The mourning ceremonies of Muharram are age-old traditions among Shiite Muslims around the world, especially those in Iran. The rituals commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein ibn Ali and his companions in the seventh-century Battle of Karbala. In recent years, however, the ceremonies have prompted concern among Iranian clerics and religious intellectuals over what they consider to be deviations from core principle.
In Iran and other Shiite-majority countries, the first 10 days of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram are marked with a mourning procession (“dasteh”), going to prayer halls and performing the rituals of “sineh-zani” (beating one’s chest with the hand) and “zanjir-zani” (flagellating ones back with small chains). In the past, the chest beating and flagellating were confined to mosques and prayer halls and took place solely on the ninth and 10th days of Muharram, known as Tasu’a and Ashura. These two days saw groups of mourners dressed in black marching in the streets, and as they did so, they chanted eulogies and flagellated themselves in unison, to display their devotion to Hussein. These days, however, these processions are sometimes organized differently.
Self-selected groups or “heyat” (religious associations) are now taking to the streets any time they like during the first 10 days of Muharram. In the past, these rituals also involved eulogies of Shiite figures as well as historical and philosophical narratives about Ashura and Hussein’s uprising against the Umayyad caliph Yazid. Over time, however, such remembrance has become less prominent. The declining historical and philosophical aspects of Muharram are not new, but rather part of an ongoing trend that has been a source of concern for clerics and religious intellectuals for quite some time.
The past decade has seen eulogists (“madahan”) grow in prominence in regard to Muharram traditions. Prior to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office (2005-13), eulogists only dealt with religious matters related to Muharram and Ashura. Being a eulogist was not considered an independent profession; it did not pay a self-sustaining wage. In fact, only those who had exceptional voices recited eulogies in mosques and prayer halls during Muharram, and they did so while retaining full-time occupations.
Following Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2005 presidential election, eulogists began to become independent of mosques and gradually got involved in political issues as well. Members of this group, who until then could only be found in mosques and prayer halls during Muharram, were suddenly visible year-round, appearing at other religious ceremonies. During this same period, their incomes grew so much that being a eulogist became a well-paying job, as reported by Al-Monitor last year.
So why has Iranian society apparently welcomed the content presented by eulogists even though it is baseless or involving exaggeration of Hussein's hardships to whip up crowds by intensifying their sense of mourning? Leila Ashuri, a sociologist, told Al-Monitor, “Youths need to discharge their excitement and energy. They also have a desire to participate in festivals. This enthusiasm has prompted eulogists to try and advance their careers by singing rhythmic eulogies, which have no literary or religious substance and sometimes even adapt melodies to songs by pop artists.”
Shiite religious authorities do not approve of the current trend. In a meeting with eulogists in April 2015, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized the promotion of certain new aspects in mourning ceremonies. He asked, “What is the advantage of this jumping up and down in religious ceremonies? How is this a mourning ceremony? I’m not upset about the youths’ excitement. The young need to discharge their energy and it is normal. But then this immense potential of mourning is left on the ground, a potential that through a good and meaningful performance by eulogists can prepare and send them to work with determination.”
In a November 2012 interview, Rasoul Jafarian, an Islamic history researcher, said, “It is some years now that a bunch of eulogists and preachers have become the headmasters of thinking. By spreading superstition, eulogists are destroying the philosophy of Imam Hussein’s uprising, which was to stand up against oppression and not remain silent in the face of corruption.”
Hojatoleslam Masih Mohajeri, editor-in-chief of the conservative daily Jomhuri Eslami, published an editorial Sept. 20 in which he wrote, “Every year on the eve of Muharram, senior clerics warn and advise eulogists to refrain from spewing baseless content, but they don’t listen. If we conduct research on this, we will unfortunately see that in recent decades, the Ashura culture has declined in terms of content and the baseless statements made by eulogists have made these ceremonies more superficial than ever.”
On Oct. 1, Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, who is respected by all the political factions in Iran, said, “Shedding tears is not the purpose of Muharram. These mourning ceremonies are not held so people can shed tears. Crying is a tool for preserving religion, and the tears themselves are not the goal.”
A great deal of the clerics' criticism concerns the spread of superstitions and far-fetched narratives that the eulogists use to make their eulogies more appealing to audiences. In these narratives, they portray Hussein as increasingly innocent in an attempt to make him more sympathetic and sad, and thus make the audience cry more passionately. A eulogist who elicits such a response is viewed as a success. Although clerics and religious intellectuals have expressed their concern about the dangers of lessening the meaning and depth of the mourning ceremonies, it is ultimately the eulogists who hold the reins.
“Nazri,” another contested ritual of Muharram, is the cooking of food and distributing it to people, including the poor. Those who cook or pay for the food to be prepared do so as an act of charity and in the hope of getting their prayers answered by God. Clerics and religious philosophers, however, consider such activity a diversion from the principle of Muharram and have been critical of it.
Also of note, the new Muharram rituals popular among youths do not end with jumping up and down. In Iran, wearing black attire has long been a tradition at the mourning ceremonies. The current style of dress deviates from tradition. These days, salons are giving males “Muharram-style” haircuts, and young women sport nail polish with Muharram- and Ashura-related designs. Some people have begun painting religious slogans on their cars.