SSF: Karbala in the midst of History and Narrative: Typology of Genres of Maqatil

On Saturday 14th October 2017, the Shia Scholars Forum held a roundtable discussion on the topic ‘Karbala in the midst of History and Narrative: Typology of Genres of Maqatil’ at Al-Mahdi Institute. On the premise of distinguishing between history and narrative of the event of Karbala, Shaykh Kumail Rajani in his address to the Shia Scholars Forum (SSF), defined narrative as ‘a mode of representation of history’. In the quest to understand the past, an inquisitive mind is yearning to obtain the most truthful account of a particular event. The narrative representation of the event is, inevitably, dictated by the human conditions such as context of time and space, political interests or religious affiliation. Furthermore, our understanding of the past is also obscured by the paucity of the first-hand sources coupled with the hagiographical accounts of the sources available at our disposal.

The scholar classified various genres of the narrative into fictions, myths and historical accounts. Whereas there is no doubt that the event of Karbala falls under the category of a painful historical event but at the same time there is evidence to suggest that some of the authors and orators, all for good reasons and out of piety, have attempted to narrate the event in a fictional or mythological presentation. Shaykh Kumayl also suggested that poetic imaginations and linguistic explanation of the event should not be discouraged as long as the author and readers/orator and audience are mindful of its implications and consequences.

Alluding to the different genre of maqatil, Shaykh Kumail advanced the discourse by presenting a case study of the sorrowful account of the martyrdom of the little son of Imam Husayn (as) in Karbala (commonly known as Ali Asghar). The speaker navigated through the accounts of the historians from the 3rd/9th to 14th/20th to suggest that there is a substantial growth in the details of that heartbreaking event irrespective of the genuine motives behind this expansion and extension. The complexity of the historiography of these extended accounts is intensified due to the fact that the authors have chosen not to share their sources with their readers.

The forum witnessed a vibrant discussion on what the Muharram audience expects from scholars and speakers, whether –or how much of – the distinction between history and narrative should be made publically, and whether or not it is right to add or omit from the narrative of Karbala.

Please click on the video below to view Shaykh Komail Rajani’s presentation.