Contributed by Craig Duncan on 05/07/2013
In mid-April, Nancy Menning presented a paper at the Midwest regional meetings of the American Academy of Religion. "Memorializing complicity: Shi'ite Ashura rites and environmental mourning" explores the Shi'ite Muslim practice of mourning a tragic death in early Islamic history as a possible model for environmental mourning.
As practiced by the Shi'ite community, Ashura is an annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, at Karbala in 680 ce. The ritual practice is initially compelling as a model for environmental mourning (so much of it anthropogenic in origin) as it memorializes complicity; supporters of Husayn who failed to show up for the battle quickly repented of their inaction. Ashura practices acknowledge that complicity and seek to transform it. Entering into ritual time, participants enact their presence — as opposed to their absence — at the site of the battle, strengthening their commitment to choose to act differently in the future when comparable situations arise. As such, the ritual mirrors the intent of recent efforts to construct effective rituals for environmental mourning. For example, one purpose of the Altars of Extinction project — a series of art installations creating ritual spaces to mourn past species extinctions — was to motivate activism to prevent future extinctions. Nancy Menning's presentation in April was part of a larger book chapter project imagining the possibilities for environmental mourning suggested by five distinct religious mourning practices in indigenous, eastern, and western religious traditions.