Shia or Shi’ite Muslims are followers of Imam Ali, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed. Historically, the split with Sunnis originates from a dispute soon after Mohammed’s death over who should lead the Muslims. After Ali’s followers were defeated by the army of the Damascus-based Caliph Yazid, they refused to pledge allegiance to him.
The subsequent conflict separated the Shi’ites who were loyal to Mohammed’s dynasty and Sunnis who supported successive Caliphs and dominated the Arab world. Ashura is the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein who led the battle of Kerbala in 680.
Tradition dictates that his decapitated and mutilated body be remembered by self-mutilation, as Shia expert, Ebrahim Jafari explains. “Imam Hussein’s martyrdom represents the giving away of everything one believes in – that includes children and earthly possessions. As long as we respect his martyrdom, no enemy can challenge us.”
Shi’ite men, notably in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Syria, mark the occasion by beating their chests in time to religious chants to show their grief at the battle. Some defy guidance from many scholars and whip their backs with chains or gash their heads with daggers.
In many countries Sunnis and Shias live separate lives, with minority Shias often making up the poorest sections of society. In Iraq, marking Ashura was severely restricted under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dominated secular regime. Those who made the pilgrimage to Kerbala or performed public rituals were often arrested and many faced torture and death.
Nevertheless, Sunni and Shias share fundamental beliefs: the oneness of Allah, that Mohammed was the last prophet, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.