What is Ashura?

Published October 11th, 2016 - 03:17 GMT
Afghan Shi'a hit themselves with chains during Ashura in Kabul (AFP/File)
Afghan Shi'a hit themselves with chains during Ashura in Kabul (AFP/File)

Ashura, the Shia commemoration that takes place today, is favorite material for many Western media outlets.

Photographs of brutal self-flagellation, as well as men making incisions in children’s heads and dripping with blood as they hit themselves with swords and chains are often accompanied with captions apparently shocked by Shia capacity for self-punishment.

But what is Ashura actually about?

The day commemorates the death of Husain Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karabala, in modern-day Iraq. Husain objected to the rule of Yazid, the Caliph of his time, and his resistance was supported by the political faction that would become Shia Islam. The battle, in which Husain and his followers were massacred, was a turning point in the Sunni-Shia schism that continues to this day, and was formative for a Shia narrative of fighting against oppression and betrayal.

Mourning rituals frequently include striking oneself with knives or whips, or beating oneself in group ceremonies. Black is worn, and displays of mass, public mourning through chanting, performances and chest-beating are commonplace. The purpose is to imitate the suffering of Husain at the battle and mourn his death.

The self-flagellation practice, however, is not the norm, even across the Shia world. Beating oneself or making incisions into one’s own forehead is considered by many a pagan and brutal act, while others argue it gives Islam a bad name.

It’s also a flashpoint in sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia populations. Because the battle is considered a major victory for the followers of Sunni thought over that of the Shia, the commemoration is considered apostasy by some, and it’s been targeted by bombing from Daesh (ISIS) and other groups in the past.


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