Self flagellation on Park Ave

While New Yorkers are known for their displays of self-flagellation, it’s usually a metaphorical exercise, one driven by old school Catholic or Jewish guilt. However, over on 3QD, Abbas Raza has some surprising photographs of Ashura / Moharram being commemorated right in the middle of Park Avenue. Ashura is marked by both Shia and Sunni, although for different reasons. For the Shia:

This day is anniversary of the battle of Karbala which resulted in martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, by the army of Umayyad caliph,Yazid I. [Link]

All of Husain’s family was massacred in front of his eyes, even his six-month old son … The followers of Ali (the Shia) said to themselves that they would never allow this horrific event to be forgotten, and that they would mourn Husain and his family’s murder forever, and for the last thirteen hundred years, they have lived up to this promise every year. This mourning has given rise to ritualistic displays of grief, which include flagellating oneself with one’s hands, with chains, with knives, etc. [Link]

Raza observes:

In front, you can see a painstakingly recreated model of the tomb of Husain…. It is a testament to the tolerance of American society that … it allows (and observes with curiosity) such displays of foreign sentiment… The procession is made up of Shias of various nationalities, with the largest contingents being from Pakistan and Iran. [Link]

I’m a native New Yorker, and I never dreamed that there was an Ashura procession in the center of the Upper East Side. It’s worth looking at Raza’s entire post — it’s a long article, with multiple photos including some of the self-flagellation.

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22 thoughts on “Self flagellation on Park Ave

  1. Isnt Ashura, part of or the same thing as Moharram?? I have seen Moharram processions back home.

  2. I think they’re the same thing. I had previously called it Muharram, but this post called it Ashura as did the Wikipedia article. Ashura means “Tenth”, a reference to the battle of Karbala which happened on the tenth of the month of Moharram.

  3. The self flagellation seems quite painless here. I’ve seen, on video, and read of Shias flagellating themselves with whips that have multiple knives and blades attached on the end. Basically, it’s a lot of pain and blood and people fall unconscious or in extreme cases, even die. Just being an observer to a whole crowd doing the same is painful in itself. Of course, I doubt if this would be allowed anywhere in the US.

  4. Sourav — you might be interested in the linked post on Thai Pusam from last year as well. I don’t get why people need to hurt themselves, in either S&M or for religious reasons, but it seems to be a relatively widespread trope.

  5. I found one comment in the above link interesting:

    Sorry to break into the stream of “sublime poetry”, Abbas, but what we have here is the story of one armed faction with a claim to power being defeated by another, larger, armed faction, from the same emerging Islamic nation, with its claim to power. This isn’t even like other bitterly remembered defeats, such as the defeat of the Jews by the Romans, the Battle of Culloden or the massacre of Wounded Knee, in which peoples were cruelly subjugated by an invading force from another culture. The Karbala massacre was a nasty internal dispute, apparently devoid even of any substantial ideological content or any claim of supernatural events, which occurred 14 centuries ago. I fail to see how this justifies perpetuating the blood feud forever, and teaching one’s sons, generation after generation, to flagellate themselves with chains! Fact: people sometimes get killed in Ashura processions. What are the NYPD or Social Services supposed to do if they know about parents who are making their children whip themselves with chains?

  6. I would have expected such a parade to happen in LA first, what with the large Iranian population there. Anyone there ever seen one?

  7. I would have expected such a parade to happen in LA first, what with the large Iranian population there. Anyone there ever seen one?

    1) aren’t a lot of the iranians in LA pretty secular? 2) aren’t a lot of them actually jewish or bahai?

  8. The pretty secular makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think that many of them are Jewish or Bahai. And they were there even before the revolution, so one would expect a religious core of some sort. I mean, it is like the biggest deal for Shia, right?

  9. I think we should see the Shi’ite Ashura rites not as a privilege, but as a rite. There should be no, ‘wow, look how tolerant we are.’ It should instead be, ‘that’s what they believe, they are not a violent mob, and thus they should be allowed to assemble.’ It really scares me how these rites are seen as something the Shi’ites are privileged to have, rather than something they have a right to.

  10. Isnt Ashura, part of or the same thing as Moharram?? I have seen Moharram processions back home.

    Moharram is the first month of the Islamic Calendar. The martyrdom of Husain took place during this month and as such is considered a month of mourning and sadness by most Muslims. Ashura takes place on the tenth day of Moharram which is the event being referred to in the post.

  11. from wiki:

    Iranian communities in the US also have varying religious populations among each city. Los Angeles’ Iranian population — the nation’s highest concentration Persian American community — is representative of all of Iran’s religious groups. Noticeably, the majority of Jewish Iranians in the world, after Israel, reside in Los Angeles. Persian Jews or Mizrahi Jews make up a large perentage, of Persians in Los Angeles. They maintain a presence in many upscale neighborhoods. The famous Beverly Hills has a clear Jewish majority among its Persian community, and is the location of a large Farsi-speaking synagogue (Nessah Synagogue). The L.A.-adjacent Orange County is home to predominantly Muslim Persians. Glendale, California’s Iranian American population is mostly Armenian Christian. There is a considerable population of Persian American Bahá’ís in several states too. Almost all other Iranian Americans communities in other US cities are mostly Muslim or of secular backgrounds

  12. I thought Ashura was called Muharram too. I wish I’d known this was happening earlier and gone to see the gorgeous model tomb. I wonder what was done with it afterwards.

  13. IIRC, Ashura is on a particular day, but Muharram is the name of the whole holy month. In India, however, the Muharram holiday is only one day, for Ashura, which is probably why the two get conflated.

    The model tombs are called taziyas, and in north India are often made with colourful metallic paper, you see lots of them in the Lucknow imambaras, and they are taken out for processions too.

  14. Forgive the self-promotion, but I edited an hour-long documentary about Ashura in Pakistan a couple of years ago. Although most of the movie is about the rituals during the whole ten days and the religious recitation that’s a part of it, it climaxes in the kind of bloody scene that you’d imagine. Link to 2-min trailer. Not having been raised in ANY religion, I find it very difficult to understand inflicting pain on yourself in the name of spirituality, whether it’s Italian nuns with barbed wire under their habits or Pakistani Shias with their knives or any number of things you read about in anthropology class. An Iranian told me that it happens here in London too but very few people know about it.

  15. Many mystic philosophies delve a lot into the fundamental connections between pain and ecstasy, and how to channel one into the other. Self-infliction of pain is probably a part of that whole idea.

  16. Wow, I’ve been in NYC area 2 yrs, and NEVER heard of this parade! I have met many Pakistani-Americans who live on the Upper East Side though.

  17. Razib, that wiki “article” is composed of a very similar substance as the rest of Wikipedia, i.e “crap”…

  18. On google video, search, Muharram Procession, New York

    This particular Muharram Procession has been happening for over 20 years in NY, on Park Ave.

    In fact, I went to it yesterday :)

    Ali