Chapter 6: Fatawa On Ashura Ceremonies

Introduction

Every year, the holy month of Muharram acts as a reminder to the Muslims of the sombre memory of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, the grandson of the final Messenger of Allah, the holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and his progeny. Imam Husayn alayhis-salam along with his brothers and nephews and some seventy of his loyal companions, were killed by the army of the brutal tyrant Yazid on the tenth day of Muharram – Ashura – in the field of the land of Karbala by the River Euphrates, while overwhelmed by severe thirst.

Imam Husayn alayhis-salam stood up to defend the noble teachings of Islam, which his grandfather had brought, against the relentless efforts of the Umayyad dynasty to uproot those teachings and replace them with every evil and decadence they could master. Imam Husayn alayhis-salam rose to revive Islam anew, for if it was not for the effort and monumental sacrifice that he and his followers and family members offered, there would most probably be no sign of Islam as we know it today. For such reasons, the holy month of Muharram, and the following month of Safar – both of which are known as the months of sorrows – are the time to mourn the tragic loss of such an impeccable personality, as well as the time to reflect on the teachings and movement of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, who became known as Sayyid-ul-Shuhada’ meaning “Master of the Martyrs”, and Abul-Ahrar meaning “Father of the Free”.

Every year, during the first ten days of the month of Muharram, special programs are held to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam. These Imam Husayn-special commemoration programs – or Husayni Sha‘a’er in the Islamic literature – serve as a school of learning for everyone, and at all levels. The Husayni Sha‘a’er mainly consist of a series of lectures and speeches exploring the personality of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, and those of his devout companions, covering the bravery, mission, and achievements of Imam Husayn alayhissalam.

These programs revive the fervour of the battlefield of Karbala and the sacrifice offered by Imam Husayn – the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad – the final Messenger of the Creator to humanity – and the son of Imam Ali and Lady Fatima al-Zahra’, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon them.

The lectures also cover the movement of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, the values he stood for, and the aim for which he paid everything he had – his own life as well as those of his sons, brothers, nephews, and companions.

Various aspects of the teachings of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam are normally addressed in these public lectures and speeches.

As part of the Husayni Sha‘a’er, there are also programs of public show of grief, known as Ma’tam or Ta‘ziah in Arabic, Azadari in Farsi. The programs of Ta‘ziah take various forms such as: reciting lamentation poetry and chest beating. However, on the tenth day of Muharram, Ashura – the day of the killing of Imam Husayn, in their grief and sorrow, and in their wish to have been able to join Imam Husayn in his battle with falsehood, devotees of Imam Husayn take part in public processions of self-flagellation (Zanjir) and/or hitting themselves on the top of their head with a sword or any other sharp blade to allow blood to flow – known as Tatbir in Arabic or Qama-Zani in Farsi, - in sympathy with Imam Husayn,, and his companions. To create the atmosphere of the battlefield of Karbala, drums, horns, and cymbals are also used during the ceremony of Tatbir program. Needless to say that the ceremonies of Tatbir have been conducted for many generations, stretching over many centuries, and starting with the era of the Ahl-ul-Bayt alayhum-as-salam. Over the many centuries the Tatbir program has proven to be very safe and is performed by experienced individuals.

Tatbir is performed by the devotees throughout the world; from India, Pakistan, and the Middle East, to Europe, America and Australia. This is perhaps one of the manifestations of the famous saying; “Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.”

There are also programs of enactments – known as Shabeeh – depicting the scenes of the battlefield of Karbala and its aftermath, showing the severed heads, and the decapitated bodies, the marching of troops of Yazid taking the women and children captive, etc. After the killing of the Imam and his companions, the victorious army of Yazid torched their tents, and the fearful women and children, being chased from one place to another, ran over the ashes of the blazing tents that had been set alight by the triumphant troops.

Today, the torching of the tents are also enacted on the day of Ashura, by setting alight many tents that had been set up for this purpose. In sympathy with the sufferings of the women and children, many Muslims on the day of Ashura, also walk barefoot on red-hot charcoal.

Although practices of Tatbir and fire walking on the day of Ashura are common amongst the Muslims, however, they are not the only people who engage in such practices. Tatbir for example is not limited to Muslims alone, but also followers of other religions such as Christianity perform such acts in certain parts of the world, as a sign of their devotion to Jesus Christ peace be upon him. Every year on the occasion of Easter, Christians in the Far East for example perform public acts of flagellation out of devotion to the prophet Jesus son of Mary peace be upon them. This issue is one of the topics of an interview conducted with a Christian scholar that appears at the end of this book.

Furthermore, the practice of walking on fire that devotees of Imam Husayn do in remembrance and sympathy with the women and children that were taken prisoners after the killing of Imam Husayn and his companions, is not limited to Muslims only. Even secular and non-religious people practice and promote fire walking as part of their endeavour to enhance their physical, mental and spiritual stamina.

However, due to the widespread Islamophobia, and despite the nonuniqueness of these programs as referred to above, some Muslims go as far as calling for such programs to be stopped as, in their opinions, these programs “give bad image of Islam and Muslims”. However, just as for any other aspect of life – private or public – that the Muslims seek clarification on the legality of a particular act from the Islamic legalistic viewpoint, the Muslim people at various stages and at various times have sought the opinion of the Maraje‘ of time – the Authorities on Islamic law – for such programs as the Tatbir and fire walking. In the following pages the Fatawa (decrees) of the Muslim world’s leading and most eminent Maraje‘ of recent time are presented, along with questions and answers on the issues concerned from the legalistic and historic point of view.

Decrees of 22 of the most Eminent Maraje’ of the Shi'a world regarding Ta‘ziah or ‘Azadari for Imam Husayn alayhis-salam [The list below is not exhaustive, but it only enlists some of the eminent Maraje‘.]

Fatwa of al-Imam al-Sheikh Abdul- Kareem al-Ha’ery Founder of the current Hawzah50 in the holy city of Qum

“The hitting of swords on the heads (causing bleeding) is alright (allowed) provided there is no harm to the person doing this. Furthermore no one has the right to prohibit this (hitting the head with sword). In fact all kinds of TA’ZIAH – mourning – for SAYYID AL-SHUHADA’ – Imam Husayn – may our souls be sacrificed for him, are MUSTAHAB – desirable deeds.”

The above Fatwa by Sheikh Abdul Kareem al-Ha’ery was endorsed and signed by the following eminent Maraje’:

  1. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sheikh Muhammad al-Araki,
  2. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Muhammad Ridha al-Gulpaygani,
  3. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Shahab-el-Deen al-Mar’ashi al-Najafi,
  4. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Hasan al-Tabataba’e al-Qummi,
  5. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Waheedi,
  6. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Mirza Jawaad al-Tabrizi,
  7. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Muhammad Saadiq al-Rouhani,
  8. Ayatollah al-Udhma Muhammad Mahdi al-Lankaroudi,

And many other Maraje’ and eminent scholars . . .

50 University for Islamic sciences.

Fatwa of al-Imam al-Sheikh Muhammad

Husayn al-Naa’ini

{’Ustadhul-‘Ulema} or {Teacher of the Maraje’} of the holy city of Najaf.

“There is no doubt as to the permissibility of the beating of the chest and the face with the hands to the point of redness or blackness (of the chest or the face). This is also extended to the lashing of the shoulders and the back with chains to the extent mentioned (above), and even if this led to bleeding. As for causing the bleeding of the head by sword beating, this is also allowed provided it does not lead to endangering harm, such as unstoppable bleeding or harm to the scull, etc. as it is known amongst the experts in doing this (hitting on the head).”

The above Fatwa by Sheikh Muhammad Husayn al-Naa’ini was endorsed and signed by the following eminent Maraje’:

  1. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Mohsen al-Hakim,
  2. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Muhammad Kaadhem al-Shari’at- Madari,
  3. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Abd-el-A’la al-Sabzewary,
  4. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Abul-Qassim al-Kho’i,
  5. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Muhammad Ridha al-Gulpaygani,
  6. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Seestani,
  7. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid Muhammad Saadiq al-Rouhani,
  8. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Mirza Jawaad al-Tabrizi,
  9. Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sheikh Husayn al-Waheed al-Khurasani, And many other Maraje’ and eminent scholars . . .

Fatwa of Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid al- Kho’i The former leader of the Hawzah of the holy city of Najaf

Question:

Is there any problem with causing the bleeding of the head – TATBIR – as it is practiced, to express one’s grief about the martyrdom of our Imam Husayn peace be upon him, assuming there is going to be no permanent harm?

Answer:

There is no problem with that, given the assumption made in the question, and Allah knows best.

Question:

You stated that there is no problem in causing the bleeding of the head – known as Tatbir – if it does not lead to harm. It is said that it is not more than a permissible act, then can Tatbir be Mustahab – desirable – if the intention was the upholding and honouring the Sha’a’er – signs of Allah – and sympathy with the Ahl-ul-Bayt, alayhum-as-salam?

Answer:

Most probably Allah Almighty would give thawab – reward (the individual) – for sympathising with the Ahl-ul-Bayt alayhum-as-salam if the intention is sincere.

Fatwa of Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Sayyid al-Seestani Current leader of the Hawzah of the holy city of Najaf

Question:

What is the ruling regarding the lashing with chains, chest beating, and walking on fire on the occasion of mourning the martyrdom of Imam Husayn peace be upon him?

Answer:

If (these are) not associated with extreme harm or loss of limb, there is no objection.

Question:

What is the ruling regarding wearing black, and chest beating when commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn peace be upon him, as well as other infallible Imams peace be upon them?

Answer:

This is permissible, and in fact this is regarded as one of the best means of seeking nearness to Allah, since it is upholding and honouring the Sha’a’er of Allah Almighty51.

51 This is a reference to the Qur’anic verse 22:32. – translator.

Fatwa of Ayatollah al-Udhma al-Imam al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Shirazi

“It is desirable to observe and establish all kinds of mourning programs for Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, such as weeping, chest beating, Tatbir or Qama-Zani, Husayni Majlis, etc. There is no objection to organise such programs in public and to march through the streets in full view of men and women. Also there is no objection to carry flags, standards, banners, and such like in front of the mourning processions, however, instruments of music may not be used.”

Question:

What is your opinion regarding hitting the head with sword – Tatbir – on the day of Ashura whether or not it harms the individual?

Answer:

The most common and widely known opinion of the Fuqaha52 is that the desirability (of Tatbir) is (recognised) if it is not (considered) extremely harmful.

Question:

If one engages in the Ta’ziah (mourning) program of for Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, and goes on to serve the program, but does not do Tatbir, is he regarded as a sinner, who deserves to be humiliated?

Answer:

Tatbir is a desirable act, and a mukallaf – i.e. one who has reached the adolescence age and is duty bound – may forsake a desirable act.

However, it is not allowed to humiliate a Mu’min53, and also one who does not do Tatbir may not humiliate or insult others, or accuse them (of false things).

52 scholars of Islamic law.

53 A faithful

More Fatawa from Imam Muhammad Shirazi

Husayni Ceremonies

Question:

If religious Sha‘a’er (ceremonies) in general, and the Husayni ones in particular were to be ridiculed by others, should one stop practicing those Sha‘a’er?

Answer:

The Holy Qur’an states, {alas for the servants! there comes not a messenger to them but they mock him!}54 It is imperative to educate those who are ignorant of the reason and background of these ceremonies and remind those who are familiar (with them of the significance of these Sha‘a’er).

Question:

If failure and neglecting to attend in the Husayni Majalis (programs) would lead to weakening the Islamic spirit for the individual, and his family, would this be considered as a sin?

Answer:

Yes.

Question:

Is it obligatory to ensure that Ashura is commemorated?

Answer:

Yes, and it (Ashura) is one of the most important of religious Sha‘a’er.

Question:

They say we are the nation of weeping . . . the nation of political weeping .

. . we are a nation that with its tears floods and destroys the obstacles that confront Islam. What is your opinion?

Answer:

Weeping is a powerful weapon for expressing oppression, and this weapon has been used by many of the prophets and saints, and there is no doubt that the case of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam has attracted many to Islam.

54 The Holy Qur’an, [36:30]

Imam Husayn and Events of Ashura

Question:

I have heard a hadith that Imam Baqir alayhis-salam has said, “All Imams are ships of salvation, but Imam Husayn alayhis-salam is the largest (Ship). Is this hadith true, and where can I find it?

Answer:

It is reported that the Imams (of Ahl-ul-Bayt) alayhum-as-salam are the ships of salvation, and the ship of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam is bigger,and in the deep seas (it is) faster . . . . You may refer to “Ikmaal al-Deen wa Itmaam al-Ni‘mah” by sheikh al-Sadouq, “Ma‘ali al-Sebtayn” by sheikh Muhammad Mahdi al-Mazandarani.

Question:

When Imam Husayn alayhis-salam headed for Iraq, did he know that he would be killed and his family taken prisoners? And if yes, does this not constitute exposing oneself to a certain death?

Answer:

He knew of his fate, and his action is the manifestation of:

if the religion of Muhammad is not to survive except with my death,then O Swords! Take me.

Question:

On his way to Iraq, was Imam Husayn alayhis-salam seeking martyrdom, or was he seeking power, and why?

Answer:

He was seeking martyrdom, for Islam depended on that course of action.

Question:

Is there no contradiction between the peace pact Imam Hasan alayhissalam made with Mo’awiyah, and the uprising of Imam Husayn alayhissalam against Yazid?

Answer:

There is no contradiction between the two stances, since each has his own duties and responsibilities according to the circumstances of the day. The circumstances of uprising that Imam Husayn alayhis-salam faced did not arise at the time of Imam Hasan alayhis-salam, nor did they arise during the first ten years of his (Imam Husayn’s) imamah (leadership). More details about the lives and the circumstances are given in details in reference books, which address the lives of the two Imams alayhum-as-salam. For us it is sufficient the saying of the Prophet Muhammad sallallahu-alayhi-wa-aalih when he said, “Al-Hasan and al-Husayn are two Imams whether they rise up or not”.

Question:

What would you put Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah55 not joining Imam Husayn alayhis-salam down to?

Answer:

He was sick and unable to go.

Chest beating

Question:

What is your opinion with regards to chest beating ceremonies for Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, and was it practiced at the time of the Ma‘soom Imams alayhum-as-salam?

Answer:

(Performing) chest beating ceremonies for the Ma’soomeen alayhum-assalam is permissible, and in fact Mustahab (desirable), and the ladies descendent from Fatima al-Zahra’ established chest beating in the presence of Imam Zayn al-‘Abidin alayhis-salam.

Tatbir

Question:

Some individuals say that I do not see shedding my tears as enough to express my grief for Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, his household and his companions on the day of Ashura. So is hitting myself with sword and injuring myself is allowed?

Answer:

The Husayni Sha’a’er, including Tatbir, are some of the raajih56 issues.

Tatbir is a Mustahab or desirable deed, unless it leads to death, loss of limb, or loss of faculties.

55 Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah is Imam Husayn’s half brother, whose mother was called al- Hanafiyyah.

56 raajih means acts that are permissible, but could be classified as desirable, or even obligatory depending on the circumstances of the time. The determination of those circumstances that render this are made by the Marje‘. – translator

Question:

Imam Mahdi, alayhis-salam and may Allah hasten his reappearance, addresses his great grandfather, Imam Husayn alayhis-salam (in Zeyarahal- Nahiyah): “. . . I shall mourn you every morning and every evening, and I shall weep blood for you instead of tears . . .” Can we deduce from this statement that Tatbir (hitting the head with swords to make blood flow) is an emphatically desirable act?

Answer:

Yes.

Question:

Did the Ahl-ul-Bayt alayhum-as-salam used to hurt themselves for Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, in commemorating and glorifying the Husayni Sha‘a’er, such that we should follow suite?

Answer:

Yes, as can be found in various reports and narrations. Some of these would be discussed in more detail later on in this book.

Question:

What is your opinion regarding the reports that Lady Zaynab alayhassalam, when she saw the head of her brother Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, being paraded in public, hit her forehead on the bar of the carriage she was travelling in, causing bleeding to flow from beneath her veil, which was visible to those onlookers who witnessed the event?

Answer:

Yes that is proven.57

Question:

Some would raise questions that, “why do we not give blood on the day of Ashura instead of performing Tatbir, since that would be more civilized than Tatbir, which may pollute the environment, and other sects may ridicule us.” What is your opinion in this respect?

Answer:

57 {Some of the famous references, which confirm the above report, are as follows:

Bihaar al-Anwaar; v. 45, p. 114, Jalaa’ al-‘Oyun; v. 2, p. 238, Zaynab al-Kubra; p. 112, Asraar al-Shahadah; p. 474, Al-Muntakhab; v. 2, p. 478, Nusrat-ul-Madhlum; p. 18.

Needless to say that ‘Allamah Majlisi – compiler of Bihaar al-Anwaar – and Sheikh al- Shari’ah al-Isfahani have confirmed the authenticity of the report.}

Giving blood in its own right is good, but this does not conflict with performing the Husayni Sha‘a’er. Furthermore, drawing blood from the head accompanies many health benefits, and it is a Sunnah of Rasulollah salla-llahu-alayhi-wa-aalih, and Rasulollah used to call it al-Mughithah and al-Munqithah (literally meaning “the saviour”) and both the Shi’a and the non-Shi’a agree on its authenticity, and Bukhari and many others have reported many narrations in this respect. It is reported from Imam Sadiq alayhis-salam that, “It is cure from insanity, leprosy and other skin diseases, diseases that lead to blindness, and toothache”. The Mu’minin may give blood on another day, such as 3rd of Sha‘baan, which is the birthday of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam.

Question:

If something such as Tatbir would result in distorting the image of the true religion, which in turn would weaken other Husayni Sha‘a’er in the heart of the Mu’minin58, what is the ruling then?

Answer:

Tatbir is generally a desirable act, and it is actually not proven that it causes distortion and the like. In fact many media experts would consider it as one of the most important means of education, giving vitality to the (Shi’a) school of thought59. Furthermore, merely on grounds that an act would bring about distortion or ridicule, does not mean that one may abandon a ruling or a practice, otherwise we would have to abandon many of rulings of Allah Almighty, such as hijab, hajj, the daily prayers, fasting, etc. Allah Almighty says in the Qur’an: {alas for the servants! there comes not a messenger to them but they mock him!}60. Does the mock and ridicule of the prophets means that they should withdraw from their mission?

Question:

Is the harm attained as a result of Tatbir regarded as permissible or desirable, for which one would be rewarded? Did the Ahl-ul-Bayt alayhum-as-salam encourage this?

Answer:

Tatbir is permissible if it does not result in death, loss of a limb, or loss of use of a limb – such as blindness of an eye. If Tatbir was performed with 58 The faithful 59 See for example the interview with a Christian scholar towards the end of this book. 60 The Holy Qur’an, [36: 30]

intention of sympathy with Sayyid-al-Shuhada61 alayhis-salam, and to express one’s devotion to him and to defend the Truth, to train for and attain faithful spirituality, sacrifice, and steadfastness, then it would be amongst the definite desirable acts, and in this respect scholars in the old and modern times have issued endorsing Fatawa (rulings). Many reports have been narrated about the biographies of the Ma’soomeen alayhum-assalam that indicate that the bearing of hardship and losses in the way of Allah, and training and disciplining the self on Taqwa (piety) are considered desirable. For example our lady Fatima al-Zahra alayhassalam used to stand up in worship for prolonged periods such that her feet would swell. Another example is that Imams Hasan and Husayn alayhumas- salam used to go to the Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah on foot while their camels walked behind them.

Play Acting

Question:

Every year we organise enactment of the scenes of Karbala, focusing on the important personalities such that of the Ma’soom, or al-Abbas, and other members of Ahl-ul-Bayt alayhum-as-salam. The actors concerned may not fit the reported physical characteristics of the individuals concerned. Is this permissible.

Answer:

It is of the best means to seek closeness to the Almighty to use various permissible means to disseminate the teaching and heritage of the Ahl-ul- Bayt alayhum-as-salam, and those of Imam Husayn alayhis-salam. This must be done with utmost care, paying meticulous attention to details and accuracy, so that the presentation is fitting to the occasion and commendable from every aspect.