One of my favourite chapters in Dining with al-Qaeda is Chapter Eight, ‘War, War to Victory’, set in and around the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. In this part of the book I try to show the reader how the Iranians’ sense of martyrdom for God and Iran is not that different from the blind volunteering to fight for God and Country that decimated my grandfathers’ generation in the First World War.
The chapter also refers to the mortification of the flesh practiced by some Shia Muslims each year in the holy month of Ashura, a ritual practiced by some as they mourn the ancient murder of members of the family of the Prophet Mohammed. My father Maurice Pope, making his way through the book, wrote in to make the point that there is nothing uniquely Muslim about the tradition of self-punishment.
There is a marvelous Latin rhymed hymn (anonymous but thought to be 13th century) in which the singer seeks to identify himself with Mary as she watches her son being crucified and works himself up into a frenzy of self-flagellation, first:
“let me share your tears”
fac me vere tecum flere
“no, let me share Christ’s own death, let me feel his suffering, let me feel the strokes of the whip”
fac, ut portem Christi mortem, passionis eius sortem et plagas recolere
“make the strokes cut into me, make me drunk with the cross . . .”
fac me plagis vulnerari, cruce hac inebriari . . .
Solitary self-flagellation within Christianity goes back a long way, I suppose at least to the Desert Fathers, but this kind of rejoicing in it or making it a kind of celebration seems a bit different. Is there a link between it and the Shia practice – and if so what and where?
Rarely am I able to have the last word with my classicist father, but in this case my answer would have to be: mortification of the flesh is an eternal strand of human nature. As usual Wikipedia has many other answers about the phenomenon in various religions here. And their picture of Christian flagellants (above) reminded me of one picture taken as a young reporter in Lebanon that didn’t make it into the book (below).