Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ashura: The Shiite's festival

Update: Please Visit MarcLord's web for a comparative analysis and realpolitikal take on Ashura.
For those who are interested in knowing what Ashura is, Wikipedia has a fair and straight forward article.

I was browsing one of Iran's news sources and I came across these pictures: Ashura commemoration in different cities of Iran.

Every year (on the lunar calendar), symbolic representations of the events of the day of Ashura take place. There are street-plays called "ta'ziyeh":

The word ta'ziyeh literally means expressions of sympathy, mourning and consolation.

As a dramatic form it has its origins in the Muharram procession commemorating Hussein's martyrdom and throughout its evolution the representation of the siege and carnage at Kerbela has remained its centerpoint.
Ta'ziyeh has never lost its religious implications. Because early Shi'ites viewed Hussein's death as a sacred redemptive act, the performance of the Muharram ceremonies was believed to be an aid to salvation; later they also believed that participation, both by actors and spectators, in the Ta'ziyeh dramas would gain them Hussein's intercession on the day of the Last Judgment.

Perhaps because of their tradition of hereditary kingship and strong nationalism, the people of the Iranian plateau were particularly hospitable to the Shi'ite form of Islam. According to Persian legend, the daughter of the last Persian king of the Sasanid dynasty was taken captive during the Muslim invasion and married to Hussein. From the beginning, the annual Muharram mourning ceremonies were observed with great pageantry and emotion. Veneration of deceased heroes had long been an important part of Persian culture; the theme of redemption through sacrifice found parallels in such pre-Islamic legends as the death of Siyavash and in the ancient Mesopotamian ritual of Adonis-Tamuz.

By the tenth century A.D. impressive Muharram processions were well-established. The reliable historian Ibn al-Athir, tells of great numbers of participants, with black painted faces abd disheveled hair circling round and round the city of Baghdad, beating their chests and moaning the mourning songs at the festival of Muharram. It was at this time when the Persian Buyid dynasty ruled from Baghdad.

In the first years of the sixteenth century, when under the Safavid dynasty, Persia, which had always been a strong cultural power, again became a political power, Shi'ite Islam was established as the state religion and was used to unify the country, especially against the aggressive Ottomans and Uzbeks who were adherents of Sunnite Islam.

The Muharram observances received royal encouragement; commemoration of Hussein's martyrdom became a patriotic as well as religious act. Many accounts of the processions, written mostly by European envoys, missionaries, merchants and travelers, tell of characters dressed in colorful costumes marching, or mounted on horses and camels, depicting the events leading up to the final tragedy of Kerbela.

Living tableaux of butchered martyrs stained with blood, their bodies showing simulated amputations, were moved along on wheeled platforms. Mock battles were mimed by hundreds of uniformed mourners armed with bows, swords, and other weapons. The entire pageant was accompanied by funeral music and spectators, lined up along its path, beat their breasts and shouted "Hussein, O Hussein, the King of the Martyrs" as it passed by.

Certain similarities between the Muharram processions and the European medieval theatre of the Stations of the Cross was obvious. An important difference is, however, that during the Muharram ceremonies the spectators remained stationary while the tableaux moved and in the theatre of the Stations the tableaux were stationary while the viewer-penitents moved.

The Muharram processions are, perhaps, more similar to the Passion Week celebrations which can still be seen in such Christian countries as Guatemala.

The city names are encoded in the picture name. Please click on the picture.


Renegade Eye said...

Very interesting post.

Aardvark EF-111B said...

[[According to Persian legend, the daughter of the last Persian king of the Sasanid dynasty was taken captive during the Muslim invasion and married to Hussein.]]

Not a legend, it is fact
she was the mother of [Ali Zein-Al-Abidein], from whom the Shia Imams decends

actually there were 3 sisters
the 2 others married to
Abdullah bin(son of) Omar(the second Califate)
& to
Abdullah bin Abbas(Mohammed The Prophet Uncle)

Naj said...

Thanks Aardvark, didn't know that.

Georg said...

Bonjour Naj,

I saw parts of this Ashura Festival in Iran, years ago. I remember people in black, banging chains with knifes against their back.

Their shoulders and spine area were covered in blood.

While torturing themselves these people - all men - were singing something rhythmical.

To me, this was like a slow motion horror movie, hell made visible.


Naj said...

Salut Georg,

I think you must have seen the ceremonies many many years ago.
I have seen people self-flagellate during Ashura, but with chains, not with knives.

Being in a horror movie? Well maybe; but keep in mind that people do that VOLUNTARILY, and they beat themSELVES, not others!

Humans have strange ways of expressing themselves, and what appeals to my "aesthetic/expressive" taste is perhaps different from other's.

For instance, you may find peopel self-flagellation (which symbolizes their solidarity with the cause of Hossein's resistance to Yazid) repulsive, and the guy who beats himself may in turn find eating blood saussages, and stinky cheese and having sex in public repulsive.

Who is to judge?

Georg said...

Bonjour Naj,

People eating blood sausages and stinky cheese. Quite possible many Iranians would prefer to self-flagellate for an hour rather than having those item on their plate.

When I came to France years ago, I invited myself in a restaurant to "Andouillettes" and nearly fainted when they arrived at my table......

Still, I am not really convinced that eating "disgusting" food and self-flagellation should or can be compared.

Cheers to you

Naj said...


beating one's back and beating one's digestive system is the same.

How is piercing body different from self-flagellation?

How is plastic surgery different?

We, as humans, do UNNATURAL, weird things to our bodies. they are all odd to me. But such is the nature of culture!

Perhaps we don't need to compare, but we don't need to judge either!