Husseinian Ceremonies: An Interview with a Christian Scholar
Interviewer: Jasim Safar
The following is an extract of the interview with Dr Paul al-Hilw, which appeared in the Arabic Kuwaiti monthly 'al-Menbar', issue 12 (2nd Year), May 2001, page 12. Translated by Ali Adam, London.
There is a point which must be dealt with in reply to the question: is it true that our upholding of the Husseinian ceremonies (al-sha'a'ir al-husseiniyyah) including tatbir or the striking of the head with a sword, causes others to look down upon us?
The answer is more obvious than the question, for it is evident that all Islamic ceremonies are likely to be looked down upon, including the ceremonies of prayer and the hajj pilgrimage and so on, if we do not work to clarify the philosophy of these ceremonies to others. When people look at us, they require an explanation from us of the religious rituals and ceremonies that we practice. This is a natural thing. If we were not to clarify to them this philosophy or explain its aspects and aims, then we open the door to looks of bewilderment, mockery and denigration. If however, we work towards explaining this to the people, and particularly to thinkers, intellectuals and people of understanding, they will comprehend the lofty goals of these civilized ceremonies and will grasp the extent of their importance and this will result in an increased respect for us and our beliefs and our school of thought.
We do not say this out of thin air, for reality proves this since many thinkers and academics; westerners more than Muslims, have testified to the greatness of these ceremonies and have bowed their heads in respect to them. It would suffice for us to peruse books such as 'Testimonies of western scholars about Husseinian ceremonies,' or 'Tatbir, a reality not an innovation,' in order to examine these statements and testimonies in abundance.
Here we record the testimony of a Christian academic who specialises in the study of human societies and their traditions and customs, the Lebanese Maronite, Doctor Paul Joseph al-Hilw. He has been a professor and lecturer at several Lebanese universities and is a writer and linguist in many scientific and academic circles. The testimony of Doctor al-Hilw is of increased importance because of the dissertation he prepared in the past for his masters degree which was entitled: 'The Salafi Movement and its Effects on the Islamic World.' Presently he is preparing an academic study entitled: 'Comparisons Between Christianity and the Imamiyyah . . . An Analytical Study.' His Doctoral thesis was entitled: 'The Area of Juzein Over 80 Years . . . An Economic, Cultural and Sociological Study.' This is the thesis which earned him his doctorate in the University of The Holy Spirit in Lebanon.
We took the opportunity of directing some questions to him about this subject as well as other questions about the noble Husseinian revolution. The answers given by Dr al-Hilw, which bore the hallmark of the analytical method, were more than beneficial. What follows is an edited version of the conversation that took place.
al-Menbar: Why has the voice of the Husseinian revolution not subsided and what is the secret of its survival and the renewal it experiences every year?
- According to my belief, the Husseinian condition is not confined to the Shi'a alone. It is general and all-inclusive. Hence we find that the Husseinian revolution's connection with the principle of resisting oppression has made it very relevant to a person whatever his religion or beliefs might be, because as long as there are oppressors and oppressed then there will always be Yazid and Hussein as two fundamental symbols of oppressor and oppressed. This is from a philosophical and spiritual standpoint. From a practical and existential viewpoint, the rituals that are practised by the Shi'a, during the days of the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, attach an aspect of renewal to this revolution by which it is made to be continuously present in the human mindset.
al-Menbar: How so?
- The sociological view of these rituals or ceremonies is that they are international or universal ceremonies, which express the idea of resisting oppression and aiding the oppressed. This expression is what gives these ceremonies a universal flavour and which makes them accepted on a societal level in many different environments and cultures. That a revolution should take place in a certain place and time and also remain alive until our time means that this revolution is connected with universal human concepts on the one hand, and also that it relies upon recurring social interactions on the other. These interactions take the form of these rituals or ceremonies, which take place in the days of Muharram and particularly on the tenth day.
al-Menbar: Then you believe that these rituals are a source for the survival of this revolution . . . correct?
- Naturally, because when we remember a person the way we remember Hussein, it is not enough that we pray for his soul or remember his deeds or virtues, but rather, something palpable and something painful must be brought into the equation.
- Yes, painful. For that which does not cause pain to the body does not persist. It is the pain that preserves the issue and the memory and is what allows them to be implemented on an existential level and to have effects on cultural and social movements. The persistence of the memory and its survival in the human mind must be accompanied by tangible physical pain and this is what the Husseinian rituals accomplish. When one feels pain in one's body, one will contemplate its source and when this contemplation leads one to the pains that befell Hussein, then one will evoke his revolution and his principles and goals in a spontaneous way.
al-Menbar: There are those who believe that Husseinian rituals are superstitions, which cause a negative view of those who practise them in the eyes of the world. Is this true in your view?
- This is nonsense and is far from scientific realities. As we know, a superstition is something invented by the human mind to explain a certain form or image that he finds difficult to understand. Hence we see that with the development of the human mind the superstition does not persist. The principle as regards superstition is that it does not persist and does not remain but ceases to be when its inventor ceases to be. Religious rituals and ceremonies however, are based on doctrine and faith, which know no imperfection or middle ground; hence they have persisted and survived.
There is a difference between belief and mythology. Mythology consists of imaginings invented by man in order to arrive at what is behind natural phenomena and these imaginings are what generally drives man towards superstitions until he comes close to understanding and comprehending these phenomena. Most of these superstitions are now obsolete; for instance, we can see how those who used to worship the sun or the moon are now extinct except for some in isolated places in Africa. This is because their superstition cannot remain in the face of the tremendous progress that has occurred in scientific discoveries.
The Husseinian ceremonies however, because of their intellectual aspects and living values, have persisted throughout all these centuries and this is because they are practises which have a connection with the psychological mechanism of human belief. For a person who believes in a thing is not like one who invents a superstition and if these ceremonies were superstitions they would not have persisted for the past fourteen hundred years and would not still be perceptibly increasing every year.
al-Menbar: What then is the cause of this clamour that has been stirred up about the Husseinian ceremonies?
- In truth, I have only seen the existence of this clamour amongst you (Muslims)! In any case, any movement whose fate it is to persist and succeed will naturally find many enemies and critics and whenever the enemies and critics are numerous, the movement always becomes stronger on the condition that it is based upon authentic foundations connected with the psychological belief mechanism as I mentioned.
al-Menbar: And what about the tatbir that the Shi'a practice on the day of Ashura out of grief for their Imam Hussein (a), what is your evaluation of it as a ritual?
- Tatbir is one method of evoking physical pain to attain a state of complete remembrance as I have already explained. Tatbir is, in my view, the ritual which is most effective in stimulating feelings and sentiments.
al-Menbar: From your academic studies, are there any examples of this ritual in other societies?
- Yes, you are not alone in this field. Indeed, we Christians practice rituals which are very similar to the Husseinian rituals you practice. Some Christian ceremonies go as far as bloodletting as well and this is similar to tatbir. Some Christians hit their bodies with whips during what we call the 'Week of Pains' that is the pains of Christ. In some Christian areas of the Far East, nails are hammered into wrists so that the pain of Christ crucified is felt. Wounds to various places of the body to draw blood also happen there and this is none other than tatbir itself. So do not assume that you are the only ones who practice tatbir over Hussein, for we practice tatbir over Christ. I also do not rule out the possibility that some Christians in Lebanon also practice tatbir over Hussein particularly as Hussein has a special station amongst Christians generally and Lebanese Christians in particular.
al-Menbar: What is this station?
He has a prominent position in Christian thought but here is not the place to discuss it. However, you may sense this station by analysing the reasons for the presence of images of Hussein in Christian churches, some of which I have seen myself. I have also seen images of Imam 'Ali and Lady Fatima al-Zahra who has a special place in Portugal named 'Fatima'. The Vatican has acknowledged it as a holy site and it is said that Fatima al-Zahra manifested herself there at one time. Overall, Christian ideology recognises these personalities as holy personalities which have their own stations. And let us not confine the position of Hussein to Christian thought alone, for he has a prominent station in many different religions and philosophical schools of thought. This is because the revolution of Hussein has a humanistic and universal aspect to it, which aims at moulding the concepts of mankind by instilling the concepts of freedom and justice and socialism and equality and resisting oppression and these concepts are present in the majority of human ideologies and belief systems. Hence we see that a revolution started by one man - Hussein - along with a few helpers has changed now into a universal world revolution whose helpers number millions!
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