Schism - Historical and Theological Keys


The book recounts the historical, mythical, and theological origins of the spectacular celebrations of Ashura that, annually, commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was murdered in the seventh century.

Schism - Historical and Theological Keys Ameer JAJE op, Paris: Domuni press, 2019. 172 pages.

A book review by its writer

ISBN 978-2-36648-047-4


The book recounts the historical, mythical, and theological origins of the spectacular celebrations of Ashura that, annually, commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was murdered in the seventh century.

The manifestations of Ashura in the Shiite world have long aroused a keen interest in academic circles, resulting in numerous studies carried out by both Eastern and Western historians and researchers.

As an Iraqi, I had the opportunity, since my earliest days, of attending celebrations that Iraqi Shiites perform, during the first days of Muharram, in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein. These scenes of violence profoundly challenged me: why these cries, grievances, lamentations and bloody whippings? Why do these believers have a desire to suffer? What are their motives?
Christian theology catechizes the suffering and death of the just. However, the same question seems to be found here. In the Shia world, Hussein’s death is indeed regarded as a “passion”, a voluntary sacrifice that can exclusively guarantee salvation to believers. This explains the sundry brutalities that the faithful inflict on themselves during this commemoration to associate themselves with the passion of Hussein.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, each year in the month of Muharram, Iraq has witnessed a dramatic increase in Ashura demonstrations. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Shiites, travel to different cities to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein and express their desire to suffer as Hussein did. Is this merely a reaction to the frustration provoked by the former regime that used to proscribe these demonstrations? Do these crowds want to assert their existence after years of marginalization and withdrawal?

Nevertheless, these displays of violence can lead non-Shiites, and more so non-Muslims, to misinterpretation and an a priori judgment. These acts have prompted us to undertake an in-depth study to endeavor to decipher who "the other" is in its specificity.

The book is divided into two main parts:

- The first is devoted to the origin and development of Ashura in Iraq: when and how did the organized rituals actually transpire? How have they survived until now? How did they develop? To answer these questions, we first conducted a historical review of the events surrounding the assassination of Imam Hussein, drawing on the Arab chroniclers, essentially on the writings of the third and fourth centuries of the Hegira. This historical presentation is valuable to the reader, as it helps to understand the differences between the Shia and Sunni traditions.

Next, the book addresses the commemoration of Hussein’s death in Iraq: its historical development through the centuries. This chapter illustrated that the mourning ceremonies for his death were, from their inception, linked to the history of religious divisions and political opposition in Islam and mostly turned into a form of refusal and contestation of the official ideological vision rooted in a general feeling of oppression.

Finally, we studied the Tawwabun (repentant) movement and its role in the development of the belief of atonement in Shia Islam. For this, we explored its genesis in Jewish tradition, specifically the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

- In the first chapter of the second part entitled "From history to myth: Ashura today, its celebration in Iraq", we underscored the superiority that the Shiites give, till date, to the person of Hussein and why there is such veneration for him. We first tackled the mythical aspects of the character and his evolution. We sought to illustrate the difference between the historical figure of Hussein, facing a tragic fate, and Hussein as a mythical hero, whose entire life was predestined. These two dimensions occupy a salient position in Shiite thought to the extent that the principle of imâmat is jointly founded. Despite their differences, these stories share a common point: the shift from historical reality to mythical reality, which transcends the boundaries of place and time.

Then, in the second chapter, we presented, in detail, the array of Ashura celebrations that we observed in Iraq during Muharram. We showed how, over twelve centuries, several major rituals developed. First, the majalis al-Husseiniya, Husseinides (mourning) sessions, which include the recitation of an elegiac poem and a reading recounting the events of Karbala. Then, public processions such as the processions of lamentation, those of the flagellants with iron chains, or the processions of tatbir with sabers. This self-injurious comportment has engendered heated debates among Shia scholars, between those who strongly encourage it, in the name of the redeeming value of suffering, and those who forbid it, considering it as a deforming practice of Ashura. Finally, we treated the scenes of representation of the battle of Karbala, called Tashabih in Iraq, comparing them to the Persian theater (Ta‘ziyé). In addition, we noted, in the course of our reflection, that these scenes resemble those of Christianity, particularly in Europe during the Middle Ages, known as "Mysteries".

In the third chapter, we examined three fundamental notions specific to Shiite thought. First, the conception of redemptive suffering and the absolution of sins by the blood of Hussein shed for the salvation of the faithful Shiites. Undeniably, in the Shia tradition, Hussein's anguish is considered a source of salvation, and Imam Hussein will intercede on the Day of Judgment. Then, the second notion is collective lamentations and tears as a redeeming force. We first compared the ceremonies of weeping and wailing during the ten days of Muharram with those of the Babylonians for the death of their god Tammuz. We highlighted multiple affinities between the two, aligning with the opinion of researchers who conceived that the lamentations of Ashura could be an extension of certain elements of the worship of Tammuz in Mesopotamia. Then, we demonstrated, by relying on Shiite sources, that mourning Hussein is a core requirement for being a ‘good’ Shiite. Without a doubt, it is incumbent for every Shia to mourn and shed at least a few tears during his life to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein and his companions.

Finally, the third view analyzed is the philosophy of Ashura from the perspective of Shiite scholars. This chapter attempted to discern the underlying motives of Hussein's revolt against the Caliph: why this revolt and what was its purpose? What were the causes? Was it simply a question of power? Was Hussein aware of what he was risking and what his philosophy truly was?

While writing this book, we discovered that the martyrdom of Hussein plays a central role in Shiite daily life. The Battle of Karbala takes on a meaning that exceeds the time and the place where it occurred. It remains an ever-current event and feeds an ideology and an imagination which give Hussein a halo of holiness, making him omnipresent in Shiite memory. For Shiites, the assassination of Hussein is, therefore, essentially a matter of holy history, and symbolizes the struggle between good and evil, justice and injustice. Moreover, Hussein's revolt is interpreted as a call to return to original Islam, as the Prophet Muhammad himself intended.

Over the centuries, we have seen, among Shiites, that the tragedy of Karbala has created a distinct mentality born of the oppression suffered and made of a feeling of helplessness, revolt, sadness, guilt; feelings that pushed the community to turn in on itself. Furthermore, the study of Shia heritage has shown that their theology was established on the idea of "oppression", which sparked a draft theory of redemption. Hussein's suffering is then considered to be a source of salvation due to his intercession in favor of his faithful on the Day of Judgment.

We are, however, only at the threshold of a true, explicit doctrine of redemption, as well as, intercession. Salvation in Islam rests on the principle of individual judgment, rigorously depending on an individual’s actions and, consequently, excluding any inkling or prospect of intercession or redemption, as developed in Christianity. These ideas are, nonetheless, ingrained in popular belief and conveyed by rites: they assert themselves and are concretely realized in the practice of believers, rather than in an abstract theology.

In summary, Ashura is three dimensional: historical, religious, and cultural. Ashura functions as a grid through which the Shiite consciousness has perpetuated and reinterpreted its history. Hussein constitutes the paradigm of any "unjustly" suppressed revolt and of all misfortune, whether collective or individual. A strong correlation unites lived history with celebrated rites. In this way, the Shiites loudly affirm their religious identity; hence, the prominence of the grandiose mourning processions that strengthen and exalt this identity. The Karbala tragedy is part of the memory, the imagination, and the history of believers.