One can indeed wonder why a simple Google search for Ashura and Karbala comes attached with a flurry of bloody images.
“Look at the people of the Prophet’s family. Adhere to their direction. Follow their footsteps because they would never let you out of guidance, and never throw you into destruction. If they sit down, you sit down, and if they rise up you rise up. Do not go ahead of them, as you would thereby go astray and go not lag behind them as you would thereby be ruined.”- Imam Ali
What is Tatbir?
Tatbir is an Arabic term referring to a particular ritual certain Muslim minorities continue to practice during the month of Muharram to express their mourning of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Every year, on the Day of Ashura, as millions across the world gather to remember the tragedy of Karbala, and recall the grand resistance Ahl al-Bayt offered Tyranny, certain individuals have insisted on tainting Imam’s Hussain’s message by giving in to what can only be described as useless barbarism.
Tatbir or self-flagellation is performed by striking the head with a sword or knife until blood gushes out. Some Shias in the Indian subcontinent also perform an act called Zanjeer Zani (usually called Zanjeer). It involves repeatedly striking the back with a chain of blades with the intention of cutting the skin and causing blood to flow. Tatbir and Zanjeer are the two most widely practiced of the blood shedding rituals. Other rituals include injuring oneself with a stone, padlock or chain.
It is important here to emphasise that Tatbir does not belong to Shia Islam – if anything Shia scholars have systematically spoken against it, calling upon their respective communities to exercise restraint in their mourning, and remain within the limits set by traditions.
Despite such guidelines, the practice of Tatbir has become an ever-spreading reality. Certain communities hold these rituals in very high regard and reckon them to be amongst the most holy acts of worship. Such misguided beliefs have driven a wedge in between religious communities across continents, as many have come to look upon Shia Islam with some degree of disgust, fear and utter bewilderment.
Indeed, it can be difficult for even Muslims to reconcile the concepts of justice, piety, and compassion with self-inflicted physical violence …
The zealous advocates of the blood rituals put a huge emphasis on these acts and employ a lot of resources to promote their practice.
However worthy some Muslims feel Tatbit is, it remains nevertheless a creation which carries no ties to Islam – whether Sunni or Shia. Some have even alleged that Tatbir has been promoted as a misinformation tool within a larger propaganda campaign against the teachings of Ahl al-Bayt.
One can indeed wonder why a simple Google search for Ashura, Karbala, or even Arbaeen comes attached with a flurry of bloody images … Within such dynamics Tatbir most certainly has done Islam and Muslims a great disservice.
According to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, everything is considered permissible unless there is direct evidence for its prohibition. Since neither the Quran, nor the tradition of the Prophet mentions Tatbir, scholars have judged wise not to directly outlaw it – they have however spoken against it in no uncertain terms.
Now, the vast majority of contemporary Shia scholars have ruled that the rituals are forbidden on the condition that their performance would lead to the violation of other established Islamic principles (e.g. the prohibition of defaming the Shia faith).
Unfortunately, Tatbir practitioners have turned a deaf ear to the calls of their clerics.
On the Origins of Tatbir
For about a millennium after the tragedy of Karbala, the Shia of Muhammad did not practice blood shedding when mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hussain or any of the prophet’s progeny. Instead, they mourned in keeping with tradition – with restraint, dignity and fervour.
Historians have shown that such blood rituals are actually foreign cultural practices that were introduced to elements within the Shia community relatively recently in Islam’s history.
Professor Werner Ende writes in The Flagellations of Muharram and the Shi’ite ‘Ulama: “There are differences of opinion as to when blood matam started.1 The most reliable opinion is that the cutting of the head was a practice performed by the Turks in Azerbaijan which was transferred to the Iranians and Arabs.”
Sheikh Kazim Dajili said on the matter: “Iraqis did not participate in these processions until the beginning of the twentieth century. This practice was first seen amongst the Turkish Iraqis, Sufis, and Western Iranian Kurds.”
Sayyed Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum support this claim as well. He writes: “When I was in Najaf around 50-60 years ago there were only a few Turkish mourning groups. They would come to Sayyed Bahr al-Ulum’s house on the days of mourning and with his permission they would recite emotional poems about Imam Hussain. Some of them would slightly injure themselves while listening to the poems in order to try to feel what Imam Hussain felt. Slowly this type of action changed and spread until it reached its peak when it was outlawed in 1935 by Yasin Hashimi, the prime minister of the time. In reality, this oppressive action had an opposite effect – in such a way that the number of mourning groups tripled.”
Yitzhak Nakash in his article: “An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of Ashuraʾ”, states the following regarding the origin of Tatbir: “The flagellations were introduced into central and southern Iran, as well as into Iraq, only in the nineteenth century. This proposition is supported by the data provided by Shia biographies and Iraqi Shia oral history. The biographies identify Sheikh Mulla Agha `Abidal-Darbendi (d. 1868/9) as the first to introduce violent acts of self-flagellation into Tehran around the mid-nineteenth century.
Darbendi is said to include in this work uncommon rituals, not to be found in other accepted Shia Imami writings on the commemoration of ‘Ashura.54 The relatively late appearance of flagellation in Iraq is also evident from Shi’i accounts. The Iraqi Shi’i mujtahid Muhammad Mahdi al-Qazwini is cited by Werner Ende as claiming around 1927 that the use of iron was initiated “about a century ago” by people not well versed in the rules of the Shari’a.55 Indeed, Iraqi Shi’i oral history traces the appearance of flagellation in Najaf and Karbala to the nineteenth century. It is related that the practice was imported to these cities by Shia Turks, who came to Karbala and Najaf on pilgrimage from the Caucasus or Azerbaijan.”
What Shia Scholars Have to Say
Grand Ayatollah Khoei – “If blood matam and hitting oneself with chains, which are practiced in Muharram, cause serious harm, or harm or ridicule the religion and sect then it is impermissible.”
Grand Ayatollah Sistani – The philosophy of mourning during ‘Ashura’, is to respect the symbols of religion and remember the suffering of Imam Hussain, his companions, and his uprising to defend Islam and prevent the destruction of the religion by the Bani Umayyad dynasty. These rites must be done in such a way that in addition to serving that purpose, it draws the attention of others to these lofty goals. So those actions which are not understandable and cause misunderstandings and contempt for the religion must be avoided.
Grand Ayatollah Abul Hassan Esfahani – Ayatollah Esfahani (1860–1946) was the highest ranking Shia jurist and the sole Marja of his time. He openly supported the stance of Ayatollah Muhsin Al-Amin on this issue. “The usage of swords, chains, drums, horns and the likes today, which have become common in mourning ceremonies on Ashura, is definitely forbidden and against religious doctrine.”
Grand Ayatollah Khamenei – Ayatollah Khamenei, in his position as the Hakim Al-Shari’i has given a Hukm forbidding blood flagellation. A hukm is binding on all Muslims, unlike a fatwa.
“In addition to the fact that it is not held in the common view as manifestations of mourning and grief and it has no precedent at the lifetime of the Imams (a.s.) and even after that and we have not received any tradition quoted from the Infallibles (a.s.) about any support for 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.”