar, Shampa, and Sanjoy Mazumdar. “IN MOSQUES AND SHRINES: WOMEN’S AGENCY IN PUBLIC SACRED SPACE.” Journal of Ritual Studies 16, no. 2 (2002): 170.
  8. Keshani, 226.
  9. The Nawabs of Awadh replaced the Mughals in terms of power and prestige, nevertheless the Mughal Sultanate continued in name till 1857, the empire having long ended, yet the Nawabs maintained a meaningless fealty to the Mughals till the very end.
  10. Keshani, 221
  11. The appellation is confusing, as in form it is an Imambargah, but its name is a word of similar spelling ‘Imambara,’ meaning the Imam’s Enclosure.
  12. Picture is of the inside of the Imambara, its vaulted ceiling and length can be seen.
  13. Keshani, 220
  14. Khalidi, 10 – 11
  15. Qureshi, 45
  16. Ruffle, Karen G. “Wounds of Devotion: Reconceiving Mātam in Shiʿi Islam.” History of Religions 55, no. 2 (2015): 193.
  17. The supplications that are recited are to be found in the Mafatih al-Jinan compilation of Shaykh Abbas al-Qummi (d. 1940 AH)
  18. Mu’min-i Astarabadi was regarded as one of the greatest minds of his era, and his services were sought throughout Persia and Muslim India.
  19. The famed Mir Anis, listed amongst the greatest poets of the Urdu language was employed by the Nawabs of Awadh, and he primarily wrote the pre-Majlis marsiya poetry. Concerning the crucial role Mir Anis played in the formation of Urdu poetry as a whole, the Urdu scholar and historian Shamsur Rahman Faruqi writes: “The mention of Mir Anis may surprise some of us until we realize it that Mir Anis’s Marsiyas are the best pre-modern model in Urdu of narrative-historical, narrative-lyrical, and oral-dramatic poetry, and Iqbal’s poetry extends and exploits the possibilities created by Anis.”

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