I was reminded of this by a remarkable series of photographs. I've posted before about the Ashura processions.
During Moharram Shias mourn the killing of the Prophet's grandsons Hussein and Hassan, which led to the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In Ashura commemorations the faithful carry tazias, replicas of the tombs of the martyrs, through the streets, just as Spanish Catholics carry statues of the Virgin Mary in procession during Holy Week.
The Ashura processions are described in Kipling's "On the City Wall".
"All the processions—there were two-and-twenty of them—were now well within the City walls. The drums were beating afresh, the crowd were howling ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain!’ and beating their breasts, the brass bands were playing their loudest, and at every corner where space allowed, Mohammedan preachers were telling the lamentable story of the death of the Martyrs."
I hadn't realised that as well as the breast-beating (maatam - great singing on this video) some devotees like to perform maatam by scourging themselves with blades (zanjeer) or even cutting their heads with swords (tatbir). I also hadn't realised that we've got a fair number of devotees in the UK.
Brazilian photographer Eduardo Martino seems like a hip young dude - work for the Guardian and BBC features prominently on his cv.
One of his projects is a pictorial record of UK Shia Muslims, from which I venture to show a few images. (All photographs are the property of Mr Martino. You can see all his photos of UK Shia life here and here. Notice the odd native convert here and there.)
Here we see a zanjeer - a chain with blades attached.
Followed by "before" :
And "after" :
I'm a little concerned that this is happening in Manchester, rather than say Bombay. By the look of these guys there seems to be a lot of it about. As for this - well, isn't he a little young to be doing that sort of thing ?
While the mullahs of Iran aren't too cut up about the practice, I think I'm with the office of Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq on this one :
As far as mourning is concerned and getting attention of entire world, then it should be done very nicely with "beating chests and heads with hands" and with complete discipline in procession. All the people should participate with fully dressed in black cloths. Then definitely it will impress the entire world and will force them to accept us as a peace loving people. On the other hand people fear from Shiites when they see them doing Zanjeer Zani crazily and from head to toe covered with blood.
Spot on - couldn't put it better myself. One can't resist the thought that if they're prepared to do this to themselves in the name of religion, what might they be prepared to do to others in that same cause ? Remember the sacrifices the Iranian basij were prepared to make during the First Gulf War - such devotion is awesome, but fearsome too.
These Bradford Shiites seem a much more sober crowd - even showing respect for the Shearbridge Hotel of (to me) blessed memory and mediocre beer. Admittedly they're outdoors - but so are these Lancashire lads.
While I respect the wish to show devotion, and admire the piety of the believers, England has always avoided excessive self-harm in the name of religion. When the flagellants were touring Europe during the Black Death, the English refused to beat themselves up about it. It never caught on here.
Whoe’er to save his soul is fain
Must pay and render back again.
His safety so shall he consult
Help us, good lord, to this result
Ply well the scourge for Jesus’ sake
And God through Christ your sins shall take
Woe! Usurer though thy wealth abound
For every ounce thou makest, a pound
Shall sink thee to the hell profound
Ye murderers and ye robbers all,
The wrath of God on you shall fall.
Mercy ye ne’er to others show,
None shall ye find, but endless woe.
Had it not been for our contrition
All Christendom had met perdition
One other unfortunate historical resonance. Flagellant processions in Europe would frequently end with an attack on any available Jews.