Rituals Of Self Harm: Decoding Muharram

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During Muharram, Shias - including children, perform acts of self-harm. Why do they hurt themselves in this holy month of mourning?

Hyderabad, India.

In the holy month of Muharram, a ritual takes place late after midnight. Crowds wearing black assemble in darkened streets. A prayer is made, by a gathering of mourners called Majlis. Four to five quintals of coal are brought, spread out on the road and set alight. The heat is so intense that those standing on the periphery of the coals start to shield their faces.

One by one, community members take it in turns to walk across the burning coals while carrying the Alam (insignia) of Hussein’s house. Fire walking brings to mind the classic image of India as the Orient – although tips on how to do so are now available on the internet, rather than exclusively to Sadhus and sages. One’s feet must be covered in perspiration or water, so as to produce an insulating effect through its evaporation. In Physics, this is called the Leidenfrost Effect, and it has spared many a fire walker from certain burns – although they must take heed to walk briskly.

This ritual exists in two parts and timeframes for the childless. They pray for children in this time, finding it auspicious. Those who have subsequently had children must then pass them through the burning coals when the time arrives.

Men soon arrive carrying babies wrapped in small sheets. Fathers, thankful for the gift of children, wrap them in bundles of cloth and roll them over the coals. The babies are thrown onto the burning coals, made to roll once or twice, and then carried off by volunteers. One by one, these infants are made to go through a burning rite of passage while their fathers watch, sometimes hesitating at the last minute when they realize that it is their child whose turn has now come to face the flames. The babies seemed unhurt after the event – this time. They will not grow much older before the decision to perform acts of self-harm during Muharram is left to their own hands.

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Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. Across Asia, hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims whip and slash themselves on the tenth day of Muharram, lamenting the death of Hussein Ibn Ali ­at the battle of Karbala in 680AD.

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Shias feel the pain of his loss keenly, and express it through acts of mourning known locally as Matam. This can range from gently rapping oneself on the forehead to lashing one’s own back with a chain of blades, covering the entire body in blood.

In certain parts of Hyderabad’s Old City, where over 200,000 Muslims follow the Shia sect, the streets run with blood as followers beat and slash themselves to lament Hussein’s killing. In small and large groups, together, they thump their chests with small blades held between their fingers. Chanting ‘Wa Waila’ or ‘Goodbye’. This performance is a vocal expression of grief where emotions run high despite centuries of passing since the original deed. Children watch their fathers beat themselves bloody until it is their turn to join in.

Some hesitantly, others with the confidence of youth, wield the many types of blades used to draw blood. In repetitive cutting motions, they slash their foreheads, chests, arms and legs until they feel that their Matam is complete. The wounds can cut quite deep, and many will be seen walking the procession completely covered in their own clotting blood.

Understanding why believers would hurt themselves requires an insight into the nature of martyrdom itself – where followers feel the need to be willing to suffer every wound that their leader suffers, in the name of a larger cause. As Iranian author and activist Janet Afary and her husband, Kevin B. Anderson write,

Muharram is a time for the individual sinner to place under everyone’s eyes the body and the flesh that has committed the sin, not just the historical sin of betraying Hussein, but also one’s own individual sin, not without the need for an individual, verbal confessions. In crying for Hussein, one also gains absolution from the Almighty for one’s own personal guilt.

Imam Hussein is the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered by Shias to have defended the purity of Islam from its early enemies (perceived as the Ummayid Caliphate’s choice of successors to the Prophet). His is the story of an underdog facing impossible odds – Hussein and his 72 followers versus Yazid I’s strong army, numbering in the thousands. Hussein and his followers were first surrounded, then deprived of water for three days, before being slaughtered by the Ummayid forces. Tales of valour and sacrifice exist and are spread about each of Hussein’s followers – almost all ending in sacrifice. Hussein himself was ultimately beheaded, and his head brandished as a trophy, after all, his followers had been killed.

The idea of Hussein as a figure of martyrdom and Muharram as a time of prayer and penance is not limited to Muslims alone. Hyderabad’s historic Bibi-ka-Alawa attracts follower of all faiths, queuing to seek a blessing and to touch the Alam, containing a plank of wood believed to have been used for the final ablution of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima. There, we met Ramanujamma, a Hindu, who has visited every year for 45 years, For her, it’s a ritual that has paid off.

We have complete faith in Bibi Fatima. If we take these Goadis (coconut balls used as offerings), and feed it to a barren woman, she will bear children. My daughter in law was blessed with children after I fed her the Goadi from here, and my nephew whom we brought here as a child is now in the United States. We pray to Fatima as Mother of the world. To us, she is Sitamma (wife of Ram), and Hasan and Hussein are like Lava and Kush (children of Ram).

Also, straddling religions are the Husseini Brahmins, a sect in Delhi who consider themselves descendants of a group of Hindus who fought alongside Hussein in the battle of Karbala. Their ancestor, Rahib Dutt, is said to have declared himself for the cause of Hussein, even willing to sacrifice himself. Some Dutt’s continue to participate in mourning during Muharram, as a consequence – the actor Sunil Dutt included.

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(Image: 7MB) Man blessing a Hindu woman at a shrine

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The role and use of children and infants in various religious practices open the question of consent. In 2014, the Bombay High Court recognized a petition asking for minors to be barred from participating in Muharram processions. The courts have not delivered a verdict on the role of children during Muharram, though the Maharashtra government claimed in 2015 that no children were harmed during the subsequent year’s Muharram. The Shia Personal Law Board has since requested a written copy of the High Court’s statement, suggesting that:

They [the courts] cannot decide whether the community should debar children from participating in Matam with weapons.

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Shia scholars are divided on the issue of Tatbirself-flagellation as an act of mourning. While some see it as a relatively recent phenomenon that did not exist during the time of the Prophet, others have no issue with it as a cultural expression of grief. The current Ayatollah, Ali Khomeini, has declared the practice Mustahib – duties that are ‘recommended, but not essential’. Regarding minors, it is recommended that they seek permission to participate from a guardian. However, according to the Ayatollah’s website, ‘any practice that causes bodily harm, or leads to defaming the faith, is ḥarām’.

In coverage of the Shia Muharram, scenes of followers whipping and slashing themselves have become symptomatic of Shia Islam, much to the detriment of some of its official leaders in Iran, which may explain the decrees against defaming the faith. But the vagaries of varying decrees have led to no consensus amongst followers – and the practice of flagellation continues largely unheeded within Shia communities in Asia and Africa.

Muharram represents a time where history, ideology, and religious commitment intersect. To approach it simply as an exercise of bloodletting is to deprive the Shia community of a historical identity they see as representing an oppressed lot. But this negates the question of whether children are really ready for rituals that require them to express identities through acts of self-harm.

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