Dean's Blog


AshuraThe Festival of Ashura took place over several days and marks the martyrdom of the grandson of Muhammed Husayn ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala in the year 680. In previous years I have avoided the huge crowds heading into the souq, but I felt this year I wanted to savour the atmosphere despite the warnings of some embassies to avoid large crowds.  I went in on Thursday evening and returned again on Saturday evening. I appreciated the warmth of welcome- Ebrahim, a complete stranger,  took me by the hand and led me round several stalls; the generous hospitality –there were kitchens preparing a great variety of foods and many stalls with sweets and coffee;  and the family feel of the festival with women, children and men thronging the streets. I asked the police whether they had experienced any trouble, but they said: No trouble! which is hardly how it has been for the past few weeks.Ashura Kitchen

What surprised me most for a religion that does not approve of images was how many pictures there were. In some ways it reminded me of processions of saints through the streets in Roman Catholic countries: there were colourful and very graphic pictures of the death of Husayn and his family, there were bands playing somber music, there were different floats. There were also candles, and I was invited to light one and to make a prayer.

The most disturbing part of the festival, and I was rather closer than I intended, was the self-flagellation: the beating of the backs with chains and the cutting of the tops of heads with a sword. BeatingThere was much blood and I gather the Casualty departments of hospitals are kept busy following the processions. On the first two days the use of chains is much more symbolic, over the shoulder to the beat of a drum, but it builds up as the Festival progresses to something of a frenzy, customs that are meant to show solidarity with Husayn and his family and mourning the fact that they were not present to fight for him and his family. In feudal times penance in the Christian tradition sometimes involved similar punishing flagellation, but thankfully the Reformation brought an overwhelming awareness of the grace of God:

…Let my shame go where it doth deserve
And know you not who bore the blame?
My deare then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
George Herbert 1593-1633)