Ashoura and the controversy among Saudi Shiites

Hassan Al Mustafa

Published: Updated:

Ashoura rituals are no longer a religious ceremony, which Shiites mark across the world. It has become a topic for debate between different movements and groups.

Citizens in Saudi Arabia observe Ashoura during the first 10 days of Muharram. Extensive preparations are made including several activities ranging from religious sermons, mourning, exhibitions, plays and blood donation campaigns. These events do not only reflect a religious duty but also express one’s desire to make an appearance.

Serious manifestations of remembering Imam Hussein appeared in Iraq after the third Gulf War in 2003 as their flagellation rituals began to include “tatbir,” i.e. using a sword to beat their heads, and “zanjeel,” i.e. using a chain with blades to beat their backs.

This is in addition to journeys in which people walk during the Arba’een to mark 40 days after the day of Ashoura, to Hussein’s tomb for days. There are other strange and primitive traditions which were inherited from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India and they include crawling on the ground or walking on burning coal.

‘Suppressed culture’

These rituals can be sociologically and anthropologically interpreted as expressions of a “suppressed culture” that has lived on the margins for years although it has what it views a historical and religious legitimacy.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this culture found itself free of all restraints that prevented it from expressing itself. Therefore, it began to spontaneously express itself in a manner where religious rites are mixed up with tribal ones.

The way Shiites expressed themselves and exposed the faults, which resulted from being marginalized for so long. This was a result of the elimination policy which the Baath Party practiced in Iraq during its time in power. It was also a reaction to attacks by al-Qaeda and ISIS later.

Like any religious ritual, there is no single accurate and final interpretation of Ashura rituals. They do not submit to rational standards in general but rather to acceptance and obedience

Hassan Al Mustafa

Rituals in this case reflect the politics, culture and social norms rather than a commitment to the teachings of Ahl Al-Bayt. Even the narratives – which those who perform these rituals tell you – are carefully selected according to what suits them as many texts actually contradict their practices and oppose them.

Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia were affected by what happened in Iraq in 2003. The events there affected the entire region politically and culturally, but the increased practice of rituals by Shiites in Iraq had great influence on Shiites in the Gulf in general.

This is why we started to hear clerics calling on people to participate in self-flagellation rituals. A strange rhetoric that depends on metaphysics, dreams and myths began to develop while portraying Ahl Al-Bayt imams as people above humans or as men with superpowers. It is the same image drawn for Sufi saints or for Jesus in Christianity.

Doubting rituals

Debates about these rituals among Saudi Shiites can be seen in the articles published in local news websites or social networks and during preachers’ and intellectuals’ lectures. In fact, the controversy reflects the society’s development and growing awareness.

Saudi Shiites are not a monolith and they are not a closed uniform community that walks like a herd of sheep behind a certain religious leader as some people imagine. They are like other social groups in Saudi Arabia, a community that’s culturally and socially diverse as there are several religious and liberal movements that engage in a real discourse that has resulted in several changes.

Here is a guide to the ideas circulating during Ashoura:

1. The movement of traditional clerics which represents a wide group that believes in the importance of commemorating Ahl Al-Bayt and holding ceremonies away from politics. These events mainly focus on detailing Hussein’s virtues and the Karbala incident. This movement does not adopt “tatbir” or “zanjeel.” The movement’s prominent clerics include Sheikh Hussein al-Omran and the late Sheikh Abdulhamid al-Khati.

2. A movement that consists of the Shirazi school that follows late Sayyid Mohammad al-Shirazi and another school that follows the “Walaai” doctrine represented by the late Sheikh Jawad Tabrizi and Ayatollah Hussain Vahid Khorasani. This is in addition to a third group called “Sheikhism” which is mainly present in al-Ahsa and Dammam. This group follows the teachings of late Mirza Hassan al-Haeri al-Ehqaqi.

While they have some differences, all these three movements support self-flagellation rituals and other practices considered unusual for the majority of Saudi Shiites. The problem with this group is that it attempts to monopolize Shiism and accuses those who oppose it of “weak loyalties to Ahl Al-Bayt.”

Extremists among this movement adopt a fundamentalist rhetoric similar to that adopted by the likes of Yasser al-Habib and Sayyid Mujtaba Hussaini Shirazi. They harshly criticize figures like Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Sheikh Ahmad al-Waeli and Sheikh Abdulhadi al-Fadli because they reject the fundamentalist sectarian interpretation of Imam Hussein’s biography.

3. The Centrist movement aims to present the Karbala incident in a modern way and without narrating any myths. However, this movement “lacks the required bravery” as some would say and it does not engage in any critical discussions with clerics from the aforementioned school above.

This movement’s most prominent figure is Ayatollah Sayyid Mounir al-Khabbaz who has worked on presenting a moderate rhetoric rooted at the ideas of Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and Sayyid Mohammed Baqer al-Sadar. However, due to social pressures, Khabbaz does not criticize practices like “tatbir” as he wants to avoid debate with fundamentalists and to maintain unity, as his followers claim. He perhaps avoids it out of respect and courtesy for his teachers Mirza Tabrizi and Hussain Vahid Khorasani.

4. Reformist movement is a movement that rejects the metaphysical image promoted by the Shirazi movement when explaining Ashoura rituals. This movement frankly and directly criticizes this approach and believes that remaining silent over such practices poses a threat to “Shiism,” “distorts the renaissance of Imam Hussein” and contributes “to generalizing a culture of ignorance and backwardness.”

Among those who form the backbone of this “enlightment” movement are Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, Sheikh Hussein al-Mustafa, Sayyid Hassan al-Nimr and Sayyid Mohammed Rida al-Salman.

5. This fifth movement views Ashoura rituals as a result of religious phenomenon and as a human, social and cultural behavior, i.e. it does not grant these rituals any sanctity that shields them from criticism. This movement deals with these rituals as a matter on which the standards of social and anthropological studies apply. Tawfiq Al-Saif is perhaps one of the most prominent experts in this field in Saudi Arabia.

Accurate interpretation

Like any religious ritual, there is no single accurate and final interpretation of Ashoura rituals. They do not submit to rational standards in general but rather to acceptance and obedience. They are the product of spiritual sentiments and self-certainty.

According to this interpretation, they resemble “faith” and “love.” Both is personal and from the heart and which cannot be measured by reason alone.

Therefore, this fifth movement looks at the religious phenomenon via a neutral approach while culturally interpreting it and analyzing the factors that influence it without being part of it.

It believes this phenomenon is part of the individual’s and society’s freedom to practice religious rituals without any compulsions. However, this movement with its secular tendency also offers strong critique that rejects “primitive” behaviors like “tatbir” and walking on burning coal because they lack rationality and violate man’s dignity and humanity.

This discourse within the Saudi Shiite society is beneficial and necessary, and it’s important that it continues without the interference of any official or higher religious authority as it will produce more modern ideas that keep up with progress, strengthen belief in plurality, decrease the extent of fundamentalism and sectarianism and make people more able to think freely, without fear or control from clergy or others.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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