Ashura – The Celebration of Self-Flagellation

I have just learned about the Muslim ‘celebration’ of Ashura.

The month of Muharram is of great religious significance to Islamic people the world over. It is held to be the most sacred of all the months, excluding Ramadan. The word “Muharram” is often considered synonymous with “Ashura”, the tenth day of the Muharram month.

“Ashura” is a highly important day for both sects of Islam – the Shias and the Sunnis. The Shia muslims believe that Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, became a martyr at the Battle of Karbala on the tenth day of Muharram in 61 AH(680 AD)….

The inhabitants on the banks of rivers Euphrates and Tigris were traditional rivals. Their animosity was contained to some extent by Muhammad. But when his son-in-law Hazrat Ali was the Caliph(Muslim civil and religious leader considered to be Allah’s representative on earth), the old enmity re-surfaced. Hazrat Ali had two descendants, Hazrat Imam Hussain and Hazrat Imam Hassan. Hussain was the ruler of the part of the empire known today as Iran. The other part in modern Iraq was ruled by the Umayyads. Hussain was called upon by the Shiahs of Kufa, a small town in the Umayyad kingdom, to accept their allegiance and claim his place as the leader of the Islamic community. This was against the wishes of the ruler of Kufa, Yazid, who instructed his governor, Ibn-e-Ziad to take appropriate action. Meanwhile, in response to the call of the Shiahs, Hussain accompanied by his family members, headed for Kufa. When they reached Karbala, en route to Kufa, the forces of the governor surrounded them and their 70 men. Hussain, his family and his troops were tortured and killed, and Hussain’s head was severed and presented to the king. They received no help from the Shiahs of Kufa.

As this tragic incident happened on the tenth day of Muharram, Shia Muslims consider this a day of sorrow. They commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain as a religious occassion called “Muharram” (named after the month of its observance). The occassion starts on the 1st day of Muharram and lasts for 10 days until 10th of Muharram. As Muharram approaches, they put on black clothes, as black is regarded as a color of mourning. During the entire 10 day period, they keep themselves away from music and all joyous events (e.g. weddings) that can distract them in anyway from the sorrowful remembrance of that day.

This incident was the beginning of the rift between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. This date is also celebrated as the date Noah left the Ark and Moses was delivered from Egypt.  While the Sunni’s mark Ashura as a time of joy, the Shia focus on the martyrdom of Hussain.This is where Ashura enters the realm of the absurd. Some groups of Shia seek to emulate the suffering of Husseain by beating themselves with chains, knives, and other bloodletting devices.  The worst aspect is they draw their children into the melee.

Woman being cut

More pictures here.

Many moderate Muslims recognize this activity as barbaric and regressive. They see that it portrays Islam as a religion stuck in Medieval times. It does, and these leaders recommend giving, rather than just shedding, blood. It’s not just the participants, notice the large crowd drawn to the spectacle. That, of course, is similar to the crowds drawn by a car crash, a practice that is similarly barbaric.

In modern cultures, when people cut themselves, we look to psychiatric help. In extreme cases, cutters are hospitalized. Anyone who encouraged their children to do this and provided them with the weapons, would be charged with child abuse. And no-one would have pity on the perpetrators, unless religion is involved. In that case, many would be crying for religious freedom, and defend them on that basis.

Maryam Namazie, human rights activist and writer describes her experiences with Ashura.

I still have nightmares of this yearly event, where people take to the street and self-flagellate. It’s a blood fest and children are often involved.
Obviously whilst people have a right to religion and to observe religious ceremonies, however stupid, the violent and inhuman aspects of Ashura should be prohibited.

And before you start shouting ‘totalitarianism’, think again. Have you ever seen it, particularly when children and even babies are involved? A lot of children are injured and some die as a result. It’s downright disgusting and abhorrent.

Some say all this self-flagellation creates a ‘backward and negative image’ of Shi’ism. Well, if the shoe fits…

Outside of religion, no one could possibly defend these actions. Is there not culpability by the leaders who promote this activity?

Freedom of and from religion are important concepts. However, there are certain action s that are not defensible in a modern society under any circumstances. as I write this, the trial is ongoing in the case of Mohammad Shafia, the Ontario man accused of killing his two daughters and his first wife to preserve his family’s honour. We must draw the line somewhere and drawing that line at violence and oppression is a good place to start.

It is not right actions that are not acceptable otherwise are acceptable when committed under the guise of religion.

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