Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Afghan cleric says give blood for Ashura, don’t spill it

December 28, 2009

AshuraThe most fervent believers among Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan traditionally take to the streets for the holiday of Ashura to flagellate themselves with knives and chains, but a top cleric wants them to donate their blood instead.

Ashura, one of the Shi’ite calendar’s biggest events, commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in battle in A.D. 680.

For the festival Shi’ite mourners across the Muslim world gather to lament, beat their chests, and cut themselves until blood flows, to express solidarity with Hussein. In Afghanistan believers traditionally flog themselves with chains tipped with steel knives.

“We do not feel any pain right after the beating. When we go home during the night it will be fine and there is no need to go to a doctor, our wounds get better by themselves,” said Katib Alia, part of a group attacking their own backs until they bled outside one of Kabul’s most sacred shrines.

But some leading Shi’ite clerics in Afghanistan have rejected the practice, saying mourners should donate to blood banks rather than mutilating themselves in the street.

Ayatollah Mohammed Asef Mohseni, better known in the West as a sponsor of a law that requires women to satisfy their husband’s sexual appetites, condemned the practice on the eve of the festival, my Afghan colleagues told me.

Speaking on a television station run by his son, Mohseni urged believers to donate their blood to help the injured rather than spilling it in the mesmerising, but alarming ceremony.

Other Shi’ite clerics in Afghanistan have also condemned the practice which they say has no place in modern Islam, and the idea of donating blood instead of various forms of self-mutilation has spread to many Muslim countries.

Hundreds of men (it is only men), ranging from young teenagers to those in their 60s and 70s, participate in Afghanistan. After stripping naked to the waist they beat themselves to the rhythm of chants and prayers, many working themselves up into such a frenzy that they have to be forcibly stopped from doing serious harm to themselves by volunteers from the shrine or mosque where they have gathered.

These guardians have to brave blades to fell the flagellating men and boys — I saw one sliding in like a martial arts star to knock over a particularly frenzied man with a well-placed kick to the ankles — and often have to fight to pull their chains from their hands.

When the beating is finished thin cloths are placed over backs streaming with blood and the men get just a plastic cup of hot milk to help them recover.

Shi’ites make up around 15 percent of Afghanistan’s roughly 30 million people.  The country’s Sunnis do not participate in the whipping ceremonies and many consider them barbaric, but the events have not been hit by the major sectarian violence that has often marred Ashura in other nations.

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