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Yoginder Sikand, Hindu Followers of a Muslim Imam

Reproduced with kind permission of, and thanks to, Qalandar and Yoginder Sikand

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One of the most important events in early Muslim history was the battle of Karbala fought in 680 CE in which Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and her husband Imam Ali, was slaughtered along with a small band of disciples in a bloody battle against the tyrant Yazid. This event occurred in the Islamic month of Muharram, and it is for this reason that this month is observed with great solemnity in many parts of the Muslim world.

What is particularly striking about the observances of the month of Muharram in large parts of India is the prominent participation of Hindus in the ritual mourning. In several towns and villages, Hindus join Muslims in lamenting the death of Hussain, by sponsoring or taking part in lamentation rituals and tazia processions. In Lucknow, seat of the Shia nawabs of Awadh, prominent Hindu noblemen like Raja Tikait Rai and Raja Bilas Rai built Imambaras to house alams, standards representing the Karbala event. The Hindu Lambadi community in Andhra Pradesh have their own genre of Muharram lamentation songs in Telugu. Among certain Hindu castes in Rajasthan, the Karbala battle is recounted by staging plays in which the death of Imam Hussain is enacted, after which the women of the village come out in a procession, crying and cursing Yazid for his cruelty. In large parts of rural India, Hindus believe that if barren women slip under a Moharrum alam they would be blessed with a child.

Perhaps the most intriguing case of Hindu veneration of Imam Hussain is to be found among the small Hussaini Brahmin sect, also called Dutts or Mohiyals, who are found mainly in Punjab. The Hussaini Brahmins have had a long martial tradition, which they trace back to the event of Karbala. They believe that an ancestor named Rahab traveled all the way from Punjab to Arabia, where he became a disciple of Imam Hussain. In the battle of Karbala, Rahab fought in the army of the Imam against Yazid. His sons, too, joined him, and most of them were killed. The Imam, seeing Rahab?s love for him, bestowed upon him the title of Sultan or king, and told him to go back to India. It is because from this close bond between Rahab and Imam Hussain that the Hussaini Brahmins derive their name.

After Rahab and those of his sons who survived the battle of Karbala reached India, they settled down in the western Punjab and gradually a community grew around them. The Hussaini Brahmins practised an intriguing blend of Islamic and Hindu traditions. A popular saying refers to the Hussaini Brahmins or Dutts thus:

Wah Dutt Sultan,
Hindu ka Dharm
Musalman ka Iman,
Adha Hindu Adha Musalman


Oh! Dutt, the king
[Who follows] the religion of the Hindu
And the faith of the Muslim
Half Hindu, half Muslim.


Another story, which seems less reliable, is related as to how the Dutts of Punjab came to be known as Hussaini Brahmins. According to this version, one of the wives of Imam Hussain, the Persian princess Shahr Banu, was the sister of Chandra Lekha or Mehr Banu, the wife of an Indian king called Chandragupta. When it became clear that Yazid was adamant on killing the Imam, the Imam?s son Ali ibn Hussain rushed off a letter to Chandragupta asking him for help against Yazid. When Chandragupta received the letter, he dispatched a large army to Iraq to assist the Imam. By the time they arrived, however, the Imam had been slain. In the town of Kufa, in present-day Iraq, they met with one Mukhtar Saqaffi, a disciple of the Imam, who arranged for them to stay in a special part of the town, which even today is known by the name of Dair-i-Hindiya or 'the Indian quarter'.

Some Dutt Brahmins, under the leadership of one Bhurya Dutt, got together with Mukhtar Saqaffi to avenge the death of the Imam. They stayed behind in Kufa, while the rest returned to India. Here they built up a community of their own, calling themselves Hussaini Brahmins, keeping alive the memory of their links with the Imam.

The Hussaini Brahmins believe that in the Bhagwadgita Krishna had foretold the event of the Imam's death at Karbala. According to them, the Kalanki Purana, the last of eighteen Puranas, as well as the Atharva Veda, the fourth Veda, refer to Imam Hussain as the divine incarnation or avatar of the Kali Yug, the present age. They hold Imam Ali, Imam Hussain's father, and son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, in particular reverence, referring to him with the honorific title of 'Om Murti'.

The Hussaini Brahmins, along with other Hindu devotees of the Muslim Imam, are today a rapidly vanishing community. Younger generation Hussaini Brahmins are said to be abandoning their ancestral heritage, some seeing it as embarrassingly deviant. No longer, it seems, can an ambiguous, yet comfortable, liminality be sustained, fuzzy communal identities identities giving way under the relentless pressure to conform to the logic of neatly demarcated 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' communities. And so, these and scores of other religious communities that once straddled the frontier between Hinduism and Islam seem destined for perdition, or else to folkloric curiosities that tell of a bygone age, when it was truly possible to be both Hindu as well as Muslim at the same time.

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