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Study Explains “Ashura in Italy”

Ashura in Italy

SHAFAQNA- “Shia ceremonies during these two months [Muharram and Safar] are hardly comprehensible to outsiders. The first externalization of Shia mourning can probably be traced back to 2009, when Pakistanis in Brescia realized their first procession. After them, Shias in Turin, Carpi, Milan, Rome and Legnano found the courage to do the same,” Minoo Mirshahvalad writes.

A study by Minoo Mirshahvalad, published in “Religions” journal explains “Ashura in Italy: The Reshaping of Shia Rituals“.

In spite of the social implications of the Shia rituals in the first two months of the Islamic calendar (Muharram and Safar), no sociological study has been conducted on their practice in Italy. The purpose of this article is to reveal the Italy’s impacts on the Shia Muharram and Safar rituals.

Italy’s Shia Muslims are mainly of Pakistani, Iranian, Afghan and Lebanese origin. Iraqis and converts from Italy, Latin America and Africa create a small percentage of this population. Although Pakistani associations are significantly dispersed in Italy, the main hub of Shia circles are sited in Lombardy, where job opportunities attract migrants.

Ceremonies of Muharram and Safar in Italy

“Shia ceremonies during these two months are hardly comprehensible to outsiders. The first externalization of Shia mourning can probably be traced back to 2009, when Pakistanis in Brescia realized their first procession. After them, Shias in Turin, Carpi, Milan, Rome and Legnano found the courage to do the same,” Minoo Mirshahvalad writes.

“To comprehend the sociological importance of mourning for Hussain (AS) in the Italian diasporic environment, one needs to consider that the ceremonies of Muharram and Safar in Italy were the first communal bonds that satisfied the desire for community years before Shia circles became registered associations. Particularly the day of Ashura is the only event that does not undergo the regime of “calendrical adjustment”, which is the usual adaptation strategy of Islam in the West,” she adds.

The information of this study was gathered through observations and interviews conducted during Muharram and Safar in 2017 and 2018 during mourning sessions and processions in Rome, Milan, Legnano, Brescia, Carpi, Varese, Pavia, Turin and Como. Fifteen semi-structured interviews and many informal conversations were conducted with the presidents of Shia associations and also participants who were mainly from Afghan, Lebanese, Pakistani and Iranian origins, beside a few converted Italians.

Different religious outlooks join Muharram and Safar ceremonies

“Italian Shias are from diverse national backgrounds. Although they are informed about the presence of their coreligionists in Italy, the only moment that offers them the opportunity to feel the otherness of their coreligionists occurs during the outdoor Karbala tragedy commemorations,” the study explains.

“In Italy, people with very different religious and political outlooks join the commemorative Muharram and Safar rituals. Sometimes, Sunnis and non-Muslims give their contributions to Ashura-related initiatives by helping with translations, correcting pamphlets and handouts, and even taking part in processions and chest-beatings,” it adds.

Who is Hussain (AS) campaign

Introducing “Who is Hussain” campaign the paper reads, “As a universal moment that gathers thousands of Shias, Ashura paves the way for cultural differences among nationalities to surface and be noticed. In 2014, an Iranian PhD student of the Polytechnic of Milan decided to initiate a campaign that later was called “Who is Husayn?” In 2015, activities of this campaign began in the streets of Milan for the first time. Since then, Iranian students in various European cities have annually distributed beautifully designed pamphlets in local languages which explain who Imam Husayn is and what Ashura means.”


“The whole Ashura epic in Italy, with its antagonists and protagonists, needed to be reduced to one single idea: justice. Students were explicitly requested to present only the notion of justice. The tragedy was remoulded to fit the exigencies of the new context. Young Shias were trying to develop empathy between themselves and outsiders via a universal but vague value that is widely acceptable despite faith, nationality or gender. Theoretically, the memory of the Battle of 680 is a centuries-long leitmotif that connects the Shias’ past and present, and operates as their identity source,” it is added.

The question of language

Apart from form, there was also the question of language. The use of Italian and English had its benefits that went beyond dialoguing with outsiders. One of the interviewees who was originally from Pakistan referred to uselessness of adopting Urdu and Punjabi for rituals because the new generations could not understand them. He believed that their children have grown up in Italy and do not know their parents’ language. They are raised in another culture and must comprehend Ashura.

“Although Ashura and its ancillary events in itself are not considered instruments for crafting identity, Shias discover themselves only on these occasions where qualities of their migratory context allow them to enter into dialogue with it. This self-discovery, which cannot occur without the challenges of migration, facilitates the adaptation process. The processions of the first two months of the Islamic calendar offer Shias a good reason to be accessible and to overcome timidity, anonymity and civil negligence within the settlement context,” Mirshahvalad claims.

Source: Ashura in Italy: The Reshaping of Shia Rituals, Minoo Mirshahvalad, Religions 2019, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, The University of Turin, Lungo Dora Siena, 100, 10153 Torino, Italy.

Read more from Shafaqna:

Study explains “Sermons of Hazrat Zainab (SA) in Karbala and their effects”

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