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history of islamic law essay draft

history of islamic law



Shia rituals during Muharram are performed in the public, often accompainying cries of passion and various acts, such as beatings of the chest (latm), reciting elegies of martyrs during the events of Karbala (majilis al-aza), back flagellation (zangeel), head laceration (tatbir), reenactment of Hussein’s death (taziyeh), and. An oft heard refrain within elegies and lamations is “Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala”, bridging the current time with the events of Karbala. Other forms, such as “Ya laytana kunna ma’akum fa’nafuzu fawzan ‘eziman!” (Oh how we wish we had been with you, we would have won a glorious victory) [cite: Edith Szanto].

The month of Muharram, especially with the tenth day of Ashura, remains holy for Shias. The month proceeds in three stages: rituals begin around the third of Muharram to the ninth, with the tenth day of Ashura commemorating the death of Imam Hussein. Three days later is burial day (“yom al dawm”), where commemorates the actual burial of Imam Hussein. Forty days after the beginning of Muharram is an event called Arbaeen, a day of commemoration often accompinied by the pilgrimage to Karbala from various cities around the world.

Latm often accompanies the recitement of elegies, with most performative elegies following one of three common tempos [cite: fieldnotes, interview with radood]. Each tempo is accompanied with latm at different rates, with the reciter, known as a radood, leading the audience. This practice is often inclusive of the audience both vocally and physically, participants chant refrains while beating their chests, with the radood often inviting audiences to particpate with occasional interjections of “yallah shabab!” [cite: fieldnotes].

While latm is a relatively accepted practice withinby the Shia Ulema of Karbala or Najaf, zangeel and tatbir have been points of contention, with different jurists proclaiming whether the practices are permissible, discouraged, or forbidden. New variations to practices have been introduced over time, inciting debate within the ulema on what particular practices are correct. Zangeel has been described as having been introduced by the British governor of Najaf during the mandate period, tatbir has been called a foriegn Iranian import. Since 2010 in Iraq, a pratice known as al-Shur, where rather than chanting “Hussein-Hussein”, a shortened form of the name is chanted instead with “sin-sin”.

This paper will step away from questions of authenticity and origin of practice, as scholars such as Werner Ende [cite ende] and Yitzhak Nakash [cite nakash] have already provided excellent work on this topic. Rather, I will attempt to describe some of the tools jurists and religious leaders use while engaging in the categorization of rituals. In other words, this paper attempts to provide the backgrounds to two questions: 1. what is mutable within Iraqi Shi’i religious rituals, and what is not? and 2: How do participants, ulema, and state engage with ritual change? I do this by starting with Sayyid Amin, a 20th century Damascus sheikh who set off a firestorm of debate by publishing a tract that forbids tatzir. By attempting to complicate the story previously written by Max Weiss, I show that the process of practice categorization is not a mere debate between sectarian practices or an arena of engagement between ulema and participants, but rather that the discursive process of categorization is used as a way to reduce temporal estrangement and envision a different future.

I first attempt to set out the definitions of ritual and ritual practices under assessment, then describe the previous work done by Max Weiss, Werner Ende, Yitzhak Nakash, and Edith Szanto have conducted on these rituals. Next, I describe the historical facts under consideration, describing Sayyid Amin and his contemporaries in their debate on zangeel and tatzir. Finally, I describe how not only do the literal ritual practices attempt to reconnect different conceptions of temporalities, but the process of ritual categorization does as well.

What is a ritual?

Rituals have been richly studied from the a variety of perspectives, from the anthropological [cite: Turner], to the religious [cite: Gelser], to tourism [cite: Shackley, 2001]. Research has focused on issues such as the institutions responsible for pilgrimage, to internal and external motivations of pilgrims, to the spiritual marketplace of rituals, where symbols and objects take on new semantic meaning and begin to flow in the economy of authenticity. Authenticity is perhaps the most important of these, as authenticity serves as the key driver to the moment of anagnorisis, evoking a feeling of ‘rapture’ or ‘exhalation’ [cite: Moufahim].

For the purposes of this paper, I will riff off of Judith Butler’s understanding of rituals, which themselves build off of Derrida’s interpreation of the performative. A ritual is a practice whose recursive iteration produces the social norms and serve to simulatnously constrain and enact one’s agency. One must buy into social norms to have agency, but in buying into a particular set of norms inherently limits the acts performed. In looking at rituals through labor of iteration, it becomes clear that the regulation of such labor is key to the continuing survival of social norms. In other words: if rituals are constitutive of social norms via the labor of iteration, the labor must be appropriately managed in order to continue social norms.

In addition, I categorize the Muharram rituals as a pilgrimage as well as a ritual. Muharram rituals are not practiced at whim, their activation requires a specific combination of places, people, props, and time. Tents and space must be found for the majilis, props and swords must be avaiable for the acts of self flagellation, and ritual practioners arrive from a variety of places. While many of their travels during Muharram may be shorter in physical distance than either Hajj or pilgrimage to Hadrawmaut, the structure remains the same: one cannot practice tatbir by themselves, and must be within a particular space in order to practice.

The concept of authenticity is particularly bound up to the guidence of ritual continuation, as it underpins the notion that rituals are transformative. The rituals of Muharram are subject to a variety of frictions for the practicer, from the physical pain of the rituals to arrival at the ritual site to iteractions of different sect and backgrounds. Coleman suggests that pilgrimage serves as a cite of stabilizing meaning through connections, the arrival of ritual practicers, from a variety of backgrounds, creates differences in understanding [cite Coleman, S. 2014. Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology 55, S10: S281–S291]. The effort of smoothing the rocky terrain of variegated understandings is placed on the ritual leader, which is either the radood or sheikh leading the rituals or the ulema that attempt to set out guidelines for rituals.

Shia Rituals

Mourning rituals, within the context of this paper, refers to the rituals Shia muslims practice after the loss of someone dear to the individual. This includes crying, chest beating, and celebrating the anniversary of death and accomplishments. The rituals of Muharram for Imam Hussein are a subset of mourning rituals, but considered the most venerated of them.

The rituals of Muharram revolve around three main days: Ashura, Burial Day, and Arbaeen. Rituals that revolve around Ashura typically begin around the third day of muharram, commemorating the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, the martyrdom his seventy-two family members, as well those of their followers. The word “Ashura” refers to the tenth day, as it is stated that Imam Hussein died on the tenth day of Muharram, and his body stayed fresh for three days before he was buried by the women of his tribe.

Specifically, the rituals of Ashura involve majilis al-aza (mourning councils), in which readers recite elegies about the various martyrs and events of Karbala. In my fieldwork, I have witnessed only two types of majilis, although both types may occur, one after the other, within the same majilis. The first is one where attendants sit arrayed around a religious leader referred to as either khateeb or sheikh, who recites a lamentation poetry referred to as niyahah. This type of majilis often involves only verbal engagement with the audience, with the religious leader often pausing to allow the attendees to wail or interject with shouts of mourning. The second type of majilis is one where the audience gathers around a religious bard, called a radood, reciting a mourning poem called a qasida. The radood recites a story of martyrdom, often times either with a rythm provided from instruments or beatings of the chest, called latmiya. The engagement with the audience here is much more intense, when majilis transition from a religious leader to a radood, the audience separates themselves into those willing to engage with sustained, powerful strikes to their chest and those willing to sit around, engaging passively. Nevertheless, the enagement with the audience here is more much intense and sustained than the first type of majilis.

Another ritual that accompanies Ashura and Burial Day is the practice of tatbir, or head lacerations. This practice often begins as sunrise on Ashura, where participants gather in white robes and shaved heads to strike their heads with a sword, causing bleeding. These are often accompanied by arrays of fellow worshippers who pass bags of ice for wound cleanup, as well as those who wish to simply wish to witness the act. It is no doubt that the practioners of tatbir are aware of the shock value of their act, Edith Szanto mentions that “few of the women who knew me proudly pointed out their male relatives who were performing tatbir.” [cite: szanto]

For the purposes of this paper, the rituals of Arbaeen are ignored, as they are not under fiqh contention with the scholars. However, within the greater context of Iraq, Arabeen rituals are largely centered around the physical walking to Karbala from another city.

Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin al-Amili

Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin al-Amili (d. 1952) was the highest ranked jurist in Damascus in the 1920’s when he published a tract condemming bloody acts of self flagellatoin [cite: szanto, ende, weiss]. This proceeded to set off a firestorm of debate, which Werner Ende referred to as “the great Shia fitna” and what Max Weiss calls “The Ashura Debates”. Born in 1867/1868 and after acquiring his marjia’ status from Najaf, al-Amin proceeded to publish a five part work called al-majalis al-saniya [cite: ende, weiss]. Notably, this work suggested “purging unsound sources or inaccurate accounts, proscribing certain practices as well as calling for a deeper awareness not only among Shi‘i ‘ulama’, but also among lay believers, of the social and political ramifications of engaging in such cultural practices in the first place” [cite: weiss, 76].

His main opponents were Sheikh Abd al-Husan Sadiq of Nabatiya (d. 1942) and Sayyid Muhammad al-Husain al-Kashif al-Ghita' (d. 1954) an Iraqi Shi’i mujtahid. As both Max Weiss and Werner Ende step through the step by step responses, I will not rewrite them here. Instead, I wish to highlight a few notable facts about this case: al-Amin attempted to only remove a certain set of practices, such as tatbir and latimya, that he deemed would spoil the image of Shi’ism [cite: ende 26, weiss ?], al-Amin was not the first to attempt to purge such practices [cite: ende, 26], al-Amin points out that flagellation was unknown to the Shia community at the time of the Buyids [cite: ende 27].

The interest in the preservation of the image of Shi’ism by al-Amin by reforming a specific subset of practices hints at the the priorities at stake. Why was tatbir considered worse to the image of Shi’ism than elegies? Why is crying to niyahah considered just as bad for the image of Shi’ism than latmiya listening to a radood? It is notable that al-Amin was not the only one at the time who attempted to reform certain practices, Werner Ende finds that Sayyid Abu l-Hasan al-Isfahani (d. 1946), the supreme mujtahid of Najaf at the time, and Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al-Qazini (d. 1939), another prominent Iraqi Shia cleric based in Basra, both issued fatawa attempting to exclude what they saw as wrong and harmful practices [cite: Hamdan, 72, Ende, 26]. Weiss attributes this fear of poor image to others as a modern sense of sanctity of the individual body [cite: weiss, 80], finding that al-Amin hides an universalitic impulse: the human body is sanctified, either as Shi’i or non-Shi’i, and an “an attempt to render “traditional” religion palatable to a newly envisioned Shi‘i public, to effectively modernize tradition in the process.” [cite: weiss, 81].

While Weiss’s reading of the body in al-Amin seems to be a factor, the more overt factor seems to be that making the rituals paletable provides a greater chance of proztelization. In addition, ‘Abd al-Husayn al-Hilli, another Iraqi mujtahid buckets tatbir, latimya, and weeping all into the same bucket [cite: weiss, 85]. Weeping, as a ritual tool, should have seemingly no violation on the individual santicty of the body, and in fact weeping for Hussein was declared as “I am the martyr of tears (qatil al-ibrah), no man of faith remembers but that he weeps” [cite: Ayoub, 143]

Differences in Interpreation on Tatbir

Debates on

  • what is a ritual?

  • what work do rituals do

  • historical facts and characters

  • what max weiss gets right and wrong

    • weiss sees this as a mere problem of sectarianism and formation between french allowing this to practice
    • ende sees this as a problem of ulema being unwilling to
  • my argument of temporal estrangement

    • reoccuring considerations of iranian import
    • british influence in zangeel
    • buyid era argument