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Shiite Mourning Ceremonies Take Anti-Government Color In Iran


Some Iranians taking part in the annual Shiite mourning ceremonies this week chanted religious verses that were critical of the regime and its repressive actions.

In one large gathering to mark the anniversary of the revered Shiite saint, Imam Hussein, son of the first Imam, Ali, mourners chanted:

“O Motherland, do you know why I’m devastated? 

It’s because these people (the regime) only care about hijab.

They don’t see the poverty in our houses,

They have stolen so much from public coffers,

They don’t see the tears and laments of workers,

They don’t see that widows are destitute, 

No bread on their tables, 

That fathers are ashamed, and mothers distressed.

God be my witness that this is not the Justice of Ali!

All our problem is not a strand of hair!”

These verses were sung in the local dialect in Dezful in the oil-rich Khuzestan Province by the maddah whose role is reciting the praises of the prophet and his companions and mourning the slaying of his grandson, Imam Hussein in the battle of Karbala. While the maddah sings, his audience rhythmically beat their chests and move in tandem. 

In recent years some maddahs have increasingly been using the story of the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, Imam Hussein, and his martyrdom to express their opposition to an interpretation of Islam that the regime has been promoting for four decades during the Ashura ceremonies. 

The Day of Ashura, the anniversary of the slaying of Imam Hussein and his 72 companions on the 10th of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram, is the highlight of the month-long mourning ceremonies. The Imam and his companions were killed in 680 in a battle that took place in the plain of Karbala in present-day Iraq. 

An Iranian Shiite Muslim mourns after covering himself with mud during a ceremony to mark Ashura, the holiest day on the Shiite Muslim calendar, in Tehran, Iran July 28, 2023.

Every year during Muharram, the beginning of which fell on July 19 this year, thousands of local mourning groups known as hey’at organize large congregations and street processions with thousands of participants. 

Thousands of others usually gather along the streets to watch the procession of men rhythmically beating their chests or using a bundle of chains to beat their backs to the beat of massive drums amplified by speakers. The self-beatings symbolize the pain and suffering of the Imam and his companions in Karabla.

Unlike the fearless maddah in Dezful who openly referred to present time issues of hijab and destitution of the people, others voice their criticism in veiled terms, often in the form of verses associated with certain historical and revolutionary eras that their audience easily understands. 

“Stop oppression, God’s blood has come to boil, 

heavens and earth are wailing,

because the earth has been clothed in poppies,” a maddah and his congregation sang in the very religiously conservative city of Yazd.

“Poppies have sprung from the blood of the youth of the motherland!

And cypress trees have bent under the grief of their lost lives,” the congregation continued singing. This verse was taken from the very famous poem of Mirzaadeh Eshghi, a 19th century poet who dedicated it to the martyrs of the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911). 

By creating a parallel between their own time and circumstances and the time and circumstances that led to Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, they identify the regime and it leaders with the Arab ruler, Yazid, whose troops killed the Imam. The verses and steps are often practiced for months before the actual ceremonies. 

Muharram ceremonies have been held for centuries in Iran and among Shiites in other countries. However, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the ceremonies and rituals have gained more prominence as the clerical government have made them a vehicle to show that the people are religious and loyal.

Iranians mourning during a Muharram ceremony in the central city of Bam, Kerman province (July 2023)

But increasingly mourning gatherings pop up around the country that include non-regime religious groups, who use the very Shiite ideology of seeking justice and condemning oppression to direct criticism at the clerical rulers. 

Some people believe that the regime’s actions have resulted in the weakening of religion among Iranians while others argue that it is only the regime’s interpretation of Islam that has weakened and led to thousands of mosques being abandoned. 

In a note published on Telegram Thursday entitled “Confiscation of History”, sociologist Ali Zamanian argued that using religious occasions such as Ashura to create an “ideological dichotomy” in which one side is all good and the other is all evil is unacceptable whether by regime-affiliated maddahs or those who sympathize with the opposition. 

Zamanian, however, pointed out that critical maddahs’ expression of their frustration with the current economic crisis may show the government that it is not only those who believe in a secular state who oppose religious rule, but many religious people are “at the end of their ropes” too. 

Even under the Shah, who was very proud of being the ruler of the only Shiite state in the world, the country was shut down for several days for the ceremonies and Ashura sermons were broadcast live on national radio.

Iranians mourning during a Muharram ceremony in Tehran (July 2023)