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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Anna Akasoy

While these festivals have been and still are mostly opportunities for Shiites to celebrate their community, sometimes Sunnis attend them as well, expressing grief for Husayn and even cursing the Umayyad caliph. Likewise, they hold the Imams and sayyids (descendants of Muhammad, in particular Ali) in high regard and at times even go on a pilgrimage to the graves. Visiting tombs (Arabic: ziyara) is a prominent aspect of Sufism and considered with suspicion by more orthodox Sunni opponents who identify this veneration of humans as a Shiite trait. In Hyderabad, India, the passion plays also attract Hindus who occasionally act as sponsors. Pinault cites in The Shiites an example of Shiites who integrate the protagonists of early Islamic history into Hindu mythology. Husayn is presented as following the "advice given by Krishna to Arjuna on the occasion of Mahabharata."

Sunnis often criticize these rituals as exaggerated practices, most importantly the self-flagellation, which is considered un-Islamic (because of the prohibition of self-harm) and uncivilized. Modern Shiite authorities such as Fadlallah, Khomeini, and Khamenei have also condemned the practice. Forms of self-flagellation extend from a mild and symbolic or strong beating of the chest with the bare hand to beating with the use of weapons such as razor blades, scourges or flails, or knives or short swords, the latter being limited to Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram. This criticism is shared by parts of the Shiite community. Further internal criticism is directed against the mainly young participants for a lack of spiritual engagement, for showing off extreme emotions and physical achievements and thus treating the rituals mainly as a social event. Likewise, recent trends in passion plays have been dismissed as being melodramatic or gruesome instead of inviting observers to spiritual reflection. In part such innovations have been inspired by Western movies.

Minority Shiite communities, such as the Alevis (a sect combining Shiite and Sufi elements) in Turkey, practice further rituals, such as the "ceremony of the union" (cem) where newlywed couples are welcomed into the community. While some symbols used during the ritual refer to the sacred narratives of all Shiites, the consumption of alcohol, generally forbidden in Islamic law, is reminiscent on this occasion among the Alevis of the antinomianism of medieval extreme Shiites.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the taziyah and why are they important?
2.     How does the Sunni community sometimes react to the Muharram rituals? Why?
3.     How has the contemporary celebration of the Muharram rituals changed over the years?


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