[Picture 1.]

Observations and Reflections on Shi’a Bodily Symbolism

Despite the fact that the Kingdom of Bahrain has experienced tremendous changes in its orientation toward cosmopolitan milieu, modernity, and liberation of economy, it is still dominated by traditional worldviews refracted and enacted in the ritual discourses of both Shi’a, locally called Baharna, and Sunna who show a deep devotion to the Prophet’s family, Al Al-Bayt. The Shi’a people constitute the majority, or two-thirds of the population. They believe that the great Imam ‘Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, is the rightful the successor of the prophet. Generally, people of Bahrain are very gentle and peaceful and rarely have I encountered any two people to argue in an odd or hostile manner. Even during the crowded parades (mawkabs) of the ten days of Muharram or ‘Ashura, I have never witnessed any sort of violence or aggression toward others.

Due to the freedom granted to the Shi’a by the state within the last seven years, there have been a growing displays of Husayniyya recitations, rituals and processions occurring throughout the country. The name, “Husayniyya” is derived from al-Husayn, son of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, grandson of the Holy Prophet and the third Imam of the Shi‘a. He was martyred in 61 H/680 AD at the battle of al-Taff at Karbala, along with his 72 family members and followers, by the mighty army of Yazid ibn Mu‘awiyya under the command of ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d ibn Abi al-Waqqas. It is interesting to note that some Sunni Muslims willingly attend these rituals.

The following are some ethnographic observations of Husayniyya rituals (carried out in 2005 and 2006), and reflections as to their significance to the people of Bahrain.

In mid-February, 2005, I was invited by separate Shi‘i friends, Ahmad Marhun and ‘Abdulla al-‘Aradi, as well as others, to attend the Muharram rituals in Manama as well as in the neighboring villages of Sharakkan, ‘Arad, Bury, Bany Jamra and Karrana. Though I knew much theoretically about them, these opportunities provided me with an unprecedented chance to see and participate in rituals I’d never imagined. During this year, 2006, my opportunities have been more selective and focused. Though the tenth of Muharram (‘Ashura) was considered the major day for ritual in the celebration, the most spectacular events were those that occurred during the “central gatherings” in the days following ‘Ashura. In these “central gatherings”, processions from the towns and villages congregated in turn and in a central location, namely villages such as ad-Dayh, ‘Ali, Karzakkan and Jadd Hafs. The groups began to amass around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., and the events lasted for about three hours during which time parades (mawkabs) of the participating towns and villages came through the main road of the hosting village displaying the intense collectivities or rituals of the Husayniyya. Some models and depictions of Karbala events were displayed in the village (picture 1)

The name “al-Husayn” is predominant in all Shi‘i religious sermons delivered in both mosques and ma’atims (Sing. ma’atiam; a large place or hall used for social and religious gatherings as well as for special events such as death rituals and marriage ceremonies, (picture 2 showing ma’atiam Samamik in Manama (Shaykh Muhammad Sanad). Shi‘a women participate in ma’tams specifically designed for them. A religiously trained adult female, called shaykha or mullaya plays, the role of the preacher.


[Picture 2. Shaykh Muhammad Sanad lecturing)]

During the forty-day mourning period including ‘Ashura, the Shi‘a hang black flags, banners, and posters on houses, mosques, buildings, ma’atims and stands in the streets. Competition peaks between local dominant ma’tams such as those of Ben Salloum, al-Qassab, Hajj ‘Abbas, Ben Rjab and Samamik for offering the free goods and services. The best in food, beverage, and entertainment, including presentations and performances by reputable preachers and famous radud (singers of mourning poems, or Husayniyya, such as Basim al-Karbala‘i and Shaykh Husayn al-Akraf) are provided. (picture 3).


[Picture 3. Karbala ta’aziya in Bahrain village.]

In the ma’tam, especially during mortuary funerals, the shaykh narrates with great care significant episodes, whether real or imagined, of the battle of al-Taff in which al-Husayn was martyred. For example, a shaykh narrated publicly that when the head of al-Husayn was brought to Sultan Zayd in a pot, a child touched the robe of the Sultan to attract his attention and told him that the severed head was alive and the eyes moving. In the same sermon the shaykh relayed that Sultan Zayd had inserted a stick in the head’s mouth, bared its teeth and thereby dehumanized the martyr. In yet another version the head spoke with wisdom, much like the head of Yahya [John], son of Zakariyya.

In one of the ma’tam, I saw men weeping and crying when a preacher talked about the crisis of al-Husayn and his family members (including al-‘Abbas, his step-brother, al-Qasim, his nephew, as well as others who had scarified their souls for him). Men showed sincere love, mercy and emotion toward the whole event of ‘Ashura. These features stand against the notion of patriarchy or male dominance in Arab culture. Put differently, those who emphasize masculinity of Arab patriarch cannot explain the intense crying men do when they remember al-Husayn or his family (Zaynab, Sakyna, Ruqayyah and so forth). It is worth noting that the importance and prestige of the presenter, whether a religious leader (shaykh), speaker (qari’), or singer (radud, shayyal or mi‘zzi) lies in his or her ability to stir and move the audience to deep passions and tears through the heartfelt recitation, ratification and enactment of the battle of Karbala. These rituals and sermons explore the relationships between martyrdom, ethics and politics within the discourses of contemporary Islamic movements not only in Bahrain, but also in other Muslim countries. The themes of death in general, and martyrdom in particular, and related beliefs in the world-to-come are prevalent in Islamic discourses. Also, these rituals symbolize struggle against any ideological or materialistic power that precludes or prohibits individuals from their rights.

In the processions or parades (mawkabs), and accompanied by drummers and singers (raduds) using microphones carried on wooden posts, men walk in two rows beating the left side of their chests with their right hands and right side of their chests with their left hands. Some use the right hand only beating the left side of the chest. The latmah, beating of the chest, is a sign of sorrow and grief that empowers and energizes the participants, especially the young men who, despite exhaustion, feel strong and socially welcomed. Iconic images and replicas (tashihat) depicting certain characters or events of the battle of Karbala are displayed in the processions as well as on the street corners or sidewalks.

The revolution of al-Husayn, a phrase used by the Shi‘a to denote the martyrdom in Karbala, still holds powerful ethical and political symbolism for the oppressed and marginalized. By abolishing unjust treatment, mourners seek redemption in both this life and the afterlife. One of the dynamic and consistent political tools of the Shi‘a is their mass demonstration (masira), which organizes quickly and reveals their reactions to events that occur both inside and outside the country. During the ceremonies of this year (February 9-12, 2006) Danish, Israeli and US flags were painted on the ground so as to let people walk over them as a sign of peaceful protest of the Western aggression and mistreatment of Islam and its symbols. Also, on February 22 and 28 of this same year, spectacular demonstrations of over 200,000 persons (men and women) were peacefully organized in response to the bombing of two major Shi’a shrines in Samarra (Iraq).

el-Sayed el-Aswad
University of Bahrain

[For Part Two, click here.]