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.
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.