Muharram is marked as the first month of the Islamic calendar and brings in the Islamic New Year. Muharram is also recognized in the Islamic world as one of four sacred months, decreed to be so by the Holy Quran.
A tradition which is famously associated with Muharram, that has seared itself in most people’s memories, is that of devotees whipping themselves during the mourning processions that are commonly held on the tenth day of the month.
The ritual is conducted on the holy Day of Ashura and marks the death of Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammed’s grandson. The event is a significant one for Shi’ite Muslims who are known for cutting themselves with swords, knives and most commonly with bladed whips of various types and dimensions.
The ritual is reserved for the 10th day of the “mourning month” of Muharram, allowing Muslims to remember Imam Hussein, also known as Husayn Iban Ali, who died at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
In the Shi’ite culture, Imam Hussein’s martyrdom is seen as juxtaposed with Islam’s fight against tyranny, oppression and injustice.
The practice of self-flagellation or whipping and cutting oneself to varying degrees is common in most nations where Islam is practiced, including India, Pakistan, Iraq, Greece and other Islamic nations around the world.
Countries like Iran and Lebanon have banned the practice of cutting and whipping but in nations such as India and Bangladesh, the practice is being continued with the same fervor as before.
While many, especially in the western world look at the tradition as barbaric and conforming to very old ideals, to the practitioners of the Shi’ite Muslim faith, it is a matter of great pride that such traditions are being carried forward into the modern world as well.
According to the followers of this practice, their efforts are a sign of devotion and perseverance to the faith and the great men who upheld it in the past.
Regardless of which side one stands on, one must admit that the amount of pain that these individuals are willing to suffer through, for the sake of their values and religion, is impressive to say the least.
It has also been said by those who have taken part in the practice that they felt themselves slipping into a repetitive and meditative state as they inflicted damage upon their bodies.