History of Mourning in Iran

History of Mourning in Iran
ID : N-2929 Date : 2018/09/20 - 14:57

(Persia Digest) - Speaking about the incident which took place in Karbala in 61 AH is as thought-provoking and saddening as it seems difficult and impossible. Many things have been said about it and more remained to be told. Without banking on ethnic and religious interests, history is enough to show that unrightful killing of Imam Hossein (AS) in that desert has turned into an epic through times and all the details of a full-blown epical narration have been applied to this bloody incident.

We know that a historical event can turn into an epic one after achieving perfection and assume a symbolic value. Dr. Mir-Jalaleddin Kazzazi has written in his book, Dream, “If history is a ground for representations, epic is a ground for symbols.” The event of Ashura has transcended the limits of time and place to defy those dimensions. When a historical account becomes an epic, it can no longer be tampered with by governments. Over a long period of time, it evolves in accordance with human perfectionist tendencies even if the final account is different from the real incident. The famous saying, “All days are Ashura and all lands are Karbala” refers to this historical trend.

Various dimensions of this historical epic are so varied that it is both easy and difficult to talk or write about it. What one could say which has not been said before and why we shouldn’t say as if nothing has been said before.

Review of literary works on Ashura up to the present time shows that the main approaches to the incident included mystical and religious ones which were expressed through poetry (of course, excluding books on history of the world from Adam to…). The rest are poems which are known as requiem. They began by Kasaei Marvazi and reached perfection in the work of Mohtasham Kashani.

The main pitfall with such researchers is that in most cases, every poet who has written anything on Imam Hossein (AS) is mistakenly introduced as writer of requiem, which is a brazen mistake.

For example, in history of such poets, the name of Mowlavi, who has only written a few lines of poem on Imam Hossein (AS), sits along that of Mohtasham who is the most renowned writer of such poems. Even study of new poetry on Ashura shows that the names of Dr. Shafiei Kadkani and Hossein Monzavi (who have just written a few poems on Ashura) has been mentioned along with Seyed Hassan Hosseini who is the greatest Iranian writer of requiem poems in contemporary times.

It goes without saying that viewpoints of a great mystic like Mowlana and his understanding of the incident in Karbala will be quite different from mournful attitude of Mohtasham and his likes. Therefore, overall literary approaches to Ashura in the Iranian literature should be divided into mystic (represented by Mowlana, Oman Samani, Safi Alishah…) and religious-mournful (Kasaei Marvazi, Mohtasham Kashani…) groups.

As more Iranian scholars paid attention to modern branches of humanities such as history, politics, sociology, anthropology, mythology, psychology…, this great incident has found newer and more diverse dimensions in recent centuries. Different viewpoints on this issue have constantly led to new discussions, disputes, and debates and have created new horizons which cannot be discussed here.

However, mourning rituals of Iranians, which differed in accordance with cultural and historical background of every region, dominated approaches taken by thinkers, mystics, scholars and poets.

Ordinary man of the street has been more influential in protecting Karbala and immunizing it against political and personal deviations by various governments. Banking on their collective subconscious, they have taken advantage of all their historical and cultural capacities to mourn their Imam.

Ethnic rituals and traditions in various regions have become part of those peoples’ language and everyday lives. Obviously, since a Turk in Azarbaijan has to use Azeri language to give voice to his/her mental processes, they would have to develop their own regional rituals when commemorating myths.

On the other hand, Abolqasem Esmaeilpour has written in his book, Myths and Rituals, that most anthropologists are sure that they can recognize a ritual when they look at it. However, when they are asked to define it, few of them manage. What is the real difference among customs, traditions, public rites, rituals, celebrations, or even carnivals? Ritual, in its common sense, is a public rite which is official, patterned and clichéd. From a historical point of view, anthropologists have created a link between ritual and religious ceremonies.

Anthropologists differentiate between collective and individual rituals as well as calendric vs. critical ones. Ritual, per se, can cast an air of tradition or even sanctity around everything.

Climatic differences in various geographical regions of Iran have led to differences in mourning ceremonies on Imam Hossein. This, in turn, reflects another outcome of the efforts made to protect commemoration of Karbala incident: strengthened ethnic and tribal bonds followed by cultural and ideological integrity which are the outcome of mourning ceremonies on Imam Hossein (AS). Durkheim believes that ritual reflects collective feelings and bolsters socialization.

The rituals of Ashura make way for all kinds of cultural-historical and mythological identities of Iranians to come forth with all their abilities and capacities: from common spiritual, social and human experiences to strengthening philanthropic feelings, helping the poor, benevolence…. They also make way for new experiences in various areas of arts, literature, performing arts, architecture, painting, music, and so forth.

History of mourning in Iran over martyrdom of innocent people

Before any comment on history of mourning in Iran, let’s mention poems from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh where he depicts mourning of his main hero, Rostam; his father, Zaal; as well as Rudabeh and Tahmineh over the dead body of young Sohrab. Those poems reflect the way that Iranians were used to mourn over the dead through their history.

Such actions pulling off the hair, scratching the face, tearing down one’s clothes, putting dirt on one’s head, banging one’s fists on head and chest, opening the coffin and fainting, talking to the dead body, touching war saddlery of the dead hero’s horse… have constituted common behavior of Iranians in time of mourning, including on Imam Hossein (AS), which has been going on for centuries. He is known by all Iranians as standing for bravery and innocence which make him the loftiest historical and epic figure for the Iranian nation.

When studying history of mourning ceremonies among Iranians, we come across Siavash (mythological hero of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh) and his mourning ritual. Of course, there are opposite views here, many signs and symbols of present-day mourning are closely related with mourning over Siavash.

There is ample evidence to show that Iranian mourning rituals after Islam have been influenced by mourning ritual of Siavash whose vestiges remain to our time. As we approach Amudarya basin (in Central Asia), mourning ceremonies come closer to that of Siavash, even when the mourner is someone like Timur. The most far-reaching examples of “Siavash-like mourning” can be seen among Shiite Arabs of Iraq when they mourn over their third Imam. At that time, women bang their fists over their heads and chests, bare their hair, and do not cut their hair for some time. Such behavior cannot be seen among Sunni Muslims. This shows that even in Mesopotamia, the mourning ceremony has been influenced by mourning rituals in Iran, or more precisely, the post-Islamic Iran. The most ancient relics of Siavash mourning in Islamic period were recorded in Central Asia, especially in Bukhara. Another example was measures taken by Abdurrahman Abu-Moslem Khorasani when he was mobilizing Iranians against the Arab rule. The Iranian side of that story is beyond dispute. As we know, dying their apparel indigo, which was later changed to black, was taken from mourning rituals on Siavash.

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