The commemoration of Mohurram and mourning practices observed by Shia Muslims were recently at the centre of discussion in the media. This came after the Bombay high court responded to a public interest litigation (PIL) that sought a ban on the participation of children in the ritual known as 'Matam', which is a part of mourning ceremonies and processions during Mohurram.
Matam can involve self-flagellation, where Shia Muslims inflict wounds on their backs, chests, and heads as a sign of mourning for the Holy Prophet's grandson, Imam Hussain, who was martyred in the battle of Karbala along with his family under brutal circumstances. Mohurram and Safar are two months of mourning that are observed in connection with this tragic event.
First of all, to dispel a common misconception, self-flagellation isn't practised by Shia Muslims to atone their sins. It is a symbolic practice to signify that Shias would not have hesitated to lay their lives down for Imam Hussain if they happened to be present during the battle of Karbala. It is a practice that has been followed for the past 1,400 years as a manifestation of mourning for Imam Hussain and his family.
In the recent case, Shias sought to intervene in the petition as they argued that it was filed by a Sunni Muslim. Sunnis are generally opposed to self-flagellation and mourning.
But among Shias themselves, there are conflicting opinions with regard to self-flagellation. There are fatwas (religious diktats) from Shia religious leaders of Iran, which state "any practice that causes bodily harm, or leads to defaming the faith, is Haram. Accordingly, the believers have to steer clear of it. There is no doubt that many of these practices besmirch the image of Ahlul Bayt's (a.s.) School of Thought which is the worst damage and loss." Haram refers to acts that are forbidden. Ahlul Bayt refers to the Holy Prophet's progeny.
However, many of these diktats are not followed by Shias and they continue to self-flagellate to mourn, across the world.
The argument I wish to present here is to do with the part of the above mentioned diktat that talks about besmirching the image of Ahlul Bayt's school of thought. Self-flagellation has not been prohibited by teachings of the Prophet's progeny. It is a manifestation of mourning, like other manifestations (beating of the head and chest with hands).
In fact, after the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain's own sister and surviving son mourned for their lost family after returning to Medina from Damascus. Given these aspects, I fail to understand how this practice besmirches their school of thought.
As far as children's participation in Matam is concerned, the court asked religious leaders to look into the matter. As a Shia Muslim, I have seen children self-flagellate and have practised it myself, from the age of 10. I have observed Mohurram in cities across the country, like Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, etc and also in Damascus, Syria in 2010. Children, whenever participating in Matam, are always under supervision and are stopped from further self-flagellation after a very short while. Wherever I have observed this practice, it is with their own willingness that children participate in this ritual and are not forced into doing this, as one important tenet of Shia ideology is personal choice.
However, concerns of children's safety and hygiene are important and these should be addressed by their parents and religious leaders of the faith.
To conclude, Matam is an important part of Shia identity and should be allowed to continue as an internal practise of faith. As far as safety of the people practising it is concerned, the advocate general representing the state government in the Bombay HC set a welcome precedent by saying that first-aid and ambulances would be kept ready and the state would step in if serious injuries are caused to children.
Faith is a personal practice and should be left to that. However, care must be taken that practices of faith do not cause irrevocable or serious damage and this is where the individual and the state should act responsibly. In this regard, the Bombay high court has provided an agreeable solution.
(The author works with Hindustan Times' business bureau in Mumbai. The views expressed by the author are personal.)