The politics of ‘tradition’ and the production of diasporic Shia religiosity

Avi Astor, Victor Albert Blanco, Rosa Martínez Cuadros, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

Despite the progressive secularization of societies across Europe, the presence of religious symbols and practices in public space has become an increasingly prominent feature of cities throughout the continent. This is due, in large part, to the deepening of religious diversification as a consequence of rising levels of immigration and the growth of new religious movements for which public expressions of religiosity have special importance. For diasporic religious communities, public expressions of religiosity reinforce group cohesion and connection to the homeland. Yet they may also be a source of communal dissension, as members are not always in agreement with regard to the form that such expressions should take, and the degree to which religious traditions should be adapted in light of contextual factors.[1] Consequently, negotiations and decisions regarding public expressions of religiosity become imbricated with larger questions regarding citizenship and transnational identity in much the same way that Balkan highlights in this volume with respect to diasporic burial practices. Public expressions of religiosity may also generate challenges for municipal regulatory agencies, especially when they are perceived as threatening to local norms regarding the place of religion in the public sphere and other sensitive issues. The manner in which such expressions are regulated provides a revealing lens for identifying ‘local regimes of public space’ core to religious governance.[2] Regulatory policies concerning public forms of religiosity also have important ramifications for the general visibility of religious diversity as a part of urban life, much like Tepe illustrates in this volume with respect to places of worship.

This project examines public expressions of religiosity among Shia in Europe and North America, with a special focus on Toronto, Paris, Barcelona, and Bonn, four cities strategically selected due to the innovative or distinctive character of public religiosity among their respective Shia communities. It focuses specifically on the cleavages within Shia communities surrounding the ritual commemoration of Ashura and other days of mourning, as well as the diverse models for regulating such commemorations that have emerged in each city. Our analysis centers on Shia of South Asian descent, as they place special importance on organizing religious processions in urban public spaces. We therefore use the terminology that is most commonly used among South Asian Shia for various religious statuses, practices, and organizational forms.

Ashura and public ritual commemoration

At various points during the year, Shia Muslims stage julus (processions) in open urban spaces. The largest and most visible processions are typically organized on the day of Ashura, which commemorates the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Mohammad, during the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. During these processions, participants customarily dress in black and carry flags and banners with religious inscriptions, as well as other symbolic artifacts (e.g. a coffin representing Hussein’s death). In many of these processions, participants engage in practices of self-flagellation called ‘matam’ to the rhythm of collective chanting. There are several different types of matam, including sineh zani (beating of the chest with one’s fist), zanjir zani (flagellation with sharp instruments), and qama zani (cutting of the head with a blade). The manner in which matam is practiced varies both within and across different territorial contexts.

Many, though not all, influential Shia clerics—particularly those from Iran—have condemned zanjir and qama for violating the Islamic prohibition against self-inflicted injury. Ayatollah Khomeini was critical of the practice, and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei famously issued a fatwa prohibiting forms of matam that involve shedding blood in 1994. Ayatollah Sistani (Iraq) likewise voiced skepticism regarding zanjir, though his remarks on the subject have been interpreted differently by distinct segments of the Shia community. Criticisms of ‘blood matam’ have contributed to what Lara Deeb has termed “authenticated forms of Ashura and public piety” that eschew religious rituals perceived as ‘traditional’ or ‘backward’.[3] For instance, it is now common for Shia communities to organize blood drives in remembrance of the blood spilled by Hussein, rather than engaging in zanjir. Despite the controversial nature of zanjir, the practice is still widespread and remains central to the religious identity of many Shia, especially those of South Asian descent.

Religious tradition as a descriptive and evaluative concept

Debates about ritual practices like matam revolve largely around distinct visions and understandings of religious tradition. Religious tradition is typically understood as the symbols, meanings, and rituals that generate continuity among religious peoples and communities across generations. Along these lines, Riesebrodt defines religious tradition as “the historical continuity of systems of symbols.”[4] He describes particular traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as “cultural ways of life that no doubt contain systems of religious practices, but also transcend them.” As such, religious tradition is a “concrete reality” that should be studied contextually, keeping in mind all its “overlaps, syncretisms, and local peculiarities.”[5]

Zubrzycki highlights how religious tradition, in Riesebrodt’s sense of the term, may be mobilized for political projects, such as the production and contestation of national identity. In analyzing recent debates surrounding diversity and national identity in Quebec and Poland, she argues that religious tradition becomes “a material and symbolic resource for identity building and is sacralized as a marker of the nation.”[6] Understood in this manner, religious tradition is a cultural repository that may be used instrumentally for the purposes of circumscribing or expanding the boundaries of the national community, protecting the privileged status of particular religious groups and institutions, or justifying the presence of religious symbols in purportedly secular public spaces.[7]

Religious tradition and related concepts like ‘religious heritage’ may also be used evaluatively for articulating notions of religious authenticity and obsolescence. For instance, religious authorities may declare a given practice to be an ‘innovation’ or ‘fabrication’ that runs counter to the established ‘tradition’ of the community as a means of calling into question its authenticity. Similarly, within progressive circles, labeling a given religious practice ‘traditional’ may serve as code for declaring it outmoded and contrary to contemporary values or sensibilities. Hence, in practice expressions like ‘it is part of our tradition’ or ‘that is a very traditional view of things’ are oftentimes not neutral but rather convey value-laden notions of authenticity or obsolescence that are central to debates over the ethics and desirability of various religious practices.

This use of the concept of religious tradition arises not only amid debates within religious communities about authentic religious practice, but also amid debates among public authorities about which kinds of religious customs merit special measures of accommodation. If a given custom is recognized as part of a longstanding and established religious tradition, authorities are more likely to view it as authentic and hence worthy of accommodation. By contrast, if a custom is viewed as deviant with respect to recognized tradition, its authenticity may be called into question, and authorities will be less likely to offer special measures of accommodation.[8]

In the analysis that follows, we examine diasporic Shia religious traditions with these various senses of the term tradition in mind. That is, we analyze factors that have influenced the persistence or transformation of religious tradition, understood in an empirical and descriptive sense. However, we also examine how notions of tradition have themselves been invoked to claim the authenticity or obsolescence of contested religious rituals, most notably the ritual of matam.

The politics of ‘tradition’

Dogra has recently provided an illuminating analysis of how debates surrounding matam have unfolded among Shia elites in London.[9] He frames the matter as a struggle between the ‘old guard’, who defend South Asian forms of ritual commemoration, and ‘reformists’, who favor the Iranian model espoused by Ayatollah Khamenei and those sympathetic to his perspective. While the old guard defends the practice of “severe and violent” forms of zanjir and qama, reformists advocate more restrained forms of matam or other forms of commemoration that do not involve self-flagellation.[10] The categories of ‘old guard’ and ‘reformists’, however, are somewhat misleading, as they give the impression that Shia may be neatly divided into conservatives and progressives, those with rigid and those with flexible perspectives on tradition. The manner in which individuals and collectives on both sides of the debate position themselves with regard to tradition, however, is far from straightforward. For example, Dogra himself begins his article with a quote from a proponent of the so-called ‘old guard’ view in which the individual in question highlights his frustration with reformist discourses that portray qama as an ‘innovation’ that is just a hundred years old and therefore lacks authenticity.[11]

An additional reason for exercising caution when using terms like ‘old guard’ and ‘reformist’ relates to the specificities of local context. Consider, for instance, the case of Toronto. During the mid-1990s, Schubel published an ethnography of a Shia community in Toronto composed largely of immigrants from East Africa of South Asian descent.[12] He wrote that the julus (procession) organized during Muharram largely resembled a typical julus in Pakistan, though the practice of matam was conspicuously absent. Today, by contrast, matam is part of most julus organized in the city. In recent years, a matami group has even begun to practice zanjir in public space. The ‘old guard’ in the local context of Toronto thus appears to consist of those opposed to matam, rather than its defenders. My point here is not that temporality should be used as the main criterion for drawing distinctions between the old guard and reformists. It is rather that many of the criteria that we typically use to draw such distinctions (temporality, age, generation, etc.) may generate counterintuitive results at the local level, and perhaps at the global level as well.

Complicating matters further is the fact that, as in India and Pakistan,[13] matamis in the diaspora are organized as semi-autonomous groups called sangats. While some sangats are affiliated with specific imambargahs (houses of ritual worship), others are not. It is not uncommon for sangat members, especially those who are unaffiliated with any imambargah, to bear conflictive relations with local clerics. Many see themselves as resisting, rather than seeking to restore, established traditions and hierarchies of authority as part of a broader effort to practice a more authentic form of Shia Islam. At the same time, however, tradition remains a key source of authenticity, resulting in clear tensions between the desire to remain loyalty to established religious understandings and practices, on the one hand, and the desire to reform misguided religious understandings and structures of authority, on the other.

AA, a young matami of South Asian descent who migrated to Toronto from Dubai, spoke to us of the tension that some matamis experience in resisting the dominion of clerics and other recognized authorities while at the same time embracing elements of tradition that reinforce hierarchical structures of authority. He said this tension was particularly apparent in relation to the structures of authority characteristic of sangats. While charisma, dedication, and initiative are certainly important for aspiring leaders (salars), ‘ancestral capital’ remains a critical source of their legitimacy. For this reason, many salars have the first name ‘Syed’, which indicates direct descendance from the prophet’s family.

In the following quote, AA references two brothers who reside in Bonn and have gained notoriety as matami leaders, not only in Germany but also elsewhere in Europe and in India and Pakistan:

So if you look at Tossif and Tasneef, their first names are ‘Syed’. You will notice that in some of the pictures they have on Facebook there’ll be a couple of people who when they’re taking pictures with them will actually kneel down in front of them and have their hand on their foot to sort of say you know… this is the ideal, you know they are descendants of the prophet, we love these people to no end… And most of the times what’s happened is that… these matami groups… often develop their own little leaders… These salars are folks like Tasneef, Tossif. And I, for a very short period of time – a very very short period of time – I was considered one when I began the matam in Toronto… but I’m not ‘Syed’ and neither am I Pakistani so it very quickly eroded off. So the salar of the matamis in Toronto is a Syed, the salars of the matamis in New York [are Syeds] – they’ve developed these leaders from within the community, within the matami group (personal interview).

Hence, while having the forename ‘Syed’ opened up leadership opportunities for Tossif and Tasneef, lacking this forename closed off opportunities for AA. The ongoing importance of ancestral capital to the structure of leadership among matamis speaks to the continued role of traditional sources of legitimacy within matami circles despite the fact that some matamis have begun to question the traditional sources of legitimacy of global religious authorities (marjas) and local clerics. Tossif, it should be noted, is the salar of an influential sangat, QBH, that is based in Bonn but has local branches in India. The somewhat controversial practice of organizing a julus and other events of ritual mourning commemorating the assassination of Ali ibn Abi Talib at the end of Ramadan, which is typically treated as a time of celebration, is something that QBH has played a role in popularizing, highlighting how diasporic leaders and collectives may influence religious practice among Shia in Muslim-majority countries.

Image 1: Individual with his hand on Syed Tossif’s foot as a sign of respect. Source: Facebook (personal page).

Transnationalism and diasporic religiosity

South Asian matamis are a rather mobile collective, as they travel from community to community to participate in rituals of mourning. Many make pilgrimages to Iraq or Syria during Muharram. In Europe and North America, matamis who have the financial means commonly travel to other cities in their countries of residence and abroad for major events in order to provide support to other sangats. Possessing the requisite economic capital to make such trips is essential for those who wish to make a name for themselves and achieve a measure of distinction within the broader field of matamis worldwide. Given the importance of mobility and its role in generating and reinforcing transnational and trans-local networks among Shia, Scharbrodt emphasizes the centrality of ‘multilocality’ to social and religious dynamics characteristic of the Shia diaspora.[14]

The centrality of mobility to diasporic religious practice among Shia is linked, in part, to their position as minorities within a (stigmatized) minority. Given that most diasporic sangats have relatively few members, they are often reliant upon outsiders to reach the critic threshold necessary to feel proud practicing matam publicly. The ideal is to go well beyond the critical threshold so as to display ‘strength in numbers’ and temporarily invert power relations between Shia and Sunnis.[15] The religious character of Muharram as a period in which fresh perspectives are shared and new relationships forged reinforces dynamics of inter-community exchange. The circulation of matamis between cities and communities, in turn, sets in motion norms of reciprocity, which further contribute to the flow of matamis across local, regional, and national borders. Reflecting on this type of exchange, the president of the Shia community in Barcelona, Al Qaim, who is himself a matami, stated:

People come from India and Pakistan, people who live in Germany. They are young guys like me who were raised in Germany. They are friends of mine. We coincided in Syria or Iraq. We asked each other, “Where have you come from?” “I come from Germany.” “I come from Barcelona.” “I’m from Paris.” “I’m from Italy.” You always invite. “Hey, on this date why don’t you come here?”… Just as I bring people to Germany, they have come here. A little while ago, in August, we went to Paris, ten of us from the mosque (personal interview).

Such exchanges, along with the pilgrimages that that Shia regularly make to holy sites in Iraq and Syria, and the significant coverage of julus (procession) in various digital media, contribute to the general sense of belonging to a broader Shia umma. They also sustain the ritual of matam, which otherwise might not have sufficient practitioners to flourish in many diasporic contexts.

The sense of interconnectedness that exists between matamis results not only from their physical mobility, but also from the wide circulation of photos, video recordings, and live feeds of julus and matam on sites like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. In most, if not all, of the events that we observed in our cities of focus, there were individuals transmitting live video feeds via social media. We also noted the presence of Pakistani TV channels broadcasting several of the events. On various occasions during the course of our research, we were surprised by how Shia whom we knew in Canada and Germany were telling us about events happening locally in Barcelona prior to our becoming aware of them. A matami from Toronto told us that seeing videos of matam in Pakistan played an important role in leading him and his friends to question the previous absence of matam in the city and empowered them to resuscitate the ritual. This is an instance in which the internet and digital technology have led to a return to home country traditions. This ‘reterritorialization’ of Islamic practice may be contrasted with the ‘deterritorialization’ that Roy and others have linked to the proliferation of internet usage among Muslims seeking religious guidance in the diaspora.[16]

The politics of including politics in religious commemorations

Beyond the practice of matam, Shia residing in the diaspora differ in their views as to whether religious commemorations should serve as an occasion to use the memory of Hussain and other martyrs as inspiration for transmitting messages of universal justice and encouraging charitable acts, on the one hand, or whether they should be more apolitical and circumscribed in focus, on the other. In 2012, a group of London youth of South Asian descent began an initiative called “Who is Hussain?” that aimed to “to tell the world about an inspirational man” and to highlight how Hussain is a role model to whom everyone may relate.[17] During the years following its creation, the initiative generated significant interest in the UK and beyond, and now has representatives in cities across the world. Those involved promote blood drives, food donations for the homeless, aid for war victims, and other charitable activities. There are, however, some Shia who are skeptical of the initiative, arguing that its promoters have sought to ‘sanitize’ longstanding and venerable traditions, and to replace them with activities that, while laudable, detract from the main purpose of Muharram, which is to mourn the death of Hussain and experience the suffering that he incurred.

Controversy has also emerged over the incorporation of political messages in ritual processions. In her ethnography of an Ashura procession in central London, for instance, Spellman-Poots noted a strong presence of political messages regarding injustices in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the form of speeches, placards, or symbolic attire. At the same time, she highlights how some participants felt that the procession had been “hijacked by political protestors.”[18] Several of the matamis whom I interviewed likewise voiced their opposition to the inclusion of political messages that diluted the memory of Hussain, regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with the content of the messages.

Regulating azadari (mourning rituals)

While staging mourning processions in open public spaces has been officially banned in some authoritarian Sunni-majority societies, liberal democratic societies generally recognize the right of Shia Muslims to organize public processions and other forms of ritual practice in open urban spaces. Nevertheless, different cities have regulated Ashura processions and rituals in distinct ways. In Barcelona, for example, Shia who participate in the Ashura procession are required by the city government to wear shirts when performing matam. This is a measure that was put into place in 2007 after one of the very first public Ashura processions was organized in the city. Municipal authorities evidently came to the conclusion that covering the upper part of the body was necessary to ensure the compatibility of matam with local norms governing bodily praxis and exhibition in public space. The route of the procession has also been modified at various points so as to minimize interference with local businesses. In 2018, the route was adjusted so as not to interfere with events that were part of Barcelona’s traditional local patron saint celebrations, highlighting how majority traditions in the city take priority over minority traditions when the two enter into conflict.

Restrictions on dress such as those imposed in Barcelona are the exception, rather than the norm in European and North American cities. In Athens, zanjir (self-flagellation with sharp instruments) has been practiced in open urban spaces, generating a measure of public controversy in the city. Similarly, Shia in Toronto have recently begun to practice zanjir in open (though peripheral) urban spaces, having made arrangements with local authorities to have an ambulance and medical personnel on hand, and having agreed not to allow anyone under 18 to participate. Zanjir is also practiced in a limited number of open public spaces in New York City. In some cases, individuals and groups critical of the practice of matam or the communities who engage in the practice have written sensationalized articles or posted decontextualized videos online as a means of stirring up controversy.[19] Certain clerics have also made a name for themselves by criticizing the practice in their sermons. This has, in some cases, prompted responses from practitioners of matam eager to defend the practice. As a reaction to the proliferation of criticisms of matam in and around Toronto, for instance, matamis in the city created banners and t-shirts aimed at debunking misconceptions of matam as a barbaric or threatening practice (Image 2-3).

Image 2
Image 3

Images 2-3: A Toronto initiative to educate about ritual commemoration developed in reaction to public criticisms of matam. Source: Personal correspondence.

While it is rather common for Shia to organize processions commemorating Ashura in most European and North American cities where they have a relatively large numeric presence, in Paris they have been reticent to organize religious events in public space. 2017 marked the first year that Shia organized an Ashura event in the center of Paris. The event was framed as ‘cultural’ and took place in the Place de la République. Most of Paris’ Shia communities are located in peripheral areas of the city. The religious leaders with whom we spoke explained that their communities typically commemorate Ashura inside their respective mosques or in rented spaces. Some of them believed that attaining permission to organize a procession in the street would be difficult due to the general framework of laïcité and the stigmatization of Islam in France. Their understanding of laïcité and presumptions regarding the likely reaction among local residents to a religious procession involving matam has led them to opt for evading controversy by limiting ritual commemoration to spaces that are indoors.


While certainly not exhaustive, this short reflection on the dynamics of controversy surrounding Shia religious processions and the practice of matam in public space draws attention to the complex interplay between internal divisions and external constraints in shaping public expressions of religiosity in Western diasporic contexts. At the heart of local debates over ritual commemoration in public space lie sharply contrasting views on the authenticity of specific religious traditions and the appropriateness of such traditions to the local contexts in which they are enacted. As highlighted over the course of this article, the language of ‘tradition’ has itself become instrumental to the articulation of the distinct positions advanced in such debates. Future research should delve more deeply into local structures of religious power and authority, and the manner in which they both emanate from and challenge global structures of power and authority among Shia. This is critical for understanding the evolving development of Shia identity and practice in the diaspora and beyond.

[1] Marta Alonso Cabré, Khalid Ghali, Alberto López Bargados, Jordi Moreras and Ariadna Solé Madonia, ‘Invisible Rituals: Islamic Religious Acts in Catalan Public Space’, in Observing Islam in Spain: Contemporary Politics and Social Dynamics, ed. A.I. Planet Contreras (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[2] Marian Burchardt and Mar Griera, ‘To See or Not to See: Explaining Intolerance Against the “Burqa” in European Public Space’, Ethnic and Racial Studies (forthcoming).

[3] Lara Deeb, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 154.

[4] Martin Riesebrodt, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), xii.

[5] Ibid., xii.

[6] Genevieve Zubrzycki, ‘Religion, Religious Tradition, and Nationalism: Jewish Revival in Poland and “Religious Heritage” in Québec’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 3 (2012), 453.

[7] Avi Astor, Marian Burchardt and Mar Griera, ‘The Politics of Religious Heritage: Framing Claims to Religion as Culture’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 56, no. 1 (2017).

[8] Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[9] Sufyan Abid Dogra, ‘Karbala in London: Battle of Expressions of Ashura Ritual Commemorations among Twelver Shia Muslims of South Asian Background’, Journal of Muslims in Europe 6, no. 2 (2017).

[10] Ibid., 170.

[11] Ibid., 159.

[12] Vernon James Schubel, ‘Karbala as Sacred Space among North American Shi’a: “Every Day is Ashura, Everywhere is Karbala”’, in Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, ed. B. Metcalf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[13] David Pinault, The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

[14] Oliver Scharbrodt, ‘A Minority within a Minority?: The Complexity and Multilocality of Transnational Twelver Shia Networks in Britain’, Contemporary Islam (forthcoming).

[15] Garbi Schmidt, ‘Understanding and Approaching Muslim Visibilities: Lessons Learned from a Fieldwork-Based Study of Muslims in Copenhagen’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 34, no. 7 (2011).

[16] Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[17] For more information about the initiative, see: (accessed 3 July 2018).

[18] Kathryn Spellman-Poots, ‘Manifestations of Ashura among Young British Shi’is’, in Ethnographies of Islam: Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices, eds. B. Dupret, T. Pierret, P. G. Pinto and K. Spellman-Poots (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 45.

[19] See, for instance, Vocativ’s recent Facebook posting about matam in the US: (accessed 3 December 2018).