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New Meanings to Old Rituals: The Emergence of Mourning Rituals in Shiʿite Islam
Dalarna University, School of Humanities and Media Studies, Religious Studies. (Minoritet, identitet, autenticitet)ORCID iD: 0000-0001-9963-8124
2014 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

This paper will discuss the emergence of Shiʿite mourning rituals around the grave of Husayn b. ʿAli. After the killing of Husayn at Karbala’ in 61/680, a number of men in Kufa feel deep regret for their neglect to come to the help of the grand­son of the Prophet. They gather and discuss how they can best make penitence for this crime. Eventually, they decide to take to arms and go against the Umayyad army – to kill those that killed Husayn, or be killed them­selves in the attempt to find revenge for him. Thus, they are called the Penitents (Ar. Tawwābūn). On their way to the battlefield they stop at Husayn’s tomb at Karbala’, dedicat­ing themselves to remorseful prayer, crying and wailing over the fate of Husayn and their own sin.

When the Penitents perform certain ritual acts, such as weeping and wailing over the death of Husayn, visiting his grave, asking for God’s mercy upon him on the Day of Judgment, demand blood revenge for him etc., they enter into already existing rituals in the pre-Islamic Arab and early Muslim context. That is, they enter into rituals that were traditionally performed at the death of a person. What is new is that the rituals that the Penitents perform have partially received a new content. As described, the rituals are performed out of loyalty towards Husayn and the family of the Prophet. The lack of loyalty in connection with the death of Husayn is conceived of as a sin that has to be atoned. Blood revenge thus be­comes not only a pure action of revenge to restore honor, but equally an expression for true religious conversion and penitence.

Humphrey and Laidlaw argue that ritual actions in themselves are not bearers of meaning, but that they are filled with mean­ing by the performer. Accord­ing to them, ritual actions are apprehensible, i.e. they can be, and should be filled with meaning, and the people who perform them try to do so within the context where the ritual is performed. The story of the Penitents is a clear example of mourning rituals as actions that survive from earlier times, but that are now filled with new meaning when they are performed in a new and developing move­ment with a different ideology. In later Shiʿism, these rituals are elaborated and become a main tenet of this form of Islam.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Islam, Shi'ism, mourning rituals, martyrdom, Husayn b. Ali, Penitents, penitence
National Category
History of Religions
Research subject
Kultur, identitet och gestaltning, Hämnd eller martyrium! Berättelsen om Botgörarna som en länk till Shi`ismens tidiga utveckling.
URN: urn:nbn:se:du-15339OAI: diva2:745241
Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting, Washington D.C., Nov. 22-25 2014
Hämnd eller martyrium! Berättelsen om Botgörarna som en länk till Shi`ismens tidiga utveckling
Swedish Research Council, 421-2011-1806
Available from: 2014-09-10 Created: 2014-09-10 Last updated: 2014-12-02Bibliographically approved

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