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How Maatam became a ritual?



'Maatam' is an Arabic term which denotes the congregation of men and women for mourning someone's death. In this context, it refers to the gathering of Shias – men and women – to mourn the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Husain in the desert of Karbala, which is a city in modern-day Iraq.

History chronicles that the despotic ruler of Syria, Moaviyah, the son of Abu Sufyan (a sworn enemy of the Prophet Mohammed), appointed his son Yazid as his successor and gave him the epithet of the Prophet's caliph. Yazid was a notorious womaniser, drunkard and transgressor of all norms of decency, leave alone the stringent standards of morality that one could accept from the Prophet's caliph.

In the year 60 of the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, Moaviyah died and Yazid succeeded him. Immediately on assuming the caliphate, Yazid ordered his governor in Medina to force Imam Husain to swear allegiance to him, which Imam Husain refused. With his family he left Medina for Mecca; but on finding Yazid's henchmen waiting to kill him in Mecca's Grand Mosque, he left for Iraq. It was here that he was ambushed in the desert of Karbala. He and the menfolk in his family, including his six-month-old son, were killed. The women in his family were dragged through the deserts of Iraq and then taken to Syria to be presented to Yazid along with the severed heads of Imam Husain and his companions.


After a year of captivity, his sisters Zainab and Umm Kulthum and his ill son Ali were released, and they established the mourning ceremonies. With the passage of years, such mourning ceremonies grew more ritualistic. The graphic narrations of Husain's martyrdom made people beat their hands on their chests, scratch their faces, and hit their heads on the wall, for instance.


Still later, people started cutting themselves with sharp knives and flogging themselves with chains, while shouting 'O Husain, O Husain!' This was an expression of grief as well as regret at not being present in the battle of Karbala to support him. Other rituals were hoisting the flag of Husain's brother Abul Fazl al-Abbas, tales of whose bravery and chivalry are repeated in these mourning ceremonies, and remembering Husain's 13-year-old nephew.

The moment the Moharram moon is sighted, the Shias don black clothes, organize Majaalis (speeches) in which the orators relate the tragedy of Karbala, and even today, after 1,400 years, they sob bitterly. Such speeches are preceded and succeeded by oral performances about the tragedy. One can see sabeels (tents with water pots) dotting the sidewalks in Muslim localities. Moreover, on key occasions throughout the world, mourners in black beat their chests and self-flagellate. In Mumbai, the Mumbai Police also has a sabeel and distributes water and juice to the mourners. Importantly, in a century of mourning ceremonies in the city, not a single death has been reported from self-flagellation with knives.

By Dr. Shabeeb Rizvi (Mumbai)

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