The History of Blood Mourning Ceremonies

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For about a millennium after the tragedy of Karbala, the Shia did not practice blood shedding when mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a) or any of the Ahlulbayt (a). Instead they mourned in a traditional and more natural manner, which included the methods used by the Imams (a) and their families. However this changed when blood rituals were introduced into the mourning gatherings of the Shia.

Historians have shown that blood rituals were foreign cultural practices that were introduced to certain elements of the Shia community relatively recently in the history of the religion.

Quoting Professor Werner Ende in “The Flagellations of Muharram
and the Shi’ite ‘Ulama’”

Muhammad Mahdi al-Qazwini, however, in a work finished in the month of Ramadan 1345 H (March 1927), claims that the use of iron, i.e. of chains and swords for flagellation, was initiated “about a century ago” by people not well versed in the rules of the shari `a.


Below is an excerpt from the book “A Hidden Hand” which describes how these cultural practices entered the Shia community via external sources.

There are differences of opinion as to when blood matam started.1 The most reliable opinion is that the cutting of the head was a practice performed by the Turks in Azerbaijan which was transferred to the Iranians and Arabs.2

The Iraqi author of the book The Tragedy of Karbala also believes that such practices were not common in Iraq before the nineteenth century. At the end of this century they started to gain popularity in this country. Therefore, blood matam started elsewhere and came to Iraq which means it is not rooted in Arab heritage.3 Shaykh Kazim Dajili also accepts this view and says: “Iraqis did not participate in these processions until the beginning of the twentieth century. This practice was first seen amongst the Turkish Iraqis, Sufis, and Western Iranian Kurds.”4 A report by English sources covering Ashura in Najaf in the year 1919 shows that 100 Turkish Shias performed blood matam that year.5

Memories of Sayyid Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum support this claim as well: “When I was in Najaf around 50-60 years ago there were only a fewTurkish mourning groups. They would come to Sayyid Bahr al-Ulum’s house on the days of mourning and with his permission they would recite emotional poems about Imam Hussayn (a). Some of them would slightly injure themselves while listening to the poems in order to try to feel what Imam Hussayn felt. Slowly this type of action changed and spread until it reached its peak when it was outlawed in 1935 by Yasin Hashimi, the prime minister of the time. In reality, this oppressive action had an opposite effect1 – in such a way that the number of mourning groups tripled.”2

Hajj Hamid Razi (d.1953) was a police man in Karbala and lived to be about 110 years old. He told his memories regarding the mourning of Imam Hussayn (a) – about blood matam which he says was not normally practiced in Najaf or Karbala when he was young.3 There has been no recollection by elder people of Najaf and Karbala saying that there were these processions before the middle of the nineteenth century. These processions where first performed by Turkish visitors from the Qizilbash Tribe. When they would perform a ziyarat to Imam Hussayn (a) they would strike their heads with special swords.4

The full book can be purchased here for a nominal price.

Yitzhak Nakash in his article: “An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of ʿĀshūrāʾ”, states the following regarding the origin of these practices:

The flagellations were introduced into central and southern Iran, as well as into Iraq, only in the nineteenth century. This proposition is supported by the data provided by Shi’i biographies and Iraqi Shi`i oral history. The biographies identify Shaykh Mulla Agha `Abidal-Darbendi (d. 1868/9) as the first to introduce violent acts of self-flagellation into Tehran around the mid-nineteenth century.

Darbendi is said to include in this work uncommon rituals, not to be found in other accepted Shi’i Imami writings on the commemoration of ‘Ashura.54 The relatively late appearance of flagellation in Iraq is also evident from Shi’i accounts. The Iraqi Shi’i mujtahid Muhammad Mahdi al-Qazwini is cited by Werner Ende as claiming around 1927 that the use of iron was initiated “about a century ago” by people not well versed in the rules of the Shari’a.55 Indeed, Iraqi Shi’i oral history traces the appearance of flagellation in Najaf and Karbala to the nineteenth century. It is related that the practice was imported to these cities by Shi’i Turks, who came to Karbala and Najaf on pilgrimage from the Caucasus or Azarbayjan.56

The author goes on to state that the Qizilbash, an extreme ghulat Turkish sect, seemingly introduced blood rituals to Imami Shias. He then points out that the Qizilbash took their flagellation rituals from some Christians. Therefore the Shia blood rituals most probably have a Christian origin.

Sufi and Christian elements were fused in the rituals of the Qizilbash.62 As will be seen below, this was also evident in the flagellations, which reenacted the shedding of Husayn’s blood in a manner similar to the reenactment of the shedding of the blood of Christ among Christian Catholics.


1 An Article in a Shia media outlet entitled: Maruri bar Tarikh Takvin Majalis va Aeenhaye Azadari dar Iran by Mohsin Hassam Mazaheri, Akhbar Adiyan Magazine, number 18, Farvardin va Ordibehesht138

2 Abdullah Mastufi, Sharh Zendiganiye Man ya Tarikh Ijtemai va Idari Douran Ghajariyeh, v.1 and 3.

3 Ibrahim Haydari, The Tragedy of Karbala (tradjedi Karbala) translated into Farsi by Ali Mamouri,p.475

4 Kazem Dajili, Ashura fi al-Najaf wa Karbala, p.287; Mahmoud Darah, Jiyyat Iraqi min wara’ al-Bawabih al-Sawda’, p.24

5 Naqash, p.269 (quoting from: Administration Report of the Shamiyya Division, Great Britain)

1 Anytime an action is forbid with force without any kind of intellectual or cultural explanation given it will have an opposite effect.

2 Goftegu ba Sayyid Bahr al-Ulum piramoun Azadari Husseini, Nour Magazine, number 74, January 1997

3 Tradjedi Karbala, a conversation with Doctor Shakir Latif, 4,12,1996

4 Talib Ali Sharqi, al-najaf al-Ashraf Adatha wa Talidha