Qatar is not known as a country with a history of engagement with Shi’ism. The religious life of the country is dominated by a conservative waqf that, although not strictly salafi in orientation certainly skirts the boundaries of it. The most well known religious figure in the country is Yussuf al Qaradawi the famed Egyptian Sunni cleric and quasi-spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. So great is his influence in the Arab world that Qatar has undoubtedly achieved a degree of flexibility in dealing with Muslim Brotherhood movements not yet achieved by other Gulf countries.
To write about Ashura (the Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s Grandson Imam Hussein) in Qatar would seem to most observers somewhat odd; indeed many are probably not even aware of the presence of a local Shia community in Qatar. It is an understandable ignorance. Shia in Qatar are virtually indistinguishable from their Sunni co-citizens; they dress the same, speak the same (unlike in Bahrain or Saudi where there are sometimes noticeable differences in dress and accent) and on the whole buy into the same lifestyle and culture that has characterised Qatari appearance and social life in the past decade.
Unlike other countries in the region where Shia vocally and demonstrably exhibit their grief during Ashura, Qatari Shia are much quieter, and there are no street processions or visual displays, though the authorities have no problem with commemorations spilling out onto local streets. In many ways the mode in which they express their faith is very Qatari; quiet but sincere. But Ashura is where this small community, comprising no more than about 8-10% of the population, asserts its identity in a way which shows its own unique blend of Shia Muslim faith and Qatari identity.
In a matam (gathering hall) in the quiet neighbourhood of Al Hilal away from Doha’s bright lights around 1500 Shia gathered to celebrate the festival. Most were Qatari but there were some Iranians, Bahrainis and Pakistanis. It was particularly crowded because two other matams were not open this year due to lack of finding a suitable Imam to guide the ceremony. Many Qataris still wore their characteristic shiny white thobe though a considerable number chose to wear black thobes as an outward sign of mourning for Imam Hussein.
‘This is Ashura lite’ said one friend of mine, implying that what was about to happen really didn’t match up to Karbala, Mashhad, or Beirut. Certainly more extreme expressions of grief are not welcome here. You will see no whips, chains or swords, and bloodletting is not tolerated. Shia from Qatar support the teachings of either Ayatollah Sistani or Ayatollah Fadlallah, both of whom expressed their opposition to the more gruesome rituals that occasionally accompany Ashura rituals. Furthermore, whipping and cutting is just not very Qatari. The thought of ruining your two thousand riyal thobe and fifteen thousand riyal diamond cufflinks by covering them in blood does not make an awful lot of sense in the materialistically infused world of Doha.
The lecture and recounting of the death of Imam Hussein is not particularly different or unique in Qatar, but it is certainly a moving experience, reducing grown men to tears and creating an atmosphere of mourning and grief. Even those who only attend the matam for this one night of the year were visibly moved. The Imam acted as a conductor of an orchestra might, heightening his voice and wailing mid-sentence then returning it to calm before inducing another climatic sense of collective grief, his hand rising and with it the cries and yells of the attendees.
More interesting is the section following the sermon, the Latmiyya (elegy) to Imam Hussein in which the men rhythmically beat themselves on the chest for hours while a radud (reciter) sings the mournful poetry through loudspeakers. Here it is fascinating to watch different cultures within Shiism perform their own style of latam, a circle of Iranians and a separate circle of non-khaleeji Arabs formed close to the radud, their latam particularly violent and forceful, while the Qataris with the exception of two or three maintained a much more reserved stance preferring not to jump and beat their chests in quite so animated a fashion. Similarly the reaction of different communities to different latmiyya was also noticeable; Qataris tended to prefer slower more rhythmic Arabic poems, in contrast to Iranians who preferred much faster energetic chants with Persian lyrics.
That all cultures were present under one roof is a testament to the laissez-faire attitude of the Qatari authorities and the diversity of Shia Islam. This was a unique brand of Shia expression unlikely to be found anywhere else in the Arab world; an infusion of modern Qatar and tradition, quietly expressed away from the main hustle and bustle of Doha. The no frills approach of Qataris towards Ashura may not offer a spectacular show as in Iraq and Lebanon, but equally it comes with none of the sectarian baggage and infusion of politics of those parts of the Arab world.
For a country whose main mosque is dedicated to the founder of Wahhabism, Qatar seems to have managed the bargain with its Shia community relatively well, tolerance and a strong sense of inclusion made this Ashura a cultural expression by Qataris who happen to be Shia, and not Shia who happen to be Qataris.