January 16, 2008 § 2 Comments
(Image from the Middle East Poster Project.)
Today is the 8th day of Muharram and coverage of Ashoura in the Arabic media has been surprisingly light. Up until this point, most coverage has centered around security preparations in Iraq. I suspect coverage will peak on the 10th day of Muharram, also known as Ashoura, when Shi’i rituals and gatherings will be at their most visible. On this day in the year 682, Imam Husayn and many from ahl al-bayt (the Prophet’s family) were killed by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid on the battlefield in Karbala, Iraq — only a few decades after the Prophet’s death in 632.
On Ashoura, it’s likely that most media outlets — Arabic and English — will focus their attention on the bloodiest rituals and publish startling photos of men self-flagellating in the streets. Despite the attention given to self-flagellation (called hitting haydar in Lebanese Arabic), most of the Shi’i rituals in the period leading up to Ashoura center around non-bloody rituals, like attending majalis (or mourning rituals) and in Iran, people attend ta’ziyehs, popular plays that depict the Battle of Karbala. Either way, every Shi’i community commemorates Ashoura in a unique, but similar, way.
The Hezbullah radio station al-Nour is playing intense dirges lamenting the deaths of Husayn, Abbas, and the rest of the ahl al-bayt. The site is in Arabic, but you can click on the link and you will see the image of a satellite on the left of the screen. Click on this for a live feed. Lara Deeb’s book is also a great resource in understanding Shi’i Ashoura rituals in the Shi’i communities of Lebanon — in southern Beirut (al-Dahiyyah), the Beqaa, and in Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. She describes the highly organized Hezbullah Ashoura processions in which no blood is shed. Instead, there is a rhythmic hitting of the chest called latam. There is also a considerable amount of female participation in the public rituals. This contrasts with the commemoration of Ashoura in Nabatiyeh — where small groups of men hit haydar. Many Shi’a view this as mutakhalif or backwards, and Hezbullah encourages people to donate blood instead of hitting haydar.
Image of the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala today.
Image of the shrine in 1935. Both photos from Sistani.org. For many, many more photos, click here.
An al-Hayat article from January 11 mentioned security preparations in Najaf due to the emergence of a group called Jund al-Samaa’, which I think can be translated as Soldiers of the Sky, whose members claim that their leader is the Mehdi, or the Shi’i Messiah. (Correction: It is the Soldiers of Heaven.) Omar al-Tarihi, a teacher in the Najaf hawza or religious seminary, told al-Hayat that Ashoura has become the time for certain heads of religious groups to claim that they are the awaited Mehdi. He said that this has become more common, but that most Shi’a know better than to follow these people and they continue to follow their marja’ al-taqleed.
Reuters reported today that millions of pilgrims are expected in Karbala and Iraqi security forces have launched a major operation to ensure security. The city has banned all motor vehicles and over 25,000 soldiers will be in the streets. Even with all of this security, I still suspect some type of violence will break out. In 2004, suicide bombers and mortar attacks killed over 171 people during Ashoura commemorations in Baghdad and Karbala.
Here is a live video feed of the Imam Husayn shrine in Karbala. The site is probably a bit overworked during this time.