Ashura rituals stir controversy among Shiites
By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* — Each year, as they commemorate Ashura, the Shiites debate whether certain rituals are permissible. Some of those rituals are violent, such as Tatbir and hitting oneself with chains practices that harm one’s body and distort the revolution and objectives of Imam Hussein. They also reject the exaggerations about the Karbala events made by readers in mourning congregations that do not take into account the accuracy of the historical and religious texts.
Every year, in the first 10 days of the month of Muharram of the Hijri calendar, the Shiites celebrate Ashura, which commemorates the battle of Karbala, where their fourth Imam, Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed with about 70 family members and companions by the army of the Umayyad caliph, Yazid bin Abi Sufyan, in year 61 of the Hijri calendar (680 AD). Hussein was killed because he refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid after the death of Yazid’s father Muawiya, as he claimed Yazid had deviated from religion. Thus Hussein revolted with the aim of achieving political and religious reforms.
Prophet Muhammad said in a tradition agreed by both Sunni and Shia sources about Hassan and his brother Hussein: “Hassan and Hussein are the masters of the youth of Paradise,” and “Hussein is from me and I am from Hussein. God loves those who love Hussein.”
In this context, Muslims considered the killing of Hussein a great crime against the son of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima al-Zahra.
The Shiites perform a number of ceremonies to commemorate this tragedy, which include reading Hussein’s biography and story of the Karbala events that took place over 10 days. The ceremonies are punctuated by crying and hitting. The rituals also include Tatbir, which is making a small incision on the head to eject some blood.
A number of Shiite Ulamas and jurists had forbidden Tatbir, notably the late Lebanese clerics Mohsen al-Amin and Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
In this context, the head of the Jaafari Cultural Foundation in Lebanon, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein al-Hajj, told The Levant News, “The most current and former senior Shiite authorities in Najaf and Qom did not issue a fatwa banning these rituals, especially Tatbir and beatings with chains, because Tatbir is permissible according to fatwas by senior clerics, namely late Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei and supreme marja’ Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani”.
He pointed out that Tatbir and beatings with chains are permissible as long as they do not lead to self-harm, that is, each person must assess whether this causes him harm, according to Sistani and Khoei.
For his part, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah attacked what he described in a speech on Oct 10, 2016, as “innovations” in Ashura, wondering why some Shiites insist to lose their blood in a controversy ritual such as Tatbir. He asked these radicals, “Why don’t we see you defending the holy sites and Sayeda Zeinab?”, in reference to the fight by many Shiite groups against the Takfiri groups in Syria and Iraq that seek to destroy the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt there.
Nasrallah was especially angered by practices in the city of Karbala during Ashura, where some put on chains on their hands and feet and walk like dogs. Nasrallah asked, “What religion, doctrine, or sect allows this?!” He said such practices greatly harm “the doctrine of Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Muhammad) and that this behavior is tantamount of killing Hussein every day.”
In this context, Lebanese researcher Kassim Kassir told The Levant News that the debate over the Ashura rituals “is not new, but is an old conflict that started in the early decades of the last century by Lebanese Marja’ Mohsen al-Amin (1865-1952) and continued by Sheikh Morteza Motahhari (died 1979) and Ali Shariati (died 1977) in Iran, Marja’ Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah [Lebanon] (died 2010), and Ayatollah Khamenei, who issued in 2010 a fatwa banning Tatbir. But it seems that these practices became more common this year, and the increased Shirazi presence has led to exacerbating the differences and controversies.”
On why Nasrallah intervened in the matter and criticized these practices, Kassir said that this is due to “the growing danger of this phenomenon, the way it affects the image of Shiism in the world, and the overlapping political and intelligence factors with religious factors.”
Nasrallah has previously accused in Sep 2012 “British Shiism,” certain Shiite clerics living in London, of cursing the Prophet’s companions (Sahaba), and of working to foment strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as directed by British intelligence. A number of Shirazi speakers, especially Sheikh Yasser Habib, responded to Nasrallah in an abusive manner, defending Tatbir and describing Nasrallah and Islamic Republic of Iran as enemies of Ashura rituals because they refuse Tatbir.
It is worth noting that the Shirazi current, which is an extreme Shiite school that insult some of the Prophet’s companions and his wife, Aisha, and the current is also hostile to Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) and the Islamic Iranian regime.
Kassir said that supports Tatbir and is active through mourning congregations and religious channels. The Shirazi role in Lebanon has grown, especially with the presence of one of its speakers Sheikh Abdul Hamid al-Muhajir during Ashura in the city of Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. He made a statement critical of Hezbollah and its mentor Khamenei.
Kassir said that the conflict between Hezbollah and the Shirazis is a “conflict with intellectual and religious dimensions. But political and intelligence factors have gotten involved. It is a struggle over attracting the Shiite masses.” Kassir said that there is a great fear that this phenomena is being supported Western and regional states in order to distort the image of Shiism in the world, create a Shiite split, create in Lebanon currents that are hostile to Hezbollah and Iran, and turn this tension into popular strife.
The tragedy of Ashura has global human dimensions. It is not limited to the Shiites. It has touched the conscience of every free person and revolutionary in the world. It has illustrated the saying about the “victory of blood over the sword.” But some Shiite militants are trying to turn it into a myth and a reason for confessional strife.
Perhaps the best of what has been said about the Hussein revolution was written by non-Shiites. Mahatma Gandhi, who was the leader of Indian independence from British colonialism in 1947, said, “I learned from Hussein how to attain victory while being oppressed.” British philosopher Thomas Carlyle said, “The best lesson which we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Hussein and his companions were rigid believers in God. They illustrated that the numerical superiority does not count when it comes to the truth and the falsehood…”
British professor of Arabic and oriental studies at the University of Cambridge, Edward Brown said, “Is there a heart that is not fraught with grief and pain when it hears a talk about Karbala? Even non-Muslims cannot deny the purity of the spirit under whose shadow this battle took place.”
For his part, Egyptian writer Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi said, “Hussain is the martyr of the road to religion and liberty. Shiites are not the only ones who should be proud of Hussein, but all free people in the world as well.”
Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran said, “I cannot find a man like Hussein, who recorded humanity’s glory with his blood.”
Shiism, alike Sunnism, is witnessing today a conflict between reformists, who seek to reform Islam from innovations and extremism, and Salafis and traditionalist who point out on reviving the traditional rituals that confirm their Shiite identity to distinguish themselves from Sunnis. But keeping the Shiite identity should not be done on the expense of losing Islam’s values and the unity of Shia and Muslims.
*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem President of Center For Asian and Chinese Studies.