In Iraq, religious rap meets a chorus of controversy
As the black-clad rapper spat lyrics into the microphone on stage, the Iraqi boys below beat their chests in mourning. He was, after all, paying homage to slain Shia figurehead Hussein.
The ear-splitting drums reverberated around the hall as Iraqi teenagers shouted back rhymes venerating the Prophet Mohammad's grandson and other honoured figures in Islam.
In parts of conservative Iraq, a religious movement within the Shia sect has adapted the traditional "latmiyat" – chanted verses mourning Muslim icons – to Western-style rap in an effort to keep youth interested in religion. It appears to be working.
In Midhatiya, a town roughly 100 kilometres south of Baghdad, teens in matching red shirts stood shoulder to shoulder in their local place of worship as if preparing for prayer. But when the speakers crackled to life, they blared a staccato drum beat and the voice of a young performer in a black robe, rhyming with a speed befitting New York's fiercest underground rap battles.
Even the elderly religious figures along the back wall swayed to the rhythm, including Sheikh Salem al-Janahi. He hails from the Mahmoud al-Sarkhi movement, which has championed "Husseini" rap and is therefore regularly accused of distorting conservative traditions.
Arbaeen, the world′s largest pilgrimage
Every year, large numbers of Iranian Shias travel to Najaf and Karbala in Iraq to take part in Arbaeen, the ceremony which marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Shia imam and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Changiz M. Varzi charted their journey
For Shia Muslims, Hussein is a symbol of rebellion against oppression. They believe he gave his life to keep true Islam alive
Iranian pilgrims on the outskirts of Mehran head towards the border with Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the number of Iranians making the pilgrimage to the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala to participate in Arbaeen has been steadily increasing
Every year a number of Iranian Shias are caught trying to cross the Iraqi border illegally to participate in Arbaeen. Two young pilgrims prevented from crossing the border at Mehran, owing to a lack of passports, decided to remain there for the duration of the pilgrimage and polish the shoes of other pilgrims free of charge
At Al-Kut, 160 kilometres south-east of Baghdad, Iraqis prepare free food for the Iranian pilgrims heading to Najaf, the Shia world′s spiritual capital and home to the shrine of Imam Ali
Shia pilgrims from around the world overnight in a roofed outdoor area separating the bazaar in Najaf from the shrine of Imam Ali
A group of Iranians walk the 80 kilometres between Najaf and Karbala to mourn at the shrine of Hussein Ibn Ali on the last day of Arbaeen. In 680 AD, Hussein Ibn Ali was killed in a battle against the caliph of the day. Shia Muslims believe that Hussein was the person who should have been chosen as caliph
On the road between Najaf and Karbala, Iraqi Shia set up thousands of special shelters, called moukeb, to feed pilgrims and provide them with a place to rest and stay over night
Practically every 500 metres, there is an Iraqi family serving Middle Eastern dishes, sweet tea, Arabic coffee and Iraqi dates to pilgrims
As well as food and drink, thousands of banners with religious message are erected along the pilgrims′ route to Karbala. This banner tells the story of Muslim Ibn Aqil, whose sons were killed during the battle of Karbala
Iranian and Iraqi officials also erect banners with political messages. The Arabic sentence on the banner reads ″the Yemeni Karbala″
An estimated 17 million pilgrims from across the world flock to the city of Karbala. During the last days of ceremony, which this year fell in the second week of November, all the streets in Karbala were closed to vehicles
As the black-clad Shia pilgrims enter the city, they face the shrine of Hussein Ibn Ali and recite the specific Arbaeen dua (supplication)
Arbaeen is known as the biggest annual gathering of Shia Muslims worldwide. Since 2014, this commemoration of Ibn Ali′s martyrdom has become a strong symbol of the fight against the extremists of Islamic State
Straining to make himself heard over the loud music, Janahi told journalists that his more traditional counterparts "had gotten involved in corruption and politics, so young people began running away from religion."
Religion and politics are deeply intertwined in Iraq, where government posts have been allocated according to sect since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The country's 40 million people are mostly Shias, with a burgeoning youth population navigating an increasingly modern, Westernised society.
That, said "Husseini" rapper Karrar al-Bederi, is exactly why this hybrid style of worship is necessary. "Young people abandoned religion and morality because of backwards, classical clerics," Bederi said.
In comments to journalists peppered with Koranic verses, he said that the refusal to meet young Muslims halfway had turned the youth towards "crime, drug use, ignorance and atheism." To fight this, he and fellow Muslims appropriated rap – usually associated with the "invader" United States – to create a religiously-focused form of worship.
"It has become one of the important ways we reach out to youth, to spread a message of peace, moderation, but morals as well," said Bederi. It has also brought social media stardom to some performers, whose modernised "latmiyats" have earned them tens of thousands of online views.
One video published on Facebook showed a rapper in jeans and a cap, standing in a grassy field featuring a tall date palm – Iraq's national tree.
"My Lord is unrivalled, he taught me to act with respect. I want to talk about the cause of our imam," he sang.
In other footage, men in green appeared to enter a trance, slamming their chests faster and faster to an electronic tune. But even as they electrify crowds, the raps spark anger among clerics, shocked to see traditional psalms so distorted in Iraq's rural south.
Shia Imam Latif al-Amidi, for one, is not a fan.
"Religious deviant movements that have emerged recently have taken advantage of weak religious knowledge among young people to introduce to Islam things that have nothing to do with religion," Amidi told journalists. "These movements brought singers, dancing and DJs into Islam, using the excuse that they want to attract youth."
Aside from "anasheeds", which are hymns performed without instruments, the permissibility of music in Islamic worship is disputed. Hardline clerics say Islam forbids all music, even in daily life outside the mosque.
But other Muslim movements use drums and dance in their worship, including Iraq's Sufis. The "latmiyat" themselves predate Islam, going back around 4,000 years to Iraq's Babylonian history, but have their own icons in modern-day Iraq, including Bassem al-Karbalai.
Iraq's Shia authorities have yet to issue a religious ruling (fatwa) on whether the rapped "latmiyat" is acceptable according to Shia dogma. The format has never been performed or used as a style of worship in the country's two main Shia holy cities, Najaf and Karbala.
That has not deterred Bederi however, who told journalists: "We have to address young people with the tools they know." (AFP)