Middle East

Challenging the image of Ashura in Iran

Ashura story-telling

As Shia communities around the world mark Ashura, the image of the festival in Iran has become one of scenes of black-clad mourners and grief. As BBC Persian's Siavash Ardalan reports, this is part of the state's efforts to reinforce an ideological message and retain clerical control - but unofficial ceremonies create a different picture.

Iran places high importance on keeping the tradition of Ashura alive, given its pivotal role in inspiring the state's ideology.

As such, Ashura, its ethos and its rituals have been monopolised by the state, leaving a poignant but incomplete impression of Shia Islam both inside Iran and around the world.

Some are supported and promoted, others are officially ignored or downplayed, while some Ashura rituals are banned.

According to Shia narrative, despite being outnumbered by enemy forces, the Prophet's grandson, Hussein, fought an epic battle in 680 AD on the day of Ashura, knowing that he and his followers would be killed so that future generations could draw lessons from their sacrifice.

The Iranian government's narrative of Ashura has been self-serving, centred around the concepts of resistance and martyrdom - President Rouhani may have stretched it too far by declaring last week "the lesson of Ashura is one of negotiations and logical reasoning".

Alternative takes on Ashura by dissident Iranian clerics helping to advocate tolerance and pacifism were never allowed to find their way into public awareness and advocates were silenced.

Instead the state's propaganda machine had no scruples during the violent 2009 pro-democracy protests - that coincided with Ashura - to draw parallels between protesters and the enemy troops that killed Hussein.

Yet the state's take on Ashura in style and form has been more visible than it has in content.

Official Ashura

Iran's clerical establishment likes to stress its independence from government policies, yet it adheres to the government's own particular guidelines on how to observe Ashura.

According to the state, an appropriate Ashura ceremony is one in which black-clad, chest-beating and head-slapping participants congregate in emotionally charged ceremonies involving a mullah or Madah (a professional Ashura story-teller) reciting tear-jerking and often dubious tales of what happened on the fateful day when Hussein and his followers were killed.

This not only keeps the custom under clerical control but can also be tailored to incorporate politically convenient messages.

These are officially funded with substantial budget allocations going to "religious institutions". In 2102, over $5bn were earmarked for the promotion and propagation of state-approved religious activities.

Additionally, in the lead up to Ashura, state radio and TV continuously show scenes of crying, anguish and despair mixed with melancholy songs and poems.

Artistic innovations - and even the invention of new ceremonies - are allowed within this framework, with substantial state support.

For example, one ceremony called "Congregation of Hussein's Infants" - mothers taking their babies to mourning gatherings that commemorate the infants killed in Ashura's battle - was introduced 10 years ago by a state-funded religious institution.

The ritual has now become a regular feature of Ashura's celebrations among Iran's urban middle class, drawing millions of families. Its promoters even tried to register it as a cultural heritage of Iran in Unesco.

'Heretic' rituals

Traditional but less grim theatrical performances that re-enact the events which took place on the day of Ashura, Tazieh, receive almost no funding, leaving local communities to organise these events themselves. Tazieh is a Unesco-registered cultural heritage.

Ruling clerics are ambivalent about Tazieh and divided over other rituals practiced in small towns and rural country. Some clerics consider them permissible while others view them as heretic or demeaning.

For many of the rural faithful, Ashura is more of a sombre occasion than a tragic one - stylistically influenced by a community's geography and history.

While in some coastal communities like Bushher, Ashura is marked by washing theatrical instruments crafted for the occasion in sea water, the faithful in mountainous areas like Shahre-Kord carry lit candles in a procession over the hills and prairies at midnight.

In Bijar and Khoram-abad, locals cover themselves in mud mixed with rosewater from head-to-toe, and in towns like Ardebil, worshippers carry special basins filled with water in remembrance of Hussein's thirsty warriors. Instead of basins, other rural communities carry palm wood, shovels or handicrafts.

In some other towns like Khomeini-Shahr, Ashura is marked as a sombre but colourful costume festival.

The state's disregard for such ceremonies has skewed not just the view of outsiders and non-Shia of Ashura ceremonies but also that of ordinary Iranians, many of whom have poor knowledge of, or little exposure to, the diversity of the country's customs practiced during Ashura.

Self-flagellation

Historically, the clerical establishment had no qualms with Ashura rituals that involved self-flagellation.

Devout Shia across the world continue to follow these violent practices that require blood to be spilt from scratches or cracks on the skin as a sign of readiness to shed blood for Huseein.

However, once the practice came under scrutiny and was used by secular people to highlight an underlying fanaticism of state ideology, ruling clerics began to disavow it. Iran's Supreme Leader issued a fatwa against Ghamezani - worshippers cutting their heads open with razor sharp instruments.

Reported clashes between Iranian police and security forces in communities where self-flagellation takes place during Ashura eventually ended Ghamezani.

The justification for the crackdown was that such practices defame Shia Islam and also projects a negative image of Shia to outsiders and non-believers.

The same rationale has been applied to other customs which clerics themselves practiced and promoted before but distanced themselves from once they gained power.

For example, the tradition of telling stories and tear-jerking tales about Ashura's events always provided ample pretext for ridicule and derision by non-believers as many of these stories were made up by the speakers who earned credits for how well they could make their audiences cry and wail to accounts of Hussein's death.

Once again Iran's Supreme Leader stepped in declaring that all such stories need to have been substantiated by scholars.

Establishment clerics also fell out with their colleagues over the descriptive language used in many of these recitations.

Traditionally, self-deprecation has been the order of the day in such story-tellings, with many mullahs likening their followers to dogs loyal to Hussein. They also use inappropriate language to describe the physical beauty of Hussein and his followers.

Many devout Shia still hang imaginary photos and paintings of an aesthetically pleasing Hussein on the walls of their homes and shops. The state has yet to win this battle.