Ashura 2016: Muslims across Lebanon and the Middle East mark holiest day of the Shia calendar

Annual processions involving intense public outpourings of grief and self-flagellation marking the holiest day of the Shia Islamic calendar marred by excuse for sectarian violence in several parts of the world 

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The Independent Online

Millions of Muslim worshippers across the world have taken part in processions and services this week to mark the holiest days in the Shiite calendar, Tasua and Ashura.

Tasua and Ashura, the ninth and 10th days of the month of Moharram, are days of mourning in Shia Islam to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.  

Ashura involves reenactments of the Battle of Karbala in which Hussein died in 680 AD, and public processions of intense collective grief accompanied by poetry recitals and music. In certain parts of the world, observers beat their chests and heads and flagellate themselves with chains or swords to echo his suffering. 

The date - this year, October 12th - is the culmination of four weeks of mourning, and decided according to the new moon. 

The self-flagellation ritual, known as ‘Tatbir’ in Arabic and ‘Talwar Zani’ and ‘Qama Zani’ in south Asia, is a tradition that originates from southern Lebanon and Karbala in southern Iraq. It has been banned or strongly discouraged by many governments and Shiite religious authorities in recent years because of the associated health risks. 

Many organisations, including Lebanon's Hezbollah, encourage people wishing to observe Ashura to donate to blood banks instead, but in Nabatiyeh, a town in the south of the country, the streets were awash with blood on Wednesday. Many mourners were observed cutting their foreheads and beating themselves, blood covering their white clothes. 

In Beirut’s southern suburbs tens of thousands of men and women wearing black took part in a procession which ended in a speech by Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, in which he repeated an earlier declaration that this year’s Ashura is dedicated to the suffering of people in Yemen

Chains and blades were used during ritual self-flagellation as part of Ashura commemorations at a mosque in Kabul (Getty)

Many mourners carried Yemeni flags during the march and chanted anti-Saudi Arabia slogans. The Saudi kingdom is currently leading a bombing campaign against Shia Houthi rebels in the country, which has killed thousands of civilians. 

The Beirut procession took place under tight security, as did processions in Iraq and Pakistan. 

The debate over whether Imam Hussein was entitled to the position of caliph through his bloodline is where the two branches of Sunni and Shia Islam originate, and as such the holiday is sometimes used as an excuse for violence because of the marked sectarian differences in how it is celebrated.

Iraqi Shiite Muslim men flagellate themselves in commemorations on the tenth day of the mourning period of Muharram, which marks the day of Ashura (Getty)

Sunni Muslims celebrate Ashura as the commemoration of the victory God gave to Moses in Egypt.

Ashura marches in Kabul were subdued on Wednesday, with Afghanistan’s 500,000 Shia minority still reeling from an attack on a Shiite shrine the day before which killed 14 people and wounded 26.  Many chose to mark the day at home instead after further security warnings from the government.

In Sringar in India, a curfew was imposed to stop the potential for violence. 

Iraqi Shiite boys take part in a self-flagellation procession during the reenactment of the Battle of Karbala, as part of a parade in preparation for the peak of the mourning period of Ashura (Getty)

Ashura in Shia-majority Iran this year was marked by controversy because of a Fifa World Cup 2018 qualifiying game against South Korea in Tehran on Tuesday night. Prominent clerics had asked for the game to be moved or forfeited in case any celebrations in the event of a win clashed with the holy festival of mourning.

Supporters wore black to watch the game, which Iran won 1-0.