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4. Hearing Mo‘jizat in South Asian Shi‘ism

Amy Bard


Contemporary Urdu miracle stories, mo‘jizāt [pl.], related in intimate settings in Shi‘i Muslim households, hold a unique allure among devout families. The stories’ templates draw on a North Indian/Pakistani folkloric reservoir of scenes, characters, and social categories, while their oral realisations reflect explicitly Shi‘i devotional themes. Miracles and miracle tellings are both termed mo‘jizat and both have multivalent, multi-level significance.

My interest is in the social life of miracles as evidenced in 1) formal mo‘jizat kahanis (miracle stories), which are ritual or niyaz narratives, and 2) informal/casual mo‘jizat. These represent two locally recognised distinctions, although individuals may apply the term story (kahani) in slightly variable ways. Their mostly domestic recountings reveal that genres of miracles do not necessarily derive from normative Islamic distinctions between mo‘jizat, miracles of the Prophet, and karamat, miracles performed by saints.1 Rather, distinct purposes, modes of mediating authority, and narrative formats inhere in formal vs. informal/casual mo‘jizat. The two types of narrative have commonalities, such as layers of framing utterances and repeated similar incidents, yet are associated with different performance contexts.

The mo‘jizat complement, rather than duplicate, the directive lessons of orators in more public mourning assemblies (majalis [pl.]) and the emotive language of honour and suffering in Shi‘i poetry about the tragedy of Imam Husain at Karbala (680 CE). Miraculous stories (henceforth kahanis) echo Karbala motifs, but do not directly reference Husain’s martyrdom. The informal ones often feature the mysterious spiritual guides and revelatory dream states that are also standard in more formal niyaz narratives, but bring Shi‘i sacred geography “home”, with localised miracles and evidential discourse from Pakistani or Indian narrators. How do “casual” miracle tales fit into more textually-based expressive traditions in South Asian Shi‘ism? Who transmits “ritual” and “casual” mo‘jizat? How do the audience and the storytelling context affect the testament, revelation, or comfort that the idea of a “miracle” proffers?

The sheer plentitude of miracle stories and testimonies in Shi‘i social circles is noteworthy, particularly since the reasonably comprehensive scholarly literature on contemporary South Asian Shi‘ism privileges lament genres, hagiography in text and ritual, and mimesis of Karbala through relics such as tomb replicas, cradles, and battle standards.2 The stories’ ubiquitous popularity was underlined for me as I researched Shi‘i liturgical poetry between 1996 and 2010: although I never intended to elicit miracle stories, my fieldwork recordings contain dozens of “casual” mo‘jizat. Friends and consultants were wont to cite miraculous occurrences—always witnessed by a relative or acquaintance, if not by themselves—in any discussion of Shi‘i literature or popular devotions.

In family settings, the tellings frequently became exchanges among household members, who left any queries of mine by the wayside as they quibbled over sequence or details. The story I initially present exemplifies such a milieu. After this taste of an informal miracle anecdote, I briefly situate mo‘jizat vis-à-vis the Karbala narrative and related expressive traditions, survey formal (niyaz) narratives, and then identify some of the most resonant elements in additional “informal” tellings. I conclude with observations about the curiously anonymous power of storytellers, rounding out an overall focus on listening to miracles, and show how personal experience of locally-grounded, virtuous suffering lies at the heart of one family’s reverence for miracle tales. This approach heavily mines traditions in this one Pakistani family; nonetheless, by comparing performance contexts, formats, and rhetoric, I demonstrate, first, how different miracle genres provide for broad-based, “normative” as well as local Shi‘i religious identification, and, second, how miracles can communicate intimacy as well as, or instead of, awe and humility.

A Casual Recollection of the Miraculous

It is May 1997. In a cramped home in Lahore, Pakistan, Baqir Ahmad Shamsi, Nana-jan (maternal grandfather) to his family, recounts a mo‘jiza [sing.] at the behest of his grandchildren. It happens to be Muharram, the high ritual season for Shi‘ahs, but it is early—day three—in the main ten-day sequence of mourning assemblies and processions. Household life still moves at a relatively relaxed pace, but anticipates the emotional charge that will heighten after the fifth of Muharram. Nana, who lives in turns with his various offspring around Lahore, has a penchant for staying here, in the Shi‘i part of Rang Mahal in the old city, during Muharram’s mourning observances. The accommodation is not luxurious—he has to negotiate his way through the inner lanes and up a set of narrow stairs—but for him, the two-room flat is warm and welcoming. It also safely houses his widowed daughter and three grandchildren above a courtyard, away from prying eyes.

Muharram or not, whenever Nana visits this decrepit building, the younger generation pump him for his recollections of mo‘jizat. He is the “go-to” source for stories in general, sometimes for ritual kahanis, as well as for informal reports of mo‘jizat, such as today’s.3 Rahat, Nana’s daughter, despite the many personal misfortunes she has suffered, is a jolly, rotund, middle-aged lady. Her own demure daughters, Sadaf and Najaf, are eighteen and thirteen years old respectively.

Nana: I remember a woman in Pindi who had cancer, mouth cancer. These people were certainly Shi‘ahs. They were very devout (Voh mānte the bahut zyāda). Her desperate family took her to an old imambargah [a Shi‘i worship hall]. Nursing her in her terminally ill state was beyond them. They bound her to an ‘alam [decorated battle standard] with rassi [ropes] and zanjir [chains]. “Show us a miracle”, they prayed: “Either cure her or let her go. We can’t stand to watch this suffering anymore“. And they left her.

Night fell. The place had very, very, very high walls. A rider jumped over the wall, the horse’s hooves sank deeply in the dirt because it landed with such impact.

Rahat: The rider loosed her bonds.

Sadaf: (exclaiming) NO! the rassis ripped by themselves.

Nana: The rider said, “now you’re OK”.

Sadaf: NO! There was no conversation… and the bonds fell apart themselves.

Nana: They came and found her in the morning. She had been cured… and the marks of the horse’s hooves were there. She explained it to them: that a rider on horseback had come, jumped the wall, the bonds fell away. That spot is still there. They put a plate of glass above the spot,… the hoofprint.

Then, on the strength of that incident (us kī dekhā-dekhī) they tied a paralyzed man there.

The same thing happened to him, a miracle. He was also cured. People go there.

Sadaf: People SAW it, too! He also explained what happened, exactly: that a rider on horseback had come, jumped the wall, the bonds fell away.

Rahat: We don’t remember the name of the imambargah, but my younger sister Tahsin heard about the incident from someone who had been there. She [Tahsin] said to me, “You also go there, baji, you make ziyarat, you pray”, but then… in the meantime, the girls’ Abbu [their father, Rahat’s husband] died.

Sadaf: The next day!

Rahat: Yes, she said to me, “you go there also”. But then I couldn’t. Because her [Sadaf’s] Abbu used to take me everyplace.

The motifs that link this Pakistani account with the Karbala narrative (which we will review shortly) are potent: an ‘alam that represents the fighting ferocity and steadfastness of the Karbala martyrs; a horse and rider recalling Husain and his magnificent horse Zuljinah; a hoofprint like the prints and horseshoes revered as relics in many Shi‘i shrines; and finally, the bonds and chains that recall the fate of the widowed women captives of Karbala, and how they rose above that fate.4

Shi‘ahs associate the ‘alam with Husain’s brother ‘Abbas, his army’s standard-bearer, in particular. They make offerings during Muharram and on occasions of need to household ‘alams, hoping that Abbas, with his dual reputation for fierce power and healing, will intervene on behalf of the ailing. This family’s interaction around the ‘alam story generates excitement and an aftermath of resigned regret, a sense that the missed opportunity to make a pilgrimage (ziyarat) to the ‘alam and the hoofprint clouds the death of the girls’ father.

Here, as with other “casual” mo‘jizat, the younger generation perform the essential role of “huñ kār”. That is, they encourage the unfurling story with murmurings of assent and appreciation.5 They also go further, prompting their feeble grandfather, sometimes filling in gaps, even disputing details, when his voice or his memory fails. Ritual niyaz kahanis provide little room for such negotiating of authenticity. Those recited ritual stories, with their formal trappings—namely food offerings (niyaz) in the name of the Prophet’s family and published pamphlet texts—have received something of their due in scholarly literature as an important anchor for Shi‘i women’s religiosity. Their relationship to casual mo‘jizat, though, including, for example, their standardisation relative to accounts such as Nana-jan’s, has received little attention.

The two entrenched forms of mo‘jizat point up how Shi‘i communities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today manifest their devoted remembrance of Karbala and the ahl-e bait (family of the Prophet), not only in a wide array of highly choreographed Muharram mourning rites, but in more versatile, personal recollections. In the frequent instances where Sunni Muslims and Hindus join in the more public dimensions of Shi‘i Muharram commemorations (reciting laments, for example, or carrying tomb replicas in procession), the manifold layers of symbolism that Shi‘as access, their magnified sense of intimacy with imams and martyrs, and their attunement to miracles, may mark their special connection to Karbala even as they welcome broader participation. Frank Korom has carefully analyzed such layers of reception as far afield as the Caribbean in his work on the polyphonic Muharram (Hosay) commemorations of Trinidad, which have roots in Iran and India.6

At the Heart of all Tales

The kernel narrative of the murder of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet, on the plains of Karbala in 680 CE is the touchstone for Shi‘ism’s defining rites as well as popular miracle tales. A skirmish in the desert between Husain’s little band of supporters and the forces of the Muslim Caliph of the day, the Ummayad Yazid, is historically attested, but the lingering, poignant details of each martyr’s suffering are accretions that have developed, ramified, and varied over the centuries and with the geographical spread of Shi‘i devotion. According to both historical sources and Shi‘i religious tradition, Imam Husain’s entire family suffered bitterly, besieged without food or water, at the hands of Yazid’s henchmen because Husain refused to take an oath of fealty to the corrupt Yazid.

The Husain-Yazid conflict, in the Shi‘i view, is far more than a battle over temporal power; it is the culmination of a timeless struggle between Husainiyat, “Husain-ness”, all that is good and virtuous, and Yazidiyat, the world’s evil counter-force. Its historical dimensions harken back to the early days of Islam when factions of Muslims supported either the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, or the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, ‘Ali, as leader after the Prophet’s demise in 13 AH/632 CE. The actual emergence of Shi‘i and Sunni sects was a gradual process, during which followers of various descendants of ‘Ali and the Prophet’s daughter Fatima also branched off from the main group of partisans of ‘Ali (Shi‘as). Some of these groups (Isma‘ilis, Bohras, etc.) maintain distinct identities today, while others have been re-aggregated into majority “Twelver Shi‘ism”, so called because of its lineage of twelve imams.7 A rudimentary distinction between Shi‘as and Sunnis lies in Sunnis’ respect for Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uman as the first three Caliphs (Ali attained power as the fourth Caliph only later), and Shi‘i belief that ‘Ali, the first imam, and his descendants through the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, are the legitimate and divinely-guided successors to the Prophet. ‘Ali, the Shi‘as feel, should have been appointed leader of the Muslims after the Prophet’s death; he and his blood are seen as having been denied their rightful role by the three Caliphs and their supporters.

After what many Sunnis term the “golden age” of the three Caliphs, Mu‘awiya, an erstwhile governor, assumed the Caliphate. ‘Ali and his son Hasan were both deposed and murdered. Yazid, reputedly a drunken reprobate, came to power upon his father Mu‘awiya’s death in 60 AH/680 CE. The political and spiritual conflict between Hasan’s brother Husain and Yazid eventually came to a head at desolate Karbala, where Yazid’s enormous army ultimately massacred Husain as he travelled to Kufa to meet with supporters. After Husain’s enemies beheaded him as he bowed in prayer, the general Ibn Sa‘d paraded the women of the imam’s household, unveiled, to Damascus. Shi‘as have for centuries related the whole Karbala story in minute detail; their renderings encompass both the majesty and the human frailty of Husain as he fought tirelessly in the face of certain defeat, willingly sacrificed his life, and witnessed the painful persecution of every member of his family.

The dozens of Karbala sub-plots elaborated in prose and poetry during annual commemorations of Muharram fall into several categories of attested “authenticity”. Careful historians would omit from their accounts a number of occurrences otherwise almost universally deemed central to the Karbala tragedy, such as Husain’s death at the hands of Shimr. The earliest historical accounts attribute the deathblow to another man, but even the most informed of South Asian preachers usually name Shimr as Husain’s murderer.8 The veracity and details of other episodes, such as that of Husain’s son Akbar’s death, are disputed by a larger number of commentators, including some Shi‘i clerics who accept as strictly true only the skeletal outlines of the Karbala story sketched above.9 A third class of scenarios is fully embraced in popular piety, although many people realise that certain of the incidents are not historically attested; Husain’s nephew Qasim’s battlefield wedding perhaps stands as the best example.10 Miracle tales of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, then, emerge from a fertile historical ground of frame narrative and emotive embellishment. Poetic juxtapositions such as weddings and deaths; deserts blossoming with roses in the imam’s blessed presence; noble, sacred figures in shabby guises—all radiate from the core of Karbala. The transcendent power of devotion to Allah and family manifests itself locally at Lahori shrines, the deathbeds of the Lakhnavi devout, and in household rituals throughout the subcontinent.

The Reliability of Miracles:
“Formal” and “Casual” Mo‘jizat

Narrative is central to popular Shi‘ism in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, whether in the form of mo‘jizat kahanis, or the far better-known, highly participatory majlis (“assembly”) commemorations detailing the martyrdom and virtues of the Shi‘i imams, especially Imam Husain. Faithful suffering, devoted remembrance of the imams and the martyrs of Karbala, and subsequent miraculous rewards in some sense offer “proof” of the imam’s supernatural powers. For impoverished families like Rahat’s, though, miracle tales yield as much in the way of sustenance in the course of everyday travails as in the form of supernatural intervention. Sadaf, Rahat’s daughter, asserted that in her family and Sayyid community, encounters with revered personages of the Prophet’s family—which she labels mo‘jizat—happen all around, all the time. “They help us, they help us a lot”, she said simply. In her family’s case, this help often seems to take the form of an affirmation of elect Shi‘i identity and/or Sayyid lineage (descent from the Prophet) and status. While Sadaf imbibes majlis sermons and energetically compiles notebooks full of dirges—which she recites in movingly clear, mellifluous tones—these choreographed activities don’t soothe her family’s particular social stresses as readily as loosely scripted miracle testimonies in a domestic context do.

One way that mo‘jizat fit into a wider framework of expressive traditions is as sub-components of mourning assembly sermons.11 Preachers often cite, for example, inscriptions of the name ‘Ali in the features of especially reverent individuals or in cosmological form in the skies or the moon. Yet in contrast to rhetorically variegated Shi‘i sermons, with their self-conscious drama, hectoring, and emotional extravagance, domestic miracle stories consistently privilege accessibility instead of esotericism, listeners rather than individual narrative “specialists”, and affective emphasis on intimacy and encounter with the sacred rather than wonder and distance from it. Casual and formal/ritual miracle tales, furthermore, potentially align with more generally manifested intersubjective categories of interiority and exteriority. Here I am thinking of the private/public dyads of akam and puram in Tamil poetry, batin and zahir in sufi and Shi‘i discourse, and so on. It would be a stretch to posit very strong parallels between these “classical” conceptual frameworks and mo‘jizat kahanis in their various settings, but there are some compelling resonances, as we shall see.

Formal miracle narratives, often the centrepieces of rituals of petition, have an impact beyond ritual spaces in part through the tangible blessings—medical cures or financial assistance—that they procure. They also influence other tale-telling, however. Their morphology and that of the less fixed casual miracle kahanis or vaqe‘as (incident, anecdotes) often appear mutually constitutive. For example, in a miracle recounted below by Nana-jan, a person known to Nana emerges from a visionary experience with real blessed food (tabarruk) in his hand, much as the woodcutter in the ritual narrative of “Ali mushkil-kusha” (see Table 4.1, below) awakens holding miraculous stones that ‘Ali presented to him during a dream-like encounter. The more casual tales like Nana’s can be told at nearly any time, usually garnering their narrative authority with claims of eyewitness testimony (even if at second-, third-, or fourth-hand).

Both the formal kahanis and casual miracle accounts reinforce distinctions between the elect and the ignorant, the dutiful and the wanton, every bit as much as they bestow blessings.12 Humble, impoverished devotees in the kahanis who trust in and obey Fatima the Prophet’s daughter, for example, usually have inherent moral potential. They may err, but then thoroughly learn their lessons through the consequences of their lapses. Haughty and arrogant characters, whatever their backgrounds, are often beyond redemption or must work harder for it. A supposed Shi‘i believer who scoffs at the power of miracles is more likely to reap punishment than a non-believer of another faith background converted by the powers of the ahl-e bait, the progeny of the Prophet.

Formal Kahanis: Popularity and Purpose

Formal miracle stories and the rituals around them may in practice be more separable than some scholarship on popular religion might lead us to believe. In the early twenty-first century, kunda niyaz offerings of food in the name of Imam Jafar-us-Sadiq (the sixth imam) on the date of 22 Rajab have sometimes been executed without even performing the associated kahani, “The Woodcutter’s Story”, even though, as Schubel points out, the story “helps to emphasise the niyaz as an act of Shi‘i piety”.13 And conversely, when we scrutinise the dynamics of stories that are told during rituals, a multitude of clues in recited and printed versions of the most popular Shi‘i miracles—including their layers of stories within framing stories and narrators constructing the speech of further narrators—stress that it is listening to a miracle story, not reading it or even telling it, and not its associated trappings, that is meritorious. Failures of piety in the stories repeatedly hinge on failing to “hear”, not “read”, or “tell” the miracles. Janāb-e Sayyida”, which acclaims Fatima Zahra, the Prophet’s daughter, most emphatically reinforces that one cannot keep one’s side of a bargain with the ahl-e bait by simply reading the story (to) oneself. Below I provide a basic schematic overview (based on recorded performances, pamphlet versions of the stories, and secondary literature) of the most popular “ritual (formal) kahanis”. The only story I will actually summarise briefly is that of “Janāb-e Sayyida”.

Table 4.1: Formal (Niyaz) Kahanis


Date or Occasion

Dedicated to

No. of Stories in Narrative



Janāb-e Sayyida’s (or Bibi Sayyida’s) Story

In instances of need or hardship

Bibi Fatima,
Daughter of Prophet Muhammad

Frame + 2

Printed in
(Hindi and Urdu)

Urdu in Roman script

The Woodcutter’s Story

22 Rajab; date aligned variously with the
death of Caliph Usman, or death of Muawiya

Sixth Imam
Jafar-us-Sadiq, who assigned this date to the kahani

Frame + 1
(with the one inner story featuring the sixth Imam recounted several times within the larger narrative)

Printed in Karachi (Urdu, Hindi; also (Gujarati?)

Multiple Websites English; Urdu in Roman script

Das bībiyo kī kahānī (or the Story of the Ten Women

In instances of need or hardship

Maryam (Mary) Fatima Sara (wife of Ibrahim) Asiya
Hagar, and 5 women of Karbala.

Frame + 1

Printed in Karachi, Bombay (Hindi, Urdu)

No text, but many debates about whether recitation of the kahani is permissible in Islam

Story of ‘Ali, the Resolver of Difficulties

Thursday nights; occasions of need or hardship


1 (with multiple invocations of a vision of ‘Ali)

Printed in Karachi (Urdu)

On internet in English

How do these mo‘jizat narrations associated with popular rituals compare with the less-documented “casual” miracle stories? While casual kahanis are commonly exchanged, discussed, even chuckled over in ritually unmarked settings, the formal mo‘jizat above are recited in sanctified household ritual settings either on Thursdays, on specified dates such as 22 Rajab, or (especially in the case of “Das bībiyo kī kahānī and “Janāb-e Sayyida”) on personally determined occasions of pressing need for otherworldly intervention. A current educational Shi‘i website, for instance, urges:

In order to do niaz it is suggested that momin/momannen/nat [the faithful, believers] should get up early in the morning of 22 Rajab and should clean the house and purify themselves by taking Ghusal (bath/shower), put on fragrance (etar) and light agarbate [incense]/use air freshener in their home and spread a clean ‘tahir’ sheet in a clean room. One should make sure all the utensils to be used in the preparation of niaz are clean and Pak [ritually pure]. [italic glosses mine]14

The following are the main noteworthy points concerning “formal” kahanis, which are readily available in printed form: these traditions appear to be relatively recent, perhaps at most two hundred years old, but many of their components echo folkloric, fantastic elements of older North Indian tales. The petitions and pledges conjoined with these kahanis put one in mind of mannats, vows to unbind amulets or decorative bands, or to make a charitable offering, when a plea to the divine is fulfilled, and Hindu vrat kathas, narratives linked to periodic fasts in honour of one deity or another.15 Indeed, Schubel observes that, “Generally, it is the case that a favor is asked of the holy person and the intention is made to read a particular story—for instance the story of Bibi Fatima or ‘Ali mushkil-kushā—along with the distribution of sweets—when the request has been granted. Sometimes it is read beforehand, with the assumption that the vow will be fulfilled”.16

In my experience, upon hearing the most cursory description of Shi‘i miracle kahanis, even a younger, college-educated generation of practicing Hindus in India and the diaspora draw an analogy between these tales and the traditional Indic vrat kathas. Shi‘i consultants, on the contrary, professed ignorance of the genre of vrat kathas. This was true for both present-day lay preachers in India, and women who migrated to Pakistan from Lucknow, a Shi‘i stronghold with eclectic religious rituals, at Partition. Interestingly, anxieties over the Islamic legitimacy of sponsoring kahani recitations and their associated rituals (see Table 4.1 above, and also below pp. 152 and 155) permeate web debates among young South Asian Muslims, strongly implying that the practices bear the taint of Hindu influence.

Among the best-known kahanis are the kahani of “‘Alī mushkil-kushā” (‘Ali, the Remover of Difficulties), “Janāb-e Sayyida kī kahānī“, “The Woodcutter’s Story” (or “Mo‘jiza of Imam Jafar-us-Sadiq”), and “Das bībiyo kahānī“. A typical kahani amalgamates two or more brief stories related in a “once upon a time” mode, and devotes as much or more time to frame narratives, wherein a narrator instructs people to hear the story, as to the innermost tale.

In the frame story of “Janāb-e Sayyida” (a title for Fatima), the power of Husain’s mother (Fatima Zahra/Bibi Fatima/Janab-e Sayyida) revives a child after his fatal fall into a potter’s kiln. The miracle is effected when the child’s mother, who has fainted from grief, encounters in her unconscious dream state a veiled woman who tells her to recite Janab-e Sayyida’s kahani.17 With the little boy miraculously restored, his mother makes all haste to fulfill her promise, but no one else cares to listen to the story. She nonetheless has the good fortune to hear the tale via a second encounter, now in a waking state, with the veiled (niqabposh) woman. This mysterious narrator reveals the core miracles of the story set: Fatima intercedes with Allah to resurrect a Jewish bride who has been struck dead (dazzled, apparently, by Fatima’s glory) at her own wedding. This, in turn, converts dozens of Jewish onlookers to Islam. These wonders are accomplished by a humble, modest Fatima who displays exemplary obedience to her father and husband, yet exercises an authority of her own. The story’s setting, during the lifetime of the Prophet, in Medina, anchors her in a familial and historical role—in contrast to her supernatural appearance as a veiled narrator.18

The nameless woman appends to this story a folktale-like “clincher” about a princess and her friend, daughter of her father’s vazir. The two girls are lost in a storm during a royal hunt but rescued, through the intercession of Janab-e Sayyida, by a neighbouring ruler. When these aristocratic characters forget to listen in gratitude, as promised, to Janab-e Sayyida’s story (i.e. the wedding story that incorporates the Prophet, ‘Ali, the resurrected bride, and the Jews who convert to Islam) their fortunes take another, complicated turn for the worse, and they go from brides to prisoners in the blink of an eye. Once they weep themselves into an unconscious state and make contact with a veiled lady, they realise their grave error, recite the story to one another, and all is restored.

After all of this, we step back abruptly into the frame story: the mother (a goldsmith’s wife) of the first-mentioned resurrected child, pledge fulfilled, returns to her house only to see that “the houses of those who had refused to hear the story had all caught fire”. Significantly, the intervention of Bibi Fatima/Janab-e Sayyida had explicitly saved her child from burning in a kiln. The pamphlet text then closes with the darud. This formalised Arabic salutation to the family of the Prophet is to be intoned by all present, preceded by the supplication, “Pray that the purposes of all faithful believers, men and women, be fulfilled just as the purposes of the goldsmith’s wife and the two girls were fulfilled through the devotion of Muhammad and the family of Muhammad”.19

Schubel has pointed out that certain themes in Shi‘ism’s better-known martyrological narratives, detached from Muharram’s martial surroundings, are recombined in these folksy frames. The separation and death of children; mourning that opens a path to communication with the family of the Prophet; marriage celebrations that turn funereal; and imprisonment scenarios recur. In every standard kahani people are saved by the remembrance of Fatima or ‘Ali mushkil-kusha, but if they forget to hear the (core) story as promised, they fall on bitter times, even starve. Worse is the fate of those who cast aspersions on the power of the imams, ma‘sumin (Shi‘ism’s fourteen “impeccables”: the Prophet, Fatima, and the twelve imams), or the kahani itself: their children die, the touch of their hands rots food and lays everything to waste. But when the afflicted acknowledge the ma‘sumin’s miraculous powers and listen to the story, these reversals of fate are themselves reversed. The kahani insistently underlines its own efficacy by incorporating examples of the core story’s outcomes. Listeners in contemporary times then hope to attain what they seek through their own aural experiences of “Janāb-e Sayyida“. Just as A.K. Ramanujan discovered with efficacious religious tales in South India, here the story “is a program for mimetic behavior: it invites the listener to… worship… in the belief that whatever happens to a mythic character can happen to a worshipful listener”.20

Miraculous Worlds and Their Words:
Stories and Standardisation

The characters in the world of standard mo‘jizats, a world usually unmarked by earthly geopolitical signposts, resemble more those in folktales or short qissas than in the tragedy of Karbala: they are goldsmiths, woodcutters, potters, and their families.21 Curiously, the formal kahanis display fewer overt lexical gestures towards Persian genres than some more localised Karbala laments. On this level, these texts almost echo sufi romances such as the Mirigāvatī (1505), in which, Aditya Behl notes, the rarity of Persian words renders the few that appear very noticeable.22 In contrast, the dah lament, for example, references the eighteenth-century Urdu version of Kashefi’s (Persian) Rawżat al-shuhadā, even though its texts are in the Awadhi language from the region around Lucknow and are even occasionally laced with Krishna imagery. Formal kahanis illustrate a counter-trend: they feature characters similar to the kings, vazirs, and princesses so conventional in the medieval romances of the subcontinent—Urdu dastans, Hindavi kathas, or sufi masnavis—but lack direct generic links with Persian or Arabic antecedents. The formal kahanis’ stock characters would also be very much at home in secular entertainments such as Insha’allah Khan Insha’s fantastical early nineteenth-century Hindi Ranī Ketakī kī kahānī (1803). In many of these tales, as in “Janāb-e Sayyida”, two best friends, daughters of a badshah and vazir, are heroine and sidekick who face hazardous journeys away from home and family.

Whether or not these stock folktale features are emphasised, studies of Shi’ism and of vernacular Islam in general tend to strongly associate miracle tales with women’s religiosity.23 Yet, even if women on the whole have more evident investment in kahani devotions than do men, in the present day, command of a kahani repertoire appears to depend on age as well as gender. Internet forums reveal a high level of curiosity about (and often anxiety about the religious authenticity of) these wholly vernacular traditions and their murky South Asian origins on the part of young women, both Sunni and Shi‘i. Some in the diaspora as well as in India, facing the problem of Urdu script illiteracy, have created a market for kahani pamphlet and internet texts in Devanagari and Roman script. When these texts in turn pique further interest, even if they come under reformist scrutiny, it is to the oldest living generation that family members often turn to learn more about miracle kahanis. My friend Kehkashan from Karachi commented that her India-born dadi (paternal grandmother) “used to do the Das bibiyon ki kahani” in the 60s and 70s, but since she passed away the tradition has died, at least in their family. In the instances I cite below, the main teller of casual miracle tales is a maternal grandfather.

When we consider gender in relation to the content of the standardised kahanis, it is the case, as Schubel and Pinault have claimed, that female characters and their devotional agency are powerfully showcased. Yet a significant dark side bedevils this agency: one of the most consistently punished characters in the kahani is the proud, imperious woman (maghrur aurat). In “Das bībiyo kī kahānī”, it is the proud woman’s husband who realises that the couple have forfeited house, sustenance, and children because of her arrogant dismissal of the auspicious kahani. It is he who makes laddu sweets out of sand to offer in the imam’s name as they finally compensate for her horrific lapse by hearing the story.

Ritual kahanis also contain linguistic features which studies to date have not analyzed attentively. Among the most notable are the particular uses of the verbs “sunnā” and “paṛhnā”. Parhna (to study, or read, or recite aloud) is here the less important word. This is so even though the term readily conveys the niyaz kahanis’ modes of transmission: the stories are both recited (occasionally without a book) and read in family settings, with parhna referring to both acts. In practice, the widespread use of pamphlet literature, available for about five rupees in either Urdu or Devanagari (not to mention internet sources), has tended to produce fairly standardised recitations of the ritual kahanis.24 The pamphlets sometimes contain guidelines for the appropriate preparation of a niyaz kahani’s ritual setting or for prefatory prayers, but no instructions regarding the reading of the kahani. My observations suggest that recitations range from a droning, monotone reading of the text to a consciously performative style, entertaining, if somewhat subdued. Devotees also render poetry—quatrains, couplets, and longer marsiya laments—in chanting, melodic, or declamatory styles, but the printed text would seldom reveal what form any given performance might take. The prominent point in the miracle narratives is that their protagonists are always and repeatedly told to “listen to” or “hear” the story or “have it heard”, not to parhna it or parhvana it [arrange for it to be read]. The kahani reciter is invariably either obscured or anonymous.

In surveying four written and four performed versions of “Janāb-e Sayyida” (see summary above), one finds few differences in diction or plotline. One of the rare variations is that one pamphlet printed in Bombay presents more of Janab-e Sayyida’s/Fatima’s words in direct speech, or constructed dialogue, as opposed to summarising or writing about what she says, than other versions.25 A Bombay Devanagari version of “Das bībiyo kī kahānī”, sold widely in Lucknow, meanwhile, uses virtually the same lexicon as a Pakistani Urdu version, but startlingly glosses in Hindi common Urdu words such as maghrur (ghamandi, proud), and muflis (gharib, poor), and even khwab (sapna, dream) and shauhar (pati, husband) (Das bībiyo, [n.d.]). Most of my consultants would likely argue that the audience targeted here is their community’s Hindi-knowing, Urdu-illiterate, younger generation.

Everyday Miracles, Everyday Stories

Ideal prerequisites for hearing formal kahanis today include a gathering of at least a few people—most often the extended family—personal purification, a clean and perfumed ritual setting, sweets, snacks, or a meal (the niyaz) to be distributed at the end of the kahani, and final formulaic prayers.26 More “casual” miracle stories range all the way from relaxed iterations of formal mo’jizat kahanis to brief anecdotes that fall under the rubric of “weird things that happened to people I know”. These anecdotes can be told by nearly anyone. Whereas non-Shi‘as may occasionally participate in niyazes, or even recite/read the formal mo‘jizat kahanis, they would generally have limited access to these largely unwritten, raw anecdotes. Casual kahanis may gesture towards local religious shrines or sites such as Karbala—the axes of Shi‘i sacred geography—in contradistinction to the folktale neverland of much of the formal kahani tradition. They generally share with ritually-framed mo‘jizat kahanis the tropes of an encounter with the immediate family of the Prophet or the Karbala martyrs in a dream state, of steadfast Shi‘i devotion and remembrance, and punishment of those who fail to recognise the powers of the ahl-e bait. These narratives, again, are explicitly labelled “mo‘jizat”.

In the course of my ethnographic work, dozens of people in India and Pakistan proffered these accounts, the topics of which ranged from Saddam Hussein’s failed attempts during his rule to block geysers of blood that spurted from the ground of Karbala, to the mysterious fevers that befall those who fail to feed starving Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet). The narratives also extended to more general Islamic stories of the miraculous, such as that of a virtuous child who died as a result of his insistence on fasting during Ramzan, but was raised from the dead. Many of the stories have the rough-edged ring of half-remembered family history, while others turn out to have been recast from religious cassettes or the authoritative words of a maulvi or zakir in a mourning assembly sermon. In comparison to the majlis context—as demonstrated in our initial tale of how the holy ‘alam channeled a cancer cure—casual miracle tellings draw out local evidential discourse and opportunities for substantive, even collaborative, interaction between teller and audience, whatever the story source.

The modes of storytelling evoke the flavours of jokes, fables, family reminiscences, or yarns, rather than hard-edged instruction delivered by formally qualified religious experts. Nonetheless, the consensus that the substance of the stories are “true” strongly underlies the use of the term mo‘jizat, which is more insistent here than in the case of the niyaz (formal) kahanis. That said, Rahat and Nana’s family, along with virtually all of my consultants, incorporate all of the ritual and casual anecdotes we have encountered into the mo‘jizat category. While they did also employ the word kahani, especially for the more standardised niyaz narratives, family members such as Sadaf showed an explicit preference for the term “mo‘jiza” or the clarification “true story”, lest the label kahani be misconstrued as a fictional incident (personal communication, 1997). Scholarly texts and dictionaries, meanwhile, often underline the distinctions in Islam between mo‘jizat, “miracles performed by prophets and intended to be public”, and karamat, “those performed by saints and intended to be secret or private”.27 These categories, Flueckiger asserts, may “analytically help us to understand the dynamics and potential controversy”—including the anxieties expressed over the internet about Shi‘i kahanis—“of miracles in practice”. She also concurs, however, with my findings that “in contemporary vernacular practice”, Shi‘i “mujizat are performed by the twelve imams” as well as the Prophet, and that “the distinction between mujizat and karamat is often not maintained”.28

In the interests of illustrating something of the range of narratives within a familial repertoire, I have chosen short informal stories told in one Lahore household. The main narrator is the late Sayyid Baqir Ahmed Shamsi (“Nana-jan” to all of us in the storytelling setting) of Lahore, who was a very young man at the time of Partition. Over a year or more, his family shared at least twenty of these stories in Urdu, with some parenthetical Panjabi commentary. By their own description, they were relating mo‘jizat, though occasionally one of the girls would request a miracle story only to be told that it was an inappropriately “sada vaqe‘a” (plain, ordinary incident or anecdote). Sada vaqe‘as might dramatise mysterious illnesses and divine punishments, but lacked the transformative dream state, or visions of the imams or Fatima. All of Nana’s miraculous or mysterious incidents, however, referenced an eyewitness, either by name or kinship status. Thus, conversations around the mo‘jizat mark for the younger generation, as well as for the researcher, what does and does not constitute a miracle: it cannot be utterly mundane, it cannot be fictitious; it should have witnesses and include the appearance of the Prophet’s family members or evidence of their intervention.

Here is a story Nana-jan tells about two great classical Urdu elegists (marsiya-go) of Lucknow, India, who are still renowned among Urdu speakers today: Mir Babar Ali Anis (1802-1874) and Salamat ‘Ali Dabir (1803-1875).

This was the way of it: Anis and Dabir used to compete. Consequently, two parties were formed, and there was always a fight going on. In order to end the fight, two elders said, “You [each] write a marsiya, a ‘top’ marsiya”. [Having written them] they sealed those up, and took them off to Hazrat ‘Ali’s tomb in Najaf. There they submitted this prayer: “Maulah, place your seal (mohur) on whichever is the best marsiyah”. That night the imam came in a dream to those who had gone there [to Najaf], and to the ones in Lucknow, too, and said, “Anis, yours is better, but you’re a Sayyid, so I won’t stamp [yours with] my seal, or Dabir will say, ‘Oh, he’s a Sayyid [i.e. a “relative”of the imams], so that’s why he applied his seal…’” He applied it to Dabir’s. Anis’s was the better marsiya, though; he [the imam] came in a dream and said it!

Commenting on this miraculous vaqe‘a of her father’s, Rahat somewhat exasperatedly spelled out to me something that was fundamental to her: that miracles and their tellings function differently, and offer different messages, for different people.

It should be clear to you why Hazrat ‘Ali [cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet] would miraculously appear and affix his seal of approval to a work by the poet Dabir instead of to Anis’s better elegy. Anis was a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet, like us. We must have faith in ‘Ali no matter what. Whether our prayers are answered or not, whether we are provided with comforts or not—we believe. The reason they appear and show miracles to others is so that they will believe in the imams. We people continue praying, continue our weeping for Imam Husain, continue beating ourselves; if our prayers are accepted, very well, and if not, that’s the way it is. Nevertheless, it is our heritage to do so. But in the case of those people who don’t believe, Sunnis, if they see a miracle and are convinced by it, their prayers are instantly answered. I’ve witnessed this many times myself.

The story itself turns on a Sayyid/non-Sayyid distinction between the nineteenth-century Shi‘i poets, one an elect descendent of the Prophet, the other a “common” individual. Rahat, however, casually extends the category of “others” who are shown miracles to “people who don’t believe, Sunnis”. This reflected the social situation in much of Pakistan at the time, when tensions between the two sects were high.

Whereas the dubious require “proof”, Rahat suggests, pious Sayyids take interaction with revered, transhistorical figures in stride. Here, Hazrat ‘Ali, addressing the poet Anis, assumes a familial understanding, an attitude that almost implies “you can see what I’m up against, my boy”. Nana’s authoritative but friendly, confidential manner as tale-teller somewhat parallels ‘Ali’s stance. His little story features the dream vision that marks the more formal kahanis, but unlike most of those kahanis, makes geographical allusions to cultural and religious centres. And, finally, it provides an interesting case of what is at least presented as an oral tradition arbitering the quality of canonical Urdu poems.

A more personalised anecdote also involves these two great poets, and is attributed by Nana-jan to a contemporary of his who was a poet and the grandson of a poet, one Zulfiqar ‘Ali. Nana became acquainted with the grandson after he heard his virtuoso performance of a marsiya.

Syed Zulfiqar ‘Ali went on ziyarat [pilgrimage] to Karbala. On the way, he met a buzurg [an elder] who helped him find his way there. After staying there six years, one night he was woken up by a voice in the middle of the night telling him to go to attend a mourning assembly. He was baffled, not sure if he was awake or dreaming, but agreed to go.

Two black-clad men were there. A disembodied voice called out, “Is Anis there?”

One of the men stood up.

“OK”, he was instructed, “recite a marsiya about Hazrat Abbas [Imam Husain’s half-brother, the army standard bearer]”. He recited it and sat down.

“OK”, came the voice, “I’ve heard it. Now is Mirza Dabir there?”

Dabir stood up and recited a marsiya about Akbar.

Zulfiqar ‘Ali heard the marsiyas, wept, and sorrowfully beat himself. Then, still not knowing if he was conscious or asleep, he took the tabarruk (the food distributed at the end of a mourning assembly), and departed.

In the morning he woke up to find the tabarruk was in his hand.

At this point Nana-jan’s granddaughter Sadaf proclaimed, most emphatically and sincerely, “This is a miracle!”

Rather than developing narrative tension between the poets, this anecdote renders them both as stereotypically garbed guides on the path to faith. Like the anonymous elder who helps Zulfiqar ‘Ali or the seemingly undistinguished veiled women of the niyaz kahanis, these characters are flat, minimally described. Like them, Anis and Dabir turn out to mediate transformative powers, but in their case their role hinges on their local, historic cultural credibility. Nana-jan is invoking Karbala as the ultimate sacred space, yet suggests that the great elegists and mourning practices of the subcontinent have extraordinary leverage even in the Shi‘i heartland, even for a man who goes to Iraq in hopes of bettering his religious knowledge. As in the niyaz kahanis, it is explicitly stated that Zulfiqar ‘Ali (attentively) heard or listened to the poems, not just that the poets recited them. As in the formal kahani of ‘Ali mushkil-kusha, when the main character emerges from his dream-like encounter, the words he has heard have virtually been distilled into tangible blessed objects.

Nana-jan’s account is rich in allusions to Karbala figures: Husain is tacitly, automatically evoked by the site itself; two of Karbala’s most prominent heroes, Akbar and Abbas, “star” in marsiya poems; and Zulfiqar ‘Ali’s very name conjures ‘Ali’s sword Zulfiqar, used by Husain in battle. Nonetheless, miracles in Karbala or Najaf serve more to consolidate the barkat and cultural richness of South Asian Shi‘ism than to confer a hierarchical stamp of authority on them from the heartland.

Zulfiqar ‘Ali was also the source of a second, more piquant, story centred on another pious man who paid special reverence to the site of Imam Husain’s martyrdom:

There was a buzurg who lived at a place a few miles from Karbala who would go there every Thursday after ablutions. He would perform namaz and spend the night there, and come back the next day.

One time, he met a daku [bandit] on the way to the imambargah:

“Give me your money”.

“I don’t have any money”.

“No money! Well then take off your clothes and give them to me”.

“Are you out of your mind? I’m going to the imam’s darbar [shrine, or “court”]. Where am I going to get anything else to wear?!”

In short, he had no choice but to take off his clothes and give them to the brute.

So he went back home, changed, set off again for the imambargah. He got up to leave the next morning, but realised he had forgotten to make a complaint to the imam. He sat down again and registered his grievance with the imam: “Listen to the kind of treatment I’ve been subjected to…!”

He bemoaned his state, “What sin could I have committed to merit such treatment?”

The imam appeared, but immediately disappeared. The man got even more upset:

“Now you appear, but you came only to disappear in an instant?!”

He moaned and grieved some more.

The imam reappeared and said, “What d’you want me to do? Kill the daku? I can’t. I’m obliged to him. (Un kā ahsān hai mujh par.) I can’t say anything to him”.

The man was stunned, and determined to search for this mysterious daku.

He finally located him in a godforsaken wilderness, and asked him, “You’re a daku, why should the imam be obliged to you?”

The daku replied, “Remember when I made you remove all of your clothes, and you had to go back and change?”


“And you didn’t call on the imam until later . . . ?”


“Well, I’m a thief, and one time I looted a huge caravan, and came away with more than my share of goods. I had to run and hide with all my swag, but then couldn’t find water anywhere. I searched and searched, and was about to die of thirst, when I remembered Imam Husain and addressed him saying, “Oh, Maula, it’s you who could withstand unbearable thirst; ordinary humans can’t do so. Please help me”.

And the imam had to acknowledge and help the daku, because in his hour of need he beseeched him so devoutly.

And so the daku says, “Yet you, a devotee, did not remember, until much after the fact”.

There is no way the imam could punish the daku, he was obliged to him for his devotion.

“You should have called on the imam in your hour of need”.

The theme of devotion outweighing criminal sins, of course, pervades ancient Indic texts, medieval devotional poems, and contemporary Hindi folktales.29 Combined with it here, we have the discernibly Shi‘i tropes of agonising thirst, Husain’s own suffering, and the critical, continual necessity of remembering the imams and their power. The daku’s emotional reliance on Imam Husain is total and immediate; he really shares Husain’s experiences of liminality and thirst. This combination trumps not only the elder’s social stature and regard for appearances, but his conventional piety and adherence to ritual as well. Consigned to the wilderness, the daku attains a bond with Husain that eludes the elder who already lives near sacred Karbala, and strives so desperately to get physically closer. This tale, too, tacitly validates the devotion of sincere Shi‘as outside of the heartland, who are likely to “experience” Karbala only locally, through mimetic relics, laments, orators’ evocations, and seasonal austerities. Dozens more casual mo‘jizat repeat this theme of re-creating Karbala wherever one is; the replication may serve anyone separated from Husain by time and space, and has special salience for those women who perform their devotions at home rather than even venturing out to a local imambargah.

A final story of Nana-jan’s is poignantly situated in a time “when there was no Pakistan”:

Before Partition, there was a Hindu devotee of Husain who regularly took Husain’s darshan [the beholding of an auspicious deity, personage, or object]. The day for darshan came, he wanted to offer a niyaz for Husain. But the man’s daughter was being continually hassled by the boy next door all the time. So they didn’t take her from the safety of the house and go for worship (‘ibadat) during the day, but when it was almost evening they were afraid the day would pass without observing the niyaz.

The husband said to his wife, “We have to go for Husain’s niyaz”. The couple cleaned the house, locked the door and went, just the two of them.

The boy came and jumped over the gate and was about to assault the girl. “Who will save you now?!” he taunted.

“Guru Husain”, she replied.

Suddenly a horse bearing a fearsome headless rider launched itself over the wall into the courtyard. The rider said, to the girl, “Get out of here! See, the lock’s disappeared. I’m Guru Husain and I’m going to kill this wretch. Tell them that it is me, Guru Husain, who killed him”.

And he killed him. And he disappeared.

Universal Loyalties Converge
with “Local” Needs and Comforts

It is hard not to read Guru Husain and this rather raw depiction of miraculous communal boundary-crossing amidst high walls, locks, vacated homes, and assaults on the honour of women as a tortured kind of reflection on Partition itself. It’s even harder to imagine members of a Pakistani generation that hasn’t lived through Partition adopting with ease the Hindu-inflected vocabulary of darshan and guru that Nana-jan summons so readily. In pointed contrast to “Janāb-e Sayyida”’s and his own daughter’s emphasis on miracles that testify to or convert non-Shi‘as, in this pre-Partition story world, it is the dramatic form the Hindus’ reward takes that is miraculous; their unwavering devotion is underlined, but seemingly unremarkable.

The time around the 1947 Partition (referred to at least once in my hearing in Pakistan as “the time before India was made”) often has a mythic quality in contemporary oral genres. As it happens, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that the formalisation and popularisation of niyaz kahanis burgeoned in the decades just after Partition. A woman who migrated with her family from India to Pakistan as a tiny child in 1947, for example, recollects how mo‘jizat kahanis entered her awareness:

I am very familiar with Bibi Syeda ki kahani and it is a big favourite in our family when there is a difficult situation. But interestingly, I did not grow up knowing it. I did not know about it till I was almost 20 [which would be in the mid 1960s] and no one in our family knew it or read it till then. All of a sudden it was in vogue. Before this, my bari Phuphi (older aunt) used to use beri fruits for mannats, which was also Bibi Syeda ki niyaz, but without the kahani. I have been completely unfamiliar with Das bibiyon ki kahani all my life, but some cousins just told me in detail the whole special niyaz procedure involved in ten bibis’ kahani. (pers. comm. 2009)

The survival narratives implied in both niyaz kahanis and casual mo‘jizat echo the desperate victories of the bereaved women at Karbala who kept alive Husain’s memory. More immediately, they reinforce a Shi‘i identity across fraught national borders, and the resilience of the faith community to endure, whether as a minority in an Islamic Republic or a minority within a minority in India. Finally, the folksy motifs and feel of these mo‘jizat, especially those like the “criminal devotee” story, also clearly testify to Shi‘ism’s thorough immersion in broader South Asian expressive traditions and to the inter-religious appeal of such stories.

Shi‘ism’s philosophical impulses, broadly speaking, towards relaying and interpreting miraculous messages at differential levels, for the esoterically initiated versus the simple devotee, are well documented.30 The idea of overt lessons for the general population and hidden messages accessible only to the elect, in fact, pervades Shi‘i expressive culture in many forms: conceptions of the “true”, hidden Qur’an; of knowledge held by imams that would endanger ordinary people, of zahiri (apparent) and batini (hidden, inner) forms; and of saints’ imitable, human qualities versus their transcendent ones.31 The community’s minority status tends to promote this stress on multiple audiences and multivalent messages in the kahani context as well. Related assumptions underlie Nana-jan’s daughter Rahat’s explanation that the imam’s seal, the outward sign, offers proof of a miraculous occurrence for “ordinary” people, but is more profoundly emblematic, for Sayyids, of their direct, inner relationship with the imam. In more general and often implicit ways, instances of miracles the world over elicit socially or spiritually particular responses to the same event. Corinne Dempsey, for example, observes that for an “insider” audience of Hindu devotees at a Sri Vidya temple in New York State “[…] seemingly supernatural experiences are not only desirable, but are fully anticipated, and, as such, are not necessarily miraculous. […] In the end, one person’s miracle will be another’s explicable, routine experience”.32 In the Shi‘i domestic context, even given the potency attributed to “hearing” and “listening”, a mo‘jiza is in some sense some “person’s miracle”, because it is the teller who determines that this event is indeed a mo‘jiza.

Tellers of Tales

While much of this essay foregrounds the attitudes of miracle kahani consumers, the figure of the kahani reciter, whether a contemporary narrator or a narrator depicted in the kahani, enjoys a significant, unusual, and fruitful mutability. In the case of casual miracle anecdotes, the status, age, or personal history of a narrator have some capacity to enhance or situate a story. Nana-jan could almost always attribute his story to a named, local person or a relative. Even if this information—for example, that the “original” narrator was Nana-jan’s uncle, or a poet—was not a crucial part of the prefatory material of a kahani, it lent the anecdote’s formulaic content a local sheen and a sense of direct connection to a particular family audience. Along with this superficial temporal or geographical anchoring, Nana’s kahanis often hinged on hierarchical relationships (Sayyid versus non-Sayyid; pious man versus bandit) even if they sometimes appeared to subvert them. They also emphasised, through the appearance of the imams and the ma‘sumin, the interpenetration of the miraculous and workaday worlds.

Another family authority, who presides over a large clan in Lucknow, is Sofia Apa. Apa, who has blithely preached to packed imambargahs about the miraculous through decades of Muharrams, was visibly moved, almost overwhelmed, as she recounted, in an intimate household setting, Fatima Zahra’s visitation to the deathbed of her mother-in-law. Sofia Apa witnessed the dying woman suddenly opening her eyes wide, addressing reverential greetings to the Prophet’s daughter by name, and bowing from the waist three times before collapsing into final unconsciousness. Although Sofia did not herself “see” the figure of Fatima Zahra, the holy woman’s presence and her interaction with the old lady were palpable. As Sofia gave her unsolicited account of the incident, emotion and quiet conviction suffused her face and voice, a vast departure from the rhetoric and drama she deploys to tell the miracle stories embedded in her Muharram sermons.

Ritual mo‘jizat kahanis, by comparison, both privilege receptiveness (if not critical “evaluation”) through listening, and efface narrators more thoroughly. Listening and the devotion of the listener are front and centre. The prevalence of “sunna”, restricted use of the terms parhna or parhvana, and the mysterious veiled narrator widely portrayed in pamphlet texts render the tale-teller in the ritual kahani tradition anonymous. And truly, with cheap, simplified texts, almost anyone can read/recite such kahanis; in a way, that is the whole idea.

One enduring social lesson this approach to narration imparts is that the teller of a kahani may be a generic anywoman, but such an anonymous, undistinguished person can reveal miracles to the receptive. And there is always the probability, in the niyaz kahanis, that the faceless narrator reporting the utterances of the holy ones is ‘Ali mushkil-kusha or the niqabposh daughter of the Prophet, Janab-e Sayyida herself. This disguised, “mysterious” performer epitomises motifs of maskings, un-maskings, and reversals of power that run through Shi‘i lore. Through miracle narratives, those with limited formal religious or general education can, in daily life, purvey some of the same lessons and values imparted in more learned language by highly compensated, erudite male and female preachers.

“Whether our prayers are answered or not…”: Tales that Testify, Stories that Sustain

Through the reciter’s versatile, formulaic voice, the narration of even spectacular, transformative miracles can acquire a certain “everydayness”. The devout encounter the generic narrator’s hidden powers or cloaked identities in a context of narrative predictability, intimacy, proximity, and shared emotional experiences. In the informality of a household setting, the mo‘jizat proffer some of the same moral values and narrative interest that similar miracle tales display in sermons, but without the hortatory frame of the ritual majlis. Another thing the ritual kahanis provide is a forum for petition to the family of the Prophet and hope for intercession that will effect medical cures, respite from hard times, or passing grades in exams.

For devout South Asian Shi‘as, then, miracle narratives sometimes inspire awe, but more importantly, they often relay a powerful utility and intimacy. The Urdu narratives referenced in this essay affirm the efficacy of simple, stylised devotional language, and cultivate proximity with Shi‘i holy figures, namely the family of the Prophet and the martyrs of Karbala. The basic parameters of miracle narration suggest that some miracles prove, convince, or testify. In such cases, the contact miracles offer with the sacred, whether helpful or harmful, is likely to be at least somewhat surprising and transformative. The miracles within the niyaz kahanis often dramatically impress non-Shi‘i characters, even as they also carry more subtle resonance for practicing Shi‘as. Generally, we may say that testimonial miracles often but not always overlap with “public” miracles. Shi‘i processions featuring spectacular tomb replicas and choreographed self-flagellation, for example, can become a context for contemporary miraculous encounters (bleeding rosaries, healings, possession) in spaces that include “outsiders” or non-believers.

Shi‘i ritual miracle stories, however, generally “do not face out into the larger community of Islam. They are meant to reinforce certain attitudes and ideas within the community”.33 Flueckiger, analyzing narratives about sufi Muslim pirs in Hyderabad, India similarly asserts that “narrativizing the pir’s miracles helps both to build the pir-disciple relationship and relationships between disciples”.34 Yet something else is also transpiring in the charged atmosphere that surrounds Nana-jan in Rang Mahal. Nana’s vaqe‘as do not construct a circle of adepts or initiates, nor do they underline, as many Shi‘i sermons do, the link between esoteric knowledge and the mysterious powers of the revered members of the Prophet’s family. Nana’s family readily accept those powers, and, in doing so, suggest that there are miracles that consistently sustain believers. These tend to be anticipated, comforting, even familiar, rather than amazing or surprising.

These complementary patterns demonstrate not only different locii on a spectrum of “signs and wonders”, but that people may individually tailor their modes of revealing, telling, and hearing miracles.35 This localising, comforting character manifests itself in devotional Islam in many parts of the world. In Tajikistan, Central Asia, for example, women of conviction share, in conversation and through the internet, the miracle (mu‘jiza) of forty devout Sunni Muslim girls who were turned to stone when non-Muslim men tried to assault them during the recent civil war (1992-1997).36 This story apparently reconfigures a motif known as the wonder of “chahel (or chīl) dukhtarān”, associated with sites in both Afghanistan and Iran, and alluding to forty virgins in ancient times who “were miraculously taken into the earth to escape Zoroastrian armies”.37 No distinctively Shi‘i motifs at all figure in this narrative, but the centrality of purity and faith (especially on the part of women) in traumatic local circumstances echo the mo‘jizat set during Partition or during Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. The mu‘jiza reinforces the values of chastity and sacrifice among the women so profoundly moved by this story, while some eerily-shaped stones outside of Dushanbe are supposed to testify to others about the event.

In the South Asian Shi‘i milieu, mo‘jizat rely more heavily than almost any other rituals on Indic popular culture, and have a great deal in common with pleas and petitions to the Almighty across cultures. Husainiyat (“Husain-like” virtue, or as Ruffle [2011] thoughtfully glosses the term, Husaini ethics) is only part of what the mo‘jizat exemplify. Untethered from the schematic repertoire of Karbala itself, family-centred miracle narratives urge listeners not so much to replicate (for example) Bibi Fatima’s impeccable behaviour, as to trust in and empathise with her. The characters who most exemplify imitable behaviour in the niyaz kahanis are the listeners in the frame narratives who excel or lapse in their devotions. Mo‘jizat kahanis, both formal and informal, teach their lessons through storytelling, unelaborated by exegesis. They offer entertainment that may not be invariably cheerful, but is “good, clean fun” for the everyday, outside the festive celebrations of the ma‘sumin’s birthdays and the overarching solemnity of the mourning assemblies outsiders most commonly associate with Shi‘ism.

Mo‘jizat which demonstrate that devotion is manifested in the status and prestige that come with that loyalty, especially when one is a Sayyid or a person of extraordinarily pure intention, offer a special comfort to a class of “poor Sayyids”, who allow donors to accrue merit (savab) through charitable giving to them. Rahat, with her insistence on the eternal calling of the “elect” with the Shi‘i community to “believe, no matter what”, is one of those poor Sayyids. Her comments reveal that while visible rewards to pious entreaties are always welcome, a superior definition of devotion stipulates honouring the Prophet’s family in the very face of long-term disappointment, grief, and poverty. “Others” may need to witness miracles, but the devout exemplify their faith, and enjoy themselves, through the very acts of hearing and transmitting miracle narratives, whether their hardships are alleviated or not.

1 John T. Platts, A Dictionary of Urdū, Classical Hindī, and English (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997 [1884]), p. 1048; Joyce Flueckiger, In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. 168.

2 Studies of South Asian Shi‘ism to date have helpfully compared the intercession of the ma‘sumin (the 14 “impeccables”, i.e. the Prophet, Fatima, and the twelve imams) with the attributes of saints in other religions; Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam (New York: Mouton, 1978); David Pinault, The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in the Muslim Communit (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992). Recent scholarship has also documented Shi‘i rites as an arena where local and transnational artistic forms are mediated (Wolf, this volume), and theorised Shi‘i hagiography in its imitable and transcendent aspects; see Karen G. Ruffle, Gender, Sainthood, and Everyday Practice in South Asian Shiism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). This and other literature has emphasised ritual processes, often those whereby today’s mourners are transported to the site of Karbala or into a “subjunctive mode” where they put themselves to a test: what would they have done had they been at Karbala? See e.g. Vernon Schubel, Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shii Devotional Rituals in South Asia (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993). Akbar Hyder, following the key narrative of Husain beyond the Shi‘i community, has illuminated the versatility and explanatory power of the “Karbala trope” in Urdu’s twentieth-century progressive literature, sufi qawwali texts, and the oeuvre of the great Urdu poet Iqbal; Akbar S. Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

3 Although no stigma attaches to kahani as the usual label for the printed and oral niyaz narratives, the weighty evidential discourse around “casual” mo‘jizat emphasises the “truth value” of the narratives, and in so doing sometimes displaces the term kahani/story. While the history of Hindi/Urdu writing suggests that kahanis are not invariably make-believe, recent controversies about memoir-like or biographical/autobiographical narratives that are “wrongly” published or marketed as “kahanis” reveal, like the mo‘jizat tellings, an anxiety about the border between “real-life” events that can be substantiated and fictional kahanis; Amy Bard, ‘Everyday Life in a Lucknow Locality: Histories, Stories, and Lies’, paper delivered at South Asian Religion Symposium in Honor of Jack Hawley, University of California-Santa Barbara, 17 November 2011. In parallel, a number of (mostly less formally-educated) Shi‘i informants over the years have insisted that the epic marsiya genre detailing Imam Husain’s martyrdom was not “poetry” (sha‘iri) but “truth” (haqiqat); idem, ‘Desolate Victory: Shi‘i Women and the Marsiyah Texts of Lucknow’ (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2002).

4 Reverence for “sacred places where animals carrying early Islamic figures passed or are believed to have left footprints in the ground or rock” span much of the Islamic world. See, for example, Jo-Ann Gross, ‘Shrines of the Pamirs’, in Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, ed. by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas (Hong Kong: Airphoto International, 2012), p. 635.

5 See Ann Gold, A Carnival of Parting: The Tales of King Bharthari and King Gopi Chand As Sung and Told by Madhu Natisar Nath of Ghatiyali (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

6 Frank Korom, Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

7 See Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 45-60; Yann Richard, Shi’ite Islam, trans. by Antonia Nevill (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 35-38; Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, trans. by David Streight (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 61.

8 Ayoub (1978), pp. 108, 111, 127; Momen (1985), p. 30.

9 Ayoub (1978), p. 117; Momen (1985), pp. 28-31; see also Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Shah Abd Al-Aziz: Puritanism, Sectarian Polemics, and Jihad (Canberra: Marifat Publishing House, 1982), pp. 43-47.

10 Ruffle (2011).

11 E.g. Bard (2002); Pinault (2001), pp. 60-61.

12 This emphasis on constituting ethical/moral difference runs somewhat counter to a trend documented by Vernon Schubel (1993, p. 37), as well as in recent work on South Asian miraculous traditions more broadly, wherein accessible miracle narratives and the blessings that conclude their performance, usually in the form of mass distribution of sweets or snacks, can extend the aura of the miraculous to a wider community than the family or sectarian group performing a particular ritual. I do not claim that impulses towards inclusiveness and spiritual hierarchy cannot co-exist, but it is possible that Schubel’s analysis in general overprivileges notions of sharing, social leveling, and communitas.

13 Schubel (1993), p. 66.

14; compare with Mojizāt wa munajāt ([n.d.]), cited by Schubel (1993), pp. 39-40: “Light incense, cover your head, sit down courteously and consider that you are at this time in the presence of the sinless Sayyidah [in general a sayyidah is a female descendant of the Prophet; here the allusion is to Fatima, Sayyidah par excellence]. Refrain from foolish and frivolous conversation. Refrain from laughing. Listen to the miracle which is being related with a trusting and pure heart. And then with respect eat the sweets which you have gathered for distribution”.

15 The fasts please the divine by controlling and curbing the supplicant’s desires. Most commonly known as upvas or vrat, the traditions mandate that devotees abstain from food—typically they avoid specially designated kinds of food—or water. Fasts in the name of different gods and goddesses, and associated with their characteristic stories, are observed on specific days; many are held weekly.

16 Schubel (1993), p. 37.

17 Schubel (1993); Janāb-e Sayyida ([n.d.]).

18 Ibid., p. 4.

19 Janāb-e Sayyida ([n.d.]), p. 16.

20 A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Two Realms of Kannada Folklore’, in Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India, ed. by A.K. Ramanujan and Stuart H. Blackburn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 54.

21 See e.g. the qissa tales in F. Orsini, ‘Tales Between Two Scripts’, Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2009), pp. 109-61.

22 Aditya Behl, The Magic Doe: Qutban Suhravardī’s Mirigāvatī (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012a), p. 203.

23 See Schubel (1993); Pinault (2001); Flueckiger (2008); Ruffle (2011).

24 Other older and more regionally inflected devotional genres, including soz, salam, selections from marsiya poetry, and even sermons, are gradually becoming homogenised, partly as a result of the internet’s impact on majlis performance. “Sha‘ista”, a widely travelled Shi‘a woman raised in Karachi, also noted the international effect over the past few decades of influential cultural and political forces within Shi‘ism on rituals and expressive genres: “Some recent Shia practices in Karachi Imambaras—such as the recitation of dua-e-kumail on Thursday nights, as well as before some majalis—have been introduced by Shia Khojah communities. [Khojas are an affluent sect of Shi‘as who prominently observe Muharram rites. Those to whom Sha‘ista refers to are Twelver Shi’as whose ancestors split from their Ismaili brethren in the nineteenth century.] I don’t know where they get them from; maybe from their travels to Iran? These ‘new’ practices are also frequently seen in imambaras in Canada and the United States” (personal communication 2009).

25 It would be interesting to pursue whether such a version, presumably enlivened by direct speech, has any verifiable link with the intensity of dramatic performativity in kahani recitation, given that women’s recitations range from virtuosic to monotone droning in other ritual expressive traditions.

26 A few cosmopolitan Shi‘as, particularly in urban or diasporic settings, describe modifications they have made to the kahani not only by dispensing with the ritual apparatus but by simply reading it to themselves when they face severe personal difficulties. These consultants say they place few restrictions on the time or place when they employ the kahani, but they do reiterate that “hearing” the narrative is more important than reciting it, i.e. that reading it silently is not the efficacious ideal.

27 Flueckiger (2006), p. 168; see also Platts (1997 [1884]), p. 1048.

28 Flueckiger (2006), p. 168. In the milieu of Flueckiger’s consultant, the sufi healer “Amma”, most miracles (not only the ones she performs) seem to be “linguistically conflated as simply karamat”. In the Shi‘i context, the term mo‘jiza is stressed and includes the intervention of Fatima as well as of the Prophet and imams. This is so even when that intervention is implied rather than specified, or even when the label kahani is also used.

29 E.g. Ann Gold, ‘Showing Miracles in Rajasthan: Proof and Grace’, in Miracle as Modern Conundrum in South Asian Religious Traditions, ed. by C.G. Dempsey and Selva J. Raj (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008).

30 See Bard (2002); Amir-Moezzi (1994); Korom (2002).

31 See Ruffle (2011).

32 Corinne G. Dempsey, ‘The Science of the Miraculous at an Upstate New York Hindu Temple’, in Dempsey and Raj (2008), p. 121.

33 Schubel (1993), p. 39.

34 Flueckiger (2006), p. 182.

35 This functional categorisation scheme counters the trajectory outlined by Kenneth Woodward, for example, wherein miracles themselves have a “story”, in the Abrahamic religions, of being performed early on by the Divine, then by Prophets, with their impact moving historically from more public to more private spheres. Eventually, they all but disappear, he asserts, from accounts of the sacred; K. Woodward, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).

36 Mehrangez Gulova (personal communication 2012).

37 Encyclopaedia of the World Muslims: Tribes, Castes and Communities, ed. by Nagendra Singh and Masud Khan (Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House, 2004), p. 183.