Being a “True” Shi’ite: The Poetics of Emotions among Belgian-Moroccan Shiites

In: Journal of Muslims in Europe
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  • 1 Fatima Mernissi chairholder, Vrije Universiteit Brussels


This article explores the poetics of emotions among Belgian-Moroccan Shiites, and considers how the emotional disposition of sadness is nurtured through the shedding of tears, in order to develop a specific Shia morality based on God’s justice (ʿadl). Once Shiism is embraced, Moroccan Belgians dedicate themselves to cultivating sadness. I argue that emotions are primordial in the socialisation process of Moroccan Belgians into Shia faith. They recognise that crying is a specific Shia disposition that is initially quite hard to attain, but it is fundamental if one wants to be a “true” Shiite.


This article explores the poetics of emotions among Belgian-Moroccan Shiites, and considers how the emotional disposition of sadness is nurtured through the shedding of tears, in order to develop a specific Shia morality based on God’s justice (ʿadl). Once Shiism is embraced, Moroccan Belgians dedicate themselves to cultivating sadness. I argue that emotions are primordial in the socialisation process of Moroccan Belgians into Shia faith. They recognise that crying is a specific Shia disposition that is initially quite hard to attain, but it is fundamental if one wants to be a “true” Shiite.


On 12 March 2012, a journalist asked me to comment on the question of whether Belgian-Moroccan Muslims had imported the Syrian conflict into Brussels. The journalist explained that a Salafi arsonist had just attacked the Shia Al Reda centre.1 I told her that she was the first to inform me, and so I had little to say until I acquired more details though people I worked with for my research.2 Before hanging up, I told her that I did nevertheless want to comment on her question, and particularly her usage of the phrase, “importation of conflict”, explaining that European Muslims identify not only with national issues, but also with those that go beyond national space, because the social spaces of Muslims constitute diverse social, political and religious networks. Furthermore, complex migration patterns, the media and other new information technologies, diversify networks, which connect a constellation of ideas, sensibilities, places and people, from all over the world. The phone call makes me think of Matthijs van den Bos’s article, in which he states that Twelver Shiism is constitutionally transnational. In his article, he explains that “actions conducted across national borders” arise, because of the global spread of Shia core elements through hawzas (Iraqi and Iranian seminaries), the system of marjaʿiyat (religious sources of emulation) and the practice of taqlid (emulation).3

The name of the perpetrator appeared to be Rachid El Boukhari and, while setting fire to the centre, he shouted that his action was in retaliation for Bashar Assad’s oppression of Syrian Sunnis. Whilst trying to extinguish the fire, the imam succumbed to the toxic gas it produced. “A Sunni Moroccan Belgian had killed a Shia Moroccan Belgian”, one interlocutor said, with a controlled, subdued and sad voice. The Belgian media portrayed it as a manifestation of an intra-Islamic conflict, while the majority of the people I spoke to saw it as a terrorist attack; an act of injustice. One interlocutor said, “Terrorist attacks presume Belgian innocent victims, and since the victim was Muslim, mainstream media and politicians don’t see it as a terrorist act.” During all the conversations and rituals that followed the death of Imam Dahdouh, I felt and heard no anger or resentment, only sadness. The transnational character of Belgian Shia Muslims is not limited to the nature of the actions propagated by hawzas and Shia Islamic scholars, it also includes a repertoire of emotions. In particular, during events such as the Salat al-Janaza (Islamic funeral prayer), and the white march against violence that took place on 18 March 2012 in Brussels, Belgian-Moroccan Shi’ites made public their disposition to mourn collectively according to Shia values and principles.

With the death of the Belgian-Moroccan imam, the Moroccan Shia community felt a great sense of injustice and found strength in the rich Shia tradition of sadness and “martyrdom”.4 In response, Moroccan Shia Belgians displayed specific “poetics of emotions”.5 I argue however, that these rules of emotional conduct are not inherent, and although they might not be integral to a community, they can become part of a community through the disciplining of the body during instances of ritualisation. I contend that emotions, thus constituted, are a fundamental aspect of the process through which Moroccan Belgians are socialised into the Shia tradition. Although sadness does not constitute an important element in the Moroccan-Belgian (Sunni) community, once Moroccan-Belgians embrace Shia Islam, they discipline their bodies to become sensitive to injustice though the cultivation of sadness and the shedding of tears.

Moroccan Belgians who have adopted Shiism have acquired a specific (Iranian according to Thurfjell,6 and Shia according to Deeb7 ) emotional condition: namely sadness. All the people I spoke to in the aftermath of the tragic death of Imam Dahdouh showed a similar reaction of embodied sadness. I argue that commemoration events such as Ashura, and other commemorations of the twelve Imams, are essential to the development of this emotional disposition, which also comes to the fore during other instances of violence or injustice. Before illustrating how the Shia morality of justice (ʿadl)8 is developed though the cultivation of sadness, I will first situate Shiism in the particular context of Moroccan Belgians, and then account for how the methodological background to this research was developed.

Situating the Shia Revival among Moroccan Belgians

Whilst Shia Muslims in Europe are predominantly composed of diaspora communities, many with links to countries such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Pakistan, an important group of Shiites in Belgium are of Moroccan origin. Recent waves of migration from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran have increased the number of Shiites in Belgium to about 10-15% of the 500,000 Muslims living in the country. From 2007 to 2010, I have been engaged in fieldwork at two Shia institutes in Brussels: the Al Reda Centre and the Al Rahman Mosque, which are the two most important places of workship/commemoration for the small but significant community of 8,000 to 10,000 Moroccan Belgian Shiites who mainly (but not exclusively) live in Brussels and its suburbs.

Shiism among Moroccan Belgians is not an entirely new phenomenon, but it is a rather unfamiliar one. The visibility of Shiism increased in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and has grown as the political and military power of Hezbollah has increased. More recently, international events such as the change of political power in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, and the Arab uprisings from 2011 in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, have laid open the Sunni-Shia divide even more.9

In the 1970s, Belgium’s Muslims, who are mainly Turkish and Moroccan migrants, saw the official national religious organisation of the Turkish Diyanet, and the Moroccan Widadiya (Amicales) challenged by the Saudi Islamic Cultural Centre (icc), inaugurated in 1975, and other Sunni religious transnational movements such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference and (oic), and the World Muslim League (wml).10

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran also joined the Islamic transnational religious field in Brussels. Khomeini’s influence, and involvement, was first noted in a demonstration on 20 April 1986 that condemned the American bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi. Although the demonstration was organised by leftist, anti-imperialists and secular Arab civil society organisations, the unexpected presence of Khomeini flags rendered it very Islamic.11

As Saudi Arabia and Iran were, and are, fighting an ideological war to expand their spheres of influence, the effects of this soft power rivalry became noticeably apparent in the religious identifications of Moroccan Belgians. Indeed, the very first Moroccan Belgian Shia Muslims can be traced back to the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, and have produced second- and third-generation Moroccan Belgian Shiites in the following decades. My findings distinguish five categories of Moroccan Belgian Shiites:12

  1. Moroccan Belgians who had met Khomeini when he was in exile in Neauphle-le-Chateau, France in 1978, a year before the Islamic revolution.
  2. Moroccan Belgians who became acquainted with Shiism though the Iranian Embassy, and Iranian organisations in Brussels that celebrated the Iranian revolution annually.
  3. Moroccan Belgians who belonged to the congregation of Imam Ouadrassi and Imam Mohamed El Sgheir who, during the Iraq–Iran war in 1981, prayed for a Shia war victim.
  4. Moroccan Belgians who were introduced to Shiism through the Iraqi Dawa movement.
  5. Moroccan Belgians who discovered Shiism through other Moroccan Belgians.13

Recent events, such as the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the 2011 Shia uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, isis terrorism in Syria and Iraq, the 2015 Zaria massacre of Nigerian Shiites, the imprisonment of Shia Cleric Zakzaky, and the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, are recalled by several interlocutors as “dreadful events by the American-Israeli and Saudi axis” against the Shia, thus creating an aversion towards Saudi religious politics and feeding Shia sensibilities.

In his 2016 article,14 Simon Mabon explains that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr was the spark that instigated open confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, after “decades of mutual suspicion and violent conflict by proxy”. Back in March 2009, interlocutors in Morocco were already referring to the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as “disturbing”. In February 2009, Morocco cut its diplomatic relations with Iran following a Sunni protest after a statement in which an Iranian official questioned the sovereignty of Sunni-ruled Bahrain, and because of Iran’s proselytisation of Moroccans in Morocco.15

Morocco was also worried about Iran’s potential influence over the Moroccan diaspora in Belgium. Moroccan Belgian interlocutors indicated that, during summer vacations to Morocco, they were subjected to close scrutiny; some were even raided in their homes and, if Shia books were found, police officers often questioned their loyalty. In particular, the allegiance to the grand Ayatollahs, the marajiʿ al-taqlid (sing. Marjaʿ al-taqlid, “source of emulation”), was perceived with suspicion, because it might undermine the authority of the Moroccan King Mohamed vi, who, according to the Constitution is also amir al-mu’mineen, the commander of the faithful. Morocco has a long tradition of unifying politics and faith, particularly in the person of the monarch, who presents himself as the lawful embodiment of both state and religious affairs. His prophetic descent, use of religious language and celebration of religious events are often emphasised to underscore his role as the commander of the faithful.16

In their discourses, Moroccan Belgian Shia identify intensely with their Moroccan heritage.17 The main reason they give for this is that the founder of Morocco in 789, Idris i, was the great-grandson of Hasan, the son of Fatima and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Idris i is assumed to be a Shia who had fled the Sunni Abbasid dynasty and found refuge in Morocco. In 791, Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph, poisoned Idris i;18 Moroccan Belgian Shia relate strongly to this history and identity, and try to keep alive this particular Shia memory of Morocco.

Morocco, however, persists in seeing Moroccan Shia Muslims as a threat to its national unity. In his research, Jelle Puelings formulates it as follows:

The last couple of years, Moroccan security services consider Shi‘ite activities of proselytism amongst nationals living in Europe—especially in Belgium—as one of the most imminent threats to their country. These Shi‘ite Muslims in their turn would spread Shi’ism and deploy anti-governmental activities in their country of origin.19

Indeed, in contact with their families in Moroccan cities such Tangier, Nador and Oujda, Moroccan Belgian Shia transfer their Shia sensibilities, sometimes resulting in effective embracing Shia Islam, but more often producing an awareness about the importance for them, as Muslims and Moroccans, of respecting and loving the family of the Prophet.20 Moroccan Belgian Shia argue for the uncoupling of Shiism from revolutionary incarnations, and emphasise its links to an emancipatory and inclusive ideology, which is capable of achieving political accommodation.

Although the debate was dominated by the links between Belgian Shiites and Morocco, and whether Shi’ites did, or did not, constitute a threat to Belgium or Morocco, an additional threat, from Salafi groups, appeared to be real. In 2012, the Shia mosque in Anderlecht, Brussels, was set on fire by a violent Salafi arsonist. Belgian-Moroccan Shiites were aware that certain mosques produced anti-Shia discourses, and further that some Salafist residents in the commune of Anderlecht, where the two centres were based, had been producing what amounted to hate speech against Shia mosque goers.

In the light of Salafi threats, requests for additional security were often made, although local authorities never granted the protection the Belgian Shia asked for. When I was carrying out fieldwork from 2007 to 2010, and in 2012 and 2015, it was noticeable that Belgian Shiites organised their own protection during Friday prayers, commemoration ceremonies and other festivals, but were unprotected during normal praying times. It was during one of these open events that the arsonist entered the mosque and set it on fire. This occurred despite the fact that, as early as 2010, the Belgian Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (cuta) clearly recognised the radical Salafi threat: “For most Muslims in Belgium, the demonisation of Shia Islam is not an issue. Only within already radicalised circles, Salafis and Salafi Jihadis, is it considered that the new political Shia discourse is a factor to mobilise against. As a matter of fact, “conferences” on this theme have recently been organised in radical Belgian mosques. The tone is denigrating and xenophobic towards the Shia community, a trend that is disturbing and merits further investigation.”21

Conducting Fieldwork among Shiites in Brussels

This article is based on my doctoral thesis “Striving and stumbling in the name of Allah: Neo-Sunnis and neo-Shi’ites in a Belgian context”.22 Through participant observation, combined with in-depth interviews and focus group discussions, I studied the change of Belgian-Moroccan identity from Sunni to Shia Islam. The loci of my research were the Al Reda Centre23 and the Rahman Mosque. Most of the fieldwork was conducted from 2007 to 2010 and involved interviews with 31 Moroccan Belgian Shia:24 19 men and 12 women including six interlocutors with whom I have developed very close ties. Besides noting whether interlocutors had recently become Shiite, I was also attentive to gender, age and social class. In 2012 and 2015, I returned to the field to explore developments that had taken place since 2010.

Most first-generation Moroccan Belgian Shia came to Belgium in the late 1960s, and the early 1970s. Whilst many Moroccan migrants who came from villages around Nador, Tangier and Oujda are illiterate, I noticed a high level of Arabic literacy amongst first-generation Moroccan Shia men, and among women who became Shiite in the 1980s. In addition, within the group that discovered Shiism through other Moroccan Belgian Shiites, it became clear that the younger generation were highly educated and/or had entrepreneurial positions.

The Al Reda Centre and Rahman Mosque are the two most visited Shiite centres in Belgium. Both are located in the Brussels commune of Anderlecht, and are predominantly frequented by Moroccans who live in Brussels and its suburbs. Moroccan Belgians from smaller Belgian cities and villages know these centres well, and travel there to attend major Shia events. The Rahman Mosque was established at the beginning of the 1980s, whilst the Al Reda Centre was established in 1994. While Rahman is ethnically homogenous, typified by a population of northern Moroccan Belgians, the Al Reda Centre is more heterogeneous, accommodating Moroccans, Lebanese, Iraqis, Turks, sub-Saharan Africans and native Belgian Muslims.

Although the Rahman Mosque has a predominantly Moroccan congregation, it is however diverse in its denominational affiliation, attracting both Sunnis and Shiites. I observed that the Rahman Mosque was initiating a process of changing particular sensibilities regarding the ahl al-bayt (family of the Prophet), by actively developing a love for the Prophet, by invoking personalities such as Fatima, Ali, Hasan, Husayn and Zaynab, without rejecting the exemplary characteristics of the righteous caliphs. In every khutba (Friday sermon) the imam of the Rahman Mosque spoke about both the caliphs (who are paramount for Sunnis) and the members of the family of the Prophet. The Rahman Mosque’s aim is characterised by bringing these two Muslim traditions together, and at same time developing a love for the family of the Prophet, which had been “erased” by centuries of non-inclusive Sunni politics. The focus is less to highlight the differences between the two, and more to introduce Shia Islam, or ahl al-bayt, to Sunnis.

The Al Reda Centre is a more straightforward Shiite place of worship. Commemorations of all the Shia festivals take place in the Al Reda Centre, which are rarely organised at the Rahman Mosque in order not to upset other, especially Sunni, mosque goers. The lives of the twelve Imams are widely elaborated on, and the imam of the Al Reda Centre refers only to them in his khutbas, not to the caliphs (although neither in a positive, nor a negative way).

Whilst many first-generation Moroccans attending the Rahman Mosque are content with this unification of both branches of Islam, second-generation Moroccan-Belgian Shiites generally want to evolve more in Shiism, and therefore prefer to visit the Al Reda Centre. Many second-generation Moroccan-Belgians remain in the Rahman Mosque because of the affinity they have with the imam who introduced them to Shia Islam. All of the 15interlocutors that I spoke with in the Al Reda Centre had their first contact with Shiism through the Rahman Mosque.

Cultivating a Shia Morality

In the aftermath of the death of Imam Dahdouh, all the people I spoke to during the funeral prayer and at the white March on 18 March 2012 reflected an embodied sadness. This sadness is an essential element of Shia morality, based on God’s justice, and cultivated during Ashura and other commemorative events by shedding tears. I argue that this poetics of emotions in the Shia tradition is a result of bodily discipline. Such rules of emotional conduct are new to the Moroccan Belgian community and are acquired once they embrace Shiism. Moroccan-Belgian Shi’ites dedicate themselves to cultivating Shia sensibilities. Born into a Sunni tradition, many Belgian-Moroccan Shiites realised that crying, as a Shia disposition, was initially quite hard to attain. They even felt guilty, as if they were “bad Muslims” if they were not able to cry at certain religious commemorations. My interviewees often commented that, in feeling sadness, the Shiite “softens his heart” and become a “true” Shiite, and becomes sensible, not only to the tragic deaths of Ali, Husayn, and the other members of the family of the Prophet, but to all those who have suffered injury in the world.

When I met Adel, a 29-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite teacher from Antwerp, a week after Ashura in 2008, he told me that he was very disappointed that he could not cry whilst standing by others who were crying, and beating their breast as a sign of sincere engagement with the suffering of Imam Husayn. Instead of talking to me about his Shia identifications, he advised me to go and speak to someone else. Someone who was “worthy of calling himself Shiite”. Adel said in apology: “Iman, you have to meet my friend. It’s that type of people that you have to meet. I am not there yet. When I told him that I did not want to speak to one particular type of person, who knew the history and the books, but that, on the contrary, I was interested to hear different Shia experiences, he hesitantly acknowledged that his participation might be useful. Although his behaviour and words were very pious (he used religious language and did not shake hands), I saw an enormous disappointment in him. It was his discomfort with the fact that he could not cry that made me realise that crying was revealing of deeper concerns.

Zaynab, a 25-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite university student from Antwerp, also shared with me the importance of crying. As with Adel, it did not come easily to her. She revealed that it took time to develop this sensibility and she explained that she tried to seize it on every occasion to become closer to the Imams.

You know, it is not easy to cry, you just don’t know how to do it. I was really into it and wanted to cry. I couldn’t. I dream of knowing the Imams and particularly Imam Husayn as they have been wronged. I try to get to know them by reading about them and visiting their tombs but I also want to know them with my heart,

Khalid, a 32-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite sales manager from Vilvoorde, also said that embodying sadness was hard in the beginning, but gradually he realised that you have to feel pain if you want to understand oppression.

In the beginning, I didn’t understand grief either. But you have to understand that the imams of the ahl al-bayt are the imams of the mazlumeen [the oppressed]. Ashura is observed to show the grief one has for what happened to the family of the Prophet and you cannot feel that affliction if you don’t know the status of the family. If you really know who Husayn and the rest of the family were, then it is normal that you will cry and will beat your breast because you feel their pain.

In The Enchanted Modern, Lara Deeb gives two explanations of mourning. The first is that only through the shedding of true tears for the Imams can the Shiite strengthens his/her relationship to the Prophet’s family, who will intercede for him/her in the hereafter. The second explanation is that it is only through the process of redemption that the Shiite washes away his/her sins.25 Deeb clearly interprets Shia understandings of salvation through weeping, but she does not expand on the potential of the social effects of tears. Deeb does mention Ashura’s relation to revolution, by referring to Musa al-Sadr, the founder of “the movement of the deprived” and Iran’s revolution. However, Deeb’s analysis, makes a clear distinction between traditional Ashura and emotionality on the one hand, and activism and less emotionality and reason on the other.

Conversely, in his book The Vehement Passion, Philip Fisher illustrates the destabilisation of the distinction between the rational and passionate. He seeks to deconstruct the conviction that vehement sentiments are devoid of rational judgement and moral and social potential, and in so doing offers an overview of how sentiments such as wonder, fear, anger and grief render the reason/emotion division fallible. Fisher shows for example, how fear creates space for civic energy.26 He goes on to explain that mutual fear, which, according to Thomas Hobbes, made political and social projects possible, and further, that passions such as anger and grief are in fact rationally grounded. Fisher argues that anger speaks to the reality of injury, and injustice speaks about unjust acts. Grief, on the other hand, is understood as a state of loss. These passions make our personal world intelligible, they create, he argues, spaces for new knowledge, and new affective bonds.27

Deeb explains that her interlocutors clearly reject an emotional Ashura, and celebrate a rational Ashura with a clear sermon about the history of Imam Husayn, as the authentic way of remembering the martyr. Deeb advances three elements that show the transition from a traditional to an authentic Ashura: 1) the masiras or lamentation processions on the 10th day of Muharram, 2) the majalis, the mourning gatherings that run throughout the first ten days of Ashura, reaching their climax on the 10th day, but continuing until the 40th day, and 3) the meaning attributed to Ashura.28 With regard to the masira, she explains that the presence of women, and the change in the form of lamentation (i.e. to one that is less emotional), are symbols of the authentic way to remember Ashura. Both the less emotional latam,29 and women’s visibility in the masiras, were viewed by many pious Shia as an indication both of progress and of authenticity.30

With regard to the majalis, Deeb invokes the controlled lamentation and the extensive sermon as main constituent elements that configure an authentic Ashura, instead of shorter sermons, and a long “lamentative narration” fuelled by emotionality.31 “Authenticated majaalis were characterized by longer sermons and a more restrained lamentation. Eliciting an emotional response became a secondary goal.”32

Finally, Deeb explains that younger women had problems with the tears of older women, because those tears are more related to cultural tradition.33 When Deeb asks an interlocutor how to participate, her interlocutor explains: “You should think about what the person reciting it is saying and understand it, and then it will affect you and then you will cry for the right reasons, because you understand the true meaning of it.” ([my emphasis].34 Thinking and understanding are important notions that give legitimacy to crying. However, Deeb does not expound on what exactly interlocutors consider good reasons to cry. Nor does she explain what the true meaning of crying is in this authentic Ashura. Deeb does recognise the importance of emotion, even in the authentic understanding, or as she states: “Emotion remains important but is given contemporary purpose in its revision from an end to a means.”35

The people I work with clearly give meaning to crying. During fieldwork, I observed an emotional latam, in which people beat their chests with a high intensity in order to show their identification with the Karbala tragedy. Interlocutors clearly stated that they fully embraced the emotional latam, but dismissed the notion of blood shedding (tadbeer). They also referred to Khamenei, who issued a fatwa forbidding tadbeer, because the eyes of the world are focused on the Shia, and therefore made a plea for a “proper” mourning performance.36

Blood-shedding was considered an unacceptable practice by all of the interlocutors I spoke to, largely because they wanted their religious acts to be legible. Tears, on the other hand, have a pivotal role in the creation of the Shiite self. According to my interlocutors, tears carry within them a tremendous social and moral potential. Some Shia see Ashura as a symbol of all the injury in the world. Belgian-Moroccan Shiites find it important to understand the lives of the twelve Imams in order to understand injury. Those who do not know what injury is will never know the ahl al-bayt, the Prophet’s family, and consequently, will never recognise injustice in the world. All the Imams are commemorated in order that their lives become known, and to revisit the injustices that they were confronted with is to see, recognise and combat injustice in daily life.

Remembering the martyrs, and embodying sadness, should preconfigure a social and moral experience. Sadness should induce new modes of being in the world, and embodying sadness renders injustice palpable, and forms the impetus to a new conscious self, as Ali, a 47-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite chemical engineer from Brussels, explains:

By feeling sadness, by commemorating Ashura or other deaths of the Imams one goes out (Fr. sort) and tries to establish a new community. A community that commends the good (Fr. le bien) and forbids the reprehensible (Fr. blâmable). This community should not be eager for power but eager for justice. This community should not be part of the oppressors but should rather envisage the receding of aggravation so justice can triumph.

Fatima, a 39-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite nurse from Brussles, also relates the tragedy of Ashura to both injustice and the abuse of power:

When Imam Husayn went out during the days of Ashura, he went out to retrieve values that were lost after the death of the Prophet. Although the message of the Prophet pertained to the poor, to the oppressed, it was made to inspire the ruling power. When Husayn asked if there was a devotee to support him, he didn’t ask who would come and save him. He asked who would support his cause, his cause of justice. He knew that he had to give himself in order to become a person that creates.

Adel, quoted above, also explains that Ashura is about fighting inhumanity and injustice:

Imam Husayn wanted to resist a system that put humanity in danger. He was the carrier of a cause, the defender of a message of justice. He opposed an unjust reality and wanted to replace that with a divine message, a message of justice. He wanted to propel humanity to achieve its perfection. So the question is not who was Imam Husayn but rather, what did he essentially defend? A person needs to be just. He had to rise up to get people out of a thinking that corresponded with the reigning system, which was unjust.

During a conference in January 2009 at the Al Reda Centre, the notion of sadness was the central theme. The conference, entitled: “Tradition of Sadness: Ashoura–Gaza” (in French: Tradition du deuil, Achoura–Gaza) established a very clear connection between the importance of sadness and Ashura on the one hand, and Gaza on the other. The commemoration of Ashura, which consists of intense disciplining of the body to feel sadness over a period of ten days, is not an emotional mechanism to revisit the past, but rather a means to improve the present. Through cultivating a feeling of sadness, one will recognise injustice and oppose it. A very clear site where injustice is committed every day is Gaza. Since 2008, I have observed the Ashura commemoration ending with a march (on the 10th day of Ashura), recalling what is happening in Gaza.

Sayyid Zakariya, a 53-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite imam from Brussels, connects the battle of Ashura not only with the injustice meted out by the state of Israel against Palestinians, or other unjust wars, but also with the necessity of purifying oneself.

Someone who says that Ashura is about history has understood nothing of the message. The Husayni revolution is an actual revolution that does not know a time or a place. It is an actual reality. Every day, we live Ashura, every day we live Karbala. Not only in the exterior daily life of the human being, but also in the interior of the human being.

Oppression and being oppressed are symbolised in the protagonists of the tragedy of Karbala, Husayn and Yazid. The same imam explains:

When you oppress, you call upon Yazid, when you are oppressed, you call upon Husayn. So pay attention. Every time you commit injustice, you convoke the enemies of the ahl al-bayt. You identify yourself with the enemies! You have realities that are positive energies and you have realities that are negative energies. When you do something that is bad, you call upon those energies. You call upon souls; good or bad souls. So the message here is: every time you do something good, you identify yourself with the Husayni cause and every time, you do something bad, you identify yourself with Yazid’s cause.

In order to be able to associate yourself with Husayn‘s message, one has to strive to improve oneself and become a just human. He goes on to say:

Be human (Fr. soyez humain) is the divine message and therefore we have to purify ourselves from within because Allah has created us with reason, reason to distinguish between the good and the bad. If we advance in the self and everything that surrounds us, we revalidate the reality of existence. We have to become noble, just like Husayn, and we cannot be selfish and only think about ourselves.

Ashura is not exclusively about salvation and redemption, nor can it be reduced to the past. Rather, it carries within it potentiality for the future. A just future is the core of the “philosophy of sadness” in Shia tradition, and this call for justice is clearly expressed in the association with the Palestinian cause. The love for the ahl al-bayt is about translating values into day-to-day life.

Most of my Moroccan Belgian interlocutors believe it is only through weeping that one can sincerely remember, know and honour the martyrs. Tears, they maintain, have a generative power. Meaningful action is thus related to being conscious, and consciousness can only be experienced if one remembers the martyrs. Equally, the martyrs can only be known if one cries, because that means that one understands what they represented, and what they fought for. Ali (cited above) explains: “Tears have meaning. The meaning of tears entails not only a spiritual dimension but also a social one. The tear is almost a tenet of the believer.” With slightly different emphases, Deeb states that “tears shed for ahl al bayt are mustahabb, or religiously commendable. Both evoking these tears, and shedding them, are acts believed to impart ajr (divine reward).”37

Ali, however, stresses that tears are almost a tenet of Islam,38 and Zaynab, the student quoted above, also understands tears as:

Hope for the future and not a withdrawal and relapse into the past. Tears help you to attain khoulouk al-adeem and rahmat lil-alameen. Your aim is to become a good person who is never flustered and who never insults anyone, who has empathy and compassion, who is never unjust and who knows how to control himself.

Khalid, quoted above, explains his understanding of tears as follows way:

Crying for the Imams means that you know them and that you develop consciousness to recognise poverty, injustice, misery. So suffering is not only about suffering of the ahl al-bayt but also the suffering that occurs in the world today.

Thus, if one feels the pain of oppression, just conduct is a natural consequence. Adel, the teacher, explains:

If you know the Imams with your heart, you will have a spiritual life that is not based on a power approach and you will be more aware of justice and you will try not to let injustice have the upper hand. You have to be just in order to belong to the ahl al-bayt.

Zaynab also confirms that the embodiment of sadness leads to better and greater behaviour: “By knowing sadness, feeling the pain of others, you learn to control yourself, to become less irascible and become more Zen. You try to be on the righteous road.”

Hajja Saida, a 60-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Shiite housewife from Brussels, recalls verse 46 in chapter 22 of the Qur’an that indicates the importance of the heart in recognising truth, and dismisses the eyes as the sole foundation of moral knowledge: “Not the eyes recognize injustice but the heart. Your eyes might observe certain things but if your heart is closed, you will not change anything. So tears help open the eyes of your heart.” Traditionally, the eyes have been linked to reason, while the ears, and hence listening, have been attributed to passive capacities and related more strongly to emotionality. In Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality, Veil Erlmann explores how hearing was perceived as a second sense, and understood to be less rational and less modern than the first sense, sight.39

Ali, the chemical engineer, as well as others emphasises that tears soften the heart:

It is through crying that heart feels rahma [compassion]. So you need your heart to behave righteously. When you cry throughout those days we think of the images of the past and we experience them. Imam Husayn fought against injustice and that is what we have to integrate in our mode of life (Fr. notre mode de vie). Crying during Ashura is a physical, spiritual and moral renaissance.

During the funeral prayers and the procession it was clear that the Shia disposition to feel sadness and to cry has high moral potential. The congregation mourned for Imam Dahdouh, cried collectively in silence, and reflected upon the injuries inflicted upon Ali, Husayn, the other members of the Prophet’s family, and the twelve Imams, together with the injustice perpertrated on Sheikh Dahdouh and all the other martyrs in Palestine and throughout the world.


Shia morality, embodied in and manifested through sadness, is performed and nurtured during religious rituals such as Ashura and other commemoration rites. It also comes to the fore however, when dealing with contemporary threats and forms of injustice. When on 12 March 2012, a Salafi arsonist set the Shia Al Reda Centre in Brussels on fire, killing Belgian-Moroccan Shia Imam Abdullah Dahdouh, and justified it as retaliation for the oppression of Syrian Sunnis by Bashar Assad, Moroccan Belgian Shiites demonstrated a clear poetics of emotion. I have argued that emotions are fundamental to the socialisation process of Moroccan Belgians entering the Shia faith and wanting to become true Shiites. Once they embrace Shiism, most Moroccan Belgians dedicate themselves to cultivating Shia emotional dispositions such as sadness. Born and raised in a Sunni and/or Belgian secular tradition, many Belgian-Moroccan Shiites realise that crying is a Shia disposition that is initially hard to attain, but is fundamental if one wishes to be a “true” Shiite who embodies Shia morality based on God’s justice (ʿadl). Through sadness, Moroccan Belgian Shiites seek to become aware of the injuries inflicted upon the family of the Prophet, so as to become conscious of all the injury in the world and oppose it. When they resist injustice, they distance themselves from Yazid, who symbolises evil in the world. When they feel the pain of the Imams, they become sensitive to universal pain, and try to remove it from their daily lives. During the most painful moment in the short life of the Shia community in Belgium, Shia Muslims showed how they embodied the sadness that symbolises the Shia morality of divine justice.

The Shia focus on injury, and the commemoration rituals that cultivate sadness and the pain essential for healing, have tremendous moral and social potential, that not only lead to purification of the soul, and personal, human and spiritual growth, but also provide inspiration for a just and respectful mode of co-existence in the very diverse metropolitan city of Brussels.


The Al Reda centre is also called a Husayniya, a place where Husayn and other Shia Imams are commemorated and where one can pray. It differs from a mosque because women may attend during their menstrual period.


Although my fieldwork expanded from the period between 2007 and 2010 and I defended my PhD in April 2010, I returned to the mosque to pay my condolences and to speak to people about the tragic event. I also attended the funeral prayer and the white march that took place on 18 March 2012. In 2015, I returned again to the field to investigate developments in the Moroccan Shia community.


van den Bos, Matthijs, “European Shi’ism? Counterpoints from Shi’ites’ organization in Britain and the Netherlands”. Ethnicities, 12, no. 5, (2012), pp. 556-80, p. 556.


For a discussion on martyrdom (shahada) in Shia Islam, see Bromberger, Christian. 1979. “Martyre, deuil et remords: Horizons mythiques et rituels des religions méditerranéennes (A propos des ‘passions’ du Christ et l’Imâm Hoseyn: Essai d’analyse comparée)”, in La mort en Corse et dans les sociétés méditerranéennes: Études Corses, 12-13 (1979), pp. 129-153; Khosrokhavar, Farhad, “Chiisme mortifère: Les nouveaux combattants de la foi”, L’Homme et la société, 107-108 (1993), pp. 93-108; Nasr, Vali, The Shi’a Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W.W Norto, 2006).


I borrowed this term from Thurfjell, who defines “poetics of emotion” as the “implicit rules of emotional conduct which are found in the given community”; see Thurfjell, David, Living Shi’ism: Instances of Ritualisation among Islamist Men in Contemporary Iran (Leiden: Brill, 2006), p. 101.


Thurfjell, Living Shi’ism.


Deeb, Lara, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‟i Lebanon (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press, 2006).


For an elaborated discussion on ʿadl, see Sachedina, Abdulaziz A., The Just Ruler (al-sultan al-adil) in Shi’ite Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).


For more information on Shia visibility and Shia revival, see Louër, Laurence, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Columbia University Press, 2008); Maréchal, Brigitte, & Zemni, Sami, The Dynamics of Sunni-Shia Relationships: Doctrine, Transnationalism, Intellectuals and the Media (London: Hurst, 2013); Nakash, Yitzhak, Reaching for Power: The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press, 2011); Nasr, The Shiʾa Revival.


Dassetto, Felice, L’iris et le croissant: Bruxelles et l’islam au défi de la co-inclusion (Louvain: ucl Presses, 2011); Fadil, Nadia et al., “Belgium”, in Oxford Handbook of European Islam, Jocelyne Cesari (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 222-61.


Dassetto, L’iris et le croissant, 70.


My doctoral dissertation studies “conversion” to and within Islam. As the notion of conversion entails certain suppositions, and since Moroccan Belgians who have adopted Shiism do not see themselves as “converts”, I also refrain from using that term. See, Lechkar, Iman, “Striving and stumbling in the name of Allah: Neo-Sunnis and neo-Shi’ites in a Belgian context” (ku Leuven, unpublished dissertation, 2012).


Although the number of Iraqi and Afghan Shia migrants has increased in Belgium, my data shows no particular correlation between these new Shia communities and Moroccan Belgians embracing Shiism. For a detailed account of why Moroccan Belgians embrace Shiism, see Lechkar, Iman, “The power of encounters and events: Why Moroccan Belgian Sunnis become Shia”, in Fifty Years of Moroccan Migration in Belgium, N. Fadil, C. Timmerman, & I. Goddeeris (eds) (Leuven: Leuven University Press, forthcoming 2017).


Mabon, Simon, “After years of proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Iran are finally squaring up in the open”, The Independent, 16 January 2016. (accessed 11.09.2017).


Ghanmi, Lamine, “Morocco cuts ties with Iran over Bahrain”, Reuters, 6 March 2009. (accessed: 13 June 2016).


Bouasria, Abdelilah, “The second coming of Morocco’s Commander of the Faithful: Mohamed VI and Morocco’s religious policy”, in Contemporary Morocco: State, Politics and Society under Mohammmed vi, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman & Daniel Zisenwine (eds) (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 37-56.


For an elaborated account of how Shia Moroccan Belgians authenticate their Shia identity and bring it into line with their Moroccan heritage, see Lechkar, Iman, “Quelles modalités d’authentification parmis les chiites belgo-marocains?”, in Islam belge au pluriel, Brigitte Maréchal and Farid El Asri (eds) (Louvain-la-Neuve: Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2012), pp. 113-26.


Akyeampong, Emmanuel, & Gates, Henry, L., Dictionary of African Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).


Puelings, Jelle, “Fearing a ‘Shi’ite octopus’. Sunni–Shi`a relations and the implications for Belgium and Europe”, Egmont papers, 26 January 2010. (accessed: 27.09.2015).


Lechkar, “Quelles modalités d’authentification?”, 120.


Puelings, “Fearing a ‘Shi’ite octopus’”, 37.


Lechkar, “Striving and stumbling”.


These are the real names of the institutes I worked with.


Interviews were mainly conducted in French, sometimes in combination with Arabic or Dutch. Only the minority of Dutch speaking Moroccan Shiites were addressed in Dutch. Quotations from interlocutors used in this article are my own translations. I use pseudonyms for all the people I worked with and interviewed.


Deeb, Enchanted Modern.


Fisher, Philip, The Vehement Passions (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press, 2002).


Fisher, Vehement Passions, 171.


Deeb, Enchanted Modern, 131.


Latam is a ritualised striking on one‘s body to feel and demonstrate grief.


Deeb, Enchanted Modern, 140.


Ibid., 143.




Ibid., 146.


Ibid.; my emphasis.




Ibid., 135.


Ibid., 149.


The tenets of Shia Islam are: Belief in the Oneness and Unity of God, belief in Divine Justice, belief in Prophethood, belief in the Imams, belief in the Day of Resurrection. See Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Dabashi, Hamid Dabashi, & Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza (eds), Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality (Albany: State University of of New York Press, 1988). By using the word “tenet”, Ali indicates the importance of this disposition.


Erlmann, Veil, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

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