Karen Ruffle

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:


Before the advent of Islam in 610 ce, the pre-Islamic Arabs held the lunar month of Muharram to be sacred. Today, all Muslims consider Muharram to be a sacred period, but it is the Shiʿa who have attached special significance to this month. For the Shiʿa, Muharram is a time to commemorate the martyrdom of the third Imam, Husayn ibn ʿAli, who was killed on the tenth day of the month (Ashura), at the battle of Karbala, Iraq, in 680 ce. The ritualized remembrance of Imam Husayn, his family, and his loyal supporters, who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Islam, extends far beyond Muharram to the months of Safar and al-Rabiʿ al-Awwal. These days of mourning (ayyam-e ʿaza) are a time for the Shiʿa to collectively remember and mourn Imam Husayn’s sacrifice and martyrdom, as well as to publicly affirm their loyalty to the family of the Prophet Muhammad (ahl al-bayt) and Islam. Over time, Muharram has come to refer to the collectivity of rituals performed to invoke Imam Husayn’s suffering and sacrifice, as well as to maintain the immediacy of Karbala in the Shiʿi collective conscience. Muharram is also important in the Sunni tradition, and the ninth and tenth days are days of fasting commemorating when Noah left the ark and when Moses was saved in Egypt. In many parts of the Islamic world, including South Asia and South Africa, Sunnis also participate in Muharram mourning rituals for Imam Husayn and his family, which is considered a way of paying respects to the Prophet Muhammad. Likewise, Muharram has been an occasion for Sunni-Shiʿi violence in places such as Pakistan and Iraq, and for Hindu-Muslim violence in India. During Muharram, the Shiʿa attend mourning assemblies (majles), where they listen to discourses (rowzeh khwani) extolling the idealized qualities (faza’el) and tragic suffering (masa’eb) of Imam Husayn and his family. Memorializing poems of lament are recited (marsiya, salam, and suz), and each majles concludes with the participants beating their chests (Arabic latam; Persian/Urdu matam) in time to rhythmic poems of mourning (nauha). In Iran and South Asia, replicas of Imam Husayn’s tomb (naql, taʿzia) are constructed and carried through the streets in processions (jolus). On 9 and 10 Muharram, men solemnly march through the streets performing various acts of bloodletting self-flagellation, including striking the head with a sharp knife (tatbir, qameh zani) or striking oneself on the back with chains or blades (shamshir zani, zanjir zani). Since the early 20th century, Shiʿi ulama have debated the permissibility of performing “bloody matam.” In 1994 Ayatollah ʿAli Khamenei issued a fatwa (legal opinion) prohibiting the performance of matam in which weapons are used to shed blood. Likewise, the leader of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, has upheld Khamenei’s fatwa, urging Shiʿa to donate blood on Ashura. These legal opinions reflect the desire to deflect criticism away from Shiʿi Muharram rituals, which are often portrayed as excessively violent and rooted in superstition. Imam Husayn’s martyrdom is dramatically reenacted in Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey and the Caucasus, Iraq, and Lebanon in the taʿziyeh, where village men and professional actors assume the roles of the heroes and villains of Karbala.

Article.  8806 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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