One of the most common things we are asked as Shia Muslims is “do you beat yourselves?”
I would like to answer this from my own perspective.
All human beings express themselves in different ways that are symbolic. The same applies to expressing grief – it symbolises something close to us. It is a personal choice that allows you to externally show your internal feelings. Shia Muslims strike their chests in a rhythm to poetry, in order to create a cathartic atmosphere that juggles grief, pride, relief, pain and several other contradictory emotions.
When I strike my chest, I am reminding myself that the holy chest of Imam Hussain  was trampled upon by the hooves of horses. I am reaffirming my loyalty to him and telling the world that my chest is worthless compared to Imam Hussain’s chest that was filled with Divine treasures. This chest torn to pieces, after all, was the chest of God’s final Messenger. When I remove my shirt to do this, I am reminding myself that the holy shirt of Imam Hussain was torn to pieces. I am saying that my body should have been violated, not Imam Hussain’s.
Muslims believe that when we are judged by God on the Day of Resurrection, our body parts anthropomorphise and bear witness for us.
The tongue will testify to our lies we uttered.
The ears will testify to the vain talk we listened to.
The legs will testify to the immoral gatherings we walked to.
However, I am relying on my hands to testify that they struck my chest in grief for the beautiful son of Zahra.
I want my chest to tell its Creator that a fraction of the pain of Imam Hussain was felt by it through my hands.
This way, maybe my body that I have used to disobey my Lord will salvage itself.
When we strike our chests, we are not harming ourselves. This is an unjust accusation that lacks emotional intelligence. We are creating poetic art through emotional and religious expression in its purest form. In fact, there is a paradox at play: striking my chest heals the pain and anguish I feel for Imam Hussain’s tragedy. I am healing when I do this. Ironically, when I strike my chest, it seems to hurt those who hate me more than it actually hurts me.
When someone cries, we know they are sad about something.
When someone wears black, we know they are probably mourning.
But when I strike my chest, the world knows I am expressing my love for Imam Hussain.
I will never be ashamed of beating my chest for him. It is my identity as his mourner. I am proud of my identity. It is an honour to offer this to the Messenger and Zahra as a show of love towards their beloved.
As the poet says:
“Had they any love for the Messenger’s house,
They would have joined us in striking our chests.”
1. Hussain Ibn Ali was the grandson of the Prophet, and was martyred in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. He is the 3rd Imam for Shia Muslims
2. “That Day, We will seal over their mouths, and their hands will speak to Us, and their feet will testify about what they used to earn.” (Quran 36:65)
3. A name of Fatima, daughter of Prophet Muhammad.
Zameer Hussain, Shia Muslim, Secondary School Head of RE