Self-Flagellation as Islamic Ritual

Madeleine McNamara

13mim2@queensu.ca

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. <http://dx.doi.org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_27156>

[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. <http://dx.doi.org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_27156>

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

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.