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Ramadan in Iran
Last Updated: October, 2009

Revelation of Quran

The last 10 days are especially important because the Quran was revealed in this month at the ‘Night of Power’ (lailat al-qadr). The Quran is the foundation of Islam and the unadulterated word of God; it is the Divine Word par excellence. Each single verse of it is called ayat “sign" or miracle because the Prophet brought forth these verses as Divine signs when his adversaries asked him for a miracle attesting to his prophecy. According to the Quran, the “Night of Power” is better than a thousand months put together. Some people will retreat into prayers during these last ten days. These are called days of i-tikaf or retreat and it ends with the festival Id-i Fitr.

In this night while in a cave at Mount Hira (610AD), the Archangel Jebraeel (Gabriel) appeared to the Prophet with the first five verses of the first chapter, Surat al-Alaq. Muhammad’s appointment as a prophet is called mabath meaning ‘the one appointed.’

The belief in angles plays an important role in both theology and popular faith. Gabriel occupies the most important position among the angles and represents the “Holy Spirit” or the “Trustworthy Spirit”. For this reason he was chosen to convey the Divine message to the Prophet. Muslims believe that this divine communication is the final stage in a long series of contacts conducted through the prophets. It started with Adam and ended with Muhammad—the seal of the prophets. Through these contacts, humans were warned that their happiness lay in worshipping Allah and were told of the terrible consequences of disobedience. God’s final revelation was sent down on the night of power through his last messenger the Prophet Muhammad.

This night of revelation is also known as the night of might, destiny and the precious night. This occasion is observed privately or in congregation by performing prayers special to the occasion called taraweeh, recitation of the Quran and acts of charity. The night is usually celebrated on one of the last odd nights in Ramadan. Most Muslims have accepted the 27th of Ramadan as the correct date for this night. The Shi’ites of Iran celebrate the night from 19th to the 21st of Ramadan. This is by design. It is said that prayers on this night are worth a thousand prayers on any other night; therefore to encourage people to pray on all these nights, the date remains unknown. Also the period coincides with Ali’s assassination and his subsequent death on the 21st.  For this reason, Ramadan is more a month of mourning for the Shi’ites than celebration. The three nights from the stabbing to his death are known as the nights of Revival (shab i aheya) and are mourned privately or communally. People stay up all night reciting special prayers and at times will hold the Quran on their head while praying loudly or crying.


Martyrdom of Ali

Martyrdom is very important in Iranian Shi’ite ideology and Ali’s assassination and his death are mourned intensely by the devout Shi’ites. According to their account, when the Prophet died, leadership of the community was passed on to Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Muhammad had raised Ali as a child. He was the first male convert and fought bravely for the faith. He was a constant aide and when the Prophet withdrew from Mecca under the cover of night to escape assassination in 622, Ali remained behind as a decoy in Muhammad’s bed. However Ali did not succeed as the immediate successor and only became the leader of the community after the death of the three first leaders, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman.

This was a time of major conflict between ruling clans, chaos caused by rapid expansion of Islam and a great power struggle between close relatives of the prophet including a brother-in-law of the prophet called Muawiya. He was the Governor of Syria and the winner in the end. A rebel group called Kharijites decided to assassin the three leaders, Ali, Muawiya and Amr ibn al-As. The last two survived.

Ali was assassinated while praying in the mosque of Kufa. The details of his martyrdom like those of his son Husayn have become legends remembered and mourned by Shi’ites ever since. The preachers in the mosques passionately and theatrically recap the events of the three nights and Ali’s foreknowledge of his death. On the 13th of Ramadan, Ali told his son Husayn that he would soon die and gave him the name of his assassin Ibn Muljam. Though asked by others including Ibn Muljam to kill the assassin beforehand to prevent the tragedy, Ali refused. He went on the roof the night before his stabbing to sing munajat (whispering prayers). He sang to the stars and moon that they should intensify their light because he was leaving the world. The mourners are told how desperately his daughter tried to stop him. Even his sash got caught in the door and his robe fell open. Animals on the way to the mosque blocked his way and he refused and told them he was ready for his call.

At the mosque Ali met and woke up his assassin and commented about the hidden sword and they both prayed. At the second prostration (sijda) when praying, Ibn Muljam struck Ali and he fell forward into the mihrab (the niche in a mosque wall which orients one toward Mecca). He took some dirt from the floor of the niche to put on his wound. The angel Gabriel filled the air with the cry that ‘Ali was slain and the muezzins (those who call the faithful to prayer) took up the cry from the rooftops. The assassin was captured and brought to the wounded leader. Ali ordered him detained but informed him that if he survived Ibn Muljam would be set free. As he died, Ali ordered that the assassin should be executed with one blow, for he had struck only one blow, and his family should not be harmed. He was executed on the twenty-seventh day of Ramadam.

The rhetorical forms of the tragedy as the preachers tell it emphasizes the moral themes of generosity, fairness and appropriate punishment. At the same time they support and intensify the rhetoric. The stabbing during prostration is symbolically very significant. Muslim daily prayer ‘namaz’ includes different positioning while praying. Ali was stabbed during the second prostration. One meaning given to the prostration is that the first refers to "from dust we are created"; the worshiper then sits back, resting upon his haunches, which represents life. The second prostration refers to " and to dust we return"; the concluding act of rising to one’s feet represents the final judgment. Ali is stabbed during the second prostration and putting the dust of the mihrab on his wound symbolizes his return to dust and acceptance of his fate and God’s will. The preachers during this part of the story recite the verse from the Quran about man being from dust. In the end, how Ali’s children mourned his death is passionately described and all participants are encouraged to cry loudly and express extreme sorrow.

The end of Ramadan is celebrated on the first day of the month of Shawwal with a great feast named Id-i Fitr. The feat of breaking the fast calls for a solemn prayer, Salat al-Id.

Most people will attend their local mosques for communal prayers. The last feast or iftari is more elaborate and is quite often joined by family, friends and neighbors. On this day the statutory alms marking the end of the fast (zakat al-fitr) are given. The more prosperous families give to the poor a prescribed quantity of the customary food of the area as an act of piety.

In the past the occasion was celebrated with grandeur with the local rulers participating and people joyfully attending the occasion. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveler in the 14th century, describes Id-i Fitr in Tunis as follows: the Sultan fulfilled his customary duty of "leading a magnificent procession" of officials, courtiers, and soldiers. He proceeded from the citadel to a special outdoor praying ground (musalla) that accommodated the crowds gathered for the prayers making the Breaking of the Fast". Even in the 19th century Iran the monarchs attended some prayers in the major mosques. Throughout the 20th century the occasion became community oriented with less direct participation from the monarchy. The splendour of this feast is revived again with the supreme leader and high-ranking religious authorities participating zealously in the celebrations.

Practicing Muslims outside of Iran observe the fasting and all the major events of the month. Mourning for Ali is normally done communally at the local mosques or other gathering places if there are no mosques. Id-i Fitr is usually spent in the company of other practicing Muslims with feasts, elaborate meals and prayers. Older children are encouraged to practice fasting; however, this is not always possible with the busy school schedule. The sighting of the moon is barely observed and accurate information is obtained from observatories and local Muslim or Iranian media will announce the sunrise and sunset times according to the locality. In the absence of religious preachers, the respected and learned members of the community perform the prayers. Women’s participation in organizing and administering such events has increased tremendously. Female preachers are appearing in greater numbers in all female gatherings and youth are encouraged to participate at all the community gatherings.


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