The Ashura Epic

The Ashura Epic

Muhammad Rammal

The greatest event celebrated by the Shiite community is unquestionably Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. This narrative and theatrical celebration comprises an ensemble of rituals, the most distinctive of which involve mortification. These rituals are accompanied by songs and chants of great emotional intensity, which blend different literary genres and forms of enunciation.
Muhammad Rammal has adapted Shiite religious texts to the folk melodies and forms most commonly found in Lebanon. He presents here a chanted interpretation of huzn (sadness) and cazâ’ (comfort), mostly in the Sabâ and Huzâm modes, known for their ability to move the listener.


1Tawr al-huzn/Cycle of sadness – marthiyya (elegy), maqtal (martyrdom of a hero), abûdhiyya (song in Iraki dialect), mawwâl, prayer – 8’52
2Taltîm/Chest pounding – 8’44
3Madah nabawî/Praise of the prophet – 13’42
4 – Poems for Fatima, daughter of the Prophet – 8’46
5 – Eschatological evocation of the expected Mahdi – 6’53
6 ‘Ataba et mîjâna/A Lebanese poetic-melodic form – 8’06
7 – Poems in the honour of Ali – 5’34
8 – A poem in the honour of the Prophet’s descendants – 7’34
9 – A poem in honour of the Prophet’s family – 5’36

Interpreters and instruments

Hajj Muhammad Rammal (singing, direction)
Abbas Rammal (choir, percussion)
Rabih al-Bissani (choir, percussion)
Youssef al-Hafi (choir, percussion)
Mohammed Ezzedine (choir)
Hussein Rammal (choir)
Kassem Rammal (choir)
Rida Rammal (choir)


The sung evocation of Ashura in Lebanon

The vocal art of the cantor Muhammad Rammal goes back to the origins of Shi’ism, one of the branches of Islam that took root very early in Lebanon, the favourite refuge of all minorities in the Middle-East. An important part in the Ashura commemoration of the events – both real and imaginary – which governed the birth of this community, this art form has also been nurtured by Lebanon’s contemporary history.

Shi’ism in Lebanon

Shi’ism, the main minority branch of Islam, was brought about by a dynasty conflict. Ali, cousin and son-in-law to the prophet Mohammed – and according to the Shi’ite tradition, his best successor –  was caliph between 656 and 661, when he was murdered and buried in Najaf, Irak. There was a fight for his succession between the Umayyad caliphes and his two sons by the prophet’s daughter Fatima: Hassan and Husayn. In 680, the latter rose against the caliph Yazid. The revolt ended at the battle of Karbala where Husayn and his followers were massacred. This battle is widely celebrated by the Shi’ites as their founding event, and the martyrdom of Husayn and his companions is raised to the rank of tragedy and sublime epic. In the following generations, the Alids – descendants of Ali – continued to claim the Imamah and this often ended up dramatically. Strictly speaking, the Imamite, or Twelve-Imam Shi’ites came into being in 874, following the occultation of the twelfth imam, whose return as the promised Mahdî, the ‘Well-Guided’ Imam, is expected in the Last Days. It was only in the 16th century that Twelve-Imam Shi’ism took shape as we know it today, becoming Iran’s state religion with the Safavides dynasty. In the Arab world, Twelver Shi’ites are mainly found in Irak and Lebanon. In the Middle-Ages, they were massively present in Syria (a Shi’ite district has remained in Damas, around the mausoleum of the Saint Sayyida Zaynab, sister of Imam Husayn, known for her courage in Karbala). Following persecutions, they withdrew to Kesruan, Lebanon, where they were persecuted again by the Mamluks and Ottomans. Nowadays, Lebanese Shi’ites live mainly in the Bekaa valley and Jabel ‘Amil, which form the greatest part of Eastern and Southern Lebanon, as well as in the suburbs of Beirut. In the early 20th century, there was a strong demographic growth in the Shi’ite community. The political mobilisation and cultural renewal it underwent during the Lebanese civil war have totally transformed its relationship with the Lebanese state. It is nowadays one of the most important denominations in the country (the deputy chamber’s president is always chosen amongst its members).

Ashura commemorations

For Shi’ites throughout the world, the commemoration of the Karbala battle involves an ensemble of rituals with songs and chants lamenting the death of the martyrs killed in combat, and first of all the martyrdom of Husayn: it is the Ashura festival, on the 10th day of Muharram. The heroism of Ali and the martyrdom of the ten other imams is also celebrated, as well as the courage of imprisoned women and children. This celebration is very old: its origins might date back to the Sassanide time in Iran. Its most characteristic and authentic feature is a ritual lament with such various forms of body mortification as taltîm, a sonorous pounding of the chest and shoulders with the palm of both hands that emphasizes a procession resembling a dance, or more spectacular forms such as self-flagellation until blood comes.

It was only in the 16th century, when Shi’ism became a state religion in Iran, that true processions were organised. Later, perhaps in the 17th century, it is said that these demonstrations brought about a form of passion play, the taczieh. As some orientalists have shown, despite the lamenting and cult of the dead these collective demonstrations also have a festive character, as sensuality and joy of living blend spontaneously thanks to the articulation and ambivalence of deeply significant symbols. For instance, the day that Husayn’s nephew Qassem died should have been his wedding day. The blood that comes during flagellations is brought about by techniques representing no danger and used mostly for their spectacular effect on the body of the “warriors.” 

In Irak and Lebanon, the commemoration has remained fairly simple: it was only in the late 19th century that theatre was imported from Iran, and it met with strong reluctance from Lebanese imams. On the other hand, the festival features songs and chants of great emotional intensity. Huzn (lit; sadness) and caz’â’ (comfort/consolation – same root as the Persian word tacziyeh) are generic terms encompassing several literary genres and enunciation forms, poems as well as prose (nathr), which are alternatively spoken, chanted or sung. Their narrative, dialogue-like nature, contains the seeds of possible theatrical developments (as can be heard noticeably on track 1). One genre especially, the maqtal, a recitation of a special hero’s martyrdom, has existed in the shape of literary collections since the first centuries of Islam. A good example is presented here with one of the most important pieces of this epic, Qassem’s death (track 1). There is also the marthiyya funeral elegy (track 1).

Furthermore there is a large linguistic, stylistic and cultural diversity; texts sung in classic Arabic blend with others in dialects – mainly Iraqi – sung in the typically Iraqi form called abûdhiyya (track 1). The presence of the Iraqi dialect obviously dates back quite a way. It emphasises intense dialogue and narrative passages, and marks the special relationship that has existed for a very long time between Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’ites, with a common pilgrimage to the holy places of Najaf and Karbala, and weddings between members of the various erudite families. There are also songs in the Lebanese dialect, such as catâba and mijâna (track 6), and others possibly influenced by the mucannâ (tracks 8 and 9), even though they are in literary Arabic.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, contrary trends were exerted as regards the style of Ashura commemoration in Lebanon. In the late 19th century, the strong influence of Iran allowed the importation of ritual theatre and processions at their most spectacular (dress, pounding of chest, flagellation etc). This helped the Lebanese Shi’ite community to assert its identity. Yet for some modern Shi’ite reformers, such as Mohsen Amîn (1867-1952), the Ashura commemorations were too “folkloric”, not enough in keeping with the Shi’ite orthodoxy or the conception of a modernised form of Islam as was also defended by many Sunnites at that time. Therefore they fought against it. More recently, the political and very rationalist Hezbollah current has tried to eliminate the most “folkloric” Ashura displays, while encouraging simpler manifestations. Nowadays, there is a new balance between all these tendencies. Such a controversy shows that the Ashura commemorations are crucial for this community to express its identity and position itself in a political and religious environment where it has always been a minority. 

Jean Lambert, ethnomusicologist
Translated by Dominique Bach

The recordings

1- Cycle of sadness/Tawr al-huzn – 8’52
A suite built around the story of a martyr

– 1.1. Marthiyya (elegy) in theHuzâm mode: Sallâ Allahu calayk yâ bna Rasûli Allah

“I pray God for you, o son of God’s messenger
For you and for the martyrs in front of you
If only we could have been with you, we would certainly have won!
Do not trust life
Destiny always leads to death.”

– 1.2. Maqtal (martyrdom of a hero) in Huzâm mode

[spoken]: “The 10th day of Muharram, when all of Husayn’s companions had become martyrs, the latter stood on the battle field and started to call [chanted dialogue] ‘Is there someone to help us? Is there someone to make us win?’ Then Qassem (his nephew, son of Hassan), yelled: ‘I answer your call, my uncle!’ Husayn said: ‘Ô son of my brother, you are all I have left from my brother Hassan, how could I expose you to the perils of the sword?’ Then Qassem answered: ‘My uncle, my chest is oppressed since I found a writing in my father Hassan’s garment, saying: ‘My son Qassem, should you see your uncle Husayn alone and isolated, do not hesitate and go help him.’ Husayn went close to his nephew Qassem and held him tightly in his arms and they cried together.”

– 1.3. Abûdhiyya, song in Iraki dialect and Kurd mode

He said:”I put you in the hands of God, o apple of my eye. Do you all want to leave me as the sole survivor?”
Qassem goes to combat, fights courageously and is finally killed treacherously.

– 1.4. Abûdhiyya, song in Iraki dialect and Kurd mode

Husayn then cries out: “What do I have left?
Ah! I wish this sabre had cut my hand before yours!
Ah! My friends you are leaving me on my own
While horses are attacking my camp.”

– 1.5. Abûdhiyya, song in Iraki dialect and Kurd mode

Husayn takes away the body of his nephew Qassem (pronounced Jâsim)
“He has brought him and laid him amongst his brothers
He has sat them, woe, they who were dead already!
And when the women heard his voice
Ramla [his mother] came and cried: Allah is great!”

– 1.6. Mawwâl in Kurd mode, Wi lâ mayâl Wa-lâ mâl

The mother’s heartrending lament, using meaningless interjections.
Finally, the narrator recites a prayer to the dead (Bayât mode).

2- Rawda Rammâl – Chest pounding/taltîm – 8’44

– 2.1. Ziyâra (pilgrimage prayer) : Al-salâm calayk yâ Abâ cAbdillah

“Peace be upon you, ô father of Abdallah [i.e. the Prophet]
And upon the soul blessed while praising you.”

– 2.2. Hatafa l-qalbu wa-nâdâ yâ amîri yâ Husayn
Hymne (chest pounding taltîm), Hijâz mode

“The heart has repeated and called: o Prince, o Husayn
The embers of estrangement have moaned
And showed tenderness for you.”

– 2.3. Yâ ayyuhâ al-akbar/Tusqâ minal-kawthar
Hymne (chest pounding)

“You appeared, you the greatest, you who drink from the eternal spring
with your resplendent face
With noble words you summon people to the battlefield,
Souls are bleeding, nothing is as short as life.”

3- Madah nabawî/Praise of the prophet – 13’42

Min calâ-l-anbiyâ’i taqaddam taqaddam
Sayyidinâ Abu-l-Qâsimi Muhammad

“He who stands before all the prophets
Our Lord Mohammed, father of Qassem”

4- Poems for the birthday of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet – 8’46
These poems praising the daughter of Muhammad and wife of Ali show the cult of Fatima (al-Zohra) which has played a certain role in enhancing the feminine element in Shi’ism. Indeed, she is part of the sacred pentagram of Shi’ism: Mohammed, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Husayn.

– 4.1. Zahrâu wu qad camma l-wudjuda dhiyâhâ

“[Fâtima] al-Zahrâ, her tenderness is sparkling
and the world fills with the wind of her fragrance
She softened the best of tendencies [shi’ism].”
This text is attributed to Imam Husayn, son of Fatima

– 4.2. Ghannat al-atyâr/Fâhat al-azhâr

“The birds have sung
Flowers are fragrant
In the land of Zahra
the niche of lights.”

5- Eschatological evocation of the expected Mahdi – 6’53
This evocation is sung in the Sabâ mode, which is known for its characteristic expression of sadness.

– 5.1. Temassak bi hobb rasûl Allah

“Maintain your love for the prophet
while waiting for the day of the Last Judgement
for the fire of hell is eternal
When shall the night of tears come to an end?
To make space for a morning
O you will appear in the West, you, our sun
O! Abû Sâleh, the Expected Imam (the Mahdi) “

– 5.2. Yâ hamâm al-Madîna/Wood pigeon from Medina
A Lebanese melody in the Bayât mode (kin to the Sabâ mode but not as sad)
Medina is a place especially venerated by the Shi’ites because it is where Fatima is buried along with several other imams.

6- cAtaba and mîjâna (a Lebanese poetic-melodic form) – 8’06

– 6.1. Ghayrek yâ Haydar bi-sh-shadâyied mâ lenâ

“In adversity we have no one but you, ô Haydar (Ali)”.

– 6.2. Yâ waylî Haydar mâ kheser bi-l-harb marra

“Haydar has not lost a single fight
He gave the enemy a bitter chalice.”

7- Poems in the honour of Ali (also called Haydar) – 5’34

– 7.1. Haddathûnî wa qâlû: Man tuwâlî?

“They asked me to whom I had sworn allegiance
When death was sitting on both my left and my right”.

– 7.2. Min hobbek yâ Haydar laylat farha wa-nashar
A Lebanese folk melody sung on the Masmûdî rhythm

“Our love for you, ô Haydar, has us spending a whole wedding night rejoicing”.

8- A poem in the honour of the Prophet’s descendants– 7’34

– 8.1. Anâ tâbicun li-l-culâ/I am the descendant of these noble figures
Sung in classical Arab but in the style of the Lebanese mucannâ

– 8.2. Yardâ Allah li-ridâhâ/God is satisfied when she is satisfied
A poem in the honour of Fatima, sung to a Lebanese folk melody, on a Masmûdî rhythm

9- A poem in honour of the Prophet’s family – 7’34

– 9.1.Bi-âli Muhammadin curifa as-sawâmu

“Thanks to Mohammed’s family, we have been acquainted with fasting (Ramadan) and in their verse the Book was revealed”.

Sung in classical Arab but in the style of the Lebanese mucannâ

– 9.2. As-salâtu calâ l-mudhallal bi-l-ghamâma/Prayers to the one wrapped in clouds
Lebanese folk melody on a Masmûdî rhythm

  • Reference : 321.049
  • Ean : 794 881 761 326
  • Main artist : Muhammad Rammal (محمد رمّال)
  • Year of recording : 1998
  • Year of publishing : 2007
  • Music style: Religious Music
  • Country : Lebanon
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe