NABATIYEH, Lebanon – The 6-year-old boy screamed and shook his head to avoid the razor blade. But his father held him firmly as Hajj Khodor parted the boy’s black hair and sliced his forehead three times with the blade.
Ali Madani’s cries became more violent as blood gushed from the wound, covering his small, terrified face. His father and a few other men, waving daggers, broke into a religious chant, recalling how the seventh-century Shiite Muslim saint, Imam Hussein, was decapitated, his head placed on a lance.
In marking the holiest day of Ashoura, some Shiites believe children should learn at an early age about Hussein’s suffering, which is at the heart of their faith.
Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, has banned bloodletting during Ashoura, even for adults. Clerics in mainly Shiite Iran forbid it as well, saying the practice is un-Islamic because it harms the body.
But traditions die hard, especially in a rite as fervent and emotional as Ashoura, marked Tuesday by Shiites across the Islamic world.
In the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, hundreds of nervous young boys – ranging from early teens to toddlers – were ushered by their fathers into a hall hung with black banners and paintings of Hussein’s last moments.
Hajj Khodor, a businessman and organizer of the Ashoura ceremonies, and several other men wiped blades with alcohol before swiping each boy three or four times on the forehead.
Some boys cried and resisted, but the cutting proceeded.
“We’re used to it,” said Mahmoud Jaber, 43, who brought his five boys and two girls for the ritual. “It doesn’t hurt because the cry of pain goes away with the faith.”
Hussein Shihab, 13, wrapped in a white sheet symbolizing Hussein’s burial shroud, said he felt a burning sting – “from the alcohol” – as the blade hit.
His father, Jaber Shihab, told Hussein not to be “a wimp,” and to “be brave” as a reporter photographed him after the cut.
It was “for the sake of Hussein” that he had his head cut, the boy said.
In the Ashoura rites, Shiites march in huge processions, beating their chests in mourning for Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala – a city in present-day Iraq – in A.D. 680.
The bloodletting is a reminder of Hussein’s suffering, as well as punishment for the failure of Muslims to help Hussein in his battle against Islamic ruler Yazid, leader of what became the majority Sunni branch of Islam.
Hussein was the son of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, who Shiites believe should have been his rightful successor. The loss at Karbala effectively consigned Shiites to minority status in the Islamic world – and it became a symbol of the sense of oppression that runs through the sect’s beliefs.