As Shi’a Muslims we mourn during the month of Muharram to commemorate the sacrifices made by Imam Hussain (as), his family and his companions. Karbala and Ashura was a time in history when the grandson of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was martyred by the oppressive caliphate of the time, Yazid. As of today we continue to fight against the same oppressors.
Muharram is a time when Shi’a Muslims gather together in homes/majlis/mosques to listen to lectures and stories of the days leading up to the massacre that took place not far from present-day Baghdad. Our leaders bring forth the message of eternal struggle against humiliation and oppression. It is a great time of sorrow for Muslims worldwide.
Karbala, in turn, became a triumph of sacrifice. The event became a beacon of light to remind Muslims to keep their beliefs in Islam, to be honest and sincere and to always do what is right regardless of the consequences.
Some Shia Muslims, I’ll be it a small portion of the overall Shia population, choose to flog their bodies with a tool referred to as the zanjeer. The zanjeer has a wooden handle to which chains with small blades of steel are attached and dangle loosely from it. The zanjeer is flung across the back of the shoulder and the knives (that are fairly blunt) hit the surface of their back, sometimes cutting and causing bleeding.
Some will take a blade and make a small cut in their forehead or the foreheads of their children. Of course, this looks abusive and violent and would certainly cause people to turn away from Islam. These practices, are few and far between but when photographed their images creep around the world and disparage our beliefs.
There is a lot of damage that can be spread by such images and we should consider this when grieving for Imam Hussain (as). Asking ourselves, is it better to feel grief in a painful manner or is it better to preserve the message of peace that we so strongly represent as Muslims?
The bleeding is a means to attempt to feel the pain of the martyred souls of Karbala. For most, the gentle patting of the palm of the hand to the chest and tears of grief are enough to feel connected and empathize for Imam Hussain (as) and those who suffered in Karbala, those 1400 years ago.
However, for some, having to shed blood is a greater connection and traditionally it has run through communities and has infused a strong bond for them and their grief.
Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khaminai has issued a statement that the practice of drawing blood by flogging during Muharram is not an Islamic principle (usool), but a practice without roots in the scriptures. There are also some Iranian and Pakistani religious leaders who have also agreed that the Shias should have no need to express their identity through self-flagellation. Instead, the devout Muslim should use the occasion of Muharram to donate his blood to help the sick in the name of Imam Hussain (as). Blood is a scarce good and should not be wasted.