The most potent symbol of the history of the Middle East, indeed of much of human history, is the stuff of life itself: blood. In the sacred history of the three major monotheisms enough blood has been shed since their inception (by and against each one of them) to raise the sea level meters upon meters. Even in the Genesis origin story the first two natural births, Cain and Abel, became the first to introduce bloodshed as a norm. The God of Genesis got into the act, killing animals to make skins that would clothe the naked bodies he created of Adam and Eve and then preferring the animal sacrifice of Abel to the firstfruit figs raised by Cain. The same God went on to substitute a lamb for Abraham’s heir, although only when Abe’s knife was poised to slit his son’s throat, but then in Christian dogma the now-threefold deity shed a third of his essence on the cross. In that same dogma Jesus no longer needs that lost blood as he resurrected to make the trinity a divine threesome once more. But the bloodletting has never stopped.
By all accounts the prophet Muhammad was not fond of shedding blood. The forays and battles that took place while he and his followers were in exile in Medina are remarkable for how few deaths are said to have occurred. When he returned in triumph to Mecca it was not because of any great military victories, nor was their a bloodbath of the Meccans. At the start of Islam the Allah seen through the Quran is neither interested in literal blood sacrifices or a figurative eucharistic variety. Muslims purify themselves with water to make themselves ready for prayer. Calls for jihad have resonated throughout the Islamic era as countless thousands upon thousands have died for not being Muslim, being Muslim or being the wrong kind of Muslim: such is the political baggage common to most religions known to history and probably before recorded history.
Today the blood is still hemorrhaging throughout the Middle East, mostly in areas where Muslims live. The worst flow at the moment is in Syria, where politics pits Muslims against each other and catches Christians and Druze in the crossfires. Bombs with sectarian intent go off daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Riots in Cairo open wounds. Libya is hardly a pacifist paradise. The blood that surges out from gunfire and cluster bombs is always politically charged. The suicide bomber, no matter what the rationale, is no less a weapon than an AK-37.
So much blood is being shed, that we almost forget the self-inflicted wounds, not with intent to take others’ blood but to purposefully and metaphorically purge one’s own. I am speaking of an event that some of the shi’a persuasion perform on the 10th of Muharram, which recently occurred around the time of the American Thanksgiving. For the shi’a this is the day commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain, where the prophet’s grandson and his followers were murdered on an Iraqi plain in a prolonged fight for control of the faith. It is telling of the age-old rivalry between Muslims over this act that in the time of the prophet the month of Muharram was one in which no fighting was to take place. The truce month has been trampled in subsequent politics with no end, apart from a hoped-for Yawm al-Qiyama, in sight.
The commemorative ritual of bloodletting is not unique to Islam, nor is it practiced by the vast majority of Muslims, including those of shi’a groups. But when it is practiced, as in the shi’a controlled town of Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon, the images are striking and disturbing, as they are meant to be. In a slideshow, Al Jazeera provides a graphic set, one that begs to be placed alongside the gruesome images of bodies torn apart in warfare. Ironically, the major shi’a leaders do not encourage this kind of action. As noted on the Al Jazeera site, “Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s largest Shia party, has denounced the ritual of self-harm and urged people to donate their blood instead. The late Ayatollah Fadlallah, a celebrated Shia scholar, also condemned the practice. In 1994, Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa banning self-harm, deeming it “‘irreligious’”. Yet, the blood still flows.
The individuals in Nabatiyeh, with blood streaming down their faces or backs, are clearly out to make a point. They are not suicidal, although a rare few sometimes go so far as to end up in the grave, nor are they doing this to reserve a special place in the hereafter. What motivates someone to cut veins and taste their own blood? One obvious reason is the identification with Hussain, the ultimate martyr (and certainly not the only one) in Islam. Christians are tempted to see in this practice a hint of copycatting Christianity, with Hussain shedding his blood for the truly faithful and his mother Fatima an apotheosis of the Virgin Mary. This is the sense that Hussain made the ultimate sacrifice; he gave up his own life and that should never be forgotten. Christians drink their prophet’s blood, at least figuratively, while these shi’a are transformed by merging their own blood with that of Hussain.
The carnage currently continuing in the Middle East, with all its patent political motivation, literally results in a bloody mess. Few of the wounds from which the blood has escaped, are healed. Many seem to defy a cure. Can the Palestinians, fresh from a symbolic UN upgrade, ever find common ground on the status of Jerusalem, let alone un-settlemented parts of the West Bank and the ground-into-the-ground Gaza strip? Can Egypt retain its tourist-friendly Pharaonic past and move to a Muslim Brotherhood polity after so many years of colonial influence and dictatorial rule? Will Libya ever become a unified state, or Yemen? And as for Syria, can the festering pools of blood ever be covered up or will the “victors” shed even more? Will Lebanon burst again at the seams with the influx of Syrian refugees? Can Jordan remain an imposed monarchy for long? And I have not yet mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan, where a trillion dollar war effort has made the entire region less secure.
In one sense no wound is self-inflicted, there are always other factors that lead a person to shed any kind of blood. Even the most cold-blooded murder has been pre-warmed by a variety of biological, social and political currents. But there is a danger in never accepting responsibility on an individual level. Those bloodied faces in Nabatiyeh represent an act of defiance, even against the leaders of their faith. One can understand the level of frustration and condemn various players who conspire to cause such anger, but slicing a knife along your own forehead or plunging it into the heart of another human being is also always an individual act, a decision made by oneself. There is sympathy, or at least should be, in viewing the bloodied and mangled corpse of a young child, not simply because it is of a particular religion or ethnicity, but because it is a human being that has become the victim of our own shared penchant for brutality. In this sense self-inflicted wounds always debase the self and the group. Were Hussain worth shedding one’s blood for, and I have no way of knowing the moral worth of Hussain as an individual, I wonder if he would approve of such madness today. Is it not better to heal a wound than to open up another? It is not enough to beat our swords into ploughshares; we need tools that can heal and not destroy. It is far better for all of us to donate our extra blood rather than for any of us to detonate ourselves and add to the bloody surfeit.
Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East (www.tabsir.net).