Ashura: Islam gone catholic!

The following is part of an article by Navid Kermani , a writer and commentator on Iranian and Islamic affairs in Germany, on the ancient roots of the tale of Hussein’s martyrdom:

The Safavids expanded the rituals of mourning for Hussein – not least for reasons of power politics. As the majority of the Iranian population at that time were Sunnis, the Safavids aimed to bind them more closely to the Shi’a and to shore up hatred against the Sunnis. In order to ensure the legitimacy of the Iranian-Shi’ite dynasty, it was important that Sunni Islam should be identified with the Arabs. The cult of suffering surrounding Hussein offered the best means of accomplishing this – as the passion and martyrdom of heroes is the outstanding theme of Iranian national tradition.

According to ancient Iranian legend, Gayomart, the first human being, died a redemptive death and his martyred body is said to have given birth to the whole of humanity. In Shi’ite folk religion, Hussein’s martyrdom too has a redemptive function.

Ancient Iranian legends, as well as Zoroastrian ceremonies and hymns of mourning, became associated with the cult of the Third Imam. A death cult featuring processions and magicians’ chants had already existed around the pre-Islamic hero Siyawusch (indeed in the Iranian province of Fars ‘The Revenge of Siyawusch’ is still performed today as a folk ritual). And various motifs which recur in the passion plays can also be found in the Shahnameh, the Persian national epic of the twelfth century – for example the motif of the bloodstained river or the corpse trampled by horses. The motif of ritual murder was a feature not only of authentic Iranian culture but also of the Babylonian culture that exerted an influence on Persia. Certain key motifs from the passion story can already be found in the Babylonian cults surrounding Adonis and Tammuz, such as the flag, the hand, the water, the blood, and the ‘animalisation’ of Hussein’s murderer Shimr who, according to a Shi’ite legend, had a “muzzle like a dog and bristles like a pig”.

Although one cannot speak of a direct influence, it is important to note that by promoting the cult of mourning around Hussein, the Safavids were making use of a ritual form that was already rooted in the culture. The speed with which the Shi’a established itself as the dominant faith in Iran may be accounted for by the Ashura’s combination of Shi’ite religious themes with Persian national themes.

As the Safavids repeatedly stressed, Husseinwas not only the grandson of the Arabian Prophet, but was also said to have been the husband of a Persian princess. According to Safavid ideology, his fate was identical with the fate of Iran.

The Shi’ite folk piety which is now widespread in Iran and Southern Lebanon, with its passion plays, processions of flagellants, icons and music, is a development of the modern era, beginning only in the late sixteenth century. Muslim intellectuals such as Ali Shariati have sharply criticised the transition from a ‘red’ to a ‘black’ Shi’a, from a religion of active protest to a religion of passive lamentation.

But this cannot alter the fact that the Shi’ite religion is now dominated by black flags and veils, the ubiquity of mourning, penitence and death, a conspicuous enthusiasm for selfsacrifice, the celebration of suffering, the reverence for martyrdom and the veneration of individual martyrs.

Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian: points of contact and distance

Unlike the Shi’ites, the Sunnis do not ascribe a central significance to suffering which is far more a feature of Christianity, the similarities of which to Shi’ite Islam have often been noted. In the Festival of Ashura, the motifs of pre-natal guilt, penitence and possible redemption have a firm place – although they are more familiar to Christianity than to the Koran.

While expressing grief for the death of Hussein, these rituals are equally a sign of penitence for the original failure of the community to stand by the Imam in Karbala. This introduces a post-Koranic notion of inherited guilt to Islam which has no concept of original sin as such. According to the Koran, man is born good; God has onferred on him the responsibility of doing good, while allowing him the freedom to perform evil. It is thus impossible to derive a theology of redemption from the Koran itself.

Mohammad’s revelation discloses an almost mathematical relationship to sin which is frequently communicated metaphorically in images deriving from the language of commerce: not that God reckons like a shopkeeper – as the All Merciful he is prepared to balance many sins against one good deed, but nonetheless there is a clear ratio: only through good deeds can evil deeds be forgiven. Faith alone cannot be a key to Paradise, nor can repentance. On the Day of Judgement, man’s actions will be weighed in the scales, especially his acts of charity, justice and kindness.

In Shi’ite folk religion, by contrast, is rooted the concept that while each Shi’ite shares in guilt for the death of the martyrs, one can nevertheless find redemption through a properly repentant attitude above all through the intercession of an Imam, that is to say: a martyr. And naturally also by following Hussein into martyrdom itself.

In the Christian world self-flagellation has survived to the present day in southern Europe and Central America, but also in the Opus Dei. If one compares pictures of the Holy Week processions in Guatemala or Sezze Romano with the Shi’ite Muharram rituals, the resemblance is startling. Indeed, similarities in the sequence of events of the processions and passion plays, as well as in symbols such as the accompanying chair and banner, have led some researchers to conclude that the sixteenth century cult of suffering was imported directly from Europe.

They point to the similar natural phenomena surrounding the deaths of Christ and Hussein and the way in which both stories feature a murderer who recoils, as well as the dividing of the garments of the murdered Saviour. Finally, too, there are the words of Christ: “Father, I thirst.” Notwithstanding, there is little to indicate that Catholicism had a direct effect on the Shi’a, let alone any concrete historical evidence. Precisely because it has not been adequately explained, the similarity between the two horizons of belief, in each of which martyrdom plays a prominent role, remains puzzling.

Although this fact is sometimes forgotten, it was Christianity, along with the Shi’a, that developed the most distinctive theology of martyrdom. “(We are) always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body,” says Paul. “For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’s sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” (Corinthians II, chapter 4, verses 10-12).

The early Christians took these words literally: there are countless legends which tell of confrontations between representatives of the Roman Empire and fearless believers who laughingly bore repeated agonies of torture. During the Middle Ages, the penitents’ rituals in southern and western Europe became mass phenomena, and until the modern period flagellation was a widespread practice of Catholic piety, generally accompanied by the recitation of Psalms.

“I bring myself before the Court, I pronounce my own punishment, I myself requite my crimes.” Thus, in the eleventh century, St Peter Damian formulated the creed of the active penitents. By contrast with Christianity, the Shi’ites’ notion of inherited guilt has its roots on Earth – not in the heavenly origins of humanity. Guilt is not an essential part of humanity’s earthly existence, but belongs rather to the history of Islam. It comes not at the beginning of the Revelation, but appears long after its end. But just as Christian flagellation promotes the experience of suffering, the imitation of Christ, while also serving as penance for one’s own sinfulness, so Shi’ite ritual is not only the re-enactment of the initial suffering but also the collective penance of a community whose origins were marked by a failure in duty. And even if mainstream Shi’ite theology has not derived any model for worldly action from the concept of original sin, Shi’a ritual has repeatedly inspired its followers to compensate for their failure not only symbolically, but also through concrete political activity.

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