The Hijri calendar, the Islamic year begins with Muharram. In fact, what we saw on Thursday night, August 20, was the celebration of the Islamic New Year. There was no trace of New Year celebrations. Not just this year. New Year has never been an occasion in the Islamic calendar. Shiites wear black before the Islamic New Year and mourn in the cities and neighborhoods where they are prevalent. Everything and everywhere takes on the “smell of Muharram”. The Islamic year begins with blackness and mourning.
Muharram in Lucknow (home of Ahmad Mousavi Hindi, grandfather of Morteza Pasandideh, Noureddine Hindi and Ruhollah Khomeini) and not only in this Shiite city, but also in the Indian subcontinent, which has the largest population of 12-Imam-Shiites in the world, starts from the 29th Zilhaj month and continues until the eighth of Rabi ‘al-Awal. It is Muharram for 68 days. In 1977, the Uttar Pradesh state government banned Hossein’s mourning in the state after a wave of violence and bloody street clashes that left many dead and injured. Shiite scholars did not remain silent after the ban. They used every opportunity to lift this legal ban by inciting the thoughts and feelings of the Shiite youth and teenagers in the region; From street clashes to property destruction and suicide bombings. Finally, after more than two decades, the Democratic Autonomous Government of Uttar Pradesh has allowed a limited number of mourning ceremonies to be held in a few imambara under tight security.
Imambara, Hosseiniyah, Tekiyeh, Hiyat, Dargah, like a shrine, like Karbala… Even the municipality of Lucknow does not have accurate statistics of the thousands of Muharram mourning locations that Shiites have created in this city in less than three centuries. The holding of perverted and syncretistic rites rites that have emerged around the Islamic tradition and quickly took on self-centered and sectarian forms are clearly reflected in the non-Islamic iconography and symbols of Muharram. Simulation is not limited to shrines and places in Iraq or the legendary scenes of the Karbala conflict; simulation and reenactment are the main techniques used in designing mourning ceremonies. Chest-hitting, chaining, beating oneself on the head and face, various types and forms of self-flagellation, empty-handed or with a cold weapon, lifting alams, eulogy, lamentation, flogging, and almost all rituals and ceremonies during Muharram which are practiced by Shiites, are derived from Christianity, Hinduism and even non-divine religions.
This culture of mourning was suddenly injected into the body of society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD by the Safavid kings. The travelogues of the tourists who traveled to Iran at that time give us a fairly clear picture of how the primitive mourning ceremonies for Hossein were held, as well as the changes they noticed over time.
Michele Membrè (1), the translator and Venetian envoy, writes about his observations during the reign of Shah Tahmaseb I in Tabriz in the 16th century AD:
“In May, the Iranians hold the funeral of Ali’s son, who is called Imam Hussein. He fought a clan called Yazidi and was beheaded. For his martyrdom, a Ta’zieh ceremony is held for ten days, and everyone wears black turban and black clothes. In these ten days the king will not leave his palace. From early evening until one o’clock in the morning, processions roam the streets and mosques and recite the lament of Imam Hussein in Persian. This is called Ashura, which began on the first of May and ended on the tenth of that month. I saw young men blackened their bodies and walking naked. In Bigum Square, I saw a man had dug a ditch like a grave and standing in it naked, it was filled to the brim with dirt, and this was one of the Ta’zieh ceremonies. I saw this with my own eyes. At night, all the women go to the mosques and the preacher recites the roza of Ali’s son and the women sob for him.”
Six decades after this description, in the early 17th century, not only the then ruler(Shah Abbas I) appeared on horseback during these ten days among the mourning processions and became part of the ritual, but also the share of dramatic, military elements, blood and collective hysteria in the performance of Muharram has increased several times. If in the first days of the injection of the Shiite sect into the Iranian society, the drive of destruction was aimed at the body of the mourning and introverted person, during Shah Abbas reign, dramatic and extroverted effects were added to this drive. What at the beginning intended at the spirits, became a sign.
Don Garcia de Silva Figueroa (2), the Spanish ambassador to the court of Shah Abbas Safavid, is one of the first European tourists to identify the obvious traces of Christianity in Muharram:
“Preachers preached on high pulpits similar to those seen in church hymns. In the sense that after climbing six or seven steps of the pulpit and sitting on the last of them, like European preachers, they preach with all their might and with the movements of their hands, heads and arms.”
In these lines, we witness the birth of Shiite clergy identity in its lamentation roots. In his detailed travelogue, De Silva recounts the details of another ceremony called “Nahr” (camel slaughter), which he observed in Isfahan during Muharram mourning:
In the first stage, “the most beautiful and fattening female camel decorated with flowers and plants, rings made of plant leaves, silk fabrics, gold plates, bells and rugs is taken around the city.” As mourners mourn, Isfahan governor and other government officials gather on a large plain near the out-of-town river with a group of gunmen making noises. They circle around the camel. The camel is laid on the ground and its legs are tied. The governor then inserts a sword into the camel’s body [and makes a Nahr (sacrifice)]. The excited crowd quickly cuts the camel to pieces with sharp swords. The mourners fight to get the camel meat, some are killed and a number injured. Some who have obtained the meat of this camel take it to the cemetery; while others run towards the city, they hit their chests, shout and cry. The people’s excitement is so intense that the governor and his forces cannot control them. Then the chaos in the city will be released and the ceremony will lead to intensified excitement.”
Mourning ceremonies had become a process in which violence first took shape and intensified in various rituals of self-mutilation and then channeled into bloodshed and barbarism in Ta’zieh simulations and war scenes. The red blood on the black clothes of the mourners of Hossein, who have achieved ferocious perfection in the mourning of their Imam, is the common and dominant color of the lines engraved on the black cloths that adorn the doors and walls of takaya, boards, Hosseiniyahs and mosques these days.
Years before this report by De Silva (1618-1619), Shah Abbas, by chance, had realized the potential for violence and brutality in Muharram mourning and the possibility of using this capacity in the military field. During the recapture of the northern regions of Iran, which had been occupied by the Ottoman forces during his father’s rule, after the conquest of Tabriz and Nakhchivan, he besieged the city of Yerevan, where 12,000 Ottoman soldiers were stationed in three fortresses. The two side forts of the city are conquered by Shah Abbas commanders. The conquest of the main fortress, known as the Atiq Fortress, is described in the book “Alam Aray Abbasi” by Eskander Beg Munshi, the court secretary:
“On the night of Ashura, when Shah Abbas troops rose up to mourn the martyrdom of Hazrat Sayyid al-Shuhada (Imam Hossein), the enemy inside the surrounded fortress assumed the general commotion of of the army in the bazaar as the encirclement of the fortress and getting ready to raid the fortress. A group who were reluctant to surrender, came to their senses and send a Pasha to Shah Abbas in order to surrender and be forgiven. On the Day of Ashura, which was the murder of Sayyid al-Shuhada, and His Highness was dressed in mourning clothes and was engaged in Ta’zieh, Pasha came to Shah Abbas and although he was upset with that tribe, because the holy spirits and Karbala martyrs were used by the Pasha to intercede, Shah Abbas accepted, only if they leave the castle on that day. They accepted, two were sent with him to the castle to protect the castle. They all left the castle and came to a tent in the middle of the plain. Shah Abbas told them whomever wants to stay here is not a problem and if they want to leave for Rome, they could leave.” (History of Alam Aray Abbasi, vol. 2, p. 656)
From here, it was not long before establishment of the “Ministry of Roza Recital” and infiltration of roza readers into the government apparatus, as well as the combination of military ceremonies and culture in arranging mourning processions with drums, cymbals and flags. By creating Shiism, the Safavids achieved the formula for turning religion into a weapon, and during the Muharram ceremony, they discovered a huge potential for mobilizing the masses. This sect needed 4 centuries to achieve complete autonomy and perversion in Iran; today, this weapon fires at will; it is neither in the hands of the king nor under the control of any superior moral system and it’s outside its own doctrine; All there is, is Basij, IRGC and totality of roza. The president recites roza in the cabinet meeting. The regular roza reader wears IRGC uniforms and uses a baton to suppress the barefoot protesters in the street. “Parliament rep” is a former member of the Basij. Basij is located in all departments, ministries and universities of the country. The Chief of Judiciary has studied roza and issues flogging, execution and retribution sentences between morning and evening prayers. Today, the Safavid Ministry of Roza Recital has multiplied to hundreds of government departments and institutions. There were 630 Hosseiniyahs in Tehran in the late 1960s, and this number reached 7,528 in 1996. In 2015, this number increased to 18,000 in Tehran and 91,000 in Iran. These figures only apply to permanent centers that are registered and active throughout the year. According to official institutions, in 2015, 60-70% of the takayas and Hosseiniyahs were seasonal and were not included in the mentioned statistics. The Islamic Propaganda Organization and the prayer headquarters (one of the Safavid Ministry of Roza Recital) had announced the number of mosques in the country in 2014 as 72,000, which means that the country’s Husseiniyahs were 20,000 more than mosques. Such proliferation reminds a kind of tissue in mind: Cancer!
Translation of this article by Sahar.
(1): Michele Membrè, Mission to the Lord Sophy of Persia
(2): Don Garcia de Silva Figueroa, Comentarios de Don García de Silva y Figueroa de la embajada que de parte del rey de España don Felipe III hizo al rey Xa Abas de Persia