In defense of zanjeer zani


As Muharram approaches, Shias in Pakistan get ready to answer a lot of questions, of which I think the following is the most frequent-

“Why do you guys beat yourselves?”

Entire treatises could be and have been written precisely in response to that question. Religious justifications have been made, historical claims have been laid down, and perhaps in a few years we will see a psychoanalytic explanation of this phenomenon (hint: working on the last one myself). However, today, I wish to examine a particular form of ‘beating’ that even Shias are conflicted upon. Zanjeer zani, or self-flagellation, refers to a ritual where participants flog themselves with knives attached to chains. A wooden handle is used to swing the chains. A majority of the participants aim to flagellate their backs, though some also target their heads and legs. As the picture below shows, the knives come in different shapes and sizes. These allow for a number of factors like the thickness of the skin of the person flagellating, the size of the person using the knives and so forth.

Before proceeding to an analysis of this issue, it must be made clear that there is no theological mention of how to mourn in the Quran or the Hadiths of Mohammed though references to mourning exist abundantly, especially in the Hadiths (for eg- Mohammed mourning his uncle Hamza’s death after Battle of Uhud). In this regard, it is actually pretty similar to the act of praying. Quran, while directing its followers to pray, does not explicitly state how to go about it. The rituals of praying are based on a combined interpretation of theology and Mohammed’s behaviour and therefore differ across various sects. Matam, which is a form of mourning, falls within a distinctly Shia interpretation of theology and history and thus, is as justified to the Shias as is praying to the general Muslim population.

However, the acceptance of matam as a whole does not prevent the various forms of matam from being questioned within Shia discourse- zanjeer zani being the prime example. The first known instance of zanjeer zani being condemned came in the 1920’s. However, given the relative isolation of Damascus in those days, and the immobility of news from one place to the other, it did not create much of a stir in South Asia. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which enhanced the image of Iranian clergy as both religious and political leaders in the eyes of Shia youth all over the word, the messages of the Ayatollah’s became more importantly listened and adhered to. Thus, when in the middle of 1990’s Ayatollah Khamenei passed a fatwa declaring zanjeer zani to be impermissible, it became a contested topic amongst many in Pakistan and India because it condemned a ritual that had been a norm for a long time. I have pasted an updated mention of Khamenei’s fatwa, as found on his website.


It is fascinating to notice the reasons he gives for they are not based on theological reasoning but on purely cultural interpretations of this act. He says, “If the use of such chains leads, in the eye of the public, to defaming our school of thought…” and later “…this practice would, at the present time, give others a bad image of our school of thought…”. He also references the lack of presence of this act in the historical narrative of Shias. It is remarkable how easily Khamenei is shaping the religious to conform to the two driving forces of present day- modernity and rationality. Below, I have also added a personal anecdote that demonstrates how this fatwa ties into the reality. I then address Khamenei’s fatwa and why his justification for it is flawed.

Khamenei picks and chooses his words carefully here, but in other places, the reasons given by others associated with the clergy have ranged from those mentioned by Khamenei to some new reasons altogether. For example, when I was in Syria in 2007 for the occasion of chehlum, the security guards did not let me in to the Hezbollah controlled shrine (Hezbollah follows Khamenei’s version of Twelver Shi’ism) of Zainab because I was bloody from having just finished zanjeer zani and the guards had been directed to not let such ‘impure’ pilgrims inside. I was turned away and could only enter after I had bathed and cleaned up back at the hotel.

The ideas of impurity and unacceptability are very relative. Mary Douglas’ influential text Purity and Danger illustrates this perfectly. She argues that purity and acceptability are social constructs and have to be understood contextually. Thus what is considered rile in one society may very well be an acceptable norm in another. In our case, Khamenei bans the ritual because it defames Shias in the eyes of the public. The guards, inspired by Khamenei’s views, also declared the blood to be an impure substance. Contrast this behaviour with those of the Shirazis- another prominent Ayatollah family from Iran- who are currently in exile in Syria. This clerical group celebrates the zanjeer zani as a prophetic tradition and one that is necessary not just to mourn, but also to cleanse the body. So while elements of impurity still exist in the Shirazi view, they result from a necessary ritual that improves the condition of both the soul (by mourning) and the body (by cleansing it). There is a clear difference of opinion on the act of zanjeer zani between these two groups hailing from the same region and background.

This begs the question of what audience is it that Khamenei wishes not to ‘defame’ Shi’ism in front of? An interesting parallel of Khamenei’s behaviour is the post-colonial state of Pakistan and its attempts to rid itself of the strong Sufi shrine culture in Sindh in order to project a modern image of itself. Though Khamenei operates in the religious realm, and the post-colonial state of Pakistan operates in the socio-political one, the overarching presence of modernity is evident and guides both of their attempts at distancing themselves from that what could be considered ‘irrational’ under the Western gaze.

The idea of the ‘irrational’, as constructed in the Western imagination, has also taken a strong hold in Pakistan. It originated from the introduction of a Victorian morality into the subcontinent, a by-product of colonial influence in the region. Thus, a popular argument that many Shias use to criticize zanjeer zani today is that it is irrational and cannot be justified. They argue that no sane person would knowingly bring harm to him or herself in such a reckless manner. Those critical of zanjeer zani also point out that participants are largely from the lower classes of the society and are clearly illiterate in both worldly educations and/or religious understanding for neither promotes such behaviour.

Apart from the class-based criticism above, it is obvious that this criticism too assumes that rationality would necessarily prevent such a course of action. However, what is rational? What is the criterion for being a rational person? For example, do we consider rational persons as so because they have educational degrees or because they can make decisions for themselves on a daily basis? Rationalities are shaped within distinct worldviews and cannot be compared as an absolute. Rationality itself is a debatable concept and is rooted in distinct ideas of progress and modernity. Therefore, the entire critique of zanjeer zani arises when the act is viewed with a problematic lens. It could be argued that participants in zanjeer zani do so with full awareness, consent and understanding and proceed in a rather ‘rational’ manner. To claim that somebody indulging in zanjeer zani is irrational is to completely misunderstand and overestimate what rationality is and what it entails.

The question of harm also surfaces- why would anyone subject themselves to harm? I have no particular preferences for sadomasochism in either my public or my private life. Zanjeer zani is not pleasure derived from pain, and nor is it pain that is pleasurable. I am not addicted to zanjeer zani and neither am I not in control of what I am doing. The harm that many seek to criticize is assumed to be a product of this violent act. However, zanjeer zani is not just a mindless swinging of the knives that causes blood loss. For the purposes of our analysis, it can be broken down into two distinct aspects: the material and the transcendental.

The material refers to the immediate physical surroundings. It requires precision and control to direct the knives at a certain area of the body, it requires attention to prevent from harming others around you who are also participating in this act and it requires an awareness of when to stop depending the length of the zanjeer zani session, the severity of bleeding, the depth of the cuts, etc. Zanjeer zani participants do not also seek medication or stitching as part of the ritual, though these services are readily available.

The transcendental refers to the altered state of mind. Students of anthropology, for example, can think of this as a liminal act. Non-students of anthropology can think of haal, the state of mind induced through Qawwali (with the obvious exception of the joyous nature). Zanjeer zani participants are often unable to describe their emotional state. This indicates that it is something non-routine to the extent where they do not have the words to describe it. This is not to say that there are no words to describe it altogether, but that the participants are unfamiliar with them because they do not encounter this state of mind elsewhere. Importantly, non-routine does not mean out of control for being out of control of the emotional state would also render the physical state unstable. Thus, the emotional capacity, fully aware of its limitations, only goes so far as to break the routine barrier and alters the state of mind only as much as it can and still allow the physical side to maintain a safe involvement in the ritual.

Both the material and the transcendental are equally important within zanjeer zani. Striking a delicate balance between these two, those participating in this act rule out any sort of connotation of harm, for harm occurs when a person is not in control of their surroundings (An important exploration of this topic further can be self-harm, however my underlying premise is that zanjeer zani is not self-harm and therefore I am not exploring this point further in this piece).

Khamenei’s fatwa also states that there is no precedent for such an act in history of the Imam’s. By extension, he would also have you believe that there is only a fixed lineage of twelve Imams in Islam. However, the idea of twelve Imams is his interpretation of history and we know that there exist alternate versions of the same belief. Some believe in five Imams and others in seven Imams. In fact, after every ‘Imam’ there was a further division between groups over who the next ‘Imam’ would be. History is contested, and so is Khamenei’s insistence that no such tradition exists. We only have to go ask the Shirazis, for example, who are religious rivals of the Iranian brand of Twelver Shi’ism and (as mentioned previously) support self-flagellation.

To sum up my brief argument, zanjeer zani continues to be condemned under specific constructions of a worldview inspired by reformism and modernity. The labels used for it within internal Shia discourse are informed by a distinctly limited understanding of themselves, without any context. Khamenei’s stance on this issue is easy to deconstruct and undermine because it lacks substance. My motivation in writing this piece has been to illustrate that there is more than one worldview that can be used to examine such rituals. However, if we have picked holes in Khamenei’s position, and sought to elaborate all that zanjeer zani is not, we must finish off with describing what it is.

It is more than just mourning. It is a way of life. It is not a ritual to be participated in and forgotten- its scars serve as a constant reminder, as a life-long protest, against the injustices perpetrated in history and those being perpetrated today. It is a violent reclamation of our bodies from the forces of reformism that have sought to subjugate it and the denouncement of a society that has failed to understand the loss of individual agency arising out of such reforms. Zanjeer zani is the destruction of all that is orthodox.