Muharram, the first of the 12 months of the Islamic calendar, is the second holiest month after Ramadan for people belonging to the Muslim community. The word ‘Muharram’ means ‘forbidden’. It is a month of mourning for Shia Muslims.
However, both Shia and Sunni Muslims consider Muharram holy for different reasons. The most important day for both the sects is the 10th day, more famously known as the Ashura. However, both follow vastly different traditions. The Sunnis fast on Ashura (the 10th day) and Tasu’a (the ninth day) as Moses (also known as Musa) and his followers are said to have been saved from the clutches of the Pharaoh of Egypt on the 10th day.
The Shia traditions are very different from that of the Sunni. The story of their customs date back to 680 AD to the Battle of Karbala. This battle is of utmost historical importance as it resulted in the martyrdom of Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the son of Ali. He was defeated and massacred in this battle.
Hussein Ibn Ali is regarded highly by the Shias since he was a descendant of Muhammad. The Shias dedicate this month to mourn the memory of the son of Ali. Out of deference, they choose to avoid any festivity and celebration. The Shias do not fast on Ashura. They make a conscious attempt to recite the Ziyarat Ashura in the holy month, which is a prayer to Hussein Ibn Ali, however, they do try to read this text throughout the year as well.
The reading of the Ziyarat is not the only activity performed on the Ashura since for 1300 years Shia men have taken part in self-flagellating themselves during Ashura. This ritual is performed all over the world. To name a few countries: India, Iran, Iraq, Greece and Pakistan. While some hurt themselves by cutting themselves with knives, blades or even chains, others cover themselves with mud and light bonfires. The use of knives to cut bodies is banned in Iran and Lebanon but is practised in countries like Bangladesh and India. The battle of Hussein Ibn Ali is said to be against oppression and tyranny. It is seen as a symbol of struggle against injustice.
This infliction of violence using knives, blades, chains and by walking on lit coal is a ceremonial sacrifice. It is a spectacle, which displays the feeling of remorse to onlookers. It sets a reminder of his eternal struggle against despotism and his aspiration to safeguard Islam.
The Shia Muslims believe that the hard fortunes and tribulations of Hussein Ibn Ali have no equal. It is said that Hussein Ibn Ali was beheaded and his body was mutilated. The survivors of the war were utterly humiliated. They were forced to walk to Damascus on foot, where they were imprisoned. History says that the bystanders while witnessing these proceedings, came to realise what had happened and started to weep and beat themselves. This marked the beginning of this custom of self-flagellation, which is witnessed till date.
Even though this tradition has been led by the thought of washing away sins, its nature does call for controversy. It has sparked controversy in Islam itself as it projects a negative image. This event also causes a divide between the two sects, Shia and Sunni, as the Sunni extremists regard the Shia as heretics. Despite the controversies, this practice is still followed all over the world by Shia boys and men.