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July 30, 2004

Bloody matam & display

Materialism. It is a sin great in our age, so tell us the priests the progressives. But, it is a truism that one usually would prefer to be the richest individual on a block, even if the other option was being considerably wealthier in absolute terms but low on the pecking order in relative terms. If materials were just about utility this wouldn't make much sense, but they are about status. Materialism is the proximate, and status is an the ultimate, though status is ultimately the proximate to the ultimate of sex. I thought about this as I read the following from Mullahs on the Mainframe:


...in this particular masjid, about a dozen men engage in "bloody" matam, a custom frowned upon by the dawat but practiced surreptitiously nonetheless....

The matam reaches its climax in the courtyard, in a rare display of devotion with ritual implements...Once his skin has been crisscrossed by a series of red gashes, each man passes the scourge to the next flagellant.

The entire operation seems to have been carefully planned and executed....The courtyard's marble floor is soon running with spilled blood, red puddles running turning pink when diluted with water from the wuzu enclosure. The rest of the worshipers have to walk barefoot through this area in order to reach the shoe rack and exit...Although this practice is officially shunned, there is not doubt that the men who engage in it earn great community prestige: each man whose pure white kurta has been reddened is treated as a hero, and the packed crownd reverently make way for him to pass.


This text must be set in the context of the following two facts:

  1. The religious leaders of the Bohras have forbidden the practice.
  2. As I read mullahs on the mainframe I could understand why Aziz could think that the Catholic-Protestant analogy could illustrate how the Shia differ from the Sunni: I did not know the extent to which the Bohra regulate their lives by the dictates of their clerical class. I do think for those who are in the know that the Bohra resemble Mormons more than anything else in the tightness of their community and the top-down religious organization.

The men above are violating the injunctions from on high in a community that does not normally tolerate this behavior, but they are admired and respected (according to the author). Is this an instance of irrational insanity?

I don't think so. Flagellation, self-mutiliation and mortification are recurrent motifs in human religious movements, whether that be Hindu ascetism, medieval Catholic Christianity or modern Shia Islam. One could assert that it is a recurrent psychopathology, but the description above, the respect that peculiar ascetes are accorded in Hindu culture or the power that European flagellators exercised suggests to me that we might have to redefine "irrational" or "pathological" if these behaviors fall under those umbrellas.

Like materialism, behavior like flagellation is nothing more than a status cue, those who survive great hardships with effortless aplomb are accorded respect. One could assert that this is an example of The Handicap Principle at work. It is a form of honest signalling. In the case of the Bohras, not only must an individual who goes through bloody matam have a modicum of physical fitness, he must possess psychological fortitude and perhaps the social capital to ignore the directives of the religious authorities.

It also illustrates the various tensions in complex cultural constructs. The Ismaili Bohras are impacted by the "meme" of the shahada, the profession of Muslim belief which sets them apart from non-Muslims. They are also shaped by historical forces that differentiate them from Sunnis as Shia Muslims. Additionally, the vicissitudes of holding together a top-down religious organization has resulted in periodic schisms, first from other Shia, and later from other Ismailis. In terms of their practice and doctrine, the 20th century has been characterized by a "reform" and drive toward outward conformity imposed from above upon the Bohras by their religious leadership.

But underneath all this the basic psychological forces remain resilient. The need for leveraging a religious organization into something that serves one's own self-interest is just one of those irresistable forces. The need for status overwhelmed the strictures against engaging in a forbidden practice. And those who know of the practice, despite their general adherence to the wishes and dictates of their religious superiors, could but not help feel a natural admiration. Just like political systems, or individual lives, religions are constrained by the realities of our psychology, often shaped by our past evolutionary history.

The Golden Calf was not a symbol of material greed, it was a reflection of the human urge to become as the gods, surrounded by supplicants and basking in the glory of the bracing wind on top of the mountain.

Related note: I will give a full review of Mullahs on the Mainframe in conjunction with reflections on The Sword of the Prophet: History, Theology, Impact on the World, by Srdja Trifkovic, who has penned a deliciously Islamophobic text (though the book would be better titled Rending of the Orthodox).

Update: Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status is a good introduction to an evolutionary psychological view of economic competition. Here is an excerpt from an abstract of a paper presented at The Paradoxes of Happiness in Economics conference:


The idea that people might prefer inequality is somewhat surprising...Our result concerns those who are left behind when others' incomes are raised. These people now see fewer people with similar or lower incomes. Furthermore, they observe the raised expenditure of those who have benefited from the change in income distribution. There is increased social pressure to keep up. This investigation also appears to be timely in that the relationship between happiness and inequality has been subject to much recent empirical work. Ineed, we were surprised to become aware after writing an initial draft of the current work that there was some empirical support for our finding that inequality and happiness could be positively linked. Alesina et al. (2001) find that there is greater satisifaction and happpiness with inequality amongst the poor than the rich in the US. Clark (2000) and Ball and Chernova (2002) both find a positive relationship between inequality and self-reported happiness. Equally, however, Alesinia et al. find that in Europe inequality and happiness and negatively related, a result echoed in work on German data by Schwarze and Harpfer (2002). The difference in results perhaps reflects different social norms and dynamics issues such as social mobility, not captured by our static model. However, one result that is consistent across these studies is that relative income matters for happiness.

The point I made above about relative status has obvious constraints, who would want to be the least destitute among the destitute? Additionally, the point above has some implications for Rawlsian liberalism and the choices that a "rational" observer might make when given a choice between various social arrangements. Libertarians have always asserted that there is no evidence that anyone should choose the "low risk" (egalitarian) social model over the "high risk" (nonegalitarian) model, and now there is some empirical support for that supposition. The attitudes expressed above also explain why role-playing video games without hierarchy are always busts (and complex role playing games become enmeshed in real world financial transactions as status is bought on ebay). It might also shed light on why people below the median income level reject the logic of free trade, though they would benefit in absolute terms (cheaper goods & services), those above the median would benefit far more, unless off course they are a subset of the working class that would lose out less than other subsets, raising their relative status.

Posted by razib at 12:37 AM