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 Secularism a Form of Christian Proselytization?

Ruth Chitiz
School of Religion MA Student

Secularism involves separating governmental institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious ones. Within a Western context, secularism works because of Christianity: the Protestant Reformation was central to the development of both the nonreligious state system and Western legal traditions. Secularism has become synonymous with modernization and progressivism and this insulates secularity from critique. This false notion of a universal secularism has caused the West to demand other parts of the world to follow suit.

The problem is that secularism does not make sense in parts of the world that were not historically Christianized. The fact that secularism is not necessarily compatible with Islam, for instance, in the same way as it is with Christianity suggest that the Middle East’s hesitance toward and occasional outright rejection of secularism has less to do with an anti-Western mentality and more to do with a rejection of Christianity. Because secularism’s ideological tenets are directly incompatible with the union of religious Islam (shari’a) and political sovereignty in the Muslim world, perhaps secularism is in fact Christian proselytization.

Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity

Amelia Walsh
First Year Undergraduate Student, Arts and Science


In today’s world of media entertainment, comedians and programs often satirize religion and religious practices in comedy skits and routines. Although malicious elements sometimes appear in these media pieces, the use of satire more commonly presents as a tool to relieve tension, ridicule stereotypes, or educate an audience. In Comedy Central’s skit, Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the TV personalities, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart along with actor Steve Carell, perform a skit that reveals the hypocrisy and lack of sense that triggers conflict between religions.

In the skit, Colbert and Carell act out the roles of a Christian and a Muslim respectively, and hold a debate over which of their religions is the one, true religion. In order to increase the comedic quality of the sketch, many of the arguments that are presented involve circular and backwards logic and serve to ridicule certain aspects of religion such as life after death, origin stories, and ‘smiting’. At the end of the segment, Colbert and Carell come together to bond over their mutual dislike of Jon Stewart who represents Jews.

This comedy skit puts religion into a fairly negative light through its emphasis on hypocrisy within religion and its apparent criticism of Christianity and Islam. Despite these initial impressions, however, most of the satire in the skit holds a double meaning that educates the audience on logical fallacies that appear in religious arguments and attempts to argue for the pointlessness of arguing over which belief is “right”. At one point in the skit, Stephen Colbert presents an example of these logical fallacies through a somewhat exaggerated statement arguing the truth of Christianity:

“It’s not my logic, it’s god’s logic, as written in the Bible, every word of which is true. And we know every word is true because the Bible says that the Bible is true, and if you remember from earlier on in this sentence, every word of the Bible is true.”

While this is evidently a faulty argument designed to ridicule certain elements of Christianity, the presentation of it in a satirical sense allows for a second, ironic side to show through. The irony emphasizes the point that while many elements of religion don’t necessarily follow logic, they do consist of faith and belief, two concepts that are indisputable and unarguable because of their subjective nature. This argument is especially essential to today’s world as a result of the number of wars being fought on behalf of religion. While the Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity comedy sketch does not directly address these disputes between religions, the final lines of the skit do convey the idea of inherent conflict between religions fairly clearly when Stephen and Steve find common ground over their mutual dislike of Jews. These lines could even be further interpreted as a jab at Christianity and Islam and their perceived history of anti-Semitism.

In an effort to maintain comedic effect in Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity, many serious topics relating to religion are not discussed at all. These include genuine beliefs, reasonable arguments for religion, and traditions of each religion. This presence of irony and satire also makes it difficult to tell whether the portrayal of religion is actually balanced or biased or both. While there is at least a small part of this skit that is biased towards atheism, the fact that the skit was presented through a comedy channel indicates that there is a lack of seriousness in their words and that perhaps there is more balance beneath all of the satire and irony. Additionally, by using visual media rather than a paper format, the actors are able to convey sarcasm and insincerity in their voices.

Although the role of religion in this media portrayal is mainly to entertain and provide comedic relief, the use of satire helps to provide a double meaning to many of the concepts that are presented. This double meaning allows networks such as Comedy Central to educate its audience and send out deeper meanings of inherent issues of religion into the world. In this sketch specifically, these deeper meanings refer to the ridiculousness of dissent between religions over “right and wrong”.

Adolescent Perceptions and Experiences of the Hijab: a Qualitative Canadian Study

Emma Funnell-Kononuk
Faculty of Education Student, Queen’s University


Wearing a hijab is a visual marker of Islam and instantly identifies a girl as Muslim. Muslim females regularly experience Islamophobia, a dislike or prejudice against Islam and Muslims, due to this visual association. Canadian girls frequently feel the effects of Islamphobia; girls have been expelled from school and barred from sports such as tae kwon do and soccer. A 2015 hate crime in Toronto, Ontario left a Muslim woman beaten and robbed after attackers tore off her hijab, punched her, called her a “terrorist,” told her to “go back to [her] country,” and stole her money and cellphone. The event occurred just outside a public school; it was 3PM and she was headed to pick up her children. Media representation and political commentary has incited debate about what veiling means and what locations (if any) should permit veiling. This conversation is largely based on an association of veiling with patriarchal values. For instance, in March of 2015 then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that wearing the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” and that it is “offensive” for someone to cover their face using clothing like a niqab during the citizenship ceremony. Veiling is a highly debated topic within modern Canadian society, and these opinions effect Muslim Canadian women and girls.

hijab-girlIn 2012, nine-year-old Rayane Benatti was not allowed to participate in her team’s final soccer game in Gatineau, Quebec because her hijab was deemed ”unsafe” and she refused to remove it.

Due to recurrent debates and disagreements, qualitative and quantitative research regarding Muslim women’s veiling practices is a growing field worldwide. However, the perspective of adolescent girls is not often considered. It is important to include perspectives of youth with regards to any religion, as their experiences regularly differ from that of adults. I completed an Undergraduate Summer Student Research Fellowship (USSRF) this summer to explore the experiences and perceptions of Muslim adolescents regarding the hijab in a midsized Ontario city. I collected data through a focus group of four Muslim girls and two Muslim boys aged 12-15. All of the female participants wore a hijab when they went to a mosque, but at the time of the focus group, two of the four girls self-elected to wore a hijab to school (hijabi) and two did not (non-hijabi). They shared their experiences regarding hijabs in a public school environment, and described occurrences involving peers, teachers, and expectations. Sample questions included: What does the hijab mean to you? Do you feel like your teachers treat you differently when you are wearing a hijab? Coding the data led to eight distinct categories and two higher order concepts: 1. Reasons that adolescent girls choose to wear or to not wear the hijab and 2. The recognition that the hijab is a representation of Islam, and concern that Islam is misunderstood by those around them and by the media.

Findings suggested that adolescent girls consider a variety of factors when choosing whether or not to wear a hijab, such as practicality and their individual sense of style, along with more internal reasons. Both hijabi girls believed that people, Muslim or not, viewed, and should view, their hijab solely as a piece of clothing. As one of the girls put it, “A hijab is just an extension of your clothes. It does not make you any different in here [gesturing to her heart]; it just makes you different out here [gesturing to her face and body].” Another said that the hijab is “just a scarf on the top of your head” and does not change anything about who you are as a person. She continued, “I don’t say to some person, hey you should not wear short shorts. Oh you should not wear a crop top. So why should they tell me not to wear a hijab?” All participants agreed that everyone has the right to choose how to dress without fear of judgement or insults. One participant said her hijabi friend was asked questions by classmates that she deemed annoying and this discouraged her from wearing a hijab at school. She said people’s questions, such as “Do you shower with that, do you sleep with that, do you ever take it off?,” were “insensitive” and that even if they didn’t intend to be rude, it is important to “respect people’s differences in class.”

When I asked what the most important thing I should take away from our conversation was, every participant said something related to the diversity found amongst Muslims and their concern that Islam should be represented accurately. Discussion surrounding the hijab sparked an underlying discussion about what it means to represent Islam. They all recurrently shared fears that the act of one Muslim or Islamic group would be considered an accurate representation of all of Islam. They felt they needed to prove to friends, teachers, and other non-Muslims that Muslims are different from what is shown in the news. One of the male participants said people need to remember that if members of ISIS say they are Muslim, then “they might still be Muslims, but they are not good Muslims.” They explained that within Islam there are a wide variety of interpretations, beliefs and experiences. They felt that this diversity was part of what connected them to their faith.

The importance participants placed on acknowledging the diversity within Islam holds weight within the field of education. Teachers must have background knowledge regarding religions and the variety of meanings behind religious behaviour. This knowledge is critical in preventing stereotyping or unintentionally holding bias; uninformed teachers create an uninformed learning environment, which may influence the understandings of other students. Teachers should be aware of the reasons a girl in their class may wear a hijab and the concerns they may have. This learning will help them better understand their hijabi students’ views and requirements. Should teachers’ learning inspire questions about hijabs or Islam, participants found it easier when a teacher asked them a question about their beliefs rather than a student because they knew teachers “actually want to know…how to make you feel more comfortable as a student.” They also suggested that if non-Muslims had questions about Islam, a great way to find answers is to speak to someone at a mosque, as opposed to listening to the media. Mandated public school curriculum should include components on a variety of faiths, thereby mandating conversations that can help to encourage empathy and understanding within schools. Finally, it is incredibly important that the voices of youth be heard within the academic study of religion. My hope is that this work inspires further research surrounding Muslim youth and the hijab in a school context and highlights why it is important to include the experiences of young people in the conversation.