Self-Flagellation as Islamic Ritual

Madeleine McNamara

An Afghan Shi’ite Muslim participating in self-flagellation during an Ashura procession in Kabul[i]

In the modern Western context, pain is appropriate or acceptable only when it is restricted to specific realms, such as body modification (i.e., dieting, working out, and cosmetic surgery) or sport.[ii] Outside of these realms, society has been hesitant to encourage encounters with unnecessary pain as it can hint towards mental illness or self mutilation, both of which remain heavily steeped in stigma.[iii]

The ritual of self flagellation in Islam developed from the commemorative rituals of the Twelver Shi’i‘Āshūrā’, which venerated the third Shi’i Imam, Karbalā’ of al-Husayn b. ‘Alī.[iv] This practice is mainly held by Shi’ites and takes place during the holy month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein.[v] Although self-flagellation during Muharram is an act of commemoration, this ritual is also suitable during times of mourning.[vi]

Traditionally, self-flagellation is performed by groups of young men under strict supervision of their seniors (called Pinault). There are many levels of intensity that this ritual can take, from hitting cheeks, forehead, chest, and lap with the palm of the hand, to striking the back with chains, to the most intense blood-flagellation. Various tools can be used, also affecting the severity of the wound inflicted. Blood-flagellation is the most painful of these forms as it utilizes dangerous tools such as knives, daggers, swords, and razor blades attached to chains to inflict bloody wounds.[vii]

Self-flagellants using swords as they take part in the festival of Ashura in Najaf[viii]

In order for pain-inflicting rituals to be socially sanctioned or accepted, they must possess specific characteristics. The most important of these is that the ends to the means of self-harm must be rational and in line with social norms.[ix] Although self-flagellation does not constitute the social norm in the West, it can play a big role in other societies that have been shaped by religions other than Christianity. Thus, a conflict arises between contemporary Western society –embedded with Christian beliefs and values – and people of different cultures, religions, beliefs, and values who have migrated to the West. We are faced with the question: despite Western society’s claims of diversity and equality of all religions, cultures, and creeds, is there space for ritualized pain?

This is an interesting question, especially considering that self-flagellation remains a relevant practice in Shi’a Islam today. Although still prevalent in Islam, the history of self-flagellation is not limited to Shi’ites – it was previously observed by early Christian martyrs. The martyrs used similar tools and had similar aims to Muslims practicing today. Early Christians flagellation mainly to demonstrate humiliation and devotion to God and to attain salvation through His mercy, while Shi’ite flagellants use this practice to demonstrate their indifference to pain and their willingness to endure any pain and suffering for Allah.[1] However, Christianity has moved away from this practice and over time.

Arguments that Islamic religious scholars have made against blood flagellation in particular protest the damage caused to the body (darar), the interpretation of the ritual as an innovation (bida’), and the negative impression of Islam that is presented and perpetuated (Ende).[x] However, despite the resistance, practitioners of self flagellations hold strong to their belief that their actions are a respectful expression of mourning for the martyrs at the battle of Karbalā’. Moreover, flagellators believe that their ritual can reap benefits by calling upon the martyrs for divine intercession with God, and blessing both their life and afterlife.[xi]

According to scholar Ariel Glucklich in his article “Sacred Pain,” pain falls under two broad categories: hallucination “beliefs”, which minimizes somatic input and expands the sensory characteristics of the experience, or “dis”-hallucination, which minimizes sensory characteristics of mental experience and expands somatic input.[xii] Within these categories, pain can take various forms; it can act as punishment, penance, medicine, test, and more.[xiii] Thus, when considering the example of self flagellation within the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, one can understand it to be a “dis”-hallucination of ritual, in which the practitioner can use the ritual as a test of faith, penance or even medicine. The great Indian poet Mirza Asadullah Ghalib stated, “When pain transgresses the limits, it becomes medicine.”[xiv]

In closing, it is understood that in modern Western life, self-flagellation as a religious ritual is not generally accepted, especially when it is practiced in public. However, when considering this ritual for its healing, medicinal purposes – as many scholars and Shi’ites understand it – it seems unfair to deny the ritual its public place in society. This insights criticism of Western society for the welcoming attitude and emphasis on representation it claims to possess.


About the Author

Madeleine is a fourth year undergraduate student at Queen’s University and has a great interest in religious practices around the world, and how religion and its rituals interact with local politics. Outside of the classroom, Madeleine can be found spending time with her two Irish Wolfhounds, Noula (4) and Minnie (1), or in a yoga class.

[i] Omar Sobhani, REUTERS, November 14, 2013, Kabul Afghanistan.

[ii] Chris Shilling “Saved from pain or saved through pain? Modernity, instrumentalization and the religious use of pain as a body technique” European Journal of Social Theory vol. 13, no. 4, 2010, p. 524.

[iii] Ibid., p. 523.

[iv] Ingvild Flaskerud,“Flagellation (as a religious ritual)”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Publications, 2015. <>

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Alaa Al-Marjani, REUTERS, Najaf, Iraq.

[ix] Chris Shilling “Saved from pain or saved through pain? Modernity, instrumentalization and the religious use of pain as a body technique” European Journal of Social Theory vol. 13, no. 4, 2010, p. 525.

[x] Ibid., 532.

[xi] Ingvild Flaskerud,“Flagellation (as a religious ritual)”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Publications, 2015. <>

[xii] Ariel Glucklich, “Sacred Pain and the Phenomenal Self” The Harvard Theological Review vol. 91, no. 4, 1998, p. 410.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

Is Seeing a Dead Body Comforting?

Ally Craig

Is seeing the dead body of a loved one a good way to start mourning them? Within Catholicism, the traditional death ritual is to display the deceased body at the visitation service via an open casket. Growing up I didn’t give a second thought about seeing an open casket at a wake. It wasn’t until my best friend passed away in October 2017 that I became more fascinated with the traditional Catholic death rituals. My friend had a Catholic funeral, yet she was cremated and not buried. This got me thinking, why have I been programmed to assume that I would see my best friend’s body at her wake? Why is this normal in the Catholic tradition? These questions have been bothering me since October, and I’m hoping this blog post will give me some closure.

The funeral process within Catholicism is considered a rite of passage. It is the final passage that a Catholic person goes through.   Within Catholicism, the death ritual highlights the transitional period from the physical world to the spiritual world and the body’s final resting place. This rite of passage goes through these three stages: separation, liminality and reincorporation.[i] The separation stage occurs when a person leaves behind their social identity.[ii] In this case, their identity of a living person. The liminality stage occurs when a person is between two identities.[iii] The body connects the living and dead society through its presence. The death ritual or funeral must occur for the body to transition from one identity to the other. Finally, reincorporation is when a person enters the new society.[iv] The body is then socially recognized as dead by the society and the remains are set in a final resting place. These three stages show that the open casket marks the transition of a person from the physical world to their physical final resting place and spiritual end in the afterlife.

I wanted to start by learning why the Catholic death rituals include an open casket at the vigil. A vigil, also called a wake, is the gathering of friends and family to pay their respects to the deceased where the open casket is present. At the visitation service, attendees often pray in front of the open casket. For many, hearing that people go to a funeral home to kneel a metre away from a dead person to pray may seem strange. Yet, this is found within the Code of Canon Law, as declared by the Pope of Rome. Under the section titled “Church Funerals” the canon commands that a Catholic person’s body be buried for the mourning of the living. This is seen through the act of the open casket at the vigil.

So, you may be asking, how does this give the living people the comfort of hope? In a way, the act of having an open casket is very comforting to practicing Catholics. The body is being honoured by being put on display. This shows the importance of a body as being a vessel for their spirit that is no longer within the body. I decided I would ask my Aunt, who is a practicing Catholic, why she sees value in having an open casket at a funeral. In her words, “Most often people prefer to see a body to say a final farewell, it makes me feel like I get to say a real goodbye”. You can see that the practice is not ‘crazy’, but something that is comforting for a mourning person.

Another Catholic belief is the idea of a deceased person as just ‘sleeping’ until the second coming of Christ or the rapture. For Catholics, this idea can be found in within biblical verses. The belief is that Christ’s soul and body met again and so will his followers. This may be a foreign idea for some, but for many Catholics, it brings a sense of comfort that their loved ones’ bodies are ‘sleeping’ as they wait for the second coming of their saviour.

For an open casket to be displayed, there must be preservation of the body through the act of embalming. Embalming is the practice of preserving the body to slow down the process of decomposition. In other words, embalming is pumping a deceased body with multiple chemicals so your loved one can look like themselves a little bit longer. Embalming did not originate in Catholicism. It was used to allow families of those who died in the Civil War to see their family members one last time. There are even schools for people to learn how to care for a dead body as seen in this National Geographic video.

Despite what the Code of Canon says, Catholics might turn away from having an open casket because of the cost associated with embalming. Not only do you have to pay for the embalming, but also the dressing of the corpse and any cosmetics that are added. As well, the eyes and mouth need to have a glue-like substance applied to ensure they stay closed for the wake. Adding both the embalming practice and the cosmetic additions to the funeral cost can be upwards of 800 dollars. Despite the cost, for some people seeing their loved one again looking like themselves in a beautiful outfit may give them a sense of peace. For those who are not interested in embalming, The Catholic Church has become more welcoming to the idea of cremation within the death rituals, which allowed for families to make the best choice for them.

Even though I did not get to see my best friend’s body at her funeral, I think that this blog has allow me to get a better understanding on why I felt like I needed to. We have normalized traditions that can be abnormal or strange to others. Growing up familiar to this ‘strange’ rite of passage has made Catholics want to see the body at a vigil. This is what is normal and therefore often comforting in their tradition which aids in the mourning process.

No matter the way your death rituals were conducted, I hope you found peace Katie.


About Ally Craig

Ally is a third year Religious Studies major in the Concurrent Education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is interested in how religious upbringing affects adults and the cultural relevance of religion within the 21st century.

[i] Oddie, M. (2018, February 26). Week 7 – Rites of Passage. Lecture presented in KINE 103, Queen’s University, Kingston.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

Keeping it Intact: Circumcision in Ritual and its Objectors

Olivia Dumas

Circumcision: not always the most palatable topic of conversation for first dates or dinner parties, but a practice which remains rife for examination within ritual studies. Circumcision is somewhat unique as a ritual in that it is a religious rite that has also transcended its sacred origins to become a relatively common procedure in Western society. As a medical treatment, it is believed to have preventative benefits, and an estimated one-third of males are circumcised.

Utilizing flesh and blood to perform the sacred is a recurring theme within ritual, but circumcision as a practice in both a religious and secular context has attracted its fair share of objectors. Most of these arguments hinge on ethical concerns of consent, given that it is a practice usually performed on infants at the discretion of their parents. Namely, there is concern that the normalization of circumcision produces conditions whereby people feel pressured to conform or face social alienation. This is interesting if we think of how ritual works to connect people and provide a common identity within a community – for circumcision, the religious meaning can be omitted by those who practice it, but it can still cause those who remain “intact” to face pressure or alienation.

As a religious obligation, mainly those within Judaism and Islam practice circumcision as a representation of an individual’s relationship to God. In Judaism, circumcision is an externalization of one’s covenant with God, as first made by Abraham. While Judaism prioritizes the symbolic function of circumcision, within Islam it is associated with bodily cleanliness, as the practice is called tahera, meaning “purification.”[i] Both within Judaism and Islam, infants are circumcised and thus the pain of being cut is eliminated from their consciousness as they grow older, unlike other rituals where pain is rendered at a time where it can truly be felt and thus “makes the message more immediate and permanent” as Ariel Glucklich argues in his book Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul.[ii]

Objectors to circumcision problematize religious obligation as a justification for circumcision: “Nearly all Muslim and Jewish boys around the globe are circumcised for “religious” reasons — as if faith and religious conviction could be carved into a baby with a knife… the true reasons that these parents allow their sons to be circumcised are based on fears of social ostracism and expulsion from the community[iii]

This remark implicates the importance of circumcision as a ritual that contributes to community structures within religious societies, while harshly condemning religiosity as a force which promotes what is thought to be mutilation. A justification which uses religion is seen as a deflection for the real issue, which is that it reinforces a social standard that improperly harms individuals. Conversely, in the context of Judaism and Islam, circumcision promotes social unity – the authors’ analysis dismisses the symbolic function of circumcision and role within cultural identity.

What makes circumcision a particular source of scrutiny for many is how it transgresses the boundaries of an intact body, particularly the male body. The word circumcision itself comes from the Latin circumcidere, meaning “to cut around.”[iv] To be cut, especially an area of the body that one is particularly compelled to protect, creates discomfort even for those who accept circumcision. Circumcision, when framed as a “penile wounding”, places the site of danger and instability within the same value system which perceives the ideal male body as clean and intact. This is in contrast to the female body, which is framed as one that is porous and open. A blurring of these boundaries is offensive and holds connotation for emasculation.

Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) take these perspectives to severe and sometimes bizarre conclusions, and have begun touting anti-circumcision rhetoric within their agendas. These self-proclaimed “intactivists” describe circumcision as “male genital mutilation” that not only causes Oedipus and castration complexes but is a result of “misandrist oppression.”[v] It is ironic that MRAs borrow from psychoanalysis, in that we may read their paranoia using the same lens as resulting from repressed sexual frustration. The act of circumcision threatens the genitalia and thus the site of masculinity, as the act involves a “wounding” that may render the male body “woman-like” in that it is no longer intact.

The danger of the body becoming unnatural or lacking in boundaries appeals to specific forms of fear that have been undertaken in various ways by those who object to circumcision. The religious meaning of circumcision is dismissed as illegitimate, so we may think of how this practice has become secularized while retaining elements of its ritual function, in that it can still be used to determine inclusion within a community.


Olivia Dumas is a 4th year Gender Studies and Religious Studies student at Queen’s University. She lives in a haunted house and is probably watching Seinfeld as

[i] The United Nations. “Male Circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability.” Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Last edited in 2007.

[ii] Glucklich, A. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

[iii] Denniston, G.C. et al. Bodily Integrity and the Politics of Circumcision: Culture, Controversy, and Change. New York: Springer, 2006.

[iv] O’Grady, J., and Taugher, C. “Circumcision: Ritual and Surgery.” The Global Library of Women’s Medicine. Last Modified January, 2008. DOI: 10.3843/GLOWM.10144

[v] (author). “The Circumcision Complex: The True Name of the Castration Complex.” Circumcision Complex. Last edited (DATE).

Unconventional Methods of Healing: Treating Sexual Trauma Through BDSM

Caitie Annear

When my older sister asked what schoolwork I had to do over reading week, I admit my answer was probably not what she had in mind. BDSM as healing for sexual assault survivors? There is indeed a concerted academic interest in the psychological value of BDSM play, I managed to convince her. Scholars like Pitagora note that an ASC (altered state of consciousness) can be achieved through reaching subspace. “This state is often characterized by activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation.”[1] As an interaction ritual concentrated on the body, BDSM uses physiological reactions to pain to reach mental and emotional relief. The pain administered is at once physical and emotional – the sensation of being whipped or bound is a way to feel humiliation, for example. Relaxation is considered a typical product of a successful BDSM scene, to such an extent that some dominants consider themselves in some respect as taking on a therapeutic role, as in this video. Part of that therapy or catharsis comes from a loss of control by the sub.

Though rituals are the most efficacious when everyone involved is enthusiastically consenting, there is always an element of giving up one’s immediate agency so as to be guided by another to a state of transcendence. In religious rituals, that other is a spiritual leader or the deity itself. In body modification rituals, it is the tattoo artist or piercer. In the context of BDSM, it is the dominant or top. This is the defining feature of subspace: a relinquishing of control that results in a “psychological reprieve from the pressures of postmodern life,”[2] such as maintenance of public and professional personas, large amounts of responsibility or the urge to quash desires that may not be acceptable to mainstream society. Much writing in this field explores BDSM’s ability to take someone out of their self/ego in an emotionally or even spiritually productive manner.

However, there is much less academic material exploring BDSM as a treatment method specifically for sexual trauma. It was online that I found the most comprehensive outlines of the ways in which BDSM allows practitioners to experience healing and to reclaim agency. Sexual assault support website Pandora’s Project details the methods, reasoning and outcomes to survivors engaging in BDSM to treat their trauma. The article articulates that there is more than one way that a survivor can ‘rewrite’ or reinterpret their sexual trauma. Some totally flip the power dynamic and assume the role of the dom, so that they can physically be in control of the sexual situation. Others will participate as subs in scenes of consensual non-consent, reenacting their trauma in such a way that they regain agency: during a scene, they can say “no” and stop at a crucial moment, the thing they did not have the power to do during their actual assault. “Mains argues [role-playing] often plays on the themes of buried or frustrated emotions and can function as an enabler to heal emotional wounds.”[3] Acts or sensations associated with trauma can thus be relearned as positive, pleasurable and safe. Indeed in BDSM, as with many rituals, fully understanding and discussing the boundaries and actions of the ritual is necessary before engaging in it. It is easy to see why this focus on informed, enthusiastic consent and a clear threshold between reality and fantasy would be attractive to survivors. The key is that they have control, regardless of if their role is one of passivity, and that their partner respects them and the boundaries of the ritual.

A “cheatsheet” on the differences between BDSM and abuse from Domina Jen.

 True, destructive shame can be removed from the sexual equation by performing shame in a way that forefronts trust and inclusion: the literal acts may be the same as their assault, but the context is completely different.

Buenting does argue that BDSM has both the potential to “contribute to the eroticization of violence … [and be a] release of sexual energy and power dynamics.”[4] There is a danger of survivors using BDSM – and sexual activity more generally – as a self-punitive measure, which of course is not cathartic but deepens the trauma and can enhance feelings of responsibility and shame. Psychology Today describes the difference between negative and healing usage of BDSM as trauma reenactment vs. trauma play, respectively. Again, context – the interplay of understanding, meaning-making, intimacy and intent – is everything.

There is still much research to be done concerning BDSM as a treatment method for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, both in terms of its ethics and efficacy. It’s research that I believe is pertinent and could provide relief and hope for individuals affected by this kind of violence.


Author Bio: Caitie Annear is an undergraduate student at Queen’s University studying Film and Media. Outside of cinema, she is interested in the different methods of treatment for sexual trauma and the ways in which survivors frame their experiences.

[1] Dulcinea Pitagora, “No Pain, No Gain?: Therapeutic and Relational Benefits of Subspace in BDSM Context,” Journal of Positive Sexuality 3.3 (2017), 46.

[2] Charlotta Carlström, “BDSM, Interaction Rituals and Open Bodies,” Sexuality and Culture (2017), 10.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Julianne Buenting, “Rehearsing Vulnerability: BDSM as Transformative Ritual,” ATLA Serials, 46.

Why Did I Have My Students Write an Academic Blog Post?

Morgan Oddie

PhD Candidate/Teaching Fellow, Queen’s University

Theological Hall, Queen’s School of Religion

As a new Teaching Fellow in the Queen’s School of Religion, I have spent time reflecting on my pedagogical choices for the course RELS 301: Religion, Ritual, and the Body. Early in my course and syllabus design process, I set on having students complete an academic blog as their midterm assignment. Academic blogging is an increasingly common format of scholarly contribution and encourages a less formal style of writing. They aim to convey scholarly ideas, express informed opinions, and make arguments, but are works in progress and written in plain language for non-specialists.

In his article for Huffington Post, Hugh McGuire outlines 9 reasons why academics should blog:

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journal and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?

Not all of these apply to undergraduate students, who haven’t yet faced the institutional publish or perish pressures, or the precarity of the academic labour market that requires constant outputs. However, accessible writing, scholarly contributions to the academic community through a departmental platform, and working out ideas through written production are all essential to any level of academic work. Some have argued that blogging is a distinct genre of writing, a format for reconfiguring academic identities,[i] or primarily for academic cultural critique. Given the context of the QSR Blog in its audience, content, and format, it’s compelling to consider it as a different type of scholarly writing.[ii] Pedagogically, ongoing blogging has been used in a variety of ways; for example, as language learning, and as an E-learning platform for classroom information sharing. However, Teaching and Learning Literature is less robust on assignments that function as “guest blog” posts, that is, how to write one good academic blog post for a recognized platform. For this assignment, students were asked to write an academic blog post (700-1000 words) on a topic related to the course contents of religion, ritual, and the body. This could have been an expansion on a previous 1-page critical reflection that they were required to complete in the first six weeks of course work, or a topic that we had not covered in class. They were marked on the following criteria:

  • Title: appropriately titled in a direct, specific, and catchy manner. /5
  • Content: central idea is specific and well supported, indicating a depth and breadth of topic understanding. Connections and extensions made between course topics and assignment. /30
  • Structure: writing is clear, concise, and well organized with excellent sentence and paragraph construction. Thoughts are expressed in a coherent and logical manner. /20
  • Research: high quality of researched information including proper academic citations and embedded hyperlinks. /20
  • Mechanics: there are no spelling, grammar, or syntax errors. Paper is correctly formatted. /15
  • Visuals: graphics used to enhance assignment. /10

They were then given an opportunity to revise their work based on my feedback. The resubmitted assignments were worth an additional 5% of their final grade and encouraged them to review comments and improve original work in a process-oriented oriented way.

The learning outcomes for this assignment were: create extensions from class concepts; learn to write in an alternative format that is becoming increasingly common in academia; gain ability to revise work for publication; and, contribute to the scholarly community at Queen’s University through the School of Religion Blog. Pedagogically, I actually worked backwards from the perspective of what I wish I had learned how to do in my undergraduate degree. When asked to contribute a blog post for the first time, I had no idea what I was doing. I had trouble translating my academic writing into jargonless and accessible language. I was unclear on where hyperlinks were appropriate and more desirable in the place of academic citations. Mostly symptomatic of my own imposter syndrome, I was worried that people would read my blog post and decide I was unfit for the department, or academe more generally (because of the accessibility and social media presence of a blog post, this seemed more tangible than with scholarly journal publications). Had this process been demystified for me as an undergraduate student (even in terms of mechanics), I think blogging would have been an excellent output for my academic work through graduate school.

Ultimately, I hope that the RELS 301 students found this assignment productive, and that you enjoy reading their blog contributions that will be posted on the QSR Engaging Religion Blog over the upcoming months.

[i] Rory Ewins, “Who are you? Weblogs and Academic Identity,” E-Learning 2, no.4 (2005): 368-377).

[ii] In their analysis of 100 academic blogs, Mewburn and Thomson conclude that the genre of academic blogging is a subset of scholarly writing, characterized by a more relaxed authorial voice. (Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson, “Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes, and challenges,” Studies in Higher Education 38, no.8 (2013): 1105-1119).