You could hear them before you could see them. A rhythmic drumming filled the Curry Mile as afternoon traffic on Manchester’s artery was reduced to a crawl. The rows of Balti Houses and grocery shops, which are home to Manchester’s Pakistani community, seemed to be acting as an amphitheatre to channel the noise through the city.
In front of the crawling buses and bemused looking taxi drivers, a dense pack of a hundred bare-chested men dominate the street. The men chant in a loud, hoarse unison as they are carefully marshalled along the street by proud looking guards in hi-visibility vests. The pack appears frenzied and steam rises from a sea of flailing arms above their heads.
The Shia men of Manchester are mourning the Islamic festival of Moharram without any instruments. They are using their bodies to fill the street with a chilling song. Blow after blow they are beating their fists against their chests in steady concord. Every single blow produces a loud hollow sounding thump, which echoes down the street.
The crowd who are bare foot move in line at a painfully slow pace, as if to prolong the group’s suffering. Any slight lull in the chanting forces the group to a grinding halt, until the blows landing on the men’s ribcages reach a forceful crescendo.
Among the devotees are boys as young as ten or twelve none of whom seem at all distracted by the crowded buses moving past them. Many of them already have deeply bruised chests and bloody armpits, from the assaults they deliberately reign on their bodies. Some add to the damage by ripping at their underarms with their fingernails as they sweep back across their chests.
Jaffar who is originally from Afghanistan guides me cautiously through the crowds. “This is how we show our passion and our sincerity towards our God. People like you find it crazy. Every year people tell me it is savage, but this is true devotion.”
The Shia Muslim festival of Ashura is concerning to non-believers, who see the macabre parade as brutal and barbaric, but Ashura commemorates a dispute which has fuelled the split in Islam, which has caused a long, bloody, sectarian scar across the Islamic world.
After the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 632 a conflict over his succession emerged. Shia Muslims believe that the prophet’s first cousin Ali was always destined to succeed him. They regard Ali as the first caliph (leader of the Islamic world), a belief disputed by Sunni Muslims.
Ali’s succession was hotly disputed by Muhammad’s wife, and by powerful Arab chieftains who had retained their power by agreeing to convert to Islam.
They assassinated Ali and founded the Umayyad dynasty that grew into Sunni Islam. According to Shia Muslim tradition, Ali’s son Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet, and his supporters, were confronted and outnumbered at Karbala in Iraq by an Umayyad army in 680AD on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim year. They were asked to submit to the rule of the Umayyad but refused and were all slaughtered.