How has the annual commemoration of ‘Ashura affected, shaped and informed Shi’a-Sunni current relations in Iraq?
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This doctoral thesis aims to explore the impact of the annual commemoration of ‘Ashura on contemporary Shi‘a-Sunni relations in Iraq. ‘Ashura itself is the name given to the tenth day of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It was on this day, in 680, that Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, was killed in Karbala, Iraq by the army of a perceived unjust and corrupt Caliph, Yazid (Husain, 2018). The episode at Karbala profoundly impacted Muslims and divided them not only in Iraq but in the wider Muslim world, and continues to be a source of contemporary dissension (Husain, 2018). It has generated traditions and particularly rituals of public mourning among a minority within the Islamic ummah (community) who came to be known as the Shi‘a (Husain, 2018, p. 57). The Shi‘a annually commemorate the tragedy of Karbala because from their perspective, Islam as a religion has been maintained by the sacrifice of Husayn in Karbala (Nakash, 1993). Fearing dissension, there is a tendency to ignore the significance of the killing of Husayn among the majority within the Islamic ummah who came to be known as the Sunni (Husain, 2018). In Iraq, the commemoration of ‘Ashura, which has evolved according to the Iraqi social and political context, can be considered as the most defining ritual that identifies the Shi‘a, a majority of the population, and that separates them from the Sunni, a sizable minority. Nevertheless, following the establishment of Iraq as a political entity in 1921 and up until 2003, the Sunnis held power, and the commemorations of ‘Ashura were initially restricted and then banned (Chatelard, 2017). When the regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the Shi‘a assumed power for the first time since the establishment of Iraq as a modern state in 1921. Since 2003, therefore, the commemoration of ‘Ashura has emerged as the most powerful cultural, religious and political event in Iraq (Al-Hilli, 2017; Pierre, Hutchinson and Abdulrazak, 2007). In recent years, millions of Shi‘a, from Iraq and further afield, have visited Karbala to observe ziyarat al-Arba‘in, that is a ritual involving visiting Husayn’s shrine on the 40th day after ‘Ashura (Chatelard, 2017). This thesis aims to explore the ways the commemoration of ‘Ashura has impacted present-day Shi‘a-Sunni relations in Iraq by using the theoretical framework of Structural Ritualization Theory (Knottnerus, 2012) to which some valuable cultural theories by the Iraqi sociologist, ‘Ali al-Wardi have contributed. Together with the previous, the analysis of data collected between 2016 and 2019 has been useful to test both theories and to advance some initial conclusions, for instance that the Shi‘a religious establishment has strategically used ziyarat al-Arba‘in to spread their influence and to inculcate Shi‘a symbols into Iraqi national identity. The mourning rituals have also used strategically to unite the Shi‘a and to intimidate their enemies, including the radicalised Sunni splinter group ISIS, of noted relevance in recent times. Furthermore, the analysis of the data suggests that the rituals contribute to raising sensitivities between Shi‘a and Sunni Iraqis.