Throughout the Middle East last week, Shia Muslims were dancing in the streets chanting ‘ô Hussein' in commemoration of the martyr Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 680 AD. During the ceremony, many participants had blood seeping from their backs and chests as they cut themselves with knives, whips and chains in order to share the pain of their martyr, killed in the battle of Karbala together with 72 of his family members. During the battle, said to be one of the most important in Muslim history, Hussein was defeated by the military force of Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph.
A predominantly Shia event, but also celebrated by Sunni Muslims, the festival aggravated tensions between the two sides and caused violent outbreaks in Iraq. However, the celebration of mourning went ahead as usual elsewhere- even in Washington and London- although not with quite the same flamboyance as in Middle Eastern countries. See the videos and commentary below.
Video posted on YouTube by ‘mfk840', 20 January 2008
Video posted on YouTube by ‘banglamotor', 20 January 2008
Video posted on YouTube by ‘watah06', 20 January 2008
Video posted on YouTube by ‘lehalvi’, 20 January 2008
Commentary and photos from our Observer in Kabul, Nasim, who attends the event in Kabul each year without participating.
A woman taking her children to the ceremony.
A man celebrating Ashura beats himself with chains that have sharp knives attached to them.
School boys also participate in the ceremony.
Last year I had the opportunity to ask people a few questions. Why they were beating and injuring themselves? One young man said: "I have wishes to fulfil." When I asked him what these wishes were, he said to me, "I want to get married, I don't have any money." Some people believe the use of chains with sharp knives during the ceremony is more about being naked and showing off your body than mourning Hussein.
Ashura doesn't have to be only about sacrifice. Here in Tehran, participants have adopted a slightly more 'cool' attitude towards the affair.