Islamic Sufi Flagellant’s Spiked Whip
Northern India or Iran/Persia
This extraordinary implement comprises a finely-forged, long metal spike attached to a head that comprises a wooden sphere with attached patinated brass mounts. Brass chains are attached to the head and these terminate in flat, sharp-edged brass pendants. (Seven chains are present, one is shortened and missing its attached pendant, and two are missing altogether).
Devices such as these were used in Sufi dervish rites whereby adherents flagellated themselves and attempted to drive the spikes into their bodies without any apparent harm, thereby demonstrating their invulnerability to wounds and pain as a consequence of their ascetic practices.
Sometimes, dervish Sufis gave public demonstrations usually in exchange for donations for Islamic good causes, such as mosque construction. Adherents appeared in public places using such whips not only in Persia but northern India. In Indonesia,
dabus was the term used to refer to a dervish, and dabus groups wandered from place to place performing acts of faith. The Kraton (Palace) Kaspuhan Museum in Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia has in its collection a variety of dabus implements, some of which are illustrated in Bennett (2005, p. 132).
Items such as this example might also have been used by more mainstream Shiite adherents. The Shiites today are followers of Ali whose son Hussein fought and was killed at a battle at Kerbala in 61 AH or 680 AD. In honour of Hussein’s memory annual processions are staged in Iran/Persia in which frenzied followers beat and whip themselves with chains and branches. Elsewhere, more sedate processions are held, including in London, where followers dress in black as a sign of mourning and walk whilst repeatedly patting their chests over the hearts.
The example here has small losses to the chains as mentioned, a deep patina and obvious age. It is possibly more 18th century than 19th century.
An old collection label is attached which dates to around 1920 or earlier. It reads:
‘rare and curious old Arab implement of self torture, consisting of a heavy iron ball with chains attached and a long spike on top, used by dervish fanatic dancers.’
Bennett, J., et al., Crescent Moon: Islamic Art & Civilisation in Southeast Asia, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005.
UK art market
Inventory no.: 4758
Images from the October 1, 2017 procession in London’s Regent Street of followers of Hussein and Ali. (Photographed from the vantage point our gallery.)