Muharram is known as one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar. It also marks one of the biggest differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims. What has made this period of time special in Shia Muslim countries like Iran, is the mourning for Hussain ibn Ali (Imam Hussain), who is highly respected among Shia Muslims. Imam Hussain is highly regarded for his stand against Yazid, the caliph who ruled Muslim lands. Hussain, his family and followers (which consisted of 72 people) were deprived of water for more than three days, and were eventually killed or taken captive by the army of Yazid I at the Battle of Karbala.
In Iran, there are widespread mourning ceremonies for Imam Hussain during Muharram (September 12 – November 12, 2018) and Safar (November 12 – December 12, 2018) months. The majority of these ceremonies take place in the first 10 days of Muharram, with Tasu’a and Ashura (9th and 10th day of Muharram) being the key dates for these ceremonies. These ceremonies have been customized to match the cultural habits and traditions of different regions in Iran. As a result, many variations of Muharram mourning can be experienced in different villages and cities of Iran, and we are going to go through some of them in this article.
Sine Zani & Zanjir Zani (Most Common)
Death is usually symbolized by black, and so, it is customary to wear black throughout the whole day, as well as the whole month. One of the most common forms of public mourning involves a tradition known as Sine-Zani (Chest beating). The process involves a rhythmic and unified beating of the chest with the palm of the hand, in tune with percussion drums and vocal music, very similar to the Christian Gospel. This same process is also seen using a lashing tool with short metallic chains attached to a wooden handle, which is used to inflict more pain upon observant mourners, making them closer to Imam Hussain.
Muharram ceremonies in Yazd are famous for what is known as ‘Nakhl Gardani’. A huge wooden structure is carried around on the 10th day of Muharram (Ashura) as a symbol of carrying Imam Hussain’s coffin. The wooden structure (Nakhl) is decorated with fabrics, mirrors, swords, flags, and other religious symbols. The famous Nakhl that gets carried around in Amir-chakhmaq Square in Yazd on the day of Ashura is supported by hundreds of men.
The decorations surrounding each Nakhl is taken off after the ceremony and the wooden base can be found in its dedicated spot throughout the year until it gets used again the following year. Yazd is famous for the ‘Nakhl Gardani’, but it’s not the only place with this tradition. There are other desert cities and villages who follow the same tradition.
Ta’zieh can be described as a type of traditional Persian theatre. Many of the religious ceremonies we nowadays see in Iran have their roots from prior to Islam. Both Nakhl Gardani and Ta’zieh are based on pre-Islamic Persian traditions. In fact, Iranians had the same tradition of mourning for Siavash (a mythic Persian prince who got betrayed and killed; the origins of myth date back to the 3rd millennium BC) each year, and when they converted to Shia Islam, they continued to practice the same rituals with new religious symbols.
Nowadays, the many Ta’ziyeh shows you can find during the month of Muharram are all dedicated to showing the tragic story of Imam Hussain and his 72 companions war in Karbala, Iraq. Most Ta’ziyeh shows take place in the first 10 days of Muharram. Their duration can be as short as a few minutes to more than an hour. Ta’ziyeh shows sometimes take place in public squares, however, they are usually in mosques and religious centers. You can find Ta’zieh in many cities in Iran, though cities like Isfahan (particularly the neighbouring city of Khomeini Shahr to the west of Isfahan), Arak, and Yazd are famous for their strong Ta’zieh culture.
Another Muharram tradition which is mostly seen in Luristan province is ‘Gel Mali’. Pools of mud are prepared three days before Ashura (the 10th day), and men spread the mud on their heads and shoulders. Putting mud on the body is a sign of great disaster and can also be observed when loved ones have passed away. Some choose to have their entire body covered with mud, therefore the name of this process literally translates to ‘drop-in mud’. The mud is not washed from the body until the afternoon of Ashura.
The act of turning around a torch in a circular pattern is known as “Mash’al Gardani”. This ritual can be usually observed among Arab ethnic groups, as well as cities like Qom, Shahr-e Rey, and Ardakan.
In the first day of Muharram, torches are set on fire and carried around by groups of mourners to announce the beginning of Muharram. The same ritual takes place on the 8th night of Muharram to show that the day of Ashura, the date Imam Hussain was martyred by his enemies, is close. In this ritual, groups of people holding and rotating the torches move around neighborhoods while religious music is being played.
The Rich History Behind Muharram Mournings
The ceremonies and rituals discussed in this article are just a small portion of what can be experienced during Muharram mournings in Iran. It is fascinating to see how even the smallest villages in the country have harmonized their own cultural habits with Muharram mournings. This diversity can even be felt even closer in the public meals that are served during Muharram (Nazri), with each region having its unique Nazri offering. Most of these rituals are uniquely found in Iran because a lot of them have a history longer than Islam.