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Late into Monday night, members of Rangoon’s relatively small Shia Muslim community met at the old Mogul Mosque on 30th Street to celebrate the centuries-old tradition of Ashura.
Under the eyes of their wives, children and mothers, men and boys ran barefoot back and forth on a blazing 10-metre path of burning coals while chanting the names of the Prophet Mohammed and his grandson Hussein.
The ceremony is held in honour of Hussein’s martyrdom at the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 AH (680 CE). Shia Muslims around the globe mark this as a day of mourning every 10th of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. It commemorates the date when Hussein Ibn Ali and 72 followers found themselves isolated in the Iraqi desert near Karbala. Surrounded by Syrian enemies and without water, he chose to take the initiative and met his death while charging an overwhelmingly larger army.“This is special day for us. Normally we are Burmese like the Buddhists, the Christians and the Sunnis, but tonight we can be Shia”
The death of Hussein also marks a significant split in Islam from whence the Shia continued to follow the lineage of Hussein, who is considered the third imam in Shia religion (after his grandfather Prophet Mohammed and father Ali).
Shia Islam is now mostly practiced in Iran, but is strong in Iraq and parts of Lebanon. In Burma, it is estimated that the Shia community numbers around 2,000 in Rangoon, some 500 in Mandalay, and a few hundred in other cities.
In addition to the fire-walking rite, devotees offer homage to Hussein by flagellating themselves with a zanjeer or long chain of blades. Through this suffering, they mourn Hussein’s death while hoping to be forgiven for their personal sins.
One spectator comments: “This is special day for us. Normally we are Burmese like the Buddhists, the Christians and the Sunnis, but tonight we can be Shia.”