Ashura – what is going on in the world

First I saw pictures and videos. Materials showing the celebrations of Ashura were, to put it simply, quite scary. I can honestly say that I have never in my whole life seen something quite like it. If you Google it be prepared for a lot of bloody imagery popping up in your search. If you do not want to google it but still want to know what this post is going on about, let me quickly tell you what I saw on the pictures and videos.

People walk with a flag, Mostafa Meraji/Unsplash Picture published on May 10, 2019.

Men of different ages stand in the middle of roads, parks, cities. They hold swords, I suppose, and other weapon like items which have blades attached to chains. They proceed to beat themselves with those items. They hit their heads with swords, their back with blades while chanting. Needles to say I was terrified and also curious as to why they were doing it to themselves. Turns out it is a religious ritual…

Ashura is a Muslim holy day, 10th day of Muharram, traditionally one of the four sacred months when the fighting was not allowed, so the first month of the Muslim calendar. Sunnis, members of one of the two major branches of Islam, commemorate the day as the day when the Red Sea parted for Moses and his followers to escape from the pharaoh (according to Britannica.com). For Shi’ah, the smaller of the two major branches, it is the day when Al-Husayn and most of his small band of followers were killed. The latter branch of followers deliver sermons, recount the life of Husayn and the history of battle, recite poetry and some practice self-flagellation.

What is self-flagellation? It is the act of hitting yourself with a whip as a way to punish yourself or as during Ashura, it is a part of a religious ritual. It is said to be a disciplinary and devotional practice. Thousands of Shia worshippers on the 19th of August 2021 were hitting themselves with instruments inflicting pain, used knives to cut open their heads to commemorate the holy day.

A man stands in the middle of a crowd, Behnam Jaafarianpoor/Unsplash. Picture published on September 12, 2019.

It is a very controversial event as it is based around inflicting pain and effectively – self-harm. I was shocked seeing the visuals from the day. People were covered in blood, there were teenagers, kids, little children with blood dripping from their heads, held by who seemed to be their parents. The act of drawing blood is supposed to commemorate the innocent blood of Husayn. Many of the worshippers who take part in the religious event believe that it cleanses them of their sins.

Every religion has its own rituals but I have not seen anything like this before. The act of self-harm in the name of a prophet seems like a terrible idea to me and the pictures and videos from the ritual itself are terrifying. What are some of religious rituals you know of but do not understand why they are a thing?

To find out more on Ashura and see some of the visuals from the celebrations go to: WSJ VIDEO METRO.CO.UK PROSPECT MAGAZINE UK