For centuries religions have tried to make sense of the sufferings humans endure during the course of this worldly life. Illnesses, accidents, corporal pain and mental anguish are but a few of these conditions.
The concept of human suffering has been explained and justified by various religions according to their worldviews. In some religious traditions suffering is seen as a necessary process towards the purification of the soul while in others it is viewed as a means for the atonement for one’s sins. In antiquity during rites of initiation, purification, and fertility, ceremonial whippings were frequently performed. These often included some forms of physical suffering including floggings and mutilations. In the ancient Mediterranean, ritual floggings were practiced by the Spartans, and Roman heretics using thongs of oxtail, leather, or parchment strips, some being weighted with lead. Identification with the suffering of a particular religious personality is another reason to explain some form of self inflicted physical pain. At the extreme of this spectrum there are those who have elaborated the theory that self-induced pain in the form of physical modification works towards the above mentioned objectives. The most well-known of these groups are found among some Catholic Christians and some Shi’a Muslims.
For the Christians the suffering of Jesus’ during his last moments on earth is the reference point. The film the “Passion of Christ” by Mel Gibson gives a vivid description of the kind of punishment it is believed Jesus was subjected to by the Roman soldiers.
As a result the observance of the ‘Passion of Jesus Christ”, with its ritual self-flagellation, has been developed into a culture especially among group of Catholics in the Philippines, South America and in a much reduced form, in Italy. The practice includes whipping oneself with sharp blades, cutting the body with sharp glass, and scratching the skin with needle pads until it bleeds. “(Self-flagellation] has no precedent in the lifetime of the Imams(a) and even after that and we have not received any traditions quoted from the infallibles about any support of this act” In the world of Islam a similar phenomenon in relation to the commemoration of the Ashura rituals – the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad° -was developed. Husayn ibn Alin’ stood up to the tyrant of the day, Yazid, in order to save Islam and humanity from despotism and oppression. After a valiant fight Husayn was beheaded and his body mutilated.
It is said that the beginning of the commemoration of this event occurred soon after the survivors were released, when family members and close followers of the Alids would gather for supplication and prayers. As the event became more public especially during the reign of the Buwayhids, (900 CE) reports describe public processions with displays of self-flagellation. A subsequent Shi’a dynasty, the Savafids, also encouraged it as a sign of identification and opposition to the Ottoman Sunnis with whom they were at war. The practice of self-flagellation and self harm is considered forbidden in Islam. Nevertheless it has become part of Shia Muslim practice and is conducted among a number of Shiites in the Middle East and Asia. Most Shiites usually beat their chests with their hands in a symbolic gesture of pain and sorrow; however the use of metal chains, spikes and daggers
to cut the skin as well as other extreme forms of this ritual are still practiced. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 some progressive and intellectual Shi’a clergymen began to challenge the validity of these commemorations. One of the leading scholars, Morteza Mutahhari in his book Howza va Ru-haniat, questions the origins of self-flagellations identifying it as a “practice borrowed by the Ghazghani Orthodox Christians from Ghazghan, the region on the borders between Russia and Iran”. He writes: “Blood shedding in its present form has no rational or religious backing…. It is a clear instance of deviation… a mistake. Some people take blades and strike their heads making blood flow – for what? This action is not mourning.” Ayatollah Khamenei in Ajwabah al-Istifta’at finds no justification for the practice: “In addition to the fact that it is not held in the common view as a manifestation of mourning and grief and it has no precedent in the lifetime of the Imams and even after that and we have not received any traditions quoted from the infallibles about any support of this act, be it privately or publicly, this practice would, at the present time, give others a bad image of our school of thought. Therefore, there is no way that it can be considered permissible? It is now the responsibility of the Muslims living in the 215′ century and in the West to stop being the carriers of cultural expressions that their predecessors have turned into an obligation and instead seek to conduct commemorations in a more acceptable and beautiful manner, that is, in a way that is in congruence with Islamic teachings.
The article was written by Anousheh Mireskandari and first published on Islam-today magazine.