Rituals in different religions; the message prevails over historicity

Sent On: 
Mon, 2022-08-08
Newsletter Number: 

Yesterday Shi’ite Muslims marched in many cities in world, including The Hague, to commemorate the death of imam al-Ḥusayn Ibn ʿAlī, grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad, in the battle of Karbala (Iraq) in 680 CE., the founding myth of Shi’a Islam. Ḥusayn was the son of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the fourth Caliph.



Ashura walk in The Hague, passing different centers of Shi'a Islam in the city


Division in Islam started after the death of Caliph ʿUmar (644 CE). The candidates for succession were ʿUthmān and ʿAlī. Uthman became Caliph, extended the empire and ordered the final compilation of the Qur’an, before he was assassinated in 656 CE. ʿAlī succeeded him but was assassinated in 661 CE. That resulted in fitna, religious strife, between the parties of Muʿāwiya, a relative of ʿUthmān and governor of the province of Syria and Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, sons of ʿAlī. Ḥasan became Caliph but was not recognized by Muʿāwiya. The split that happened made Muʿāwiya the first Umayyad Caliph (661-680 CE) while Ḥasan retired from politics and died in Medina in 670 CE. Muʿāwiya nominated his son Yazīd as his heir apparent in 676 CE which was opposed by Muslims belonging to the party of ʿAlī. After Muʿāwiya’s death Ḥusayn led the revolt against Yazīd resulting in the battle of Karbala. Ḥusayn, according to tradition, knew that he was the weaker party and that he would lose the battle. Ḥusayn, family members and companions accompanying him were either killed or subjected to humiliation. This made many Muslims reject Yazīd as Caliph. The battle, therefore, led to the split between Sunni Islam and Shi’ite Islam (following ʿAlī, Ḥasan and Ḥusayn) and the commemoration of this event in the annual Day of Ashura [ʿĀshūrāʾ] by Shi’ites. Some Sunni Muslims commemorate this event as well since also for Sunni Muslims this event was a tragedy but for Shi’a Muslims it was far worse; the family of the Prophet had been denied its right to lead by a tyrannical ruler by blood and sword.


The story of the battle has become a major pillar of faith for Shi’a Islam. The day of the battle took place on 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day Jews commemorate the punishment of God for not following on His promises that the land of Canaan had been promised to the people of Israel since the people of Israel gave more credit to the stories of the ten spies who told them on the border of Canaan that the people here were exceptionally strong. Fear made them doubt God’s promises despite two spies believing that God would give them the strength needed to overcome the difficulties. God wanted to destroy the rebelling people of Israel, but Moses pleaded with God to spare them. Instead, they were punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert (Numbers 13 and 14).


The Jewish and Muslim calendars are not similar but yesterday the commemoration of both events fell on August 7. Both commemorations are a day of fasting and mourning. The Jewish commemoration is called Tisha B’av. It is regarded as the saddest day in Judaism since also other disasters in Jewish history occurred on this day, including the destruction of the first and second temple. The crying at the Wailing Wall is very emotional, Orthodox rabbi Moshe Peleg explained.


Both events are loaded with religious connotations. For Jews: trust in God comes before all human considerations. “Do not rebel against God’s promises” rabbi Peleg said.


The Shi’a commemoration is one of storytelling, weeping, chest beating, wearing black, fasting, street processions, and re-enactments of the Battle of Karbala.


During the march in The Hague red roses were handed out to onlooking bystanders with the words “1400 years of love.” Husayn died out of love for justice and shows believes that one has to fight injustice with love. One of the many stories is that he provided the army of Jazid with water before the battle began. His followers explain this as fighting injustice with love. One should accept the consequences of such a fight, even if this means death. With this Husayn is more than a martyr. The words attributed to him, and his brother Hasan are divinely inspired. That makes one think of similarities between Husayn and Jesus. Jesus went to the cross to die for human sins but, unlike Husayn, rejected the use of violence (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50–51, and John 18:10–11).


The march in The Hague was peaceful. People were dressed in black and repeated the name Karbala. Around twenty years ago the Dutch daily Trouw published a photo of Shi’ites engaging in self-flagellation. Many Shi’ites did not like this image since self-flagellation is practiced in many countries with large Shi’ite populations, but it is also controversial since many Shi’ites claim this is a cultural practice that is not part of their faith.


Many traditions have origins that are way older than the religious tradition that holds them in honor. Self-flagellation is an extreme way to do penance for one’s sins. Greek historian Herodotus reported in the 5th century BCE about the practice of self-flagellation in Egypt. In was also common in Catholicism and seen as a spiritual discipline in the context of the doctrine of the mortification of the flesh. It allows the flagellant to share in the sufferings of Jesus, bringing his or her focus to God. It seems likely that this Shi’ite tradition was influenced by earlier traditions.


Many examples show that earlier traditions have been Christianized or Islamized. Historical events are not told to report what happened but as events that give us a message from God with religious significance. This does not mean that there are no historical origins to the stories told but it means that not historical accuracy is most important, but the message of the stories told.



August 08, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief Dialogue Across Borders