As we dive into the Islamic month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar year, begun at Ras as-Sana Muharram 1, 1440 this year (September 11, 2018 in the Gregorian calendar), I invite you to observe the ritual mourning practices of Islam. While the Shia community is famous for its passionate displays of suffering and pain during this month, which have always fascinated me, Sunni Muslims also experience a sense of loss at the remembrance of the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain at the Battle of Karbala in modern day Iraq as the result of the Caliphate politics of the time.
While it is thought to be restricted to Shia Muslims, the significance of Muharram and its energy is not lost on Sunnis and other denominations of among the Muslim faith. The experience and demonstrations of institutional subjugation, mourning, humiliating loss, and disenfranchisement in the Muharram rituals motion to the universal experience of the oppressed, the underdog, and of the rebel. The libidinal elation which is experienced at the striking of the flesh, the spilling of blood, and sacrifice is exactly that of the joy of martyrdom, or more generally of the masochist.
Perhaps more than anything, perhaps even more than politically inspired suicide attacks, the Muharram rituals have been singled out as symbols of Islamic barbarism, added to the general stereotype of Muslims as violent nemesis of the Enlightened Christian west, with Christ the savior as its central figure. For this I would invite the reader to consider the psychological nature of these activities, the submissive aesthetic of Islamic worship, and Islam’s concept of shame, humility, and sacrifice.
While the usually homoerotic masochism of Muslim men is the topic of many modern Arabic prison memoirs and novels from the Islamic world, women’s masochism is less celebrated by western readers and theorists who would prefer to ponder whether these women need saving from their violent husbands and religion. Feminists ask why Muslim women stay loyal to a tradition whose patriarchy is overbearing, whose holy text permits wife-beating. Is there not a deep psycho-biological understanding of life in the Quranic Surah an-Nisa which permits a man to use his physical power to sooth an unruly wife? While sado-masochistic fantasy smut novels are plucked off the shelves in the bookstores of Los Angeles, London, and New York at record rates, and English readers pine for the Sexy Sheikh figure, a condemnation of Islamic culture among the non-Muslim west persists as Muslim men are vilified and imprisoned by the current cultural hegemony.
For further research into the phenomenon of Muslim masochism, I am planning to travel to Iran and learn more about Islamic religious art and develop this discourse further with investigations into the disciplining of the body in different cultures and aesthetic traditions.