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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

August 1, 2004

a note on matam.

Razib is reading Mullahs on the Mainframe, after much haranguing on my part. One of his observations centers on the issue of blood-letting during matam (the ritualized expression of grief we perform in remembrance of Imam Husain AS's martyrdom by the Ummaiyad tyrant):

The men above are violating the injunctions from on high in a community that does not normally tolerate this behavior, but they are admired and respected (according to the author). Is this an instance of irrational insanity?

I don't think so. Flagellation, self-mutiliation and mortification are recurrent motifs in human religious movements, whether that be Hindu ascetism, medieval Catholic Christianity or modern Shia Islam. One could assert that it is a recurrent psychopathology, but the description above, the respect that peculiar ascetes are accorded in Hindu culture or the power that European flagellators exercised suggests to me that we might have to redefine "irrational" or "pathological" if these behaviors fall under those umbrellas.

Like materialism, behavior like flagellation is nothing more than a status cue, those who survive great hardships with effortless aplomb are accorded respect.

Razib's larger point is true, but blood-letting during matam, contrary to Jonah's observation, is more viewed as a bizarre curiority than something that qualifies as a status cue. In our Bohra culture, status derives from khidmat, or service to the community.

It's VERY rare for anyone in our community to look favorably upon bloodletting matam. In fact, I have seen those who do ostracized, because it flouts the wishes of the Dai. I dont doubt that Jonah Blank observed some admirers of those who did the bloody matam, but I think that extrapolating a "secret admiration" from that single observation is ludicrous. Remember that like war coverage, the blood gets the most ink.

Often, BTW, non-Bohra Shi'a are drawn to Bohra celebrations, because they lack the organized institutional infrastructure to do it themselves. This is especially a problem in India and Pakistan (though less so Pakistan, because Shi'a in general are more cautious in expressing their Shi'ism there, due to the institutionalized Sunni hostility. Except for us Bohras)

Keep in mind that Jonah's observation was at a remote masjid, not the main one where the Dai was delivering the sermon. In Bombay, the community is enormous, and live video feed of teh sermons are carried over CCTV to numerous smaller centers even in remote districts of the city. This behavior only occurs at the fringes of Bohra culture, where it overlaps with the other non-Bohra muslim circles.

I was not at the bombay Ashara that Jonah Blank observed the admiration of blood matam, but I have been to Ashara in Pune, Karachi, Surat, and Houston. In Pune and Surat I observed other Shi'as doing blood matam well outside the main throng, and they were also surrounded by a fascinated small group, mostly of non-Bohras, but also some youth from our community who had never seen it before and were understandably fascinated.

The bottom line is that there is absolutely zero mainstream admiration for that action in my community, aside from the natural curiosity of youth about blood. Jonah's suggestion that there is some secretly suppressed, widespread contravention of the religious authority in this regard is simply wrong.

Jonah is not a liar, nor is he a fool. He is, however, an outsider, attempting to derive whatever insight he can to a (with all due respect to both sides) and alien culture and religion. He misfires several times in Mullahs on the Mainframe, the most notable example being his critique that the Bohra orthodoxy is fixated on the Fatimid period, an understandable misunderstanding but completely wrong nevertheless (I'll expound on that some other time after you've finished the book). But this does not detract from the overall excellent and sincere scholarship he devoted to the topic of my community.

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Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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