Matam is a Shiite ritual performed during the month of Muharram to express grief for the tragedies that befell Muslims at Karbala, specifically the death of the Holy Prophet’s grandson and nearly all his companions. Matam translates to ‘act of mourning’, and in this particular context, it usually involves inflicting physical pain on oneself in various ways to demonstrate the depth of hurt caused by the incidents at Karbala.
In order to find out the different ways matam is done and how Shia Muslims feel about the practice, we reached out to people in the community who had contrasting views about it. They had some interesting – and surprising – things to say.
A young lawyer from Lahore told ProperGaanda that his family had decided to move away from ‘khooni’ matam (a form of intense, bloody self-flagellation) towards the less taxing alternative of donating blood. “The men in our family would come back after three days of matam, bloody, exhausted, and feeling unwell. So around 20 years ago, the family matriarch thought it was time we stop engaging in the practice.”
He went on to say that his own father had performed this type of matam till he was fifty years old. But the elders in his family did not want the younger children to feel pressured to follow in their footsteps. “Now, only two out of fifteen of my young relatives do matam,” he said.
When asked if it had been difficult for him to stop expressing grief through matam, he said he felt mostly indifferent at the time but also that it was a wake-up call. “I grew up, you know? I realized I still had a lot to learn. When you’re doing matam amongst your community, you get lost in the rush it brings. The togetherness, the adrenaline, the grief: it all mixes together. In the process you tend to forget why you’re actually doing it in the first place.”
“My mother is Sunni but she respects Muharram and tries to honour it in her own way. She believes in the charitable side of things, distributing food to the poor for one.”
The practice of matam often incites unease and even scorn. Some think it unnecessary and barbaric to inflict so much hurt on oneself.
A 29 year old entrepreneur we spoke to said he believes matam can be done, but within reasonable limits. He was also of the opinion that the act of matam is a spectrum; it manifests in various ways. “Hitting the chest can be done in any way: I do it too. Others go to the extreme; they practice Qama Zani (hitting the head with a sharp object) and Zanjeer Zani (hitting oneself with chains). I think when people do this, and outsiders – especially non-Muslims – observe it, it creates a negative image of Shia Muslims.”
“I believe,” he went on, “expressing grief is important. If it’s in your heart, you should express it too. Expressing it is very important and going to juloos is also extremely important to show your grief.”
He also mentioned that he personally felt it was more important to focus on one’s own personal development: “You should make sure you are doing good things in your life and trying to follow the teachings of Hazrat Imam Hussain (A.S). Karbala has a lot of lessons for us to learn from.”
“Expressing grief, protesting against the tragedies at Karbala, is our duty. But if along with that you are committing injustices and not being the best person you can be, practicing such intense matam (qama zani and zanjeer zani) does not seem right.”
Within religious communities in Pakistan, there has always been a great degree of dissent when it comes to putting religiosity into practice. Increasingly, young Muslims think it is their choice to express religious sentiment in whichever way they feel is best for them. But many of them still attempt to maintain a delicate balance between personal belief and ancient practices.