Self-flagellation has a long and complex history, predating Islam, stemming from ancient civilisations such as ancient Egypt and Greece.1 It is commonly viewed as a ritualistic act that involves individuals to inflict physical pain upon themselves as a form of religious devotion and remembrance, often using chains or swords. While self-flagellation holds significant cultural and religious significance for many faiths and religious communities, it has also sparked debates and concerns in modern society due to its perceived extremism and potential physical and psychological risks.
The roots of self-flagellation in Shia Islam are mainly, but not exclusively, related to the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn. This tragic event holds immense significance for Shia Muslims. Self-flagellation emerged as a means of expressing severe grief, solidarity, and devotion to Imam Ḥusayn’s memory and the values he stood for. Over the time, the practice of self-flagellation has evolved and diversified within different Shia communities, encompassing various mild and extreme forms such as: (1) striking the chest and face with the palm (laṭam/māṭam), (2) striking the back with blades and knives (zanjīr zanī), (3) striking the head with a blade or a sword (tatbir/qama zanī), (4) walking on fire or burning coal (āg ka mātam). These practices are primarily observed during the month of Muharram, particularly on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, when the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn is commemorated. In the present-day context, self-flagellation rituals for Shia Muslims have become an identity marker embedded in many Muslim societies all over the world.
Nevertheless, in contemporary society, the practice of self-flagellation in Shia Islam has faced criticism, both from within and outside the Muslim community.2 Some perceive it as a practice that contradicts fundamental principles of Islam, such as the preservation of one's physical well-being.3 Critics normally argue that self-flagellation can lead to physical harm, exacerbate negative psychological states, and potentially tarnish the image of Islam.
Opinions regarding the practice of self-flagellation vary within the Shia community. Certain grand scholars such as: Shayk Bashīr Ḥusayn Najafī, Sayyid Ṣādiq al-Shīrāzī, and Shayk Waḥīḍ al-Khurāsānī, predominantly advocate for the preservation of this tradition, viewing it as a profoundly spiritual and individualistic manifestation of devotion.4 Conversely, other grand scholars, including Shayk Āsif Muḥsinī, Sayyid Ḥusayn Faḍl Allāh and Sayyid ʿAlī Khamenei, cast doubt upon its ongoing relevance, underscoring the necessity for alternative modes of commemoration that resonate with contemporary sensitivities and prioritise safety.5
In light of the conflicting viewpoints espoused by Shia jurists, coupled with the criticism the practises of self-flagellation receive from within and outside the Muslim community, a fundamental question emerges: Are some or all practises of self-flagellation in honour of Imam Ḥusayn permissible (or even recommended) in Islam?
Islam allows practices of self-flagellation if they do not cause lasting/fatal physical or psychological harm. However, it is highly encouraged that individuals express sorrow and affection for Imam Ḥusayn in ways that emulate the practices of other Imams or the Ahl al-Bayt. This approach helps ensure that their expressions of sorrow and affection for Imam Ḥusayn remain in accordance with Sharia guidelines.
1. The Quran does not specifically mention practices of self-flagellation. However, it does caution against causing harm to oneself. For instance, the apparent indication of Quran 2:195 states:
"And do not throw yourselves into destruction. And do good; indeed, Allah loves the doers of good."
However, the concept of self-harm is relative and of various degrees. Some may find a particular act to be harmful, whereas others may not find any harm in the same act. Given the context of the varying degrees of harm, one cannot interpret this verse in an unrestricted (muṭlaq) manner to encompass every form of harm. Instead, the term “harm” must be understood as referring specifically to “severe harm” or “irreversible harm,” as this is the sure limit (qadr al-mutayaqin) that is reasonably espoused by the verse.
It is important to know that severe or irreversible harm can be physical or psychological. Both physical and psychological harms can lead to long-term health implications and/or death.
2. The reported Sunna of the Prophet and Imams mentions practises of grieving and expressing grief. The reports can generally be categorised into two groups. The first group of reports indicate the impermissibility of expressing excessive grief by wailing, shouting, and tearing one’s clothes. For instance:
Ibn Masʿūd reports from the Prophet who said: “He is not one of us who strikes the cheeks and tears the garments.” 6
Abū Amāma reports from the Prophet who said: “May God removes His mercy from the woman who scratches her face and tears her garments.7
In contrast, the second group of reports indicate the permissibility of expressing excessive grief. For instance:
Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ḥamza narrates from his father that Imam Ṣādiq stated: “Verily, weeping and intense/severe grieving (al-jazaʿ) are disliked for a servant (of Allah) in every matter of grieving, except weeping (al-bakāʾ) for Ḥusayn, son of Ali, peace be upon him, for indeed, in it there is reward.”8
Muʿāwiya b. Wahb reports that Imam Ṣādiq stated: All [types of intense] grief (al-jazaʿ) and crying is disliked (makrūh), except for grieving and crying for Hussein (peace be upon him).9
It is reported from al-ʿAbbās bin Maʿrūf that Imam Ṣādiq stated: “The weepers (al-bakāʾūn) are five: [Prophets] Adam, Yaʿqūb (Jacob), Yūsuf (Joseph), Fāṭima bint Muḥammad, and ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn. As for Adam, he wept for Paradise until his cheeks became furrowed like valleys. As for Yaʿqūb, he wept for Yūsuf until he lost his sight, and it was said to him, 'By Allāh, you will continue to remember Yūsuf until you ruin your health or perish.' As for Yūsuf, he wept for Yaʿqūb until the people of the prison were affected by it, and they said to him, 'Either weep during the night and remain silent during the day, or weep during the day and remain silent during the night.' So, he reconciled with them on one of the two options. As for Fāṭima, she wept for the Messenger of Allāh until the people of Medina were affected by it, and they said to her, 'Your excessive weeping has harmed us.' She used to go to the graves of the martyrs, weep until she fulfilled her need, and then leave. As for ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn, he wept for al-Ḥusayn for twenty or forty years. He would not place any food in front of him except that he would weep, until his caretaker said to him, 'May I be your ransom! I fear for you that you may perish.' He replied, 'Indeed, I pour forth my complaint and sorrow to Allāh. Whenever I remember the killing of the progeny of Fāṭima, it chokes me with grief.”10
It is important to note that the according to the report below the definition of extreme grief (al-jazaʿ) is as follows:
"It is reported from Jābir that he asked Imam Ṣādiq: “What is extreme grief (al-jazaʿ)?' The Imam replied: “Extreme grief is screaming out cries, slapping the face and chest, and tearing one's hair from its roots...”11
In this report the Imam defines al-jazaʿ (or uncontrollable expression of extreme emotion) in the form of uncontrollable weeping, slapping the face or chest, or tearing the hair from its roots. It is important to note that this definition does not include extreme practises of self-flagellation, such as striking the head or back with a blade or a sword. Nevertheless, to reconcile the abovementioned seemingly conflicting groups of reports, one can differentiate between mourning for the Prophets and Ahl al-Bayt, as opposed to mourning for others. The initial set of reports discourages excessive grief for individuals who are not Prophets or part of the Ahl al-Bayt. In contrast, the second set of reports encourages the expression of intense sorrow for Prophets and the Ahl al-Bayt.
3. Although all jurists agree that it is highly recommended to express grief (or al-jazaʿ) for Imam Ḥusayn, it is found that they have contrasting opinions with regards to the permissibility of different practises of self-flagellation. The table below categorises juristic edicts of some prominent Shia jurists who have given opinions on the different methods of self-flagellation.
Some jurists argue that the practice of self-flagellation during the commemoration of Imam Ḥusayn is permissible, provided it does not tarnish the reputation of Islam or the message of Imam Ḥusayn. Prominent grand scholars like Sayyid Khūmaynī and Sayyid Sistānī support this perspective, suggesting that any self-flagellation practices causing disrepute should be discontinued or prohibited.
However, a significant flaw in this argument is the absence of clearly defined and objective criteria for determining what constitutes 'disrepute.' This lack of precision leaves room for subjective interpretation. For instance, in various regions worldwide, some observers may perceive certain self-flagellation practices as negative and barbaric, while in other regions, these practices may be seen as a positive expression of profound love and devotion.
4. Considering the subjective nature through which the practices of self-flagellation may be perceived by onlookers, best practice dictates that individuals commemorate Imam Ḥusayn and express their grief for him in a manner that emulates the practices of other Imams and/or the Ahl al-Bayt. However, it is important to note that there are contrasting groups of reports that indicate how such esteemed personalities grieved for Imam Ḥusayn.
On one hand, we find reports that indicate that these the Imams and/or the Ahl al-Bayt never self-flagellated, but rather expressed grief by merely weeping. For instance:
It is reported that Imam Ṣādiq stated: “…Anyone who recites a poem about Ḥusayn and makes one person cry will be rewarded with Paradise.” The Imam added, “Anyone who remembers Ḥusayn and cries will be rewarded with Paradise.”26
It is reported from Ibrahīm b. Abī Maḥmūd that Imam Riḍā said: “…Indeed the day of Husain peeled our eyelids, caused our tears to flow, and humiliated our dear ones in a land of distress and tribulation, which bequeathed us distress and tribulation until the Day of Resurrection. So, for the likes of Husain let the weepers weep, for verily weeping diminishes great sins.” Then the Imam said: “When my father (Imam Mūsā Kāẓim) entered the month of Muharram, he would not be seen laughing, and gloom would prevail over him until the first ten days had passed. When the tenth day came, that day was the day of his tragedy, grief, and weeping. And he would say: This is the day on which Husain was killed.27
On one hand, we have reports that indicate that the Ahl al-Bayt practiced or tacitly approved self-flagellation as a form of grieving. For instance:
Muslim al-Jaṣṣāṣ reports: “So Zaynab turned and saw the severed head of her brother Ḥusayn. In grief, she forcefully hit her forehead against the front pole of the camel saddle she was riding on, with such intensity that we saw blood flowing out from underneath her veil.”28
It is reported that Owais al-Qarnī said: “By Allāh, the molar tooth of the Prophet of Allāh was not broken except that I broke my own molar tooth.”29
Imam Mahdī states the following in Ziyarat al-nāhiya: “But as I have been hindered by the course of time, and (Allāh’s) decree has prevented me from helping you, and as I could not fight those who fought you, and was not able to show hostility to those who showed hostility to you, I will, therefore, lament you morning and evening, and will weep blood in place of tears, out of my anguish for you and my sorrow for all that befell you…”30
The abovementioned group of reports have the following issues:
- With regards to report (a), Bāqir Majlisī in Bihār al-anwār states that he found this report in a reliable book but does not mention the name of the book and as such his claim cannot be verified. Moreover, Majlisī himself classifies this report as a mursal, which means that its chain of transmission has a gap (or gaps) and thus cannot be relied on. Also, the narrator of this report (Muslim al-Jaṣṣāṣ) is unknown, there is no information concerning his veracity.31
- With regards to report (b), it is not found in any credible Shia or Sunni works of ḥadīth. Rather, it is found in two books, the first is al-Sīra al-Ḥalabiyya, by Ibrahīm al-Ḥalabī (d. 1549), written a thousand years after the incident supposedly took place. And the second is a Sūfī work entitled, Tadhkirat al-awliyā by the Sūfī poet Farīd al-Dīn Attār (d. 1220)32 and according to a majority of Sunnī scholars this report is unreliable.33
- With regards to report (c), there is no verifiable chain of transmission for this report and therefore it cannot be used to prove that the Imams or the Ahl al-Bayt practised self-flagellation.
In essence, all the above-mentioned reports indicate that the Imams (or the Ahl al-Bayt) wept for Imam Ḥusayn. However, there is no reliable indication of them practising mild or extreme methods of self-flagellation. Nevertheless, many historical accounts indicate that as early as the Umayyad era, Muslims would practice mild self-flagellating acts of striking their chests and faces when commemorating the tragedy of Imam Ḥusayn.34 Considering this it can be said that although there is no direct and reliable mention of the Imams ever self-flagellating, the fact that they may have allowed their followers to self-flagellate (or never explicitly discouraged them from as striking chests and faces) seemingly highlights that they tacitly approved mild practices of self-flagellation.
At this juncture, it is important to know that more extreme practices of self-flagellation (particularly those that involve self-bloodletting) were only introduced within the fold of Islam during the Safavid era as late as the 16th century.35 Historical works suggest that extreme practices of self-flagellation were introduced by Central Asian Turkic Sufi groups that converted to Shiism and integrated their practise of self-flagellation during the public processions that were annually held in the memory of Imam Ḥusayn.36 According to a study by Kathryn Babayan, some Sufi groups practiced extreme self-flagellation after being inspired by some European Christians who self-flagellated as a means of purification and repentance for worldly indulgences.37
Accordingly, it can be concluded that weeping as a form of grieving for Imam Ḥusayn was explicitly practiced by the Imams. Practices of mild self-flagellation, such a striking one’s chest or face seems to have been tacitly approved by the Imams. Whereas practices of extreme self-flagellation were introduced much later and there is no proof of them being practiced or even tacitly approved by the Imams. Although best practice dictates that individuals should choose to practice methods of grieving that were practiced by the Imams or the Ahl al-Bayt, there is no explicit proof from the Quran and Sunna that prohibits the practice of extreme methods of self-flagellation unless they are to cause lasting/fatal physical or psychological harm. Therefore, individuals who engage with extreme practises of self-flagellation cannot be condemned for acting against the Sharia. However, they must ensure that their intentions for self-flagellating remain pure and that they do not consciously cause any disrepute to the overall message of Imam Ḥusayn and his grandfather, the Prophet.
2. Ünver Günay, “Flagellation, Fear and Faith: Self-Mortification in Turkish Sunni Islam,” Journal of Turkish Studies 36 (2012): 97-112.
3. Anas Sajid, “Self-Flagellation and Health Risks: A Case of Localized Infectious Complications in a Shia Muslim Child,” Journal of Infection and Public Health 9, no. 2 (2016): 216-218.
4. Oliver Scharbrodt (2022) Contesting ritual practices in Twelver Shiism: modernism, sectarianism and the politics of self-flagellation (taṭbīr), British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2022.2057279
5. Ali Khamenei, “Tatbir is a Wrongful and Fabricated Tradition: Imam Khamenei,” Khamenei.ir, June 16, 2010, https://english.khamenei.ir/news/4209/Tatbir-is-a-wrongful-and-fabricated-tradition-Imam-Khamenei
6. This report can be found in both Shia and Sunni sources, for instance in: Muḥammad Bāqir ibn Muḥammad Taqī al-Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār al-jāmiʿa li-durar akhbār al-aʾimmat al-aṭhār, (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1403), 82:9; Mīrzā Ḥusayn al-Nūrī al-Ṭabrisī, Mustadrak al-wasāʾil wa-mustanbaṭ al-masāʾil, (Qom: Muʾassasat Āl al-Bayt li-Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth, 1408 AH), 2:452; Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad Ibn Ḥanbal, Al-Musnad (Cairo: Muʾassasat al-Qurṭubah, n.d.), 1:386; Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Riyadh: Bayt al-Afkār al-Dawliyyah lil-Nashr, 1998), 2:82; Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Nīshābūrī, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, (Riyadh: Bayt al-Afkār al-Dawliyyah lil-Nashr, 1998), 1:70; Muḥammad ibn Yazīd Ibn Mājah, Sunan Ibn Māja, (Riyadh: Bayt al-Afkār al-Dawliyyah lil-Nashr, 1998), 1:505; Aḥmad ibn Shuʿayb al-Nasāʾī, al-Sunan al-kubrā, (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah, 1411 AH), 1:611.
8. Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad bin ʿAlī bin al-Ḥusayn ibn Bābawayh al-Qummī, Kāmil al-ziyārāt, (n.p, 1417), 9; al-Majlisī, Biḥār, 79:93.
9. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭūsī, al-Amālī, ed. Muʾassasat al-Baʿtha, Qism al-Dirāsāt al-Islāmīyah (Qom: Dār al-Thaqāfa li-l-Ṭibāʿa wa-l-Nashr, 1414), 162.
10. Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī, Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, (Qom: Muʾassasat Āl al-Bayt li-Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth, 1414), 2:922.
11. Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kulaynī al-Rāzī, al-Kāfī, 3:622, al-ʿĀmilī, Wasāʾil, 2:915.
12. Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Gharawī al-Nāʾīnī, al-Fatwā, (Qom: Dār al-Hādī, 1386), 576-77.
13. Muḥammad Ḥusayn Kāshif al-Ghīṭā, al-Firdaws al-aʿlā (n.p.: Ẓuhūr, 2005/6), 58.
14. Sayyid Ṣādiq Ḥusayni Shīrāzī, Islamic Law: Books One and Two Handbook of Islamic Rulings on Muslim’s Duties and Practises, (London: Rasul Akram Foundation, 2013), 607-609.
17. Ḥusayn Muʿtamadi, ʿAzādārī-yi Sunnatī-yi Shīʿīyān, (Qom: Iʿtimād, 1383 SH ), 7:392–3; Rābiṭa, Fatāwā al-Fuqahāʾ, 82–3.
19. al-Nāʾīnī, al-Fatwā, 576-77. For further information on the edicts of grand scholars, see Rābiṭa al-Thaqāfiyya, Fatāwā al-fuqahāʾ wa al-marājiʿ fī al-shaʿāʾir al-Ḥūsayniyya (Beirut: Muʾassat al-Fikr al-Islāmī, 2016), 11–79.
20. Quoted in Haydari, Trājidiyya Karbalā’, 451, cited from Oliver Scharbrodt (2022) Contesting ritual practices in Twelver Shiism: modernism, sectarianism and the politics of self-flagellation (taṭbīr), British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2022.2057279
21. Muḥsin al-Amīn, Risālat al-tanzīh li-aʿmāl al-shabīh (Sidon: al-ʿIrfān, 1928/9), 8–11.
22. Kāshif al-Ghīṭā, al-Firdaws al-Aʿlā, 19-22; 58.
23. Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍl Allāh, Istiftāʾāt: “ʿĀshūrāʾ” wa al-ʿUmūr al-Mutaʿalliqa’, http://arabic.bayynat.org/ListingFAQ2.aspx?cid=119&Language=1 (accessed September 26, 2023); “Ayyatullah Fadhlullah on Ashura Rites & Rituals | Arabic with English Subtitles”, YouTube video 1:57, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNR9dHGiL1I
26. Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. ʿAlī bin al-Ḥusayn b. Bābawayh al-Qummī, Kāmil al-ziyārāt, (n.p, 1417), 210.
27. Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. ʿAlī bin al-Ḥusayn b. Bābawayh al-Qummī, al-Amālī, (Qom: Muʾassasat al-Baʿtha, 1417), 190.
28. Muḥammad Bāqir ibn Muḥammad Taqī al-Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār al-jāmiʿa li-durar akhbār al-aʾimmat al-aṭhār (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1403), 45:115.
29. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Dhahabī, Siyar aʿlām al-nubalāʾ, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnaʾūt (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1417 AH), 4:389.
30. Muḥammad bin Jaʿfar al-Mashhadī, al-Mazār, (Qom: Nashr al-Quyūm, 1419), 501; Majlisī, Bihār, 98:238.
31. This is supported by esteemed scholars of biography (rijāl) such as Shayk ʿAlī al-Namazī al-Shāhrūdī. For instance, see ʿAlī al-Namāzī al-Shāhrūdī, Mustadrakāt ’ilm rijāl al-ḥadīth, (Qom: Muʾassasat al-Nashr al-Islāmī al-Tābiʿa li-Jamāʿat al-Mudarrisīn, 1415), 7:411.
32. B. Reinert, “AṬṬĀR, FARĪD-AL-DĪN,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, III/1, pp. 20-25, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/attar-farid-al-din-poet (accessed on 27 September 2023); Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār." Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Farid-al-Din-Attar.
33. "The Story of Uwais al-Qarni Breaking His Own Teeth,” Seekers Guidance - Hanafi Answers, last modified September 22, 2010, https://islamqa.org/hanafi/seekersguidance-hanafi/32786/the-story-of-uwais-al-qarni-breaking-his-own-teeth/; "Story About Uwais Al-Qarni Breaking His Teeth False," Islamweb.net, accessed March 1, 2023, https://www.islamweb.net/en/fatwa/339994/story-about-uways-al-qarni-breaking-his-teeth-false.
34. Yitzhak Nakash, “An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of Āshurā ̧” Die Welt des Islams 33, no. 2 (1993): 168.; Ali J. Hussain, "The Mourning of History and the History of Mourning: The Evolution of Ritual Commemoration of the Battle of Karbala." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25, no. 1 (2005): 78-88.
35. Rasūl Jaʿfariyān, History of Shiʿism in Iran from the Beginning to the Seventh Century Hijri, (Qom: Ansariyan Publications, 2001), 49; Said Amir Arjomand, “Religious Extremism (Ghuluww), Sufism and Sunnism in Safavid Iran: 1501–1722,” Journal of Asian History 15, no. 1 (1981): 4. For further information on the various viewpoints on the emergence of blood-letting self-flagellation see: Scharbrodt, Contesting ritual practices in Twelver Shiism, 5-6.
36. Yitzhak Nakash, “An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of Āshurā ̧” Die Welt des Islams 33, no. 2 (1993): 168; Kathryn Babayan, “The Waning of the Qizilbash: The Spiritual and the Temporal in Seventeenth-Century Iran,” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1993), 24-25.
37. Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 12.