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Muharram & Martyrdom of Imam Husayn

October 2009-09-09

Stories are told on how in the beginning Muhammad, Adam, and all the prophets (124,000 altogether) and imams were created from a ray of divine light. These divine sparks were breathed into human form when needed and resulted in miraculous birth. There are influences from the Christian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the ancient Iranian goddess Anahita’s story of bathing in a mythical river and becoming pregnant. Believers are told how Fatima went bathing one day and when she emerged from the water she was pregnant with Husayn. Fatima’s pregnancy lasted only for six months. In the end, her womb glowed with shining light. Just before the birth the angles came to her. When Husayn was born Muhammad took him in his arms and placed his tongue in the baby’s mouth, whereupon Husayn began to suck. Other stories talk about how Husayn’s martyrdom was revealed to Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, Solomon and Jesus long before he was even born. The stories are expanded to include history, fiction, cosmology and life’s problems all at the same time.

Most Muslims who are Sunni reject Shi’ites version of what happened after the Prophet’s death and dispute Ali’s claims and his family’s right to caliphate as believed by the Shi’ites. For this reason, the Sunni Iranians, totaling around seven million—do not practice Muharram as do the Shi’ite majority.

The evolution of Shi ‘ism into a definite set of ideas and doctrines gradually took place from the eight century onwards. The sixth imam, Jaffar al-Sadiq (765AD), is the first widely recognized leader of Shi ‘ism in Iran and the source of many authoritative traditions.

In the ninth century a Shi’ite sect called Zaydi became dominant and their principalities in the northern provinces strengthened Shi’ism. By the tenth and the eleventh centuries the pro-Shi’ite Buyid dynasty ruled most of Iran and the Fertile Crescent.

They promoted the doctrine of “Twelver Shi’i”, currently the official religion of the country. In 936, Mu ‘izz al-Dawla, the Buyid king who captured Baghdad, instituted the first public ceremony on record commemorating Husayn’s death. In 1501 Shi’ism was made the state religion of the country by the Safavid kings. It was at this time that an organized religious hierarchy came into being. 

Safavid originally had been a Sunni mystical sect but gradually had assimilated into a messianic version of Shi’ism. Their leaders claimed descent from the seventh imam and some, like Shah Tahmasp, claimed to be divinities themselves. They became vicars of the twelfth imam and reigned as "God’s Shadow on Earth." Their messianic character of mobilizing masses into hysteria and forming political groups has remained until present. The first leaders, like Shah Ismail, knew very little about the orthodox traditions they were promoting and had very few resources. They imported many symbols and books from Anatolia and Lebanon and created their own doctrine. They copied some of their ceremonies like beating with chains from Christian sects including the Catholics. Passion plays started in the seventeenth century and became increasingly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the Pahlavi period restrictions were imposed on performances and since the Islamic revolution they are booming again.

The Safavid invited Shi’ite religious figures mostly from Jabal Amel in Lebanon and theological colleges were created for them. A hierarchy was created, and religious personnel were appointed to foresee the implementation of religious law and supervise many aspects of everyday life including education. As a result of such policies the Shi’ite clergy of Iran was born. Though the Safavid Empire fell in 1772, their religious establishments and hierarchy have remained effective even today and their traditions are practiced widely. During the reign of Nadir Shah Afshar in the 18th century he tried to curtail Shi’ism and as a result many clergymen sought refuge in Najaf and Karbala where major holy Shi’ite shrines are located. This group created another Shi’ite stronghold in Iraq that has survived and maintained closed ties with the Iranian Shi’i leaders.

During Muharram, like most other religious ceremonies in the country, there are communal gatherings at the mosques or private homes. Nazri food (free food) is always prepared and distributed amongst the poor and the needy. Rich people normally finance the processions by giving money and lunch to the participants. Usually a rice dish or a thick stew called ash-i-Imam Husayn is served. Practicing Muslims will dress in black, the traditional colour for mourning. ta ‘zia or passion plays are usually performed during the first ten days of the month, while processions and self-beatings are carried out on the day of Ashura itself. Evenings are spent at the mosques praying and mourning. The Buyids introduced the popular and communal forms of mourning in the tenth century. These are accompanied with marthiya or mourning and funeral hymns accompanied with poetry expressing extreme sorrow and affection, which appears to be older in origin.

Children are encouraged to participate in an event called Shaam e Ghariban (the night of the deserted) re-enacting the tragedy as the orphaned children abandoned in Karbala experienced it. Children are divided into two groups and they recite poetry and sing songs related to the events and answer each other back and forth. All expressions of emotions are exaggerated and kids are encouraged to beat themselves lightly, cry, shout and even scream. In some smaller cities and major religious centers the mourning may continue for a few days after the Ashura, but in most places it ends on this day.

The ritual drama of Ashura has also influenced the Shi’ite calendar of events, which differs from the Sunni calendar in many respects. Many events are given meaning in terms of Karbala related stories. This is evident in the month of Ramadan, a month of celebration for the Sunni while the Shi’ite mourn for Ali. The month before Ramadan is Shaban and again there are different interpretations by the two sects.

Sunni believe the fifteenth of this month is when the name of the living are written on the leaves of the tree of life, and the leaves that foretells of who will die in the coming year. For Shi’ites, the same day is the birthday of the twelfth Imam. This is a very important occasion for Shi’ites and of no consideration for the Sunni. Such differences have created different customs and traditions in the areas populated by the Sunni based on their belief system and to what extent it varies from the dominant Shi’ite ideology. The differences become even more pronounced when ethnic identities are taken into consideration as well. For example, Kurds living in the remote areas of Kurdistan that are mainly Sunni have preserved many traits that go back to the Pre-Islamic period.

In recent years, the passion plays have become more commercialized and are played on television and major playhouses [theatres] in Iran. Some shows have been performed outside the country in major theatre festivals in Paris and New York, complete with horses and accompanied with some music that certainly is a deviation from the norm. They are still very popular in Iran and forcefully backed by the present government. The concept of martyrdom itself is used by some Shi’ites outside Iran to implement acts of violence. However, such actions have very little support in Iran. Following the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s, the Islamic government did use this notion extensively to encourage the Iranians to participate in military actions against the Iraqi troops.

In recent years the government is sponsoring major events related to the mourning where people gather at large stadiums or performing art centers and beat their chests while some popular singer sings mourning songs with modern contemporary lyrics. Some of these singers have become superstars in the country and their CDs are selling in thousands.


Recommended Readings:

  • David Pinault. Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community, the Shiites. St. Martin’s Press, Inc, New York, 1993.
  • Kamran Scot Aghaie. The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and rituals in Modern Iran. The University of Washington Press, 2004.
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