If you are a Shi’a, by virtue of birth or if you adhere to Shi’a theological dictates, you find yourself in a rather tight spot. Anti-Shi’a bigotry is at an all-time high. Everybody is suddenly curious as to why the Shi’as self-flagellate (beat up their chests, rip apart their backs with sharp knives) again. Till the season is over and the interest dies. But people need explanations. Yet there is no one simple answer but more questions. Should Shi’as be expected to explain this complex and multi-layered reality in a setting where their practices are presumed to be “irrational outbursts of sheer madness”? It shouldn’t take much for one to realise that rationality is informed by norms, values, traditions and customs that are deeply embedded in specific socio-cultural and historical contexts.

Rationality, then, is, often, subjective in matters of the heart and faith. There is a dire need to make attempts to substantiate self-flagellation through the lens of the practitioner, the performer on the ground. And not through a top-down, dispassionate and, naively believed to be, “objective”, yet marred with a vicious sectarian bias, lens that generally does the rounds.

The practitioner feels a plethora of emotions while articulating the strikes. Multiple emotions simultaneously. The practitioner reminisces about the great sacrifice of Imam Hussain, his bravery and courage in the face of adversity. His willingness to give up his life for what he perceived to be the right path. A siege mentality builds up. Imagined scenes of the vagaries of Karbala and the legends and the myths fill up the practitioner’s mind as he/she offers “pursa” (condolence) - renouncing all forms of this-worldly domination and oppression, in letter and in spirit. Empathy for the marginalised is at an all-time high. The practitioner pledges to be on the side of Hussain’s 72 in a hope that they could go back in time. It’s a bold stance against cowardice – opposing ethical neutrality in times of a moral crisis. And it is not just romantic nostalgia or seeking mindless pleasure in pain.

It is a rational act. The swinging of the knives is not a “random” outburst. It requires precision, control and efficient technique. Sharp edged wounds emerge due to the coming together of the knives at specific angles with the back. Every hit does not lead to blood loss. It is not a flight from the world around you. The performers self-flagellate in synchronised rhythms. They have no other choice. Fidelity to the common tempo has to be ensured to avoid injuring others. One person going offbeat in the arena can create a domino effect that might harm many. There’s pressure. First timers often struggle. The skill is acquired over time. Experience matters. Practitioners might stop for a while and look at their backs to see the effects of the damage. Some stop themselves. Others have to be force stopped by others.
It is also deeply political. It is perceived to be orthodox yet it fights orthodoxy. Practitioners vehemently chant against religious zealots who kill in the name of religion. Loud choruses of “dehshatgard ka jo yaar hai, ghaddar hai, ghaddar hai” (He who is a friend of the terrorists, is a traitor) echo in the arenas. It’s a denunciation of violence against minorities. It’s a remembrance of the contemporary and historical persecution faced by followers of the sect, specifically, and human kind, in general. The decision to join the main “markazi” procession, is, often, not an easy decision to take, especially for the parents of the practitioners who fear the worst. There’s always the threat of a violent backlash by anti-Shi’a entities looming. People who visit processions leave their homes feeling slightly insecure. They return feeling slightly relieved. Then, they switch to social media and the television to ensure that the rest of the community is safe.

It is controversial, an essentially contested issue area even among Shi'a sub sects. And even within the Twelver Shi'a sect that finds itself in a majority in Pakistan, probably due to accidents of history. Ayatollah Khomeini banned self-flagellation in Iran in the 1980's suggesting it brought disrepute upon the followers of the sect in the modern fate of our times. And even within Shi’a households, arguments for and against the practice do the rounds. The pro-self-flagellation positions emphasise individual agency and tradition; the anti-self-flagellation positions emphasise that it should be a private affair and point towards the harm principle. Harm, not in the sense of the practitioner hurting themselves, entirely, but also, for the onlookers at the processions. Mourning rituals vary extensively across cultures and geographical areas. The argument that this practice is more cultural rather than religious is not a weak argument. This specific style of self-flagellation is very Indian. And probably not for the faint hearted. Processional Shia rituals were first brought to the sub-continent with the Shia armies of the Mongol conqueror, Taimur, who could not afford to let his troops return to Karbala to observe Muharram. Thus started the “tashbihaat” or local iterations of the Karbala mourning rituals, later carried forward in an organised fashion by the migration of the Afghan Shia Qazilbash tribe to India under British colonial rule.

Practitioners come from all walks of life - it’s not just plebs partaking in what is misconstrued to be a “senseless and medieval bloodbath of uneducated folks.” Entry to the processions is completely non-exclusionary, anyone can join. Participation in the processions, or the rituals, is not necessary at all costs for Shi’as. It’s a choice. Critics argue that people are forced to self-flagellate for material gains, amongst other things. I have yet to see large scale compelling evidence for that charge. One could argue that the consent is indoctrinated into the practitioner by means of the socialisation process in childhood. But what isn’t?

There is no denying that self-flagellation practices are a major point of discord within the Muslim, and even within, Shi’a communities. But what’s required is empathy – on both sides, that creates better understanding and results in an effective communicative process where the force of the more reasonable argument is the strongest force at play. And most importantly, there is a need, for even the Shi’a practitioners, and everyone else, to translate the spirit of Imam Hussain’s great sacrifice into a this-worldly movement that pragmatically seeks to fight against social, material and ideological injustices that the world finds itself riddled in. The fight ought not to culminate with the end of the procession setting or be reduced to mere self-flagellation. It ought to be a way of life. Life that is lived actively, consistently and thoughtfully.