Bedfordshire Police were called to a Shia mosque in Luton on Tuesday night over a dispute about the practice of zanjeer zani, or self-flagellation with blades.
Earlier in the day police had issued a warning that those who are found using an offensive weapon in a public place may be liable to prosecution. And Luton Borough Council had warned Masjid-e-Ali that flagellation poses a significant public health risk due the potential for transmission of blood-borne disease. The council also said self-flagellation was not covered by the mosque’s insurance policy and that they were concerned about the welfare of children and young people.
Nevertheless, witnesses told 5Pillars that the practice of self-flagellation with blades continued despite the police presence. Later on officers attempted to evacuate the building and close down the mosque although no arrests were made. However, due to the small number of officers and the sensitivity of the issue the building was not evacuated although the zanjeer did stop.
The situation remains tense at Masjid-e-Ali with a police presence some of the time. The mosque remains open although no zanjeer is taking place.
5Pillars understands that the Board of Trustees at Masjid-e-Ali is against the controversial ritual but has been pressured by worshippers into allowing it to take place in a tent at the back of the mosque subject to the necessary authorisation being granted, which it was not.
Some congregation members insist it is their right to perform the ritual during the month of Muharram to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain at Karbala, while others have contacted the police and local council in an attempt to get the ritual banned.
On Tuesday afternoon, the President of the mosque, Dr Raza Hussain, said: “We are a broad congregation with differing views on a range of topics. However our main concern is the well being of the congregation. Our Public Liability Insurance will not be valid if this event occurs. We have informed the local police and council about the situation and are awaiting an active response.”
Dr Hussain has since come under pressure to resign from those who support the zanjeer ritual at the mosque.
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 former leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has followed suit and those who follow his fatwa say that zanjeer zani (also known as 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 zanjeer zani 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.
On Tuesday Bedfordshire Police issued a statement saying it had received concerns from members of the public regarding the self-flagellation ceremony.
A force spokesperson said: “We understand that this is an important and highly spiritual day for many and we recognise this. Bedfordshire Police cannot condone the use of weapons, knives or sharp objects in a public place. Those who are found using an offensive weapon in a public place should be aware that they may be liable to prosecution.”
And earlier in the week Nicola Monk of Luton Borough Council wrote to the mosque saying that “the self-flagellation practices that may take place at your mosque are not covered by your mosque’s insurance policy. This is a significant concern, given the large numbers of people who will be attending your Mosque on 12 October.”
She added: “The practice of flagellation and similar activities poses a significant public health risk due to the potential for transmission of blood borne disease; to those practising the act of flagellation, spectators who may become contaminated with blood, and to persons who have the responsibility for clearing up any blood spillage…
“I am also concerned about the welfare of children and young people who may witness or even participate in such practices. As you also know, the Council has a statutory duty to safeguard children in Luton. I am therefore seeking assurances from you that NO child under the age of 18 will be participating in or observing any form of self-flagellation or similar such practices at your mosque.”
A congregation member, Syeda Fatima, told 5Pillars that the day of Ashura had been disrupted for the sake of a minority who want to carry out “an extreme act” which many scholars consider haraam.
She said: “Public Liability Insurance must be in place for any event to take place in any building in this country but that has now been invalidated because of these people who have jeopardised the holding of future Ashura events at the mosque. They don’t care about anything apart from the self-promotion of their extreme beliefs and actions. Every scholar of Islam believes the law of the land needs to be upheld but they have now invalidated the insurance and made the holding of any activity in the mosque illegal.”
5Pillars has made attempts to reach congregation members at Masjid-e-Ali who support the practice of zanjeer zani but has been unable to reach anyone so far.