Yesterday marked the Day of Ashura, a religious festival commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, at the battle of Karbala. Often associated with images of flagellation using chains, the day is observed in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shia but secular Moslem country in the South Caucasus, differently.
27 Months in Azerbaijan, a U.S. Peace Corps blog, was unaware of the festival, but noticed that something was happening.
On my way to school this morning I noticed way more people out and about than normal, particularly for such a cold day. People were dressed in black, which, although it is the normal color of choice for clothing, seemed to indicate that there was some sort of national mourning going on. I assumed it had to do with a dark day in Azerbaijan’s history, but when I talked to my counterpart, I realized that today was the Day of Ashura.
Such a wide observance of the day of mourning for Imam Hussein seems to be somewhat at odds with a conversation I had last night about how secular it seems to be here. The best answer I can give is that here, like in America, everyone is different when it comes to religion. […]
A gray January day. Need I say damp and chilly? I went out this morning to buy a scarf, and discovered the town was oddly quiet. I was not surprised that the shops weren’t open before 10 a.m., but even the bazaar seemed unusually still. No activity within, although people were selling herbs, cheese and lemons outside the locked gates. Some people were making tea in the cafes, but tables were set outside. The places seemed to be for friends, not for outside customers. Unusual. I believe this dearth of commercial activity is because of the Shi’ite holiday today – Ashura. commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. I was surprised by the store closures, because I didn’t think of Ganca as a very Shi’ite city, but honestly I don’t know the city that well, having only stayed here two times before.
A crowd gathered outside the main mosque downtown. Men were ritualistically flogging themselves with little black switches. Not really flogging themselves – more like a symbolic gesture.
Writing last year on Window on Eurasia, Paul Goble detailed how Azerbaijanis are starting to commemorate the festival by donating blood instead of shedding it.
[…] in […] Azerbaijan, two-thirds of whose people are traditionally Shiite, a very different commemoration of Ashura, as this holy day is known among the faithful, is taking root, one that calls on believers to mark this event not by shedding their own blood needlessly but rather by donating it to blood banks for needy children.
Even in the Soviet period, many Shiites in Azerbaijan marked Ashura in the traditional way. And while a few still do, far more have decided to follow the lead of Baku’s Juma community which in 1999 urged its members to “shed” their blood by donating it.
In December 2008, İlqar İbrahimoğlunun Bloqu, an outspoken critic of the authorities in Baku, posted an interview in which his support for this change in how Ashura is marked is noted among other opinions on Islam in modern-day Azerbaijan.