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As A Shia Muslim, What I Don’t Like About This ‘Absurd’ Muharram Tradition

More from Dr. Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi

By Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi

Trigger warning: Graphic image below

When you are brought up in a particular tradition, the customs and practices become an integral part of your world view. It seems very obvious to you that the world sees your customs the way you see them. Even more so if you are brought up in a staunch Shiite family, with intense emotional attachment to the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain Ibn Ali, who was slain on the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar (680AD), along with a handful of his family and friends after a day long battle. The fateful event occurred in the battlefield of Karbala on the banks of the river Furat (Euphrates) when Hussain Ibn Ali stood against the tyranny of Yazid, the then ruler of the Islamic world seated in the capital city of Sham, and refused to accept him as the just ruler of the Ummah. The narrative on which the entire period of almost two months and a week of mourning is based, is another glaring example of how a handful of people can mark an indelible footprint on the sands of time while their adversaries are left gasping for any respectable mention in history.

muharram 2
Image source: Rizwan Hasan/Flickr

Over the course of time, history fades away in the midst of devotional eulogies and symbolism gradually replaces objective history. This story is also plagued with its share of supernatural events (Mojza), a deal between God and humans, and a spectrum of characters with super-hero-like capabilities that, in fact, dilutes the intensity and seriousness of the story and the message it carries.

The customs that evolved out of this tradition are as diverse and vibrant as there are followers and their cultural background. But one custom that cuts across this spectrum is that of the ‘matam‘ (a mild beating of the chest in a rhythmic fashion) which has a variety of forms. While ‘matam‘ itself seems a very natural expression of grief and sorrow and has its subtleties along with the rich poetic tradition of the ‘nauha‘ (elegiac poems recited with the matam), it has acquired some forms that are obviously disturbing. If you Google ‘Muharram’ and click on the ‘images’ tab, you will see a lot of photographs of people bathed in their own blood, holding knives, swords and blades tied at the end of chains, and children, even babies, being cut at their foreheads. These are the forms of matam that evolved out of intense devotional feeling, a skewed world view and a penchant for tradition. Being brought up in the same tradition, I know the logic that goes behind the custom of flaunting your devotion on the streets stained with a mix of blood and rosewater, carrying flags decorated with flowers and gold plated aluminium mascots, and reciting elegies in a language that is a mix of Persian, Urdu/Hindi, Arabic and the local dialects. However, once you try to look at these justifications thoroughly, they start falling apart, and you have to deal with a face-off with the reality of how those who observe all this from a third party perspective, perceive it. The most obvious justification is that of tradition, which is as bad as no justification at all. Then, there are justifications like a declaration of the extent of devotion, a method to attain public attraction to tell the story and make the message heard by the masses, and so on and so forth. None of these justifications are potent enough to perform a blood bath on the streets, and none of these purposes (and what merit each of these purpose has is also debatable) can be served by this ritual.

On the contrary, this is a very negative portrayal of Shiites both within and outside the larger Muslim community. This is an image of people who are not so civilized, who are essentially barbaric. If I think of myself as a propagandist trying to publicize Muslims as a fundamentalist and barbaric community, these images are nothing less than a gold mine served on a diamond platter.

Not that there has been no concern within the community on the absurdity of such a tradition, but like all sensible voices, these voices have been largely shunned by loud-mouths either due to sheer traditionalism or due to the lack of spine to speak against popular belief. However, there has been a gradual and steady change in the attitude of youngsters, and few if not many zakireen (narrators) are raising their voice against this custom. Although these voices can make some noise, it is largely up to the grand Ayatollahs and their mercenaries to take a serious note of this issue, because theirs is the voice that reaches the deepest trenches of the community, and it is there, where the roots of such absurdities lie.

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  1. D Gil

    I’m curious, if getting a tattoo is considered haram, how is it that knowingly harming your god given form considered acceptable? I once even saw a woman in a report about this day, nicking her babys forehead with a knife once as part of this ceremony. Not to mention the very young boys that cut themselves during it too. Very troubling.

    1. Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi

      The definition of halal/haram is somewhat arbitrary and do have strong social/cultural links, except for the things that are obviously harmful like drugs, alchohol etc. And the trend is same among other religious communities (Vedic scientists, young earth creationists etc.) who try to produce ‘scientific’ justifications for what they believe in.

  2. Piyush Aswani

    Hey Meraj, great article. Since there are so many traditions in India that are practised in locally and do not really belong to a religion, do you think that demonstrating Ashura in this manner started getting practised in a certain area and caught on?

    Since I have seen a lot of Ashura rallies where all that participants do is beat their chests and remember Hussain!

    1. Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi

      Thanks for the appreciation Piyush.
      You are right, but the genesis of this tradition lies not in India, but in Iraq, where people of the Turkish origin introduced it to the Shiites in Iraq in the 19th centuray (“Qizilbash, an extreme ghulat Turkish sect, seemingly introduced blood rituals to Imami Shias” see for a brief discussion here, which they probably acquired from the Christians. Before getting patronized by the ruling class, the mourning was usually performed in small groups and private settings rather than in the form of processions.

  3. neha alam

    Hi Meraj,

    I am shia muslim myself. And since my very childhood I have found this practice really absurd.
    But it seemed to me that whenever I tried to reason with my family or relatives on this, they got offended.
    As if I have asked something offensive. Good to see there are are other shias too who can relate.
    I find this practice unneccesary and barbaric and personally I would prefer a more personal practice to mourn.

    1. Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi

      People who do not support or oppose this practice are not that minuscule, but their voice is not the dominant voice. I personally know clerics who do not support this but avoid talking against this due to the fear of losing their following and a backlash from the community. It is an irony that people think that the message of Karbala (which is the message of resistance against oppression and spillage of innocent blood) can be propagated by such a barbaric display of blood on the streets. It is certainly counter-productive and I have never received a positive feedback about this practice from my non-shiite friends.

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