Is This the World’s Most Dangerous Mourning Ritual?

Why you should care

Because devotion can be a terrible, wonderful thing.

A man bellows into a microphone in front of Kabul’s largest Shia shrine, Karte Sakhi: “We are still alive today! We will never stop.”

Around him, a crowd of ecstatic men raise their hands in the air and yell, “Ya Hussain,” or “Oh, Hussain,” to rhythmic, almost hypnotic, chest thumping, self-flagellation and devotional music. The previous night, the ninth of the holy month of Muharram, this shrine was attacked by gunmen. At least 18 people who were mourning the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain in Karbala, Iraq, over 1,000 years ago died.

Today, the men are expressing their sadness by beating their backs with chains and knives, causing heavy bleeding. The blood that was spilled the night before has barely dried on the ground. But even threats of renewed attacks have not stopped these people from returning to the scene of the carnage to show their love for Imam Hussain.

Ashura, the tenth of Muharram, is one of the most important holidays in the Islamic calendar, particularly for Shias around the world. The mourning rituals many Shias take part in on this day include beating yourself with knives or chains until the blood flows. This is known as tatbir or matam. Many of these practices are disapproved of, even by Shia clergy, but it’s terrorist groups like the Taliban and ISIS that have declared Shias nonbelievers and targeted them.

In Kabul this year, the threats became a reality as attackers stormed two separate mosques in one night while mourners were marking the eve of Ashura on October 11. In Afghanistan, the Hazara minority is the only predominantly Shia group, and they have been victims of numerous violent attacks and persecution over the decades.

“We know that there are lots of security threats here, but because of the intense love and respect we have for our religion, Karbala and Imam Hussain we are all here and we are afraid of nothing,” Abu Zar, 24, says. He has come out to take part in Ashura processions and believes the attacks on Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan are an attempt to drive a wedge between Sunnis and Shias.

And attacks against Shias have been on the rise. The largest attack to target the Hazara community in Afghanistan took place July 23 in Kabul when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of a protest attended by members of the community. Eighty-one people were killed and over 200 injured. ISIS claimed the attack and threatened to continue targeting the Shia minority.

The fact that this minority has also become more vocal over the years has undoubtedly ruffled some feathers. But it’s the religious beliefs of Hazaras that make them targets of extremist Sunni groups.


“Most people today feel that they are being martyred here in Afghanistan like Imam Hussain was in Karbala,” Azim, 24, says. He grew up in Perth, Australia, but returns to his native Afghanistan every year just to experience Muharram. He believes attacks cannot scare people from commemorating Ashura. “Every year you come here and it’s more and more people,” he says. “It’s because of the love [for Hussain].”

Noor Mohammad, 33, says, “It is not just today that we face these threats. Centuries back, our Imam was martyred and from that day onward the blood of Hussain’s followers has been spilled. The killings have continued. We will feel very proud if we get martyred today.”

Being martyred for one’s beliefs is considered an honor in Islam, especially in Shiism. Thus, Ashura is not only a day of mourning. According to Muhammad Nabi, 58, “Hussain was martyred for the sake of justice. Today is both a day of happiness and sorrow. Happiness because Hussain sacrificed himself and his followers for saving Islam, sorrow because he and his followers were brutally killed.”

While so much innocent blood has been spilled already, many struggle to understand why some people would want to hurt themselves voluntarily in the name of religion.

Zakariya, 38, has been beating his back with chains for almost two hours today. The fresh wounds and the blood pouring out of them hide the numerous scars from previous years’ Ashura processions. “It does not hurt. This is love, love that we have for Hussain. Because of that, the wounds heal very quickly.”

Azim has also been taking part in nightly matam ceremonies since he came to Kabul in the beginning of Muharram. Sometimes, the rituals can act as a type of spiritual cleansing: “Some people feel that they’ve done a lot of things that they want to get rid of. And they do it for the love. It doesn’t hurt them, even though they do it with knives. It’s like we sympathize with [the martyrs] — it’s sentimental and very hard-core.”

From the first day of the month of Muharram, Kabul’s streets have been decorated with flags and pictures of Hussain. The mourners are served sweetened milk and water at stands that dot the sides of streets, especially in Shia-majority areas. Devotional music that laments the fate of Hussain and his followers in the battle of Karbala echoes through the neighborhoods.

“It is the government’s responsibility to provide security. Even if there were no security measures put in place, we would still come here. We will never stop. We celebrated this day even during Taliban rule,” Zakariya says. “We are ready to face anything,” Mohammad says defiantly and disappears into the slowly dispersing crowd as chants of “Ya Hussain” echo around him.

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