Ashura and the Martyrdom of Imam Hussein in Malay-Indonesian’s Epics




 Abdul Hadi W. M.*



This paper will examines the influence of Persian literarture upon the writing of  Malay-Indonesian epics (hikayat), especially the story of Imam Hussein or Kerbela’s drama. I also will try to describe how the story become popular and play important role in the spread of Islam and its culture in the Malay-Indonesia Archipelago. Firstly I have explain that the so-called  Islamic Malay-Indonesian literature developt under  the influence of Arabic and Persian litetarure. The date of its history back to the 13th century in the time of the spread of  Islam in the Archipelago, now Indonesia and Malaysia.  While literary texts in Arabic give influence to the writing of religious books or treatise (risala), Persian literary texts play important role in the writing of imaginative works such us epics, romances, fables, and poetry.

There are three Islamic Persian epics introduce to the people of early Malay-Indonesian Muslim community, i. e.. Hikayat Amir Hamzah (from Dashtan Amir Hamzah), Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen (from Nizami`s Iskandar-namah) and Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. In the texts so called Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah the story of Imam Hasan and Husein is treated. Partly legendary and partly in a historical fashion.  Description of the story of Imam Hasan and Husein is historical, but the story of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah, where he takes vengeance for his twoo half-brother Hasan and Husein and defeats Yazid is complete deviations from hictorical reality. In the Malay-Indonesia Archipelago or Nusantara, this epics  is very welll-known and become a popular text since the 15th century.

Secondly,  I have explaine too that the so-called Malay-Indonesian language is only one of  so many languages used by Indonesian people in the archipelago to write Islamic texts or literature. Other Nusantara or local languages used to write Islamic treatise and literary works since a long times is  Achehnese, Minangkabau, Gayonese, Mandailing (in Sumatra island), Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese (in Java island), Banjarese (in Kalimantan island), Buginese, Macassarese, Gorontalo, Butonese (in Sulewesi island) etc.

The Maryrdom of Imam Husein

The martyrdom of Imam Husein has been widely acknowledged in the Islamic world. His tragic death, the body covered with blood, his hand was cut off, and his head was slaughtered away from his body; those images would always remain in the memories of many Muslims until today. His death on 10thth Muharram always commemorates by many Muslim peoples across the world, either their majority denomination is Sunni or Shia.  .

In Indonesia or Malay Erchipelago, the martyrdom of Amir Hussein, as he is called in the Malay-Indonesian texts, has been recognized since the beginning of the widespread of Islam  between 13-15th century. During this period, the epics has started to be written in Malay. The two most prominent versions of the epics that become the sources of later versions many local or provincial languages are Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyahh and Hikayat Sayidina Husein. The first  was based upon Persian work, written in about 14 or 15th century in the capital of the sultanate of Samudra Pasai. The second was written around the 17th century in Kutaraja, the capital of  the sultanate of  Acheh. Darussalam.

In this epics the author explain  the importance of 10th Muharram commemoration and  how to organize the commemoration or festival. However, in the practical terms, it appeared that there were two ways of commemoration. The first, the simpler commemorations which were held in Acheh, Java island, Madura island, and South of Sulawesi.  In Acheh, the Ashura is called as Asan and Usin Day. In the island of Java and Madura, it is called as Sura Day or Asura. The day before 10thth Muharram, people will do the sunnah fasting. The next day, the citizens make red porridge that will be distribute to their neighbours and relatives. After that, at night, they will held a circle of Qur’an recitations, and sometimes they will held a session to listen the reading of Karbala tragedy and the  battle of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah against Yazid.  Thus, the accomplishment of Hari Sura or Hari Asan Usin is clearly refers to the explanations in the Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah.

The second kind of commemoration is more complicated and more likely the Ashura Day in Iran and India.  This kind of commemoration is found in Bengkulu and West of Sumatra, and it has begun to appear since the late 18th century when British occupied Bengkulu and along with them, they brought many Indian Shias. The commemoration in Bengkulu and Padang (the capital city of West of Sumatra) will be enliven by the cavalcade of various kind of tabut that symbolized the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his royal wedding with Shahrabanu. The cavalcade is usually enlivened by thundering music from drums and such. It desribes the milieu of Imam Husein and Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah’s troops when they entered the battlefield in valiant. Ten days before the commemoration, there will be a ceremony of ma` ambil tanah (taking out the soil) and during these ten days all the tabut are made by them (Brakel, 1975).

Those rites of the Ashura are refer to the texts of  Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. The making of red porridge for instance is suggested in the beginning of the epics, that is when the angel Gabriel proclaimed that, “On the 10thth Muharram should give the Asura porridge for all the martyrs on the Karbala field.” While then, the recommendation to do the sunna fasting refers to the words of Gabriel when he answered to the question what is the importance of such fasting. Gabriel said, “Who loves to the ahle-bayt shall fast during Ashura, and for all the martyrs of Karbala field (you) shall give the Asura porridge.” The importance of Asura is in the passage, “….the day of Ashura means you weep for the ahle-bayt, begins with whoever loves them sincerely and whose love for all the children of Rasulullah.”

 All of these show that the martyrdom of Amir Hussein is not merely popular, but it also shows that his martyrdom has its own significance in the heart of Muslims in Nusantara. Among of the significance are symphaty and solidarity for Imam Husein’s sacrifice and struggles against the evil tyrant or regime, as such tyrant that is shown by Muawiyah and his son Yazid.  The question arises, what is so interesting that raise the popularity of this epics? It was first appeared in Malay language and later it received many appreciations across the islands of Nusantara, then it was composed again and re-write throughout three centuries into diverse versions with the various languages in Nusantara, such as Achehnese, Gayonese, Minangkabau, Palembangese, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Sasaks, Banjarese, Bimanese, Buginese, Macassarese, and many more ethnic and provincial languages. Nevertheless, what is its relevance until the epics received its eminent place more than the other Islamic epics, such as Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen and Hikayat Malik Saiful Lisan?

In answering such questions, we have to look at the various aspects of its historical aspect, including its background and its motives of composition, and to look at which historical context that it was composed in the form we have acknowledge now? And also, what is the historical context that it was then adapted into other kind of epics in many ethnic or provincial literature in Nusantara or Malay Archipelago.

The Origin of the Epics in Malay-Indonesian Hikayat

 In Malay-Indonesian literature, there were two early versions that were very famous and popular. First version is Hikayat Sayidina Husein and the second one is Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. While the second version was more popular in the literature of Malay, Java, and Madura, the first version was more popular in Acheh.  In the first version of the text in Acheh was written in the 17th century under the title Hikayat Soydina Usen, which was written without removing the passages of the battle between Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah against Yazid. The second version is Hikayat Muhammad Napiah.

 In the other regions, for example in  West-Java (Sundanese literature)   and  Madura island (Madurese literature), the epics was composed in such a way that it emphasized the evil and cruelty of Yazid bin Muawiya.  The Sundanese versions is Wawacan Yazid (The Story of Yazid) and the Madura version is Caretana Yazid Calaka (The Story of the Accursed Yazid).  In the Minangkabau literatures, the popular version is Kaba Muhammad Ali Hanafiya. Similar to the other kaba,  in the past the epics was recited in the circle meetings of literature which often held especially on Ashura Day (Edwar Djamaris 1990). In the Javanese literatures, one of the famous version is Serat Ali Ngapiyah mateni Yazid (Ali Ngapiyah killed Yazid). The motives in entitling the similar epics into different titles were concerning the cultural context in which the epics was copied into their language.

            The texts of the epics in the form that is acquainted now had appeared first in the Persian literature. The scholars proposed that the epics has been composed since the late 12th century or early 13th century during the ruler era of Mahmud al-Ghaznawi. The assumption was based upon the similarity of pattern of the stories and the styles in the epics to the famous epic  Shah-namah, wrote by Firdausi after 10th century AD.  Among the descriptions in Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah that similar to Shah-namah are the descriptions on the battle between the troops of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah against Yazid (Brakel 1975, Browne 1976).

            Another evident is the excerpts of  Sa’di poem in the epics, which is in the second part of the Malay version (page 338-340) and it also mention that Tabriz was an important city in Iran.  As we know  Tabriz has just became an important city since the time of Ilkhanid Mongol especially during the ruler of Sultan Ghazan (1295-1304). The Malay texts also mention the importance of Sabzavar city, although the city has just emerged as an important city of Shiite in the middle of 14th century.

            The most frequent question that arise is  how did this Persian text arrived in the Malay-Indonesia archipelago, not long after it had just published in Persia? Such a simple question would have the answer.  For example, it could refer to report of Ibn Batutah who visited Samudra Pasai  in the early 14th century.  In the capital city of Samudra Pasai, the first Islamic kingdom in the Archipelago, Ibn Batutah saw several Persian scholars and preachers from Samarkand and Bukhara. The Sultan of Pasai often invited them to his majesty palace and everyone honored them, and they played a significance role in the development of the institutions of Islamic education (Ibrahim Alfian 1999). Surely, they taught more than just Arabic language and literature, but also Persian language and literature. The Arabic Malay letters are called as Jawi letters and they were first used in Pasai based upon the letters of Arabic Persian. The Arabic fonts that they used were Eastern Kufi and Nastaliq, which were commonly used by the Persian authors.

Textual evidents strengthen the opinion that the Persian sources have played a great role to the emergence of the Islamic literature in Nusantara until its last period.  The other early Malay epics are epic, romance, the epics of the prophets and the saints, and tasawwuf texts including poems, which are either the adaptation from the Persian epics (dashtan) or some were inspired by the Persian authors. The preminent Islamic epics such as Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah, Hikayat Syah Mardan, and many others were all composed according to Persian sources.

Indeed, in the beginning, the Islamic epics had already appeared in Arabic literature. However, the epics achieved its mature and complicated form, and featured with aesthetical values  in the hands of the Persian writers between 12th and 14th century (AD).  The story of Muhammad Ali Hanafiya  itself is  based on the legend among the Kaysanite followers.  The Kaysanite believed that  the Imamate or the divine leadership was ended in the hand of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. He is the third son of Imam Ali from his wife, a woman from the Banu Hanifa tribe that Ali had married after Fatima had passed away.

Probably among the numerous Muslims who migrated or escape as refugees to India and Malay Archipelago during the Mongol’s conquest in the end of 13th century or early  14th century,  they were numbers of Shia immigrants from various sects such as the  Kaysanite and Zaydiya. Some of them, which were written in many historical sources, joined the Sunni people of the SyafiiSchool of jurisprudence in Yaman. From Yaman, then the Muslims from Arab and Persia began their sea voyage to the East, went across the Indian Ocean, towards the ports at South of India and Malay islands. The Aden port in Yaman was very strategic and it has been an old port for main trade that linked the continents of Europe and Europe to the East countries like India and Malay. (Ali Ahmad 1996; Abdul Hadi W.M. 2001). Probably it is  the Kaysanite who brought and introduced the epics in the Malay archipelago.

The background story of  the Malay-Indonesian teks  is in the following passage.  “When Uthman ibn Affan, a cousin of Muawiyah, became the third caliph, he appointed Muawiyah Governor of Syria. However when Ali was appointed the fourth and final Rashidun Caliph, Muawiyah refused to accept Ali, and had some level of support from the Syrians in his rebelliousness, amongst whom he was a popular leader. Ali called for military action against Muawiya. Eventually Ali marched on Damascus and fought Muawiyah’s supporters at the inconclusive Battle of Siffin (657 CE), but Muawiya offered peace to him, and the reaction of the political classes in Medina was not encouraged, so they made tahkim, and thus Ali deferred. Such a trick had successfully planned by Muawiya to defeat Ali and his followers as his strongest opponent.  The judges who have the vote mostly elected Muawiya.

“Therefore, the Khawarij, those who were among the followers of Ali, condemned the resolution on having the tahkim. They planned to murder both Ali and Muawiya. In 659 AD, two years after the incident, the Khawarij fulfilled their plan to assasinate both of them. Muawiya was lucky, as he had escaped from the assassination attempt, yet their leader Abdul Rahman bin Muljam slain  Imam Ali while he was in Kufa, Iraq. After the martyrdom of Imam Ali, Muawiyah relieved for he has no more opponent and he could absolutely take the caliphate throne. However, the followers of Ali believed that according to Ali’s appointment before his death the choice was restricted to Hasan and his younger brother Hussein. The latter did not claim the caliphate so Kufi Muslims gave their allegiance (bay’ah) to Hasan without dispute. Muawiyah wished to pass the caliphate to his own son Yazid, and saw Hasan as an obstacle. He secretly contacted one of Hasan’s wives, Ja’da bint al-Ash’ath ibn Qays, and incited her to poison her husband. Ja’da did as Muawiyah suggested, giving her husband poison. So, Imam Husain was poisoned and died as martyr.

“In the year of 680 AD, Muawiyah died and he passed his caliphate to his own son, Yazid, a tyrant. Hussein  ibn Ali refused to give his allegiance to Yazid. Therefore, Yazid ordered people to spy him in order to murder him. Imam Hussein left Mecca and went to Medina in order to leave the town in peace for the pilgrims as he knew that the Yazid’s assassin followed him.  However, he moved to Kufa where he could join with his followers there. He heard that his cousins and his followers were ready to give their allegiance to him as a caliphate. As soon as Imam Hussein started his journey from Medina to Kufa, Yazid replaced the governor of Kufa to someone who was more loyal to him, Ubaidillah bin al-Ziyad. While Imam Hussein was still on his way to Kufa, Ubaidillah intimidated the citizens at Kufa to attack Imam Hussein. When Imam Hussein arrived at Kerbela, the troops of Yazid and those whohad instigated by Yazid attacked Imam Hussein. Before the last battle where Imam Hussein died as martyr, Imam Hussein’s followers were weak and exhausted because of thirst. Ibn Ziyad sent a brief letter to Umar ibn Sa’d that commanded, “Prevent Husain and his followers from accessing water and do not allow them to drink a drop [of water]. Ibn Sa’ad followed the orders, and 5000 equestrians blockaded the Euphrates.

“The death of Imam Hussein was soon heard by his brother, Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. He was the third son of Imam Ali from a Hanif woman. Thus, as his mother was a Hanif, so his title was Hanafiyah. In the epics, however, Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah was also an emir in Buniara.

“At night, after the death of Imam Hussein, Muhammad Hanafiyah met his grandfather prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his dream who command him to demand a justice in the name of his brothers Hasan and Hussayn. On the next day, Muhammad Hanafiyah gathered all his followers to set an attack against Yazid ibn Muawiyah. In the battle, Yazid was killed tragically. He fell into an old well that filled with flames of fire. Then, he enthroned Imam Ali Zainil Abidin, the son of Imam Husein as the successor of his father and as the leader of the Aliyun (followers of Imam Ali). In the same time, he heard that a troop of enemies was gathered in a cave. So, he hurriedly went to the place to destroy the remainders of Yazid’s army.  While he entered the cave, he heard mysterious voice that calls him not to enter the cave. However, he did not listen to the voice.  He insisted to enter and kill the remainders of Yazid’s people. In all of sudden, the hole entrance of the cave was closed down.  He could not get out from it ever since.”

 The episode on the battle of Kerbela is very interesting. The excerpt is in following passage.

“…Thus, Amir Hussein walked from a base to another base, and finally he arrived at a place. Then his camel and horse got rest, they did not want to walk anymore. So, Amir Hussein asked to build a tent of the barungs. As the barungs hit all the wooden logs, the logs were bleeding. So, Amir Hussein asked, “My friends! What is the name of the this field?” Then, the knights answer, “O Lord, this is Karbala field.” Thus, Amir Hussein said, “Then, it is where we are going to die as the prophecy of Rasulullah, “The death of my grandson in the field of Karbala! So Amir Hussein, said, “Qalu inna lilLahi wa inna ilayHi raji`una!” When it was heard by Umar Sa’d Maisum the words of Amir Husein there were a lot of barungs, so Umar Sa’d walked near the Euphrat river, and he sent a letter to Yazid, “Lord Yazid, please help me very soon as Amir Hussein has just arrived at the Karbela field in barungs.” Thence, after Yazid received his letter, he quickly commanded his fifty thousand knights, as well as Ubaidillah bin Ziyad, and seventy people, and he said, “Go to the canyon of the Euphrat river, blocked the water for Husseins and his followers, and bring me his head!” Thus, as Amir Hussein stopped at the Karbala field, in the first of Muharaam, Ubaidillah bin Ziyad reached the canyon of the Euphrat and he blocked his water.

Therefore, all the knights of Amir Hussein were exhaustedly getting the war. As they enter the 8th of Muharram, they were really in great thirst. On the next day all the children of Amir Hussein came to him and they said, “Dear father, we are very thirsty! Give us even a drop of water!” Yet, in the corner of Amir Hussein’s room, there was a pitcher from rawhide leather, and unfortunately a rat bite the pitcher and drank the water in it until no more drops left.” (Brakel 1975)

 The epics was actually based upon the battle which has led by al-Mukhtar, the leader of Kaysanite, against Yazid, in order to take revenge on the death of Amir Hussein. He had been helped by Ibrahim al-Ashtur to crown Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah as the successor of Imam Hussein. In the beginning, it was only a legend, but then it became a historical romance (Ali Ahmad 1996).

From Maqtal to Epics

Through the description above, we have discovered the motives and the background of writing the epics. The motives are ideological and cultural. In order to understand that, we should look at the prominent aspects, which distinguish the Malay versions from the Persian text as the source. There are at least six points about the differences.

 First of all, the characteristic of the original epics about the martyrdom of Imam Husein was the genre is a maqtal, which is a chronological description of the tragic death and martyrdom of Imam Ali, Imam Hasan and Imam Husein. Thus, the original epics has the elements of elegy and tragedy. The epics in Persia usually will be dramatically recites during the 10 Muharram Days. However, the element of tragedy has been reduced in the Malay version into historical romance with strong epic elements. Later, the Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese versions went into versification as tembang macapat (poem) that will be use for recitations with obsecure melodies during the gatherings of Ashura days.

Although the tragedy elements has been reduced, yet the Malay versions strongly contain elements of elegy.  Indeed, in the Malay versions there are more details on the episodes of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the grief of his family. The grief of his family and relatives who heard the martyrdom of Imam Hussein were described as followed:

 “Therefore, Amir Hussein was died as a martyr on the 10thth of Muharram, on Friday, and so he became the inhabitant of Heaven as the vow ‘Inna’s-saffa mahallu ‘dunubi!’  Thus, all the members of the household of Rasulullah were in mourning and they beat their chest, and pull their own hair with their cries and weeps, so did this is their crying, “O give us mercy! O how painful we are! How upset we are! O our Muhammad! O our Ali! O our Fatimah! O our Hasan! O our Hussein! O our Kasim! O our Ali Akbar!” Then all the members of the household went unconsciuous. Meanwhile as Amir Husein died as martyr, the throne (arasy) of Allah was shaking, the moon and the sun shine so dimly, seventy days seventy nights all the universe was in hazy and darkness, they were in sadness because Amir Hussein was killed, the heirs of the prophets of Allah, Amir Hasan was died by poison, his another grandson was killed by the weapon of all the hypocrates, and his head was cut off by the people. Hence, they were all killed by the tyrant, and so that we shall know, that our life in this world is not eternal…”

Second, among the Javanese versions, Ali Ngapiyah mateni Yajid has an interesting uniqueness. Its esthetical descriptions do not follow the usual patterns of traditional Javanese literatures of epic and historical romance. There are stories that has been repeated several times, such as the meeting and the farewell of the characters, following the cycle pattern of Cerita Panji. In the epics, there are also punakawan characters as the main servants of the main character in the story, such as punakawan characters in Cerita Panji, Javanese Mahabrata dan Serat Menak (Javanese version of Hikayat Amir Hamzah). The characters in the epics were strictly divided into two distinct groups that both of them could not be easily united in peace, as well as the division of Pandawa and Kurawa in Mahabrata (Braginsky 2004). The accurse Yazid and his followers or his troops were similarized as the Kurawa. As well as Mahabratha, where the battlefield between Kurusetra is symbolically desribes as the world or the soul of a man, the eternal war between the right and the wrong (bathil). In Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah, the role of Kuru field has been replaced by the Karbala field.

Third, the epics contains a great eschatological element like Mahabharata. The tragedy of Karbala and the death of Yazid in the hands of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah army, was symbolically desribed as the End of Age war between Imam Mahdi and Dajjal. The situations before the tragedy of Karbela were also described as well as the end of time when Muslims are beaten by slanders and evil intrigues that become triggers of conflicts and violences. The death of Yazid, and then Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah went into a cave and swallowed by it, was the signs of a new era and an age of enlightenment. It is to be highlighted that the mask opera of Sayidina Husen lan Ratu Jajid (Imam Hussein and King Yazid) was once very popular in Java. The epics inspired the apocalyptic tale called Serat Akhiring Jaman. The tale described the appearance of the king of the genies from his hidden place to defeat all the gentile kings and bring the gentiles to embrace the religion of Truth (Pigeaud 1969).

Regarding to the historical context behind the writing of the epics in Persia, it was also understandable. In the middle of 14th century, the Shias entered a new era after they had passed one dark century under the darkness by the conquest of the Mongols. In the end of 13th century, many Mongols converted to Islam with their leaders. They soon became the shade of Islamic culture. The freedom of having faith in any denominations were also allowed, that it was a new policy differed to the former ruler.

Forth, the Malay text eventually had shown the dim of Kaysanite theology. In the beginning, they embraced the faith that the last imamate was ended in the hand of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah, but after that they could not hold their views among the Sunni. They have to put Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah gave his allegiance to Imam Husein’s son, Imam Zainal Abidin to be the next caliph.

 Fifth, the Malay version eventually was a compilation of various texts such as Hikayat Kejadian Nur Muhammad, Hikayat Hasan dan Husein, and Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. Legends were mix up with historical events since the beginning of Muhammad’s prophethood until the war of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah against Yazid bin Muawiyah.

  Sixth, the Malays texts did not exactly follow the Persian text in its importance desricptions upon the Prophet household. There are many additional stories in the Malay texts. There are also distortions and modifications of context and meaning about the descriptions in the epics.

Thus, from the six points, we need to highlight and explain more of the last two points, because it is how we can explore and understand the creativity of Malay writers as refered to the rising of Islam in Malay archipelago. The peculiarity of the Malay texts could be seen when we compare them to the Persian texts. The copy of the Persian texts that had became the sources for the Malay texts were found in the BritishMuseum (Ms Add 8149). According to Rieu (Brakel 1975),the text was written in the font of  Nastaliq at Murshidabad, Bengali, India, in 1721 AD. Therefore, it was written during the era of Mughal Dynasty, which has enacted the Persian language as the main language for the educated persons until the beginning of 19th century.

The Bengali manuscripts contain two parts. The first part describes the life of Imam Hasan and Imam Husein since they were born until they died. The second part describe the epics of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah since the death of Imam Husein until the discharge of Imam Husein’s son, Imam Zainal Abidin, and the discovery of Yazid’s body inside a well.

 Meanwhile, the Malay version has three parts: The first part is an opening chapter about the life of Muhammad until his early prophethood. Part of the chapter is based upon the famous Hikayat Kejadian Nur Muhammad in Nusantara. The second part has three episodes as follows, the passages of Hasan and Husein when they were children, the passages of the three khalifa al-rashidin, Abu Bakar Siddiq, Umar bin Khattab, and Uthman bin Affan along with their relatives, and then the story f Imam Ali bin Abi Thalib and the death of Imam Hasan and the martyrdom of Imam Husein in Karbala. The third passages describe the war of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah against Yazid, until the death of Yazid and the disappearance of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah who was trapped inside a cave.

  The Malay versions also added several important episodes such as the early years of the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh), the death of Khadijah, the exile of Marwan, the death of Muhammad, the death of Muhammad and the secret funeral of her by her husband Imam Ali bin Abi Thalib. The Persian version, in the other hand, describes the legends about the childhood of Imam Hasan and Imam Husein in details, including the prophecies of their death. The first son will be poisoned, and his brother will died tragically in Karbala. However, the Malay versions describe these legends in short.  Yet, it is added with the story of the ahlubayt and their experiences under the intimidations of Muawiyah.

If we read both versions thoroughly, according to Brakel, there are many parts that were directly translated from the Persian version, but it brought different significance. For example, in the third part, there is a phrase in Malay text: “Maka segala hafiz pun mengaji al-Qur’an dan segala lasykar pun dzikr Allah” (Thus, all the hafidz recited al-Quran and all the soldiers were in remembrance of God). The Persian text is: “wa hamaye yaran o baradaran dar zekr o fekr dar-amadand” (All relatives and friends enter the grave and remembering the memories of the dead and thought of them). The Malay text has the nuance of sufi, as it has given the deep meaning of the words as remembrance of God.

 In the second part of the Persian text that describe the words of Syahrabanum to Yazid,  “Xak bar dar dahane to” (Swallow the earth by your mouth!). In the Malay texts, it has been changed as follow:  “Put the soil into your mouth!”. When Utbah reported to Yazid, his words in the Persian texts are as follow: “Man ham az bine mardanegiye isan gerixte amadim” (You are free from fear because of their valour). Yet, in Malay texts it is translated as follow: “Adapun kami dengan gagah berani, maka kami dapat melepas diri kami” (Thus, we stand in valour, so that we can detach ourselves.”

 However, the Persian elements are not less remain in the Malay texts. The words gabayi namadin was translated as kopiahnya namad merah (the hat of red namad), the words si gaz gadd dast was translated to tiga puluh gaz tingginya (thirty guz height); the word geysare was translated as kaisar, Umm-i Kulzum was translated in Malay as Ummi Kulzum, and there are many others. Indeed the word such as Zangi (Niger) was not modified at all. Yet, the differences were laid on the descriptions of events in the Malay texts that are not found in the Persian text   (Brakel 1975).

            The episode when Husein and his followers were thirsty as they arrived at Karbala was not mention in the Persian text. This episode was taken from the Malay writer from another famous Islamic epic, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen. In the Malay text, the followers of Ali (Aliyun) were also called Ahlu Sunnah, whereas their opponents, the Khawarij and the Ummayads, were regarded as the hypocrites (munafik). The personality of Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah as the main character of the epic was described similarly as the historical figure called Abu Muslim, a person who raised his arms against the Abbasids. It was during the victory of Abbasids, who had supported by the followers of Ali in the beginning, against the Ummayads. After their triumph, the Abbasids left Abu Muslim, and so he turned out against the Abbasids. Meanwhile, the descriptions of the battles in the epics were much inspired by the descriptions of the famous epic Shahnama, by Firdawsi.

The relevances and the Significance of the Epics.

 Regarding to the widespread of the epics in Indonesia and the appreciations towards it, and also its influences to the flourish of Nusantara literature, it should be appropriate if we put forward a few questions. What are the relevances and the significance of the epics to the Muslims in Indonesia? What do the moral messages contain in the epics that it has given great and deep influences to its readers in the past during the history of the rising of Islam?

In order to answer this question, we have to understand the meaning and the function of the epic in the Islamic culture, and what was the social and humanity conditions that has made it possible to emerge such a epics? A literature work never comes into the world from a void of history. There are always particular background factors and its appearance always refers to particular contexts too, that it is often quite complicated. In the beginning of the spring tide of Islam in Indonesia, the Islam missionaries were fully aware that it is insufficient just to teach the people on the faith of one-ness of God or tawhid, and the observance of doing virtues and building noble moral. The teachings of all that were available through Islamic knowledge and wisdoms. Yet, they realized that they have to establish the Islamic culture too. Literatures are one of the important media for the establishment.  Therefore, the early Islamic missionaries and their successors introduced the Arabic and Persian literatures, which contain Islami spirit.

The function or the role of literature in the intellectual tradition and Islamic culture is to give impressive pictures on the basic of Islamic teachings such as faith or tawhid, virtues, morals, and the obligation to do amal ma`ruf wa nahiy munkar wa tu`minuna bilLah in every life aspects, including social, cultural, intellectual, ethic and esthethic life. Moreover, it is also to explore the religious , social, historical and personal experiences and other experiences that are spiritually and profane, to be expressed through esthethical phrases that would touch the hearts and the emotions of the readers.

An epic or a epics of war is an important genre in the Islamic literature as it relates to the historical experiences of Muslims, especially about their experiences in order to observe their religion teachings.  Noteworthy events in the history should be a collective memory as it contains lessons and it can be a good media to build the social solidarity.  Moreover, the role of epic in Islam is not only for the revival of spirit in upholding the truth. Through epics, Muslims learn: what kind of wars that are allowed in the religious way, what are the purposes of the war, who are the people they have to fight against, and how to deal with enemies who surrender and offer peace? They also learn how to deal with a problem such as what if the peace offered by the enemies is only a trick, as it often happens to Muslims since the beginning of Islamic era until recent days.

 In Islam, the main purpose of war is not to defend the state and the nation, but mainly to confront against the injustice and oppressions. Thus, it is eventually what has been written in the epics such as Hikayat Sayidina Husein dan Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. Juga dalam Hikayat Amir Hamzah da Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen. The purpose of war is not only to defend the nation and the state, but also to fight against the injustice and oppressions that spread out around the world. Such a purpose has been reflected well in the epics, such as Hikayat Sayidina Husein, Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen and Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. These epics did not reflect the spirit of chauvinistic like the Greek epics.  They are also not too apocalyptic like the Hindu epics. The battles between Pandawa and Kurawa in Kurusetra in Mahabharata, for instance, were described as the battle in the end of the age, in Armageddon. Their enemies were defeated and perished, as well as their wives, children and cattle. However, in the Islamic epics, the defeated enemies were captived and soon they have embraced into the brotherhood of Islam.

The main motive of a war in Islam is to fight against the injustice system or the opress tyrant. They must fight either it is a Muslim regime or a non-Muslim regime. It is as exactly as Ferdinand de Lessep, the one who built the Suez Canal two centuries ago. He said, “It is not a fanatic spirit that motivate the Muslims to fight against certain ruler and imperialist, but it is the religious and cultural spirit of Islam that encourage them to fight and to be able to unite their struggles. The cultural spirit of which that encouraged them was their rejections upon the injustice and oppression in the sake of any names, not because their fanatic and fundamentalism.” (Jansen 1983).

            In the epics we are discussing of, it contains various noteworthy historical experiences that should be a collective memory of Muslims, as it has been said well by Ferdinand de Lesseps, we found them in this epics. The peaceful offers by Muawiya which had accepted by Imam Ali was a great example of his noble and wisdom heart that he did not want to start a war in order to take revenge or to have a power. However the tahkim that was made up by Muawiya was an evil trick to get rid off Imam Ali in a improper way. The last example is a reflection of an injustice deed that was despotic. Muslims have experienced such a trick in so many times in the history, which was not only in the past, but also in the modern time.  Prince Diponegoro, the leader of the army of the anticolonialism war in Java (1825-1830) was offered by the Dutch to have peaceful agreements, but they eventually trapped him. When he arrived at the negotiation meeting, the Dutch suddenly caught him and handcuffed him to be their prisoner for the rest of his life. The Arabs, especially the Palestinians, had experienced that many times when they dealt with the Israel Zionists. There are so many peaceful agreements that both had signed for, but they are all more than just another trick.

The motivations of Imam Hussein and his followers that encouraged them to fight against Yazid were most of all because of the oppressions of the Umayyads to the people. Imam Hussein was not a selfish person that he did not think of himself. His martyrdom and his courageous actions in fighting against the injustice and oppress regime is an example which will always follow by a real Islamic warrior (mujahedeen). Thus, the courageous of his half-brother, Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah who led his army valiantly to put an end the rule of Yazid, was also another example.  To contemplate the epics fruitfully,one need not to take a position on the propaganda of the Qaysanite ideology in the epics, but rather to read it through another perspective, which is to view in the historical contexts on which the epics was firstly written and disseminated  throughout Indonesia.

The epics is eventually similar to another Islamic epics, especially Hikayat Amir Hamzah and Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen, which had appeared in the Malay archipelago (Nusantara) between the 14th and 15th century, during the era of the rising of Islam. During this era, there have been many challenges that Muslims had to deal with. The challenges were political and cultural aspects.  These are reasonable as the Buddhist kingdom called Srivijaya was once a glorious kingdom in the archipelago between 8th to 10thth century, and its prominence faded out because of the economical crisis. Then, in East Java the Hindu kingdom called Majapahit (1292-1498) revived. In the middle of 14th century, when the power of Majapahit was eventually in the hands of its famous prime minister, Gadjah Mada, the kingdom has a great ambition to expand its emporium throughout the archipelago. In order to fulfill its desire, Majapahit sent its military forces to Sumatra to defeat the Malay kingdoms, including Srivijaya.

During these periods, there were so many battles that the Muslim community had to deal with as they already had two great and prosperious kingdoms, which are  Samudra Pasai (1272-1516 AD) in Aceh, Sumatra dan Malaka sultanate (1400-1511 AD ) in Malay peninsula. Malaka itself was a continuation of the kingdom of Srivijaya. It was actually established by the last king of Srivijaya, Prabhu Parameswara, who had escaped from his kingdom when it was destroyed by the Majapahit army in the end of the 14th century AD. In 1411 AD, when the Malaka sultanate had grown as a great kingdom and a capital of business trade, Parameswara had married with the princess of Pasai and converted to Islam (Wolters 1970). Since that, Malaka became one of the centre of Islamic propagation and the centre of the Malay Islamic intellectual activities.

In 1350 AD, Majapahit army attacked Samudra Pasai. After a great battle between those two great kingdoms, finally Majapahit defeated Samudra Pasai. However, Majapahit army did not destroy the cities of Pasai as Pasai was an important trade port at that time, and it was a strategic land in the Strait of Malacca. The army of Majapahit was satisfied as they brought home the booty and the prisoners of the war. Among the prisoners, there are so many noble men and women, merchants, doctors, scholars, priests and ex-warriors of the enemy.  In Majapahit, these prisoners were placed in a special place in Ampel Denta. Unexpectedly, there were many Javanese princes fell in love with Pasai princess, and there were also many Javanese princesses interested with the Pasai princes. Thus, there were inevitably many intercross marriage between the Javanese-Majapahit noblemen and the Pasai noblemen. In order to marry a Pasai woman, the prince must convert to Islam. Since then, Islam was rapidly growing in the Java island as their rulers converted to Islam (Ibrahim Alfian 1999).  Therefore, after that, there were many cardinal saints as Islamic missionaries who were born in Java island, such as Maulana Malik Ibrahim, Sunan Ampel, Sunan Giri, Sunan Bonang, Sunan Drajat, dan etc. They were famously known as the Walisongo or the Nine Saints.

Thus, there was a possibility that through this early Muslim community in East Java, the Javanese people read the Arabic and Persian works, including their epics, that were then introduced into the Javanese literature. The suluk poems of Sunan Bonang, a saint and a prolific litterateur who lived between the 15th and 16th century AD, had explained that there were many Arabic and Persian works that had been known by the Muslim scholars in Java island (Drewes 1968). The religious feasts that are now still celebrate by people in Java, such as Grebeg Maulud, Sekaten, Asura, and etc, were all first introduced by the early saints during the first establishment of the sultanate of Demak in the early of 16th century AD. Those feasts, especially Asura, had been held based upon the guidance in the Arabic and Persian works. However, they had been given the  local packaging.

The epics of the martyrdom of Imam Husein and the battles between Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah and Yazid was eventually had a great role and influence in the Malay archipelago. The primary sources of the history of early Malay, such as  Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai (the end of 14th century AD M) dan Sejarah Melayu (in the16th century AD),  had given the evidents that those Persian and Arabic epics had a great influenced to the development of Malay literature since the early of 14th century AD. In the description of the war in Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai, for instance, the episode of the war between Tun Berahim Bapa troops and the gang of Keling who wanted to do riots in Pasai, was very similar to the descriptions of war in the Hikayat Amir Hamzah and Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah (Hill 1960).

The Malay sources also explained that it is a custom for Muslims to held majlis or ceremonies of literature recitations. The most favourit genre of literature for the recitations are the Suluk (tasawwuf poems), romance (the adventure tales with love story), and epics of war. Thus, the popularity of Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah during that time was also also mentioned in the  Sejarah Melayu. In the episode of the battle between Malaka and the Portuguese army who attacked it and desired to conquer Melaka, the popularity of the epics was mentioned as follow: At night when the Malaka warriors were having rest inside their warship, they asked someone to recite an epic to keep their spirit. The epic or the epics that they chose was Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. It was eventually not surprising as the epics was very significant in many aspects, including its contents, it emotional effects, its cultural values and its sosio-political features (Winstedt 1970; Ali Ahmad 1996).

The result of in-depth researches about the development of classical Indonesian literatures have shown that there many local epics in the literatures of Aceh, Jawa, Madura, Bugis, Makassar, Minangkabau, Sasak, Sunda, Banjar, and others that were inspired by the Islamic epics such as Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Sayidina Husein, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnaen, dan Hikayat Muhammad Ali Hanafiyah. Among of the most brilliant examples are Hikayat Hang Tuah in the Malay literatures and Hikayat Prang Geudong in Acheh that described the struggle of Sultan Iskand Muda when he fought the Portuegese army off the sea as they wanted to conquer the Straits of Malaka in the early of 17th century; and also when he fought against the Malay kings who alignated with the colonial army in order to destroy Aceh Darussalam as one of the greatest Islamic sulatanate in the Southeast Asia at the (Abdul Hadi W.M 2001).

However, the perfect moments that made the Islamic epics had great relevances and significance were during the era of anti colonial wars between 17th to 19th century AD, which was started by the Ternate war in the early of 17th century AD until the Acheh wars that had occurred in a very long term until the end of the 19th century AD. The leaders of the battles were most of all prominent figures of Islam, such as noble prince and princess, captains, sufi masters, kings, priests, scholars, and others.  Most of these leaders were the readers of the literatures and fans of the Islamic epics. Among of the best examples were Prince Trunojoyo, the war leader against the VOC and its allies in the end of 17th century AD, and also Prince Diponegoro, the war leader of Java War  (1825-1830). At night, whilst they prepared themselves for the next day battles, these prominent figures often recited the famous Islamic epics to his commanders and his loyal servants. Thus, they always brought the books of the epics and epics wherever they go (Ricklefs 1982).

During the Acheh War, which had occurred almost in four decades until the end of 19th century AD, the ceremonies of the epics recitation were usually took place at night. Inspired the former epics, a famous poet in the end of the 19th century AD, Cik Pante Kulu, wrote another famous epics, Hikayat Perang Sabil. The recitation of the epics by the poet, and other epics as well, had restored the fighting spirits of the Acheh warriors that had started to weak in the end of the 19th century. Indeed, the descriptions of Hikayat Soydina Usin in Acheh had not just became the basic accomplishment of the Asan Usin Day or Asura Day (Hari Asan Usin or Hari Asura), but also inspired the popular heroic dance called Seudati. The repetance taps on the chest by the Seudati dancers could be referred to description in the Hikayat Sayidina Husein, which is in the episode of takziyah. It is when Shahrabanu and her family were weeping and beating their bossom as they heard Imam Husein was slain by the followers of Yazid, as his hands were cutt off, his body covered with blood, and his head was cut off from his body.


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            Abdul Hadi Wiji Muthari is a poet, a writer, and a scholar. He was born in Madura Island, Indonesia in 1946. He has degree in Philosophy and PhD degree from the School of Humanities, Science Univ.of Malaysia (USM). He is now a professor of Univ. Paramadina in Jakarta.

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