12 September 2019
As part of a long tradition, the Passion Play is staged for a few weeks every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany. This photograph is from the mid-19th century.
(photo: Josef Albert via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.)
Sometimes, people can be surprised at the similarities between Christianity and Islam — bonds that often aren’t easily apparent. We encounter this in the world CNEWA serves, where very often the two religions dwell peacefully together, with believers sharing cultures and, sometimes, traditions.
This month brought another example of this striking commonality.
This year on 10 September, Shi’ite Muslims all over the world observed Ashura, marked on the 10th day of the Islamic Month of Muharram. Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar and is one of the four sacred months (Qur’an 9:36) during which war and violence are forbidden.
Muharram also has special meaning for Shi’ite Muslims. It was on the 10th of Muharram almost 1,500 years ago that the army of the Umayyad Calif, Yazid, slaughtered Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet. He also killed 70 of his followers, including infants.
It was the death of Ali’s youngest son, Hussein, that was the foundational experience for the Shi’ite sect in Islam.
The Muslim calendar is lunar and is 354/355 days long. Unlike Christians and Jews, who also follow a lunar calendar, Muslims do not correct the lunar calendar over against the solar calendar with 365/6 days. As a result, Muslim holy days move “backwards” during the solar year. Every year on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, Shi’ite Muslims observe the death of Hussein. In most countries the observance takes the form of the ta ? ziya, or passion play. In Shi’ite countries the faithful — with great zeal and at time shocking fervor — re-enact the death of Hussein on the field of Karbela. The re-enactment is accompanied by processions in which believers flagellate themselves or strike the foreheads with stones to the point of drawing blood. Ecstatic manifestations are fairly common during these observances.
Passion plays, of course, are not unique to Shi’ite Islam. In the pre-Reformation Middle Ages, Christians in Europe often re-enacted the Passion and Death of Jesus during Holy Week. Although deeply religious, passion plays also had secular and social overtones with different guilds presenting the passion play in different ways. Wikipedia lists over 15 countries which had or still have some form of passion play.
During the Reformation, with its sober and at times puritanical values, the exuberance and ecstatic nature of passion plays began to be looked down upon. While once extremely prevalent, passion plays in Protestant countries in Europe disappeared after the Reformation.
Of course, for Roman Catholics the legendary Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, is the most famous. In 1633 the Bavarian town of Oberammergau was in the midst of the plague. The town vowed that, if the plague abated, they would re-enact the Passion of Christ every 10 years. Their prayers were answered and for almost 250 years the town has staged the play. Over the years the spectacle has been updated to be in harmony with the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Jews since the document Nostra Aetate (1965) of Vatican II.
In the year when the play is performed—the next is in 2020—thousands of pilgrims and tourists come from all over the world to attend.
In other places like the Philippines and South and Latin America passion plays—often with shocking detail and realism—are part of the observance of Holy Week. While nonexistent in many parts of the world, passion plays, be they Muslim or Christian, are an attempt by believers to reconnect in a very concrete way with the redemptive sufferings and death of Imam Hussein bin Ali or Jesus Christ.
Similar phenomena can also be found in many of the other religious traditions of the world —serving to remind us that the human experience of faith and belief often finds expression in ways that are startling, dramatic and — despite our differences — profoundly universal.