The Origin Of Shia Self-Flagellation Rituals: Paganism

Typically, flogging is imposed on an unwilling subject as a punishment; however, it can also be submitted willingly for sadomasochistic pleasure, or performed on oneself, in religious or sadomasochistic contexts. This article will deal with the link between self-flagellation in Shi’ism and Christianity, particularly in Catholic societies.

Native American sun dances have sometimes involved piercing and suspension by flesh and some esoteric and mystic Sufi orders also practice various forms of self-flagellation.

Back in 1530, the Whipping Act was brought about in England which allowed for the whipping of thieves, blasphemers, poachers, and those who committed a crime or an offense, as well as those who were deemed insane.

Self-flagellation is the disciplinary and devotional practice of flogging oneself with whips or other instruments that inflict pain. In Sunni Islam, this vile savagery paganism is strictly forbidden (just like the depiction of saints is), not so in the Rafidi religion, in fact, various forms of self-flagellation have become an integral part of religious Shia rituals throughout the year, especially in the month of Muharram.

Self-flagellation rituals are said to be first found practiced among the members of several Greco- Roman and Egyptian cults and the Sparta Arthemis Orthia. The cult of Isis in Egypt and the Dionysian cult of Greece practiced flagellation. Women were flogged during the Roman Lupercalia to ensure fertility.

There is a view that flagellants experience altered states of mind because of the endorphins that are released during extreme pain, a view that gives also an explanation to sadomasochism.

Today, the main religions that practice self-flagellation include Christianity, Hinduism, and, of course, Imamism (Twelver Rafidi Shi’ism). The ritual has also been practiced among members of several Mediterranean cults, like Egyptian and Roman.

Self-flagellation In Christianity

Self-punishment in the form of self-flagellation known as the mortification of the flesh in Christianity has its origins in fourth-century Europe and was a common practice until the medieval era. The Roman Catholic Church has often held mortification of the flesh (literally, ‘putting the flesh to death’ by practicing fasting, abstinence, as well as pious kneeling, self-flagellation, etc.), as a worthy spiritual discipline.

Mortification of the flesh is undertaken in order to repent for sins and share in the Passion of Jesus and the imitation of his suffering and death by alleged crucifixion, similar to how self-flagellation is understood in Shi’ism as a means to imitate saint Hussain in bleeding and to share some of his pain.

The Catholic Church has a long history of self-punishment and asceticism, and self-flagellation was just one of the many acceptable forms of penance. In addition to atoning for personal sins, there was a belief during the Middle Ages that economic and social struggles were a sign that God was unhappy and mankind needed to make amends.

Some Christians have made a great show of self-abuse. The Flagellants were a famous Catholic group that in the 13th century began marching around Europe, staging processions that included whipping themselves. The Pope banned the movement in 1261, and later popes cracked down on them as heretics. In the early 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition burned many Flagellants at the stake.

Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). A depiction of Flagellants in Medieval Europe, Germany.
Medieval flagellants.
The tools flagellants used were made to draw blood. They would whip themselves with leather thongs tipped in iron spikes, nails, or large knots.

The outbreak of the Black Death in 1347 led to a mass resurgence of flagellants. Pope Clement VI is known to have permitted it for this purpose in 1348 and Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, regularly practiced self-flagellation as a means of mortification of the flesh.

According to medieval chronicler Robert of Avesby, hundreds of flagellants made their way to England in 1349 where he described, they formed a mostly-naked mob as they whipped, chanted, and prostrated themselves in a systematic fashion:

‘Four of them would chant in their native tongue and another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross. The singing would go on and, the one who was in the rear of those thus prostrate acting first, each of them in turn would step over the others and give one stroke with his scourge to the man lying under him.’

Flagellants in the Netherlands scourging themselves in atonement, believing that the Black Death is a punishment from God for their sins, 1349
Flagellants in France

Sometimes flagellants whipped themselves so hard and successfully, that their blood would be flung out into the crowd. Accounts of people taking the blood and rubbing it in their eyes speak to the value of the sacrifice. It was thought that the blood of a flagellant had miraculous properties.

The Catholic Church does not officially sanction self-flagellation. But some Popes have spoken favorably of it, and passages of the New Testament have been interpreted as approving of the practice and thus self-flagellation remains common in many Catholic countries such as Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico, Spain, and Italy.

Devout Catholics have practiced mild self-flagellation for centuries, often with a simple belt but sometimes using the cat-tailed whip known as a ‘discipline.’ Although the practice has become rare since the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, and it’s rarely discussed in public, it is still vividly practiced in many Catholic countries.

Self-flagellation Rites In Spain

A Procession of Flagellants is an oil-on-panel painting from the Romanticism period by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. It was created between 1812 and 1819. Depicted in this scene is a procession of semi-naked, religious zealots wearing pointed hats and whipping their bare backs in the act of penitence. The scene is one of unrestrained cruelty. The backs of the participants are bleeding profusely, and they pull large religious statues, including the Crucifixion of Christ. Lining the route, are other devotees who are wearing black hoods and kneeling or carrying wooden crosses and lamps. In the dimly lit background is an indistinct crowd of faithful followers.

As mentioned, the practice of flagellation was widespread among monastic orders in medieval times in Europe, including in Spain. It spread steadily to the laity as well, where brotherhoods of penitents were formed among the craft guilds. In the early 1400’s Franciscan monks took to processing through the streets of Seville flagellating themselves during holy week in penance. So by the early 1500s flagellating processions of penitents were well institutionalised by the Church.

Holy Week in Spain is the annual tribute of the Passion of Jesus Christ celebrated by Catholic religious brotherhoods and fraternities that perform penance processions on the streets of almost every Spanish city and town during the last week of Lent, the week immediately before Easter.

The passion of Christ as the Church calls it has been turned into an annual show of bizarre rituals (self-flagellation, theatrical play and re-enactments, exactly like in Shi’ism) which have evolved over centuries.

ملة الكفر واحدة

One of the very potent rituals that evolved was the ‘stations of the cross’, the ‘via crucis’. This sequence of 14 events, is supposedly based on the real passage of Jesus’ route to Calvary through the streets of Jerusalem. Catholics everywhere still parade and venerate fourteen different images of this journey to execution, whether it is in the parish church, or, as in many Spanish towns, the icons are scattered around the town itself. A Semana

Left: Shias holding up a portrait of a decapitated and Persianised saint Hussain, who is also referred in Shi’ism as Tharullah (the blood of Allah) who through his sacrifice saved Islam and mankind. Right: Egyptian Copts (Messia worshippers) holding up an image of Jesus son of Mary (peace be upon them). This Christian belief (called سر الفداء) i.e. salvation of mankind through the sacrifice of Jesus is one of the many heresies that the Twelvers have adopted and modified.

Self-flagellation Rites In Italy

Gruesome and sadomasochistic self-punishments rituals are conducted in the name of Jesus (peace be upon him) on an annual basis in parts of Italy (due to Spain’s influence). One disturbing and macabre procession (not less disturbing than Shia ones) is conducted each year the religious festival, known as the Riti Settennali di Penitenza (Rites of Penance every Seven Years) which commemorates the discovery of a Madonna and Child statue (idol) in a field hundreds of years ago. Similar processions are conducted annually on the occasion of Easter time.

Attendants pour white wine over the penitents to disinfect and clean their wounds.
The hoods are worn because the ‘flagellanti’ and the ‘battenti’ are supposed to remain anonymous, and not even their families are meant to know they are taking part in the procession.
The ‘battenti’, strike themselves with corks containing metal spikes. They will be joined by a smaller number of ‘flagellanti’ – similarly dressed men who flog themselves with metal scourges.
The ‘flagellanti’ flog themselves with metal scourges.


Self-flagellation Rites In Mexico

The South Americans have inherited the paganism and savagery of the Europeans in the name of ‘loving and following Jesus’.

Each year, throngs of Catholic faithful descend on Mexico’s colonial city of Taxco, some 112 miles south of Mexico city with whips and thorns for a graphic procession commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus.

Self-flagellation Rites In The Philippines

Self-flagellation is ritually performed in the Philippines during Holy Week (on Good Friday, before Easter).

Each year, some streets of the Philipines are speckled with blood. On every Good Friday, The flagellants, who often cover their faces with red or black cloth, beat their bodies with chains and whips in remembrance of the suffering of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him).

Penitents are also willingly flogged by others and crucified in imitation of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, while related practices include carrying wooden crosses, crawling on rough pavement, and other disturbing rituals.

Penitents flagellate themselves during Good Friday procession in Rosario town, Cavite province on April 19, 2019. After the procession, they will take a dip on Manila Bay to wash the blood and clean their bodies. Meanwhile, members of the Philippine Red Cross assist a penitent experiencing exhaustion. Photo by Inoue Jaena/Rappler
A participant dressed as a centurion takes a selfie prior to a re-enactment of the passion and death of Christ during the annual observance of Lent on Good Friday called ‘Moriones Festival in Boac town, Marinduque province, south of Manila on April 14, 2017.

Pictures show devotees being flogged and others whipping their own backs redraw

Hooded barefoot penitents perform self-flagellation to atone for their sins in San Fernando, Pampanga in northern Philippines.

Penitents walk in procession while flagellating themselves in La Loma, Quezon on Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019. Photo by Inoue Jaena/Rappler

Angeles, Luzon, Philippines-March 25, 2016: Easter procession in the city of Angeles, Luzon Island, Philippines. Flagellants who mortify themselves on Good Friday on the road.

A flagellant whips his back with bamboo during the re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Manila on April 21, 2010.  About 75 million Filipinos, out of a national population of 93 million, are Catholics, a legacy of the country’s Spanish colonial past.

Self-flagellation Rites In Other Polytheistic Religions

Self-Flagellation is practiced in many pagan religions and societies. Hindus have a number of self-punishment rituals and festivals such as Garudan Thookkam and Thaipusam. Garudan Thookam is one of the traditional festivals that are celebrated in Kerala. It is a very strange tradition that is still believed and performed with great spiritual and religious beliefs. According to this festival, people hang hooks unto the back of their bodies and hang themselves down horizontally from a shaft.

Kali, also known as Kalika, is a Hindu goddess.

The history behind attempting to do such strange activity is that goddess Kali killed the Demon Darika and after that, she was extremely thirsty and was not able to quench her thirst, as a result, Lord Vishnu sent her Garuda which is an eagle to quench the thirst of Goddess Kali but she was not able to quench her thirst until she drank the bleeding blood of Garuda. Hence in order to pray, people hang themselves from hooks, the hooks are pierced unto the back of their skin then these are taken out for the procession in the vehicles. They also dress like Garuda and perform different dance forms.

Thaipusam or Thaipoosam is a festival celebrated by the Tamil Hindu community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February), usually coinciding with Pushya star, known as Poosam in Tamil or Pooyam in Malayalam. The festival is also observed among Keralites and is vernacularly called Thaipooyam.

The Thaipusam festival includes a ritual known as Kavadi Attam (‘kavadi dance’) in which people pierce their bodies with skewers and hooks in honour of Murugan (Hindu god of war, brother of Ganesha, and son of Shiva).


A Hindu devotee carries a 2 metre bamboo decked with marigolds, milk, and Hindu deities during the annual Hindu Thaipusam


A Shi’ite devotee carrying a ‘alam decked with Shia deities during the annual Muharram ceremonies. The alam is carried by the men leading the procession of mourners during Ashura and appeared first during the Safavid era (AD1501-1736).

The devotee makes the pilgrimage (the nadai payanam) with bare feet, bearing food offerings on the kavadi. Depending on the location of the temple, this walk to the temple can take more than a week (similar to Shia Arbaeen walks). The temple of Murugan in Palani is a popular destination, as it is one among the arupadai veedu (“six houses” – the sites sacred to Murugan). The Palani Murugan temple also has a reputation as a place of healing.

Thaipusam Festival of Hindus is celebrated remembering the occasion that the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, Kumaraswamy killed asura Surapadma. This Thaipusam festival celebration is seen along with the Tamil Nadu region of South India…And this festival is celebrated mostly in countries such as Sri Lankan Tamils, Indonesia, Singapore, Malasia, and Thailand.

The disturbed mushriks pierce their body with spears, hooks, and inflicted all sorts of pain on themselves.

A mushrik pulls his procession burden connected by hooks pierced in his back during the Thaipusam procession at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on February 7, 2012 in Singapore.

Thaipusam celebrations on 20 January 2011 kicked off at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, which was the starting point for devotees during the annual festival. Devotees, their tongues and cheeks pierced by metal skewers and supporting kavadis (cage-like constructions decorated with wire and peacock feathers), made their way to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – JANUARY 16: Tamil performs a ritual dance on Kavadi Thaipusam Festival, January 16, 2014, at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

There are many more examples of pagan self-flagellation rituals in various pagan beliefs and cultures. Ji-Tong (Dangki) is yet another disturbing pagan ancient Chinese (Taoist) self-punishment ritual still practiced in Taiwan that could be mistaken for Ashura rituals in Karbala if it wasn’t for the Chinese facial features of its practitioners.

Ji Tong 乩童 (aka Tong Ji 童乩 or Tang-ki in Taiwanese), is a rarely seen event of old Taiwanese religious belief. It’s a type of shamanism, where the “spirit-medium” human is possessed by the spirit of a god. After doing so, the god can live for a short while in the body of the medium to prove his existence or even answer questions to the benefit of believers. The more visually interesting aspect of Ji Tong is when the ‘gods’ allegedly take possession at a temple festival. That’s when the spirit-medium often starts self-flagellating himself with spiked bats, swords, and other medieval pain and blood inflicting devices.

This man is performing a Ji Tong ritual. The spirit-medium said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, self-flagellates at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.
This man is performing a Ji Tong ritual. The spirit-medium, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, self-flagellates using a spiked sword at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taoist devotee self-harming with an axe for purification during the vegetarian festival in Phuket town, Thailand


A devotee walks across hot coals outside Ban Tha Rue Shrine during fire walking ceremonies on September 29, 2014 in Phuket, Thailand. Ritual Vegetarianism in Phuket Island traces its roots back to the early 1800s. The annual festival begins on the first evening of the ninth lunar month and lasts for nine days. Participants in the festival perform acts of body piercing as a means of shifting evil spirits from individuals onto themselves and bring the community good luck. The ritualized mutilation is performed at a local Buddhist shrine under a trance-like state and is carefully supervised. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Self-flagellation Rites In Sufism

Sufism, The gateway To Shi’ism, has a long history in the Kurdistan Region. There are four main tariqas: Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Chishti, and Suhrawardi. All of them are known for bizarre rituals and excessive saint veneration (just like in Shi’ism). Some extreme forms of Sufism are even known for their bizarre self-flagellation rituals that are yet again strikingly similar to those in Shi’ism.

Each year in spring in the Kurdistan regions of Iraq and Iran, thousands of followers of the Qadiriyyah Sufi sect gather for a traditional religious ceremony and pierce their tongues and cut themselves with swords.

Iraqi Kurdish dervishes perform Sufi rituals in the Kurdish city of Arbil, northern Iraq, on February 7, 2008. The dervish practice has borrowed from non-Islamic cults. Some dervish orders have extreme forms of rituals including eating glass, penetrating sharp objects into the body and swallowing swords.
After performing their satanic and Rafidi-like self-flagellation rituals, the Sufis play drums (like Rafidis and Nasibis on Ashura) and perform ritual whirling and dancing as a form of meditation.
At the state of trance, the Sufis perform extraordinary acts such as piercing their bodies with spears and knives to demonstrate that their spirits have overcome their bodies.

A Sufi Iranian Kurd of Marivan, Iran, performs self-flagellation.

Similar grotesque rituals can be found in other countries, from Albania to India, wherever you find heretical forms of Sufism you will find some forms of bizarre Shi’ite-like rituals.

Shiite rituals were brought into the Balkans in the 15th century during the Ottoman invasion (who like all Sufis had Shia tendencies) in the town of Prizren in Kosovo.

During Ottoman rule, the Shia in Iraq enjoyed the freedom of indulging in public pagan self-flagellation rituals and the spread of their shirk and zandaqat in their hawzat in Najaf, Karbala, and other Ottoman-controlled regions and towns.

Members of the Rifa’i Sufi tariqah (order) celebrate Nowruz with a ritual that lasts hours and is extremely exacting. The followers must go through a great test of physical and mental exertion.

This Albanian Sufi man removes a metal skewer from his cheek while still dancing and whirling. During an annual religious gathering of a Sufi order in honor of Ali’s b. Abi Talib’s birthday (that they celebrate on Nowruz!), Sufis dance themselves into a religious state of trance and in an act of devotion pierce their bodies and cheeks. By doing so they don’t feel any pain and come closer to God.

The dervishes pray, dance and sing and try to attain a state of trance. At the culmination of the ritual, the feats of Fakirism take place. Whilst some of the dervishes play and sing, their leader takes long skewers and begins to pierce the mouths of the dervishes who willingly undergo this test, beginning with the children. The older dervishes, the braver and more expert, are pierced with a real sword. A blade is placed on their throat and the shaikh climbs on top of it.

Prizren, Kosovo. The Sufi pir gives the typical kiss before the piercing. The pin is a symbol of courage and the piercing demonstrated that the dervishes are brave.

Prizren, Kosovo. Fakir dervishes celebrating the Newroz (Nevruz), the beginning of the new year with fakirism rituals. A young dervish with his piercing, proudly shown. The pin is a symbol of courage and the piercing demonstrated that the dervishes are brave.

To further east we go, the crazier these satanic rituals get.
At India’s largest Sufi festival, thousands gather at Ajmer for the annual ‘Urs festival commemorating the death of Moinuddin Chishti, also known by Sufis (who invoke him for their needs in their prayers) as ‘Gharib Nawaz’ (Benefactor of The Poor).

Sufis at the annual Urs (death anniversary) of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti

The Sufis can be seen performing eye-popping rituals, self-flagellation, and pulling metal wires through their cheeks. Men are believed to perform the grisly acts of self-torture as acts of devotion to the saint. Indian Eunuchs dance at the procession and are an integral part of the festival.

His shrine has become a pilgrimage destination for millions of people. Each year swarms of pilgrims from various parts of India and the world descend upon the lake town in Rajasthan state to celebrate the life of the famous saint and founder of the Chishti order of Sufism.

During the week-long festival, devotees offer prayers, flowers, food, money, and other donations at the shrine where the tomb of Saint Moinuddin Chishti lies.

Devotees offer prayers, flowers and food as donations to the shrine where Chishti’s tomb lies.
Sufi devotees carry a blanket to offer at the shrine of the saint.
The Sufis welcome all faiths to attend the celebration which sees hundreds of worshippers waving flags and self-flagellating down the street.
Two holy men beat themselves on the back at last year’s festival as part of the Sufi rituals.
Self-Flagellation — Sufis at a Sufi ‘Urs. The ‘Urs celebrates the death anniversary of Muhammad Moin-ud-din Chishti– a 12th-century Sufi saint from Persia who lies buried in Ajmer. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit his shrine and perform rituals that are strikingly similar to those in Shi’ism.
Self-flagellation is a sign of religious devotion during the Urs festival at the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

Self-flagellation Rites In Shi’ism

Christian-like passion plays and re-enactments (that also have a history in Zoroastrian methodology) and self-flagellation rituals as found in other pagan religions and societies have become and an intrinsic part of religious Shia culture.

Although not all Shias practice extreme forms of self-harming and Self-flagellation rituals such as Tatbir/Qameh Zani (the striking of one’s head with blades, swords, knives, etc.) or Zanjeer Zani with blades (repeatedly striking the back with a chain of blades), yet a number of major ‘Ayatollahs’ of Qom, Iran, do sanctify, condone and encourage extreme self-harming rituals, even on infants!

And whether it includes bloodletting or not, whipping oneself with chains (as done in many regions of Iran) is a pagan heresy unknown to Islam, brought to Iran by the Safavids who copied it from the Christians and spread it to the rest of the Shia communities from Iraq to the Indian Subcontinent.

In the 16th-century the (anti-Sunni) Iranian Safavids established Twelver Shi‘ism as the official religion of Iran and forcefully converted its predominantly Sunni population to Twelver Shi‘ism. As perfect allies of the West, the Safavids forged an alliance with Catholic Europe, Portugal, Venice, and the Habsburg Empire, which saw an affinity between Catholicism and Shi‘ism against the Ottomans and Sunni Islam in general.

Self-flagellation rituals were unknown to the Arabs (in the jahiliyyah, excessive wailing rituals were conducted by the womenfolk) and Muslims and were popularised by Twelver Rafidi Shia Safavids who adopted it from the Catholic Church as Flagellantism was common in Christian Europe during that era.

The Safavids fostered the mourning rituals of Ashura by adopting the heresies of the Christians that are alien to Islam, yet have become an integral part (whether in bloody or non-bloody form) of Twelver Shia religious culture.

Not a single companion or family member of the Prophet () had ever ritualised excessive mourning ceremonies, let annual alone pre-planned self-flagellation rituals.

True, as Muslims we do not reject everything non-Muslims do and believe on the basis that they are non-Muslims. That would be a logical fallacy. For example, we agree with Jews and Christians that Prophet Abraham was a righteous man and Prophet of God and that the Day of Judgement is true. However, we do not agree with them (let alone with other non-Muslims) on matters that have not been sanctified and condoned by Islam. Excessive mourning, especially in the form of self-flagellation is not just alien to Islam but severely condemned by the Prophet (), his family, and companions. It’s the Sunnah of the pagan polytheists, not the Sunnah that we know in Islam.

In fact, there is no doubt that the excessive mourning rituals are satanic. Yes, millions have been deceived in seeing in evil ‘good’ and ‘spirituality and ‘devotion’ but it doesn’t change the fact that they have been deceived; what they perceive to be good is in reality evil and of demonic nature, evil deeds which Shaytan (Satan) has beautified for the misguided.

{Satan made their foul deeds seem alluring to them and barred them from the right way, though they were capable of seeing.} [Qur’an, 29:38]

May Allah guide the deceived Shia masses to the truth.