Did the Middle Ages just appear on the streets of Toronto?
Last week, Muslims around the world observed the day (“Yom”) of Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. For most members of Islam’s second-largest group, the Party of Ali (or “Shiat Ali”—which gives us “Shia” Islam), this is a day of deep mourning. For on this day, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, the son of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, was slain with most of his family and followers at the Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq.
This grandson, Husayn (also transliterated “Hussein” and “Hussain”), Shiites take to have been the rightful governor of Islam at the time as he was the leading male descendant of the Prophet. The majority of Muslims (“Sunni”), however, have not recognized patrilineal leadership but instead maintain the tradition of each caliph (or, later, the believing community) appointing a capable successor. These traditions—Sunnis make up almost 90 per cent of global Islam, while the Shia dominate in Iran and are otherwise a minority constituting almost all of the remaining 10 per cent worldwide—have rivalled each other ever since.
Ashura is thus a day of deep mourning for Shiite Muslims (and some Sunni). Most other Muslims celebrate it as, coincidentally, the day that Noah left the Ark, Moses and the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh at the Red Sea, and Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina to begin the eventual global spread of Islam. (Islam is rife with such coincident dates that show the beautiful symmetry of divine providence.)
The customary sad songs and sermons of Ashura have sometimes, however, been accompanied by the self-flagellation of those longing both to identify with the suffering of Husayn and, according to some traditions, atone for their sins. “One tear for Husayn on Ashura takes away a hundred sins,” according to one proverb. This was the scene this year in Toronto as dozens of men took off their shirts, struck themselves repeatedly on their chests, and cried “Ya Husayn” in the company of other believers.
This sight apparently disturbed some Torontonians, enough that the Toronto Sun ran an alarmed story about it and sought assurances from Toronto mayoral hopefuls that such demonstrations would be outlawed on the grounds that they are so clearly…un-Canadian. The only candidate who directly answered was the provocative Faith Goldy, who is reported as replying, “The roots of this cultural practice have no connection to Canada while the spectacle itself is profoundly incongruent with Canadian Values [sic]. Mass demonstrations wherein shirtless men self-flagellate have no place on our shared publicly funded streets.”
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