The following is an extract of the interview with Dr Paul al-Hilw which appeared in the Arabic Kuwaiti monthly 'al-Minbar', issue 12 (2nd Year), May 2001, page 12. Translated by Ali Adam, London.
Question: Why has the voice of the Husayni revolution not subsided and what is the secret of its survival and the renewal it experiences every year?
Reply: According to my belief, the Husayni condition is not confined to the Shi’a alone. It is general and all-inclusive. Hence we find that the Husayni revolution’s connection with the principle of resisting oppression has made it very relevant to a person whatever his religion or beliefs might be, because as long as there are oppressors and oppressed then there will always be Yazid and Husayn as two fundamental symbols of oppressor and oppressed. This is from a philosophical and spiritual standpoint. From a practical and existential viewpoint, the rituals that are practised by the Shi’a, during the days of the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, attach an aspect of renewal to this revolution by which it is made to be continuously present in the human mindset.
Question: How so?
Reply: The sociological view of these rituals or ceremonies is that they are international or universal ceremonies, which express the idea of resisting oppression and aiding the oppressed. This expression is what gives these ceremonies a universal flavour and which makes them accepted on a societal level in many different environments and cultures. That a revolution should take place in a certain place and time and also remain alive until our time means that this revolution is connected with universal human concepts on the one hand, and also that it relies upon recurring social interactions on the other. These interactions take the form of these rituals or ceremonies, which take place in the days of Muharram and particularly on the tenth day.
Question: Then you believe that these rituals are a source for the survival of this revolution . . . correct?
Reply: Naturally, because when we remember a person the way we remember Husayn, it is not enough that we pray for his soul or remember his deeds or virtues, but rather, something palpable and something painful must be brought into the equation.
Reply: Yes, painful. For that which does not cause pain to the body does not persist. It is the pain that preserves the issue and the memory and is what allows them to be implemented on an existential level and to have effects on cultural and social movements. The persistence of the memory and its survival in the human mind must be accompanied by tangible physical pain and this is what the Husayni rituals accomplish. When one feels pain in one’s body, one will contemplate its source and when this contemplation leads one to the pains that befell Husayn, then one will evoke his revolution and his principles and goals in a spontaneous way.
Question: There are those who believe that Husayni rituals are superstitions, which cause a negative view of those who practise them in the eyes of the world. Is this true in your view?
Reply: This is nonsense and is far from scientific realities. As we know, a superstition is something invented by the human mind to explain a certain form or image that he finds difficult to understand.
Question: And what about the tatbir that the Shi’a practice on the day of Ashura out of grief for their Imam Husayn alayhis-salam, what is your evaluation of it as a ritual?
Reply: Tatbir is one method of evoking physical pain to attain a state of complete remembrance as I have already explained. Tatbir is, in my view, the ritual which is most effective in stimulating feelings and sentiments.
Question: From your academic studies, are there any examples of this ritual in other societies?
Reply: Yes, you are not alone in this field. Indeed, we Christians practice rituals which are very similar to the Husayni rituals you practice. Some Christian ceremonies go as far as bloodletting as well and this is similar to tatbir. Some Christians hit their bodies with whips during what we call the ‘Week of Pains’ that is the pains of Christ. In some Christian areas of the Far East, nails are hammered into wrists so that the pain of Christ crucified is felt. Wounds to various places of the body to draw blood also happen there and this is none other than tatbir itself. So do not assume that you are the only ones who practice tatbir over Husayn, for we practice tatbir over Christ. I also do not rule out the possibility that some Christians in Lebanon also practice tatbir over Husayn particularly as Husayn has a special station amongst Christians generally and Lebanese Christians in particular.
'IMAM HUSAIN IN CHRISTIAN IDEOLOGY'
Question : How do you honestly perceive the Shi’a rituals practised in these gatherings such as slapping, blood shedding, mourning, and the like?
Answer : I think they contribute much in reactivating the memory and conscience since you enact the event without hurting the others. This leaves you with the holy relic of faith throughout your life. When you slap your body, you punish it morally for not being there at the time of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). It also means that you are ready to sacrifice yourself and everything you have to join the march of Imam Hussein. As for the blood-shedding rituals, I believe it is a symbolic message stating that you are prepared to sacrifice your blood for Imam Hussein(Peace be upon him) which is truly a great and effective message.