Shia mosque bans worshippers from performing bloodletting ritual, but fails to ban them from premises

Idara e Jaaferiya in Tooting

A Shia mosque in south London has banned a group of worshippers from performing self-flagellation with blades, but has failed in its bid to ban mosque members from the premises, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.

After a legal battle lasting two years Idara-e-Jaaferiyaa in Tooting announced last Wednesday that it had arrived at what it called an “amicable agreement” to settle a long-running dispute with worshippers who wished to perform the bloodletting ritual (tatbir).

The mosque committee now says that if certain worshippers engage in any form of self-flagellation resulting in bloodletting at the mosque or near it they’ll risk being imprisoned and having their assets seized as they will be in contempt of court.

There is also a general ban imposed by the mosque itself on performing tatbir that applies to everybody.

The details of the agreement, issued by the County Court in Central London on February 22, state that 14 worshippers cannot perform various forms of tatbir within the mosque or within one mile of it or assist anyone else to do so.

The agreement, which is in place for one year, also says that the same 14 worshippers must not “engage in any disorderly conduct at or within 30 metres of the mosque” or encourage anyone else to do so.

However, the penal notice also orders that the mosque committee’s claim (to ban the worshippers from Idara) be struck out and that they pay the defendants £8,000.

Moreover, a group which represents the people who who fought the case against Idara-e-Jaaferiyaa, told 5Pillars that the salient points of the case were that the judge had struck out Idara’s case, that the mosque had failed to ban them, and that Idara would now face a very serious financial burden as a result of legal costs.

The bloodletting ritual, which is practised by only a small minority of Shias worldwide, has in recent decades provoked heated debate among Shia Muslims following its prohibition by Iran’s revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The current leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has followed suit and those who follow his fatwa say that tatbir gives Shias a barbaric image and allows their detractors to criticise them. They say the ritual violates Islam’s prohibition against Muslims intentionally harming their own bodies.

On the other hand, other major Shia scholars advocate tatbir or reserve judgement about it, and for those Shias who practise the ritual it is a profound means of expressing grief for the massacre of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain. They say the bloodletting allows them to feel a little of the sacrifice of the battle of Karbala on the Day of Ashura, during which Imam Hussain was martyred.

A video of a previous bloodletting mourning ritual at Idara-e-Jaaferiyaa can be viewed here.

Self-flagellation

In a statement Idara-e-Jaaferiyaa said the disagreement arose as a result of the “breakaway group’s” insistence on performing self-flagellation with knives on the Idara premises.

“When they were stopped on public health and safety grounds in 2013 the group locked a number of the Idara’s executive committee inside the centre and subjected them to threats of violence in a bid to strong arm them into relinquishing their executive posts and installing a new interim committee consisting of some of their own number.

“The violence led to the temporary closure of the Idara and the matter went to court as the executive committee was left with no other way to resolve the dispute due to the breakaway group’s persistence in performing self-flagellation with knives.

“Now the executive committee has reached an agreement under which the breakaway worshippers are subject to a Penal Notice such that if anyone does not abide by the words of the order they will be guilty of contempt of court and may be imprisoned and/or fined or have their assets ceased.”

Mohammed Raza, President of Idara-e-Jaaferiya, said the mosque committee was happy that it had achieved its objective but was saddened that the process had to take the legal route.

idara zanjeer
Morning ritual at Idara-e-Jaaferiyaa

“If the breakaway group had been as accommodating initially as they are now then we would not have had to go through all this,” he said.  “In order to continue azadari (mourning), no trustee can allow this zanjeer zani or qama zani (bloodletting rituals) within the Idara-e-Jaaferiya premises to take place as neither the public liability or employer’s insurance will cover this activity on health and safety grounds.  People should be aware that any such activities will be met with the full force of the law.

“I would like to re-emphasise to the momineen (worshippers) that all finances used for these legal procedure have been specifically donated for that purpose and no general or other funds of Idara have been used for this purpose.  As a result of the settlement, the Idara will not have to pay anything further whatsoever in relation to the action against this particular breakaway group. I would like to thank the legal team as well as the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) without whom we would not have been able to achieve this objective.”

Meanwhile, the IHRC’s Reza Kazim said Idara-e-Jaaferiya had no option but to pursue the case because of health and safety and insurance issues.

“If this type of activity had continued there would have been no way of getting insurance because of health and safety concerns. And that would have put the centre’s ability to hold other religious events at risk. Any bloodletting caused by knives or swords or other sharp instruments could cause blood to seep into the carpet and someone could potentially catch hepatitis from it later on.”

He added: “We did contact Sadiq Khan who’s the local MP in Tooting to intervene on this issue and back the majority of the congregation who didn’t want these practises to continue, but he didn’t seem interested in addressing the needs of the community at all.”

Court case

On the other hand, the group that fought the case told 5Pillars that Idara-e-Jaaferiya was misrepresenting the outcome of the proceedings.

They said:

  • The case was not about banning zanjeer (tatbir); rather it was about banning them.
  • Claims of threats of violence and intimidation against the Idara committee were untrue and slanderous.
  • They had tried their best to resolve the case but it was the Idara who had not responded to communications.
  • They question if Idara has paid legal costs out of mosque donations because Idara accounts show “huge funds outstanding to third parties.” They say Idara “should state what these outstanding figures are and openly declare from where legal costs were paid.”

In a press release the group stated: “The Idara-e-Jaaferiya Executive Committee took twenty two members of the Idara to Court seeking orders banning them from attending the Idara and banning the practice of zanjeer. Many of these members have been attending the Idara with their families since childhood and many of them did not even practice zanjeer.

“At a hearing on 19 February 2016 the Committee’s claim was struck out by His honour Judge Hand QC, who made an order that the Committee reinstate memberships, cancel bans and pay legal costs incurred by the 22 members.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London where the case was heard
The Royal Courts of Justice in London where the case was heard

“The Committee produced unsubstantiated evidence arguing that the twenty two members were being disruptive, when all they were doing was legitimately expressing their concern over the Committee’s mismanagement of the Idara.

“At an injunction hearing on 31 March 2014, acting on legal advice, the members offered undertakings to the Court and tried to settle the matter without involving the court in a dispute over centuries old religious practices. The Committee did not accept the offer and requested banning orders. His Honour Judge Seymour QC refused to grant the banning orders and instead accepted the offer of undertakings.

“The Committee could have left matters there, but decided instead to serve full legal proceedings, seeking permanent bans against the twenty two…

“The members who were taken to court are private individuals who are not wealthy. Despite the Court Order that the Committee pay their costs, they still face a considerable shortfall, which they will have to fund personally…

“The 22 members have prevailed in court, at substantial personal and financial cost, because they stood up for their freedoms of speech, of thought and of religion.“

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