(reflections on the CTA conference coming soon, but had to get this post out!)

I walked into one of my local bookstores today to see if I could order a specific book about Ashura and the battle of Karbala. “That’s the Shi’i blood-letting ritual!” the man behind the counter yelled loudly enough for the entire store to hear. Oh, and he’s Jewish, so this makes this even more of a politically incorrect joke.

There are customers behind me and as I begin to tell him that Ashura is not just a blood-letting thing, and why there is a remembrance in the first place (the slaughter of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, well as the deaths of his friends and family, not to mention the grief of his sister Zaynab – and all those left behind…and that all this grief is collective and present…and the future…but no, it’s all about blood-letting, yeah). Oh, and that there are some Shiah who don’t do that. He says, “I’m sure most Shiah think it’s an abominable practice.” Uh, I’m not an expert in Shiasm here and I didn’t really know what to say, but I spit out: “Well, there are plenty of people who think those practices are fine, too. And that’s o.k.”

Jalal Toufic says, “the preservation of the events of Ashura exist on two levels….in the world of the imagination…as well as the labyrinthine temporality of the realm of underneath, where al-Husayn would run the risk of forgetting who he is, of forgetting himself; in historical time, through the bodily and emotional tortures endured during the . … commemorative ceremory, which are the means to breed in the human being, a forgetful creature (“And verily we made a covenant of old with Adam, but he forgot, and We found no constancy in him” Qur’an 20:115) a historical memory. But the memory that the ceremony of Ashura is trying to maintain is not only that of the past, but the memory of the future, that of the . . . coming Mahdi . . . and the promise of Twelver Shi’ites to wait for him.”

In talking about Catholicism, Carolyn Walker Bynum writes: “Medieval people [and I would add folks into the present –THR] . . . manipulated their own bodies for religious goals. Both male and female saints regularly engaged in what modern people call self-torture – jumping into ovens or icy ponds, driving knives, nails or nettles into their flesh, whipping or hanging themselves in elaborate pantomimes of Christ’s crucifixion. Such acts were…frequently described as union with the body of Jesus….a way of approaching God.”

I have a dream about goldfinches. My art history friend says that goldfinches, because they ate thistle seeds, they are associated with Christ’s passion and crown of thorns. The goldfinch in art occasionally represents Jesus and Mary’s knowledge that he will be killed. This is a lot like the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn’s mother Fatima, other members of the family, and finally, Husayn, knowing that his own death was pre-ordained. The goldfinch is offered to Christ by John the Baptist as an option, much like the option God presented to the Prophet Muhammad about his grandson, much like Fatima’s own heart was pierced as a mother and a daughter many times – even though she knew it was coming. In Holy Family, painted by Barrocio, John the Baptist holds the goldfinch high enough out of reach so a cat won’t eat it. My friend told me that the goldfinch weeps in some pictures, at the sorrow of Jesus. I’m not sure. I know Husayn’s horse wept.

In the New York Times around Ashura last year, there was the story of a bomb blast alongside pictures of people flagellating themselves, blood surrounding them. A Persian friend of mine complained a few years ago about a picture in the New York Times during Nowruz (the Persian New Year). The photograph was of men holding torches. “If you didn’t know anything about Nowruz” she said, “you’d think it was a mob.” I hear frenzy over blood letting a lot regarding Ashura. The self-flagellation (and the fire) are taken out of context (and there amazing people writing about the martyrdom aspect already, so read their work!).

Catholics should pay attention to this. In The Da Vinci Code, Silas flagellates himself. The entire practice was equated to an outdated, evil, corrupt Church. When someone says that all Catholics do that, I’ve heard a couple responses – mostly ranging from it’s an outdated, masochistic practice, most people are abhorred by it, it isn’t condoned, it’s not acceptable in a post-Vatican II church, it’s not relevant. So basically when someone scrunches their nose and says, “That’s the Catholic masochistic ritual,” you’re denying a big part of your Catholic history by saying, “well, most Catholics don’t do that.”

I should add that I was one of the people wounded by masochism in the Church. As someone who self-harmed, I do understand in my own way why all of that stuff pains people. Some people who have known me long enough can attest to the fact that I used to cry during movies portraying any kind of flagellation (and hellfire and damnation)…or I would leave the room. I still get jumpy when someone pulls out a razor blade. I believed (I think I talked about this in an earlier post) that bodies were doomed to rot, and the worms would crawl through you. Although my self-harm was in rebellion to the Church, I was unconsciously drawing a road map of sins. The images of the tortured women were really painful to hear. It was inherited, I thought. All this guilt and sadness; messy. As someone who has self-harmed, I also know well the thin line between pleasure and pain. And finally, dare I say, as someone who has self-harmed, I understand on a personal level the need to physically remember your body, to make a map, to connect to something larger, and to remind myself of…something.

What made my experience unhealthy was that I was focused on my low self-worth. I do not think remembering your body via flagellation in a religious context usually has to do with low self-worth. It’s an insult to lump one person’s experience with masochism together with a collective experience. Some say that when sin and God enter the picture, it’s automatically about low self-worth. But I think it’s about your own experience with the religion and the Creator. Jalal Toufic goes on to say: “The basic reason the ceremony’s participants hit and self-flagellate is not some unreasonable feeling of guilt…but that such cruelty is a most effective mnemonic.” St. Christina felt similarly, and was not motivated by guilt in this encounter, but by remembrance and grief:

Then wailing bitterly she began to beat her breast and body . . . ‘O Miserable and wretched body! How long will you torment me….? Why do you delay me from seeing the face of Christ? When will you abandon me so that my soul can return freely to its Creator?

Julian of Norwich did not just have visions of the Passion of Jesus, she became the Passion of Jesus:

…before the creature had desired three graces by the gift of God. The first was the recollection of the Passion. The second was bodily sickness. The third was to have, of God’s gift, three wounds…Then suddenly it came into my mind that I ought to wish for the second wound as a gift…that my body be full of recollection and feeling of his blessed Passion, as I prayed before, I wished his pains might be my pains, with compassion which would lead to longing for God . . . And at this, suddenly I saw the red blood running down from under the crown, hot and flowing freely and copiously, a living stream, just as it was at the time when the crown of thorns was pressed on his blessed head….It was he who just so, both God and man, himself suffered for me, who showed it to me without any intermediary.

In my dream, I had the five wounds of Christ. And everything I touched had five wounds – a book, a coffee cup, a plate, my friends. My friend said that we had to touch each wound in each object, so I spent the entire day touching and meditating on wounds. It was a physical remembrance. It was also an act of lamentation, because part of the meditating on the wounds involved crying out in pain.

In a translation of the marsia, or elegy, of Mir Anis, Zaynab laments:

“She ran, though by the evil enemy balked,

And reached the spot [where Husayn was killed]

Clutching her breast in pain.

Ignoring every danger, she drew near.

Then Zaynab, overcome with sorrow, cried:

…My brother’s throat was slit. See how he died!

…[Your] sister greets [you], brother! Answer me!

Hear the cry of Haidar’s daughter’s strife.

With thy dry tongue give answer! Hear my plea!

Should Zaynab cling to this accursed life?

For Death alone can end this separation.

No one in life can end this consolation.”

I had a religious education teacher remind me once that we couldn’t always be in the Easter or Christmas season. We had to go through advent and lent, too – as painful as it is. I would rather things be happy. However, because I am tied to this collective memory of the past, present, and future, of waiting…anticipaiting….

And because I know that this body has a considerable share in glorifying God (what determines a mystical experience is up to you),

and because lamentation, to me, gets to the core of a religious experience – ecstasy, loss, forgetting, piecing together, and loudness…I can’t write self-flagellation off. I refuse to think that self-inflicted pain in Catholicism is because the women are lowly worms, and that Ashura can be simplified as just a blood-letting ritual. I must cry out with those who recall and forget these losses, as though “our hearts,” in the words of Al-Sirri, “at his [Husayn’s and Jesus’ –THR] remembrance are placed on burning coals, or are pierced with sharp knives.”


Ashura: This Blood Spilled in My Veins, Jalal Toufic

Fragmentation and Redemption, Carolyn Walker Bynum

The Battle of Karbala: A Marsiya of Anis, Trans. David Matthews

Redemptive Suffering in Islam, Mahmoud Ayub

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