The origin of self-flagellation on tenth of Muharram

In 351 AH, in the reign of Muizz al-Dawlah, the Shiites under the protection of the Shiite government would write on the public places, even on the door of the central Mosque of Baghdad , words in which the first three Sunni Caliphs and Ameer Muawiyah were cursed, this started huge trouble in the city.

Tarikh Ibn Athir, Vol. 8, p. 179

Al bidaya wa al nihaya , Vol. 11, p. 240


Sayyid Ammer Ali writes in “History of Saracens”

Muiz ud dawlaah though a patron of arts and literature was cruel by nature. He was Shiah and it was he who established the 10th day of Muharram as the day of mourning commemoration of the massacre of Karbala.

History of Saracens, p. 303

It was under the reign of Mu‘izz al-Dawlah Ibn Buyeh that the first historical reference to a public procession was documented.

Ibn al-Kathir, a famous 14th century Arab historian recounts:
On the tenth of Muharram of this year (963 AD/352 AH), Mu‘izz al-Dawlah Ibn Buyeh, may God disgrace him, ordered that the markets be closed, and that the women should wear coarse woolen hair cloth, and that they should go into the markets with their faces uncovered and their hair disheveled, beating their faces and wailing over Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib. The people of the Suunah could not prevent this spectacle because of the large numbers of the Shia and because of their increasing prominence, and because the Sultan was on their side.

The accounts of Ibn al-Kathir also show the increased tensions and violence between Sunni and Shia during these public processions as he stated in one of his accounts:
On the tenth of Muharram this year (i.e 353 AH) the Shia celebrated the mourning of Hussein as they did the year before. The Shia and Sunnis fought violently among each other on this day, and much property was looted. Such violence continued until the end of the Buyid dynasty and the arrival of the Saljuqs dynasty in 1055 AD. During the Buyids period, these public processions began to incorporate acts of breast beating (Latm), which were originally reserved to mourning the lost of love one or to grave visits.

Aghaie, “The Origins of the Sunnite-Shi’ite Divide and the Emergence of the Ta’ziyeh Tradition,” 45

Ibn Athir, Vol. 8, p. 184

Tarikh Islam, by Akbar Najeeb Abadi, vol. 2, p. 356
Hussain, “The Mourning of History and the History of Mourning” 84
Hussain, “The Mourning of History and the History of Mourning: The Evolution of Ritual
Commemoration of the Battle of Karbala,” 81

Tashaabih clearly a new fashioned ritual that had not existed in the earliest historical sources.It dates back to the Safavid era.

The Tashabih usually consists of large casts of professional and amateur actors, a director, a staging area, elaborate costumes, and props are utilized with viewers sitting passively as spectators lamenting the passion play. It is considered expensive to stage and must have financial backing by either the state, wealthy individuals, or organizations such as the guilds or neighborhood associations. The most elaborate Tashabih are performed in dedicated structures called takyeh by professional actors performing elaborately realistic scenes utilizing time-accurate costumes, caparisoned camels and horses with Yazid’s in yellow and Hussein’s in green, and the music of trumpets and kettle drums. The play opens with Hussein and his followers traveling through the desert of Karbala to Kufa, and ends with the emotional massacre of Hussein and his followers. During the play, the audience is often passive; however, they do cry, shout, and chant when necessary.The origin might have been the European Corpus Christi plays of the post Renaissance period, which reenacted various events in the passion of Christ culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. They are so realis­tic that the play sometimes ends up with few peo­ple get killed for real and in many, many times the ene­mies of Hus­sein will be killed by the enthu­si­ast crowd at the end of the play. For this reason, Saddam Hussain banned it in the eighties.

The Safavid dynasty made two important steps in regards to mourning: first, they governmentalized the mourning sessions and second, they brought in new forms of mourning.

Peter Di-Lalwaleh, an Italian who reported on the Shias mourning sessions in Isfahan during the Safavid dynasty. He said: “The Ashura mourning session looks like this: everyone seems sad and is wearing black clothes of mourning – clothes which they do not wear at any other time. Nobody shaves their beard or trims their hair nor do they take showers.”

Other unprecedented rituals that did not exist in the early historical sources include the violent blood shedding rituals of self-flagellation. No one knows exactly when and where knives, swords, and chains were first used by Shia mourners to shed their blood in commemoration of Hussein’s death. The earliest description of self-flagellation and blood shedding came from accounts of travelers. One of the earliest descriptions of the use of instruments to shed blood in commemoration of Husayn’s death is provided by the Ottoman traveller Evliya Chelebi who visited Tabriz in 1640.

Samuel Benjamin, the first U.S. official diplomatic envoy to Iran, described self-flagellation in his memoirs as follows:

I was in Tehran in 1884. Processions went through the streets showing severe emotion as never before. Suddenly, men wearing white clothes with knives presented themselves and passionately struck their heads with the knives. Blood flowed from the cuts they made and their knives until they were covered with blood.

During the era of Qajar dynasty (1795-1925)  the tashabih, the theatrical reenactment of the Battle of Karbala developed during the Safavid period, reached its zenith. Separate plays were written about individual heroes, new characters were created, and existing ones were transformed. Huge theaters such as the Takyeh Dowlat in Tehran were built to hold large spectators.

Self-flagellations that were introduced in Azerbaijan became wide spread throughout Iran and even made its way to Iraq by the nineteenth century.

The Shiite clerics recently gave many many fatwas legitimizing such practices, though the fact is that these practices are not from the sunnah of the Prophet (s) or ahlel bayt, rather they are from the Buyids and Safavids, and the Shiites of today are not the followers of the Prophet (s) or ahlelbayt, rather they are the followers of the Safavids basically, how much they try to attribute such practices to the ahlelbayt, the fact remains that they were introduced by the Buyids and Safavids and other Shiite dynasties.

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