Shia Syncretism and Parallels Elsewhere

In the days of the British Raj in India, Ashoura was an important date on the calendar of colonial officials, who inevitably had to contend with Shia customs and procession routes that raised Sunni hackles and, at times, Hindu objections…. Every year British administrators would brace themselves for fights and riots and negotiate Shia procession itineraries and rules of conduct for each community. Today British administrators do much the same thing in Northern Ireland, when the late spring and summer “marching season” sees groups such as the Protestant Orange Lodge approach with demands to process through Catholic neighborhoods.

Ashoura’s powerful focus on sorrow (azadari) and pageantry has a parallel in Catholic Lenten rituals, such as the Holy Week and Good Friday “Way of the Cross” processions and Passion plays that preface Easter Sunday observances in many places. Even the more extreme practices of some Shias, such as shedding one’s own blood through a small cut on the scalp, resemble rituals such as those of the Penitentes, a lay Catholic brotherhood originally formed on the Iberian Peninsula. In rural southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, Penitentes hold special Holy Week reenactments of Christ’s sufferings. They wear crowns of thorns and carry heavy crosses, and are even tied to the crosses and raised from the ground. Shias congregate in husayniyas (abodes of Husayn)—known as imambaras (courts of the imam) in South Asia—where they pray, chant, and lament Husayn’s death. This too has a parallel in the Penitentes’ moradas (places of worship), where they mark the sufferings of Christ.

Ashoura is a time of commemoration and penance for the vices and errors of humanity. The first Ashoura observance appears to have taken place in 684 C.E., four years after Husayn’s death, when a group of penitents gathered at Karbala with blackened faces and torn garments. Every year since, the Shia have shown that they continue to share in the day’s sorrow. Scholars have drawn attention to the resemblances between the rituals of Ashoura and pre-Islamic Iranian and Mesopotamian rites celebrating cosmic renewal, as well as rituals surrounding the death of Dionysus in Greek mythology and Osiris in Egyptian mythology. The Shia’s narrative of sorrow and faith was similarly enacted in the perennial language of ancient civilizations.

Over the years and the miles, the Shia faithful have adapted Ashoura to variations in local culture. As a result, an observance at Lucknow, in northern India, looks quite different in some ways from one in Nabatiye, in southern Lebanon. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands walk long distances to Karbala, sometimes in scorching summer heat, much as Catholic pilgrims still march between the cathedrals of Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres in France. Ashoura in northern India reflects contact with Hindu symbols and festivals. Many of its practices, while recognizable to local Hindus, would seem strange in the eyes of Shias from the Middle East.

Elephants led the processions of the royal Ashouras in Lucknow in the nineteenth century, and the crowd carried large replicas of the grand Shia places of worship in Lucknow and Iraq on their shoulders for many hours…. In Awadh in the nineteenth century, Hindus routinely participated in Ashoura. They adopted Husayn as the god of death, “his bloodstained horse and severed head lifted aloft on Umayyad staves presenting no less terrible an aspect than Kali Durga with her necklace of skulls.” Hindu influence shaped Ashoura rituals—for instance, extending the festival to ten days, the same as the festival of the goddess Durga. In Hyderabad, in southern India, it is customary for Hindu fakirs, with red streaks painted on their faces, and equipped with drums and whips, to walk in front of the main Ashoura procession. They flagellate themselves as they ask onlookers for alms in Imam Husayn’s name. Incense sticks burn in urns, in the tradition of Hindu religious gatherings in congregations for prayers or the reading of dirges. Hindus come to these meetings dressed in the saffron color of their religion, which provides a sharp contrast to the black worn by Shias. Before leaving, the Hindu visitors stoop over the urns and rub the ash of the incense on their eyelids, paying homage to Imam Husayn and receiving his blessing in the ways of their religion.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 45-48

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