published on January 6, 2018
Shīʿī Islam and the Experience of Trauma
This paper explores the ways communities reexperience traumatic events. Previous studies have made important contributions by observing that communities, in contrast to individuals, often use a traumatic event to construct their identity; and trauma is not always painful but sometimes desired. To further investigate these dimensions of traumatization, I focus on the performance of mātam or self-flagellation, which is practiced by a small minority of the world’s Shīʿī Muslim population on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ. For many Shīʿa, particularly Twelvers, Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī’s death at the battle of Karbala in 680 C.E. is a collectively traumatic event. Not only does Karbala embody a collective tragedy for Shīʿī Muslims, it defines and shapes their interpretation of history. During the practice of mātam, the mourner enacts the trauma of Karbala on one’s body, thus reliving and preserving the collective trauma.