That seminal moment has split the Islamic world in two ever since, between the Shia, who claim Hussein and his descendants as the rightful rulers of the Muslim world, and the Sunni, who espoused the claims of the Caliph, or ruler, in Damascus.
For the first installment of Islam’s Advance, I want to take you into the heart of this ritual and explain what Ashura means today. Throughout the Shi’ite world, adherents express their mourning by beating themselves. In some regions this involves hitting one’s chest with a fist. Afghan Shi’ites practice one of the more extreme forms of Ashura, in which they use knives to flay their backs.
To watch Ashura in Afghanistan is to be plunged into a world that may seem, at first, seem medieval in its intensity. It hasn’t always taken this form. There have been long periods in Afghanistan, under the Taliban and Communist regime in the 1980s, when Ashura observances were banned. Then the rituals were forced underground, and performed in windowless rooms in private homes. Over time, too, the nature of the ritual has changed, with the use of knives prevailing over swords, flails, and the traditional chest-beating.
I met two old men in Kabul, during the build-up to the ritual, who refused to watch. They believed that Ashura in recent years had become “too showy”. The knives they used in their day were longer, they said, and only sharp on one side. “The fashion is for them [the knives] to get shorter and shorter, and now they’re double edged. That means a lot more blood,” said the man, “I think people are forgetting about the purpose of Ashura.”
Their comments, I thought, were a little grouchy. After all, Ashura is a rite overwhelmingly performed by young men, often in their teens, with the older generation cast as onlookers.
But clearly something about Ashura, in its various forms over the centuries, fulfills a deep, human need. I repeatedly asked Fouad Hussein, the subject of this video, what that was - just what made him beat himself. His answer – “for love” – was baffling at first until I witnessed the ritual.
I began to see Ashura as a test of love and devotion: for the Prophet’s grandson, but also for each other and for the community. Over the course of the morning these young men, who lead remarkably complex lives – often poor, with little job security, and caught between the radical voices in the Islamic world and allure of Western consumerism they see on television or the cinema – manage to resolve their tensions in an act of catharsis.