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March 14, 2004

On Why They Do It
Arash Jalali  [info|posts]

karbala.jpgTwo weeks ago, Tehran, as well as many other cities in Iran, were once again the scene of mourning rituals for the 1364th anniversary of the alleged killing of the third Shiite saint (a.k.a. Imam). To Iranians, religious and non-religious alike, the whole practice has become as ordinary a phenomenon as a rainfall in the autumn, but for many, especially the people in the West, such ferocious display of grief over the death of a person who has been dead for the past fourteen centuries is simply unfathomable. It might be a perfectly valid question to ask why the ritual is performed by the Shiites with such intensity and passion that often leads to violent, obscene and barbaric performances, but I am personally more interested to know why people still perform the ritual at all.

When I was an elementary school boy, in our "religious teachings" course, they used to tell us all about the gory details of that day's battle. About how the hands of the brave brother of Imam were chopped off, or how Imam's little child was brutally killed, or how the Imam himself was beheaded by his enemies; and then the teachers told us about how it was our religious duty to cherish and revive the memory of the grave injustice that befell the Imam. "Alright," I used to say to myself, "but why in the world do you people have to hit yourselves and scream like maniacs?" It was as if the whole enterprise seemed perfectly justified, and all I could not understand was merely the way it was conducted. At some point I actually used to feel guilty that I could not shed a tear for the man who was said to have been deserted by his friends, betrayed by his allies, and decapitated by his enemies. Never in my wildest imaginations as a child, dared I question the authenticity of all those emotions. It all seemed genuine to me. I cannot blame myself for that. It was the early 1360's and I was just a kid.


Some people, especially mothers, vow to cook and give away food on the day of Imam's alleged martyrdom if "God gives them what they have wished for." A huge number of people usually line up to get a piece of that food, not necessarily because they can't afford to buy food, but because it is believed by some that "Imam's food," as they call it, has healing powers; or at least that's the excuse for demeaning themselves for getting a lousy piece of that food. (Picture by: Nader Davoodi, courtesy of

Things did not however remain the same. Sometime between now and then I gradually started to develop this, sometimes explicit and sometimes prudent, feeling of contempt towards everyone and everything that exhibited any religious flavor or tendency. Regardless of what caused this feeling, which might partly be due to the contemptible nature of many of the people who claim to be the representatives of different religions, it all led me to this rather immature, simplistic, and typically mediocre conclusion that all those who practice religion, especially Islam and Shiism, are plainly stupid, well-below-average-intelligence individuals. "What else in the world do these idiots need to see before they finally realize how stupid this whole thing is?" I kept asking myself. "Haven't they seen too much already to still believe in the rubbish preached by a Mullah? - The likes of that Mullah who had the run-away girls in a so-called Center for Islamic Orientation work as prostitutes, or the one who made women into doing him sexual favors in exchange for a legal permission to annul their marriage to their abusive husbands?" I came to this conclusion that no individual with the least bit of sanity and common sense would continue to believe in this nonsense of tragedy, let alone mourn over it with such ferocity, and sometimes, barbarity.

This year, however, something happened that made me reevaluate my argument and the conclusion I had reached at. A group of people, mostly young men and women, or better to say boys and girls, from the northern, typically rich, neighborhoods of Tehran, gathered together, and in their own "eccentric" way, performed mourning rituals for the death of the Imam. Never mind the events that occurred afterwards and their being beaten up for their "eccentricity", and for perverting a noble practice of savagery into nothing more than the little girls' softball. This whole event demonstrated the different roles such ceremonies and rituals play in the lives of different people.

My previous conclusion was based on the premise that every religious ceremony signifies the deep religious beliefs of its participants; that every public display of religious convictions is yet another blessing extended to the regime by the people; that all those who hold and participate in such ceremonies truly grieve the death of someone killed fourteen centuries ago, allegedly for the noble cause of keeping "the pure Mohammedan Islam" alive. The truth is, Muharram today is nothing more to many people in Iran than what the Oktoberfest is to the Germans, or corrida de toros is to the Spaniards.


The heavy iron emblem of the mourning platoon, called "Alam" in Farsi. It is usually carried by one man ahead of the rest of the mourning crowd. In this picture, people watching the young man bear the heavy thing on his shoulders reward him with some cash. (Picture by Soheil Poorgolnar. Courtesy of

It is a time of year when people can gather together and break out of the habit of living a metropolitan life in which every one is busy and no one will even notice if the next door neighbor is dead in her apartment. It is an excuse to stay out all through midnight and early in morning. It is the time when boys meet girls. The youth of the neighborhood proudly show off their muscular abilities to the girls by skillfully handling the big heavy iron emblem of the mourning platoon. It is a time for them to exhibit their underappreciated vocal and musical skills, and again, to some it is merely a business. Big season to sell sheep for sacrifice, to get subsidized rice and other much-craved-for necessities from the government to cook a bit for the poor and take the rest to one's own home. To a few, it is still a time when they can shed a tear. For what? It does not really matter. It could be for your dead loved one, your long lost love, your failed exam or your shattered dream, or simply for nothing but to do what you rarely get the chance to: to cry and unload yourself, to get a good dose of "the opium for the masses". And yet, it is the season for the savage fanatics, to wail, scream, and beat on their empty skulls, and sometimes even slash their head, or that of their baby, with sharp blades.

I do not intend to question the authenticity and sincerity of the feelings of the very few who actually believe they should bemoan the death of their holy Imam, and I still am disdainful of the not so few individuals who insist on keeping alive the traditions and the practice of savage men in the twenty-first century, but I think the reason why such rituals are still being so widely performed today, has very little to do with beliefs or religion per se. In a country where big crowds of people in the streets are considered a threat to the "national" security no matter what their cause, be it demonstrations or merely victory celebrations for the national soccer team, an occasion such as Muharram serves as a rare opportunity for many to pursue their own agenda without major fears of harassment by the regime.


  1. The author wishes to thank Mr.Jahanshah Javid of for kindly allowing the use of a picture from their Muharram photo gallery in this posting.
  2. The use of the "Alam" picture, reproduced in this posting from 7sang is in accordance with the policy stated in their homepage. The author also wished to thank them for their kind permission.

yaser at March 14, 2004 06:21 PM [permalink]:

Then how do you explain Ashoura in Pakistan or Lobenan? In some areas, they mourn even more then Iranians. I agree that Ashoura is more of a tradition than something related to religious belief of the people. But I don't agree the relation between Ashoura and daily restrictions on people by the IR. Was Ashoura really different back in the time of Shah?

An Iranian Student (AIS) at March 14, 2004 07:06 PM [permalink]:

That was a very interesting post throwing a new light on this ritual. The new innovation for ashura is most ingenious. (I wish i was there, some of the chicks are hot!)

Shi'ism is quite interesting. Many hardline sunni Moslem fundamentalists see Shi'ism as a heresy. Many go further to consider it a Jewish conspiracy. Many point out to the similarities between Shiism and Christianity. Here is a sample:
'... This is in the context of the charge that the Shi'ites greatly resemble Jews, "which should not be wondered at," as Dr. Abu Muntasir Al-Baloushi explains on a Sunni Web site,[22] "because the Jews invented the Shi'a [the Shi'ite religion] and [the Shi'a] is pervaded by [the Jews'] beliefs and principles, from the day it was created.'
Here is a real Fundamentalist view, with depictions of shi'a sources.
Some more examples are: 12 Imams of Shiism , following the tradition on 12 Tribes of Israel and 12 Apostles of Christ, the pre-occupation with 'messiah' and pocalyptic visions, there is also the one to many correspondence of Jesus Christ(Prophet,God, Martyr) to Muhammad(Prophet), Ali (God, or as close as it gets to that) and Hossein (Martyr). There is also the almost Talmudic fascination of Shi'ite clergy with all sorts of details or the abundance of prayers for really everything. The symbol of the hand, allegedly that of Abolfazl in Ahura is actually a well known Jewish symbol, depicting the 'hand' of God in the world. Take a look here for example.
The Chrsitian and Zoroastrian ideas in Shiitism atre abundant. the whole of Ashura is based on Siavash-khani, and so is the importance of the fourth daughter of the prophet, the first man to convert to Islam being his cousin and many more symbolic and non-symbolic bases of this cult.
The reason for all these similarities could be the fact that Shi'ism owes a lot to the prevelance of the Zoroastrian,Jewish and Christian shared views in Persia (which included both modern Iran and most of modern Iraq, the places with highest number of shi'ites)

Despite all that, Shi'ism that arouse out of the Islamized version of them, is really a despicable conglomerate of superstitions and counter-progressive trends. So, to me, it symbolizes more than anything else the results of a raped culture, dangling along since the 7th Century CE, picking bits and pieces of her shattered and violently raped identity in the way, jumping from one extreme to the other in its path of survival. Just compare the originals ( 1 , 2 and 3 ) with the 'mutated' version to see the depth of catastrophy.

WhoMan at March 14, 2004 10:59 PM [permalink]:

Self-flagellating is not limited to Shiites. Philipinos nail themselves in large numbers on Good Friday.
The Tamilian devotees who pierce their bodies with arrows and hooks in Kaadavi festival, like these pictures (their last year's pictures was really disturbing).

Arash Jalali at March 15, 2004 04:01 AM [permalink]:

The main point of my article was about Muharram rituals performed in "today's Iran".

There are numerous theories about the roots of Shiism, its different branches and flavors, some of which AIS pointed out to in his comment. So why Pakistanis or Lebanese perform such rituals is not relevant to the point of this posting.

As regards Iran, I do realize that Tasooa (the 9th day of Muharram) and Ashoora (the 10th day) ceremonies were being conducted long before the 1979 revolution. People who then performed those rituals might have done it for any number of reasons which may also be somehow connected to why Pakistanis or Lebonese do it today. However, this is again not the point of my posting. My question was about why people of Iran, today, still perform such rituals? Because I think our society has been in such a unique position, after the 1979 revolution, that has enabled them to witness, firsthand, some of the realities of Shiism, which makes it even harder to believe such rituals are still being performed out of sheer belief or anyhow due to the same reasons why people did it before the revolution. Iran has by far been the only country which has been run by Shiism for more than two decades. So, I don't think you can compare what we have now, with what was happening before the revolution, or what is happening in Pakistan, or even Lebanon.

Dear WhoMan,

I understand Shiites are not the only people in the world who sometimes perform their rituals with savegery. I am sure there are other sects, and cults in this world that would go far beyond what Shiites do in performing rituals. However, I think it would be interesting to know if there are any such people, besides Iranians that is, who still perform their less than ordinary rituals while under the rule of a system of belief that preaches such practices. I think that would be an interesting case to compare with today's Iran.

Ali Mahani at March 15, 2004 08:01 AM [permalink]:

Why they do it?

Ermmm... Just read Hedayat's "Alwiyeh Khanoom" or "Al Be'sat ol Eslamiyyah.." to get the idea.

And don't even start me on Islam and Shiism ...

Kaveh Kh. at March 15, 2004 09:49 AM [permalink]:

"Al Be'sat ol Eslamiyah" should be taught in Iranian high schools as the main religious text.

Hedayat was simply the end of it...

By the way the idea of "Messiah", "Mehdi" and so on could actually be of Zarathustrian and possibly older Iranic origin.

Hamed at March 15, 2004 03:41 PM [permalink]:


I think Yaser is right. It is possible to make any hypothesis you wish for a single observation. The hypothesis is worthless unless it is confirmed by more observations. You can fit any curves to just one single point.

Arash Jalali at March 15, 2004 04:41 PM [permalink]:

I don't quite like the approach of analyzing social phenomena by looking at them as curve-fitting or regression problems, although I suppose it is considered as an established scientific approach. Nonetheless, I don't think we can think of that many curves to pass through this point, to use your terminology.

Fact I: The Islamic Republic's performance as the only implementation of Shiism as a system of governance has been anything but satisfactory to put it mildly.

Fact II: Mullas, as the only official authority on Shiism, and Islam, have failed to project a decent image (stereotype) of themselves, even as ordinary individuals, let alone as men of God!

Fact III: Muharram rituals are still being widely performed by the people in Iran.

Question: Why is it the case that "Fact III", despite the facts I and II ?

My claim (curve?): Today, what the people of Iran do in Muharram, hasn't got much to do with beliefs, Islam, or what the Islamic Republic and thier Mullas preach.

I have tried to point to some observations that may help corroborate my claim in the posting.

Alternative claims/hypotheses/curves:

The "majority" of people are still very much religious and strongly believe in what Shiism (preached by Mullas) says. You might (or might not) then infer that the majority of people in Iran are out of their senses.
People do it because they are affraid of the regime, or because the majority of people are hypocrites who love to show off their strong religious convictions, and pretend that they are true followers of the "doctorine of Imam Hussein".
All or some of the three facts mentioned above are in fact not true, thus the whole argument is fallacious.

I welcome any other theories, or any evidence to support any of the above alternative theories. At the cost of sounding obvious, I should also emphasize on the quantifier, "the majority of". So exceptions and special cases, (rogue points) are irrelevant to this argument.

SG at March 16, 2004 11:09 AM [permalink]:

I have a lot to say, but I shall spare you all that for the time being, except: Don't you find it kind of ironic that a writer who was appalled by "barbaric" self-flagellation ended up in self-annihilation? :-)

SG at March 16, 2004 02:47 PM [permalink]:

Bebin Arash jaan!

Your "eshkaal" is that you want to *understand* everything, bro. You have an analytical mind (that is sometimes quite a big liability) and thus you have but one weapon in your arsenal: Reason. I myself have struggled to "fathom" the Ashura processions, but to no avail, despite having been raised in a religious environment. Neither have I quite understood many many other things about humans and how they behave. What's the deal, for example, with piercing your tongue, your lip, your nose, (I suppose piercing the earlobe is more acceptable), your nipples, your navel, and your genitals? If you ask those who do these kind of things and enquire WHY they do that, they will give you answers, but more often than not, their answers fail to reveal the main socio-psychological motive behind their actions. No, they're not lying. They just don't know how better justify it. I brought up the piercing example because of its apparent affinity with some of the rituals of Ashura, but believe me, there's a LOT going on in the world of humans that I don't get. Take fashion, for example. Or what's the joy of *watching* soccer and feeling excited about your country's team having won?

But I no longer pierce such issues with reason. Humans, the old Freud must have taught us, are far from rational indeed, and that's not always a bad thing. I think you should stop trying to use philosophical thinking to "fathom" the meaning of Ashura. It's what many Iranians relate to, it speaks to them about who they are (followers of Ali and lovers of Hossein), and as you pointed out, it has cathartic effects: it makes them release their sorrows by way of shedding tears. (It may also help to remember most of them do not have access to alcohol to help them forget their problems!)

So anyway, your assumption that people must have a rational rationale for performing a procession such as a carnival, a wedding ceremony, or to run after a football in a big arena, is wrong. People do it just because they feel like doing it. The rest is usually baloney.

Seena Malik at April 22, 2004 04:56 PM [permalink]:

There is nothing wrong with a religious event turning into a purely social event. Most of the western social events, from Christmas and Easter to St. Patrik Day etc started as religious ceremonies and ended up as secular social events.

Ashura and other religous events are part and parcel of our culture, even without the religous significance. Such events do not need to have a justifiable or rational reason (try to justify to me the egg hunting on Easter, Santa Claus in Christmas, or even our chaharshanbeh soori tradition). Why not having the Ashura as a day where people just go out sineh-zani in groups, make sholeh-zard, light candles at night (Shab-e Ashura), have theatrical shows (Ta'zieh), and yes, also listen to some religious preaches for those who want.

We are too much into justifying or rejecting the rational of religious ceremonies. Let's just accept them for what they are, simple cultural traditions.

To Ali Mahani: I was in Alborz with you. How's your brother?

Arash Jalali at April 22, 2004 05:36 PM [permalink]:

I agree with you on that there's nothing wrong with a religious event turning into a carnival. In fact that is why I reevaluated my view of the people who participated in Ashura ceremonies; because I realized their participation has hardly anything to do religious convictions. However, I don't quite think one can compare Christian occasions such as Christmas, Easter, etc. in "secular" Western countries with Islamic events such as Ashura in Iran; a country that is being ruled by "Islam". What I think is remarkable is that Iranians still manage to participate in such events despite the negative connotation that one might think the actions of the IR regime has brought to all religious concepts. It is hard for me to imagine Americans for instance being able to make that distinction had they been in Iranian people's shoes. They couldn't even stand the name "French-fries" simply because for a breif period of time anything French had an anti-American connotation.

Steve Horowitz at November 12, 2004 01:35 PM [permalink]:

I was a teacher in Azarbaidjan for 2 years during the time of the Shah. I traveled quite a bit by bus. Many of the provincial roads were in bad shape- rocks and gravel, full of potholes. I am trying to get some idea about the improvements that have been made ( I hope ) since then. I especially used to travel on the road to Miandoab and from there to Mahabad and sometimes to a very small town called ShahinDej, where a friend lived. In the sping, flooding would often wash away such roads as well as some adjoining
houses. If you have an idea about improvements or lack of improvements, I would appreciate it. At that time many Azarbaidjanis I knew felt that the Shah's government discriminated against the Turkish people and that's why so few improvements were made. How has the Islamic government dealt with that perception by Azarbaidjanis?


Steve H.