Ashura: History, Processions, Beatings and Theater

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Imam Hussein's body without a head

Ashura, a festival that marks the the Martyrdom of Imam Hussein (Husayn), is the most important Shia event, one that is not observed by Sunnis. Held on Tenth Day of Muharram (the 1st Lunar Month), it commemorates the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was slaughtered with 72 of his companions at the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680 in present-day Iraq during a war between supporters of Hussein ibn Ali and troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. During the days leading to the battle, there were by some accounts only 72 companion (warriors) vs thousands on other side. The first nine days of Muharram solemnly recount the tragedy. On the tenth day, the day on which Hussein was murdered, people stage various events.

Shias view Hussein as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad and see his death at the hands of Sunnis at Karbala as a great tragedy that lies at the heart of the deep, ingrained rift in between Sunnis and Shias. Processions are held in the Shia towns and villages on the tenth day of Muharram (Ashura), the anniversary of his death. Ritual mourning (taaziya) is performed by groups of five to twenty men each. Contributions are solicited in the community to pay transportation for a local group to go to Karbala for taaziya celebrations forty days after Ashura. There is great rivalry among groups for the best performance of the taaziya passion plays. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the villages, religious readings occur throughout Muharram. The men may gather in the mudhif (tribal guesthouse), the suq (market), or a private house. Women meet in homes. The readings are led either by a mumin (a man trained in a religious school in An Najaf) or by a mullah who has apprenticed with an older specialist. It is considered the duty of shaykhs, elders, prosperous merchants, and the like to sponsor these readings, or qirayas. Under the monarchy these public manifestations were discouraged, as they emphasized grievances against the Sunnis.

According to the BBC: “Ashura has been a day of fasting for Sunni Muslims since the days of the early Muslim community. It marks two historical events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the Ark, and the day that Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah. Shi'a Muslims in particular use the day to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet, in 680 CE. In Shi'ite communities this is a solemn day: plays re-enacting the martyrdom are often staged and many take part in mourning rituals. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

Websites on Shia Muslims (Shiites) Divisions in Islam ; Shi’a History and Identity ; What is Shi'a Islam? ; History of Shi'ism: From the Advent of Islam up to the End of Minor Occultation ; Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought

Ashura in 2022 and 2023

On Ashura in 2022, Associated Press reported: Millions of Shia Muslims — from Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan — were marking the festival of Ashura one of the most emotional occasions in their religious calendar. Shia Muslims were to mark the holy day in Iraq and also in Lebanon, where a major procession typically shuts down Beirut's biggest suburb. With power split in Lebanon among the country's religious sects, Ashura presents an opportunity for Lebanon's Shias to show force. [Source: Mehdi Fattahi, Associated Press, August 8, 2022]

Over 1,340 years after Hussein's martyrdom, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad and other major capitals in the Middle East were adorned with symbols of Shia piety and repentance: red flags for Hussein’s blood, symbolic black funeral tents and black dress for mourning, processions of men and boys expressing fervor in the ritual of chest beating and self-flagellation with chains. In Pakistan, Shia Muslims participate in Muharram processions to mark the first month of the Islamic calendar, which is also a month of mourning for Shias in remembrance of the death of Hussein. In Peshawar and Islamabad, Shia Muslims flagellate themselves with knives on chains during the Muharram processions. Even boys beat themselves in the chest.

20120510-Ashura.jpg Security forces, particularly in Taliban-run Afghanistan, were on high alert for any violence. In the past, bloody attacks have marred the festival across in the Middle East, as Sunni extremists who view the Shias as heretics seize on the holy day to target large gatherings of mourners. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, authorities cut mobile phone services in key cities holding commemorations for fear of militant bombings. Internet monitoring group NetBlocks confirmed Monday that Afghanistan was experiencing significant service disruptions. Pakistani police were out in force along procession routes. The Taliban shut down roads leading to Shia neighborhoods and mosques in Afghanistan.

On Ashura in 2023, Associated Press reported: Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad and other major capitals in the Middle East were adorned with symbols of Shiite piety and repentance: red flags for Hussein’s blood, symbolic black funeral tents and black dress for mourning, processions. Most places held their main processions on Friday, but not all. Both Iraq and Lebanon planned their remembrances for Saturday, which will see a major suburb of Beirut shut down and the faithful descend on the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is entombed.[Source: Amir Vahdat, Associated Press, July 28, 2023]

Ashura in Iran and Iraq

In Tehran, mourners attend an annual procession commemorating Ashura. Mourners strike their chests Even A woman beat their chests while mourning In 2022, Associated Press reported: In Shia powerhouse Iran, thousands of men and women shrouded in black thronged the streets of Tehran. Green plumage, the color of Islam, fluttered in the air. Camels covered with multicolored cloth paraded through the city, evoking how Hussein set out from Mecca with a small band of companions. [Source: Mehdi Fattahi, Associated Press, August 8, 2022]

Iranians pounded their chests in mourning and chanted in unison, while some mourners clad in black wept. “Somehow, I feel like I must go to mourning, because Imam Hussein was brutally and unfairly treated,” said Nasrin Bahami, a 65-year-old participant in the Tehran procession. “I love his pride, his bravery. He is a symbol, a role model.”

In Iraq, where the largest Ashura gatherings were expected, black flags of grief fluttered over the capital's major thoroughfares. Portraits of the revered saint hung from the doors of nearly every house in the Shia-dominated suburb of Sadr City. This year’s Ashura in Iraq coincides with a deepening political crisis between Shia political rivals. Thousands of followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament building last week to prevent Iran-backed parties from forming a government. Their sit-in continues, with al-Sadr invoking the sacrifices of Hussein to whip up religious fervor. [Source: Mehdi Fattahi, Associated Press, August 8, 2022]

20120510-ashura Zanjir.jpg
Ashura Zanjir
In 2023, Associated Press reported: In Iran, where its theocratic government views itself as the protector of Shiites worldwide, the story of Hussein's martyrdom takes on political connotations amid its tensions with the West over its advancing nuclear program. Iranian state television aired images of commemorations across the Islamic Republic, tying the event to criticizing the West, Israel and the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Anchor Wesam Bahrani on Iran's state-run English-language broadcaster Press TV referred to America as the “biggest opponent of Islam” and criticized Muslim countries allied with the U.S.[Source: Amir Vahdat, Associated Press, July 28, 2023]

Men wore black, rhythmically beating their chests in mourning or using flails to strike their backs. Some wore red headbands, as black and red banners bore Hussein's name. Some sprayed water over the mourners in the intense heat. The commemoration in Iran also comes as Tehran prepares for the one-year anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. Her death launched protests nationwide in Iran that reportedly saw more than 500 protesters killed and some 20,000 others detained. Authorities have begun stepping up their enforcement of mandatory hijab, or headscarf, laws for women in recent weeks.

Ashura in Kabala, Iraq

In the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is entombed in a gold-domed shrine, religious charities lay out vats of rice, bread and beans to feed the pilgrims. Thousands typically rush toward the shrine to symbolize their desire to answer Hussein’s last cries for help in battle. On the morning of the tenth day, the day on which Hussein was murdered, people form barefoot processions in the streets of Karbala and carry black and green banners and models of the martyr's mausoleum.

In the Kabala processions thousands of barefoot men dress in black mourning clothes and red-and-green bandannas to express their desire to make sacrifices for Islam. They carry black flags and symbols of Hussein and march through the streets to the sound of pounding drums and chanted dirges while beating themselves with their fists, cutting themselves with knives and whipping themselves on their backs, gashing their heads with swords and slamming their chests with chains — often until they are dripping with blood — to express their the grief and recall the suffering of Imam Hussein. Some men carry portraits of Hussein. Some beat themselves while chanting poems about Hussein like “Hussein is a martyr of Karbala, the grandson of the prophet leader of the youth in heaven.” Pilgrims traditionally wail and beat themselves to atone for the collective guilt of their ancestors who failed to come to Hussein’s aid.

In mosques imams tell the story of the brutal death of Hussein at the battle of Karbala to weeping worshipers. In some places, passion plays are held in which performers reenact the martyrdom of Hussein and people pray for the dead, including martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War. Ashura also marks the day the Prophet Muhammad encouraged his followers to fast to commemorate the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Sunni Muslims mark the event with a voluntary fast.

Ashura Theater

Ashura Theater
“Ta’zieyh” is a strange form of Iranian musical drama that combines religion, music, theater and circus acts and encourages the audience to participate directly in the action. The performers ride horses and herd sheep while conveying a Shia religious story with stylized movements while the audiences sings, shouts encouragement to the heros and insults at the villains and participates in the battle scenes. Sometimes during wedding scenes men in the audiences give the “groom” a ritual bath and women paint the hands of the “bride” with henna and actors give out wedding cookies to the audience.

Ta’zieyh (literally “mourning” in Arabic) developed in the 16th century as a sort of passion play held during Ashura in which performers described the killing of Hussein and his followers in the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. Massacres, betrayals and decapitations were performed by a troupe that included actors, camels, horses and sheep.

After witnessing a performance of Ta’zieyh in an Iranian village, the British director Peter Brook said, “I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest thing I have ever seen in theater: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under a tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed. And then fooling his enemies and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theater became a truth: here was distance between past and preset. An event that was told and remembered in history, 1,300 years ago, actually became a reality in that moment.”

Ashura Self-Flagellation

Some Shiite Muslims grieve by beating their backs and chest with chains and knives and flagellating themselves as a symbolic way of expressing their sadness of not being able to aid Imam Hussein, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala. Describing the Ashura procession in Tehran, Bill Heavey wrote in the Washington Post, “Men in black shirts and black pants...are solemnly parading double-file down a packed the beat of drums and the prompting of a megaphone. “Yah Hosein!” After each cry, the men stop momentarily and flick themselves over the shoulder with short chains on wooden handles. Others smack their chests with their hands. The chains don’t look particularly heavy; on the other hand, they aren’t feather boas...”Yah Hosein! They take a step, stop, switch hands with the chains and flick the opposite shoulder. Many of the men are sweat-soaked, glassy-eyed, tranced out. They have been marching for hours and will continue until the noon call to prayer, when they will kneel in the streets and facing Mecca and place their foreheads against tablets of compressed dust, acknowledging that from which they arise and to he will soon return.”

Participants in Ashura that beat themselves beat their chests with their hands or whip their backs with chains connected to a handle that is swung with the hand. Some strike themselves with swords. Performing the “matam”, or self-flagellation is believed to bring out feeling of grief over the death of Hussein, his grandson and the 72 members of their family. ‘stitching matam”: refers the infliction of such severe cuts stitches are required. Many Sunnis and Shia too consider the ritual barbaric.

Some Ashura participants flog themselves with a “zanjir-zani” , an implement comprised of handle and five short chains connected to five slightly curved blades. The devise can turn the skin to a bloody pulp if use repeatedly. There are zanjir zani regarded as suitable for children six and over. Children’s versions without blades are available.

In 2008, a Briton of Pakistani descent was found guilty of cruelty to children for forcing two boys, aged 13 and 15 to whip themselves with bladed zanjir-zani. Both needed hospital treatment for cuts sustained using the devises during an Ashura ritual. The boys said they wanted to participate in the ritual and beat themselves but not with blades. A video tape shows the man, Syed Mustafa Zaidi, beating himself with the blades until he was quite bloody. Religious leaders asked him to stop out of fear he might harm himself. He them removed the shirt of one of the boys and forces him to beat himself. The young boy said the others ‘swung it once or twice and said, “I don’t want to do it any more.”


According to the BBC: “Shia Muslims are not the only ones that practice masochist acts in the name of religion. In a ritual known as kavadi Hindus piece their body, face and tongue with skewers and dangle objects from small meat-hook-like things stuck in their arms and legs. In a festival that honors the goddess Darupathi, believers walk on coals after entering a trance-like state.”

In medieval times devout Christians often whipped themselves in public and wore course hair garments under their clothes as punishments and resolution for their sins. To reduce their time in purgatory penitents walked around churches on their knees, wore scratchy underwear, climbed long stairways shackled in chains and whipped themselves in Holy processions, with self-castration perhaps being the most extreme form of self denial.

The Shia occasionally also do things like write petitions with their own blood. Modern studies of self-inflicted suffering in religious observances suggests there are two main purposes: 1) to gain mastery over some perceived weakness or fault, such as lust and desire; and 2) induce a trance-like state that is believed to bring one closer to the divine.

Free Food During Ashura

Jason Rezaian wrote in the Washington Post: The commemoration features public scenes of emotional self-flagellation...But in Iran, such sacred rituals are complemented by a modern twist, as residents race around this city to take advantage of copious supplies of free food. Known as nazri, the food is considered holy for anyone who eats it or makes it. It is given free by individuals and private groups as a way of completing an offering made to God in honor of Hussein’s martyrdom. Kiosks called hayats are set up all over Iran. In the capital alone, there are now nearly 13,000 registered hayats making offerings of food or drink. Everyone from rich bazaar merchants to high school kids takes part in the cooking and serving of the food. [Source: Jason Rezaian, Washington Post, December 3, 2012]

The selection at nazris includes a wide range of snacks and beverages, from hot cocoa and simple sweets to more elaborate Iranian dishes. The most popular nazri food is gheymeh, a stew of lamb, tomatoes, yellow split peas and dried lemons. Often cooked in enormous copper pots over wood-burning fires, and then served in disposable containers that litter city sidewalks for weeks, the food is believed to have benefits both physical and spiritual.

The long lines in residential neighborhoods, and traffic jams caused by drivers who stop in the middle of the street to pick up nazri, provide a festive air that contrasts with the processions of chest-beating mourners. “Yes, we’re mourning the loss of our most important martyr,” said Jamshid, an accountant who asked to be identified only by his first name. “But this has really become a big party for Imam Hussein.”

“For Iranians who want to maximize their haul, a new Web page has mapped out locations offering nazri, along with the date and time of giveaways as well as the type of food available. Arman Taherian, a co-creator of the Nazri Finder Web site, said he and his partner had confirmed 96 locations throughout Tehran, and continue to add listings. “We felt that our traditions aren’t moving forward quickly enough with the speed of technology and decided to use these tools along with our old traditions,” he said.

Politics and Rituals Mix at Ashura in Iraq

In 2012, Al Arabiya and AFP reported: “With more pilgrims expected to visit the shrine city of Karbala, Ashura rituals in Iraq this year have had an unprecedented political taste added to them, withShiittes chanting phrases condemning modern politicians. Shia Muslims marching during Ashura rituals in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala mixed mourning the death of Imam Hussein over 1,300 years ago with politics, making it the first time Ashura pilgrims incorporate their daily sociopolitical sufferings to religious chants. The numbers of pilgrims are expected to reach three million, Karbala provincial governor told AFP. [Source: Al Arabiya with AFP, November 25, 2012 ^=^]

“Hundreds of black-clad Shia walked toward the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was killed in 680 AD by the armies of the caliph Yazid, ritually beating their chests as a sign of mourning for the slain imam. But they also chanted about the current politics of Iraq, an unusual occurrence in commemorations that mainly focus on the past. In one chant, the marchers lamented that Iraq's prime minister, parliament speaker and president are all "chasing after positions, and the people's share is only troubles," concluding: "O Hussein, we are with you until death, until death with you." In another, they said that "the effect of financial corruption is the same as terrorism," and that "our leaders are corrupt from the top." "You took everything, and you want to take my vote; I won't let you, even on my death," they shouted. ^=^

“Iraq has vast oil wealth, but basic services such as clean water and consistent electricity are still lacking, and corruption is rampant. And while security has improved significantly, bombings and shootings remain a constant threat. Staff Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi told AFP that 30,000 security forces personnel were deployed at the northern, southern and eastern entrances of Karbala to protect the pilgrims. ^=^

“Mass-casualty attacks on pilgrims that have blighted Ashura commemorations in the past have been absent so far this year. Millions of people flood Karbala for the peak of the Ashura rituals, which comes on Sunday this year. Karbala provincial governor Amal al-Din al-Har told AFP that there were about two million pilgrims currently in the city, among them 200,000 from abroad.”“ ^=^

Ashura in Afghanistan 2022

In Afghanistan, Shias attend a mourning ceremony in a mosque in Kabul and men beat themselves with knives attached to chains during a procession three days ahead of Ashura. Associated Press reported: Crowds of mourners were thin in Kabul, where the country's Shias have suffered a wave of brazen attacks by the local Islamic State affiliate, which has tried to undermine the new Taliban government. Repeated bombings have rattled Afghanistan's ethnic minority Hazara Shias, who previously experienced persecution under the Taliban. [Source: Mehdi Fattahi, Associated Press, August 8, 2022]

The Taliban have encouraged Shias to carry out their devotions. However, they did not designate Ashura a national holiday this year, as Afghanistan's authorities have in the past. They also banned major processions for fear of violence after a string of bombings targeting Shia-dominated areas.

Despite the threat of attacks, hundreds of frenzied Shias turned up on the streets of Kabul to beat their heads and chests in unison. They whipped themselves with knife-edged chains to the point of blood splattering onto the streets. The Afghan mourners struck a defiant tone. “Those who want to stop us from commemoration of this day will take their wish to grave with themselves,” said Habibullah Bashardost, adding that the community had braced itself for more violence. "Even if these people who are commemorating today are martyred, we have our coming generation to continue this path,” Bashardost said. Another participant, Ahmadullah Hussaini, said his presence at the bloodletting ritual under the shadow of targeted attacks delivered a succinct message: “We are not scared of anything, not even death.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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