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Seerah

Beating the Chest to Mourn Imam al-Husayn (as)

It can be understood from Shi‘ah and Sunni traditions [hadiths] that there is no prohibition for beating the chest when mourning and grieving for Imam al-Husayn (as), even though it may cause redness of the chest. On the contrary, the action of beating the chest is in fact preferred.

A. The Shi‘ah traditions

The following traditions show that it is permissible and legitimate to hold different types of mourning ceremonies, including beating the chest.

1. Shaykh Tusi recounts that Imam al-Sadiq (as) said,

    «لا شيءَ في اللطم علی الخدود سوی الاستغفارُ والتوبةُ، وقد شققنَ الجيوبَ ولطمنَ الخدودَ الفاطمياتُ علی الحسين بن علی عليهما السَّلام وعلی مثلهِ ُتلطُم الخدودُ وتُشقُّ الجيوبُ.»

“Hitting the face is nothing but seeking forgiveness and repentance, because the women from among the descendants of Fatimah (as) tore their clothes and hit their faces when mourning for Imam al-Husayn (as). For people like al-Husayn (as), we should hit our faces and rend our clothes.”6

2. A part of the holy prayer of “Ziyarat Nahiyah Muqaddasah” (Pilgrimage to the Holy Places) reads,

    فلمّا رأيْنَ النساءُ جوادك مخزياً... برزْنَ من الخدودِ ناشراتِ الشعورِ، على الخدودِ لاطماتٌ وبالعويل ناحياتٌ.»

“Like wounded horses, the women saw you… they came from behind their curtains with their hair disheveled and they were hitting their faces and wailing in loud voices.”7

3. In the same prayer, we read that the Imam of the Age, Imam al-Mahdi (as), addresses Imam al-Husayn (as) in this way,

    «ولأندبنّك صباحاً ومساءاً، ولأبکينَّ عليك بدلَ الدموعِ دماً.»

“I weep for you every mourning and evening, and instead of shedding tears, I cry blood.”8

4. It is narrated that Imam al-Rida (as) said,

    «انّ يومَ الحسين اقرحَ جفونَنا وأسبلَ دموعَنا وأذلَّ عزيزَنا بأرضِ کربٍ وبلا، واورَثنا الکربَ والبلاءَ الى يومِ الانقضاءِ.»

“Verily the day of al-Husayn (as) has lacerated our eyes and made our tears flow. It has made our beloved one (Imam al-Husayn) become forlorn in the land of affliction and grief. Al-Husayn (as) has left grief for us to inherit and sorrow to accompany us until the Day of Resurrection.”9

5. Shaykh Mufid recounts, “When Zaynab heard her brother, al-Husayn (as), reciting verses,

    «يا دهرُ افٍّ لك من خليلِ...»

She slapped her face, rent her clothes and passed out.”10

6. Sayyid ibn Tawus narrates, “When the captives reached Karbala on their return from Sham to Medina, they saw that Jabir ibn ‘Abd Allah Ansari along with a number of people of Bani Hashim had come for pilgrimage to the grave of Imam al-Husayn (as). All of them reached the place at the same time and started crying. They were grieving and hitting themselves. They mourned bitterly. The women of that land joined them and copied their mode and they mourned for Imam al-Husayn (as) for three days.”11

7. Ibn Quluyah narrated that the houris of paradise in the high heavens hit their breasts and faces for the sake of Imam al-Husayn (as).12

8. On his authorized chain of transmission, Kulayni relates that Jabir asked Imam al-Baqir (as) to explain what grief [jaza‘] meant. He (as) said,

    «أشدُّ الجزعِ الصراخُ بالويلِ والعويلِ، ولطمُ الوجهِ والصدرِ...»

“The most intense grief is yelling, crying, shouting and hitting the face and chest…”13

B. Sunni traditions

Sunni Muslims have also recounted a number of traditions which prove the desirability of beating the chest when mourning over the awliya’ of Allah, especially the Doyen of Martyrs, Imam al-Husayn (as).

Now, we will refer to some of these hadiths,

1. Ibn Kathir narrates that when the captives passed by Karbala on their way back to Medina and remembered Imam al-Husayn (as), the women started crying and hitting their faces. Zaynab raised her voice and said, “O Muhammad!”14

All this took place in the presence of Imam al-Sajjad (as), who was in their company, but he showed no protest against their behavior.

2. Imam al-Husayn (as) recited the following epic verse at Karbala,

    يا دهرُ افّ لك من خليلِ کم لك في الاشراقِ والاصيلِ

When Zaynab heard his words, at that moment she rent her clothes, hit her face and and came out of the tent bareheaded and cried out loudly, “O my sorrow! O my misery!”15

3. Among the reasons cited to substantiate the permissibility of hitting one’s chest and face when mourning for the prophets, the awliya’ and their descendants, especially unique and unparalleled people in the history of mankind, is a hadith which Ahmad and other historians have recounted on authentic chains of transmission. They have recounted that ‘A’ishah said, “… The soul of the Prophet of Allah (S) was taken […], then I put his head on a pillow and the other women and I arose and started hitting ourselves. I was hitting my face…”

Regarding the chain of transmission of this tradition, Muhammad Salim Asad says, “This chain of transmission is correct and authentic.” (It must be mentioned, that the Shi‘ahs do not consent to the truth of all parts of this tradition, but that argument is reserved for another place and time. The current argument is in regard to the acceptability of hitting oneself to show grief.)16

4. It cannot be said that hitting oneself due to an affliction that has befallen him is prohibited, because Ahmad ibn Hanbal, on his own chain of transmission, has recounted through Abu Hurayrah that an Arab man came to see the Prophet of Allah and started hitting himself on the face. He was pulling out his hair while saying, “I see myself delivered to destruction and perdition.” The Prophet of Allah asked him, “What is it that has delivered you to destruction and perdition?” He answered, “In the holy month of Ramadan, my wife and I had intimate relations!” The Holy Prophet (S) asked him, “Are you able to free one slave?”17

We notice from this hadith that the Holy Prophet (S) did not protest against this man’s action of hitting himself and pulling out his hair. In addition, he did not announce a particular prohibition regarding hitting the face and pulling one’s hair out. Instead he only told the man what to do to atone for his sin.

5. Ibn ‘Abbas narrates about the Holy Prophet’s (S) divorce from some of his wives, ‘Umar said, “I went to see Hafsah at her house. I noticed that she was standing and hitting herself, and the other wives of the Holy Prophet (S) were standing and hitting themselves.” I asked Hafsah, “Has the Prophet of Allah granted you a divorce?”18

6. Sibt ibn al-Jawzi says, “When al-Husayn was killed, Ibn ‘Abbas was constantly crying for him until finally his eyes became blind.”19

7. Jurji Zaydan says, “There is no doubt that Ibn Ziyad committed a great crime when he killed al-Husayn, a crime whose atrociousness has never before been seen nor occurred in the whole universe. Therefore, it is not a matter of concern if the Shi‘ahs expose the oppression which characterized the killing of Imam al-Husayn. It is not a cause of worry if the Shi‘ahs weep or cry for him every year, and rend their collars while showing their remorse and sorrow, because he was killed in an unjust way.”20

Notes:

6. Tahdhib al-Ahkam, vol. 8, p. 325.

7. Kamil al-Ziyarat, pp. 260-261.

8. Ibid.

9. Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 44, p. 284.

10. Shaykh Mufid, Al-Irshad, p. 232.

11. Luhuf, pp. 112-113; Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 45, p. 146.

12. Kamil al-Ziyarat, p. 80; Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 45, p. 201.

13. Wasa’il al-Shi‘ah, vol. 2, p. 915.

14. Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 8, p. 210; Khwarazmi, Maqtal al-Imam al-Husayn (as), p. 39.

15. Tarikh Tabari, vol. 4, p. 319; Ibn Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, vol. 4, p. 59; Mufid, Al-Irshad, vol. 2, p. 94.

16. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Al-Musnad, vol. 6, p. 274; Abu Ya‘la, Al-Musnad, note written in the margin, vol. 5, p. 63.

17. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Al-Musnad, vol. 2, p. 516.

18. Kanz al-‘Ummal, vol. 2, p. 534.

19. Tadhkirah al-Khawass, p. 152.

20. Tarikh al-Niyahah, vol. 2, p. 30, as narrated by Jarji Zaydan.

Adapted from: "The Uprising of Ashura and Responses to Doubts" by: "‘Ali Asghar Ridwani"