New PhD research: The commemoration of Ashura in Iraq and its impact on Shia-Sunni dynamics

by Jafar Ahmad 

October 14 is the first day of Muharram (محرم), the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, where most of Iraq is swathed in black as the Shia, members of one of the two main Islamic sects, mark the beginning of the commemoration of Ashura. Ashura itself is the name of the 10th  day of the month of Muharram (derived from the Arabic term a‘shara, meaning 10). On this day, in the seventh century, Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, his family and companions were killed by a Sunni caliph (leader) in Karbala, in modern day Iraq. From a Shia perspective, Husayn acted as an opposition leader and defender of the true tenants of Islam.  Sunnis dismiss this claim.

Millions of Shias from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria are expected to take part in the commemoration of Ashura in Iraq. Iraq will essentially come to a halt and massive security measures will be put in place to protect Shia mourners from attacks, particularly from Islamic State (ISIS). Streets in Baghdad, and other areas in Iraq that are predominately Shia, will be adorned with black flags and there will be processions of pilgrims marching on foot from different cities to the holy city of Karbala where Husayn is buried (located about 100 km southwest of Baghdad). Women will be dressed in black and mourners of both sexes will engage in self-flagellation and will congregate in gender-segregated areas for sorrowful, poetic recitations performed in memory of the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.  Ashura is also used as an occasion to curse the Sunni perpetrators of Husayn’s death.  While the mourning period spans two months, these rituals are the most intense during the first 10 days of Muharram.

The various traditions commemorating Ashura developed over 12 centuries and have religious, economic, social, and political dimensions. Moreover, these rituals are culturally-bound as they differ in terms of the nature and the intensity from one community to another depending on various socio-political aspects.  For example, whilst banned under Saddam Hussein (1968-2003), who was a Sunni secular leader in Iraq, Ashura commemoration has been thriving in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Since the fall of Hussein in 2003, the commemoration has intensified in Iraq becoming its biggest cultural, social, religious, and political event. It is fascinating to observe, for both Muslims and non-Muslims, how Shia from different backgrounds and different strata of society engage in these rituals. The commemoration raises questions about the nature of these rituals, in particular why they are appealing to so many, including educated, secular Shia who reside not only in Iraq but also in most large western cities such as London, Sydney, and Toronto. Moreover, there remains an overarching question why people still weep and mourn and, in some cases, participate in bloody rituals to commemorate a battle that took place almost 1400 years ago.

All of these are important questions, particularly for those who are trying to understand the nature of Iraqi society and in light of the current threat posed by ISIS, who consider Shia Muslims to be infidels. In this context, the impact of these rituals on Sunni Iraqis warrants exploration in under to understand the Shia-Sunni dynamic in Iraq. This dynamic, consciously or otherwise, was ignored by the US when it invaded Iraq in 2003. That said, the invasion unleased a renaissance of Ashura and introduced a new complexity to Iraqi society. In light of this, it is my aim to explore the commemoration of Ashura in Iraq, and how has Ashura affected, shaped and informed Shia-Sunni relations.

Jafar Ahmad is a 1st-year PhD student in LINCS

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